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Put the heart back into public services through digital and more

Published 3 November 2023 in Innovation • 8 min read

Digitalization, starting with smarter chatbots, can help redefine public services and the relationship between the people and the state, says Seán Meehan.

Digitalization is creating more of a citizen centric public sector in the trailblazing Nordics, Estonia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. Through this approach, citizens benefit from faster and easier access to more joined-up public services, bureaucracy is streamlined, costs reduced, and citizen satisfaction enhanced.  

Governments around the world are striving to follow suit, but with mixed results. In fact, efficiency outcomes are very possibly trumping the interests of the very citizens digitalized systems are designed to serve. With ambition and confidence informed by a more skeptical approach about private sector practices, governments can do what all brands should but so few do. They can become the best practitioners in developing and delivering timely, relevant, engaging, empathetic, and caring services. That is, they can put the heart back into public services. Further, they can provide a platform for forging a new relationship between citizen and state: they can achieve the objective of citizen centricity.  

How can this happen? Well, next-gen chatbots are likely to play a key role in transforming public service delivery. For example, they will not only assist in moments of heightened anxiety or distress, but will recognize these events, sometimes predicting them in advance, and support us with empathy and concern either during or even before any emergency arises.   

How to use the white heat of technology to forge greater success
“Public servants engaging with such next-gen chatbots will have the resources available to be faster, more effective, resourceful, and helpful. Their engagement will skyrocket.”

MIT labs professor Joseph Weizenbaum is generally credited with creating the first life-like chatbot in the 1960s, ELIZA. As their capability and potential has increased since then, chatbots have been enthusiastically adopted to replace human customer service agents. However, the results have not always been spectacular. When deployed successfully, customers have their queries resolved quickly. Satisfaction and efficiency can move together, yet often they don’t. In fact, many of us experience high levels of frustration when directed to chatbots in our hour of need.  

John Sills, author of “The Human Experience”, recalls how he felt insensitively and ineffectively treated by an insurance company’s chatbot. John, needing to drive his elderly mother to hospital in an emergency, contacted the insurer to check if he could drive his mother’s car. Having reached several dead ends of irrelevant or just unhelpful responses, a human intervened only to chastise him for not consulting his policy document. John, like most of us, does not carry his insurance documents with him as a matter of course. Looking back, he remarked: 

The total experience of trying to answer this simple question took fifteen minutes. The total time to actually answer my question once I’d got through was 15 seconds. Imagine how good an experience it could have been if they’d just picked up the phone quickly and answered my question without the telling off?

Joining the dots 

Human intervention as a back-up for failing chatbot interactions is subject to human frailties. In the worse cases, poor recruitment and training, misaligned incentives, or just random grumpiness yield dissatisfaction and inefficiency. Natural language processing Virtual Intelligent Chat Assistants (VICA) next-gen chatbots may well make such unsatisfactory interactions a thing of the past. Being developed by innovative governments, they aim to deliver timely, relevant, engaging, empathetic and caring support – i.e., they will have a heart because they will be smart. Their smartness will come from their ability to draw on completely joined up data held in different government departments.

These systems will see the full picture and provide an answer based on this. Whether it’s the UAE’s “U-Ask”, Singapore’s “Super Jamie”, or Estonia’s “Burokratt”, the direction of traffic is the same. It is realistic to predict a world in which we will interact with governments in a genuinely two-way, attentive, caring manner through chatbots. They will respond, nudge (prompt proactively), enquire, and direct helpfully. If they get this right, interacting with government could be entirely positive. It has the potential to form the basis of a new social compact between citizens and government. It would be the dawn of a new more positive and trusting relationship.  

Getting things right first time, and being accessible and helpful, will establish a new level of trust in government – a meaningful difference from where citizens the world over are today. And trust is the basis of a positive relationship conducive to innovation and development. These next-gen super-chatbots will learn from interactions; they will identify problems and opportunities at the policy, not just individual, level. This is way beyond being passive problem solvers.   

Connected countries
“Trust is the basis of a positive relationship conducive to innovation and development.”

While enthusiasm for these possibilities is justifiably high, next-gen chatbots do not herald the end of human intervention. Private sector experience shows customers need to know there’s a competent human “inside”, overseeing, ready and able to jump in to address concerns as they arise. Further, customers highly appreciate positive social interactions. Citizens will too. Public servants engaging with such next-gen chatbots will have the resources available to be faster, more effective, resourceful, and helpful. Their engagement will skyrocket. This is an AI/human win-win.    

The UAE, Singapore, and Estonia are breaking with the more common approach of learning from the private sector. They are leading and they will be the best practitioners not just for other governments to learn from, but we expect the private sector to line up to learn too. The important lesson for public servants around the world is not that private sector practices are all bad – they aren’t. They are varied. They should be examined and, if suitable, imported with healthy skepticism.  

Customer-centric, best practice public sector leaders in pursuit of citizen centricity would do well to reflect on the following points as they continue to embrace digitalization: 

Focus on the job to be done

Digitalization for its own sake is a folly. Digitalizing ineffective and inefficient practices just so they become digitalized and more efficient only means citizens will experience dissatisfaction, frustration, and anger faster. Not a good outcome. Instead, use the transformation to rethink how to serve citizens better, given the new capabilities at hand. Embrace the established practice of mapping customer journeys focused on the job to be done. DBS, now widely acclaimed as the world’s best digital bank, placed customer journey thinking (customers don’t buy mortgages, they need a mortgage to buy a home; they want a home and their search for one is a multi-step journey) at the heart of its transformation.

Focus on the basics

Doing the job to be done demands the elimination of pain points. In essence, Toyota built a global brand by making the basics of quality, reliability, and durability (QRD) non-negotiable. It differentiated not by winning the race to have some sexy gizmo as standard, but by setting new standards for, frankly, “all the boring stuff” – the stuff we can’t do without. Ask what are the public sector equivalents of QRD for your organization – things like accessibility, clarity, timeliness, relevance, engagement, empathy, and care.

Establish the goal

The most problematic aspect of any customer centric transformation is achieving alignment around the goal of creating customer value in new and better ways. Too often executives say all the right things while actually prioritizing shorter term financial objectives. Best practitioners such as Amazon, Lego, and Haier establish “moments of belief”; that is, they assert the primacy of creating customer value in new and better ways.

Getting these simple steps right will engender trust – the cornerstone of all great brands. It is the basis of relationships and exchange and, because it creates the context for deeper, more effective dialogue, it leads to collaboration and successful innovation. No longer will citizens “merely” be the less-than-satisfied recipients of public services provided by governments in which they have low trust. They will have a greater sense of ownership of government; fostering an interest in policy and not just the services they consume, and critically, in the society they support. This major point of departure with customer centricity needs to be fully in sight as public service leaders assess their transformation programs designed to overcome negative attitudes and low trust in government.  

Putting the heart back in public services by learning from good, not average, practices from the private sector, the public sector can herald the beginning of a new era in the delivery of public services and the relationship with citizens: a brighter future.  


Seàn Meehan

Seán Meehan

Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing & Change Management and Dean of Faculty at IMD

Seán Meehan is Professor of Marketing & Change Management and Dean of Faculty at IMD. He works with senior executives globally to help them provide a focus on customer value creation. Seán is the author of The Customer Copernicus.


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