A busy professional stands on a corner with an arm stretched out, trying to hail a taxi. Once a common occurrence, that simple exercise is rapidly becoming an antiquated ritual, replaced by mobile phones, seamless apps, and a proliferation of ride-sharing companies and cars. Technology changes our behavior faster than we can imagine, and with those changes come new expectations for how we engage with each other, with businesses, and with the government.   

Americans are increasingly bringing their on-demand, app-enabled expectations to the public sector, seeking a similarly convenient government experience. Nearly all Americans (95 percent) now own cell phones—and a rapidly growing number are becoming dependent on smartphones and tablets. According to nonpartisan organization Pew Research Center, the implications for government communications are profound.

What does serving constituents mean for the government today? How do we compare our access to government services with our access to business platforms like Amazon or Netflix? What technologies show promise for transforming our government digital experience?

This year, to answer these questions, Booz Allen conducted a public survey, asking 1,000 Americans how their experiences with the government compare to their engagement with commercial websites. We wanted to know what more they expect from their digital experience with the government. We conducted the survey with Ipsos, a leading global market and opinion research firm.

Here’s what we learned:

We expect to engage with the government online. More than three-quarters of respondents who recently sought information from the government obtained it through a .gov website.

A modest one in four of those surveyed accessed information from the government in the past 12 months, and those who did read it primarily on government websites. The survey also showed that other ways users sought government information significantly trailed behind government websites. Respondents reported accessing information via mail (24 percent), email (21 percent), and phone (18 percent). This is a marked change from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when callers overwhelmed government call centers, as illustrated by the 2002 Harvard Business Review case study of IRS Transformation. With this shift to online engagement, government leaders must consider their website the digital front doors to their agencies.

It's clear that constituents want the same innovations on government websites that they experience on commercial sites. They want support when they need it—and quickly. When asked to rank how help was best provided, online chat support was a top choice (48 percent), followed by phone (30 percent), and e-mail (16 percent).

We also asked respondents to rank actions that the government could take right now to improve their online experiences. Their top three responses were unsurprising. First, make it easier to find information (56 percent). Second, make support available if needed (46 percent). And third, make it easier to complete all needs online (44 percent).

While those surveyed noted significant opportunities for improvement, they were encouraged by the prospect of improving the government digital experience. More than half of respondents were somewhat or very optimistic that the government digital experience can be improved—good news for government leaders tackling the challenge. Only 15 percent of those surveyed were pessimistic about improving the experience

With these findings in hand, we brought together Booz Allen’s experts to advise government technologists, web designers, and strategists as they envision what’s next for the government digital experience.

Here are their top recommendations:

Remember, It’s Not All About You. When government leaders plan their digital strategy, too often they only consider what information they want to provide to the public, instead of what the public needs. Government digital experiences should focus on the needs of the marketplace, and strategies should be based on potential audience engagement rather than broadcasting directives. The first step toward engagement? Understand your audience—what information and services do they need and want? Leaders need to collect this information through qualitative and quantitative measurements, such as digital analytics, surveys, and focus groups.

Design Digital Experiences with a Citizen-First Approach. We are all accustomed to websites with responsive design, logical navigation, and self-service features. Government technology leaders should build digital experiences with these common commercial site experiences in mind—using industry best practices that make government engagement easier for users. We believe that citizens deserve a Digital Bill of Rights; in other words, a core set of expectations about what the digital experience should be from the government. Later this year, for example, a modernized Recreation.gov will be launched, serving as the model for how the federal government incorporates human-centered design, agile development, cognitive/cloud technologies, and secure DevOps (“DevSecOps”) to transform user experiences. The site will be a one-stop resource for information, trip planning, and reservations for facilities and activities, offered by seven federal agencies. This is the type of experience we believe citizens need and want.

Think Beyond the Agency Construct. Many government websites are based on internal organizational logic, requiring users to understand not only the overall bureaucracy, but in some cases, individual offices. While it makes sense to government leaders who build the sites, the average user has little to no understanding (or may not even care about government structures), and can be easily confused by a maze of acronyms and vaguely worded programs. Building digital experiences that encompass a holistic, services-driven approach based on user needs is crucial for success. We’ve heard it before, and for good reason: Put the customer first. Today, we must put the citizen first. A strong model is Benefits.gov—administered by the U.S. Department of Labor—with connections across the government.

Encourage Commercial Investment in Rapid Government Innovation. The government model for driving information technology (IT) modernization focuses too heavily on long-term modernization contracts, proprietary software code, and government-backed risk. Businesses are ready to invest in technologies that can change how citizens receive services from the government. Government leaders need to work collaboratively to develop partnership opportunities, so businesses can co-invest in innovation and strengthen the way government technology is built.

Create Future-Proof Solutions through Open Technology and Architectures. With over two-thirds of the federal technology budget spent on the maintenance of legacy applications, citizens aren’t benefitting from contemporary technologies and methods. By leveraging open architectures and data principles, solutions become more scalable, allowing for the integration of new data sources and easing adoption of contemporary technologies, like cloud platforms and cognitive solutions.

Optimize the Digital Ecosystem. While the survey focused primarily on how we access information through websites, that’s just one way to engage with government services. Websites should be part of an overall citizen services-based approach that engages people where they are—whether it’s a social media platform, a call center, or other facility. Several agencies are pioneering new forms of engagement, like the Transportation Security Administration’s citizen education-focused (and hilarious) Instagram account or NASA scientists’ engagement on Reddit Ask Me Anything chats. These platforms offer agencies the opportunity to present their brands in a positive, focused light, building a more affirming and productive relationship with constituents. For more information visit boozallen.com/digitalgovernment.

About our research partner Ipsos

Ipsos is a leading global independent market research company that is passionately curious about people, markets, brands, and society. They make our changing world easier and faster to navigate and inspire clients to make smarter decisions. Ipsos delivers research with security, speed, simplicity, and substance. For more information, please visit ipsos.com.