In 2016, Singapore citizen Koh Wei had to register the birth of his first child, a daughter named Eve. Exhausted (as all new parents are), he travelled across the city to reach the right government building, changing trains multiple times. He fell asleep, missed his station and ended up riding in the wrong direction. He finally reoriented himself in time to get to the office, fill out the correct forms and register a birth certificate.
Five years later, his second child, Claris, arrived. This time, Wei registered the birth certificate from the hospital. He sat beside his wife and uploaded their registration with Singapore’s LifeSG app, which then prompted him to apply for baby bonus, a cash benefit for newborns. When Claris was three months old, LifeSG helped Wei search for preschools and childcare centres and offered a guide for family budgeting and gave him tools to prepare for milestones such as primary school.1
The change in Koh Wei’s experience showcases an important new approach to improving government services: organising services around life events. From a new birth to a new business to a death, citizens regularly encounter life events that trigger multiple service interaction with multiple agencies (see figure 1). A marriage, for instance, can involve not just a marriage licence but also a change of address, a new legal name and changing eligibility for government benefits such as health insurance subsidies. The number of required transactions can be daunting—and providing the same information again and again can feel like bureaucratic torture. Providing repetitive information increases substantially in federated governments with multiple levels of governments.
Such an experience is twice as cruel if the life event is painful, such as a disabling injury, a job loss, a natural disaster, or a death. Not long ago, United Kingdom citizens coping with the death of a loved one had to notify multiple national and local government departments up to 44 times about the death.2
Life event—based service delivery focusses on the individual citizen or business. Instead of forcing individuals to track down different government agencies in response to a life event such as a birth or death, these agencies collaborate to meet citizen needs proactively. This can mean anticipating citizens’ needs, sharing information on the citizen’s behalf and guiding them through their likely next steps.
Life event—based services go further than a single agency focussing on improving the customer interaction. Instead, they represent a realignment and integration of information and resources by understanding and anticipating the cluster of needs a citizen may have—even when the person navigating a new life event may not be aware of the services that may be available. Figure 1 provides an idealised example. The real-world examples below demonstrate the range of applications and approaches that governments are taking to life events today:
Despite some initial progress globally, the way various governments are organised can create significant barriers to a life event focus. Life event service delivery requires linking services—and costs—across multiple agencies and levels of government. Overcoming these barriers requires reimagined governance models, shared funding and secure data-sharing technologies that citizens can trust. The rewards, though, can be significant, saving government staff time and money while greatly improving the lives of ordinary citizens.
Executive Order 14058, Transforming federal customer experience and service delivery to rebuild trust in government, emphasises improving customer experience for Americans by focussing on their life experiences to build trust in government.9 As a follow up to the EO, the President’s Management Council identified five life experiences to start with:
Today, these five life events all require the public to interact with multiple agencies. For each life experience, cross-agency teams are undertaking user research, understanding their pain points and devising action plans to improve customer experience. Life event services delivery is a significant undertaking for the federal government. “We’re working to change the way the federal government provides services,” says Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). “We’re doing this in part by focussing on life experiences.”10
Most people don’t care which government entity provides the services; they just want the job done. The life event approach allows agencies to better understand individuals’ needs and deliver personalised experiences to meet them. It combines three emerging design philosophies: human-centred design, an agile delivery approach and once-only contact.
The life event approach can significantly improve customer experience by offering the appropriate “basket” of services (figure 2). A new birth is a classic example; it can trigger the need for birth registration, family benefits, health care and prenatal care services, among others. However, not all life events can be planned in advance. A sudden lay off, disability due to an accident, or falling victim to a disaster, crime, or war are examples of unplanned life events where citizens may need multiple services from multiple agencies. These events typically require a greater degree of human touch and interpersonal skills on the part of government employees.13
As the life event delivery model progresses, services become more seamless, personalised and integrated. The maturity model in figure 3 tracks the life event model’s evolution through four different levels of maturity.
Level 1: Department-centric. Constituents interact with different departments separately. Government back-end systems are siloed. The majority of government services today are at level 1.
Level 2: Life event service collections. Service information is organised by life events at the front end, usually a government portal. Though constituents continue to interact with different departments separately, agencies still cater to a life event journey by providing links to other services. At this stage, policy frameworks tend to still not adequately incentivise collaboration for sharing data, funding and workforce resources. The governance structure remains the same as at level 1.
The state of Connecticut’s one-stop-shop business portal
The portal organises information and services by significant business events such as starting a new business, managing a business, paying taxes, relocating, or expanding a business. The portal generates a customised checklist to guide business owners through the process of setting up a business entity. More than 17,000 checklists have been created on the portal since it went live in the summer of 2020.14
Level 3: Partially integrated life event services. Services are offered according to life events; constituents can access some services in one place. Some services still aren’t integrated. Agencies have established limited data-sharing and other collaborative mechanisms, and some workflows are partially automated.
Level 4: Fully integrated life event services. The once-only principle is followed in spirit and letter. Back-end platforms and data-sharing systems are fully integrated between government agencies. The enabling policy framework encourages collaboration amongst agencies and levels of governments for sharing data with citizens’ consent, resources, funding and provides flexibility in governance mechanisms. Workflows are fully automated. Collaborative governance of life events is institutionalised through stewards and working groups, funding is shared across multiple agencies and workforce models are nimble, allowing for sharing of workforces.
The life event model disrupts how government agencies have traditionally been organised. Today, many related tasks are handled by separate entities. Consider how creating a new business in the United States can trigger the need for incorporation, sales tax permits, a small business loan and more—all traditionally delivered by separate entities. Integrating such services with the required technology, governance and funding presents significant challenges.
Historically, government agencies have used a programme-centric service delivery model that prioritises the efficiency of government processes. While efficiency is a laudable goal, a programme-centric approach can lead to losing sight of the citizen needs. Too often, governments look to enhance citizen experience from the lens of government operations, not citizens. Life event services, in contrast, call for agencies to squarely focus on citizens and businesses which requires cultural shift for agencies.
Embedding a human-centred mindset, developing inclusive services and refocussing on users can help make the services delivered to citizens and businesses more effective, not just more efficient. For example, auto enrolment of relevant benefits for low-income population or elders who may not have access to digital connectivity can be a game changer.
Life event service delivery requires seamless data-sharing. Unfortunately, siloed computer systems often hinder data-sharing even within an agency, let alone among different parts of government. Moreover, seamless systems require common data standards and many governments haven’t defined such standards.
For example, within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), data-sharing practices vary widely among its constituent agencies. A 2018 investigation by the US Office of the Chief Technology Officer found that in HHS, “data are largely kept in silos with a lack of organisational awareness of what data are collected across the department and how to request access. Each agency operates within its own statutory authority and each dataset can be governed by a particular set of regulations. As such ... data-sharing occur[s] largely on a project-by-project basis.”17
Effective cross-departmental governance requires well-defined roles and an alignment of goals between agencies. At the very least, agencies’ goals should not conflict with each other. Existing policy frameworks and legislation often hinder data-sharing and restrict the scope of shared governance and accountability mechanisms.
Conventional, agency-centric governance and performance appraisal systems aren’t well aligned with cross-government initiatives like life events. “You’re quite often being asked to put your deliverables that you’re being judged on to one side and deliver something that has little benefit for you to deliver because there aren’t any incentives,” said a team member behind New Zealand’s SmartStart, the interagency programme for birth and infant care. One SmartStart participant said, “We’re going to be measured on our own performance and not on cross-agency performance.”18
Government funding is generally tied to specific agency programmes. It may be difficult to assign funding according to outcomes or to divide it among partnering agencies. Furthermore, government funding often follows a “waterfall” model, which estimates full funding at the initial stage of a project and then adds change orders as needed. The life event approach, like all agile projects, requires iterative and ongoing funding. Lack of long-term planning for operational funding of life event-based services can prevent governments from taking maximum advantage of such a transformative change in service delivery.
Consolidated information systems pose data security challenges. If an update in one part of the system triggers automatic changes to other government records, it may open opportunities for identity theft. Vigilance is essential.
Pia Andrews, who has helped design life services projects in several countries, says projects should build privacy and dignity in from the start. “Agencies need to ask themselves: How are we controlling access to the data? How can people trust us with their data? How can we ensure that data is not going to then be used to say ‘Oh, a person is vulnerable, therefore, we’re going to target them in an inappropriate way?’”.19
Lack of trust can be fatal to life event service delivery, which requires two levels of trust. One is trust among agencies; if they don’t trust one another to share data, resources and technology, they can’t deliver a collaborative service. Second is trust from citizens. If they don’t trust government agencies with their data, they’ll be reluctant to consent to its use. Thus, relationships and tight protocols are needed to build strong partnerships.
Continual improvements, such as adding more features over time and increasing the number of services under a life event, can add additional value for citizens and increase their trust. “Continuing to add value after your initial release, that’s been really powerful,” explains Darryl Carpenter, a former SmartStart participant. “That’s helped us from an ongoing funding perspective, it’s helped us from a trust perspective.”20
People with disabilities and their families receive critical support from government, but interacting with multiple agencies can be challenging. Disability can trigger potential eligibility for programmes spread across dozens of federal, state, and local agencies. It might involve a transition plan from a department of education, a support co-ordinator from a county board of developmental disability, supplemental security income from a social security administration, or a Medicaid waiver from a state Medicaid office. Each has its own processes, regulations and paperwork.21 Apart from their own policies and legislation, states often must comply with federal policies and legislation which can impede data-sharing between agencies.
Consider Dan, the father of three children who lives in Texas. One of his sons, Josh, a high school freshman, has cerebral palsy. Josh receives SSI (supplemental security income) and Medicaid waiver services. Dan struggles to keep up with the paperwork he needs to fill as his representative payee.22 He often has to leave work because some tasks can’t be accomplished during the weekends. One of his pet peeves is that “all of the forms and documentation pull him away from giving Josh the care he needs.”23
Lack of co-ordination also stems from the structure of federation in some countries where the constitution delineates the power between federal and state/provincial governments, making it challenging to collaborate on services across levels of government. The number of levels of government can further complicate effective collaboration.
The US executive order referred to earlier recognises this challenge. It holds the federal government and its agencies responsible for the experiences that Americans have while receiving a federal benefit administrated by a state government. “[The order] makes it no longer acceptable for federal agencies to say, ‘Well that’s a state-run programme, so that’s not really within our purview,’ ” says Amira Boland, federal customer experience lead at the OMB. “It explicitly calls out the federal responsibility for programmes that are state administered.”24
Overcoming such barriers won’t be easy. Agencies will require new governance mechanisms to prioritise features, share funding and costs, and agree on choices of technologies. The challenges have a range of potential solutions, each with its own drawbacks and benefits. The governance model for death notifications, for example, may not work for agencies involved with new businesses. An early childhood funding model in the United States may not suit the United Kingdom’s health care system. And every solution will require iterative testing, careful attention and constant feedback. That said, there are solutions available (see figure 5).
The life event approach puts the user at the heart of service integration. This requires extensive user research through design tools such as ethnographic study, journey mapping and persona development to understand citizens’ needs.
To create SmartStart, a multi-agency team conducted workshops, interviewed parents and used journey mapping to understand the pain points parents experienced in registering a baby’s birth and accessing early childhood services.25 “Service design was absolutely key to what we’ve delivered,” says Caire Toufexis, who led customer service design for SmartStart, in the beginning. “We went out and we talked to people. We went to teen pregnancy schools. We went to antenatal classes. We went to baby music classes at the library. We went to breastfeeding support classes. We went to baby shows.”26
The SmartStart team engaged stakeholders throughout the project’s lifecycle. Once the team developed a minimum viable product (MVP) prototype, it sought feedback from 700 midwives on language, content and navigation. After the release of the initial product, the team added more services in multiple sprints.27
Several lessons emerged through this process. First, start with user testing; do it throughout the project life cycle to uncover the biggest pain points of users. Second, prioritise features most customers want. Based on customer feedback, the team identified eight key features for the MVP. Third, test and use the MVP; don’t wait until the product roadmap is final to start development. Fourth, be agile—respond to feedback and iterate quickly.28
Singapore also began with user research in developing its LifeSG app. The Innovation Lab, housed in the Public Service Division (PSD) of the Prime Minister’s Office, conducted ethnographic research on the “birth of baby” life event. Data scientists from the Ministry of Social and Family Development analysed data from agencies to identify key citizen themes for the interviews. Engaging with citizens helped government officers understand gaps in service delivery and identify the critical agencies needed to execute the life event model.
It isn’t that agencies don’t care about people’s needs; it’s just that they’re focussed on managing their own programmes rather than addressing the full spectrum of citizen needs. But people’s problems rarely align with agency boundaries or levels of government.
Several organisational models have been used to overcome such issues and co-ordinate multi-agency efforts. One agency can take the lead, for instance, or a separate governing body can run the interagency part of the effort.
New South Wales (NSW) has established a comprehensive governance process to implement its life event focus (see figure 6).
At the top is the delivery and performance committee (DaPCo), that assesses the digital components of policy proposals to ensure seamless service.29 Beneath DaPCo, sit senior officials of the customer and digital council, which oversees life event journeys in NSW and ensures they align with the digital strategy and other priorities of the state. The council also acts as a first-level approver for funding.
Underneath the customer and digital council, each life event has a “journey advisory board” (JAB). Each JAB includes representatives from relevant government agencies and NGOs. Each board acts as custodian of a life journey, ensures user centricity, assigns responsibility and prioritises journey improvement.30 By engaging multiple agencies and assigning responsibility to relevant agencies and service providers, the governance model creates a sense of ownership and collaboration to improve outcomes for the citizens.31
The bulk of work on Singapore’s LifeSG app was driven by the Public Service Division (PSD) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Both organisations co-chaired the operations committee of LifeSG, comprising senior leaders from 15 different agencies.32 PSD’s Innovation Lab established a programme office made up of officers seconded from participating agencies to manage the project.33 Such cross-agency governance model has enabled Singapore to offer more than 70 services on the app.34
The public sector has long experimented with shared funding models to overcome the challenge of shared agency responsibilities. In June 2020, the NSW government announced an investment of a record US$1.6 billion in its Digital Restart Fund over three years.35 In June 2021, the fund was topped up with an additional US$500 million, extending it to 2024.36 The fund is designed to accelerate whole-of-government digital transformation and funds projects at multiple agencies, including life event projects, digital assets used by multiple agencies, modernising legacy systems and building workforce capability by upskilling NSW government employees.37
New Zealand’s Better Public Services Seed Fund covered initial funding of US$1 million for SmartStart. The team learnt that defining ownership of the life event at an early stage is essential. New Zealand earmarked US$2.5 million annually for its Department of Internal Affairs to maintain SmartStart and other life event projects over four years beginning in fiscal 2021, matching New Zealand’s four-year planning cycle. Dependable funding for four years helped the team plan its resource needs for ongoing development and operational support in advance.38 A government innovation fund was also made available for agencies to bid for money to test whether there was viability in establishing new life event services.
While New Zealand and NSW had dedicated funds, grants can also be used to build life event programmes. Eventually, however, such programmes need reliable, regular funding streams.
Technological innovations can help surmount the challenges to data-sharing across platforms. In Estonia, a unique digital ID allows each citizen to interact with government electronically though a single portal, instead of re-registering with multiple passwords for multiple agencies—or by standing in line and trading mail.
In Karnataka, India, the state’s ability to share data based on digital identity made it possible for low-income families to receive pension benefits without much effort. The digital ID enables linking of additional information on income, tax due, tax credits and bank accounts, so that when an individual pays taxes, she can access the data and file a tax return quickly and easily. Similarly, based on digital ID and with an individual’s consent, tax authorities can securely share such data across departments to ascertain programme eligibility for the unemployed. The ability to share personal data swiftly, securely and with users’ consent is vital to life event service delivery.
Emerging data platforms can facilitate scalable, interoperable exchange of data—exactly what life event-centred services require. Data exchanges used for sharing personal data should ensure confidentiality (only authorised parties access data), integrity (data is temper proof) and interoperability (all parties should be able to access irrespective of their technical architecture).39
Technically, data exchanges can be classified as federated, centralised, or blended. In a federated exchange, participating agencies retain control over their data and respond to data requests from other agencies. In a centralised exchange, an authority collects information from all participating agencies and hosts the data on a central platform. In a blended exchange, some data is hosted on a central system and some is accessed through queries to participating agencies.40 Estonia and New Zealand both use federated systems to exchange data.
New Zealand also employs “microservices,” a form of data organisation that breaks down apps into smaller segments of code and allows information exchange through a shared application programming interface (API). This allows SmartStart to be flexible and scalable and to integrate with other government services as needed.41
Australia uses APIs to exchange information on deaths by co-ordinating data exchange across government agencies and various private sector organisations.42 The Australia Death Notification Service (ADNS) allows users to enter information about the deceased and then verifies it against the Australian Death Check, an API-based system that interacts with death registration data recorded by Australian state and territory registries. Once the data is validated, ADNS sends a notification to the institutions and organisations chosen by the notifier, which can include government agencies, banks, insurance carriers, pension and retirement institutions, and utilities.43
Data security is constantly evolving, as is cybercrime. No one, least of all government agencies entrusted with citizens’ personal information, can afford to “set it and forget it” once a system is built. With the understanding that agile, iterative approaches are essential for digital security, several innovations may be particularly useful for the life event model. Finland, for example, is developing digital identities that can share personal information securely and selectively. Instead of flashing a driver’s licence—and address—at a bouncer, for instance, a digital ID can just affirm the user is 18.44 The underlying technology is widely applicable for privacy. Such exchange protocols protect the privacy of the user, allowing respective owners of data to retain their control and seamlessly share data through interoperable systems.
Australian officials hope to develop a similar system to securely request proof of income.45 Currently, they point citizens to the income form they need. At a more mature stage, a secure message could verify that an applicant qualifies without sending sensitive data at all. Applicants wouldn’t need to expose private banking information to multiple agencies and eyeballs. “Everyone that starts from the premise that you can only get better services if you share data,” explains Pia Andrews, “is actually missing the bigger opportunity to not share data.”46
Trust is essential to any programme that asks citizens to submit their private data and let government agencies share it. Such trust must be earned. Clare Toufexis of New Zealand’s SmartStart says that an open, transparent process helps citizens feel safe in sharing their data with the government. “People are really comfortable sharing their data as long as you can show them that you’re keeping it safe and that there’s benefit in it for them,” she says. About 98% of SmartStart users consented to share their information for at least two services.
Clarifying which government agencies access citizen data also can enhance citizen trust. Estonian citizens can see which agencies or officials have accessed their information and have the right to challenge any use of it.47
A better customer experience also can enhance trust. A 2021 Deloitte survey found that individuals who are pleased with a state governments’ digital services also tend to rate the state highly in measures of overall trust.48 Respondents rate state and local agencies high on trust if they think that state governments’ digital services are easy to use, that governments’ web-based services help them accomplish what they need and that the state government safeguards their data well.49 “If you design services that prioritise a dignified and delightful experience, you’ll have a better chance to put citizens in greater control of their relationship with government, which would improve public trust and confidence in public institutions,” says Pia Andrews.
Similarly, according to Forrester Research, for each one-point increase in a government department’s customer experience ranking, 2.8% more customers will trust it.50 The US federal government’s vision for life experiences recognises this, stating that the organising framework requires a new model of service delivery that solves problems within and across agencies and levels of government and increases trust in government.51
Converging ideas about customer experience meet in life event service delivery. Technology can facilitate seamless, anticipatory service. The private sector has embraced customer-centric models; there’s no reason why citizens shouldn’t expect this level of service from their governments.
Adopting life event-based services can enable government to meet citizens’ needs more holistically, improve their quality of life and rebuild trust in government institutions.
While it’s easy to get lost in the weeds while changing service delivery models, leaders should step back and remember how each project improves life events for its users. Government should serve the needs of citizens, not government. Life event service delivery rebuilds citizens’ experience around that principle.
Digital transformation in government is quickly becoming an imperative: Customer expectations for digital and mobile experiences are pushing governments to embrace digital transformation as fully as their constituents and commercial enterprises have. Deloitte digital government services can help leaders create a government digital transformation strategy that improves many aspects of public service, including the government customer experience.