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Designing new forms of citizenship

The relationship between people and public services is changing. A design-driven approach to public administration can facilitate the full exercise of citizens’ rights.

Francesca Di Mari, Serena Tonus
Head of External Communication, Design Director

04.10.23 - 7 mins read

We have been working with Public Administration for several years in various countries, and our projects with them have taught us a great deal. This is especially true when it comes to designing new levels of service and tools to offer to citizens.

The transition to the digital realm poses potentially more complex challenges for administrative bodies compared to those in the private sector while acknowledging the seriousness of both. The organisational ecosystem faces more significant repercussions as its primary goal is not just functionality but safeguarding the common good. To further complicate matters, bureaucratic structures have complexity, stratification, and historical depth uncommon in business. To illustrate this, one only needs to consult a public law manual or examine a law to appreciate the dense network of responsibilities, rights, and obligations that every citizen is called upon to navigate.

So, do bureaucratic systems, often slow and inefficient, really make sense to bring to the same level as private ones? Why do it?

Plurality of access, uniformity of results 

The most important reason is to enable as many citizens as possible to enjoy the benefits and fulfil their obligations without their participation being hindered by ignorance of opportunities, technological friction, or the burden of understanding. In other words, breaking down barriers between the state and the people, with mutual trust at the centre, which is the foundation of every democratic institution.

This is especially true now that the possibilities and habits of accessing public services vary and are distributed along a hybrid continuum. The elder at the counter should have the same level of service and result, with the same legitimacy, as the tech-savvy young person accessing services from their smartwatch or VR headset. There can be no variations unless one wants to establish gradualism in exercising their rights.

In this context, technology and the plurality of access points add a layer of complexity, not simplification, to which no concessions can be made.

Four goals for a new paradigm of public services 

Sogei asked us to imagine a future with the same efficiency and technological availability as a cutting-edge business. We used ‘Life events’ as a lens for user research to elucidate the context in which people use services, their needs, goals, and motivations related to a specific event in their life, and how each service connects to others relevant in that particular context.

The goals we wanted to pursue were essentially four:

  1. Enable citizens to have a single touchpoint and interaction with the public ecosystem, using a user-centred approach based on life events to design digital public services.
  2. Contribute to the transition towards a digital Public Administration by reducing the additional burden on individuals and businesses caused by the logic of siloed digital services.
  3. Create the conditions for a cross-cutting platform for public services, as the lack of interaction and coordination among different public service providers has created more burdens for citizens, businesses, and the PA itself.
  4. Getting the dimension of the future into the organisational structure itself, creating a future-proof platform capable of adapting to transformations seamlessly with resilience as its constitutive feature.

Knowledge and access to fully enjoy citizenship 

There can be no actual participation without knowledge, and the pact between citizens and the nation can only be based on mutual trust. In other words, knowledge, inclusion and accessibility are the prerequisites for the full exercise of citizenship.

Therefore, our vision of the PA is based on three fundamental concepts: unique access, trust, and the proactivity of the administration.

Unique access: a single point of access for all public services. 

The individual becomes the reference point for all public services, no longer fragmented among different agencies and structures but tied to the citizen and their life experience. Therefore, citizens should no longer have to turn to separate entities (such as the registry office, land registry, healthcare service, tax authorities, etc.) to assemble the administrative pieces necessary to fulfil an obligation or enjoy a benefit.

There are some prerequisites for this to happen:

  • Modular digital identity. Digital identity collects various modules of citizen information, not just demographic data but also tax or healthcare information. The citizen manages and authorises the sharing of individual modules with the relevant entity.
  • Minimal access barriers. A single access key to both public and private services and assimilation of identification among different entities within the Public Administration, eliminating accreditation steps and simplifying password management to avoid the burden of remembering them.
  • Proximity and remote access. Delocalisation of PA service centres, even in peripheral areas, to make it easier to access services in one’s neighbourhood. Similarly, access to PA services and remote assistance must be guaranteed through a digital service counter that integrates into different citizen contexts and leverages new interaction methods.
  • Citizen-centric approach. Reorganising the PA from a logic based on the fragmentation of responsibilities to a citizen-centric approach, offering virtual paths that respond to citizen needs. PA employees must acquire cross-cutting knowledge, including digital literacy.
  • Inclusion. Citizens can fully access public services regardless of their condition, without any limitations based on their gender, ability or disability, income, or opportunities

Trust: the bond between the state and citizens. 

Trust and citizenship are complementary concepts. Trust is the pre-contractual form of social life (Durkheim, 1912): that essential solidarity, that implicit, moral, and cognitive cooperative agreement that "holds together" society. Trust, even systemic trust, must be built and strengthened through repeated encounters between the parties. Transparency is just one aspect on which this relationship is based.

  • Secure communication. Citizens have a secure channel for communication and information exchange with the PA, where their data is protected, stored, and used only for necessary purposes.
  • Bidirectionality. Direct citizen participation in public life at the national and local levels and in defining PA services through sharing opinions in legislative processes and access to digital participation spaces.
  • Autonomy. Citizens have the option to use PA services without the assistance of employees. Official acts are recorded based on the information provided by the citizen, and PA employees are responsible for verifying their accuracy.

Automatic benefits to facilitate participation. 

Artificial intelligence is no longer a futuristic concept, and citizens’ experience with public matters can also harness the great opportunities of this technology. The PA can use agent-based technologies to finally prioritise citizens’ needs, highlighting the most suitable services based on individual needs and life stages. It is possible to build a convergent and adaptive infrastructure that allows information and citizen data to be shared between different entities, anticipating individual needs, providing suggestions, information, and notifications when needed, limiting burdens on individuals, reducing violations, and creating fuller participation.

  • Proactivity. The PA automatically generates certifications and other document packages, so citizens are not forced to request them. Citizens can decide when and with whom to share this information.
  • Customisation. Identify citizens’ needs and integrate services as needed, using technologies like artificial intelligence to personalise services around citizens’ specific needs. 
  • Intra-PA Convergence. Convergent infrastructure to facilitate the handling of needs, requirements, requests, and information among multiple entities, offering citizens a single front-end, following the once-only principle.
  • Automation. The public administration can verify the identity of the applicant and the truthfulness of the requested benefits, proactively prompting opportunities and all the relevant information.

A blueprint for orchestrating the dialogue between citizens and public entities

Building a relationship between citizens and the Public Administration as described must inevitably overcome traditional internal divisions, placing citizen experience at the centre. This implies synergistic coordination among various entities and systems.

After outlining the concept of service and tracing the future user journey, it is crucial to reveal what happens behind the scenes. We must reflect on the conditions and processes necessary to make such an experience possible, structuring back-office functions accordingly.

The primary tool can only be a service blueprint, allowing us to visualise, for each user action and each type of access modality, the involved entities and the type of interconnection required between entities and their systems to visualise the complete flow of the experience and its building blocks. Such a comprehensive view allows for assessing the feasibility of various steps, the barriers preventing their achievement (organisational, regulatory, technological), and the right stakeholders.

Returning to the challenge with which we opened this article: the opportunity to bring public service to the same level of efficiency as the private sector. The reason is apparent: an infrastructure of benefits with few technological access barriers, focusing on citizens’ life experiences, reducing their burdens, and anticipating information, enables fuller participation in collective life.

To explore the opportunities of applying design thinking to the relationship between citizens and the PA, join the workshop on public services and AI that we will host during the upcoming Milan Digital Week.

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