“We were moving along with digitising more and more of our services, but we were leaving some people behind,” says Anne Eg Jensen, Project Manager of the ‘Citizens Services 2 Go’ in Aarhus. “The digital train was moving, and they were standing there on the platform.”
Danish cities like Aarhus are at the forefront of the digitalisation of public services. People can access almost any public service online or via an app. Are you changing your address? Applying for support? Do you need a new doctor? Are your children starting school? “You can do it online,” Eg Jensen explains.
People, not apps
“This system works very well for a lot of citizens,” the Project Manager says, “but those most vulnerable have difficulty accessing it.” So, the issue made it into Aarhus’ political agenda and gave birth to a project allowing people like those suffering from mental disorders and the homeless to use public services.
The scheme’s initial idea was to develop a futuristic solution. “In the beginning, we were pretty sure that we were going to make a new app or something innovative like that,” recalls Eg Jensen. But after consulting with the people concerned and the organisations that work with them, the team put the breaks on the idea and changed the course of action.
No more digital solutions, no more smartphones or apps, they needed a real human being to talk to.
“What they told us was that they needed a person. No more digital solutions, no more smartphones or apps, they needed a real human being to talk to,” says Eg Jensen. This process created ‘Citizen Services 2 Go’.
Meeting people where they are
As part of their work with ‘Citizen Services 2 Go’, a group of public servants volunteer to visit shelters and other places where vulnerable people go and where they feel safe. The same public servant will periodically drop by the same spot to eventually set up a help point.
“It’s Paul, and it’s always Paul who shows up here,” explains Eg Jensen, making up a name for one of her colleagues. Consistently interacting with the same person is essential as it enables ‘Citizen Services 2 Go’ to build trust with the people the project hopes to support.
“We learned that when it’s the same person and someone willing to help, they start trusting them. Many in our target audience still don’t trust the city or the system, but they now trust Paul,” adds Eg Jensen.
Support from A to Z
Paul and his colleagues assist vulnerable people in using the city’s digital services or offer them analogue solutions when they cannot access them online. For example, when residents lose their identification key or don’t own a smartphone, as it’s the case for many of them.
Many of our target audience still don’t trust the city or the system, but they now trust Paul.
People also often need help figuring out how the public offices work or whom to contact. “The Citizens Services 2 Go can also cover a lot of different issues in one go,” says Rikke Kildahl Brouer, ‘Citizens Services 2 Go’ Project Officer.
“It was important that we didn’t confirm the prejudices about public servants,” adds Eg Jensen. “We did not want to tell people, ‘Sorry I can’t help you. I don’t know anything about that.’ Rather: ‘I don’t know anything about that area. But let me find out. It’s my problem now.’”
This means that a person using the service will have many issues fixed simultaneously.
Value, skills, and trust
People feel more valued when they know that someone is spending time to help them with their issues. And some also learn to better use the tools to access the services they need. They feel more comfortable with the procedures and start using them independently.
When people have good experiences with Citizen Services 2 Go, they also start to feel safe to call their social worker or to go to the job centre, for example.
Physically meeting vulnerable people in their own areas paid off in Aarhus. “Some citizens are now coming to our central office instead of waiting for help from ‘Citizen Services 2 Go’,” explains Kildahl Brouer. “They come here and ask for Paul,” adds Eg Jensen, smiling. “That’s how they slowly get good experiences with our office and find out they can trust us, so they come back.”
And this trust doesn’t stop at the public services office but extends to other public sector departments. “When people have good experiences with ‘Citizen Services 2 Go’, they also start to feel safe to call their social worker or to go to the job centre, for example,” Eg Jensen explains.
Similarly, since the Aarhus municipality cooperated with several organisations working with vulnerable groups, it was able to build a committed network that relies on each member to deliver the necessary support.
“Sometimes, these organisations have the same prejudices about public servants as the people they welcome. They may have had bad experiences with not receiving the help they asked,” Eg Jensen says. “But they become allies when we can show them that we want to help. For example, they call us and say: ‘I have someone struggling with this and that. How do we help him?’ We team up.”
Can we do more?
Although very successful, the project doesn’t always manage to reach out to as many people as it would like. The number of citizens who use the service can vary significantly from week to week because of their precarious situation.
“They know that we are there every other Wednesday, for example, but sometimes there are many people and sometimes not. Their situation doesn’t allow them to plan more than five minutes ahead. But that makes it difficult for us to plan our resources,” laments Kildahl Brouer.
The Aarhus team is also considering expanding their offer and involving other departments so that they can fix more issues on the spot.
And if your city is working on digitising more and more services, Eg Jensen says: “It’s great, and there are a lot of benefits from this, but you need to bear in mind that there will always be a group that cannot access them. You need other options for them so they are not left behind. You can’t make a solution that fits everyone. It’s not possible.”