14 Sep 2021

WSO2: How to digitise Public Services: A Three-Step Journey

Guest blog by Ricardo Diniz, VP and General Manager, UK, Spain and France, WSO2 as part of Building the Smarter State Week #techUKSmarterState

Digital public services elevate and transform existing offline experiences by taking them online. Making public services digital has been a high priority in the past 18 months as many in-person processes on which local governments rely became impossible during the pandemic. However, while this has accelerated transformation, it is not the only factor driving change. Citizens and public sector employees have become used to the sophisticated, user-friendly apps offered by the private sector and are starting to expect the same from publicly funded services.

For an example of how expectations have changed, look at what Uber Technologies did to the taxi industry. In the pre-Uber era, taking a taxi often involved pre-booking hours in advance of your journey; inevitably the taxi would arrive thirty minutes late, with numerous unhelpful calls to the taxi company to query the whereabouts of your taxi.

Uber fit this entire process into a single mobile app and removed the friction points. With Uber’s app, instead of hours you book minutes ahead, bypassing any interaction with taxi companies, contacting the driver directly. You know the dynamically adjusted ETA of your ride and receive a notification when the car arrives. At the completion of the trip, the app tells you the distance travelled and fare due.

Building such a system is not easy: a disparate and decentralised set of components need to be digitised and then aggregated. The Uber app requires digital databases to store rider, driver and trip information. A programme receives GPS signals from drivers’ phones and regularly updates the driver location index in the driver database. A ride dispatcher handles ride requests and sends out drivers based on the location index and availability. To publish ETAs to the riders, the system needs an ETA calculator. Periodically, each trip’s intermediate GPS locations must be recorded to eventually calculate the distance travelled. Finally, we need a pricing calculator that uses the logged journey data to calculate the fare. These are the co-dependent internal software elements, called microservices, that enable the Uber app. They, in turn, rely on an array of other third-party microservices, chief among them is Google Maps that processes much of the navigation information, and payment gateways.

The question is can the public sector  emulate Uber and transform, rather than simply improve, public services? . Digital transformation presents a massive opportunity for the public sector to not only deliver better citizen services, but also become more efficient and reduce costs.

What’s stifling digital transformation?

Given the clear advantages of digitisation,how do we further accelerate transformation across public services?? A 2020 study published by the Commission for Smart Government said that the UK government’s digital services still lag behind in how it uses technology to transform internal processes, with blockages identified including low levels of digital skills, limited willingness to genuinely engage citizens in the development of new systems and a culture that doesn’t balance risk and innovation well.

When we look at the typical experience in a standard digitisation project, we can see how the issues above limit progress. First, when digitising  process, domain experts study the pain points of the present customer journey, devise improvements and enlist developers to implement those changes. If organisations are unwilling to engage with citizens, their understanding of pain points may be incomplete, resulting in a less than accurate framing of the problem to be solve.

Second, as programming skills are in short supply, public sector organisations may struggle to afford good developers. This forces organisations to consider outsourcing development. Rarely is such a job satisfactorily done. The real crunch comes when fundamental changes are required to the software further down the line. Therefore, digital transformation remains challenging, expensive, and time consuming, all factors which feed the fears of risk-averse public sector organisations. 

Digital transformation: a three-step journey

So, how can largely offline organisations successfully execute digital transformation, mitigating the problems outlined above?

  1. Start with APIs

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are pieces of code that pass information – usually structured as requests and responses – between two applications or microservices. Adopting an API-first approach to digital transformation means treating assets, capabilities, and functions as individual microservices and exposing them to other microservices, both internal and external, via standardised APIs. There are a considerable number of public sector APIs available that could be integrated into processes to make services more intelligent.

At Uber, the driver location updater, ride dispatcher, ETA calculator, and pricing calculator are internal microservices that constantly communicate with each other to perform their assigned tasks. These microservices make queries and changes to the user, driver, and trip information databases. They also interact with third-party services via their APIs, such as Google Maps for visualisation and navigation capabilities. The Uber app is a digital experience layer that sits atop multiple microservices bound together by APIs. 

The first step for the digitising service is to convert the constituent elements of its process into microservices and define APIs that systematically expose them. This modular approach is different to replacing the offline process with a single monolith application. This initial step is not easy. Domain experts and experienced developers must work together for several cycles to complete this task.

  1. Building digital experiences 

The next step is building new digital experiences. A good digital experience listens and reacts to events—i.e., user input, physical triggers, temporal changes, etc.—making the customer’s journey through the service smooth and rewarding. Once the first step is complete, building new experiences is a process of connecting and combining the APIs, including third-party ones. This is known as API programming. 

API programming is not straightforward and requires substantial experience, which we have already determined is in limited supply in public sector entities. An emerging set of tools broadly classified as low-code or no-code platforms, however, promise to radically alter this equation. These platforms are API programming environments that hide much of the boiler plate code required for building applications, by connecting APIs and layering experiences that enhance security, performance, and scale. They enable domain experts to enact new digital experiences with limited expert developer support. Low-code platforms can dramatically reduce both the time and money required for continuous iteration and unlock the service’s digital promise. 

  1. Fast feedback and improvements

The third step in the digital transformation journey is evolution through experimentation and user feedback. Although experimentation forms the backbone of every successful digital service, it is sadly ignored by a majority of organisations that commit to becoming digital. The truth is that successful digital organisations never stop transforming. The final step of experimenting and evolving, through user feedback, is more accurately categorised as a state of being rather than a step.  

Digital organisations have access to vast amounts of user data. With data, it is now possible to scrutinise every step of the user journey and identify friction points. Remember that once an organisation is reconceived as a set of microservices connected by APIs, every capacity and information is merely an API call away. Moreover, domain experts now have low-code tools, allowing them to recombine these APIs on their own and craft new features at pace, easing every point of friction.

Public sector organisations all bring online a legacy of offline processes. Digitisation is therefore a three-step journey of (i) construing the various components of the organisation as APIs, (ii) layering new digital experiences by connecting and combining these APIs, and (iii) taking advantage of data and evolving through experimentation over time. Additionally low- or no-code platforms promise to alter API programming for the better, making essential digitisation less expensive and complex than it used to be, something that should help to accelerate the digitisation of government services. Organisations that take advantage of these platforms and go digital the right way will be primed to realise large operational efficiencies and follow Uber’s example to deliver exceptional experiences for citizens and employees.

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