It is a growing phenomenon: Governments are gradually losing support from their citizens. Citizens in European countries are also becoming disillusioned with their governments. This calls for a drastic improvement of the services provided to the most important and sole shareholder of the government—the citizen—because the government’s legitimacy is at stake.
Citizens’ confidence in government has been waning for some time now. There are reasons why populist and eurosceptic parties have been gaining votes over the past years. The government must do everything within its power to win to rebuild confidence, and not just by fulfilling its basic tasks, because a feeble six can no longer save the parliamentary democratic system.
The victory of populist parties is the beginning of the end of the current democratic order. It is very likely that these parties will not participate in the government, because the other parties will mostly exclude them. As a result, the chasm between citizen and government keeps growing, creating a situation that reinforces itself and that holds very little chance of success in the future.
We must return to the base to touch on the core of the problem. Western governments are complex bodies, but the basic idea behind them is rather simple: Citizens pay tax to a central, democratically elected system. In return, they expect basic services such as security, education, physical infrastructure, healthcare—and in the case of the Netherlands, dry feet, i.e. protection against water. It is not unreasonable to expect a western country to provide at least this bare minimum.
But this is where things is going wrong these days. Every country is dealing with at least one case in which the tax payers’ money is not allocated correctly. The Panama Papers is a recent example of this. The term cover-up often does not apply anymore, because civil servants are no longer even capable of hiding the chaos in a cover-up. These days the media are capable of making the content of the cesspool available to the public in no time. A ministry that cannot manage its internal affairs has even more trouble proving its legitimacy to society.
The government must not only deal with organizational problems; mentality comes into play as well. Many governmental institutions see the taxpayer as such: a taxpayer with mostly obligations. This mindset need to change. It is time for a customer-centric approach: The citizen is the customer, and the customer is king. As is the case with the boardroom of a commercial party where shareholders cannot get away with mismanagement, the government should not be able to get away with mismanaging the assets of their sole shareholder: the citizen.
This approach requires a number of very strong measures:
1. Earnest use of apps and social media
In the past it was necessary to go to an office and make an appointment in order to communicate with the government. These days, social media allow for much more efficient communication. Governments can use apps and social media—potentially—to more quickly discover trends, indicate problems, and communicate with citizens. Now digital communication is mostly housed in separate departments. This is not sufficient for the much-needed model in which the citizen is the shining center of the services provided. Communication with the citizen should be at the core of the organization.
2. Make the policy completely transparent
Backroom politics and convoluted decision-making are no longer feasible. Citizens are entitled to the best possible access and information provision. The government has come a long way with open data, but is still very far from doing enough.
3. Clear communication
It is the duty of a good service provider to communicate clearly with its client. This also applies to the communication of the government with the citizen. Unfortunately, this fails all too often. Vague, official language and unclear wording are the order of the day. If a citizen does not understand the government, it creates a wedge. Civil servants should be forced to follow compulsory courses on clear communication on a B1 level. This is an official language level that is understood by the majority of the population and is effective to communicate messages in a clear way.
4. Smarter information linking
The government knows a lot about their citizens, but this information is not linked well or not linked at all. As a consequence, the government does not know anything about us at all. From a privacy point of view, this is of course not unattractive, but it is disastrous for the provision of good services. The government cannot think with us if it doesn’t know who we are, if it doesn’t know our preferences and our problems. In order to achieve this, systems and an integral data policy must be connected, for one version of the truth.
Unfortunately these four points are still far from reality. This isn’t the first time that I have broached these problems. The communication between the government and the citizen is often very difficult. There are few apps, and the government uses social media in a very reactive way. It is not rare to only receive an answer after a few days. Smart connections between citizen data points are missing. Many governments are developing the majority of their IT solutions themselves, and barely believe that integration via standard solutions is possible. The government’s outlook is inward and doesn’t change, because there is barely any staff turnover.
Governments could follow the example of the Australian government, which started a digital transformation with a genuine Digital Transformation Office. Its primary focus is efficient and transparent service provision toward the citizen. Its motto: “Simpler, clearer, faster public services”—an easy but meaningful statement. It touches the core of what has to happen here as well.
The gap between government and citizens will not close on its own. A digital transformation is unavoidable if the government wants to stop the downward trend and not lose its legitimacy completely.
For more insight on digital transformation in the public sector, see Unlocking The Benefits Of Digitization For Governments.