The Local Digital Declaration is a fantastic statement of intent. Now around 18 months old, it commits the local authorities who sign up to make services easier to use and more efficient. There are over 200 signatories so far.
The main themes of the declaration are using technology to redesign services to meet the needs of the people using them, and the development of open and collaborative cultures. It sets the Government Service Standard as the benchmark local services need to meet.
Applying it can be tricky
The Service Standard became mandatory for central government departments in April 2014. Yet, we know from experience that many still struggle to apply it to all their public-facing services. That’s even more the case for internal staff services.
The principles can be challenging and complicated to put into practice and, unsurprisingly, most councils still have a long way to go. It can be hard for organisations to start working in a new way. For many local authorities it can feel like the goal posts are moving. Especially when applying the Standard to an existing project. Introducing the Standard might fundamentally change the objectives that were set out at the start. But ignoring the Declaration and Service Standard means authorities can risk delivering services that won’t meet user needs.
Alongside the challenges presented by the Service Standard itself, there are often lots of practical constraints for local authorities to navigate too. They range from limited budgets, to a lack of suppliers with the understanding and experience needed. Many local authorities find these to be the common barriers to designing user centred services. More often than not, there’s also a lack of knowledge within their own organisation.
Getting to the heart of citizens’ needs
While navigating these challenges isn’t easy, there are practical steps local authorities can take when embarking on digital service design. It’s important that authorities start by gaining a clear understanding of their customers’ wants and needs. Not doing so, leaves authorities open to the risk of developing solutions that are of limited value or will simply be under-utilised. So, how do local authorities apply “understanding users and their needs” to existing and upcoming projects?
Doing some user research is a fundamental first step because it helps local authorities gain a better understanding of the people who use their services. When teams understand why and how people use the services they’re running and building, they make better design and development decisions. They also create services that are more inclusive, effective and resilient in the long term.
Good research can also go some way to meeting other parts of the Declaration. Not only does it inform service design, it can also help foster greater collaboration. Sharing the results or, even better, getting others involved in user research can create a sense of collective ownership. It helps colleagues to feel emotionally invested in the outcomes of the project and maintains momentum. People are motivated to work together to deliver services that work for the people who need them.
Helping local authorities make better technology decisions
There’s a clear explanation for each Service Standard criteria and its benefits. The criteria apply to digital services that have been bought, as well as those that councils are building themselves.
Understanding these benefits is helpful when explaining new approaches to senior stakeholders. Being able to articulate the advantages will often help remove any hurdles. For example, “Use and contribute to open standards, common components, and patterns” is a key aspect of the criteria set out in the Declaration. Councils need to question whether an off-the-shelf product will allow them to integrate products and services that aren’t from the same vendor. In doing so, they will be able to make improvements in future without being held to ransom by one supplier.
Adopting open standards is as much about fostering a culture of communication and collaboration as it is about better technology. It’s about designing, agreeing and using common standards that make it easier to substitute one piece of software for another. This allows local authorities to respond more efficiently and effectively to the needs of citizens as they change.
Digital change isn’t solely about technology
For local authorities in the process of adopting the Local Digital Declaration, understanding the Service Standard and how to apply it is key to delivering better services. The gap between public services and the digital expectations of citizens is widening. And digital change isn’t just about technology, it’s also about culture and the way in which we go about solving problems.
Local authorities who successfully build and run great public services, are the ones that start by understanding the problem from the user’s point of view. That also means developing new governance and financial processes that support a user centred design process and managing uncertainty as we learn more about user needs.
Saul Cozens is head of northern operations at dxw