A view from Sue Unerman

Don't fix the problem, eliminate the cause of it

Since the launch of the Government Digital Service in 2012, there has been a significant improvement in government-related online services.

Try applying for a driving licence online – you’ll be shocked at how easy it is. In total, there have been more than two billion visits to the sites that GDS has helped to build since its inception.

Recently, the GDS held its annual round-up of progress and achievement: Sprint 16. I am part of GDS’s Digital Advisory Board and so had the opportunity to learn about current projects. More than anything else, this event reflected the need for different teams, different internal cultures and different skillsets to work together. The new executive director, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, prioritises the necessity for everyone across government to work together to fulfil users’ needs (rather than the needs of the government).

There are analogies with the world of marketing. For a start, we are all working to abolish siloes and ensure we get specialist functions to work together without diminishing their expertise. In marketing, there’s an overriding need to focus on the customer's needs – it is often a struggle to deliver the seamless experience that the customer wants and expects from companies that were set up with very different business models from today.

For example, most customers expect to be able to buy what they want, at the best price, when they want it and by any method. This can be a challenge for a bricks-and-mortar business, where online shopping ends up costing the company money. at the same time, customers do not want cheap prices to diminish good customer service.

There are two ways to solve this problem. You can staff up and train customer service teams to be better. Or you can try to eliminate the need for anyone to call you at all.

Speaking recently on this topic, Neil Clitheroe, the chief executive of retail and generation at Scottish Power, said: "If customers feel the need to call us, there’s a customer service failure… We constantly ask ourselves: why could the customer not complete what they were doing online?"

It is an interesting way of looking at the situation. It places the emphasis on eliminating the need for customer service rather than developing it.

At Sprint 16, GDS representatives spoke about using the same approach to transform government services online. There’s an ongoing problem with people calling 999 unnecessarily – do you hire more call handlers or create another ad campaign to explain when is appropriate to call 999? GDS is, instead, working to fix call log jams for the police by introducing online reporting of minor crimes. It is also developing the capacity to plead guilty for minor crimes online so that you can pay your fine without taking up valuable time in court.

Don’t fix the problem, eliminate the cause. It can be harder but it’s the only way to really move forward.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom