Citizen Spots: How Portugal’s digital inclusion strategy is helping citizens access public services

by Jean Dezert, Research Officer at the IGPDE Research Office

Portugal, like many developed economies, has steadily shifted to e-government, making public services available to all citizens via an online one-stop shop. The idea behind this move was to cut red tape, simplify the government-citizen relationship, and streamline the civil service. Regrettably, however, far fewer people accessed used the online portal than anticipated.

The government and civil service identified two main reasons for this slow uptake. First, limited communication meant that many citizens were unaware of the services they could access online. And second, some people simply did not trust the technology. There was also a third reason in play: the digital divide. A significant minority of Portuguese households have no internet access,[1] and many people lack the skills they need to manage their affairs online. In 2013, 33% of Portuguese individuals said they had never used the internet – 10 percentage points higher than the EU average[2]– and the figures reveal that education[3] and age[4]are strong predictors of digital literacy.

In order to tackle these issues, the government tasked the AMA with widening access and increasing uptake of online public services. One of the agency’s responses was to set up so-called “Citizen Spots”, the first of which opened in 2014.

Citizen Spots: fighting digital exclusion

Citizen Spots are a nationwide network of service desks where people can visit government websites, including the ePortugal.gov.pt e-government portal, and get help and support to manage their affairs online. Users can access 234 different services and procedures from 17 different government agencies and bodies.[5] There were 125 of these spots when the scheme opened. By the end of 2019, that number had risen to 630. Because they are located in existing local government premises that people are accustomed to visiting to manage their day-to-day affairs, AMA has been able to scale up the network quickly while making government websites easier to use.

Each Citizen Spot has one or two terminals and is staffed by a specially trained adviser. The terminals have two screens: one for the user, and a second screen where the adviser can see what the user is doing and offer help if needed. The thinking behind this arrangement is that, with guidance and support, citizens will grow in confidence, gain digital literacy skills and, in time, be able to manage their affairs independently.

Under this model, the advisers lie at the midpoint between face-to-face and online contact with the government. They are also trained to talk to users about the confidentiality and data protection implications of managing their affairs digitally – an important role given the number of citizens who are reluctant to share their information with the government online because they do not trust the technology. The advisers seek to allay these concerns by explaining the legal rules on how the government processes their data, reminding users, for instance, that the agency or body in question cannot share all their information with other government services. This instructive approach helps to rebuild trust in digital technology.

Although the scheme has increased uptake of e-government services among people unfamiliar with managing their affairs online, reaching certain sections of the population remains challenging. The digital divide is especially evident among the elderly and people living in internet black spots. The AMA has taken steps to address this issue, setting up two targeted schemes based on the Citizen Spot model:

  • Mobile Citizen Spots, which work the same way as conventional Citizen Spots, but are housed in vehicles that travel to remote communities and places where natural disasters have damaged telecommunications infrastructure.
  • Solidarity Citizen Spots, which perform a similar function but are designed for people who are unable to travel, such as the elderly living in care homes or retirement homes.

The scheme has also been extended outside Portugal, again in the interest of inclusion, to bring the same service to citizens living abroad. There are currently four of these spots, all at Portuguese embassies, in Paris, London, Brussels and São Paulo.

A complex endeavour requiring political coordination

In 2014, the Citizen Spots received 98,000 visitors. By contrast, they were used 1,507,338 times in 2019, out of 5,940,059 total visits over the five-year period. There are several reasons for this sharp rise in uptake.

First, because the scheme is backed by the Portugal 2020 programme, it has enjoyed solid political support, with central and local governments and the AMA working together to deliver it. Central government bodies and departments provide the services that users can access via the terminals. Local governments provide premises and staff and cover maintenance costs. The AMA, meanwhile, oversees and coordinates the scheme, supplies the hardware, and runs ongoing training programmes for the advisers to keep them abreast of the latest upgrades and features. The agency also worked collaboratively to design a user-friendly, intuitive interface for citizens and advisers, harnessing an existing platform that facilitates interoperability between government entities[6] and taking advantage of the fact that all Portuguese citizens have a digital identity. The level of coordination that this task implied meant that central government entities had to break down traditional silos.

The cost-sharing arrangement, coupled with the use of existing local government premises, helped to keep the upfront investment costs low. In addition, most Citizen Spot services are provided free of charge or at no additional cost to users.

The degree of coordination involved in setting up and running the spots – within central government and between central and local government – has resulted in efficiency gains in public-service delivery. Moreover, because schemes like Citizen Spot contribute to bridging the digital divide and tackling digital exclusion, they play an important role in helping government comply with the public sector equality duty. The project has also gained international recognition, having been nominated for a European Public Sector Award[7] in the National/European Level category. AMA plans to build on this success by further extending the network.

[a] Eurostat, ec.europa.eu

[1] In 2018, 80% of households had access to the internet, up from 65% in 2014, placing Portugal 26th out of the EU28 on this metric. OECD: https://data.oecd.org/ict/internet-access.htm.

[2] European Commission: ec.europa.eu

[3] In 2015, just 49% of people who left school after secondary education said they had used the internet in the last three months – compared with over 95% of respondents who had completed a higher education course. Statistics Portugal: ine.pt

[4] In 2015, only 27% of people aged 65-74 reported having used the internet in the last three months. Ibid.

[5] oecd-opsi.org, ama.gov.pt ama.gov.pt

[6] egovspace.co.in

[7] See the EPSA2019 publication (PDF - 2,8 Mo)

Q&A with Portugal’s Administrative Modernisation Agency

What were the main challenges you faced in implementing the Citizen Spot project?

The project has its origins in decree-law no. 74/2014, adopted in 2014, which established the principle of “digital by default” in public-service delivery. This prompted a series of discussions around setting up a new network of access points. Because Portugal is such a geographically diverse country, made up of coastal, inland, urban and rural areas, we had to think carefully about the spatial and physical characteristics of the network and what premises we could use.

The AMA was asked to contribute to funding the project. More specifically, we were responsible for supplying the hardware and other service-delivery equipment, and for training the advisers.

Early on, one of the biggest challenges we faced was getting local authorities on board. Many of them pushed back against the idea of having to recruit the staff, and against the additional costs involved in setting up the scheme. But now, the roles are reversed. Local authorities are approaching us with the idea of opening new spots. The cost of operating the scheme has also proved challenging. For instance, we’ve had to recruit IT experts to fix technical issues with the system.

How do you measure the scheme’s success?

Each Citizen Spot has a complaint log to record instances where things haven’t worked so well. Staff also carry out their own assessments of service standards. Although the feedback we receive is highly localized, we still share relevant comments with the training team to feed into the initial and ongoing training programme for advisers. There’s also a dedicated Citizen Spot email address and hotline where citizens can report any issues they encounter. Again, this helps us keep improving the service we provide.

You mentioned that the Citizen Spot scheme can help people affected by natural disasters. How so?

In January 2018, we launched a new Mobile Citizen Spot service to bring help and support to people affected by the October 2017 wildfires. Disaster struck again in 2018, with another wildfire outbreak in Monchique. In both instances, we worked with other government bodies to set up spots in vehicles and deliver public services directly to the victims. The project was yet another reminder of why it’s so important to consider citizens’ needs and difficulties and widen access to public services through new channels. Doing so helps to fight exclusion and ensures that disadvantaged and isolated sections of the population aren’t left out in the cold.

A number of local authorities have adopted the scheme since its launch in 2018-2019. The idea is to bring public services to remote communities where accessing them is more difficult because people find it harder to travel.

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