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Rethinking Government Services Online

BY David Eaves | Tuesday, November 6 2012

Today the UK government published its Digital Government Strategy, a vision for how it will deliver government services online.

Why, you may ask, should anyone care? It is a good question. Governments have been talking about how they will deliver services online for over two decades. (Anyone up for some e-government?) The sad truth is, at the national level, few users of online government services believe governments have succeeded - most citizens' experience with government websites are marked with frustration, a sense of loathing, and pretty much the opposite of whatever we imagined e-government would be.

But there are three reasons why I waded through not one, but three lengthy UK reports about its vision, and now believe that if you care about government services online or better still, advise a government, there are some things worth knowing about this plan.

The first reason is that the UK government has built up a hefty chunk of credibility with me with the launch of gov.uk.

The second is that the report is relatively frank, as far as government reports go. The website that introduces the three reports is emblazoned with an enormous title: "Digital services so good that people prefer to use them." It is a refreshing title that amounts to a confession I'd like to see from more governments: "sorry, we've been doing it wrong." And the report isn't shy about backing that statement up with facts. It notes that while the proportion of Internet users who shop online grew from 74 percent in 2005 to 86 percent in 2011, only 54 percent of UK adults have used a government service online. Many of those have only used one.

And finally, there is real time and money at stake — this stuff matters, especially in a world of shrinking resources. Not only do I want governments to deliver services better, I want them to save money, in the UK's case, an estimated £1.7 billion and £1.8 billion per year that can be accrued from improving online experiences.

The Good, The Open and the Caution

There are a bunch of great recommendations and suggestions sprinkled throughout the report. These range in scope and importance but include a recognition that "the civil service does not have the necessary depth of understanding and ownership of our digital channels to act as an 'intelligent client'" due to an overreliance on a handful of large systems integrators. The report acknowledges the importance of not leaving vulnerable and non-online communities behind. And, interestingly, the government of the UK makes a big claim that it will focus on big wins by forcing departments to redesign the 152 government services that handle over 100,000 transactions each year.

But all of this takes a back seat to the part entitled Action 6. Here there are three things that, to my mind, dwarf everything else in the report.

Design Centric

First, possibly the single most exciting thing is that all of this redesign will follow the same principles as those that guided the launch of gov.uk. This means that the redesign will follow criteria such as:

  • be iterated at least monthly based on qualitative feedback from users and quantitative measures from analytics
  • be designed to work well on a wide range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones. Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office
  • be developed based on user need using agile, iterative, digital development methodologies and using open source code by default

Built to be Open

Also very exciting is that the whole thing can be made open. Indeed, every transaction will need to "offer high-quality APIs, allowing departments to integrate services, and make these available to third-parties where there is a demonstrable user benefit." This is very interesting and follows the White House's strategy on Digital Government. Frankly, I'm excited by the possibility that third parties may be able to make use of these APIs. What I'm even more excited about is that different government departments might make use of these APIs to bundle services or find creative ways to make citizens' lives easier.

In addition, the government will "publish as much learning and code with the public as is possible." Much like gov.uk, I suspect we'll see more GitHub repositories with UK government code in it, meaning that other governments, or even non-profits and companies, could leverage this codebase.

Ready to be Measured

The report also makes clear that there is a measurable goal each redesigned service must live up to. Buried in Annex 3, the report lays out that each new service must reach certain benchmarks, and achieve "80% of transactions completed digitally without assistance within 5 years of launch." I added those italics because I think this is exactly the goal that should be set, not drawing people online, but making it so easy they can do it without assistance.

In addition, each services will have its "uptake trajectory" monitored through what is suggested to be a real time dashboard.

Some cautionary thoughts

All of this is impressive. That said, it is worth remembering, unlike gov.uk, this is not a delivered product. It is a plan. This means it is — to date — aspirational. We've seen the White House — despite a number of successes — struggle to fully implement similarly aggressive plans.

Which leads me to my first suggestion. While there is much talk of monitoring success, none of it (as far as I could read) promises these metrics will be made public. If there are 152 services that have more than 100,000 transactions, let's hope there is a data feed, or better still, a public dashboard where they are listed so the public can see if they have been redesigned and what the uptake has been.

There is also a deeper challenge that this report does not appear to tackle. While I love the notion of a government service becoming simpler and easier, what really makes me happy is when, for all intent and purposes, it disappears from my mental space altogether. The true ideal is not just simplicity, but when service transcends and doesn't require work on my part — when I may even forget it exists. For me, the signs of success in many governments services — from clean water, electricity and in some cases, transit — is that there is almost no transaction. These services just blend into the environment. I sometimes believe many retailers, and governments, struggle because they desire to have a certain amount of friction in a service, just to remind the user that the company or organization exists. But making a service so seamless that it no longer intrudes or requires the time or mental energy of a citizen. If some of the 152 services the government is seeking to redesign could meet that criteria I suspect that citizens would be happier still — as would the government, thanks to additional savings.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to The Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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