I came back to CAST in Autumn 2017 after a year working in the Government Digital Service (GDS). Seeing their work has taught me a lot about how to systematically transform digital service delivery across a sector.
A few months on and after some reflection, I think there’s a lot the charity sector could learn from GDS, despite differences between the two sectors. There are some very practical things we could implement that would fundamentally reshape how charities design and deliver digital services that are driven by, and meet, the needs of their communities.
Here are my top seven:
We need digital design principles for the charity sector. These aren’t just good guidance on how to develop digital solutions, they are a rallying cry about how we want to work. Digital design principles play many useful roles. They shape the culture of a digital delivery team, inform strategy, help people new to technology orientate themselves about how to work, and help experienced organisations stay on track.
High level principles are useful, but only go so far. When you’re building a digital service you need criteria to follow to ensure you’re doing it effectively. This means key activities, like starting with user needs, using meaningful metrics, and building robust technology are embedded in every service. The GDS Service Standards are a great example of this, but we need to develop criteria that are specific for the charity sector. This will give charities and funders the confidence that what they’re building or funding is fit for purpose.
For those new to developing technology, knowing what criteria to meet is useful, but it’s not enough. They need support on how to do it. The GDS Service Manual does this for government – it takes the best guidance around digital service delivery and adapts it to government. Crucially though, it’s kept up to date as lessons are learnt. The charity sector needs its own tailored guidance that outlines how digital services should be built, suitable for their unique situation. There are some useful guides out there about growing digital capacity and choosing the right technology for your project. But what we’re missing is something gives nuts and bolts of putting together a service in the charity sector and has resource to keep it updated with ongoing best practice from the field.
If you’re building a digital service, you need a clear sense of progress and direction. What are the milestones a digital service should hit? What should it be doing in each stage of development? The phases of an agile project gave government clarity about what a team should be doing and when. An adaption of these phases would give clarity to both funders and charities through the product life cycle. Shift worked alongside CAST and a number of innovative funders to explore what these could look like for social tech organisations.
At CAST, we work with a lot of charities to design and develop digital solutions. Often we find charities are trying to solve very similar problems. We try to reuse and share approaches as far as possible, but as one organisation, we have limited capacity to do this. This sharing and re-purposing is one thing GDS has nailed. Their design patterns are reusable designs and service interactions that can be applied across government. This saves everyone time and money by not ‘reinventing the wheel’ – a common lament in our sector. This open approach to reusable patterns is something that would benefit the charity sector a lot, saving scant resources and ensuring best practice is followed.
One of the areas that GDS has focussed on a lot in recent years is ‘Government as a Platform’, building and developing shared technologies that underpin other government services. This has ranged from notification services through to data infrastructure. This means that new government services don’t have to waste time and money rebuilding or procuring these elements. More investment in common platforms for the third sector could save resource, enabling charities to focus their limited funds and personnel on building the core elements of digital services that align with their expertise.
People who are excited about developing better digital public services work across the whole of government, not just in GDS. And this community is supported by discipline-specific meetup groups and other practice-sharing events. This means knowledge and expertise is spread peer-to-peer across government at a much wider scale than could be achieved with organisation-to-organisation programmes. We already have a flourishing tech for good community (if you want to engage with it consider going to a Tech for Good meetup, Netsquared event or look at Tech for Good Global). However these are all run by committed people and organisations above and beyond their day jobs. A systematic support of these type of networks could enable strong peer learning around digital to scale across the charity sector.
I put these seven areas forward as a conversation starter for us all working in this space. Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think the charity sector needs in order to enable systemic change in the way we use digital?