Public sector agencies are looking for better ways to serve their constituency online, and one industry that has been mastering the online world for more than 15 years is e-commerce. I believe that many tools and practices from e-commerce can benefit the public sector.
Before we go into details, let’s address the main objection that I hear when mentioning this idea to people from the public-sector industry. Here it goes: “Public sector does not sell anything; it provides services and assistance.”
Well, this is not quite so, as we pay for parking tickets and garbage collection, buy business licenses and building permits, and purchase tickets to municipal swimming pools and buses. Public Sector does charge money. Let’s not even mention taxes!
Even when money is passed between a federal or municipal agency to people, as social assistance or benefit, it is still a payment. For a technically minded guy like me, this only changes the price from a positive to a negative number.
So, from an IT perspective, there is no real difference between charging money for service and paying money in the form of social assistance. And for free services, the price is equal to zero.
With that clarified, let’s look at how e-commerce tools and techniques can improve the public sector’s sites.
Below I am using the term “product” to refer to both physical goods (like license plates or bus tickets) and services (like social assistance or garbage removal). Public service agencies offer a variety of services, and it is not always easy to find out what services are available. Some services have a low level of adoption just because people are not aware of them.
E-commerce business’s success depends on how easy it is for consumers to discover the right products. This problem was solved in e-commerce many years ago by using powerful full-text search, nested categorization, faced navigation, clear and comprehensive product descriptions, pictures, and videos.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the bible of e-commerce. Let’s apply this knowledge to public sector services as well as digital advertising, social media campaigns, and different ways to promote products on the Internet.
To achieve better product discoverability, ALL services offered to individuals and businesses should be in ONE searchable catalog. The reason they are not is most likely related to the fact that each agency has its own IT system, or probably more than one.
In most cases, when a person or business interacts with a public sector’s website, their identity is known. Almost all consumer e-commerce sites would swoon to have even a fraction of the information about their customers that is available to a public-service agency. That information should be used to personalize the user experience and make it easier to navigate to relevant services. Products offered can be pre-filtered based on where the user lives, age, family status, etc.
Yes, you read that right, a shopping cart! The shopping cart is a container of items that is used by a customer to express intent to obtain a product or service. Because it is a container, multiple different products can be obtained at the same time while providing consistent user experience. The shopping cart can hide the complexities of multiple IT systems used by various departments from customers. Why couldn’t a user pay a parking ticket and obtain a new license plate in the same transaction?
Without a generic cart, the user of a public agency website is forced to procure each product separately and learn about different services on their own. That leads to a lot of repetitive data entry, inconsistency, and user frustration.
Successful e-commerce sites are built in a customer-centric way. They are analyzed and optimized for the best customer experience.
On the contrary, many websites from government agencies are mimicking back-end processes. The way information is structured and presented often only makes sense from an internal point of view. In other words, many sites are optimized for employees, not for customers. Citizens are the customers, and creating a user-centered environment is essential in creating transparency, improving user satisfaction, and saving money.
Omni-channel is defined as a multichannel approach to sales that seeks to provide the customer with a seamless shopping experience whether the customer is shopping online from a desktop or mobile device, by telephone, or in bricks and mortar store. The public sector is absolutely a multichannel industry and should embrace systems that deliver a consistent experience across all customer touchpoints. It should be possible to start an application online, get assistance over the phone, and finalize the application during the visit to an agency office.