Recent research shows that citizen satisfaction in public services has fallen for a third year in a row. We report on a CSW webinar exploring how to address this challenge and reverse the trend

The way citizens interact with public services is crucial to shaping their perception of government and their level of trust in it. But recent research taking in the views of more than 20,000 people shows that satisfaction with public services has fallen sharply in the past three years.

Tackling this downward trend will not be easy, given the legacy of the pandemic alongside the budget and capability constraints that are affecting so many public services. Yet doing so would deliver not simply better outcomes for the public but more efficient services overall.

To help service owners and operational leaders in government understand what they can do to tackle the challenges of service delivery head-on, Civil Service World, in partnership with KPMG and Microsoft, hosted a webinar with a panel of technology and service transformation experts. 

At the event, Jo Thomson, Partner, Customer Transformation at KPMG, discussed the findings of the consultancy’s newly released Citizen Experience Excellence report. Building on 14 years of KPMG’s understanding of customer satisfaction in the private sector, the research scores how services in the public sector perform across six pillars that contribute to an overall citizen experience: integrity, resolution, expectation, time and effort, personalisation, and empathy.

But while some of the private sector benchmarks were helpful in assessing the citizen experience when interacting with public services, others weren’t. “What citizens particularly want in the public sector might be slightly different in the private sector, although one of the commonalities is that expectations are pretty much the same,” she said. “It doesn't matter what service you're getting – you want the same fast, efficient, effective, resolution. You want your expectations managed, and you want good empathy.”

This year’s research shows that citizen satisfaction in public services has fallen for the second time, now standing at a score of 6.52 compared to 7.29 in 2021. Satisfaction in the private sector has also been falling, but less steeply – from 7.36 in 2021 to 7.09 in 2023.

Thomson highlighted three focus areas to address this downward trend: balancing cost reduction with service delivery, embracing new technology to enhance delivery, and understanding what matters most to citizens to build trust.

Balancing cost and value

A key takeaway from the research is the understanding that citizens see value in service delivery as getting resolution at the first point of contact. Thomson emphasised that designing services to meet this expectation would not only improve citizen experience but could lead to a reduction of up to 10 times in serving costs.

According to the research, citizens who experienced a delay in reaching the right contact were found to have a 40% drop in satisfaction levels. This problem is more prevalent in traditional contact channels such as phone, email, and post, with 42% of people struggling to connect with the right person. In contrast, the percentage drops to 32% for digital channels.

Thomson explained that when citizens reach out for a service multiple times to get an answer to a single question, the cost of providing that service increases. Benchmark data shows that each contact costs the government at least £5 to service. This implies government organisations could be handling hundreds of thousands of contacts that are not required, resulting in a cost of up to £10 million per year.

To deliver citizen value at a lower cost, government organisations could start by signposting citizens to the right services through more accessible and accurate front-door digital systems. It is also crucial to train staff to understand where to refer citizens.

Embrace your digital citizen

KPMG's research shows clear differences in the experience citizens receive when interacting with government through different channels. There is, for example, a 15% increase in satisfaction when citizens self-serve using a mobile app rather than email.

This ‘digital citizen’ is not only young people. Over 55-year-olds reported 9% better experience when they interacted with the public sector using an app than when they phoned. Furthermore, there’s an 80% reduction in cost per interaction when an app is used rather than email.

Thomson said that to really make the most of the different options provided by different channels requires developing a channel strategy that shows how and to whom services will be delivered. To that end, it's important to evaluate services against Government Service Manual standards to ensure they meet citizen needs.

The fact that digital channels deliver a more satisfactory resolution to citizens issues puts technology reform to the forefront. It’s well understood that some legacy systems in use across public sector organisations are not capable of managing increasing levels of demand. This leads to handoffs between different systems, creating the potential for problems as well as a lack of clarity over who should be managing a case.

To Paul McPherson, Head of Enterprise Commercial & Public Sector at Microsoft, it is crucial to solve issues using a common platform to avoid creating new silos across the organisation. He noted that, with current technology, it has become easier and more cost-effective to retrieve information quickly through multiple channels, leading to faster resolution. “You can now do enhancements over time, and those are quick wins in the art of the possible. For example, a lot can be achieved with AI to be able to surface information very quickly through a multitude of different channels. That’s something that has never been easier or cost-effective than ever before.”

A strategic future-looking perspective is key to using technology to improve citizen satisfaction. McPherson noted that, at the moment, service design often comes second to policy design, but operations and implementation need to be a focus – with the citizen at the centre.  “This sounds simple and the obvious thing to do, but that hasn't been done. Systems have been more a reflection of policy,” he explained.

Building trust

Of all the pillars, the integrity pillar has the greatest impact on citizen dissatisfaction. Integrity comes from consistent trust-building behaviour through communication and individual actions of staff. The research found that citizens appreciate the organisation's ability to deliver on promises, but just under one-third (30%) of people felt that public sector organisations did not act in their best interest; when this was the case, satisfaction fell by 27%.

A lack of trust affects citizen satisfaction and reduces citizens' willingness to interact with public services when needed, leading to worse outcomes and increasing long-term costs.

One positive finding was that 86% of citizens feel their data is secure with public sector organisations, but a key negative issue is the perception that citizens don’t know what is happening with their case or query. Just over two in five (41%) of citizens said they were not proactively informed and kept up to date. When this was the case, satisfaction fell by 20%.

A key action to improve citizen trust in public services, therefore, is to communicate clearly what to expect and what progress is being made in their case. However, as Thomas Greig, Director for Passports, Citizenship, and Civil Registration at the Home Office, noted: updates are most effective if progress is actually being made on the case.

Greig reflected on the lessons to draw from the Home Office’s remarkable turnaround in reducing the processing time for a standard passport application from 10 weeks to three weeks. A crucial takeaway was that even the best front-end system – the passport system was built with a multidisciplinary team and in itself worked well – must be supported by adequate back-end processes and a new culture across an organisation. He explained: “You can't just digitise a complex system. Building a good digital online front-end has to also drive change in the processes.”

By doing this, the Home Office could realise the potential for excellent services, which had been built into the citizen-facing parts of the passport system.

For public service owners, the key takeaway in terms of building trust is to focus on service design and manage citizens' expectations by clearly communicating what they can expect at each step of their service journey. Additionally, it is important to let citizens know what you're doing to act in their best interests. This approach will help build trust and confidence in the delivery of public services and, in turn, help organisations deliver cost-effective services that customers value.

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