How can technology drive customer-centricity in the public sector?

Janneke Stork

The idea of customer-centricity – or “customer obsession”, as Jeff Bezos famously describes it – might sound simple.

On the face of it, customer-centricity means understanding your customers’ needs, expectations, and perceptions. In the public sector, it means placing citizens at the strategic heart of your organisation’s activities.


In practice, customer-centricity can often mean using agile methodology. Taking an agile approach, citizen data provides continual feedback that helps the organisation further its objective – whether that’s a developer working on an app to underpin public health during the pandemic, or a local council using video conferencing and polling solutions to collate and gather collating insights on projects to prioritise for public realm spending from citizen assembly meetings.

But that only tells part of the story. There is a big difference between understanding citizens’ needs, expectations, and perceptions; giving them tools that will help meet those, and then ensuring they are not only using these tools but using them in the right way.

This isn’t meant in a sinister, Orwellian-mind-control kind of way. It simply means actively ensuring the technologies are actually used and understood by citizens, so the investment does not go to waste. For example, low adoption of Covid-focussed healthcare apps risks preventing governments from gaining valuable insights to inform key public health decisions, while local authorities failing to retain all the insight gathered at community assembly meetings risk prioritising budgets incorrectly.

So how can public sector organisations make digital adoption central to their customer-centric approach?

Encouraging adoption with the state of the art

Naturally, the right technology is central to this approach. The first step is understanding application use. With the right analytics tools, organisations can understand exactly how citizens are interacting with technology. For instance, are they stopping their journeys short at the same point? Do they only use specific applications or functions, or actively avoid others? Or are there certain tasks (e.g. registering for a council tax rebate online, where most people rush to access help functions? Over time, organisations can identify citizens‘ pain points, giving them a clear, comprehensive picture of what needs to be done in order to create an experience that customers will love.

With the pain points identified, organisations can deploy intelligent help, AI-powered chat-bot style – guiding citizens through both complex and simple online transactions and intervening whenever they need it. Ideally, this support system should be able to learn over time, able to give real-time assistance whenever it identifies a customer might be struggling, in much the same way you might guide a relative through the rigmarole of posting holiday snaps on Facebook. The crucial distinction here is viewing citizens not just as objects to be measured, but as people who can and should be aided in real-time.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that a truly customer-centric approach is all-encompassing: you can't claim to be truly customer-centric if even one single application used by citizens offers a second-rate experience.

As a result, the analysis and intelligent support above should apply to every application citizens use. Just as importantly, it should provide a uniform experience. Those of us used to dealing with multiple applications at work know how disconcerting it can be when every application’s help function looks and operates differently. Providing a uniform face to the public can do wonders for the citizen experience, and for customer-centricity.

Taking culture beyond surface detail

To hark back to Bezos, a crucial element of digital transformation is the end-user experience. Whether those users are employees or citizens, public sector organisations have to prioritise digital experiences and work backwards from there.

Of course, implementing this approach is easier said than done, and for some organisations, it may require significant cultural change.

To this end, having the right people in the right roles is crucial. While the Chief Customer Officer is an increasingly common position in the private sector, it’s not quite as prevalent in the public sector, where it can be harder to carve out a specific role focusing on end-user experience. Posts such as Chief Experience Officer and Customer Service Director are more common in the public sector; regardless of any internal politics or reluctance to redraw the boundaries of leadership roles, the key thing is to ensure somebody is assigned to focus on driving citizen experience.

The Digital Adoption Professional is another role growing in popularity. Whether working under a specific title, such as Chief Adoption Officer, or part of the IT function, they focus on making sure the organisation gets the maximum possible value from its technology investments – which as we’ve seen, is an essential part of a customer-centric approach.

It will also pay dividends internally by helping staff embrace the technologies at their disposal, and so helping them in turn focus more on citizens. IT can also provide a valuable recruitment tool: with the growth of hybrid working, more staff are likely to care far more about their digital experience at work than whether or not their office has, for instance, a fancy new coffee machine.

By focusing on digital adoption and the end-user experience, the public sector can ensure its customer-centric approach will pay real dividends.