Mar 31 2021

Improving Online Experiences Is Key to Expanding Digital Government

Agencies must go back to basics to grow digital government.

Government agencies have faced challenges in providing citizen services during the coronavirus crisis, particularly at the beginning. Taxpayers could no longer walk into a government office to receive an identification card or to pay a fine, and yet many local governments were still dependent on physical offices to complete such tasks.

Although it happened to a greater degree in the private sector, the public sector embraced rapid digital transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, moving online many services traditionally rendered in person. IT agencies focused specifically on capabilities to complete transactions online.

This happened at such a pace that top IT officials in state governments viewed digital government as an overwhelming priority for their enterprises, according to an annual survey of state CIOs by the National Association for State Chief Information Officers. Still, there is much left for government CIOs to do to improve online services for their constituents.

CIOs Rank Improving Citizen Experience Among Top Priorities

In The Agile State CIO: Leading in a Time of Uncertainty, state CIOs acknowledged that the challenges of tackling the pandemic while maintaining social distancing produced an unprecedented environment. To enable government transactions in that environment, CIOs leaned more into digital government than ever before. Ninety-eight percent of CIOs said improving online experiences for citizens was their “number one priority.”

Of those surveyed, two-thirds said top priorities included increasing public participation and optimizing operations while lowering costs. As NASCIO makes clear, these are essential elements of a government able to successfully conduct business remotely.

NASCIO followed up with a logical question: “Have you seen any benefits from your digital transformation efforts?” Keep in mind that this was in October, but 65 percent of state CIOs said they saw an immediate “positive impact,” while another 30 percent said it was “too early” to tell. “Research and user behavior activities have shown solid measurable improvements in many areas,” said one CIO.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how AI can help states manage an unemployment crisis.

CIOs Improve Online Services with System Modernization

The demand for unemployment services at the beginning of the pandemic demonstrated the importance of enhanced digital government. As businesses shuttered in March 2020, record numbers of workers became unemployed through no fault of their own. In turn, they leaned heavily on state unemployment agencies for benefits.

The NASCIO survey notes CIO observations that unemployment insurance systems were woefully unprepared for this crush, in many cases. Last year, the National Employment Law Project testified before Congress on the need to upgrade unemployment insurance information systems. NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon told the U.S. House of Representatives, “Since the start of the pandemic, crashing computer systems and slow claims processing have taken center stage as the struggling unemployment insurance information technology systems have proven the nation has not invested the resources needed to pay historically high levels of new claims in a timely manner.”

In the case of unemployment systems, many states rely upon mainframe systems that use COBOL, Dixon said. “Only 16 states have fully modernized their unemployment insurance systems.”

Mobile Applications and Automation Help to Address the Challenges

NELP’s recommendations present a strong set of best practices for the modernization of any government information system.

Here are some immediate actions for states modernizing information systems, as recommended by NELP:

  • Ensure services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Make websites and applications mobile-responsive.
  • Allow citizens to email or upload documents from their phones.
  • Update password reset protocols, eliminating any need for human assistance.
  • Establish online chat to assist with applications when necessary.
  • Allow citizens to go backward and forward through applications with ease.
  • Translate all online materials into Spanish and other commonly spoken languages.

In the case of unemployment benefits systems, states should consult on the user experiences with the users of those systems, namely employers and workers, NELP says. Similarly, the modernization of any other online information system should involve the input of the citizen community that will rely on that system. 

NELP saw great success in modernization efforts in Washington, Maine and Minnesota, which embraced these practices. Other states can surely follow suit.

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