The next three blockers to public service transformation and why they need to go

This article first appeared as part of the TechUK Building the Smarter State Week #techUKSmarterState


Most of us in the UK would agree that Government has championed a citizen-centric approach to the transformation of public services during the last decade in particular. However, Government would also be the first to admit that the journey is not complete. In fact, it is doubtful this journey ever has an ending, and certainly there is plenty of scope to learn both from mistakes as well as successes from the last few years of transformation effort.

I have long been a vocal supporter of the vision and work of Government Digital Services.  It has, since its inception, been a catalyst for positive change.  It has introduced a new mindset as well as new approaches to the traditionally fraught arena responsible for technology-based solutions in the public sector.  Central to its thinking has always been the notion of putting the user at the heart of everything.  Very often, that user is a citizen who will consume digital services.  And whilst digital services have been at the forefront of GDS thinking, consideration has always been given to those unable to access digital services or those for whom some kind of assisted access is essential.

So, I am surprised that in 2021 there still seems so much work still to do.  Without being too maudlin about the current state of affairs, let me explain where I think gaps exist and what we should be addressing to plug them.  The three main areas with significant gaps are:

  • Lack of standardisation
  • Lack of cross-Governmental citizen thinking
  • Neglect of the non-digital channels

As an optimist, I think addressing these gaps will bring about huge improvements in the citizen’s experience, not to mention significant improvements in efficiency for the providers of public services.


Lack of standardisation 

When something is standardised it becomes much easier for it to come into universal use.  I am going to take a gamble here and talk about the UK’s 3-pin plug.  Clearly, it is not universal in the sense of global usage.  However, it is universally used across the UK.  Whether you think the design is optimal or not (and, for many, it is still revered as the world’s best, having one design pattern makes the roll-out of technology so much easier.  Imagine the situation if manufacturers adopted their own standards and the effect it would have on product purchases and the operability of appliances.  Why, then, is not every public sector organisation adopting the Government Digital Services standard?  At Triad, we have adopted the standard as our default standard for all delivery, and we are a commercial organisation.

So, I just don’t understand why some Governmental departments still decide to either ignore the GDS approach or do it their own way.  Equally, I don’t understand why local government bodies have been so slow to pick up these important principles.

The standard is easy to access, it’s high-level and non-prescriptive, and it is amenable to (and welcoming of) continuous improvement.  “Get with the programme!” would seem to be an apt imperative.  It’s not perfect, but it is here, it is well established and it works.

Without more standardisation, my next suggested gap is likely to persist.


Lack of cross-governmental citizen thinking 

We have some exemplars from Governmental departments when it comes to the adoption of standardised approaches, notably the GDS approach.  However, bar a few notable exceptions, the “customer journey” of the citizen is still bounded by the interests of that particular Government department or agency.  However, many citizen journeys are actually experiences that involve a cross-cutting series of interactions involving many separate organisations.  For example, moving house necessitates interactions with numerous parties, including schools, dentists, local authorities, HMRC and so on.  And this often comes with multiple user interfaces and varying levels of digital sophistication.

Admirable attempts to make things simpler from a citizen perspective, such as the “Tell us once” service for people to use when someone dies remain the exception.  Significant life events don’t respect, and are simply oblivious to, organisational boundary lines within the public sector.  To adopt true citizen-centred thinking requires a completely open and unconstrained mindset from the service designers and to figure out the back-end difficulties behind the curtains.

Clearly, there are a myriad of understandable reasons as to why, currently, this sort of approach is problematic.  If it were easy, it would have been done by now.  It isn’t easy, and it does require new thinking to access the doubtless benefits that would unfold should such a boundary-less, flag-less approach take hold.

Indeed, that new thinking should probably include a fundamental rethink around the structure of service delivery in the public sector.  The division of responsibilities across departmental and agency lines is a product of bureaucracy and administration, rather than a design built for the end to end experience of citizens.


Neglect of the non-digital channels 

Another key lesson from GDS thinking is the importance of well-designed and well-constructed communications.  Whilst it is assumed that this has applied to digital channels, GDS has always urged practitioners to consider off-line and non-digital access.  This is laudable and an area that has received less attention than deserved.

However, the advice is often given within the context of the development of a new digital service, and ways in which dealing with the digitally-disadvantaged should be tackled.  My complaint is that there are hundreds of legacy “analogue” or paper services that are a long way of digitalisation that could be improved significantly by adopting the right thinking.

An elderly relative of mine was left utterly bewildered and overwhelmed by confusing and worrying communications he received from one of the main Government agencies.  None of the best practice associated with content design was evident in the series of letters he received.  Yes, the communication was on paper but why does that mandate dense, unfriendly text and a complete absence of pictorial guidance?

Another person very close to me was suffering great anxiety at the prospect of an out-patient procedure.  His condition meant that his anxiety levels were already high, and this would be typical of patients with that complaint.  After a couple of abortive attempts to go through with the procedure, he ended up experiencing something completely painless, stress-free and almost pleasant.  So much of the wasted time, resources and energy could have been avoided by truly thinking of the patient journey (even though paper-based) and developing better communications that generate better outcomes.

The know-how already exists.  It is in use everyday.  The problem is the lack of agile thinking that transfers best practices from one area of citizen interaction across into another realm.


Concluding comments 

Whilst I remain frustrated by the distance yet to travel before we reach a truly citizen-centred public service, I am heartened by the thought that we are able to make a difference.  It is not like we are seeking a cure for a terminal illness.  We just need the courage to champion good thinking, standardisation and the opportunity presented by retrofitting digital best practice on to analogue customs and practices.  With that determination, we will have a leaner, fitter and healthier state.


Adrian Leer, MD, Triad Group Plc