Governments are lagging behind companies in their digital services. This matters because citizen expectations are set by their experiences as consumers.

The brands that are winning now offer personalised digital experiences that anticipate users’ needs – think of Netflix recommendations of what to watch, or the Starbucks app that knows when you’ll want a coffee. Brands have also stopped expecting consumers to come to them, but instead are finding them on their platform of choice, be it WeChat or Amazon.

Doing business with the government will increasingly feel like hard work in comparison. So the next generation of digital government services will be personalised brand experiences – a model I call ‘’

Four big shifts will get us from the services we’re building today, to the services we’ll need tomorrow. These are shifts in engagement, offer, focus and optimization.

1. From functionality to feelings


First, we need to change our understanding of the business we’re in. Today, the focus is functionality – the ambition is to build online services and transactions that work. In the next generation, the ambition moves to feelings. We’ll be in the business of creating relationships between citizens and their public services.

Why? As more public services go online, we will move beyond mostly ‘transactional’ services and into more sensitive, intimate areas of people’s lives. And to roll out digital services at scale, we’ll need to convince citizens who feel less confident – both about digital and about the state – to access public services online.

To make that work, we need to offer experiences that are appropriate to the emotional context. For example, I want different experiences when I’m paying my taxes, registering the death of a loved one, or getting advice from my doctor. And my grandmother may want a very different digital experience to me.

Let’s face it – feelings, emotions and relationships are not in the natural repertoire of most government digital services today. That is why brand experience is a useful framework for governments to borrow from marketers. It describes the way an experience makes the user feel, from the look and feel to the tone of voice to the interaction.

To understand the difference between brand experience and functionality, think about buying a pair of trousers on Amazon, compared to buying a pair of trousers on a luxury site such as Net-a-Porter. The functionality is identical – browse, select, pay, arrange delivery. But the brand experience is very different. Amazon feels transactional – the aim is to get a good deal and get out quickly. Prices and reviews guide decisions. Net-A-Porter feels stylish, luxurious, a treat. Editorial fashion content guides decisions. Both are examples of best-in-class digital brand experiences. But they are different because the Amazon shopper needs something different to the Net-a-Porter shopper.

So as we move services online, we need to stop asking ourselves simply, ‘Does it work?’ but also ‘How does it make people feel?’

2. From transactions to experiences

The second shift is to integrate government’s own digital platforms into the wider digital ecosystem through social media, advertising, eCRM, apps and devices.

This is particularly important when people need to be motivated to engage with government, as is often the case for behaviour change programmes.

We must start by understanding where government digital services fit into people’s lives. Of the time we spend thinking about our weight or our pension, only a small fraction is likely to be spent on a government site.

At the moment, governments are focused on building their own platforms. The danger is that we build an archipelago of beautiful islands, then leave citizens to swim between them. The result will be disappointing uptake. Nobody lands on a government website from nowhere – user journeys start and end long before and after citizens use the government service.

In the generation of digital public services, citizens will move seamlessly between the government’s own platforms and social media, email and messenger apps and online content. Digital marketing tools will be used to predict what citizens need, when and where best to reach them, and which content is most likely to make a difference. This will enable the right services to reach the right people at the right times, driving better engagement and better outcomes.

For example, governments can use programmatic media buying to target personalised messages to specific people and the times and places most likely to make a difference. In this campaign, for example, young Australians posting images of sunbathing on social media get an instant response from a new ‘friend’ called melanoma.

In the UK, messages reminding students to register to vote were targeted only to phones on university campuses. Since people who have recently moved house are at risk of being missed from the electoral roll, messages about voter registration were targeted to people searching online for terms associated with moving house such as removals, home refurbishments or utility suppliers.

3. From user centricity to personalization

The third shift is from user centricity to personalisation. By optimising at the level of the individual, rather than all users, we can achieve significant improvements in outcomes.

There is no shortage of technology and use cases for personalisation. Citizens experience personalised content every day, from online stores recommending products, to apps responding to location, to targeted advertising. Yet in the public sector, personalisation remains a rarity.

Most digital touchpoints can be personalised in some way. Websites, online advertising, email, apps, wearable devices and search results can all be tailored to individual characteristics.

Health is probably the area where personalisation can have the most immediate and powerful impact. As obesity levels rise, getting citizens to take more exercise is a priority across the region. But motivating people to walk that extra block or go for a run needs the right intervention at the right moment. A personalised service would know when you are free (by syncing with a calendar), where you are, the weather and your typical exercise routine (from a smart watch or FitBit type product). So we can send a personalised message at the right time to trigger that extra run.

By serving the citizens who can this way, governments can re-allocate budgets towards more resource intensive, offline service for the digitally excluded.

4. From manual to automated


Personalisation itself is automated, driven by algorithms which use artificial intelligence to interpret signals and to automatically create personalised content. This is the fourth and final shift towards a change from manual to automated optimisation.

Agile allows teams to quickly improve UX in response to user feedback. A sprint of a couple of weeks is a huge improvement on the months it used to take to make improvements in legacy systems.

But the next generation of digital public services will optimise automatically as well as manually. In addition to UX and deep user insight, these systems will use machine learning to continuously analyse data on their own performance and to tweak their algorithms for constant, iterative improvement.

Making a reality

So if the future is personalised brand experiences, who is going to build them? People who understand why human beings think, feel and behave the way they do; and people who can shape the stories and conversations that inspire them. These are the skills of marketers and communicators. The governments who put these skills at the heart of their digital service teams will lead the way in the next wave of transformation.

Change must start to happen immediately. There is an argument that there is less of a driver to change because government is a monopoly and citizens can’t shop around. But any government who cares about citizen engagement knows that trust is built and lost in the digital space.

“Trust is built and lost in the digital space”

Government digital services compete for citizens’ time, attention and motivation, all of which are becoming ever scarcer. Citizens may not have a choice about who they pay their taxes to, but they do have a choice about whether they engage with government policy to change their behaviour.

Digital has huge potential to help citizens to live healthier lifestyles, make sensible financial decisions, reduce their impact on the environment – but only if the experiences are good enough to win their share of screen time and head space.

There is no doubt that the digital services that governments are building today will be better and more efficient than what they replace. But they will not be able to deliver better social outcomes through behaviour change, or to build citizen trust and engagement, unless they embrace personalised digital brand experiences.

Which country will be the first to The race is on.

Laura Citron is Managing Director of WPP’s Government & Public Sector Practice. @LauraCitron,

The full report on the next generation of digital public services is available to download here .