Practical transformation: start by making things a bit less rubbish

I spend quite a lot of time watching people use government websites, and something that often comes across is a sense of anxiety.

People don’t use a government websites in the same way they use news sites, for example — clicking on links until they run out of things they’re interesting in reading. They’re usually looking to complete a specific task, like finding out how much tax they need to pay or applying for a licence to do something.

Getting these things wrong can have serious consequences. An incorrect application can lead to costly delays. And in some cases, it might mean committing a crime.

So you often see people asking themselves: “have I read everything I’m supposed to read?”. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always clear.

Earlier this year, I worked on a project to improve content for exporters on the GOV.UK website.

There are over 30 different government departments and agencies involved in UK border and customs processes. That’s a lot of potential sources of content, and it’s difficult for exporters to be confident that they’ve done everything they need to do.

So, working with colleagues from the Department of International Trade, HM Revenue and Customs and elsewhere in government, we brought the relevant information together in one place. We re-wrote everything so it explains as clearly and concisely as possible how the bits of the process relate to each other. For the first time, there’s a definitive answer to the question: “what paperwork do I need to do in order to export my goods?”.

Explaining an organisation to itself

The new content on GOV.UK is useful to exporters. But less obviously, it’s also useful to government.

Very complex processes like exporting typically involve a lot of different transactions. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to improve all of them at once. And without an understanding of how the whole process works, there’s no guarantee that you’ll make good decisions about how to improve the the transactions.

As a first step, try bringing things the together into an intuitive user journey — explaining clearly who should use them and what they’re for. Make isolated transactions into something that looks more like a service: something which solves a whole problem that’s recognisable to the user.

Then test the thing you’ve made with users. If it’s not quite right, that’s OK: just change it. Words are the cheapest possible medium to experiment in.

By explaining how the whole process works, you’re making the rules behind it visible and comprehensible. And once the rules are visible, it becomes possible to do genuinely transformational things.

You’re not just explaining the organisation to users: you’re explaining the organisation to itself.

If you’re asking users for the same information more than once, that becomes obvious. So you can start to look at whether it makes sense to merge transactions together.

Using your content as a map

And once you have clear rules, you can start to build automated processes on top of them — doing more of the hard work to make things simple for users.

For example, there are lots of different export licences, certificates and other types of permission you might need, depending on what the goods are and where they’re going. Having a clear set of rules about exporting should make life easier for the team building the new import and export licensing system.

This is content that’s not just functioning as content: it’s also acting as a map showing where to go with the next stage of the transformation. And, as mapping guru Simon Wardley says:

“This is the real power of mapping … [it] enables you to take out waste and start learning common patterns.”

Image by JGregor. Used under Creative Commons.