How to support the development of user-centric digital public services

Blog post
Maarit Halttunen,
Hannamaija Tuovila

User-centricity should be the core value in public digital services, but not all European cities have yet the skills to develop those services with user-driven emphasis. It is thus essential to find the effective ways to support cities and their local authorities in user-centric service development. We argue, that peer-to-peer support is the best way to boost general understanding about various tools and methods for user-centric service development, to answer the needs of the cities in engaging citizens, enhancing user-centric mindset and adopting the principles of design thinking.

Altogether 32 European countries have committed to the vision put forward in Tallinn Declaration on digital government and its principles for user-centricity (2017): 

“Public administration strives to be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, interoperable, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services to all citizens and businesses – at all levels of public administration.”

Currently, however, the availability of support and utilization of tools and methods for designing user centric digital public services in local governments varies. Some cities are very advanced in utilizing a variety of tools, whereas some would need more support in finding suitable tools and creating practices for user centric development. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of tools developed particularly for public sector and especially for local authorities. Having access to suitable tools for user-centric service development supports the cities in their service design in general, but also provides guidance on how user-centricity can be taken as the starting point for services in public sector. The differences exist mainly due to various stages the cities currently are in developing user-centric services; some of them are more experienced than others.

Four points to consider in user centric service development

What are the main needs the cities have for the development of user centric services in general and for the related tools in particular? Where do they need support the most and where tools and methods could help them? VTT is a part of UserCentriCities, a Horizon 2020 -project, where several workshops have been arranged to discuss about the challenges in the development of user-centric public services.  Based on these discussions with the representatives of local governments from several European cities four special needs were identified: 

1. Enhancing a user-centric mindset in all development processes

  • Adopting a continuous improvement mindset rather than a project mindset in service development.

2. Engaging users at all stages of the development 

  • Utilizing co-creation and participatory methods that engage actual users at all stages of the development, such as empathic and predictive design. 
  • Adopting a more holistic and systemic viewpoint in the development that includes all stakeholders

3. Adopting the principles of design thinking in the development processes and enforcing the design guidelines

  • Making user-centric design and design thinking a standard in the toolbox

4. Gaining a general understanding about the tools

  • Understanding how to adjust and apply the best tools for a certain case.
  • Adopting and adjusting simple tools that can also be utilized by non-experts 

Peer-to-peer support and -learning for the cities

We argue that peer-to-peer support is one of the best ways to support cities in tackling the needs above. It is especially fruitful when the actors are in the different stage of the development. Sharing the best-practices and lessons learnt, gives the cities support on how to become more user-centric and enhances the development of user-centric public digital services. Furthermore, it increases understanding on where the tools can and should be applied and on which purposes. Ultimately, it can also enhance the user-centric mindset and culture among local authorities.

Providing peer-to-peer support is also one objective of UserCentriCities and during the project it has proved to be successful among the participating cities. In the project, a user-centric services repository, benchmarking dashboard and a service design toolkit directed to public sector have been developed to support the cities in their user centric design of services. All these are freely utilizable in the project webpages. We believe that the developed tools together with the workshops and other discussion forums, are good steps towards wider understanding of user-centricity and the adopting of the principles of Tallinn Declaration in all European cities. 

About the UserCentriCities project: 

UserCentriCities is a Horizon 2020 project that started in December 2020. UCCs aims at supporting the cities to reach the goals of the Tallinn declaration and to move towards user centric digital services. The project is led by the Lisbon Council in partnership with Eurocities and VTT, bringing together 23 European municipalities and regions. The amount of participating cities is constantly increasing, which indicates the importance of user-centricity in public services. 

More information:

Maarit Halttunen
Maarit Halttunen
Hannamaija Tuovila
Hannamaija Tuovila
Research Scientist
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