Government services also need to be able to respond quickly to policy changes and the needs of the public.
Agility and flexibility are the modern watchwords associated with the provision of digital services – and government is very much in the business of providing digital services. However, the way government services were delivered in the past didn’t allow for a great deal of flexibility or change. Therefore, by reimagining government service it’s possible to introduce innovative ways of doing things. In the process, it’s possible to transform how government performs.
The government’s own ‘digital service standard’ is a set of 18 criteria, defined by the Government Digital Service (GDS), “to help government create and run good government services.”
However, point 4 mandates the use of ‘agile, iterative and user-centred methods’ to build services. A key element of agility is to create services that are built around citizen need. The digital service standard states that agile methods make services better by meeting the needs of service users; create services that are easier and more convenient for people to use; are more easily changed e.g. if government policy or technology policy changes; can be improved in the light of feedback; cost less and are more accountable.
Therefore, the government is essentially mandating better, more agile approaches to service provision to improve services. An obvious question is, how well has it done? Another would be, to what extent are poor, complex and manual services are being replaced?
To answer the first question, it’s necessary to look at the nature of government and the nature of the problem. In many government departments, there is little incentive to innovate. It’s all about mitigating down-side risk. If a new service offer fails (and there have been many well publicised cases of this happening) it’s easier if a service provider (typically a large IT company) is seen to be the problem.
In addition, according to Nick Tune of the Agile Alliance (a former Project leader in government), “there is no pressure to turn a profit or out iterate competitors by developing software faster. In fact, I saw a government agency completely crippled by fear. Fear of changing anything to avoid negative publicity, resulting in little effort to change. If GDS did not strictly enforce standards, I am certain there would be no meaningful progress in government IT.”
But the focus is now on agile and embracing innovative delivery approaches. There is evidence that the message is getting through. There have been imaginative moves forward, even in areas that might be considered relatively mundane.
GDS announced in 2013 that it intended to transform 25 major services. 20 are now publicly available, with 5 still in development. Some have been very successful and are clearly transformative – such as online voter registration and student finance applications.
The exemplar projects have shown what’s possible, with many services bedding-down into the public consciousness very quickly. Indeed, online voter registration probably had a direct bearing on the result of the last UK general election given the appeals by all parties for youth voters to embrace online registration.
The key point about these new, innovative services is that complexity wasn’t considered to be a sufficient reason why the new service couldn’t be attempted. Indeed, with agile methods, complexity is no longer a valid excuse. Rather the focus is on delivering a service that is adopted and seamlessly integrates.
The challenge is to ensure that such approaches are adopted by local government as well.
Local government in the United Kingdom is not one ‘thing’ – rather county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs have differing roles and responsibilities. Each council also has its own organisational structure and decision-making processes. The result is that ‘local government’ is highly fragmented.
A recent report by the local government focused think-tank, the LGIU, published in April 2017 – and based on a survey of 279 councils – concluded that digital decisions were typically not taken by very senior people in councils.
This means that councils may not be receiving the mandate that GDS has provided in central government for service roll-out to be more ambitious and innovative.
On a more encouraging note, the LGIU’s report also revealed that local authority councillors wanted to be much better informed about the transformational benefits that technology could bring. Perhaps they will be the catalyst that’s needed to ensure that digital approaches to service delivery match citizen expectations.