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EU e-Privacy Directive

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IT's A Matter Of Trust

The Isle of Man Government has launched an online survey to inform its Digital Strategy - basically a survey about what we think of Government’s current online services, what other services they might provide online, and how they handle the data we provide through online services. Ours is not the the only Government hoping to increase their provision of services through digital channels, many others are treading the same path including our neighbour to the East which has a “Digital By Default” programme both to make services available to the public via the web, and to make the web the preferred means of accessing those services.


The attraction of customer interaction via digital channels is not limited to Government, many businesses have also attempted it; some have succeeded but more have failed. We can learn a lot from businesses about what the Isle of Man and UK Government initiatives must achieve to succeed.

The first factor must be choice, the motivation for providing online services: is it complementary to other channels such as telephone or across the counter and intended to widen customer choice and access? or is it desired to replace these labour-intensive synchronous channels with an asynchronous channel in which the customer cannot demand the service provider’s attention but must wait until it’s convenient for the service provider to attend to their query? The experience from business is that the former option works and is well received, whilst the latter is resented and causes customer dissatisfaction and loss of market share.

Second is the supplier’s responsiveness: suppliers who respond promptly to online queries and quickly resolve them win plaudits and praise in social media and consumer reviews. Those who are slow to respond are generally criticised by their customers. In choosing to use digital channels suppliers open themselves to the customer expectation that their query or complaint, transmitted to the supplier in seconds, will be processed promptly and the public have shown themselves very willing to punish the tardy, the bureaucratic, and those who put up barriers to the prompt resolution of their service requests.

Third, and closely linked to responsiveness, is transparency. Customers expect suppliers to be clear about the status of their query, the process they will engage the customer into, and the progress of the customer’s query through that process. Suppliers without transparency see poorer uptake of online services and lower customer satisfaction.

The fourth, and most important, lesson is trust. Customers demonstrate repeatedly that they will not use digital channels to engage with suppliers they don’t trust - instead they will choose the telephone or counter service where they can speak with a real person and assess the sincerity of their intent to provide good service. Similarly customers are very reluctant to provide electronic data, or any data more than the minimum necessary, to suppliers they don’t trust - to the extent that asking a prospective customer for more data than is absolutely necessary has been found to be a sure-fire method of losing prospects and sales.

These factors, choice, responsiveness, transparency and trust, are all-important in the successful delivery of a digital service option. Each is a challenge in business - offering the customer choice is expensive, responding promptly and being transparent are often difficult, and earning trust is a long hard slog, but the challenge for Government is even greater. Government generally can’t afford to offer choice or excellence in customer service - it is after all not competing for customers. Nor can it easily achieve responsiveness or transparency - Government is notoriously slow, bureaucratic, opaque and defensive. Trust however is the biggest barrier, many of us simply don’t trust Government and whilst the service from many parts of Government may be outstanding our experience of the less customer-centric parts tarnishes our belief in the whole. It also seems common that we don’t trust those who have power over us to act in our best interests.

What this comes down to is that moving services online is a major challenge for Government, in any country. I think it can be done, but it is far harder for Government than for Business. I have yet to see a Government getting anywhere close to success; providing effective digital channels to customers often requires a totally different culture to traditional service channels, the culture change needed for Government to succeed will be far greater than in business and must start with the desire to please. The idea that going online will save money quickly is a fantasy for all but the simplest transactions and the pursuit of a quick win is the most common cause of failure in developing online services. Savings are possible, but as with other types of customer support the greatest savings are made by ensuring that customers don’t need support, and when they do that their queries are resolved as fast as possible.

The Isle of Man Government has offered a few online services for many years, and may have learned just how tough the problem can be. Our Treasury mandates the use of Online Services to businesses - presumably the only way it could achieve sufficient adoption of these was to resort to law to force its customers to use them. The UK Government similarly has found that compulsion has been the only way of migrating users to online for some services. Clearly both have failed to make “Digital By Default” succeed by customer choice. 

If Government here, across or anywhere else is to achieve widespread customer adoption of digital services without compulsion it will have to look to the service and trust standards achieved by the online paragons of the business world. Similarly businesses seeking to make digital channels work for customer service need to heed both the lessons above and the models provided by those who have already succeeded.

If you make a customer complaint to Amazon you are offered a choice of contact channels. If you request that they telephone you to discuss your problem you can commonly expect them to call within a minute of your submitting the form. When you place an order you can expect the order acknowledgement to land in your email within 30 seconds, and regular updates when the status of your order changes. This responsiveness and transparency delivers customer satisfaction and confidence - Amazon deal with your custom promptly, keep you informed during the life of the transaction, and react swiftly to any dissatisfaction. 

Similarly, Microsoft and many (but not all) other online giants have learned to be respectful of their customers data, diligent in attempting to inform customers about the purposes their data will be used for and in seeking their consent, and vigorous in defending their customers privacy - even against the power of the US and UK Governments. Over recent years we have learned that some Governments have resorted to stealing data from these companies because even with all their powers they can’t obtain it lawfully, these businesses have shown that they can be trusted to protect their customers interests in the face of enormous pressure. Governments will have to learn that they cannot arbitrarily share data between functions, informally or formally - if they want our trust not only must they seek specific permission to share data, but need to do so on each occasion they seek a new sharing purpose. When a data privacy or security breach is found - inevitable because Government like business can’t be perfect - then Government must own up quickly and completely, the inept handling of data breaches by many companies has shown that cover-ups erode all trust.

Getting the public to give up the control of telephone or counter service and interact with you online is rarely easy. Many businesses have failed to achieve their online service aspirations, and the hurdles are higher for Government. Service must be paramount, and according to the latest UN Global e-Government Survey “It is naïve to assume that new channels will always lead to cost savings and increased efficiency for public agencies. Instead, new channels should always be introduced to deliver a better quality of public service to citizens.“


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