Co-creation in Latvia: actions, numbers and consideration of VARAM

This blog post continues (click here to read the first part) the description of the co-creation sessions carried by CITADEL partners in Latvia – our academic partner University of Latvia (LU) and the public institution Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) that is a leading institution in Latvia responsible for public service delivery and e-government issues.

VARAM, like many other public institutions, has carried different types of public service user research, usually outsourced, e.g., The Integrated Monitoring of Public Service Delivery and End-User Needs (VARAM research on e-government available in Latvian at http://www.varam.gov.lv/lat/publ/petijumi/pet_Eparv/?doc=14321) that combines several surveys and other methods. So, it would be an exaggeration to claim that public administration has no understanding of end-users needs and requirements regarding high quality public service delivery. However, until getting involved in CITADEL project, VARAM had only had a little experience in actual implementing and carrying co-creation sessions by themselves where VARAM representatives would have a direct involvement in recruiting participants, developing methodology together with academic partners, and also moderating the sessions.

The main goal for VARAM regarding these sessions was to get insights from the end-users of the national public service portal www.latvija.lv about the necessary improvements and problems end-users are facing in everyday use of the portal when they search for information or want to apply for electronic public services. To facilitate the use of the sessions’ results and not to “get lost in translation”, also the controller of the portal (a subordinate institution of the ministry – the State Regional Development Agency VRAA) took part in these sessions. In close collaboration among VARAM, VRAA, LU and also with a guidance from user involvement expert from imec, practical tasks for each session were prepared to see in life how different user groups navigate through the portal, where the portal’s weak points are and where users get stuck and why they sometimes can’t get to the result they were hoping for. Thus, CITADEL proved itself to be a perfect environment for collaboration between academia and different levels of public administration to gain the most from the co-creation activities.

The experience gained by being so deeply involved in organizing and carrying these sessions has shown that the direct communication with the end-users can be both surprising and inspiring, but also quite challenging and forcing to overcome some personal barriers from public officials. One of the most challenging parts appeared to be the recruitment of the participants. VARAM decided to do it on their own without any help from professional recruitment companies. The idea behind such decision was to try all steps of co-creation by themselves in order to see if it actually can be easily applied by public institution. Even though, one would think that VARAM would have the best place available to get in touch with the portal latvija.lv users – the portal itself – the process was not so simple after all. As the portal does not retain the personal data of users (e.g., name and contacts) and, even if it did, in the light of GDPR the use of this information for research purposes should have been carefully examined, VARAM launched a HotJar survey in the portal in summer 2018. The survey served for two purposes – 1) to receive the so called zero measurement of the portal, and 2) to gather contact information from those participants who agreed to discuss use of the portal in the sessions (providing of such information was absolutely voluntary and in no way impacted users rights to access public services or use of the portal).

Overall, 1519 respondents participated in the survey and evaluated the portal. Out of them, little less than 50 agreed to participate in co-creation sessions and left their contacts. Unfortunately, when contacted almost half of them refused to participate because of different reasons and VARAM had no other choice but to use also other recruitment methods to gather the necessary amount of participants. Information about the sessions was published in social media and missing participants were gathered.

The next challenge was to define the flow of the sessions. During discussions with VRAA it was defined that there are four functionalities of the portal that constitute the backbone of the public service delivery – 1) public service catalogue, 2) life events, 3) digital services, and 4) client’s working space, and as a result of the sessions, it was expected to receive insights from end-users about improvements that should be made in each of this section regarding both information and its structure, and also usability (placement, colours etc.). Tasks were designed based on the most popular and generic services or life events, e.g., registering place of residence or registering one’s pet, for all participants to be more or less informed about these services (some of them had actually applied for these services sometime in their life earlier). Also, it was decided that one task should be about the homepage of the portal. Participants were given a blank paper and asked to draw how they envision the perfect portal’s start page. Interestingly that, if NGOs were quite successful at this task, inhabitants were rather reluctant and didn’t show any willingness to come up with their vision or ideas. At least regarding Latvia’s co-creation sessions, it was clear that general public is more responsive to more precise tasks – please, find in the portal life event/ digital service X… please, evaluate, if it was easy to find this life event …. If it was difficult to find it in the portal, could you please describe where you stopped and how would you search for it in the future… please, try to apply for digital service X and describe all steps you are doing in the portal... What would you change in the description or application form? … etc. The more precise the task, the more people had ideas or complaints. After completing these tasks, moderator returned back to the start page and then ideas about the improvement of it appeared.

It has to be noted that in all co-creation sessions a lot of focus was on search engine and not because VARAM or VRAA had intended so. Many users rely on built-in search function in the portal and its functionality was deemed unsatisfactory because usually, when searching by keywords, search provides too many results for users to comprehend. Also, one of the identified problems was too complicated language and disparities between the language and keywords chosen by end-user when searching for a service, and the choice of words / complexity of service descriptions provided by institutions. Unfortunately, this is a very complex issue that VARAM has been trying to solve also before CITADEL. As VARAM is not the owner of public services, instead it provides only the common channel (or platform, if you wish) – portal latvija.lv – where these services are provided as in a digital one stop shop, it takes a lot of work with other institutions that actually provide the respective services. Even though the public service and life event description methodology (VARAM methodological guidelines for E-government available at www.varam.gov.lv/lat/publ/met/?doc=12954 in Latvian) has been published by VARAM, the quality of life event or public service descriptions varies greatly depending on institution, its officials’ knowledge and understanding about end-users needs and perception. A lot of work in solving this issue is still ahead and it requires a lot of input from VARAM and institutions that are public service providers to find a balance between legally correct and comprehensive descriptions, and simple way of expression.

The sessions also substantiated the need for mobile-friendly version, proactive and personalized service delivery, intuitive design.

During the next steps of portal improvement, the co-creation session results will be used to define the necessary technical requirements for portal’s redesign that will be carried by VRAA and VARAM during the next years.