Are citizens finally customers?

DirectGovI was in Japan last month (fascinating county, would love to go back and spend more time there) where I spent a week with the local Microsoft team and with Bill Edwards from CSTransform (formerly Gov3).

Bill was the UK e-Communications Director under Tony Blair's government and was responsible for the original UK Online portal and the now far more successful DirectGov portal.  He was part of the team that designed the business model for DirectGov which has lead to it being the most successful eGovernment portal in Europe by quite some way.  I enjoyed not only his sense of humour, but also his wealth of experience in delivering successful eGovernment projects from a business/political rather than technical viewpoint.  There was one comment he made which really rang true for me.

Governments for years have called citizens ‘consumers’, and tried to treat them in the same way that commercial companies have.  However in reality citizens are not consumers; I pay my tax not because I want too, but because I have too. Citizens have little choice in the government services they consume, unlike with a more traditional business where there is a wide choice of competing products and ways of purchasing them.

However that all changes with eGovernment.  As a citizen I now have a choice in the way that I consume government services.  I can consume services electronically, or I can continue to consume services offline in the way I have done for decades.  Citizens will not move online just because online services are there.  Citizens will only move online when the overall experience of dealing with the government online is better than dealing with it through more traditional channels.  In the same way people will buy goods online only if they offer a better overall experience (cost, convenience, etc) than going to traditional bricks and mortar stores.

Governments need to start using the same techniques as commercial companies do to ensure that their online services offer a more compelling experience than their offline channels.