Digital transformation in government primarily benefits the government itself; where is the citizen?

By: drs. Joep Janssen RE MIM

Digital transformation is high on the government's digital agenda, known as 'NL Digibeter'. However, we hear little about its impact on government services to citizens. How can you ensure that digital transformation makes citizens' lives easier? Does it prioritize people or government regulations?

Burgers Voorop in Digitale Transformatie: Voorbij Overheidsefficiëntie

What kind of government has the citizen encountered in recent times? In the interaction with the municipality, the Tax and Customs Administration, and other government agencies, did the rule or the human being take center stage? The childcare allowance scandal and the building reinforcement projects in Groningen show that in the jungle of rules and layers of administration, it's often not the individual but the rule or law that takes center stage. Especially in cases of so-called 'multi-problems' like tax debt, welfare benefits, the Social Support Act (Wmo), and personal budgets, citizens are at the mercy of rule-driven (organizational) systems of various government agencies. This also carries the risk of citizens getting lost in the 'MY-environment' that the government has created with various "MY" platforms. This raises questions about whether the human dimension truly takes precedence in policy and whether there is a listening ear at the government's counter. Some citizens cannot or do not want to fill out complex electronic forms and upload supporting documents. They seek help and personal contact. The Scientific Council for Government Policy, the Council of State, Broad Societal Reconsiderations, and the Ombudsman all say the same thing: "Government, please provide personal contact, a single point of contact for all your questions."

Digital transformation is not an end in itself; it should contribute to achieving societal goals. Goals such as:

  1. Everyone can interact or transact with each other and the government safely, reliably, accessibly, user-friendly, comprehensibly, and personally.
  2. Increasing numbers of people can participate in an increasingly digital society because the government, in collaboration with citizens, businesses, and stakeholders, continually optimizes the use of developments in the digital domain that are mature enough.
  3. In this process, we protect fundamental rights and public values. For example, those who do not want or cannot use digital means can also participate and use services in a paper ('analog') way. This should also be possible through personal contact at the counter or by easily authorizing someone else.
  4. Digital transformation in government goes beyond digitizing paper processes. It also involves how the government organizes service delivery and addresses and solves societal problems and citizens' needs. Although 'digital' sounds technical, it's not just about technology; digital transformation is also about a way of looking at the organization of service delivery to citizens and the government processes that support it.

In the government's digital strategy in 'NL Digibeter,' this societal orientation seems distant. NL Digibeter uses technical terms like 're-platforming' and 're-app-ing' when discussing digital transformation. NL Digibeter primarily focuses on how governments cooperate with each other and how the government can contribute to... Contribute to what? The government should explain much more about how it contributes to helping citizens rather than explaining how it organizes its own tasks and responsibilities.

Of course, this isn't the first time that the lack of real focus on citizens has been pointed out. Multiple government investigations and parliamentary committees have indicated that the human dimension needs to return. But if this is to be taken seriously, every policy initiative and project should start with the core question of how much it contributes to societal goals for citizens and only then consider the government's efficiency and the technology to be used.

In major digital transformations, there is typically an examination of whether the government can implement them; this is known as the feasibility assessment. It's high time to demand that the transformation adds value and is usable for citizens; this is known as the usability assessment. Can citizens who are less digitally inclined navigate the multitude of portals and digital forms? This desire has existed for years but has been applied only sparingly. With new government measures, more consideration should be given to the burden these measures place on citizens, and whether the measures are so complex that they can lead to mistakes by citizens. Fortunately, the Tax and Customs Administration has also recognized this and plans to apply such assessments. The Tax and Customs Administration has stated that this citizen perspective is of great importance to them, and they want to better incorporate it into policy development and related legislation. This can only happen if citizens and societal partners are involved in the development of legislation and regulations.

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