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AfricaMoney | September 22, 2017

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Tech ExpertSpeak: Mauritius putting user at the centre of e-governance

Tech ExpertSpeak: Mauritius putting user at the centre of e-governance

Roo Reynolds, product manager, UK Government Digital Service, spoke to AfricaMoney of his take on the digitization of public services in Mauritius.

Roo Reynolds, product manager, UK Government Digital Service, spoke to AfricaMoney on how the government of Mauritius, just like the UK government, is putting the user at the centre of e-governance. Our tech expert spoke of sharing his experiences as a product manager of the UK government site, and finding an echo in terms of how Mauritius is moving to a common platform (www.gov.mu) for all its public services.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Mauritius was ranked first in Sub-Saharan Africa by the World Economic Forum for using ICT to develop its economy. As a digital expert and, after discussions with relevant stakeholders in Mauritius over the last 2 days, what impression do you carry of the technology scape of the island economy?

Honestly, I was impressed by the high state of development of the island economy not only in the ICT domain but across sectors. In UK, and across Europe, the perception of Mauritius is more of a holiday destination and the rest of the economy is not showcased quite as well as the tourism sector. Looking at how well the economy is doing, I think it is time to publicize the successful efforts of Mauritius in diversifying its economy.

Coming to ICT, I can speak with confidence on the public domain and how well the e-governance strategy is working out in Mauritius. Having interacted in depth with the Prime Minister and the ICT Minister, besides other high ranking members of the cabinet over the last few days, I carry an overwhelmingly positive impression of the way the digitization of public services is proceeding. Just to show how well the digitization of public services is working in Mauritius, I learnt during the digital workshop that over 90% of tax payers have moved to e-filing in 2014 – which is a major milestone by any stretch. The digital workshop organized by Emtel was also a great forum to interact with important stakeholders from the ICT domain and Emtel did an amazing job of pulling off an event on such a grand scale.

Incidentally, island nations appear to be leading Sub-Saharan Africa in leveraging ICT for economic development, with Mauritius and Seychelles ranked first and second respectively in the region. UK and Mauritius both being island nations, do you feel that there are certain common learnings in ICT that can be applied across the two countries?

Yes, most certainly. Getting the opportunity of sharing my experiences as a product manager of the UK government site, and finding an echo in terms of how Mauritius is moving to a common platform (www.gov.mu) for all its public services, was a great experience. It also served to show me how the government of Mauritius is putting the user at the centre of its services, which is incidentally also a cornerstone of the UK government’s attempts to makeits website (www.gov.uk) more search friendly, and overall, more user friendly.

This ambition in itself is great, and what makes it even better is that the roll-out is also proceeding smoothly. The government of Mauritius is genuinely keen and excited about delivering services to the public in a digital domain. As one of the ministers said, the e-governance wave is not about merely a digital transition of public services, but an attempt to transform government services altogether.

To give an instance of how we in the UK government have been approaching these services, we have been working on many ambitious new projects to turn inefficient, outdated and entirely paper-based government services into cutting-edge digital ones. We have identified 25 exemplar services, of which the most far-reaching influence will be that of the register to vote e-service. We believe that as many as 45 million people will benefit from the digitization of register to vote. Also, just to highlight our focus on the digitization of public services, we now have a rule that any project proposed for the public domain must be supported by a working model that proves it is capable of being digitized. That in itself, more than anything else, supports our single-minded focus on moving services to the digital domain for ease of use.

Similarly, here in Mauritius, the government has identified 13 priority services, and expressed willingness to extend digitization to other public services too, basis their experience and user feedback received in these areas. And, just like in the UK, the register to vote e-service is one of the priority areas for the government of Mauritius too.

Are there any challenges you faced in transitioning services to the digital domain? Any project in particular that you’d like to bring to our attention?

Certain challenges do arise, since in the course of this digital transformation, we not only look at how the service can best be digitized, but also question the existing processes and procedures for implementing the service.

For instance, one of the projects we have been looking at is for the Office of the Public Guardian. It handles the process of setting up lasting power of attorney for people who, for one reason or another, need someone else to take over the handling of their financial and legal affairs. For this service, we have queried the rationale for a wet signature, where the original document is required and the signature currently has to be made with wet ink.

Going back to policy makers and secondary legislation to find out why the wet signature is required and to find a way around the same, was a challenge we willingly took up to make the service more convenient and relevant to users.

At the end of it all, asking questions of convention allows us to meet user needs rather than setting up a service that will be wasted because users do not find it useful, or find it too cumbersome to avail of it.

2014 is said to be the year of Digital Marketing Analytics, according to Forbes. How far, as the Product Manager of the UK’s Government Digital Service, do you think analytics is an important ingredient for a successful digital marketing campaign?

Incidentally, how to use analytics to improve services is one of the first examples I used in my presentation here in Mauritius, to show how the UK government is monitoring its services and proactively soliciting user feedback. For instance, in the UK, we are aware that over 70% of our users come from Google. That learning was important for us, as it formed a critical building block for improving the search process on the site. Moreover, as many as 34% of our users, and growing, are using mobile devices to access our services.

Monitoring trends in users is important for us, because we have more than 10 million unique users per week and improving user experience is essential to keep traffic coming to the site. Knowing how long users spend on a page, what is the page they were looking for, how long they took to reach the page that was relevant to them, among others, are important parameters for judging user experience. Further, we need to drill deeper into the numbers – for instance, if a user spends too long on a page, it may indicate that the user could not figure out how to navigate deeper into the website to a relevant page, or, if a user spends too short a time on a page, it may indicate that the user did not find that page useful and immediately navigated away.

Accordingly, to ensure that we gather as much relevant feedback from users as possible, every page on the gov.uk site has a feedback box. There is a ‘Is there anything wrong with this page?’ link at the bottom of every page, which redirects to the feedback form. Besides, we not only try to monitor individual feedback but also try to establish trends in user feedback, to improve site experience across a majority of the public.

Also, agile development, which has been popular with private sector companies for quite some time now, is a software development model that we are now successfully applying in the public domain. Agile development is based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Thus in our case, there is a focus on continuously soliciting feedback from users to continuously improve user experience basis multiple iterations of the site basis user feedback. Moreover, we collaborate across multiple teams in the government, for instance in the tax payment domain, where each state has a separate tax collection unit, and we liaise with them for ensuring consistent user experience across different states.

Before working in the government services, you have been looking at software. How far do you feel a technology background is critical for handling digital assets?

It depends on the role that one is undertaking in the digital domain. Needless to say, for a developer, having a technology background is essential. But for someone who is helping support a digital project from a management perspective, like I am doing presently for the UK government, a technical background is not a must-have. However, it does help to have an affinity for the web as a digital user, and to have aptitude as well as interest as a digital user. To be able to smell out a badly designed or clumsily executed website is important, to be able to avoid making mistakes on your own website. For roles like user analytics, which essentially deal with how users interact with a website and how the ease of navigation on a website affects user experience, a heavy user of the web will do just as well, and a technical background is by no means necessary.

Having said this, quite a few graphics designers nowadays are interested in learning the basics of coding. It gives confidence to people working in the digital domain to learn how stuff works at the back-end. In fact, what is called ‘in browser’ designing, or designing directly on a web page (as opposed to designing in offline photo designing and editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and then transplanting to a website) is a trend that is now quite popular in the graphic design domain.

Finally, what do you see as the future of social media? Are there any emerging trends that you’d like to highlight?

Well, there is a retro trend that is catching on, and that I’d like to comment on, vis-à-vis the more viral and talked about ones such as micro-blogging, video-blogging, selfies, and the like. And that trend, ironically enough for those who’d written it off as a nineties has-been, is that of writing e-mail newsletters. It is interesting to see the emergence of more closed, intimate and personal social networks perhaps as a counterpoint to the more public social networks such as Twitter etc.

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