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The power of mobile apps: Human services from the citizen’s perspective

The power of mobile apps: Human services

Mobile technology can make interacting with government easier for the general population, deliver essential services to vulnerable citizens such as the homeless or children at risk, and improve work processes for service providers | đź•’ 6-min read.


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Mobile technology is growing at a breathtaking pace. As smartphones have progressed over the past decade from luxury items to indispensable tools for everyday life, mobile apps have become ubiquitous. By 2017, there will be an estimated 2.6 billion smartphone users globally1 – over a third of the world’s population – encouraging the development of more and better mobile apps.

With widespread adoption and user-friendly features such as portability and a touch-screen interface, the smartphone or tablet is an ideal delivery system for an array of human and social services. And mobile apps are easily adaptable and customizable. They can make interacting with government easier for the general population, deliver essential services to vulnerable citizens such as the homeless or children at risk, and improve work processes for service providers.

Apps aren’t right for every aspect of service delivery. Transactions requiring a lot of data input, for example, can be frustrating to complete on a mobile device. As well, some types of social services will always require building personal relationships through face-to-face interactions. Governments must therefore take a strategic approach to developing appropriate mobile solutions. As the following insights demonstrate, successful apps keep the focus clearly on the citizen-user.

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The benefits for citizens

Mobile apps can save citizens a lot of time. Fewer face-to-face visits to human services departments mean lower transportation costs, less need to make childcare arrangements, and fewer lost work hours. Apps also empower citizens by giving them easier access to information and better service responsiveness.

As an example, the Australian Government Department of Human Services has developed a suite of apps that enable citizens to do most of their business with federal agencies on their mobile device.

The Express Plus Families app lets them update a family income estimate or other personal information, request a statement, view their childcare details, claim benefits and advance payments, and make many other transactions. The other five Express Plus apps focus on Medicare, job seeking, students, seniors, and income reporting.

Similarly in the United States, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission debuted a mobile app called Your Texas Benefits in 2014, four years after launching a self-service website. The app lets users apply for, manage, and renew their social benefits. In the first six months, the app surpassed the website as a way to upload documents.2

Evidently, citizens are finding the ease and convenience of the technology appealing.

Apps for the elderly

Ensuring the safety and quality of life of the elderly represents a special challenge for governments, as this population may not be comfortable or familiar with mobile devices.

A UK initiative is addressing the issue by offering socially isolated elderly citizens a free trial of an iPad with an app called Mindings installed. Mindings is tailored for the “technologically shy” and allows relatives, friends and caregivers to send messages and captioned photos to the elderly person. Once users gain confidence, many become interested in using apps more widely to create or maintain social links, find information, or accomplish everyday tasks more independently.

Such projects don’t deliver direct cost savings, but by reducing reliance on other, more mainstream health services they can save public money. And by combating loneliness they improve the lives of citizens.

Apps for those with disabilities

People with behavioral or developmental disabilities often need an array of services – for transportation, therapy, and training – to facilitate their active participation in the community.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health has turned to technology to redesign its processes and improve the effectiveness of its services. A key aspect of its program is a mobile app called Talking Tiles. The app customizes a tablet or smartphone according to the individual. It can teach vital life skills such as paying at a checkout, or allow a non-verbal user to express needs by pointing to pictures.3

Similarly, citizens with physical disabilities are helped by such tools as the Out & About app developed by Australian not-for-profit Villa Maria. The app allows users to rate venues and events for accessibility features and to filter options by criteria such as distance and location.4

Technology used in such contexts creates a win–win: in an era of austerity, governments are enabled to do more with less, and citizens are empowered to manage their own lives more effectively.

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The benefits for service providers

Mobile technology also offers significant benefits to service providers. Apps such as Your Texas Benefits have cut the amount of time staff spend on data entry, paperwork, and routine inquiries. That means employees can focus on value-added services, increasing their own job satisfaction and performance and reducing staff turnover.

But mobile technology doesn’t simply shift basic administrative tasks from the service provider to the citizen. It can also be used in “back office” applications that improve the flexibility of service delivery.

In Boston, for example, building inspectors are now handling forms and applications on site with the aid of mobile tablets, and in New York, homelessness field workers are prioritizing their daily case work as they receive data on their smartphones.5

Meanwhile, governments are finding savings in reduced staff overtime, postage, faxing, photocopying, and call-volume costs – not to mention lower overheads in terms of office space and personnel.

The data generated through the use of apps also offers significant secondary benefits, for example, enabling service providers to rapidly adapt their models and modes of delivery, as it offers the most reliable and, crucially, real-time data on patterns of service use, needs and preferences. The collective power of such data will, over time, drive service reform and assist providers to deliver services more efficiently.

Design imperatives and challenges

The benefits of mobile technology are considerable, but for apps to be effective governments must design them from the perspective of the user, rather than grafting them onto established processes in individual departments.

The interface must be intuitive and extremely easy to use for individuals to choose mobile channels for service delivery. Apps work best when the number of screen swipes and taps can be kept to a minimum, for example, and it’s essential to build in feedback. Research has shown in particular that people in crisis may not trust technology that removes face-to-face interactions.6 They want the reassurance of seeing their documents delivered into the appropriate hands, so apps that provide receipt notices can help them view the technology as reliable.

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Design considerations such as these are part of the essential process of bringing citizens on board with technological innovation. Forward-thinking governments around the globe are using behavioral science techniques to determine how users engage with new apps in real-life contexts. Rolling out mobile solutions in controlled stages to gain acceptance ensures that the technology truly supports, rather than drives, service delivery – and that it considers the perspective of the citizen.


1Data aggregated by Statista,, 1 September 2016.
2 Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services: Field notes and forecasts from the front lines of government’s technological transformation (2015), 19.
3 Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services, 20.
5 Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services, 26–27.
6 Lauren Aaronson, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, City of New York Human Resources Administration, quoted in Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services, 23.

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