A recent survey by Which? criticised the HMRC helpline for taking an average of 38 minutes to answer a call. But in this digital age, shouldn’t the telephone be a last resort after live chat, self-service and automated help?

We've still got a long way to go in designing 'digital by default' public services. Well-designed intuitive online systems should need little, if any, intervention. If we want our public services to be more efficient and lower cost, then traditional communication methods will need to be used more sparingly. There are times when the phone is a necessity, but it should be used judiciously, with awareness of the cost.

The worry is that a move to ‘digital by default’ will de-personalise services and disenfranchise vulnerable groups. But this should not be the case if these services are designed with digital inclusion as a key principle. In fact, digital access can overcome many barriers that currently exist: making connections between related services, giving targeted self-help guidance, contact information, and helping families, community groups and charities to help others.

Public services need to be bolder in moving to digital models. This requires a cultural change in our public services and support from the public. This is what the Government Digital Service (GDS) needs to be about – not only stimulating digital transformation, but encouraging and helping the public to use common digital services and explaining why they can be trusted.

Delivering digital citizen services will mean recalibrating public expectations and adopting some common sense design principles:

  1. Making it easy to self-serve online – to find the information you want, well-tuned search engines, interface designs which reflect what people want to do. Transactions should be simple, intuitive and 'one-and-done', with no obtuse login processes.
  2. Making it personal – digital enables common processes to be used, yet in ways that are not faceless and generic. By appropriate reuse and sharing of customer information, we should all be able to access (or agree to be sent) information about local public services on demand, with consistency. But we also need specific services joined together digitally around our needs.
  3. Being consistent across channels – a digital front-end-design must consider all communication channels. The service should still be consistent, but the easiest and fastest service should always be digital self-service. This means being reliable, intuitive, and secure. And that means good UK-wide broadband and mobile coverage, as well a track-record in handling, holding and sharing our personal data safely.
  4. Empowering employees – leads to better services at lower cost and improved outcomes. All employees need to understand and commit to a digital delivery model. Digital does not mean 'impersonal', in fact quite the reverse. It is a chance to make our public services more personal.
  5. Social media matters – it’s a hugely powerful tool to connect people with services, yet there is still a fear about its use within the public sector. Social media should be used everywhere: to reconnect politicians and democracy with people; and between employees – it’s a way of quickly changing culture.

So let’s just think, before we criticise HMRC for poor phone-handling. Are we are part of the problem in perpetuating outdated and inefficient public service models in the digital age?


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