“Proactive services should be the norm”

One of the winners of the VNG GemeenteDelers (a Dutch award for best governmental services), winner of the UserCentriCities award for the most user-centric service in Europe, and national and international recognition in the media. We can confidently state that the City of Ghent has made an impression with its proactive services. Services where the user truly comes first. What do these services entail? And what can we learn from Ghent? Sarah Spiessens from the City of Ghent tells all.

Sarah is the Project Manager for Simplification & Proactive Services at the municipality of Ghent (Stad Gent). She tells us about the project. “In Belgium, we have had the so-called ‘Only Once’ principle since 2016. This principle means that government services may only approach businesses or citizens once to collect data.”

Proactive services

That principle also forms the basis for Ghent’s proactive services. “We have already made 3 use cases more proactive. We use data about citizens that is already known within the government. They don’t need to provide us with data for this service anymore. And they don’t need to figure out if they are entitled to certain benefits. We do that for them. That’s what makes the service proactive. Citizens don’t have to go through application procedures for certain benefits. If they’re eligible for certain benefits, they receive them automatically.”

How Ghent makes proactive services possible

How does using existing data work? “We enlist the help of Digitaal Vlaanderen. This organization acts as the link between the government and authentic data sources, such as the Federal Public Service. The data collected on the Digitaal Vlaanderen data-sharing platform helps us determine what residents are entitled to.”

Sarah emphasizes that Ghent complies with the European GDPR. “We don’t get to see individuals’ data. For instance, if we want to know if a resident is entitled to the UiTPAS (see use case 3), we submit a request to Digitaal Vlaanderen. They then check the linked data sources for the existing information about that citizen. We then only receive a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. The same process applies to the other use cases.”

Sarah outlines the use cases.

1.     Free garbage bags

Ghent residents with low income are entitled to government aid. In this use case, these citizens receive vouchers for free garbage bags. “After all, everyone needs garbage bags and they’re not cheap in Ghent. This aid greatly helps Ghent residents.” Ghent residents with low income who dispose of waste in containers receive more credit on their waste card, which they use to open the containers. “This way we also support this group of Ghent residents.” Stad Gent manages both cases. Citizens no longer need to apply for this aid themselves.

2.     School contribution

Children of parents receiving welfare (‘leefloon’ in Flanders) are entitled to free childcare and meals in Ghent schools and day care centers. Other households with low income can receive discounts of 25% to 50% on invoices. These discounts are automatically applied at the end of the month. Parents no longer need to arrange this themselves.

“Previously, citizens had to find out and then figure out themselves if they were entitled to this benefit and how to receive it. Parents had to share their financial information with a school director, teacher, or coordinator. They then had to pass on the application to municipal staff to determine if parents were eligible for a discount. It’s not pleasant to share such sensitive personal information with multiple people. And the procedures are not simple. Often times parents will think: ‘Never mind’.

With the education use case, we use the data to determine what parents are entitled to. Are they entitled to a discount? Then they are simply granted it right away. Of course, this is communicated on the invoice.”

3.     Discount card ‘UiTPAS’ Ghent

If you participate in sports or cultural activities in Ghent, you can earn discounts with the UiTPAS, for example for cultural events or contributions to sports clubs. Here too, Ghent residents with a low socioeconomic status can receive assistance. “They qualify for the so-called ‘Opportunity Rate’ (Kansentarief). They pay only 1 euro for the card and are entitled to 80% off for various sports and cultural activities.”

These Ghent residents already were entitled to this aid. But to receive this assistance, the citizen had to provide data to Stad Gent to prove their financial status. “This is no longer necessary. A citizen only needs to show an ID card. We can then access the correct data ourselves to determine if a citizen is eligible for the Kansentarief.”

Proactive services put users and employees first

This is how Ghent assists its citizens with proactive services. Citizens are at the core. And what they think of it? Who knows. “Due to proactive service delivery, we have less interaction with citizens. They need to visit the counter less, make fewer phone calls, and so on. As a result, we don’t immediately know what they think of the proactive services. Many Ghent residents might not even realize they’re there.” That’s precisely the strength. Citizens need to be relieved. They want to focus on other things.

The same goes for employees. They are very excited about the proactive services. “Counter staff, for instance, can save a lot of time by not having to manually check sensitive data. Or tell citizens that they forgot documents and need to come back another time. They can now work much more efficiently and user-friendly.”

Thinking along with users

These same employees also play an important role in proactive service delivery. “Data sources help us quickly determine what residents are entitled to. But there are gray areas we must consider. Sometimes, a situation doesn’t lend itself for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Employees should always have the leeway to interpret reality. For instance, how is the relationship between divorced parents when it comes to the education discount? Does that change the situation? Or did someone move to Ghent only yesterday, and the data isn’t up to date? Employees need to be able to use their common sense and can deviate from advice based on outdated data.”

Closing message

Sarah concludes: “As far as we’re concerned, proactive services should be the norm. As government professionals, we often see obstacles. In this case, for example, with GDPR and AVG regulations. The Only Once principle often wasn’t applied in Belgium. But you can do more than you might think. It’s a lot of work, but it’s doable if you have the necessary legal basis for your services. Look at it from the user’s perspective. That should always be your starting point.”