Multiple channels bring many challenges
Mobile devices are everywhere these days, from the humble cell phone that just makes calls to the pocket PC, smartphone or laptop. People everywhere have greater expectations. They want access to information, they want answers, they want to shop online, and they want it all now.
This immediacy and choice of services and products is one of the effects of globalization. Coupled with the heightened expectation of service delivery from the private sector, citizens expect something similar from their governments.
There are three elements to mobile government, one that provides access to its services and interacts with its citizens by mobile devices or wireless access:
- Citizens can use mobile devices such as cell phones and smart phones.
- Citizens can use laptops, PCs and kiosks to access government services through a fixed network, broadband or Wi-Fi.
- Portability of government: Local presence through mobile devices irrespective of government workers being present.
To interact on mobile devices, two important considerations for government are what transaction type and which segment of the population should most appropriately be targeted by this channel.
Mobile devices with small screens mean communication needs to be clear and concise with no room for misinterpretation. This would lend itself to transactions such as updates on a claim status or requests for standard information.
Most citizens prefer to have a feeling of greater clarity or control of the transaction when giving out personal details. Working with a small screen doesn’t give that clarity, so these transactions are better suited to Web sites where it is possible to see and review information.
This doesn’t answer the question of whether citizens will have sufficient trust in government services to transact with them in this way. Given that government needs to interact with all the population at some time or another, different segments of the population will want to use different channels for different interactions.
Those without home access to a PC or broadband, for example, can be catered for by providing PC or kiosk access in agency or municipal offices, community centres, schools, post offices or medical centres. In fact, access could be granted anywhere the customer may be when they most likely would need ready access to government services.
More and more, people who enjoy high connectivity at home also have wireless-ready laptops. Here, the convenience of accessing government services on-line, from wherever they are, will be of great use. The key question, for government, is how much will they need to access these services and how does the cost balance against the need to provide service to all citizens.
However, it is unlikely that the ability to use wireless and mobile devices is the key driver of the contact. The greatest driver to use wireless networks will be the local presence of government through mobile devices. While emergency services typically have laptops in their patrol cars or fire trucks, and mobile devices routinely capture data remotely, the possibilities to use mobile devices to take government out to those that need it the most is an intriguing idea.
If all government workers, from park wardens to refuse collectors, carried handheld devices that could be used to report potholes or dead street lights, this would significantly help to provide better services to large population groups. These handhelds could also update a citizen on the progress, for example, of getting a pothole fixed.
An even better scenario is the government outreach worker who can make a visit to a housebound elderly woman or to a remote First Nations village with a mobile device. This tablet or pocket PC can be loaded with software to fill in an application for a benefit, check the status of a claim or fill in a tax return.
These are the types of applications that would be a real improvement to service delivery for those who need it most. To do this, however, requires devices that access the “home” network through a wireless connection. There is of course the technical and business feasibility of all this to consider. Connectivity by fixed or wireless broadband in municipal areas is not a problem, although should that access be free, subscription or pay-per-use also needs thought.
What about the rural areas, where the “last mile” has been such an issue in the past? It may be that the arrival of Wi-Max proves to be the answer, while satellite broadband has also been available for some time now. Cost and reliability are two considerations, but these are not just the domain of the network provision. There is also the cost, reliability and availability of the devices needed and the applications to deliver the services.
Laptops are one option, but there are some reasons when a laptop is not the device of choice. Laptops are a target for theft, and potentially label the worker as a target too. Handheld devices, PDAs and tablet PCs are also possibilities.
Now there is the question of the mobile applications. Can the systems and applications used, for example to process claims or tax returns, be made available on the device? This answer has in many cases, and in other countries, been no.
It has proved difficult to take legacy applications and put a mobile version on a handheld device that can access the “home” system either in real-time or by delayed download. Front-end applications must be able to capture the information in a way that satisfies the business rules required by the back-end systems.
That brings the next consideration: security and identity management. How to ensure the person accessing the application is who they say they are, or that the person on whose behalf they are accessing the system is who they say they are.
Governments in many countries struggle to have a “single view” of the citizen. This not only means making decisions about service delivery suffer, but also identifying that individual beyond doubt without resorting to manual cross-checks and other data points is difficult.
There is also the question of ensuring the connection is secure. Some governments will not even interact with citizens by e-mail as they cannot guarantee security beyond their own secure network.
Solving these challenges is not and has not been cheap. It brings us right back to the question of where and on what to spend the money to deliver the services that government is committed to.
It’s about balancing the cost against the need to implement policy. And it’s about being able to make informed decisions about which services to offer, by which segments of the community and by the most suitable channels. This means having a defined contact management strategy, followed by a sensible channel strategy, all underpinned by the data that enables informed decisions.
Sue Thomas is a government industry consultant for EDS Canada. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org