Enhancing government-citizen communication in a physically distanced world

Over a year has passed since the start of the pandemic. 

While some countries in Asia are still grappling with extended lockdowns and movement controls, it is also becoming increasingly clear that others — such as New Zealand, Taiwan and Thailand — have emerged as standouts in managing the crisis. But what separates these two groups? 

As political scientist Francis Fukuyama puts it, it may depend on “whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state”. That said, this is far easier said than done.

Local governments are seldom known for their swift responses to citizen queries. From potholes that never get filled to broken streetlights that never get replaced — it sometimes feels impossible to find the right channels and reach the proper authorities.

To that end, public sector organisations have been stepping up efforts and transforming government-citizen communications to improve everything from participation and engagement opportunities to resource sharing, as well as in increasing safety and security of vulnerable groups. Here are a few ways that technologies have been utilised to improve citizen engagement, and how these innovations may very well lead to benefits across the private sector, further down the line.

1. Provide simple, straightforward online services

After prolonged movement restrictions, most of us have become used to (and even prefer) performing our business, as well as administrative requests and duties online. However, these services are still oftentimes too complex to use.

This is a problem for countries in the region. According to the United Nations, the digital readiness of various governments in Asia comes out at 26 percent, which is less than half of the world’s top performer — Europe. 

One way to improve the situation is to introduce online services that are powered by voice-assisted artificial intelligence. Such services will improve digital inclusion by allowing citizens to perform tasks quickly and easily. This includes obtaining official documents, making requests outside working hours, as well as arranging meetings with the right people. 

When obtaining official documents, Singapore’s national authentication system, SingPass, also has a mobile app that allows residents to readily access a myriad government services — everything from birth and marriage certificates to property and vehicle registrations. Convenience aside, security is also built on the app level, which means that personal data of Singapore citizens and permanent residents are well protected from potential breaches.

Nonetheless, SingPass has yet to allow voice-assisted transactions, and such a function will undoubtedly lower the digital barriers for users — which has benefits that transcend far beyond the public sector. For example, simplifying the process for private businesses to obtain official documentation will make it easier for financial institutions to verify their customers, which is a key function for account opening and maintenance.

2. Maintain live voice assistance for low-tech citizens

Implementing online services is all well and good, but Asia Pacific continues to suffer from severe digital divide. About 52 percent of the region’s 4.3 billion people continue to lack internet access. This means that a significant population still relies on traditional methods, such as phone calls, to access various government services.

Even in such cases, it is still possible for technology to intervene and make a positive impact. For example, instead of relying on the caller to identify which department or person to connect to, interactive voice responses can pre-qualify these incoming calls and route them to the right service provider. This means requests and feedback can be addressed in a faster, more efficient manner despite them being done over a mere phone call. 

Such features are especially critical for customer-facing businesses. For example, it is not uncommon for banks, hospitality and even healthcare companies to receive a large number of queries daily. Interactive voice responses then not only enhance efficiency. It improves the overall customer experience and satisfaction. This is vital, considering the fact that Millennials and Gen Z customers gravitate towards more personalised experiences with companies. When it comes to customer service, friction-less encounters or interactions are crucial for delivering consistent, positive customer experiences, and businesses that get this right each time successfully bolster brand loyalty. 

3. Reduce the physical queue

Long queues and wait times at public buildings are also a major hindrance to efficient government-citizen interactions. No matter where you are in the world, bureaucracy is alive and well, and siloed services make it extra difficult for members of the public to get the help they need — especially on a face-to-face basis, even when lockdowns lift.

Technology can help ease such congestions. Indoor geolocation services can orient citizens to the right offices and offer public-facing information on wait times. Location services also help public authorities rethink crowd safety in high-density public spaces or buildings, which is especially crucial now when physical distancing has to be enforced.

There are many business implications for such geolocation services. Public transport companies can use geolocation services to point passengers in the right direction and study crowd patterns in busy stations and terminals. Airports, too, can direct passengers to the right boarding gates and various other available amenities.

Instead of relying on pamphlets and on-site staff, geolocation services can also be utilised at conferences, exhibitions, and other events to connect attendees to the right venues. In short, as long as a queue forms, there are business potentials for geolocation services. 

4. Simplify the feedback loop

The best way to improve citizen engagement is to make the process of giving feedback as simple and straightforward as possible — and a mobile app is a good place to start, considering that Southeast Asians spend more time on the mobile internet than anyone else on the planet. 

A very simple example is gathering citizen feedback on public services. In Indonesia’s West Java, Sapawarga is a ‘smart city app’ that allows residents to report problems directly to the local government and is also being used by the local anti-hoax task force to debunk fake news. Such a mobile-enabled feedback service enables citizens to engage and interact with relevant authorities, allowing issues to be addressed within a shorter time.

5. Secure all personal data

One of the most important ways to build trust is to ensure the privacy and security of data shared by citizens. This is especially pertinent today, considering the rise in cybersecurity threats in recent years. In fact, data breaches have exposed as much as 36 billion records in the first half of 2020 alone. 

While certain industry sectors have shored up their defences, the public sector falls short on this front. In fact, the public sector is among the least prepared in detecting and containing data breaches compared to other industry sectors — taking an average of 324 days to identify and contain security lapses, according to IBM Security’s Cost of a Data Breach Report. The financial sector, which performed the best, takes 233 days to do the same.

Cybersecurity, then, must be a critical component of effective government-citizen communication. From setting up geo-fencing and revising cybersecurity policies, to automating security processes and hiring the relevant talent, these solutions go a long way in protecting the personal data of citizens and building long-term trust. 

The above are just some examples of how technology can improve government-citizen communication, how some countries have utilised various innovations, as well as how they may eventually have trickle-down opportunities for businesses. 

As the world slowly but surely recovers from the economic impact of the pandemic, the ability to harness the power of technology will give countries and businesses the competitive edge they need to thrive in the recovery phase and beyond.