The restrictions to daily life we’ve been experiencing have forced public sector organisations to quickly adopt different ways of working and connecting with each other. The challenges faced by teams and citizens alike, mean digital services have never been more important and we’re seeing examples of new things being spun up with previously unheard of speed.
Whatever happens in the coming months, we’re in for a period of change. In many ways, what’s happening now across our public services is accelerating the change that plenty of us have been advocating for a number of years. Barriers have all but disappeared overnight (for now at least), with previously hesitant organisations having to shift quickly to operating paperless systems and home working for their teams. Many will be looking to accelerate their adoption and development of cloud services.
The pressure on teams to just ‘get things done’ will be massive. But it’s important that public institutions get digital services right and reinforce citizen trust in a time of huge uncertainty.
Using existing guidelines like the Government Service Standard and the NHS Service Standard and following the principles set out will help central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies protect the quality of digital public services.
Getting it right
Building services quickly must not mean a substandard experience for their users, nor for the teams operating them who are often working under extreme pressure.
Getting this right means working in multidisciplinary teams, bringing together technical, operational and policy expertise. Co-designing services with regular user testing built in and rapidly deploying them. Releasing early and often adds value quickly for service users, making it possible for teams to make iterative improvements based on insight from real people using a product.
Creating good digital public services in a new world
There are some fundamental things that will help public service organisations make this transition.
Take stock of existing online services – digital teams should investigate any ongoing service issues now. Teams need to be ready to cope with increased demand as people switch to online for the first time. This means investing in infrastructure to support extra capacity but also giving teams the ability to safely make rapid changes as services come under new pressures. Monitoring the effectiveness of those changes to see how well they’re working for everyone will be critically important. Organisations that have already invested in user-centred service design and cloud first services are going to reap the benefits.
Better connected teams – digital and operations teams will need to work closely together to identify areas for improvement, manage change and support any new operational processes. We may never go back to our ‘traditional office’ environments so finding ways to connect remotely to support this kind of close collaboration will help public sector organisations effectively deploy new services and adapt to the situation as it evolves.
Trust and transparency - as we start to move forward with the much talked about contact tracing apps and other services, openness around how these applications are designed and implemented will also be important. Citizens will need to ‘know what’s inside’ these applications in order for them to put their trust in the technology. Simply put, if they don’t trust these services then they won’t use them.
Start small and keep building – progressive releases of a service will reduce the risk of getting things wrong and protect service quality and usability. It’s much better to start small, test and learn, and add in new functionality as you go. That way you can be sure that your users are getting what they need. It also means you’re adding value early and often by getting something up and running quickly and continuing to improve it based on user feedback. This incremental approach can still be done rapidly rather than trusting in the lottery of a big bang launch.
Usability and feedback – organisations are rethinking how they deliver services, especially local authorities that have relied on service centres. With face-to-face interactions limited, the accessibility of digital services becomes more important than ever. This is something that often gets deprioritised when teams are in a rush. Essentially, those designing central and local government services should be aiming for the same ease of use as fast food delivery companies. Finding out about parking permits should be as simple as going online to buy a pizza.
It’s more important now than ever that we all work in an evidence-based and user-centred way. With many public sector organisations making rapid changes and rolling out new services, it’s crucial that these work for everyone who needs them, at a time when they need them most. Accessibility can be a matter of life and death in a pandemic.
Dave Mann is managing director at dxw