Dan Wintercross
6 min readApr 8, 2022

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Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

What makes good public services?

Having worked across the public sector in a number of Government departments, Local Authorities and the NHS and experienced first hand some of the extraordinary achievements to deliver the changes required for Brexit as well as the plethora of complex services stood up to support the fight against COVID-19, I often ask myself what makes good public services?

Before delving in, it’s worth briefly defining what a (public) service is; loosely it is something that enables a user to do something, such as learn to drive, register to vote or apply for a passport. Importantly, however, public services in most cases are not a choice, users cannot go elsewhere in the market to get the outcome they need, such as applying for a state benefit, this therefore requires these services to work for everybody.

Many of us working in government and the wider public sector will know what makes a good service (grounded in a firm understanding of your users needs, adhering to the Service Standard, accessible, and utilising technology to enable scalability). However, it is evident across the vast array of services delivered to the public that how good and usable a service is, varies considerably.

What enables good services?

In order to understand what makes a good service it is vital to have an appreciation of what enables the design and build of good services. By enable I mean the organisational set up, mindset, ambition, risk appetite, culture, funding models, and the nature of the leadership in the organisation. Does the leadership for example buy in to building user centred services in the right way?

We have come a long way in the UK over the last twelve years or so. We have the Service Standard established by the Government Digital Service and the NHS’, award winning design patterns and a growing and thriving Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) community. However, we still have significant inconsistencies in relation to the way we design and build services across the public sector, resulting in varying experiences for our users, citizens, organisations and businesses.

Of course, it’s important to recognise that organisations and sectors within the wider public sector have their own set ups, legacy technology, culture and financial constraints. But, the last six years have shown that the public sector and Government is capable of reacting, evolving and delivering at pace.

Based on the scale of work delivered for Brexit swiftly followed by the extraordinary challenge to provide COVID-19 services, I think it’s clear the public have (rightly) become accustomed to services that work for them, whatever their needs. What’s more, from accessible mass testing services to the not-so-popular passenger locator forms for travel, it’s now also clear these services’ successes or shortcomings will be debated in the public sphere more than ever.

This is why it’s important to recognise the significant number of complex services delivered in response to COVID-19 were largely effective and met the user needs because the voices of user centred, product centric people were heard loud and clear by those at the top.

Paradoxically, the pandemic provided an opportunity for the Government, Local Authorities, NHS and wider public sector to learn at scale how users engage with services. In many ways, this has enabled a resetting of the dynamic and relationship between the public and providers of public services, based on trust.

The thousands of hours of user research and the volume of data and insights gathered from COVID-19 services will no doubt help future service design in the years to come. Arguably, the starting point for citizens engaging with these services will also be built on stronger foundations of more trust from the public in public services. Looking forward, it should be and is becoming the norm that more and more services are accessible via your smart phone or computer, when and where you want, in the comfort of your own home or on the move.

How do we scale and drive at consistency in services in the public sector?

Despite swathes of government (local and central) and the NHS delivering effective user centred services, it begs the question, how do we ensure that all public services across the UK are designed and built to better meet the needs of our users? This is not a new question but the reality still shows there remains significant differences in the understanding and appreciation of what a good service looks like and how you deliver them, or dare I say, whether this is important.

As mentioned, we have thriving communities working with the same goals in mind (X gov, X NHS Slack channels, Services Week, NHS UCD maturity models and the NHS UCD working group) but for real change to take place at pace, we need our leaders to be committed and equipped to implement the DDaT framework, from policy and communication professionals, to hospital operations directors, clinicians and Local Authority housing teams. Within government this is being championed by the great work in the Cabinet Office initiative to drive at refreshing the leadership framework to be more attuned to the opportunities and the vital need for a DDaT, User Centred Design (UCD) mindset in our leadership.

The capability and appreciation of DDaT and UCD from our leaders is fundamentally important to ensure we have an effective leadership in critical roles in the public sector. Without this we will not be able to deliver the standard of services we need to, but this is only half of the puzzle, a strong(er) network across the public sector that understands the value of what a good service looks like is needed.

How do we instil ‘a way of working’ that is tried and tested and consistently deployed across the public sector?

We are making inroads in central government, the next stage is to scale this to ensure that from a holistic service offering, the public sector as a whole takes the same user centred, consistent approach, adhering to the service standards, sharing best practice and reusing components. All of this will help to drive at economies of scale and return on investment, which will be vital in the current economic climate, ‘post’ pandemic.

As is evident the delivery of any service often touches and integrates with various other parts of the public sector. Achieving the aim of designing and building consistently good public services will only be possible by strengthening ties and further joining up central government, the wider NHS ecosystem, Local Authorities and the third sector.

By building and growing this network of DDaT grounded and user centred leadership we can be confident that we are all moving in the same direction to ensure we deliver good services for our users and serve as a reference point in delivering good services to the public, across the world. A consistent standard and ‘look and feel’ of services can only help to drive user satisfaction and trust from the public, which is arguably the most difficult sentiment to achieve.

The value of getting this right, establishing a leadership network that understands the value of DDaT and user centred design cannot be underestimated in terms of delivering better citizen/patient outcomes. Complementing this with the enormous efficiencies that would be enabled by a more connected public sector stands to establish an as yet unattainable consistency in the quality of public services.

For real change to take place in the wider public sector, to deliver against the objective of delivering good public services, it needs to start from the top. As stated on the posters of the recent Government Services Week 2022, with tongue in cheek, Services are too important to be left to Digital’.

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Dan Wintercross

Product leader with an interest in helping organisations to design and build products and services that work for their users (the public!).