Making the case for the government digital service

17 September 2015 | About a 6 minute read
Tags: Agile, Digital, Public Sector

I won’t try to deny it – I love politics. I studied politics at university, I’ve worked for a number of government agencies, and I’ve conducted research at the European Commission, the beating heart of all of that glorious EU bureaucracy everyone loves to hate. So when I got the chance to visit the Government Digital Service and learn a bit more about their fresh take on delivering public services, this political nerd sprung into action.

For those of you new to the GDS, it was set up in 2011 to implement the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy by creating “digital services so good that people will choose to use them.” It’s a fantastic idea: take all of that labyrinthine bureaucracy, simplify the process, and make it available anytime, anywhere. Succeed and, not only will you make the system that much more accessible and that much fairer, you might even make it more democratic.

And for any cynics out there, at the core of the ‘fluffy’ stuff has been the consolidation of 300 public sector sites into a single, easy to navigate platform that will save taxpayers £60m a year. That’s about the price of building 3 new schools. The savings come from constructing digital public services out of common components and tweaking through agile delivery methods, rather than high-maintenance bespoke systems that need hefty IT teams in each department.

So when I was there it came as no surprise that the people I met were genuinely excited by the opportunities ahead, wanted to challenge the same old way of doing things, and saw real value in their proposition. It was the kind of buzz you hope to find every day at work, and it was infectious. In fact, the GDS’ Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) initiative has paved the way for a UK-US Digital Government Partnership and the creation of Australia’s very own Digital Transformation Office, and even won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year 2013 award.

Cut to now, though, and the dynamism I witnessed seems to be at odds with the GDS we’ve seen in the past few weeks: rumours of budget cuts and its untimely demise follow hot on the heels of accusations of cronyism, woeful staff retention, and a number of high-profile hiccoughs. There’s even talk that other Whitehall departments find the GDS “smug” and “elitist”.

So what’s happened to this bastion of innovation and good intentions?

On the face of it, the election in May provided the perfect excuse to bring some of the underlying criticism to the fore. Large-scale digital transformation often results in nuggets of authority and responsibility shifting from existing departments and coalescing somewhere that can better serve the organisation as a whole by coordinating efforts. Of course that doesn’t necessarily have to translate into a loss of influence in the affected departments, but sometimes once-influential teams can feel left out of the new decision-making process and resentment begins to fester.

It’s also not helped that the GDS’ biggest champions have left the building; both Francis Maude, the minister who oversaw the GDS’ creation, and Mike Bracken, the Executive Director behind making the new approach a reality, have taken a raft of GDS diehards with them, leaving a bit of a vacuum. It seems that Bracken disagreed with Maude’s successor, John Mazoni, over the direction the GDS will take (Mazoni doesn’t agree with the GaaP principle).

But there’s more to it than that.

You’ve got to go big and bold if anybody is to take note of a significant cultural shift and the GDS certainly did that, setting themselves the challenge of launching 25 exemplar services in just 400 days. But you’ve also got to be tactical, otherwise you can end up blinded by the need to impress and forgetting where your strengths lie.

It’s no secret that some rural parts of the UK struggle to access online services, so the GDS’ plans to digitise the Rural Payment Agency’s payment forms began on very shaky ground – if the farmers you’re targeting are going to struggle to even access your product, it almost doesn’t matter how brilliant that product is. That’s why it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the switch back to paper forms was made, especially after the GPS field mapping part of the project repeatedly fell over.

Similar mistakes were made when the GDS simplified the Lasting Power of Attorney forms. Yes, it did take some of the confusion out of the process so that families could take as much time as they wanted over what can be a very difficult decision that comes at a very difficult time. But, once filled in online, users still need to print the forms, sign it by hand, and post it to be processed the old-fashioned way. Furthermore, you then need to pay a solicitor to certify a usable copy of the document which then sits in a filing cabinet, rather than available to view online. It was all just a bit too tokenistic.

But when the GDS team sticks to their design principles, they really nail it.

Driving test bookings and apprenticeship applications have incredibly impressive adoption and conversion rates, proving that the GDS can be successful at taking services to a subset of digital-savvy users like Generation Z who are used to having the world at their fingertips. They’ve also been effective at tackling those quick box-checking tasks, like voter registration and road tax renewal, where a simple, instantaneous transaction eliminates confusion and gives the population a few precious extra minutes and a better overall experience.

For me, though, it’s not the success or failure of the projects that makes me back the GDS (even if as a taxpayer I definitely prefer to see tangible results for my money). What’s really important with a hugely complicated beast like the public sector with a very public history of IT project failures on a monumental scale (think of the £350m immigration and asylum application system that was canned in 2014 before it was even switched on) is transforming the entrenched BAU mentality; the projects are long and expensive because they deal with the extremely complicated aspects of running a country, but rehashing the traditional waterfall approach again and again isn’t going to deliver new results. And that’s why the GDS’ role is pivotal to future success.

The fact that we’re able to find all this information that makes me truly appreciate the GDS’ work; they’re amazingly transparent, providing a number of interactive dashboards covering the length and breadth of their work and an active blog that keeps the public informed of everything they’re up. In true Scrum fashion, they’ve even published their Definition of Done which determines if and when completed projects can go live.

The willingness to try a new approach is only a small part of the solution, but it’s significance shouldn’t be overlooked – the entire purpose and approach of the GDS signifies a real turning point for a more effective government. By forming a central strategy and an improved, more agile delivery method, the GDS can coordinate efforts and ensure that the right people are involved at the right time, from end users and policy experts to developers and product owners.

Certainly, different people in different teams in different departments will all have their own take on what the next step is, and these differences make for the great conversations which, if facilitated correctly, draw out the true value of a project. What needs to be avoided is allowing discrepancy to bed down in an organisation, with teams pulling in different directions and contradictory messages filtering out to your customers. The absolute worst thing that can happen now is the scrapping of the GDS and a mad scramble for ownership of tech functions by the same old departments.

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