There’s a lot of talk about how all businesses need to transform to become more market relevant and more efficient than the competition. A valuable tool in this drive for transformation is technology. Digital technology promises to transform both the supply chain and the demand chain – as well as processes for managing staff. However, an increasingly important reason for the drive towards digital is that customer expectations are becoming more acute – more attuned to slicker digital delivery.
Customers are also citizens. They occasionally (not always) have the need to consume government services. When they do, the experience is often not wonderful. It’s out of keeping with the type of experience provided by the commercial sector. While Amazon can provide Wi-Fi-connected buttons to allow their customers to order (and have delivered) goods with just one push, government seems sluggish and complicated, by comparison. It seems out of keeping with a digital-native population.
The difference, of course, is that what government does is complicated – and complicated in a way that commercial business isn’t.
For one thing government often provides services that are not related to markets. Indeed, government sometimes insists that people ‘engage’ when they would prefer not to bother. The engagement often relates to a legal requirements or regulation. For example, no-one (of right mind) would voluntarily engage with local government over the provision of dog licences. Or planning control.
There’s no reason for these engagements to be fussy, complicated or arduous. The problem is, they often are.
However, they needn’t be. Indeed, there’s a compelling argument for taking the fuss and complication out of routine processes – in a way that the commercial sector clearly has.
Earlier this year the Government Digital Service (GDS) published a policy paper that, some might say, stated the obvious:
For government to deliver excellent public services to users it must be equipped to do so properly. A culture of open, digitally enabled policy making and service delivery is critical to our future success. The tools that public servants use, the space they work in and the governance and processes in place to support, enable and assure delivery of brilliant public services are therefore all essential to digital government.
However, the fact that GDS exists, and is addressing these issues, is clearly a step in the right direction. Often the best means of addressing problems is to accept that they exist. In all organisations, there are bound to be people resistant to change. Having a champion to remind everybody that there’s a need for change is clearly a good thing.
There are also different challenges in central and local government. Although, of course, from the citizen’s point of view they often can’t see why government can’t be more joined up to ensure that processes aren’t being duplicated or information unshared.
And, of course, there’s the issue of transformation. Little, piecemeal changes often don’t really have much impact on digital citizen experience or on efficiency benefits hoped for by government itself.
In October last year the Institute for Government published a report called “Making a Success of Digital Government.”
The report addressed this need for transformational change. It also highlighted the approach adopted by GDS when it was established by Francis Maude in 2011. The GDS approach, under Mike Bracken, was not to write grandiose reports that said how digital transformation might be achieved. Rather, it identified major transformational opportunities and set about introducing digital approaches to doing things better.
The GDS ‘exemplar’ programme was an expression of this principle: GDS supported the departments with the highest number of ‘transactions’ with citizens and businesses to quickly develop digital services to demonstrate the value of their methods and principles. Of the original 25 exemplars, 16 are now live, fully operational online services, which collectively processed over 22 million transactions in the past year. In spite of some high-profile failures – such as the withdrawal of online applications in the rural payments exemplar at a crucial moment, and the temporary collapse of the voter registration system prior to the European Union referendum – most have achieved high levels of user satisfaction. Even where the projects did not go live within the original timeframe, the programme catalysed digital activity – for example at the Land Registry, which won an award for its MapSearch service, which grew out of its exemplar project.
This ‘let’s do it’ approach by government is refreshing. At the heart of the approach is a commitment to doing things in a more agile way – rather than fixating on immutable planning and control before looking at the detail of the problem and how the solution might make things better for the consumer of the service – the citizen.
Government can get better. Complexity is no longer an excuse for inaction. And citizens are demanding better services, delivered better. That’s a good thing.