In the last 10 years’ citizens around the world have overwhelmingly voted with their wallets in their preferred mechanisms for making payments. The personal cheque has all but disappeared in Australia as the vast majority of the community have progressively switched to plastic cards, debit and credit, as well as online direct transfers.
Whilst the global trend is inexorable there are significant local variations around the world.
According to a recent survey by RFI, Australia and New Zealand lead the world in the adoption of swipe card technologies (also known as Paywave or Contactless) yet its take-up is much lower in the UK and it is barely having an impact as yet in the US.
Conversely, personal and business cheques (or checks) maintain a tenacious hold on everyday financial transactions in the US, despite having been publicly dropped as a customer payment option by most of the big retail chains in the UK nearly 10 years ago.
The lack of a common payments infrastructure across the plethora of US banks compounds the challenges.
Australia’s reputation as an enthusiastic early adopter of innovative technology is liable to get a further boost later this year, when 13 financial sector participants, including the RBA and the major banks, introduce the New Payments Platform (NPP).
This is being promoted as a simple way to send funds in near real-time to anyone using nothing more than a phone number or email address. With the sender no longer needing to know the BSB or account number for the recipient – the system has the potential to make online payments as frictionless as traditional cash.
With the NSW government announcing last year that it would speed up processing and reduce handling costs by no longer making payments to suppliers, and most other jurisdictions doing the same, it is clear that the Australian public sector recognises the significant benefits that can be accrued through the adoption of new approaches.
Yet, unlike commercial entities, government organisations have additional social welfare expectations placed on them, over and above the need for efficiency. It is a common generalisation, but no the less true, that newer technologies are taken up earlier and at a great rate by the younger members of the community. For example, in the UK cheques continue to be more commonly used for payment by the over 55s, especially for regular bill payments. Abruptly dropping support for them entirely would disproportionately impact the senior demographic.
Service delivery managers in government agencies regularly lament the challenges of their obligation to ensure equity of access arrangements by continuing to service legacy channels that are used by an ever-diminishing number of clients.
Whereas a commercial bank, insurance company or telco, can make a simple financial assessment of ‘customer value’, and decide who to keep and who to drop, in many areas of public policy the client relationship is ‘mutually non-contestable’ – that is the client has no alternative suppliers of the service, but also the agency cannot pick and choose which customers to provide service to.
In an era where value for money from the taxpayer dollar is more important than ever, continuing to support personal cheques, hand written applications or faxed paper documents is increasingly untenable, yet equity of community access remains a key priority.
The increasing importance of ‘assisted digital’, where a client service agent assists the citizen to work through the online application process, can play an important role in the government customer channel management portfolio.
It can allow the legacy process to be retired, facilitate a consistent digital process outcome and yet ensure those who are digitally challenged by age, education, capability or access to relevant technology, can continue to obtain relevant services.
Of course, to provide a robust and user-friendly ‘assisted digital’ delivery capability it is crucial that the service agents not only see exactly the same information displayed as the customer but also that they are intimately familiar with the nuances and intricacies of the relevant business process.
To ensure equity of access for key citizen demographics this ‘co-browsing’ capability is likely to remain a core aspect of the public sector omni-channel customer service offering for the foreseeable future.
Al Blake is principal analyst, government technology at Ovum.
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