We convened a panel of experts on government technology, policy, and business matters relating to government services in general, to discuss the research and explore solutions to overcome the barriers to delivery. The discussion boiled down to six guiding principles, several of which were highlighted as key recommendations in the report:
(1) Users – both internal and external are key
The importance of taking a user-centric approach to designing digital services is key to creating services which were truly inclusive and that people actually wanted to use. The Government Digital Service (GDS) took great pains to understand users’ needs when designing the 20 exemplar services. This work included holding citizen workshops and visiting civil servants at the front line who actually deliver services and often have the best understanding of users’ needs and how improvements can be made. They are the key constituents too, and need to be closely involved in the digitisation process.
Clearly, GDS has limited capacity to repeat this exercise effectively for the more than 700 transactional services delivered by the government. A key challenge for GDS as it embarks on the next phase of government digitisation will be identifying the broader needs that citizens and civil servants want from digital government services. It will have to cultivate a culture of user-centric service design throughout the different departments and regional authorities tasked with actually delivering the services.
(2) Make the experience as seamless as possible
Digitisation needs to engage the widest possible support from the public and the public sector professionals who serve them to be successful. For example, the report identified high demand for a single way for individuals to verify their identity with the government, and a single portal for SMEs to access business support. Of course, the Gov.UK Verify programme was developed to address the first of these issues, and its federated model for identification and verification is both highly innovative and exciting in its potential.
However, Verify has to overcome two key challenges around inclusion and adoption in order to be successful. Because the young and very old often don’t have adequate credit histories for verification, Verify needs to take advantage of its federated architecture to develop an alternative means of verification for younger and older users. At the same time an internal communications and engagement campaign is needed to ensure as many government departments as possible get on board and use it. The ultimate goal of increasing public trust around the use of technology and the sharing of data is absolutely critical to supporting the next phase of digital government.
(3) Adopt a front to back approach – not quick technology fixes
It is clear that quick technology fixes, or simply building a slick front-end interface, can leave users’ needs unmet, or paper over clunky back office processes that civil servants still have to struggle on with.
One anecdote from Georgia illustrated these challenges: the Georgian parliament had procured a system for electronic voting in the parliamentary chamber. Whoever arranged for the system to be provided was unaware that Georgian MPs are able to abstain and purchased a system that only provided a yes or no vote, making it worthless. This highlights how taking a “front to back” approach when designing digital services is key to delivering fundamental transformation while addressing the needs of both the citizens using services, and the civil servants delivering them. In these situations less haste and more internal and external engagement result in better solutions which actually meet users’ needs, and are therefore more likely to be used.
(4) From technology silver bullets to an agile enablement platform
Such a focus on engagement and inclusion, particularly with civil servants, will also help achieve the internal cultural change that’s so essential to driving government transformation. There is a clear need to change the mind-set of those designing and delivering public services away from thinking of technology as offering a “big-bang” solution that might take years to deliver and represent the ultimate solution to a wider problem. Rather, the public sector needs to turn technology into an agile enablement tool, often delivering small and incremental service improvements aligned to citizens’ or civil servants’ needs quickly. These should be built on an open cloud-based platform for government applications that can scale and provide a frictionless developer experience.
(5) Engage and collaborate!
Linked to this, our panel also identified proximity, or the ability to engage and collaborate as closely as possible with all those who can deliver change – as a key success factor. Because no one group has all the answers, Government as a Platform should be pursued to enable citizens, public sector organisations and the commercial profit/not-for-profit sector to collaborate and communicate effectively, efficiently and securely.
This will be key to sharing knowledge and best practice, filling the gaps and breaking down the silos that often exist in government and hamper delivery. Pivotal’s Les Klein pointed to “pair programming,” the mechanism by which internal developers sit alongside external consultants to develop and iterate code, as a key means of bringing much needed skills into government and accelerating and improving the delivery of key services.
(6) Inclusion and access are key
As important as these first five principles are, in most cases they are essentially matters of process and delivery. Some 20 per cent of the population (around 10.5m people), 1.2m SMEs, and 58 per cent of charities, still lack basic digital skills. A huge effort to not only boost skills, but also increase access to broadband and basic technology, will be needed to enable everyone to get online and reap the benefits of the digital revolution. Otherwise, those who are already disadvantaged risk falling even farther behind, and indeed considerable thought needs to continue to go into how services are delivered to meet the needs of the digitally disadvantaged.
Efforts to assist the digitally excluded to transact online would not provide a sustainable solution. Instead, understanding user needs, collaboration, and breaking down silos is key, creating an opportunity for departments to do more to identify the heaviest users of government services and the different touch points they have with the state, to design and deliver services in a radically different and tailored way.
Rising to the challenge
Taking these steps will help deliver change in a matter of months instead of years, to help meet citizens’ rising demands and expectations. In a world where the likes of Uber and Airbnb are completely redefining standards of customer service, responsiveness and convenience, government needs think of technology as not simply a disruptive influence or delivery channel, but instead as absolutely fundamental to its work.
Getting this right is not easy, and may require changes to departments’ funding and incentives to get them to do things differently. But it is crucial to achieving fundamental change, and driving this change through government will be a key challenge for the next phase of work for the GDS, and indeed for their colleagues throughout the public sector.
James Norman is UK public sector CIO for EMC Corporation.
With thanks to: Mike Beaven, director of digital at Methods Digital and recent transformation director at GDS; Rachel Neaman, CEO Go ON UK; Les Klein, director of field engineering, Pivotal; Emma Jones, CEO and founder of Enterprise Nation; Mark Cridge, CEO mySociety; and Eddie Copeland, head of technology policy, Policy Exchange.