Citizen Centred Government Services

“People expect government services to be simple and easy to use“. This quote by Canadian Digital Service struck a chord while preparing a feedback document for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI – leading coalition government party) Digital Policy. If you haven’t read through my first post (link), i would recommend doing so. Before getting to the main proposition: “Why citizen centered service design is crucial”, I will share some examples from some government services in Pakistan:

Act 1: Beneficiaries of Benazir Income Support Program (BISP – unconditional cash transfer program), belong to the poorest households of Pakistan (indexed through poverty scorecards) travel several kilometers to collect their government grant money but the newly enforced bio-metric authentication system fails to recognize fingerprints for some of them. They try various mobile money retailers in hopes to get their grant (thinking fault was with money agent) before visiting BISP office where they are told to visit National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA – central identity service) to update their bio-metrics (database).

After shuttling back and forth between departments they are still unable to collect their money.

The designers for digital payments systems did not account for situations where fingerprints of citizens get smudged due to hard labor and old age – they need an alternate system! Although this scenario effects between 3-6% beneficiaries only but the frustrations caused are huge.

Act 2: Government of Punjab has promised to give 100,000 smallholder farmers (who are availing government interest free and maintaining good credit history) a smartphone with digital applications for agriculture. 

A potential recipient has received multiple calls from Government Agriculture Department to collect his smartphone and open a mobile wallet account. He has visited offices of government and mobile operator multiple times, yet, he is unable to get the promised smart phone. 


In this complex multi-stakeholder system (agriculture department, government IT department, banking partner, Land Record Authority, Mobile Financial Service Provider), the back-end operations and software integrations often fail to work causing severe frustration for the farmers. 

Small speed breakers like these dampen the positive impact of this large scale program which has the potential for transforming a vital sector of Pakistan’s economy.

Why Human Centered Design (HCD) is Important?

HCD is a methodology used to create product, services, and experiences keeping user’s lives and needs at the core. Practitioners of HCD immerse themselves in the user’s context to develop a deeper understanding of following important pieces:

  1. People: Who are the primary and secondary users of the service (product or experience included) and what are their current behaviors, existing skills and practices, motivations, aspirations in life before designing experiences for them. 
  2. Interfaces: What sort of interfaces are best suited for this audience? If the users are literate and college educated, the interfaces will be a lot different than the interfaces designed for illiterate users belonging to bottom of the pyramid who prefer ‘assisted interfaces’ with visuals.
  3. Transactions: What are the main transactions involved in the service and the requirements for them? Can these requirements be simplified? How can we minimize physical visits to service centers by reusing information from existing citizen databases from other government departments? Who will drive these digital transformation efforts across government?
  4. Adoption and Behavior Change: What are the key steps needed for customers to adopt to the new services (mostly digital)? How can we change their existing behavior to the ‘desired behavior’ for success of these initiatives? Who can be the key partners to drive this adoption and behavior change?

Government services, products, citizen experiences and digital transformation efforts are after all serving humans and they can greatly benefit from HCD. I would argue that HCD is even more important in Government services because they typically work with private or public sector partners for implementation. These partners are often selected through elaborate procurement processes which make sure that they bring the necessary experience in technology (feasibility) and business (viability). What often gets missed out is the human experience (desirability) because these partners work in ‘minimum compliance’ mode to deliver whatever they were contracted for. Sometimes, development sector NGOs work to build capacity at government organizations for such projects but this practice fails to deliver a sustainable and resident knowledge body.

For large scale programs with lot of uncertainties, particularly in developing world’s context, it is imperative to follow Agile and ‘lean startup’ principles. There is no other choice, but to have a dedicated department for ensuring the ‘human experience’ is at par for ensuring success of these programs and initiatives. If delivered well, these digitization programs can create a huge impact: one of the biggest side-effects of ‘human-centered design’ is removal of middle-men and their corrupt practices. If citizens feel the confidence of navigating through government services they don’t feel the need for intermediaries and middle-men (BISP is a case in point, digital payments have reduced the deductions by middle-men).

Department for Citizen Centered Experience

Recognizing the importance of this matter, UK government has set up a Government Digital Service under cabinet to spearhead digital transformation across the board. Service design (Link) is key ingredient of government digitization effort. Another example is United States Digital Service a startup housed at White House using Design and Technology to deliver better services to Americans.

It is the need of the hour to setup a Government Citizen-Centered Experience Department housed under Knowledge Economy Authority with strategic role of working closely with government departments under sponsorship of Cabinet. Few important considerations are:

  1. Most government initiatives fail due to poor research and understanding of the citizen’s needs. This department should be involved in all key nationwide programs to conduct user research, conduct Gap Analysis studies, map out user-journeys before the intervention is launched or government vendors are sourced for projects. 
  2. Citizen-Centered Experience Design Department should hire accomplished designers with backgrounds in Technology, Product Design and Social Sciences. It should also work closely with other agencies who can assist government in different projects for User Research, Co-creation Workshops (Policy & Vision), Service Design & User Experience etc.
  3. Instead of large projects from start (ex. 100 Million citizens etc), need to conduct pilots first and evaluate them for improvements before launching big scale interventions like BISP, Punjab Kissan Program etc.
  4. All citizen services in a “Digital First” road map should be ‘user-centered’. “Instead of designing digital services, we should be building user-centered services that are enabled by digital” – technology is a tool not the goal!
  5. This department should work with universities, think-tanks, non-profit organizations and technology companies to map out and capture data about user behaviors such as literacy levels, technology literacy levels in different citizen groups (small farmers, mid-level farmers, BISP beneficiaries, retail kiosk merchants (khokhas) in villages, public sector hospital patients, university students, small business owners etc.). Such data from all government projects and institutions (e.g. Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, KP/Punjab IT Boards etc.) should be consolidated into this data set. This data should be made public to bring in private sector partners who can serve needs of these citizen groups through partnerships. 

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