29th June – Workshop ‘Going smart and accessible in public services’
Future public services
Paul Foley, founding director of Tech4i2 Limited and online moderator, introduced topics from the online discussion: Government, accessibility & online cities. According to Foley, 54% of people still prefer to engage with government offline and face-to-face. As an introduction to best practice, Foley directed us to the Singapore government website, which, unlike most, accepts feedback from users that can be used to improve services. He recommended all public service and governmental websites do the same, improving feedback provision as well as providing assurances that the feedback is being listened to.
Jeremy Millard, Chief Policy Advisor at the Danish Technology Institute, presented “Vision of future public services”. Millard’s presentation focused on the question of ‘what are the needs of public service users?’. Millard highlighted the need for services to be designed around the needs of the user not the provider and that to do this service providers must engage with the community. Citizens know what it is they want and need. Millard identified groups doing community driven work; hackers, SMEs and NGOs who are fully engaged and work collaboratively with users, implying that public service providers need to look at emulating some of their practices.
Julia Glidden, Senior Research Fellow at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, picked up on the previously mentioned 54% of people who still prefer to engage with their Government face-to-face. Glidden claimed that a proportion of this was due to a generational/age technology gap, stating that we increasingly engage online. Glidden said we need to focus on improving and creating e-governance because of increased online activity. Glidden highlighted two platforms she sees as central to people’s lives that could shape the way we design citizen centered e-governance, Facebook and Amazon. A Facebook like platform would be about co-creation and curation, a place where people can connect with each other and engage with the government in the way that they choose. She also felt that the ‘one-stop-shop’ Amazon represents would be a useful model, where people can access the services they need, hassle free and under one ‘roof’.
Web accessibility – challenges and opportunities for implementation
Erika Forssell and Stina Johansson, both Web accessibility specialists at ETU Sweden, gave a practical demonstration of some examples of both good and bad design for accessibility on public service websites. They began by clearly stating that what is good for those with disabilities is good for all and that, in research, those without disabilities have found using accessible web pages easy and more enjoyable. The first example of good design they gave was the Irish Pension Board’s website, showing the ease at which someone with a visual impairment could use the website navigation, contrasting it with that of the Department of Finance, which not only had poor readability much of it was non-existent. Readability and layout is extremely important, particularly for those with disabilities that affect reading or concentration. Through laying out content in different frames and grouping them together, you can provide a platform that is extremely accessible, the example of a poorly constructed website was Dublin City’s official website, which is crowded and chaotic. It does not have be expensive to build accessible websites, but accesibility needs to be a part of the process of the beginning.
Roberto Torena Cristobal, Manager of the Accessible Technologies and Innovation Business Unit of Technosite, began by outlining some of the benefits of accessible public service websites. The user benefits are many; greater access to skills training and employment for those of us who currently have reduced access, it may help us maintain longer working lives and it also increases self-determination and quality of life. There are of course drawback and in this case it is the cost and difficulty of creating the online service, although there is support for agencies and public bodies who commit to doing this, and if the website must be edited, accessibility can be compromised, because of this workforces need to be fully trained and prepared.
Leon van de Ven, Senior Policy Officer at the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, presented on the problems of implementing accessibility guidelines in organisations who do not know or understand them in “How to make accessibility guidelines accessible?”. When van de Ven first began working at the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, less than 10% of the Dutch Government’s websites were accessible, with thousands of people working on websites every day, few of them having any understanding of the guidelines. Van de Ven decided that the websites, and their owners, had three options; comply with the regulations, explain why you can’t or take the site offline. Although explaining might sound like the soft option, the statements had to appear on their website stating what guidelines couldn’t be complied with, why and what that means for users. The other option was that the websites came offline and were handed over to another government body who would build it on their site in-line with regulation. The statements of ‘failure’ could then be centralised into data that makes it easy to see where the overall problem lies.
Questions and Answers
What does it take to be a world leader in EU government?
Services need to be user-centric with a greater balance between the needs of the provider and the user. The service needs to be open as well as adaptable and fluid, evolving with the needs of the citizen. Focus should be on training departments and workers, who should be able to exchange data and share information as well as open-sourcing the information they need to build the best possible service.The main areas the delegates identified were transport, education and health.
What are the key elements to build the ideal digital public administration?
The digital public administration needs to be user focused, constantly renewing and redoing based on information gained looking at user experience. The feedback and improvement must form a feedback loop, to build good data and trust between user and provider. Technological solutions are not always one size fits all and users with different needs will need different channels of communication
The old system is paper driven, simply applying technology to paper-processes cannot work, we need to look at different ways of doing things through data. Websites should be dynamic, not simply static pages. Information must be shared across the system, information should only need to be submitted once and shared between governmental organisations. Although departments need to share information, there should be clear guidelines for public authorities, they need to know their rights and responsibilities as well as security regulations. Trust is vital and hard to win back once it is lost, we must be transparent and open about what we are doing.
Digital by default: what’s in it for me?
A digital system is easier, more flexible and convenient, it can increase openness, transparency, democracy and lower costs for the provider. For users the service is better, creating flexibility and saving time. Digital democracy can also provide business opportunities but may have a negative impact on employment figures in the public sector. Another drawback is the limitation on access amongst the public, many people have neither the access or skills to use digital services in this way.