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September 3, 2008

Citizen Service Portals: Best practices for helping your citizens find what they need

I just came back from the annual APHSA/ISM conference held in San Francisco this year where I had been asked to moderate a session entitled “Technologies for Service Delivery”.

Amidst all the passionate debate about the best ways to provide high quality services to citizens, one thing was clear and everyone agreed – with budgets tightening, head count decreasing and case loads increasing, the challenges to deliver essential social services are immense.

It’s simply overwhelming to try to manage the workload. Many government folks I spoke with were looking for ways to make their jobs easier.

In an equation with little wiggle room, technology can transform challenges into opportunities.

And so, as my session came to a close and the room full of attendees started clamoring to the front, I wondered what I would have said had I been a speaker instead of a moderator.


Globally, government has made immense strides in technology investments. However, much of this investment has focused on back-office infrastructure or just getting content onto a web site. Little has been invested in engagement: making sure that government portals are intuitive and citizen-centric so that the public can actually find the services and forms that they need.

After the conference I gave it some thought. Here’s some things to think about:

1. More is not always better. In a rush to move to eGovernment, many agencies have put up web sites for their department. Not only is this hard to maintain, it confuses the citizen. Getting down to one web site may be too ambitious, but reducing the number is moving in the right direction.

2. Pre-screen for eligibility across programs. Many agencies I talk to look for the holy grail of eligibility engines – the one that will provide the exact services the citizen may be eligible for. Unfortunately, if they complete the quest, they end up with 50 to 100 questions no citizen will probably want to answer!

I recommend screening the top 10 to 20 questions and spend more time designing the questions so they are based on life events and in easy-to-understand terms. Every day language works. Like surveys, the smaller set of questions, the more likely a person will go through them and you can alleviate the deer in the headlights look as citizens try to navigate individual services.

3. Provide electronic applications online. Once a citizen gets to the recommended services, don’t make them walk into an agency to get the forms. Instead, provide an online list of forms they may need in a format they can easily access and complete. If there are multiple forms, look to pre-fill common information across the board. A study found the most common items asked for on almost every form are first name, last name, date of birth, and a personal identification number.

This is easier said than done, so instead of leaving you with a tall order as my first blog entry, I got some of our user designers and engineers here to build a sample incorporating some of these best practices. If you’re interested, you can find more about it here.

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