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How should we think when we design public services in emerging economies?

Farmer learning to use a digital public services
The next generation will expect better access to public services

It’s imperative for Governmental public-sector agencies to utilize public infrastructure to provide social benefits to citizens. While large amounts of public money is spent towards these initiatives, there’s often a perception that public sector services don’t give enough bang for their buck.

On the other hand, take a look at the innovation in service delivery happening in the private sector. We have things being delivered at home in hours if not days, a comfortable ride can be hailed almost instantly and you can even get someone to help you file your tax returns. The question arises; why can't public transport services be as easily accessible and user-friendly or why can't filing taxes be simpler for citizens?

Table: What differentiates Private vs. Public sector services (version 1.0)*

​Private / Commercial Services

Public / Social Services

Expectations are around value received for price paid

Expectations are around value received against taxes paid or vote given (responsibility of the government mindset)

Governed by ‘Returns’ goals

Governed by ‘Impact’ goals

Accountable to stakeholders first

Accountable to Service receivers (and society first), then stakeholders

Driven by competitive metrics

Driven by transparency metrics

Focus on consumer experience

Focus on wider reach

Align stakeholders to valuation

Align stakeholders to inclusive impact

At liberty to ‘discriminate’ and exist for a targeted group of the population

Obligated to maintain equitable provision for all sections of society

Generally have go-to-market agility

​Generally slower, difficult to implement

Offerings typically operate within government defined regulations. Innovations that operate in gray areas are soon subjected to new regulations

​Regulations and policies need to be defined before operationalization. Innovations are typically implemented only after regulations are in place

*The contents of this table are meant to evolve. That's why the versioning.

What does this mean?

Even though the motivations and operation mechanisms of both the sectors might be quite different, eventually services exist in the interest of people. There’s much to be learned and shared across both the sectors. What steps do public sector entities need to take in order to innovate for the greater good?

First line of thought: Creation of opportunities in private and unorganised sectors

When the government fails to provide user friendly experiences of services, the private sector will fill that gap. For example, a company like Cleartax exists because citizens find it difficult to use the Income Tax department's Income Tax Return filing digital service. Secondly, it leads to the formation of an unorganised market and an ecosystem that works outside of regulatory control and legal protection. E.g. unauthorised agents, illegal medical supplies distribution etc.

While governments can regulate the private sector, in a capitalist system, it's difficult to control all aspects of what the private entities might take from citizens in return for the products and services they offer. For example, Personal data security laws and frameworks like DEPA are only now being formulated to overcome past occurrences of massive data leaks and threats to citizen security and economic stability.

The country's own systems are not able to capitalising on its rich data, the same information by which private companies build their empires. The larger, more worrying question arises when one observes companies owned by stakeholders and holding companies in unfriendly nations doing their bidding.

In the case of the unorganised sector, entities operating in the fuzziness of legal boundaries, have an opportunity to exploit citizens in ways that are unethical, unreasonable and illegal. For example, unauthorised agents help citizens get their driving license faster. On paying steeper service charges, they offer the option to bypass the driving test altogether). Imagine the safety of our roads if drivers keep getting licenses without passing proper driving tests! It is also very apparent how unsafe and damaging some of these unregulated service providers can become. For example, vials of fake covid vaccines and medicines were detected in the black market during the first wave of the pandemic because of the inefficiencies around vaccine delivery in India.

For these reasons, it is much better for a nation's citizens if their government provides an ecosystem for safer and secure services. Applying user-centered frameworks like ConOps and ethnography to systems thinking should help get the ball rolling in the right direction for public services that are used and liked by all.


Second line of thought: Making Better Services

In an ideal world, public sector services should be desirable, caring and transparent, just like citizens expect. However, in developing nations, we see quite the contrary. To launch major programs, governments tend to focus relentlessly on getting the processes right, policies in place and inadvertently ignore the people who will use the services.

Electric Pole with wires
No orchestration of services? We see it all around us.

This calls for a change in mindset about how public sector services are thought about and rolled out. Along with all the administrative requirements, ministries must take into account the human and emotional elements that might govern the design and implementation of public sector services. The following is a proposed high-level methodology to start designing public services by following a more systematic approach.

  1. Take a human-centered approach to identify pain points not only from the point of view of citizens, but also the workforce that provides the service

  2. Inculcate a culture of better accountability by incentivising better service delivery within the service provider organisation by setting up benchmarks, rewards and recognition systems

  3. Measure service quality using metrics like NPS, CSAT etc. that are already adopted in the private sector and make departments accountable to those metrics

  4. Encourage a learning mindset so that government service providers feel empowered by digital technology and that their skills are relevant even in the face of digitalisation

  5. Anticipate the need for future services based on evidence from the past evaluating current citizen needs, and imagined future states. Frameworks such as future-casting and transition design can help anticipate such services

  6. For new service concepts, start conversations early and create an environment for policies to support the new programs

  7. Adapt to the political functioning of the nation so that services can be rolled out with lesser friction

This method is by no means 'one size fits all' because the nature of public services vary in scale and application based on administrative prowess and willingness, geography, economics and social acceptance. However, it can be considered as a starting point for anyone looking to design new services that will eventually reach citizens through government machinery.

Have your own thoughts about designing public sector services in emerging economies? Let's talk!


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