Local government is a complex environment. It’s a challenging organisation to cohesively deliver services in, being made up of hundreds of service transactions across dozens of discrete service areas. It’s a hefty long tail, and local authorities operate with limited (and reducing) resources.
Digital transformation is an unwieldy beast in organisations like this. There’s a lot to it, and there isn’t usually a history of expertise in design and user research. Core web development is frequently outsourced, despite a website having been essential for service delivery for years.
There are a lot of local government organisations working on building new digital services, mostly centred around small in-house web teams. They’re often generalists rather than people with a digital background, and are even more rarely trained in design or service design. In practice, this means that things are created over and over again from scratch (including learning basic principles like user experience and content design).
The outcome for citizens in these locales is then variable quality public services: a postcode lottery. At the worst end, this can even erode trust in government, perpetuating an erroneous stereotype about the inherent capability and quality of public services compared with those from the private sector. As MySociety founder Tom Steinberg recently noted, it
“…threatens the very legitimacy of government as an idea… This problem is particularly acute in local government, where there’s a basic discrepancy between the cost of building good digital services, and the small size of the tax base”.
The recent spending review hasn’t signalled any change to that. The current situation defies rationality. It would make more sense to pool resources and research and design ‘local’ services well, rather than have things created hundreds of times over in order to repeat the same mistakes over and over. The experience and diligence of the best practitioners could then directly benefit all authorities, not just the ones where they happen to be employed.
There are some spurious arguments about the importance of customisation, or local circumstances. But there’s far more commonality than difference across the services provided via local authorities, and this argument does seem more like the acceptable face of not-invented-here syndrome.
We’ve ended up making the administrative unit the thing, rather than the service. Making customers distinguish between which responsibilities lie with the council, and the clinical commissioning group, and the DWP, is not doing the hard work to make it simple. These distinctions do not matter to customers. They shouldn’t matter.
GOV.UK has largely achieved this for central government. The NHS alpha is currently tackling the even more fragmented map of health services. Despite being responsible for a tremendous proportion of public service delivery, a similar approach seems a non-starter for local government. These are viewed as individual issues for individual authorities to be responsible for (a concept which doesn’t derive from user need).
Local government services should be part of the GOV.UK stable, with common content and user journeys designed and maintained by appropriately skilled and resourced teams. Local authorities can then also benefit from GaaP developments like Verify, Pay, and Notify. Then the crucial focus can be on accelerating the adoption of consistent standards for describing services and the data within them.
There’s undoubtedly a mammoth task ahead, and identifying a suitable attack angle is no mean feat (see the NHS Alpha approach for the right idea) . But we’ve got to take a definitive step forward. We can do better for local government digital services than a postcode lookup.