Government is a service.

The purpose of government is to serve the people. Thomas Jefferson and Mao Zedong may not agree on much, but they do agree on this.

“The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

“We serve the people… If, in the interests of the people, we persist in doing what is right and correct what is wrong, our ranks will surely thrive. ~ Mao Zedong

Government is a service.

What is a service?

A service is a kind of a process. But services are unique kinds of processes because they require the customer’s participation. Because they depend on customers to function, they cannot be managed in the same way as industrial processes that can be isolated and controlled.

Example: Customers do not walk onto a factory floor, but in a retail store, that’s exactly what they do. Your operational efficiency is not important to them. What is important to customers is what is efficient and effective for them. If you don’t have what they are looking for, or if there are long lines, they may leave. In a retail store you must be able to anticipate what customers will want and when they will want it, but because customers are not completely predictable, you also must be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Example: I recently moved, and had to call my bank to change my address. I have two credit cards, a personal account and a business account at the same bank. Guess how many people I had to talk to in order to change my address? That’s right, four. Five if you count the voice menu system I had to navigate to get to a person in the first place.

The first person I spoke with could change the address for my business account. She then had to transfer me to another person who could change the address on my business credit card. Then I had to be transferred again to change the address on my personal bank account. Then I had to speak to yet another person to change the address for my personal credit card. Each time I had to go through the same security procedures and identifying information, and I had to give the same address four times, to four different people. The people were very nice. But the system they work in is broken.

Compare this with a financial services company called Vanguard, who handles customer service completely differently. As a customer, if you call Vanguard, you will get a human being. That person is responsible for taking charge of your problem and finding a solution. If they need to bring in other people they will do so, but that original person will remain on the call until your problem is solved. Every employee, up to and including the CEO, is expected to handle customer service calls. Vanguard calls this “Swiss Army” because like the Swiss Army, everyone is required to serve. This helps ensure that the entire culture at Vanguard understands and empathizes with customers.

Developed economies are dominated by services.

The global economy is increasingly dominated by services.

As customers and citizens get access to more and more services, competition between service providers results in ever-increasing expectations for service quality. Service quality that was good enough, or even excellent, ten years ago, will result in frustrated, angry customers today.

Expectations for service quality are rising.

The internet and social networks have radically changed the way that people find, choose and use services. Think about the way you do things compared to the way you did them just ten years ago.

The way we shop, do our banking, book travel, find a good restaurant, connect with friends, find our way around. All of these things have changed and are changing all around us.

People expect services to be delivered online, digitally.

Example. Customers used to wait in line at the bank. Today they bank online and at ATMs. They expect to be able to do all their banking from a phone or laptop.

Example: Customers used to book travel through a travel agent, because booking was complex. Today they expect to book travel online.

Example: Ten years ago when I bought a house, I expected to spend a lot of time on paperwork, faxing papers and signing them, going to the bank to get a cashier’s check, waiting in line at the bank, and so on. This year when I bought a house, I expected to be able to sign all documents digitally and send payments by wire from my online bank account.

People expect access to information that they couldn’t get before.

Example: Ten years ago there was no easy way to find a good restaurant nearby. Today people can go to Yelp or other services and see what service providers are nearby. They can also judge the quality of the service by the ratings and reviews of customers.

Example: In the days of travel agents it was difficult to compare prices across different airlines and hotels. Now customers can search and compare with one click.

Bad experiences are easily broadcast.

If people are disappointed by a service they can broadcast it to thousands or millions of people. One tweet or post to a social network can quickly escalate into a news story or other crisis.

Example: Canadian singer Dave Carroll was upset when his $3,500 guitar was broken by careless baggage handlers. When United refused to reimburse him for his broken guitar, he wrote a song and posted a music video to Youtube titled United Breaks Guitars. Within one day more than 150,000 people had viewed the video, and to date more that 12 million people have viewed it.

Hacktivism.

Example: In 2013, hacker activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide after aggressive prosecution by the US government. In retaliation, the hacker group Anonymous hacked the website of the United States Sentencing Commission, bringing the website down and distributing encrypted files across the internet through social networks. Anonymous has also attacked the Pentagon as well as the UK and Israeli governments.

Example: In November 2010, Wikileaks obtained and released more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables into the public domain.

Internet and networking technologies offer dramatic cost savings while improving citizens’ experiences.

The internet revolution has clearly demonstrated that it is possible to reduce costs and improve experiences at the same time. Things like shopping, banking, finding a restaurant, booking airline tickets and hotel rooms, renting cars, and connecting with friends will never be the same.

As governments around the world struggle to reduce costs and provide better services, it can’t afford to ignore the opportunities offered by digital technologies.

What does a connected government look like?

In the 21st century governments will need to meet the rising service expectations of citizens. If they don’t, citizens will become frustrated and start to complain more and more loudly on social networks.

Government as a service.

What does government as a service look like? Increasingly, citizens will expect services to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They will expect to be able to interact with government online. They will expect access to information they didn’t have before. If their service experiences fail to meet citizens’ expectations, they will broadcast their frustration to their social networks, and in extreme cases, governments might be subject to hacker attacks.

Some examples of what’s possible:

Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan, non-profit foundation whose mission is to use the power of the Internet to increase the transparency and openness of government.

Scout lets you sign up to get text alerts whenever there’s action or pending changes on legislation you care about. It tracks legislation across all 50 states.

Influence Explorer lets you see how the companies you buy from are using your dollars to influence politics.

Follow the Unlimited Money is a searchable database that tracks political contributions and the organizations that make them, in great detail.

Code for America

Code for America is a nonprofit foundation that connects software developers with city governments to do public good projects. It’s like the Peace Corps for coders.

- Paid fellowships for developers

- Accelerator grants, training and office space for civic-minded startups

- A volunteer network of developers, mentors, public servants and citizens, organized into local city groups.

- A peer network of local government civil-servant innovators

Code for America focuses on cities and works in partnership with about 10 cities per year to develop apps to make government more accessible. Once an app is developed for one city it can be shared with others.

Code for America apps

Open311 is a dashboard for non-emergency information. Is there a pothole in your street? Report it (or see if it has already been reported) and track response times. City officials can track efficiency of services they provide.

ClassTalk enables teachers to send short sms-style messages to their entire class. Students can respond by phone or email.

Adopt-a-Hydrant allows citizens to volunteer to shovel snow off of local fire hydrants and for firefighters to check and see which hydrants have been cleared.

Councilmatic allows citizens to keep up with city council activity. Track issues you care about or things that affect your neighborhood.

ReRoute.it allows citizens to be more informed about their transportation choices. Compare every option with respect to health, environmental impact, time and cost.

ChangeByUs enables citizens to suggest ideas to transform their city, and helps them organize grass roots projects and community collaboration. It also allows neighbors to share time, expertise and resources with each other locally.

So what might this look like as a national initiative by a central government? The UK’s Government Digital Service is doing exactly that.

A singular government service.

Gov.uk is a UK initiative to deliver all central government services via a single portal. It is expected to both improve citizen satisfaction and cut the government’s web expenses by more than half.

Whether you want to apply for a birth certificate, apply for citizenship, research school performance, there is only one website you need to remember: gov.uk.

Fourteen of the government’s 24 ministerial departments have so far been integrated.

Digital by default.

Part of the gov.uk mandate is that all government services be “digital by default” which means the government must think digitally, work digitally and connect digitally.

An open platform.

All government service and data providers have been mandated to create Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to allow third parties to pull data and interact with their services and functions.

A clean, clear and common user experience.

A central user experience team is charged with improving the citizen experience across all government services and functions. The user experience is centrally controlled by that team, which pulls services and data from the various governmental bodies. The team has authority over the user experience of all digital government services and the power to direct allocation of all government web spending.

At the moment, the UK government is the largest employer of user experience designers in the entire country.

What can you do?

A lot of service design is really about increasing the capability of people to serve themselves. This is a job that government must take very seriously.

If your services require people to come to your offices, wait in line, fill in forms or enter the same information more than once, talk to multiple people or use multiple websites to solve a single problem, use a fax machine, or deliver physical documents, your customers will become increasingly frustrated. With every day that goes by, this kind of approach will become less and less acceptable.

For too long, government has been the laggard when it comes to service innovation. It’s time for government not just to serve, but to lead the way to a new era in government service.