User experience in GovTech: Past, present, and future
Though user experience (UX) as a concept only entered the public consciousness in the 1990s, today it governs much of the debate around the development of new technology, in the public sector just as much as the private sector. We take a look at user experience in government technology throughout the ages as well as options for governments to make tech more intuitive and accessible for citizens.

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From emergency alert systems to state websites and ballot boxes, government technology underpins much of day-to-day life for most citizens. Since the 1990s, the citizen-centric use of government technology has become a focal point for public sector officials. With this development, governments have been forced to make important choices, many involving mere trial and error, regarding the user experience for citizens who use government technology.

In this article, we will look at the history of user experience in government technology, also known as GovTech. 

What is GovTech?

GovTech is a catch-all term for government technology, whether it focuses on citizens or involves digital transformation of upper-level public sector processes. However, several organizations and governments have their own initiatives and agencies named “GovTech,” each of which has a slightly different approach to investment in public-sector technology. The World Bank Group, for example, which makes leveraged loans to developing countries, describes GovTech as a “whole of government approach to public sector modernization.” According to the organization, GovTech is comprised of four basic focus areas:

  • Activities to enhance public service delivery: Designing low-cost, citizen-centered online services that are simple, transparent, and universally accessible.
  • Supporting core government systems: Providing better public financial management, human resource management, and public investment management systems.
  • Mainstreaming citizen engagement: Deploying technology in the simplest, widest manner possible using simple mechanisms and free, open-source applications.
  • Strengthening GovTech enablers: Providing education on how to build digital skills in the public sector and fostering an environment that encourages innovation.

It is important to note that there are many parties with interests at stake in the development of government technology. Companies who want to develop strong private-public partnerships may be inclined to develop and sell their technology in a way that benefits them more than it benefits citizens. Governments with limited budgets might be hesitant to deploy public sector technology because they see a low level of adoption among citizens. Citizens too, especially those of more limited means, may be inclined to avoid government technology in the interests of saving money, time, and effort.

Before computers (and later smartphones) were in widespread public use, governments invested in public sector technology mostly for military purposes. As certain technologies, mainly computer and network technologies, took off, they made their way to other parts of the public sector, such as census testers or tax agencies, before eventually trickling down into everyday use by the average citizen. Though citizen-centered use of GovTech is as important as it ever has been, it is helpful to look at certain histories of government investment in technology to see how we got where we are today.

GovTech development in the United States

ENIAC and ARPAnet: how military research created the digital world

Many modern tech industries owe their existence, in some part, to the U.S. government. For example, ENIAC, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, was developed in the mid-1940s with the intent of calculating artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army. ENIAC’s top engineers, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, went on to develop UNIVAC, the world’s first private commercial computer, which went on to perform its first calculations for the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. military continued its foray into computer technology with the development of ARPAnet, the world’s first patch-switching network, during the Cold War. ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), a military branch overseeing top-secret systems and technology development during the Cold War. Contrary to popular belief, ARPAnet (a predecessor to what we now know as the internet) was not created for military purposes. Its original intent was to somehow link the few powerful research computers in the U.S. so that researchers and technicians could access them across vast distances.

Though ARPAnet started with only four computers, the network quickly expanded to include multiple computer models. This required overseers to develop a standardized set of protocols, which came to be known as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). The technology would break information into packets that could be delivered and deciphered by the computer on the receiving end. As a progression of this technology, ARPAnet also created an electronic mail system (known today as email) as well as telnet (remote computer access technology) and FTP (file transfer protocol technology).

What does government technology look like today?

The development of the Internet outpaced virtually any government technology that preceded it. It set the stage for the modern-day ubiquity of Internet technology, which now governs financial processes, municipal transport systems, long-distance social interactions, and many other facets of contemporary life around the world. While private industries certainly contributed to the development of these technologies, their underlying foundation was built on government-researched technology. And once these technologies reached the masses, another issue arose in their implementation, primarily in the 1990s: creating a smooth, accessible, and intuitive user experience.

From ballot boxes to online license renewal platforms, public record databases, transport tracking systems, and beyond, user experience in government technology plays a crucial part in day-to-day life for most Americans. As these technologies take more precedence in our daily interactions with public services, the responsibility falls on government researchers (and often public-private partnerships) to create a user experience that simplifies daily processes for users. But what does a good user experience look like, exactly?

What is user experience, and why is it important?

User experience (UX), a term that only arose in the 1990s as computer technology became widespread, has become a focal point for government researchers around the world. An interesting example of UX development can be found in the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (also known as GovTech). In an interview with agency members, Philip Man, a UX designer at GovTech, explained the importance and centrality of user experience with government technology:

“In our context, UX is the expression of government policy. Citizens don’t experience a policy paper; what they experience is the implementation of that policy, which could be in the form of a government digital service. At the end of the day, they’ll be asking themselves ‘Does the service feel good? Was it useful? Was it easy to use?’ So good UX design helps make sure that the policy intent is achieved with minimal frustration on the part of citizens.”

A 2021 article from Techwire presents several case studies illustrating the benefits of a better UX design approach. The most prominent example involves the U.K. government’s use of digital transformation to save approximately £1.7 billion in public expenditure. Within this, the transformation of GOV.UK for a better user experience saved £61.5 million alone. The U.K government “focused on streamlining digital transactions in order to help users accomplish as many digital transactions as possible online, instead of visiting offices and filling out paper forms.”

How can governments design an intuitive user experience?

According to the interview with Singapore UX designers, the most important part of designing a good user experience with government technology is comprehensive research. This can involve searching through social media and online forums for common complaints as well as face-to-face interaction with users. User responses to UX design cannot always be quantitatively captured, so it is important for researchers to conduct in-person interviews or make real-life observations to figure out the full story.

The process of user experience design is inherently messy and non-linear. Therefore, it is important for UX designers to create a working process in which the cost of failure is low, so that new iterations of a piece of technology can be pushed out regularly in response to user complaints. UX designers benefit from acknowledging that technology will often fail and tailoring their approach so that these new iterations can be produced and tested efficiently.

The U.S. government, in the now-archived usability.gov website, outlines several strategies for and advantages to a user-centric governmental approach to technology:

  • Identifying user needs through research
  • Producing information that is easy to digest and act upon
  • Creating systems that make transactions easier
  • Delivering information that can be accessed in many ways
  • Encouraging participation through simplicity and accessibility
  • Improving based upon feedback and other analytics

A recent presentation from 18F, a public technology and design consultancy for U.S. citizens and public officials, provides several examples of how public officials can make digital technology more intuitive for the average user. A notable example involves the filing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which give citizens access to publicly available data. FOIA requests have historically been known to be cumbersome and tedious. The 18F presentation demonstrates that by simplifying information on how to file requests and creating easy-to-use forms (instead of demanding emails that often lack certain required information for a request), U.S. government officials can make the FOIA request process accessible to everybody — not just journalists or other more educated citizens.

How does government technology work for citizens today?

There are many examples of citizen centered GovTech initiatives, which have been deployed with varying levels of success over decades. The mere trial of these technologies represents a step forward for governments, as even if they fail, their failure might provide valuable insight into what works for citizens and what does not. Of course, with the development and widespread use of smartphones, governments were quickly presented with many choices to make regarding adopters, many of whom first used these technologies strictly for private-sector interactions.

Online redistricting tools: a step forward for feedback and transparency

In two U.S. jurisdictions, the state of Utah and the city of Fort Worth, Texas, public sector officials have implemented online mapping tools that allow citizens to provide feedback on redistricting efforts. A common political problem in the U.S. arises out of gerrymandering, which involves the intentionally irregular drawing of districts to maximize a given party’s power in any state or local jurisdiction. These online tools, whose data will be publicly available, are intended to also infuse more transparency into the redistricting process.

When engaging citizens in what can be a very complicated process for even public sector officials, many different priorities need to be balanced. For example, Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee, which is behind the state’s initiative to provide the online tool, will require all citizen submissions to address the entire state and meet all the same legal requirements that officials must in their own plans. While this may drive home the complexity of the issue for the public, it could also prevent citizens with less time and education from pointing out what could be a very legitimate flaw in the redistricting system.

Texas.gov: a relaunch to benefit the average user

In June 2021, the Texas state government announced a more user-friendly relaunch of the state’s website. Though the state had plans to relaunch the site before the COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak demonstrated the need for more flexible, user-friendly online government services as citizens struggled in droves to access, for example, public information on social distancing measures and unemployment benefits. The new site features a total reorganization of content (as well as 30 new pages of it) designed to help citizens get the information they need easily.

By partnering with Amazon Web Services and Deloitte (a consulting and audit service), the state government created a website that could handle much more stress from user influx and an informational approach that allowed the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) to more easily access insights and best practices to increase visibility for citizens. The more human-centered approach allows users to access all government services from any location or device. It provides one more example of how officials have worked to simplify the GovTech experience for the average user.

What does the future of government technology look like?

Digital identification: a future for DMVs and law enforcement

One of the most promising frontiers for the future of government technology is digital identification. In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, where they are used for things like digital payment and vaccine verification just as much as they are for communication, governments are presented with an opportunity to bring their ID systems into the digital realm. Though digital identification raises its own set of legal and ethical issues, governments around the world may soon have an obligation to move forward with the technology.

The increased prevalence of digital identification has been spurred to a large degree by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ian Grossman, vice president of member services and public affairs for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), explained in 2021 that digital driver’s licenses have emerged out of the need to conduct transactions without physically passing a document back and forth.

Several U.S. states have taken the lead on the development of mobile driver’s licenses (mDLs). Arizona, for example, rolled out an mDL app in March 2021, with the intention of using remote authentication for all sorts of government services in the future. Electronic authentication provides an opportunity for the verifier to have confidence in the security of a transaction without having to know the various card security features of IDs across 56 states and territories.

Where does implementation start? What barriers exist to public adoption?

Driver’s licenses have provided a valuable early use-case for the development of digital identity verification. Russell Castagnaro, director of digital transformation in the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology, argues that after the technology is tried and true within the DMV, remote authentication will quickly expand into the realm of taxation and other government services. The state has already made significant advances with the development of the myColorado app, which provides access to government benefits as well as DMV services and state job opportunities.

A current impediment to the adoption of mDLs by the public is the fact that businesses and individuals have a mutual uncertainty that the other group has adopted the technology enough for it to be worth it. Businesses won’t see as much of a return if fewer citizens are using mDLs, and citizens won’t want to put forth the effort if fewer businesses accept them. This problem affects many user-facing GovTech initiatives — not just mDLs. A possible solution is already being worked out, with states adopting the technology on a small but workable scale, and with DMVs and police forces leading the charge.

Where do we go from here?

As technology continues to develop and become more accessible to the average citizen, governments will continue to face more difficult choices in fostering a simple user experience that allows for smooth digital transactions. By amassing data through quantitative analytics and in-person interviews with actual citizens, public sector officials will find themselves more informed on the dynamics of these decisions with every passing year. It will require a delicate balance of priorities, including user safety, data security, interface accessibility, and budget preservation, for governments to move fully into the digital world while making sure their citizens can do the same.

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Jordan Milian
Written byJordan Milian
Jordan Milian is a writer covering government regulation and occupational licensing for Ascend, with a professional background in journalism and marketing.

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