Digital services are in vogue and the UK government has been changing both how they are implemented (using agile techniques) and how they are procured (smaller suppliers, G-Cloud and other frameworks).
With the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), “digital” is now at the heart of the Cabinet Office. With the creation of “Digital by Default” it is now impossible to ignore technology when delivering services.
Much of this is a welcome break from poor past practices and there is much to be admired. But there remains something missing and a potentially dangerous risk.
All offer big improvements in how technology is built. However, today’s narrow focus on digital risks elevating it to become the purpose of services instead of the real purpose: serving citizens.
That is a big risk.
Due to the high costs of automation, digital service implementations often aim to simplify the service offered to fit a few standard citizen types and processes.
But people need services that join up and work for them, however complex their circumstances. This is more important than choice: you don’t need choice if the service just works.
Citizens have unique needs and often prefer to have them met by real people who understand them rather than the dumb insistence of a computer that does not and wants to fit them into a standard category.
The failure to confront this creates services with high levels of expensive avoidable contact, poor reputation and is a source of bad headlines.
Great services need to be people-shaped rather than forcing people to become service-shaped. Some citizens cannot or will not use digital services, leading to Assisted Digital initiatives, where data-entry is done on their behalf.
But imagine if services could be provided to all citizen in an intelligent assisted form?
Merely involving real service users in the IT design and test process using focus groups and agile techniques like personas, cohorts and early testing isn’t enough – that is still shaping an IT project with user input rather than shaping a joined-up end-to-end service around citizen needs and using technology to support its implementation.
As a friend of mine is fond of saying: “It’s a great thing that the government now has an IT strategy. The trouble is, it’s an IT strategy”.
Service delivery staff shouldn’t be forced to become soul-destroying robots following pre-programmed scripts. We need to harness their initiative, creativity, empathy and problem-solving skills so that they can combine the best human advantages with the best technology.
That’s the route to both providing better cheaper services for citizens, much more meaning and satisfaction for service-delivery staff and using better (but considerably less and cheaper) technology to deliver them.
The wasted billions of government IT projects of the past should remind us that there’s a lot to learn and no quick fix – agile + digital is not some silver bullet.
We need more and better ways to put citizens back at the heart of service design.
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