The Internet is a great communication tool. People use it all the time both at work and for leisure, but what about interacting with the government? Even though most of the Portuguese public services are digital, its use was below expectations. The answer was the creation of a network of Citizen Spots, which are multiservice physical counters where a “specialized mediator” assists citizens accessing online public services and teaches them how to perform them autonomously thereafter.
The Internet is a great communication tool. People use it all the time both at work and for leisure, but what about interacting with the government? Currently, most of the Portuguese public services are either provided fully automatically or available online. Nevertheless, the use of digital services was below expectations and, as such, it was necessary to reverse the situation, so that the benefits of a digital approach to public service delivery could truly be felt by all the citizens.
The answer was the creation of a network of Citizen Spots, which are multiservice physical counters where a person - a “specialized mediator” - assists citizens accessing online public services and teaches them how to perform them autonomously thereafter. The digital services provided are essentially those already available on various online platforms and the national digital portal - ePortugal.gov.pt - but that citizens may not feel confident using by themselves.
The nationwide network of Citizen Spots was initiated in 2014, in a context of scarce digital literacy, lack of trust in digital public services delivery and insufficient infrastructures/internet bandwidth throughout the national territory - constraints that affected mainly the neediest, namely the elderly and those living in rural areas, thus restraining their ability to fully enjoy the benefits of public digital services.
In the Spots, through the skilled assistance of a mediator, citizens can follow and learn the steps they have to undertake to access different public online services. All the existing Spots are equipped with a computer with a double screen system. One screen is used by the mediator and the other one is for the citizen to be able to see and follow all the steps being done. This allows citizens to trust, learn and replicate the exploration of new digital functionalities and services on their own, thus promoting digital literacy and bridging the digital divide.
By showing the population that the Citizen Spots are reliable spaces where they can go and use the available digital services with the help of a trustworthy mediator, citizens are becoming more aware of the national digital public services portfolio and also of online security measures, specifically regarding online privacy which is fundamental to boost the confidence in the use of ICTs in general, which is also one of the goals of the initiative.
At the moment there are 604 of these Spots spread nationwide and even abroad, each one of them delivering 234 public services, from 17 different entities. They’re located in the Portuguese largest cities, as well as in the most remote areas of the country, but also Brussels, London, Paris, and São Paulo.
The vast network of the Citizen Spots has been enlarged in the last years, but its concept has also been evolving. Alongside the traditional Citizen Spots, now there’s also the Mobile Citizen Spot (MCS) and the Solidarity Citizen Spot (SCS).
The MCS is a Spot assembled on a van that travels to remote areas taking the initiative to the most inhospitable places. It’s about getting the initiative to those living in areas without access to digital services. Whether because they live in more remote areas of the country, or because they were affected by some kind of emergency, like the ones resulted from the fires that usually affect Portugal in the Summer. In 2017, in Pedrogão, or in 2018, in the Monchique region, for instance, immediately after the fires that made victims and burned forests, houses and communication infrastructures, the MCS was vital on the field, helping the affected citizens to ask on-site for new papers and documents and teaching them to fill all the necessary forms that could be done online.
In its turn, the SCS is mainly oriented to the elderly. It’s nothing more than a mobile kit, constituted by a computer and a printer, operated by a mediator who visits nursing homes and residential structures for the elderly.
Both the MCS and SCS are meant to engage and empower groups that are usually neglected when talking about Information and Communications Technology (ICTs). With the Citizen Spots, Portugal is fighting digital exclusion. The spots intend to get the population more engaged in the use of digital services and also more aware of its benefits, which in turn reflects a greater trust in the State, as the provider of those services.
Besides, even though the Administrative Modernization Agency (AMA) is the central authority coordinating the project, local authorities have the responsibility of managing most of the Spots, reinforcing a collaboration dynamic between central and local authorities. And since the services provided are the responsibility of 17 different entities (Tax, Social Security, Registries, etc.), the initiative also has a significant role in breaking silos between these different authorities.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Citizen Spots materialized a new approach of delivering services to citizens and businesses and an innovative model of working within public administration itself.
It represents an innovation on several fronts, namely:
• The unique way of delivering public and private services, in what may be regarded as a hybrid model that provides both onsite and online services, with the added value of providing education and training to all citizens in their digital interactions with the government and other private service providers;
• The redefining of processes: numerous entities worked together breaking silos, reformulating back offices, optimizing existing services, designing new ones and rethinking the way of delivering services;
• The effort made by the government to train around 3.300 attendants capable of serving as citizenship mediators and provide, in one single desk and IT system, a wide range of sectorial services in an educational model.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Citizen Spots were implemented in 2014 and have proved to be quite consensual across the entire political spectrum despite changes in the political cycles, standing out as a solid, long-lasting and sustainable initiative. The project started in 2014 with 125 Spots and there are currently 604 in operation, so the initiative is completely implemented and even expanding
Collaborations & Partnerships
This is a project that engages different stakeholders, from different levels. It has: AMA, the Portuguese public agency responsible for administrative modernization and digital government, and coordinator of the initiative; the central authorities, which are the ones making their services available on the Spots; and the local authorities, with the responsibility of providing the space, maintenance and human resources for each of the Spots.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The Spots bring digital public services closer to citizens, particularly in rural areas where people had to cover longer distances to access these services. In fact, the Spots are installed based on the demographic distribution and population needs, making sure no one is left behind. And to ensure equal access to Portuguese citizens living abroad, there’s one in São Paulo, other in Paris, London and in Brussels.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
When the project began in 2014 there were 125 Spots, 127 services available and 98.899 attendances during the year. Nowadays, there are 604 Spots across the country and in three other countries, 234 services and, since their beginning, there were already 5.569.848 customers using the Spots, 1.139.491 of them just in 2019. This shows a great enlargement of the network, of the services being provided and of the number of attendances.
The increase of digital literacy and trust, in digital services delivery and in the government as their provider, are other important results. But it should also be noted that the Spots allowed for a reorganization of services, which led to savings of the public administration’s resources. And because the existing functioning model of the Spots engages the local authorities, this is a project that also helps to create synergies between the central and the local authorities, promoting coordinated policies and better service delivery
Challenges and Failures
The Spots are implemented and coordinated by the AMA. Nevertheless, to implement a project such as this, there was the need to work with all the entities in which services are being provided, in order to build a versatile and user-friendly back office and IT infrastructure. This was not always an easy process, but due to a strong coordination effort, the result was a positive one.
The creation of a sustainable network was another challenge, which was addressed by the use of existing premises from both municipalities and parishes, which made it possible to maximize the already available resources, mainly from the local administration. The physical location of the Spots, the human resources and the maintenance costs are usually guaranteed by the local host entity, while AMA coordinates and supplies all the logistics (furniture and ICT equipment), training and technical support, namely through the AMA contact center
Conditions for Success
In a national program that crosses all the governmental areas such as this, top political support is essential to get the financial and the human resources needed and to push the co-ordination between different entities. Also, the existence of key enablers, such as interoperability (eg. the Portuguese Interoperability Platform, iAP) and digital identification was essential for the initiative to work.
Another important aspect regards the legislation that backs the initiative, providing the legal framework for the Citizen Spots, establishing rules for digital public services delivery, enshrining the assisted provision of digital services as its complement, and defining the responsible entity for its implementation and coordination.
Also, it’s important to ensure the existence of an efficient helpdesk to provide assistance and answer the citizen’s mediators' questions in due time, which is ensured by the AMA Contact Center.
The design of this model of service delivery is already tested, and there is a set of pre-defined requirements for any interested party to evaluate, as well as a modular furniture kit easily adapted to most physical spaces, which make any replications very straightforward. The network of Citizen Spots has been constantly expanding since 2014 throughout the national territory and internationally.
The fact that it needs a low initial investment (the financial impact is even lower since the expenses are shared among the parties involved), makes it possible to install in different facilities, such as municipalities, parishes, among other premises and networks.
Besides, all stakeholders involved were committed and played an active role in its development and implementation, which makes it a solid, long-lasting and sustainable initiative
The Citizen Spots allowed the Portuguese government to better understand the differences within the country and how they reflect on citizens’ quality of life, thus guiding policy-making towards a most effective approach. Though digital by default is the way to modernize public administrations and ensure sustainability, physical contact with the citizens remains fundamental for a better understanding of the country’s needs, and as a way to promote inclusiveness and participation, hence ensuring that significant population fringes are not excluded.
Of utmost importance is also the training needed to ensure that the mediators that work on the Citizen Spot have the know-how to deliver a wide range of very different public and private services in a consistent, educational and homogeneous way. With that in mind, since 2014, the AMA Training Department has already trained around 2.854 mediators. And of these, some of them already had refresh courses (229 trainees) and specialized training in some of the digital services being provided (7.614 trainees), since when a new digital service is launched, the mediators have to be trained on that.
Additionally, the initiative has to be known by the public. Thanks to the AMA Communication Department, there’s constant news regarding the Spots being published in the more traditional media, but also on social media. Some are just simple news concerning new Spots openings or new services, others are tutorial videos explaining how the Spots and some of their services work.
Finally, the fact that the 604 Citizen Spots were installed based on the demographic distribution and population needs, assuring priority assistance (e.g. handicapped) and closeness to public transportation brought digital public services closer to those that actually needed it
A big part of the security of the services on the Spots is supported by advanced electronic identification tools, namely the Citizen Card and the Digital Mobile Key (DMK), the Portuguese eID solutions.
Besides, it has to be sustainable, which is ensured by both the maximization of the available local resources, but also by the income generated by the attendances provided in each Spot. Even though most of the services provided there are free, or at least set below normal physical counters of the different entities, some still have a fee being charged. For instance, the driver’s license renewal, which is the second most searched service on the Spots, is a paid service. 90% of the fee reverts to the Institute for Mobility and Transport, which is the service provider, but the remaining reverts to AMA (3,5%) and the local authority (6,5%) managing the Spot. Also, in very specific cases, AMA can also charge a fee to the entities that want to provide their services in the Spots.