Why digital empathy matters to government

Stuart Finlayson

We live in a time where pundits know within hours of election polls closing who will win … and yet our ability to achieve the same insights from government programs is not so simple or easily predicted.

This could be the reason why trust in politicians and democracy has hit an all-time low at just under 41%, down sharply from 86% in 2007, according to research by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

However, this decreasing trust has spurred Australian governments at the federal and state levels to turn their attention to increasing “digital empathy”, in an effort to arrest and reverse this decline.

Digital Empathy
Why digital empathy matters to government

To put it simply, digital empathy is about understanding the humans behind the data they generate, and responding to them in a more understanding and helpful way. It’s about learning why people make decisions and how they feel after interacting with government, not just analysing when and what they do.

Traditionally, governments haven’t been adept at embedding digital empathy into digital interactions with citizens. However, this is set to change, with governments realising the benefits of more closely listening to citizens.

The promise of digital empathy

According to SAP, all levels of government are looking at implementing digital empathy. They are looking at example being set by governments such as the City of Orlando, which improved local services and increased citizen trust by implementing technology to identify key drivers in positive and negative experiences.

It’s encouraging to see there is now a groundswell towards full understanding of how to implement technologies, such as Qualtrics & Data Management platforms, to aid greater insights from the city’s resident program. The platform ensures that every member of the community has a clear and effective way to communicate feedback with city leaders.

This is because better insights are essential for delivering better government programs, as they enable governments to understand exactly how citizens are experiencing services so they can prioritise resources towards changes that will have the biggest impact for citizens.

In the past, governments have been slower than private sector to adopt tools that can understand users’ experience because, while customers can shop around at different businesses, when it comes to interactions with government agencies, there is no alternative for the consumer. Instead, citizens disengage.

Governments are now adopting new approaches by trying to partner with citizens. To do so effectively, governments needs to innately understand each citizen and their circumstances – what is typically known as a 360 view.

Why empathy? And why now?

Empathy is all about placing yourself in the shoes of another person to understand their predicament or specific set of circumstances. To achieve this, government agencies need to gain a better understanding of their citizens.

While the government knowing more about you may sound a little scary from the citizen’s perspective – as with any exchange of data, if the end-user can understand and see the benefits of what they are sharing and why, they will be supportive. Governments must show they are adapting to deliver services when and how citizens need it, rather than disappointing them with bureaucracy and inflexible processes.

The key is in finding the balance between rebuilding trust in governments and convincing constituents that digital empathy will deliver better services, not disenfranchise them.

It is a delicate balancing act between providing assistance to citizens and being perceived as overreaching, particularly given the diminishing trust in governments worldwide that has occurred in recent times.

To start with, there must be a commitment by government agencies to the ethical use of user data. One step that has been taken to do this is the imposition of limitations upon data that can be shared across government departments and agencies


Citizen-centric thinking is the new paradigm. Previously, it was all about how the government wanted to conduct its business and meet compliance requirements, but now governments worldwide are focusing on customer-centricity, the life journey of their citizens and how they interact with government at its various touchpoints.

This new approach requires a lot more empathy than the previous model of service delivery, so that is why digital empathy – and the tools to facilitate it – is gaining traction in Australia and worldwide.

We are by no means in a position where this is ubiquitous within the public sector so there remains much work to be done in this journey. The tools are out there to facilitate this, so it’s up to the government agencies to act now and prioritise understanding their citizens wants and needs, as the first step to rebuilding trust.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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