A week ago the Center for Digital Government handed out their awards for Government Experience. Normally I'd focus an article like this on the winning state or deep dive into the main contenders of the Government to Business category (which I may still do!)

But today I'd like to look instead at the third place state: Arkansas. But why?

The reason is simple, I can't work out why they scored the figurative bronze medal.

Especially when their external service provider breaks every rule in Government to Business digital strategy and service delivery.

What happens when you hand over the keys to the castle

Like a number of state and federal government websites, the Arkansas government has outsourced responsibility for managing their web presence to an external company. There's nothing wrong with that provided:

  • The relationship between government and service provider works well
  • It delivers efficiencies to government
  • It fosters a more entrepreneurial business environment and most importantly,
  • Provides a better customer experience and delivers enhanced benefits to the customer

Generally speaking Arkansas' provider ticks the first half of those boxes. Their government clients often renew the relationship and the funding model supposedly doesn't cost Arkansas a cent.

The trouble unfortunately is when business customers come up against government websites developed and run by private providers whose experience is firmly in the citizen - and not business customer - space, and where they have no financial incentive to create an environment that supports economic development.

Arkansas' provider cites on their website just three business-centric examples: two document filing systems for business intenders and operators, and one pretty standard checklist for businesses. The multitude of other case studies are citizen focused.

This should automatically make any government organization responsible for the business customer experience to at least raise an eyebrow.

And if you have hopes that a thin government portal is going to save the day, with its blend of citizen and business services lumped together, you'll be sorely disappointed.

Why thin government portals don't work for business customers

In a media statement circulated about Arkansas' third place, it highlights a number of reasons for their success: arkansas.gov, the beta for the new arkansas.gov and Gov2Go.

I'd like to start looking at the thin portal concept in place for Arkansas.gov.

Arkansas.gov

Like all good thin government portals they have a beautiful front end, and often give business customers a whiff of success. For example, Arkansas' homepage has two clear calls to action above the page fold: one in the navigation bar, the other below the hero shot with three audience segmentations: parents and families, citizens and business owners (although I would've thought parents and families were by default citizens!)

After mousing over Business owners, a well functioning pop up appears with more options. At this point I thought Arkansas.gov rocked!

But unfortunately - at least from a business customer perspective - this was dashed quickly.

For starters I took a second look at those navigation functions for business owners: they were all focused around service transactions.

Now I am all for the enablement of online transactions between government and business. Its where a big chunk of efficiencies are derived. And that surprisingly is the problem.

The financial model in place between Arkansas and the service provider sounds too good to be true: no charge to the government.

How does the provider run a profit? They place fees, often around $5 per transaction whenever customers need to pay the government for a service. So what incentive does that create?

A government portal or website that looks great. But is jam packed and excessively focused on online transactions so the provider makes a profit. Meanwhile the core information and support functions - as they can't be charged for - are neglected.

And what does that mean to the customer? I think in America they have a term for it: a bum steer.

The deterioration of the customer experience once you go beyond the wafer thin veneer is quick.  Here is an example page (they're all pretty much the same) of a Arkansas.gov business page: nothing more than a scattered collection of links off to transaction sites.

Arkansas.gov business page

No well structured customer-centric information architecture. No customer journeys joining together services across government organizations into a single integrated experience. No plain-English guidance or support to help Arkansas businesses start, grow and employ.

And what is going on with their quality assurance when a landing page says "This is content here"?

Disappointing that without any of that, you can still take 3rd place on the national stage!

Maybe the beta will be better for business?

In short, no. It's actually worse.

Its a lot harder to now find information for business owners. The previous three audience segments are gone. You can now only find the business section of the site lumped in with citizen topics.

Arkansas.gov Beta

But when you get to that new page on initial glance it looks great and succinct. Well chunked up and simple looking content.

Then you read it.  And then you shake your head.

Arkansas Beta - Business page

  • Again, no business customer focused information architecture. Links are organized around online transactions to turn a profit for the provider, not what the customer needs
  • Poor choice of language - telling businesses they should get a custom citizen timeline will go down badly with business owners. Research with business customers proves that time and time again
  • By concentrating on transactional services, the lack of content for businesses is passed over to department sites to deliver on their own dime. That creates a set of new problems as departments generally take a siloed view of the business customer. Plus those government agencies have to maintain the staff to write and manage that content, which prevents government from better using resources and realizing optimal benefits
  • By taking this path, again, it means businesses in Arkansas coming to the portal still can't find easy to understand guidance on starting or running their business. Which can only mean some businesses aren't discovering what they need, stunting growth and employment opportuntites.

Third time a charm?

According to the media release promoting Arkansas' third place, the final pillar of their success is the Gov2Go app.

Again, this sounds promising: an app that sends you reminders whenever your payments and transactions with government are coming due. Brilliant.

And once more it is visually appealing:

Gov2Go

But again, the experience is left wanting for business owners:

  • The language again ignores business owners. The media release promotes this as a "citizen-centric digital government assistant" while the Arkansas.gov homepage promotes it helping with your "civic duties"
  • The examples used are again citizen focused, leaving business once again ignored, and
  • While the branding sounds like it is coming from government, it again is run and managed by the same service provider. Not a single government logo, let alone a .gov domain

What five things you can do if engaging a digital service provider

  • Ensure the relationship between government and service provider is a true partnership, but it is clear that Government is the client.
  • Service providers need to manage their risk to make a profit, not be guaranteed a cash-cow that focuses Government's digital offering solely on transactions
  • The partner should be able to demonstrate deep experience and expertise in digital service delivery for business including customer focused content development that supports a more entrepreneurial business environment
  • They can demonstrate that the work they have done provides a better customer experience and delivers enhanced benefits to the business customer and government
  • By making sure the focus is on the business customer and their needs, you're guaranteed to avoid a one-size-fits-all government portal strategy. Your business customers don't want to be lost in a jumble of citizen services.