Silence. Logic. Security. Prudence.

Gales, hail, and torrential rain. Spring is definitely here and so a young person’s thoughts inevitably turn to digital government.

This week has brought the launch of the new GDS three year strategy, wise thoughts on service design, and a range of questions on Twitter about where we have got to some 10 years on from the creation of GDS.

There are three topics which seem to be coming up a lot which I will label as “Government is not just websites/services”, “Process over product”, and “Who is the user?”.

“Government is not just websites/services”

Public sector websites are far better now than they were a decade ago in meeting user needs but the first challenge is “Are they any less fragile?”. We all remember horror stories about departments being charged 6 figure sums to change one word on their homepage in the pre-GOV.UK days but what happens to your service if the VAT rate changes? What happens if Parliament pass new legislation which requires your service to share information with another service? What happens if you need to handle unicode characters?

What is the machine that sits behind the service? It too often feels like we are still illuminating manuscripts rather than turning the crank on the printing press. What is the metastructure that allows rapid and easy service delivery that hides the complexity from the end user while at the same time allowing that very complexity to be exposed as necessary and reused by appropriate parties?

And don’t forget that that complexity of wiring is also complexity of ownership. Services, data, delivery, commercial may all have very different owners with competing needs.

The second challenge is “What service?” After a decade too many public sector services are still point based solutions, you are given a join the dots puzzle and invited to start at 1 and hope that by the end you have successfully set up a business or applied for citizenship or registered a birth.

The excellent work GDS have begun on Starting A Business shows a potential future but the challenge around “whole services” is that they often fall foul of that fragility challenge. Also user context is key, I have long been sceptical of the “Life Episodes” concept as it prejudges a user’s complex needs.

The third challenge is “Audience”. If I post “The content on public sector websites is much better these days.” on say Twitter then I will have a range of responses from the positive around particular services, the begrudging around others, and cries of anguish from specialists and people who want to access the wiring. There is a feeling, justified or not, that things are being squashed to meet the needs of the many.

“Process over product”

What is the purpose of a Discovery? The GDS Service Manual, last updated in May 2019, says “Before you commit to building a service, you need to understand the problem that needs to be solved.” and there is even a poster which makes it clear that it is about exploring the problem space.

So that makes Discovery sound like a process of experimentation and exploration. Is there even a there there? But in reality Discovery happens when the problem space has already largely been predefined. To get a budget for Discovery you need to define how much you will need to spend, to do that you will need to be able to set out the output of the work and thus you are already bounding the problem and committing to a feasibility study investigating the current environment, service options, how to meet user needs and how you might technically implement the service.

Congratulations! You have just reinvented SSADM.

Government spending rules make experimentation and exploration difficult. Moreover there will be an infinite number of critics in the media, Parliament and from opaquely funded “think tanks” to criticise any “unnecessary” expenditure.

So is Discovery a real thing or are you stepping onto a travelator which will inexorably lead you to Alpha, Beta and Live?

How many projects have been stopped after Discovery?

How many multiparty Discoveries have there been?

“Who is the user?”

Surely this is obvious, the user is the citizen or at least the person at the far end of the delivery chain?

Are they? I can think of a number of public services which deliberately provide a terrible service to the person at the end of that chain. The user need in this case is that of the Minister, the funder, the State.

Look at our complex service delivery landscape with multiple parties involved, including commercial intermediaries. If you draw arrows of the various user needs then do they all point in the same direction?

Are we honest about the user needs we are seeking to meet?

With GDS under new management, with the establishment of the Central Digital and Data Office, with big challenges around funding and delivery it feels like a useful time for a stocktake.

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