New technologies such as smartphones, tablets and social media channels are fundamentally changing the way that people in the MENA region interact and process information. Additionally, prices for mobile technology continue to drop, making these platforms more accessible to lower-income segments of the population. Faced with this new reality, governments must urgently change the way they connect with their citizens and customers.
After all, failing to take advantage of new technologies can leave their populations disaffected and disengaged, with a belief that their government does not speak with them in meaningful ways or understand their needs. Conversely – and according to the management consulting firm Booz & Company – the effective use of mobile apps can increase engagement and communication between citizens and governments, empowering citizens and creating stronger and more satisfied societies.
THE MOBILE APP: AN UNDENIABLE IMPERATIVE
A recent study by Google shows that smartphone penetration in many countries has reached unprecedented levels. Leading the pack is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at 73.8 percent, closely followed by South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, all with penetration levels in excess of 70 percent. In parallel, prices for mobile technology have significantly decreased in recent years.
In line with this, many private-sector companies – that do not want to risk losing customers to their more digitally-savvy competitors – are relying more heavily on mobile apps to interact with their target audience. And, although they do not face competitive pressures from alternate service providers, the risks for governments are just as stark.
Some policymakers may point to the e-government portals that launched over the past few years and ask why they are no longer sufficient. There are three main reasons. First, the very feature that once distinguished the portals now works against them; they contain so much information and so many services, which can be overwhelming. Second, government portals
can be labyrinthine, and so confuse rather than help citizens. Third, Web portals are impractical on smartphones, due to the smaller screens and limited browsing capability. As a result, some e-government portals are already seeing declining usage rates for some of their listed e-services.
“By contrast, mobile apps offer several advantages,” said Ramez T. Shehadi, a Partner with Booz & Company. “Specifically, they are always on. They are highly personal and have intuitive interfaces that require no explanation or instructions. They also contain information that users can access even when they are offline. And, they can take advantage of the broad array of functions and tools now routinely built into smartphones.”
Shehadi also added, “Perhaps most important, apps are typically limited in scope and designed to meet a set of precise needs, making them uniquely fit for purpose and highly appealing to users.”
As a result, mobile e-government apps can help governments deliver services more efficiently and effectively. They can drive the adoption rates of e-services by making them more accessible and easier to use. They also have the potential to generate financial benefits for governments –by delivering services in a more cost-effective manner and by letting governments reduce costly channels and less popular ones. By encouraging citizens to pay their bills on time, mobile e-government apps can also lead to improved revenue collection.
“There are benefits for citizens as well – namely more transparency and greater satisfaction with government services, spurring increased participation in civic life,” explained Dr. Raymond Khoury, a Partner with Booz & Company. “For society at large, a push to build a digital ecosystem can increase a region’s technological prowess and create jobs in the field of digital technologies.”
The UAE government, for example, has recognized this shift and has sought to get ahead of it. In a recent speech, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, declared that he wanted all government services to be offered through mobile applications and accessible around the clock by 2015. UAE officials that fail to meet this goal could face dismissal.
As policymakers around the globe undertake a large-scale effort to deliver as many services as possible through e-government apps, they should keep the real objective in mind. The goal is greater than simply developing the largest number of apps in the least amount of time. Rather, the ultimate aim is to engage citizens by making the delivery of government services faster and easier. Deploying a large number of problematic apps could be counterproductive and may discourage the uptake of future apps.
“To avoid these missteps, policymakers should make a deliberate effort to design e-government apps that are as engaging and user-friendly as possible, borrowing approaches that have already proved successful in private-sector apps,” stated Fady Kassatly, a Principal with Booz & Company. “Payment functionality is a good example. The most successful payment apps share several common attributes: they are very simple, convenient and designed with the customer experience in mind.”
Three Mechanisms to Optimize Engagement
In developing e-government apps that can lead to greater citizen engagement, agencies and policymakers should consider three mechanisms that have a proven track record in the private sector: loyalty programs, gamification, and social media.
· Loyalty Programs: Also known as affinity programs, they provide incentives that reward customers and citizens for frequent use of e-government services through apps. The actual incentives can vary widely. For example, participants who use a government bill-payment app may be eligible for a prize drawing. Discounts are another type of loyalty incentive – citizens who pay a number of bills online can qualify for a lower payment. Another variation is a points system, similar to airline miles, in which participants accumulate points for executing transactions through a specific app and can later redeem them for discounts on government products or services.
· Gamification: The second mechanism to increase engagement with mobile e-government apps is gamification. “The aim is to introduce a sense of fun to seemingly mundane tasks, by tapping into the psychological drive in people to pursue rewards, achieve goals, advance to higher status levels, and compete”, Kassatly said. For example, citizens could gain points by using an app to pay bills, report local issues such as faulty traffic lights, refer their friends to digital services, and post feedback about their experience. Also, they could lose points for negative behaviors like late payments or traffic violations.
· Social Media: Third, the rapid growth of social media makes it a key mechanism for governments to engage with the public. Facebook now has more than 1.2 billion users globally, LinkedIn has over 225 million, and Twitter over 500 million. All three are set to continue to grow. In the UAE, approximately 1.8 million people follow H.H. Sheikh Mohammed , and his Facebook page has 831,000 “likes.” In the context of e-government apps, social media can be layered onto the other two mechanisms – loyalty programs and gamification – to make them even more engaging.
CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS
All three of these mechanisms share several requirements – in particular that the apps be intuitive and easy to use. “The interface must be simple enough that the average person can figure it out on the first try with no external guidance,” said Dr. Khoury. “If not, the app is too complicated. In addition, the underlying code must be bug-free and reliable.”
Developing apps at this level of sophistication requires skills that some government entities may not possess. They may not have the ability to code and develop, or apply game principles, introduce payment systems, or build a network of external retail partners that can provide incentives.
“Given this challenge, governments should consider developing an ecosystem that leverages the power of central government, the expertise of sectorial agencies, and the capabilities of the private sector to develop more engaging apps,” explained Shehadi. “Specifically, the central government should focus on broader areas like building a loyalty program and developing guidelines for gamification and social media. Governments should also create a government app store to host all developed government apps.”
Given the platform nature of some app functions, central government should build foundational enablers for these functions, along with apps that touch on national priorities and cut across different sectors. Individual agencies should focus on developing sector-specific apps based on the sectorial priorities that they are driving.
Finally, the private sector can be a positive engine of innovation. “If central governments make their data open and accessible to all, then the private sector can use this data to develop innovative apps across different government sectors at no cost for government,” said Kassatly. “Such open data initiatives would encourage participation by the broader digital ecosystem, creating jobs and value. The private sector can also be involved in central government foundational projects through public-private partnership.”