Need, not want: User-centric services

13 April 2021

A new EU-funded project aims to support cities in making their services more user-centric.

Accessing government services online is more important than ever. This year, cultural events, government documents, care services, and much more have been digitised, accelerating a transition that was already underway. Yet, despite significant progress over the past 20 years, by 2018 only around one in three adults made full use of online public services.

“Even your grandmother should be able to use it,” says Mart Brauer, a Project Manager for Tallinn Strategic Management Office, on what he believes needs to be the vision behind designing online public services that work for everyone.

User-Centric Cities

In 2017, thirty-two European Union and European Free Trade Agreement countries recognised the notion of user-centricity by committing to the Tallinn Declaration and its eight principles that focus on redesigning public services around the needs of users.

Maarja Koue, Geoinformation Systems Specialist for Tallinn Strategic Management Office

“It sets out the principles for user-centricity, which we as a city government can use in improving our services for residents,” says Maarja Koue, Geoinformation Systems Specialist for Tallinn Strategic Management Office. “And not only for residents,” she adds, “but also for businesses and the council, because there are lots of benefits to all stakeholders from applying these principles.”

The principles include commitments to focus on simplifying, rather than only digitalising existing processes, and that people should be fully in control of their data, and of how it is used. Laudable commitments no doubt, but problematic for many city councils nonetheless, which are essentially the front office of government as a whole, and often the first way people experience digital services.

“User-centricity is not that well understood” says Koue. “Our services should be accessible and usable for citizens, but that also means engaging people in the design of these services, which is not really something we have done before.”

This concept lies at the heart of a new EU-funded project, UserCentriCities, in which Tallinn is one of six founding cities aiming to support local authorities in delivering better user-centricity. The project partners will convert the principles of the Tallinn Declaration into a set of operational commitments, to meet the needs and challenges of local governments and citizens. Further actions will include the design of a set of indicators to allow cities to benchmark their progress against one another, and supporting cities ability to deliver user-centricity through a toolkit and mutual learning service.

“I think this project came at a really good time, because with the service designers in our city government, we can reassess and evaluate and analyse how we can put these principles into practice,” says Koue. “At the end of the day, we work for citizens, and so we need to empower them by providing the means for engagement.”

Government services that work for people

“We are widely known as an e-society. We have an e-government, and everyone uses their digital services on an everyday basis,” says Koue about Tallin, and Estonia in general. “But maybe from the other side, when we consider things like usability, especially across all the different services we offer, the quality and user-centricity differ.”

Indeed, while cities are all at different stages in their user-centric journey, all have the opportunity to learn from one another. Leading cities like Tallinn still have room to learn from others, and the UserCentriCities project is specifically designed so that businesses, non-partner cities and citizens should have an input in its development. Right now, for instance, the project partners, which include Eurocities, are asking for input on the first draft of a localised Tallinn Declaration.

“Last year we entirely redesigned our planning service in cooperation with Bloomberg and FutureGov (UK),” says Koue. “This is a very new approach for us, to take one service and really thoroughly analyse it according to service-design principles and make it more user-centric, including by testing with and getting feedback from residents and private sector companies.”

“It’s really great to be involved in projects like this, because everyone is learning, so I don’t really feel like either government or the private sector is leading this journey, but everyone is working together. The outcomes, in terms of user-centricity are always evident when you hold it as a value. In our case, our residents were really happy that we asked for their opinion and how we can improve our services. The learnings and competence built in the organisation during this project will be used to apply similar methodology in transforming other services as well.”

Mart Brauer, a Project Manager for Tallinn Strategic Management Office

According to Brauer, the last 12 months have heralded a shift in the approach of “C-suite management” to user-centricity.

“When before user-centricity was a nice to have, now for us it’s a must have,” he concludes.

The call for comments is available in six languages (EN, ES, FIN, FR, IT, NL) and open now.
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Alex Godson Eurocities Writer