Refining customer service

After years of rapid development in e-government around the world, Accenture has detected a slowing of advances. It takes governments longer to make noticeable improvements as the picture of leadership in customer service becomes more complex. And more visionary, citizen-centric strategies and cross-cutting initiatives needed time to take hold and develop proven results.

To address this slowdown, Accenture has opted not to proceed with its usual ranking of e-government performance. Instead, our seventh annual government study asks different questions: “What sets these leaders apart? What do they do to perform so consistently well?”

By way of background, government leadership in customer service has been marked by service that is citizen-centred, cross-government, multi-channel and promoted through proactive communication and education. Governments that embraced these principles delivered greater value for their stakeholders by providing better outcomes more cost effectively. At the same time, they positioned themselves for the next wave of new aspirations and challenges.

Five key findings have emerged in our study this year, along with new challenges:

First, we see that leading governments are introducing services on par with the best of the private sector. While many observers feel that government trails business in introducing service innovations, our own survey of the landscape shows that this is not always the case. We saw governments using a range of technologies – from SMS and text applications to kiosks and interactive voice response – to provide unique and interesting services that range from the merely helpful to the truly life changing.

To reach this future – where service value equates to looking beyond citizens’ and businesses’ in-the-moment “wants” to developing insight into and meeting their unexpressed broader needs – governments need to retire strategies that focus solely on the tactics of online service delivery.

Second, we find that governments are at a critical juncture for service success. Government executives recognize that they have “reached the limit” with their current approaches to customer service. The leaders are facing this challenge by stepping into the uncomfortable arena of transformation. This has two key dimensions.

First, they are re-assessing and re-crafting their customer service strategies, not just to satisfy citizens but also to create lasting value. As governments push toward service trust, they are tackling the issues of not only what their customers want now, but what will they need in the future.

Second, these strategies are veering away from a “best practice,” one-size-fits-all template. Governments are building their strategies based on their own unique challenges and value propositions. Leading countries, in particular, have recognized that there is no set definition for citizen centricity. They are putting the “custom” back in customer service.

Our third finding is that successful governments are advancing by implementing internal structures and processes that vary dramatically from the past. As governments have developed increasingly rich e-government programs, they have created a new vantage point – a platform from which they can see that the true picture of leadership in customer service delivery is much more complicated than they had previously understood.

They recognize that much of their existing infrastructure, built for a government-centric view of service delivery, will be inadequate to support their ambitious new strategies. In response, they have begun to implement new tools and modes of operation that vary quite dramatically from those of the past, including strong new organizational designs, relentless simplification, business reengineering, consolidation and forays into shared services.

In Canada, where government has a history of making progress through horizontal cooperation, the federal service transformation agenda is advanced through a model of “business-like cooperation” that begins with a weekly breakfast meeting of deputy ministers.

Fourth, we find that successful governments are using a combination of four proactive marketing tactics to drive implementation and adoption of their service strategies. More than putting a technology in place and then running an ad hoc radio campaign, for example, these leaders are using a combination of:

The stick. Strong pressure or mandatory use of more efficient channels for some services.

The carrot. Incentives for online use.

Marketing pull. Innovative marketing campaigns to increase awareness and educate users on how to access and use the available services.

High-touch push. Help and support; showing people and businesses how to get the most out of services.

Our fifth and final finding is that last year’s leaders won’t necessarily be next year’s leaders. The future challenges for governments are broad and deep. What would typically be considered leading service practices in the private sector (such as data mining or offshoring, for example) remain difficult if not impossible for some governments. The ability to co-operate across boundaries and levels of government also remains a difficult challenge.

Many governments are compromising their ability to prepare for the future by focusing too much on tactical service levels and not enough on the bigger picture. It is how public sector executives rise to meet these challenges that will determine which governments are able to lead the way in creating an environment of implicit service value and trust. Difficult decisions lie ahead:

Challenge: Service delivery channels are exploding, and so is the complexity for governments.

The proliferation of devices (channels of interaction) offers a government unparalleled opportunities for connecting with citizens. As new channels open, they give a government unprecedented new reach. But they also open pitfalls, expected and unexpected.

Challenge: Citizen fears, beliefs and value systems may fly in the face of what is considered best practice.

Last year, we reported that in most countries, governments’ concerns about citizens’ privacy fears were overblown. With few exceptions, citizens are prepared to allow government to have access to and share a whole range of information, from nationality down to health insurance details, and to a lesser extent, social security numbers and tax information.

Some countries, such as Norway, Denmark and Finland, already have unique identifiers in place, for populations where the citizens are familiar – and comfortable – with governments sharing information. Still, privacy remains a thorny challenge in a number of other countries.

Challenge: The cost of technology is rising for governments.

Governments are burdened by the costs of their legacy systems. Private sector companies have the option to offshore some functions and activities that others can perform more effectively. Yet for most countries, including world leaders Canada and the United States, offshoring is unpalatable, prevented by unions, or goes against the cultural grain. For most countries, the challenge of staying abreast of technology while managing the costs of implementation (both of which factor into the country’s ability to remain competitive in a global environment), is a growing issue.

Challenge: Ad hoc cooperation works on a small scale, but does not have the strength to tackle big challenges.

The greatest service innovations often come from an individual or small group of people who develop an idea they are keenly interested in seeing succeed and who rally enough resources to make it happen.

In some respects, Canada is still working on connecting vision to implementation with Service Canada. The country has been ahead of the curve for years. It has a history and a culture of working cooperatively. The Service Canada program has already launched incredibly innovative pilots – starting small and growing in an organic way. But moving Service Canada forward on a large scale remains a challenge, due at least in part to the collaborative nature of the Canadian government that has been key to its very success.

Challenge: Some governments are stuck in their own service processes.

Leading governments have listened to the call for citizen centricity. They understand that the ultimate determinant of service success will be whether, in fact, citizens use the service. With so much riding on citizens moving to the more efficient self-service channels provided by governments, it is little wonder that they are trying to tune in to citizens’ attitudes and perceptions. Most executives that we interviewed described how they implemented satisfaction surveys for citizens after completing their transactions. Others talked about working to service level agreements.

In the future, leadership in customer service will be defined by service that builds an implicit trust between citizens and their governments. Here, trust means even more than a belief that governments are acting in citizens’ best interests; it implies an inviolate institution. The implications of building trust through leadership in customer service can be seen as a virtuous circle: trust in government builds a more connected populace, whose true needs inform the development of more effective policy to answer those needs, which is then implemented via excellent service, which strengthens the trust, and the cycle repeats. 064194

Alden Cuddihey is a senior executive in Accenture’s Canadian Government Practice. For full results of Accenture’s Annual Government Study, visit

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