Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, has said the key is keeping user need central to the development of online service, writes Mark Say
A few flags may be waved around the Cabinet Office today to mark the official launch of the Government Digital Service (GDS). In reality it has been at work for months, even blogging on its work in progress, but it has now been through a hiring campaign and is ready to take a higher profile in what its executive director, Mike Bracken, has described as working on an operational model for digital public services.
He began to bang the drum at last week’s Socitm conference, outlining the principles on which the GDS is working and how it aims to put them into effect. The central rationale is that government has to move away from using its online presence to publish information towards providing more transactions, “from words on the page to service delivery”.
Most of the principles will be familiar. They include the government’s “digital by default” policy – one of cornerstones of Martha Lane-Fox’s report on government internet services published in November of last year – learning from the stages of a project and being ready to adapt on the way, building a network of trust, creating an environment in which technical leaders can flourish, and moving aside the barriers to development. Bracken also emphasised that the GDS, even government as a whole, cannot do everything itself a nod towards the potential of the open data campaign to encourage outsiders to develop new services with public sector data.
But the principle that he asserted most strongly was the need to place the user first. He put forward the argument that government has usually pushed it into fourth place behind its need to obtain value for money, satisfying individual requirements and keeping suppliers happy; but that if it was moved to the top it would help to resolve the tensions between itself and the other three.
“The digital by default agenda is about changing the focus of central government thinking about digital,” he said. “We want to think from the outset about the user.
“We have to do statutory things for citizens, but we have to do them well and to remind ourselves that they are now digital users. Currently we are not getting a consistent level of service and government has to think of citizens as users of the services.”
The GDS is expected to provide leadership in the field, and has to think about the needs of government, especially the potential to find savings by reducing the friction in digital transactions. But more importantly it has to think of the customer with a degree of design empathy just what works for the average user of a digital service?
“We have to recognise in central government that the user has more need for government rather than a department, and have to work out the point that satisfies the customer’s need,” Bracken said.
“People using UK government websites have over 400 domains to navigate. We ask users to do it again and again and the user experience is not joined up across services.”
One of the questions is how does the government redefine success in the area? It is defined in terms of metrics created around risk or programme management, but which fail to measure the user experience. Bracken highlighted the crucial nature of failure rates for transactions, and said that government has not even been asking the question around these.
Other changes are needed in the way it goes at its work. The GDS’s work on a single government web domain has involved the creation of alpha.gov.uk , which was open to feedback, and it is now working on a beta version to lay the ground for a shared gov.uk platform. The whole point is to learn from the results as the work proceeds, being ready to change plans when necessary.
Bracken bemoaned the fact that government does not take this approach as it can do a lot to make a project successful. He cited the example of small changes on sign-in pages that are now expected to encourage a lot more people to use the new website, and ultimately fewer to depend on the telephone, thereby producing some big savings for government. But the conclusion of the work on the beta version should not be viewed as the end of the effort.
“We need to iterate constantly based on the user need,” he said, adding that “the single domain would not be the end point but the start point”.
He also questioned the need for a lengthy procurement process for all IT developments. Earlier in the year the GDS developed the new e-Petitions service , now on the Directgov website, in four weeks at a cost of just £80,000 – less in time and money than a tendering process would have taken.
This can point towards the way of working in the future, and Bracken said the team is working on an agile development framework, but that this needs a deep level of technical knowledge and that the “conventional” IT community has to be brought into the more agile working methods that it favours. One of the benefits of this would be to help government grab the potential of new technology more quickly.
“We need to be flexible with our technology choices because the world is changing so quickly that it is the third or fourth question we are asking when establishing the user need. We have to build on a modular basis so that everything can be replaced.”
He also acknowledged the importance of local government in delivering many transactional services, and asked the Socitm audience to think about how to create a better experience for their users. “We can join up to the bigger beasts in central government to provide a better consumer experience,” he said.
His closing advice to the audience was to question their own digital services, and think seriously about how the users react to what they find on the screen.
“You’ve got to start asking questions about your existing digital service provision that we haven’t thought about asking. How many people use it? How many people fail to use it and why? How can you remove some of the obstacles of the mind to using it?”
The last one is obviously the difficult question to answer, but if the GDS can provide the leadership in developing solutions for the new government domain, it will provide a start for the teams in councils and other public authorities in making their contribution to “digital by default”.