Faced with the challenge of delivering services during an unprecedented crisis, many public service agencies in developed countries quickly adopted new strategies to meet changing customer needs, writes Kgomotso Lebele, Managing Director for Health and Public Service at Accenture in Africa.

Agencies in the US, for example, relied more on virtual or “contactless” services – enhancements that should now be embraced as the new normal for how government works, not only during a crisis. They found ways to help customers keep important tasks moving despite new constraints and adjusted successfully for this new world, with customers facing only minor hiccups.

In South Africa, however, our public services continued to struggle during the crisis. The challenges mounted and led to backlogs and delays, often because technology constraints and reliance on paper-based processes made shifting to remote work difficult. How then can SA public service agencies adapt to this current world? Accenture has thus identified three fundamental service-delivery principles that can help.

Principle 1: Quickly understand changing customer needs and pivot accordingly

Government agencies typically make measured, gradual changes to improve the customer experience. A common approach might involve crafting a customer survey, collecting data, analysing results and developing recommendations. This process is generally slow and deliberate and often does not yield rapid insights and actions.

The pandemic conditions compel agencies to move far more quickly. They need systems to capture, share and act on customer feedback in days, not months. Agencies that rely on multiple avenues of customer feedback enhance their ability to keep a close eye on evolving needs. Comments people leave on social media are a valuable, timely and often underused source of information.

The team that manages Recreation.gov, for example, uses tools that examine and categorise what customers are saying online and how they feel about the website. Using these tools, the team found Facebook comments about the challenges people faced when modifying their reservations – information they could quickly share with website developers who could address the problems.

Principle 2: Empower employees to deliver services from anywhere, to anywhere

In some cases, the pandemic demonstrated that public service employees could continue to do high-quality work remotely. However, equipping employees to serve customers from somewhere other than the office requires addressing both short- and long-term considerations. Short term, the pressing need is to supply staff members with the equipment and technology they need to work remotely. Longer-term, more agencies may embrace continued remote work as a strategy to reduce costs and offer employees flexibility. Management culture will have to shift to accommodate such changes.

Agencies also need new strategies to enable and encourage collaboration across offices – something more difficult in a virtual environment but essential for delivering a seamless customer experience. Customers typically interact with agencies in numerous ways, including through websites, contact centres and field offices, and each contact point often may be managed by a different team.

With field offices and other in-person avenues unavailable, agencies are expanding other options to support customers. To do this successfully, agencies need to adopt new technologies and adjust rules and policies that dictate how staff members deliver services.

Principle 3: Accelerate self-service capabilities

Despite the government’s progress in providing more and better online services, customers’ options often remain limited to phone calls, in-person visits or paper forms. Agency concerns about security, customers’ access to online solutions, and technology constraints have limited the development of online services. But the coronavirus provided a push to adopt new digital solutions or scale up existing ones.

Creating user-friendly digital services is only part of the battle. As agencies move more services online, they need to consider making people aware of these tools and providing support to those who lack access to technology. Agencies need to consider how to help people who lack the technology or internet access.

They also need a strategy to protect personal information and ensure people are who they say they are. Verifying identity is essential but often creates barriers for people trying to use digital services. To minimise this obstacle, agencies should apply the same approaches to design digital services – such as user testing and human-centred design – to create a user-friendly login experience. Rather than starting from scratch, agencies should consider adopting tools and services that have proven successful elsewhere in government.

Building a more customer-centred government

Meeting customers’ needs during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond has required government agencies to change how they work and, in some cases, accelerate the adoption of new ways of delivering services that have met resistance in the past. The good news is that some agencies rose to this challenge and continue to do so. They have come up with innovative ways to deliver services and respond to changing customer needs and expectations. These enhancements need to be embraced more widely across government departments.

Accenture’s annual series of customer experience profiles provide detailed information and insights on how agencies delivering these public services address challenges, their progress, and the next steps for meeting customer expectations. The Partnership and Accenture plan to continue building on these profiles each year, adding new data and insights and more public services.

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