Government services are for people, not for the government

During my recent visit to the Czech Republic, Běla Beránková interviewed me on behalf of  Lupa.cz – the country’s internet host.
For the original Czech: Aby bylo jasno. Úředníci tu nejsou pro vládu, ale pro lidi

My thanks to Lupa for permission to reproduce the article below, and to Běla for her help with the translation

UK government online services have gone through a revolution. In 2006 each government agency had its own website accessed through the Directgov portal. Following a review, in 2012 gov.uk was launched: a single website for more than 330 government departments and agencies. How has government managed the transition and how does it work with those departments and agencies to successfully deliver government services online?

Lupa interviewed Caroline Jarrett, a consultant to the UK Government Digital Service – set up in 2011 to run GOV.UK and lead ‘the digital transformation of government’.

Prague street scene with people sitting on steps

Government’s online services exist for people -not the other way around

“We follow 10 simple design principles,” Caroline says. “The first and most important is to start with user needs. We need to remember that we are not here to fulfill the needs of government; we are here for people. Some of those people, people who most need the help of government, have low digital skills or are feeling nervous because they are applying for money that’s very important to them. We need to design for them, to make the website as simple as possible. It’s not about whether people like the website but whether it works, allows them to find everything they need and are able to use it to do what they’ve come to do.”

Caroline Jarrett has been working within GDS on the development of gov.uk for the past three years. A specialist in forms and surveys, she came to Prague at the beginning of September to share her knowledge during a surveys workshop and the LibDesign conference on designing better public services.

“Our government realises that all administrations are in the same boat. I came here to share with you our experiences. We want governments to be able to learn from each other in order to provide better public services – including for those citizens of foreign countries who come to work in the UK,” Jarrett explains.

How did 330 individual websites operating under a government portal become a single website in just a few years?

In 2010 there was a change of government and the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, commissioned a strategic review of digital government. It was led by Martha Lane Fox, a champion of inclusive online services, who said government could offer better and more efficient online public services by creating a single front end to all government services. Her report influenced the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), who launched GOV.UK shortly after. Many government colleagues put in a huge effort to transition their content to GOV.UK, and over 330 government departments and agencies have completed that transition.

We all know how public administration works. How difficult was it to convince government to make such a change?

Government wants public services to work well. It’s in no-one’s interests to provide bad services to citizens. GDS exists to help civil servants delivering government services to do that well.

How did it go?

It was necessary to change attitudes in some cases. Many senior people in the government are from my era and started out in the 1980s when there was no internet. In those days we didn’t have the ability to change anything quickly: it was all about programming and how difficult it was to get computers to do what we wanted. Getting to the stage where we could release new software was difficult: we were used to doing everything in very controlled steps – unlike today when we are used to new releases constantly, often every day.

In the 1980s there was no ‘agile’. Now it’s much easier to change and improve things in small steps. Those of us from the 1980s have to change our ideas.

My work within GDS is based on what is called user-centered design and agile methods, working iteratively, doing lots of prototypes and doing usability testing.

You said GDS provides infrastructure, tools and guidance. How do you persuade departments and agencies to use those?

Government Digital Service is one of the smallest departments but has power over the online budget. If you want to spend money on digital services, you have to prove to GDS that you will spend it properly. This is very important.

One of the 10 principles is ‘Do Less’. What does this mean in practice?

We are trying to do only what it is really necessary for government to do. For example, the government had a journey planner website, Transport Direct. As part of the review of websites that transitioned to GOV.UK, they realised that many others are now able to offer journey planner services better than government can, so they closed it down.

And what lies behind the principle ‘Do the Hard Work to Make it Simple’?

It takes us back to putting user needs at the heart of what we do, even when that creates a lot more work for us. For example, people who have children have to make many decisions – about leaving and going back to work, maternity leave, deciding who is going to take care of the children. Some of these decisions have nothing to do with the government, some are very much about government. How do we make it as easy for them as we can?

Currently we are investigating where people search for the advice. Do they go to the government website or elsewhere? Do they turn to the government with their questions, or to friends and family? What is government supposed to offer and what not? We have a whole team for this and they still have years of work ahead of them.

These changes are not just about ‘digital’ but about ‘services’. You must have come across services that don’t work properly?

When I joined GDS three years ago some of my colleagues were primarily focused on the means of delivery, digital, rather than what we were delivering, services. Step by step we’ve realised that we have to help our colleagues across government to design every part of the service. Digital is one way to communicate; there are plenty of others – telephones, letters and so on. One of the teams within GDS is working on a product that will allow service teams to send text messages, because some people prefer to receive notification about something happening via SMS; others prefer letters. That’s an example of how we’re now looking at every part of a service, not just the parts that are delivered on computers or on the internet.

Do you think a transformation of government digital services, such as the UK government has undergone, can only come from the top?

I don’t know. I think leadership and support from the top is very important but I don’t think it is a good idea to wait until someone gets into post to tell you what to do. You can’t wait for a government to change or for a Francis Maude to come along. You just have to start and to try and to convince people around you. We didn’t think anything like this would ever be possible in Britain.

Does the UK government share its knowledge and experience with other countries?

Not proactively, but when we are asked we are always happy to share ideas. Sharing learning has become really easy, thanks to the internet. When I first started working for the government tax authorities in 1992, it was almost impossible to find out what other governments were doing.  We were on our own. Now you can just go on GOV.UK and read the blogs to see what and how we are doing things. It’s very simple for us to share our work with the international community.

You describe yourself as fascinated with forms. Why?

I am fascinated by forms though I became a forms specialist by accident – there’s no school where you can learn that.

Twenty five years ago I was working on a project for the UK tax authorities on scanning tax forms. They had two very expensive machines dealing with two different types of tax forms, one working very well in Cardiff and the other working very badly in Manchester.

Why was that?

The explanation turned out to be quite simple. The forms in Manchester were filled in by people with low incomes – poor people, elderly people, the unemployed – who wanted to claim tax back. The forms were filled in really badly, for example instead of answering the question on a form they might put ‘please read attached letter’ with some sort of explanation. The scanner was never going to open a letter and read it.

That got me really interested. How do we design forms for people on low incomes, with low digital skills or even low literacy? How do we design forms so that everyone can fill them in correctly? That’s how I started working for the government which, as you can imagine, has plenty of forms. And I’ve been fascinated ever since.

You are also a surveys specialist, yet you say that when someone wants a survey you try to convince them to do interviews or usability testing. Isn’t this a contradiction?

I try to look at what are the research questions: what do they want to know and what decisions will they make as a result? Often, that will guide us away from surveys to doing interviews or user observations or some usability testing.  Designing really effective surveys is one of the most complicated research methods, whereas I find that most people can do quite a good usability test the very first time they try.

If they are a little bit thoughtful, do a bit of reading and follow the best advice, if they are very respectful of their users and pay attention to their participants, they can become pretty good almost immediately. What matters, when we choose which research method to use, is knowing the results we get are reliable.

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