Citizen Experience Digital Transformation Uncategorized

Apps, Platforms and Government

This one of a series of articles focused on transformation of government service, produced in association with Equiniti

A few years ago, we were discussing the app economy. Apps (i.e. applications, typically, on mobile devices) were revolutionary, or so it appeared. Everyone wanted an app and tech entrepreneurs fell over themselves to get in on the act. Even government departments and local authorities rolled out apps.

But not all apps were created equal. The app market became the ultimate long-tail exemplar – people used a few apps, but most of the rest were wannabes.

The problem with many of the apps was that they weren’t joined up. Each had to do its own convincing of its own importance. After a while, they failed. They were deleted. They died.

There’s something allegorical about the app story. Apps continue to be important – we all use them. But apps aren’t important in themselves…they are merely windows into information. Some provide huge vistas into a vast, connected world. Some don’t.

The API economy, on the other hand, is something different.

Where many apps were standalone and insignificant, APIs provide for a joined-up world of possibilities. The API economy is as important for government as the private sector. Here’s how an article in Forbes defined APIs (and why they’re important):[1]

APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) are the components that enable diverse platforms, apps, and systems to connect and share data with each other.  Think of APIs as a set of software modules, tools, and protocols that enable two or more platforms, systems and most commonly, applications to communicate with each other and initiate tasks or processes. APIs are essential for defining and customizing Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) too. Cloud platform providers all have extensive APIs defined and work in close collaboration with development partners to fine-tune app performance using them.

In short, APIs allow applications to be built without the need to constantly reinvent the wheel.

In a government context, this is very significant. APIs allow applications and user interfaces to share critical information and processes. But it also means that government can become more like a platform than a set of apps that don’t talk. This makes the process of government more seamless, less annoying and much, much more efficient.

The Institute for Government (IfG) has recognised this. In its report published in June (Improving the Management of Digital Government) it pointed out how the cyber-attack that took down hospitals and doctor surgeries across the UK (largely because Old PC operating systems hadn’t been updated) showed the fragility of government IT.  It also called into question the role of the Government Digital Service. The report, while recognising that the UK was considered to have one of the most digitally developed e-governments, also laid out what more could be done.

More recently, Francis Maude, the former government minister who created the Government Digital Service, also criticised the civil service in terms of its embracing of the need for greater efficiency and reform. In his speech, delivered in September 2017, he said, “imperceptibly, inch by inch, with a control dropped here or not enforced there, the old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging, with nothing to restrain the old unreconstructed behaviours from taking hold once more.”

The Civil Service and GDS hit back. But regardless of whether criticism is due it’s clear that there are rewards waiting if the government can reject the departmental baronies and move towards an API-focused model for government.

The IfG Report defined what needed to be done:

  • GDS should create a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the public sector that encourages reuse and supports the development of API standards.
  • The Government should urgently clarify the roles of GOV.UK Verify and the Government Gateway, to spread the benefits of secure identity verification.
  • GDS needs to manage the market for digital services more actively, by: a) configuring the Digital Marketplace for different users b) ensuring that standards are enforced with vendors, including on shared services, to save money and provide a better service for users.
  • GDS should work with the Treasury to review practices around charging for sharing data within government and the public sector, and establish principles so that incentives to share data adequately reflect the public interest.

Sharing is the watch-word here. The creation of an API store for the public sector works to ensure reusability of core information assets – meaning that complex processes can be made seamless as far as the citizen is concerned.

Many of the services provided by government require (currently) multiple systems to be accessed independently of each other. That’s why the IfG is right to highlight the importance of identity verification. Silo verification is a key reason why interoperability doesn’t work within government – and it’s also a major source of citizen frustration.

With a commitment to efficiency and reform within government we’re tantalisingly close to all- digital government service. However, the government needs to create its own API economy before that’s achieved.


Citizen Experience Digital Transformation

The Emergence of the digital-native citizen

This one of a series of articles focused on transformation of government service, produced in association with Equiniti

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 little wifi-connected buttons to allow their customers to order (and have delivered) goods with just one push, government seems, by comparison, sluggish and complicated. 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.[1]

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, bitty bits of change 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.[2]

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.



Digital Transformation

How flexible tech can support business innovation and imagination

This one of a series of articles focused on transformation of government service, produced in association with Equiniti

Government services also need to be able to respond quickly to policy changes and the needs of the public.[1]

Agility and flexibility are the modern watchwords associated with the provision of digital services – and government is very much in the business of providing digital services. However, the way government services were delivered in the past didn’t allow for a great deal of flexibility or change. Therefore, by reimagining government service it’s possible to introduce innovative ways of doing things. In the process, it’s possible to transform how government performs.

The government’s own ‘digital service standard’ is a set of 18 criteria, defined by the Government Digital Service (GDS), “to help government create and run good government services.”

However, point 4 mandates the use of ‘agile, iterative and user-centred methods’ to build services. A key element of agility is to create services that are built around citizen need. The digital service standard states that agile methods make services better by meeting the needs of service users; create services that are easier and more convenient for people to use; are more easily changed e.g. if government policy or technology policy changes; can be improved in the light of feedback; cost less and are more accountable.

Therefore, the government is essentially mandating better, more agile approaches to service provision to improve services. An obvious question is, how well has it done? Another would be, to what extent are poor, complex and manual services are being replaced?

To answer these questions, it’s necessary to look at the nature of government and the nature of the problem. In many government departments, there is little incentive to innovate. It’s all about mitigating down-side risk. If a new service offer fails (and there have been many well publicised cases of this happening) it’s easier if a service provider (typically a large IT company) is seen to be the problem.

In addition, according to Nick Tune of the Agile Alliance (a former Project leader in government), “there is no pressure to turn a profit or out iterate competitors by developing software faster. In fact, I saw a government agency completely crippled by fear. Fear of changing anything to avoid negative publicity, resulting in little effort to change. If GDS did not strictly enforce standards, I am certain there would be no meaningful progress in government IT.”[2]

But the focus is now on agile and embracing innovative delivery approaches. There is evidence that the message is getting through. There have been imaginative moves forward, even in areas that might be considered relatively mundane.

GDS announced in 2013 that it intended to transform 25 major services. 20 are now publicly available, with 5 still in development. Some have been very successful and are clearly transformative – such as online voter registration and student finance applications.

The exemplar projects have shown what’s possible, with many services bedding-down into the public consciousness very quickly. Indeed, online voter registration probably had a direct bearing on the result of the last UK general election given the appeals by all parties for youth voters to embrace online registration.

The key point about these new, innovative services is that complexity wasn’t considered to be a sufficient reason why the new service couldn’t be attempted. Indeed, with agile methods, complexity is no longer a valid excuse. Rather the focus is on delivering a service that is adopted and seamlessly integrates.

The challenge is to ensure that such approaches are adopted by local government as well.

Local government in the United Kingdom is not one ‘thing’ – rather county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs have differing roles and responsibilities. Each council also has its own organisational structure and decision-making processes. The result is that ‘local government’ is highly fragmented.

A recent report by the local government focused think-tank[3], the LGIU, published in April 2017 – and based on a survey of 279 councils – concluded that digital decisions were typically not taken by very senior people in councils.

This means that councils may not be receiving the mandate that GDS has provided in central government for service roll-out to be more ambitious and innovative.

On a more encouraging note, the LGIU’s report also revealed that local authority councillors wanted to be much better informed about the transformational benefits that technology could bring. Perhaps they will be the catalyst that’s needed to ensure that digital approaches to service delivery match citizen expectations.

Produced in association with Equiniti