Graham Colclough, Vice President in Capgemini’s Global Public Sector Team, and Caroline Cook, of Capgemini’s Marketing, Sales and Service Practice, look at how Governments can build citizen trust and cut costs by harnessing the power of digital media.

Online Public Services offer a real opportunity to improve levels of engagement, service and inclusion for citizens across all walks of life whilst driving cost savings and efficiencies. In an era of government debt at levels not seen since war-time, fiscal pressures across the public sector are reaching breaking point. As the UK coalition government comes to terms with the fall-out of the credit crunch and years of unparalleled public spending, it must also face a public who have lost trust in the public sector and whose expectations have been set extraordinarily high by a customer-focussed private sector. In the face of these complex and seemingly cannibalistic challenges, how can the government harness the power of the digital world to meet 25% cost reduction targets with the public on-board?

The move toward the networked face of the public sector isn’t new in the UK, yet government sites and services have not always followed the pace of their private sector counterparts. One of the greatest challenges faced by departments is the provision of relevant online service across all customer groups; a spread unfamiliar to most commercial organisations. While past efforts seemingly point to an inability to keep pace with a rapidly changing digital environment (resulting in frequent re-designs and re-builds of truly enormous sites at considerable cost), governments must move forward with flexibility and openness to harness the benefits of a truly digital public sector.

Although the availability of online services is high, take-up has not followed suit. As Capgemini’s ‘eGovernment benchmark’ recently highlights, the gap between the sophistication of online services and their take-up is over 40% in the UK, and averages 30% across Europe – of considerable concern given the volume of investment. The reasons for the size of this “take-up gap” are broad and complex, yet there is perhaps a formula to tackle it: services must exist in an appropriate form; users must know they exist; and they must provide an experience which justifies their use over traditional (and considerably more expensive) service channels. In some cases, a total move from face-to-face and telephone channels to online services is not feasible, yet even in these specific instances progress can be made to reduce overall cost.

In order to succeed, the public sector must build a view of its citizens’ true digital preferences and behaviours (across a wide range of customer groups), and be prepared to act in accordance with the shape of the digital environment – representing a complete change of mindset and philosophy. The digital world does not progress through large-scale, heavily managed transformations as the public sector has chosen to in the past. Instead it is constantly changing through small advancements and shifts, developed openly and highly collaboratively; an approach which has led to the giant leaps taken in recent decades and culture of constant improvement. This does not mean that governments should embark on a quest to adopt the ‘latest and greatest’ technologies and platforms (of particular relevance to the world of Social Media), rather that they must carefully consider which citizens access which platforms and, crucially, why and how.

The downfalls of blind forays into New Media can be seen nowhere more clearly than in California State’s recent Twitter experiment , yet organisations of all sizes in the private sector (and a select few in the public sector) are finding that both success and (crucially) financial benefit can be found in this new world. Of critical importance is an understanding of the differences between the various platforms (as highlighted in a recent eMarketer report) particularly as these subtle variations attract users in their millions. New Media allows the user to interact in the way they choose to, not within the confines of strict and regimented functionality. It provides users with the ability to influence the service by creating their own content, customising their chosen interface and taking action in the way they please, regardless of the demographic, segment or criteria into which they fit. In an age where citizens benchmark their experiences against best in class, online services must provide an experience matched to the likes of Google, Amazon, the BBC and Apple – governments would do well to sit up and take note.