The objectives of this issue are as follows:
Identify ways to facilitate the deployment, delivery and availability of multi-channel services by governments: Identify any gaps to be filled in creating a complete suite of standards to enable services that can be located, accessed and consumed by all potential users, through different networks, terminal devices or platforms and interfaces, satisfying quality and security conditions.
Gather information about best practices in multi-channel delivery of public services.
What is Multi-Channel Delivery?
Channels are different means used by service providers to interact with and deliver services to their user community. Multi-channel service delivery is the provision of services through different networks, terminal devices or platforms and interfaces, in an integrated and coordinated way, with comparable levels of user friendliness.
Governments, like other sectors, also interact with citizens through different channels, from the traditional ones such as the counter or face-to-face and postal delivery to the electronic channels such as Internet web-sites, e-mail, SMS-messaging, fixed phone, mobile phone, interactive voice response systems, digital television, fax, self-service terminals (ATMs), etc. Governments also have challenges in relation to the elimination of barriers in the access to their services and in relation to the provision of choices about how to access their information and services.
Mobile devices, digital TV and others are opening new ways of interaction between citizens and governments, so that electronic services are no longer limited to the PC. This is possible thanks to the evolution of terminal devices with better features in terms of processing capacity, memory, power autonomy, screen size and quality, on one side and to the improvement of networks, protocols and mark-up languages on the other side.
Industry and citizens are getting used to these new electronic channels taking advantage of their possibilities and new services and there is an expectation that governments may be able to do the same.
These new electronic channels require the adoption of new architectures and systems able to provide the top of their functionalities.
The Web is a main channel to access government services permanently available and it should be possible to offer the citizens such services through any device incorporating Internet access. This would allow a significant increase in the usage of government services by means of any kind of widespread channels such as PDA,s, smartphones, WAP, WebTV, and others; in this way the access to government services would be really anyhow, anywhere, anytime through mobile devices.
Governments should clearly prioritize distribution and accessibility options which do not pose barriers which would result decrease the amount of information distribution. At the same time some consideration to disabled users, users without high bandwidth and high cost devices, as well as devices, platforms and websites with smaller audiences should be taken for high priority information as well as possible on-demand conversion services. A low-barrier method which could serve as a base from which to achieve these accomodations would be a central text-based multimedia index feed containing hyperlinks to content in open formats. This feed would be searchable from both text based mobile and internet browsers and contain context information which would allow replication of the content posting which were created on non-government websites by government officials.
What Public Policy Outcomes are Related to Multi-Channel Delivery?
Multi-channel policies developed by governments generally address the following goals:
Facilitating e-Inclusion, avoiding digital divide and reaching the disadvantaged citizens. For instance, the Lisbon Ministerial Declaration [MD-LISBON] refers to multi-channel delivery in relation to inclusive eGovernment. Also, the ICT PSP work programme 2009 [EC-CIP] focus the multi-channel service delivery to the socially disadvantaged and opens this entry explaining that one third of the European population is currently considered socially disadvantaged, most of it suffering from multiple difficulties leading to social exclusion (economic, physical, cultural, geographical factors etc.).
A closer government to the citizens, providing transparency and openness and expanding citizen participation in public policy decision making. The Obama administration's memo on Transparency and Open Government [OB-MEMO] emphasizes these questions. Also it is an issue in the the Lisbon Ministerial Declaration [MD-LISBON].
Making available egovernment services to large part of the population. This is specially interesting in countries with low computer penetration as explained in the case of the “Multi-channel Citizen Service Centers in Greece” [EV-PAPA]. It has to be taken into account the world wide expansion of mobile networks and the forecast that by the end of 2010 there may be four billion people in the world with access to a mobile phone.
Expanding citizen´s choice, extending and providing citizen centric and personalized services; also referred in [EC-CIP].
Multi-channel delivery of government services in support to the process of combined service delivery across different administrations, also referred in [EC-CIP].
Reusing data and applications independently from the channel, reducing the costs of providing services, included in policies oriented to efficiency and effectiveness.
What are the Main Benefits of Multi-Channel Delivery?
Main benefits of multi-channel delivery may be for the user community and for the service provider:
An increase of flexibility in terms of anytime, anywhere, anyhow and accessibility for the user.
An increase of the choice according to the user´s preferences; access to the same information and services through different channels.
Wider usage and impact of government services; a higher population or user community reached by government services.
Cost savings along the delivery chain for the service provider.
Quicker deployment of services through new or additional channels which may provide easy, accurate and personalized content delivery.
Integration of government services in the front-office.
How Can Multi-Channel Delivery Be Achieved?
Developing a multi-channel strategy.
As a starting point governments develop strategies so that the access to their Web sites may be available through mobile devices offering more choice to citizens. More global approaches design strategies which combine face to face offices, call centers and web sites, as in the case of the multichannel initiative consisting in a website (www.060.es), a network of offices (more than 1.600 in March 2009), and a telephone number in Spain [Red060] and the Multi-channel Citizen Service Centers in Greece [EV-PAPA], with equivalent experiences to this one in other countries.
The study about “Multi-channel delivery of government services” elaborated by the Program IDA of the European Commission [EC-MCD] elaborates on how to develop a multi-channel strategy; this study includes a list of possible channels with their main features, proposes a channel selection framework and provides implementation guidelines of the multi-channel strategy. This implementation may require a number of steps such like the following:
Identify candidate services for multi-channel delivery.
Investigate whether the service can be divided into distinct steps. Given one service, sometimes one specific channel can satisfy the full transaction; in other cases the full transaction could take several steps which might involve different channels.
Carry out research and segmentation of the target user community.
Analyze organizational changes including business processes, back end and front end applications, staffing.
Analyze technical solutions.
Determine the channels to be implemented.
Quantification and evaluation. Statistics of access through the different channels enabled.
What are the Main Issues and Limitations with Multi-Channel Delivery?
General requirements of the user and of the provider
General requirements of the user, as pointed out in [EC-MCD]: flexibility, accessibility, usability (easy to use), quality, security.
Some of them are specially relevant like security providing trust, and simplicity so that the content may have a similar appearance from any device, providing transparency from the point of view of the user.
Many people uses the mobile phone only for phone calls and are not aware of the rest of possibilities of the device, because its operation may result difficult for them. This inhibiting factor decreases the usage of the offered services. For instance, trying to write an URL in a mobile may be a difficult task because certain characters (“@”, “/”, “?”, “&”, “:”, …) are hard to find and the writing task is generally troublesome. The user usually has to remember a crowd of short numbers, key words, URLs, while using impulsively a mobile device with low help capabilities and requiring a quick answer to solve an specific problem.
General requirements of the service provider, as pointed out in [EC-MCD]: efficiency, effectiveness, security.
Limitation of mobile devices and adaptation of information and services provided
Adaptation to the access to the Web through mobile devices, which may require, between others, the reduction of download traffic and the processing consume, because of the need to keep the battery, reduce the cost by traffic and the time response perceived by the user when used intensively or when downloading contents.
The ideal scenario is that introduction of new electronic channels would be as non-intrusive as possible; for instance without having to modify content managers used for the production of information for the Web.
This may require the deployment of intermediate elements which adapt or format the content taken out from the web appropriately according to the kind of device involved in the transaction.
Management of contents that can not be showed in a mobile device, have a large size very costly to download and memory consuming (images, PDF documents).
Coordination and integration of different channels
Coordination and integration of different channels is necessary to provide a focus on the user, a consistent approach to data and databases available or shared by all channels and consistent look and feel.
Interoperability, discussed above in this note.
Accessibility has already been well-documented and defined by W3C, through WAI, as well as by other related stake-holders. The following paragraphs discusses the problem when it lumps together device (interoperability), bandwidth (connectivity) and access by persons with disabilities (accessibility) within the general concept of Accessibility, but in any case within the concept of universal access or universality (also traditionally defined by W3C).
Accessibility is determined by 3 factors:
and user disability in using the device (commonly known as 508 standards in the US).
Device and bandwidth issues together with the lack of accessibility are typically talked about as the ‘digital divide’. Both wider broadband distribution and accessibility of information on mobile devices can help to solve this issue.
One of the ways in which governments are broadening broadband access is through free internet enabled computers at libraries and kiosks. The type of access which is made widely available to citizens for free at public locations as well as the bandwidth and devices available at the lowest price points should be considered when choosing data standards, platforms, devices and websites for the bulk of information through social media channels. If broadly available access is not compatible with how the majority of a country’s citizens use the internet, then clearly public internet access is not adequate.
The lower costs devices and the lower costs access in most countries means that whether a website or platform makes text based information available on low cost mobile platforms should be taken into account. While most platforms are multi-media, there is still often the opportunity to provide some information in text form for mobile access.
The availability of multimedia information should also be announced and searchable through text based services so that users who have limited access to multimedia enabled workstations, can find out about resources they need and go to a kiosk or library which access is available. To prevent those without full access even to discover what is available would effectively block its use, since time and context when accessing the public internet is limited.
Conditions about the reuse of government information
Conditions about the reuse of government information by the public, as explained in [GSA-TRAN].
Multi-Channel Distribution Standards.
In an age of connected data, standards are not just about the format of information but are also about accessible and fair distribution. That having been said, a balance must be achieved so that distribution of information does not become a barrier limiting the amount of information which is distributed.
In the digital age, information is key to both economic and social development of societies. Therefore, governments need to prioritize making the most information available through broadly distributed channels over limiting information in order to make it most broadly accessible and distributed. This is a classic 90/10 effort issue, where the last 10% of effort to broaden distribution and accessibility to near perfection would take 90% of the effort. Too often governments have opted for an all or none method in information distribution and it has resulted in less distribution and a lesser good for the public as a whole. The amount of information is too vast given the current state of information storage formats and technology to make all information accessible through all conceivable methods and channels. Accepting this fact and opening up government data needs to be the priority.
That having been said accessibility should not be discarded but rather a system should be in place to determine which information warrants the broadest, most accessible distribution and which information should be posted but does not warrant extra effort to increase accessibility. (Of course in both cases, the format chosen should be a non-proprietary one so that the public may redistribute the information if it chooses.) Concern for accessibility may be handled by providing a government sponsored service which can provide specific data in more accessible formats on demand.
This is not a radical departure from traditional accommodations but rather a continuation of choices which have become routine. An excellent example to understand how this is an extension of existing policies is to consider library books and the blind in the US. Library books for the sighted are more widely available and more easily accessible at libraries across the country, but Braille versions of books can be accessed on demand through the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped. A similar program could be developed for on-demand access of multimedia material for the handicapped. That having been said, basic accommodations which can easily be built into websites to promote accessibility should be addressed with social media providers by encouraging broad accessibility to their material and links should be provide on multimedia home pages on how to request more accessible versions such as closed captioned videos.
Fair distribution refers to the issue if government distributed content through selected websites, platforms or devices creates an unfair advantage for a particular device, platform, distribution network, or website. It seems appropriate for governments to not have to expend resources on wide distribution if the bulk of the intended audience is on one platform or website, but some consideration should be taken so that governments do not become unintentional monopoly makers through their social media distribution choices. Again this consideration should not take priority over wide distribution of the bulk of information but be a factor in making policy choices.
The nature of social media information is that it is posted on locations which are not on government servers or control and is distributed though social connections not through formal organizations. Social media information is distributed on websites which choose whom to allow access to the website and which behaviors are acceptable for participation. Also a user’s activity and connections on a social media website determines to some extent how much exposure they receive to information available on that site. For instance, someone is who is a friend of a person who participates in government discussion boards will be more likely to be exposed to government distributed information and the fact of its availability than someone who is not similarly friended. Likewise, people who belong to communities who choose to participate in smaller online venues will not be exposed to the government distributed information on the larger venues. For instance, what about the parent who blocks Youtube on the household computer because of objectional material? Some consideration to the unevenness of social media distribution should be made.
Multi-media central feed.
Therefore a government using social media to distribute multi-media, should create a public location which announces distribution of documents and content with links to their openly accessible location.
A central text feed of all distributed info will serve four purposes:
1. Provide the public with a completely open and highly accessible index to content provided through social media channels.
2. Provide the government content in a form isolated from other content to broaden distribution to those who prefer to avoid mixed distribution sources.
3. Provide other smaller content providers and websites methods to have the same content as larger providers.
4. Provide a central reference location for any on-demand accessibility service requests for government sponsored or partnered services such as closed captioning or braille.
This media index feed could be in the form of a searchable text feed which link to the original documents. The text feed would be searchable from text based mobile devices as well as web browsers. Search would be provided through a tagging mechanism which at the least allows those posting the information to create new search tags and categories. It also may allow the public to tag items to create a folksomy based search. Documents would be in a freely accessible format, so long as that format allows for the same distribution both in context and content to other websites as was carried by government officials. For instance, if a document was associated on a social media website with certain search tags, titles and description attached, those tags should be indicated in this feed. If a document had hyperlinks or embedded content placed in it by government officials, those hyperlinks and content should be preserved in this centrally stored format.
Video and audio should be avaialble from a link on this central feed in an instantly playable format such as a progressive player linked to cloud based storage so high demand will not slow distribution, as well as a downloadable format which can be used to replicate the distribution on other websites. Again the meta or context data which allows for duplication of the original post to the primarily distribution site should be stored in the feed or the linked files.
In the case of virtual world information distribution, some capture of the virtual world experience would be attempted to replicate the primary message in some way such as a video of the experience. If it is possible to store in an open format 3-D objects or actions, that content maybe also be considered for placement in this central data store.
To the extent that an industry standard is developed to allow easily subscription or importing of documents and audio/video content to alternate media websites and platforms, governments should adopt these methods to support their central feed.
European Commission, COMPETITIVENESS AND INNOVATION FRAMEWORK PROGRAMME (CIP) ICT POLICY SUPPORT PROGRAMME ICT PSP WORK PROGRAMME 2009, http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/ict_psp/index_en.htm
European Commission – Program IDA, Multi-channel delivery of government services, June 2004, http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3119
European Commission, 'MC-eGov: Study on Multi-channel Delivery Strategies and Sustainable Business Models for Public Services Addressing Socially Disadvantaged Groups', http://www.epractice.eu/community/InclusiveeGovernment
Evangelos Papanikolaou (Ministry of the Interior, Public Administration & Decentralization) Multi-channel Citizen Service Centers in Greece, http://www.epractice.eu/en/cases/csckep
GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications, Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter, Transparency and Open Government, Transparency in Government,http://www.usaservices.gov/events_news/documents/Transparency.pdf
Ministerial Declaration, approved unanimously in Lisbon, Portugal, on 19 September 2007, http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/egovernment/docs/lisbon_2007/ministerial_declaration_180907.pdf
Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on Transparency and Open Government, B. Obama, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment/.
Red 060 (Network 060), http://www.epractice.eu/en/cases/red060
Wikipedia, Mobile Web, Limitations, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_Internet