Digital Counter Rotterdam (Digitale Balie) - Rotterdam

City / Region

Rotterdam (Netherlands)

In a nutshell

The Digital Counter Rotterdam is a platform for public service delivery through video calling with citizens. The development of the platform started in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns, and the city wanted to secure the continuity in public service provision in a personal, human, accessible way. Eye contact was regarded as a critical factor in human-centric service provision, which made video calling the channel to explore. This led to the development of a generic and highly integrated digital translation of the common "wooden counter", the offline equivalent. 

The Digital Counter makes public-service delivery easy as a full-digital service, and personal and empathic as an offline appointment. In 2021 it won a Dutch innovation in government award “Gemeentedelers” and was nominated for the Computable Awards 2021.

  • Web-based, device independent
  • WCAG audit: near complaint 
  • Includes integration of identification, online payment, safe document exchange, translator service, customer satisfaction survey
  • Beyond GDPR proof, encrypted audio/video
  • Interactive feedback exchange with user (civil servant-client)
  • Over 400 users, 85 teams, 10.000+ calls (2022)
What makes the service user-centric?
The platform has been developed with a very high standard regarding human-centricity:
It’s a fully web based application, device independent. This means citizens can use whatever device they want to use. No software has to be installed, registration for an account is not required.
The video call starts after clicking a button in the invite, received by email (or sms in the future). Any button the citizen clicks in any email they received within the process, will automatically lead to the required action in the digital counter. Completely directed by the system and/or the civil servant.
Actions required within the call, such as steps to identification, are initiated by the civil servant, just like it would be in the offline equivalent. The citizen doesn’t need to worry about clicking the right button or menu. Only one button will show, only when it’s necessary.
The application has been thoroughly tested, and continues to be tested. Tests have been performed with people with a learning disorder, showing that it is extremely useful for them, even though some digital actions are still too difficult for them to perform by themselves. But because informal help can join the conversation easily, instead of having to go to a physical location, they can keep as much autonomy over the process as they can. Tests are as much as possible executed with the whole development team present for better learning and understanding.
A translator can be invited in the call automatically, which makes it possible to deliver services in their own language.
Using the Digital Counter for (for instance) providing additional documents or otherwise, makes it much easier for citizens to interact. It saves travel time, expenses and inconvenience. It makes it easier to include third persons in a service delivery conversation: family members, case managers, court assigned consultants, translators etc.
Feedback from citizens is measured by the internationally validated System Usability Scale (SUS). The average score is around 86/100.
Qualitative feedback is fed into the development team directly, leading to improvements within 2 to 4 weeks.
The platform acknowledges 2 groups of users: the citizens of Rotterdam, but also the employees. A feedback module has been designed through which every employee using the counter can give any kind of feedback, report bugs, or share ideas for improvement, ideas for new functions, etc. The feedback is read daily by the development team, and a chat can be initiated with the employee for better understanding of the actual need.
What impact has the service had?
The impact on the organisation has been significant:
From March 2020 lockdowns were imposed. The accessibility of municipal service centers were highly restricted and employees had to work from home on a massive scale. Citizens also had to stay home, either because of regulations and restrictions, or due to quarantines or to protect themselves when vulnerable. This limited the possibilities for personal, empathic connection between government and citizens on a disturbing scale. The introduction of video calling showed to be a game changer. Very personal, sensitive processes, such as registration of newborn children, debt assistance, and support packages for SMEs were delivered through video calls, with a high-level of empathic connection.
Citizens who made use of this possibility reported to experience this practice as “more personal then a physical meeting at a service center” due to the fact that they didn’t feel treated as a number, they could speak without the distraction of other people in the office space, the lack of security personnel etc. They also reported that they felt that the employee was more focused on their case and on the conversation then when done from behind a physical counter.
The team assigned with the execution of support packages for SMEs suffering from the pandemic reported they experienced less verbal intimidation and aggression in video calls than in phone calls for instance. They also report that managing these support packages in video calls led to fewer appeal procedures, possibly due to a higher acceptance of decisions because of the level of personal connection with the employee.
The digital counter seems to fill the gap between digital and physical service delivery: less digitally skilled people can be coached and guided through a process in a video call, something which is impossible for fully digitalised processes. It also provides higher accessibility levels for people with a disability: people with disabilities don’t necessarily have to go out to our offices to make arrangements. They can include help in a call easily without bothering their aide with asking them to travel with them to the service centers. Vulnerable people can stay in their safe environment while speaking with municipal servants. Etc…
The impact on the organisation, the business, is also significant: For a big operation like the COVID-19 support packages, employees could be hired throughout the country, as consultants. They could work for Rotterdam’s SMEs regardless of their location. One of the consultants even worked from the U.S., where she currently lives.
The registration of marriages showed that video calling took away obstacles between front- and back-office: the limiting factor used to be the availability of physical space and counters, but soon after these registrations started to be handled through the digital counter, even back-office employees could handle the preliminary actions with couples.
Both observations show the increased flexibility for organisations, leading to higher efficiency. These are still all mostly qualitative observations that yet have to be examined by data analysis, which will take place in the future.
How was the service co-created?
The platform has been designed and developed by a small team, and started from an urgent need. This made it necessary to deploy and develop in the same time. There was no space to do much planning, or organise highly methodological service design trajectories. However, the team was lead from a strong vision on service design and co-creation. This resulted in a development process in which the development team and the coordinator kept in touch with the users on a daily basis. Newly discovered needs or feedback were led back to the development team every few days, and in weekly demo’s the solutions and new features were discussed with the colleagues working with the platform. This practice still exists until today.
Tests with people with a learning disability were not just done by the UX experts themselves as is common practice. The whole development team first spoke for 2 hours with people with low IQ to learn about their obstacles in daily life, and then attended the tests. This lead to a far deeper insight on all levels of the development and design team.
Feedback from citizens was collected informally in the early stages of the development. In the daily conversations with the employees the feedback from citizens, big and small, was collected and mitigated. In a later stage SUS surveys led to more qualitative and quantitative feedback which was immediately fed back to the development team for mitigation.
In collaboration with The Rotterdam University of Applied Science a design challenge was organised in which students investigated how elderly people and people with low digital skills could be assisted in using video calling.
Every new feature is being tested in real life by one of the teams. The development team feels that testing in the sandbox environment or lab setting is not enough to establish customer satisfaction with a feature. One of the most experienced teams, who mostly execute the registration of childbirths, first tests new features with customers. If it works to full satisfaction the feature will be delivered to all other teams working with the platform.
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