Can govt be the leader in digital empathy?

Stuart Kennedy

The massive surge in demand for government services due to the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for government to adopt some private sector techniques to improve citizens’ online experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent explosion in support payments mean Australians are flooding onto government websites in unprecedented numbers.

In July, more traffic went to government websites in Australia than at any point in our history. There were over 188 million visits to government sites in July while there have been over 938 million visits to government websites since the COVID crisis started, an increase of 44 per cent.

Adobe John Mackenney
John Mackenney: Governments can be leaders in digital empathy

“We should not be surprised at the figures, given the level of hardship through things like unemployment and the fact we are in the middle of a health crisis,” said John Mackenney, Principal Digital Strategist at global software firm Adobe.

The huge traffic volumes due to COVID-19 are putting pressure on government online infrastructure and often come in bursts.

“The pandemic puts extreme pressure on government teams, not just around service delivery, but also the ability of those platforms to scale and meet that demand.

“All governments have been quick to respond to the increased demand to ensure websites are available and citizens can access the information and support that they are seeking during COVID.

“We’ve been talking about digital government for a long time, but now is a really critical period where there’s immense hardship and people are looking to government more and more,” said Mr Mackenney.

While visits are well up, people are also spending a lot more time per visit which indicates they may be having difficulty finding what they need, navigating to a particular resource page, or completing a transaction from government online services.

Mr Mackenney believes there is an opportunity for government to learn from certain industries in the private sector as an example of how to make sites more intuitive and improve their “digital empathy”.

“The private sector over the last five years has been investing and working heavily in this space and certain sectors such as travel and tourism, or financial services, have led the way. Government is heading down this path and hopefully it should not be as heavy a lift to take some of these things on because private sectors have already paved the way.

“Granted, there are some differences between public and private sector citizen and consumer engagement. In the private sector, many brands are motivated to keep a person on their website for as long as possible, increasing their likelihood to purchase.

“With government, a great experience is, I get the information I need, and I get out and I go and spend time with my family or whatever I want to do.”

Currently, the main difference between most government websites and private sector websites is private sector websites tend to be dynamic.

“They change based on who you are. If I am going to fly to Brisbane, all of a sudden, I get fed a whole bunch of information around Brisbane. If one of the banks happens to know I’m in the market for a home loan, the site will take me down that path.

“But government sites largely don’t change even though I might be signalling my interest in a particular service. The same experience that you get, is the same as I get. The site doesn’t take into account that I could be on unemployment benefits, whether I’m on JobSeeker or JobKeeper. It doesn’t take into account other signals that I might have given – like I am about to have a baby or I need to find a school or I am researching aged care services for an elderly parent.”

Government sites are not always making good use of the information they do capture to quickly guide citizens to the area they need to go to.

“There are enough signals happening in the government ecosystem. But rather than get a tailored experience when the site knows that I am applying for unemployment benefits, what happens is I come into a website and I have to navigate to the unemployment section. I have to navigate through the structure of government departments and agencies for the information and services that I need. And that costs me multiple clicks, maybe a few wrong turns, and it may cost me several minutes, maybe longer. And I still may not complete my task or abandon it altogether.

“That’s the difference between that dynamic nature of what we see in the private sector in terms of great digital customer service delivery, compared to what tends to be quite static in government service delivery.”

Part of the problem is that many government sites do not invest in sophisticated data capabilities such as secure analytics.

“Generally, government has relied on free versions of analytics software to drive pageviews and visitor understanding.”

Mr Mackenney said government has an opportunity to use automated secure analytics to streamline and improve the user experience on high-load, pandemic related services first.

“We know from the data that people are struggling at the moment and relying on JobKeeper and JobSeeker. That journey can be improved quickly. Focussing on improving the major interactions that citizens are currently having with government first can make a massive difference, fast.

“There are indications that government is heading down the right path, and that is significantly encouraging on all fronts,” said Mr Mackenney.

InnovationAus partnered with Adobe to present this series on digital empathy.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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