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EXCLUSIVE - The New Zealand Government’s Lab+ experiment - Testing a fundamental change in the service delivery model

Image: Ms. Pia Waugh on the big screen at the Inspire Centre, University of Canberra during GovHack event (cropped from photo by Gavin Tapp)

The Service Innovation Team in the Department of Internal Affairs(DIA) in New Zealand government has embarked on an exciting three-month experiment, called Lab+, for testing a new model of government services based on the concept of “government as a platform.”

It is a part of the New Zealand government’s Better Public Services Result 10 agenda (“New Zealanders can complete their transactions with government easily in a digital environment”).

OpenGov contacted Ms. Pia Waugh1, who is leading Lab+ to learn more about the experiment.

Can you give us an introduction to Lab+ and the idea and drivers behind it?  Life is about people, not agencies. When people contact government they usually want to do something broader than the agency’s scope, but often services reflect agency priorities and silos. As we move to a digital-by-default model of service provision we need to place customers at the centre of service design but we also need a model for agencies to enable cross-agency, cross-government and cross-sector service delivery. 

Lab+ is an experiment to explore how we can do this in a sustainable, scalable and effective way, that taps into the needs and natural motivations of individuals, agencies, private/community sectors, and the system as a whole.

We are not simply looking to digitise government, but rather we are exploring "government as a platform", how it was always supposed to be. An ecosystem of service delivery where government provides the authoritative data, content, transaction services and business rules for not just improving its own service delivery, but also enabling others to build on top.

Lab+ is also an “innovation lab” for government providing a mechanism to bring together design, technology, information management and agile development for more rapid and targeted service design and development. Lab+ is one of the cross-agency teams based in the Service Innovation Lab, which is itself an experiment in providing collaborative spaces, coaching and tools for service delivery teams to work differently. Lab+ relies on and could not work without the Lab environment.

How was the team formed, bringing in representatives from across government? How is the private sector participating?  

At this stage, it is a small experiment involving some highly skilled public servants from several agencies as well as private sector companies providing a collaborative space, additional expertise and capacity where required. It is a perfect blend of the best of both worlds, with the strategy and vision being driven, co-designed and implemented by a diverse range of skills, experience and perspectives that span the private and public sectors. We have also made the effort to build a team of creative thinkers from different disciplines including design, technology and dev, information, policy and data science. 

But our team extends a lot further. We are taking an open approach by making all our thinking, design, research, development and code available as it is done. In this way, our "team" is not limited to the people in the room, but rather we can draw on clever and motivated individuals all over the world to contribute their ideas, provide peer review on our work, and test our assumptions and prototyping. We consider openness a key tenet to developing the kinds of government services and policies that people need in the 21st century. 

What would you describe as the key characteristics of the approach being used for this experiment?

Open, co-designed, inclusive, scientifically approached, multi-disciplinary, empowering, and big picture.

We are not just building a new service. We are testing a fundamental model change for government. We are not just applying future thinking design, information and technology principles, we are considering how the system as a whole needs to work if government is to be a sustainable enabler of a better society and the digital economy, 

What kind of life events the team might be looking at? What would be the process for the discovery of the two candidate life events? 

We will talk about which life events in the coming weeks, but our process is both quite straightforward, and quite innovative. We are, of course, following a service design approach to determine the user needs, journey mapping, pain points and to inform a user centred design. However, we are also treating the broader system (agencies, non-government service providers, and developers) as users, and mapping their needs as well. We are also looking at the system as a whole which naturally traverses agencies and sectors, and analysing user research and other service design work done by individual agencies to date to inform, validate and test our assumptions about the user needs.

We are taking our discovery work above and using it to build a mockup future state "service" from the users’ perspective. This future state will purposefully not be constrained by sector, agency, technology, legislation or any other form of limitation, but rather will imagine what "good" could look like from a user’s perspective. Usually, user centred design results in a minimal viable product (MVP) that tries to simply solve one problem for the user, or to improve existing services, but our hypothesis is that this approach is actually reinforcing the status quo with shiny new user interfaces, which doesn't fundamentally change very much.

This future state mockup then allows us to extrapolate two things. Firstly, a true MVP can be built that has 5-15% of the functionality of the future state, meaning you can both improve the users experience straight away whilst also being able to then iterate your way towards something transformative.

The second thing the future state provides is a vision for what good looks like, which we can test with users and use to understand what is needed. We can effectively reverse engineer this mockup to identify the functional requirements for government to deliver such services. It will help us identify the common capabilities we need as well as what is needed from individual agencies in how they expose their data, content, transaction services and business rules for their own consumption, and for non-government reuse. We intend to also document examples of good that already exist across government and how they can contribute to a broader systemic change.

Can you tell us more about the concept of ‘verifiable claims’?

This concept is one of my favourites for government. The context is that a lot of "digital government" initiatives just assume the underpinning process should be automated, but what if we could do things fundamentally better.

Many processes in government were established before computers, in the analog days of paper (or possibly stone tablets) and other physical artefacts. Oftentimes we have built digital processes that mimic these ideas. Consider the plague of electronic documents generated in government, and how much money has been spent in trying to manage, version control and archive these "digital assets" when we often don't need a document at all. We can communicate through myriad means including messaging, wikis, data and many more. But fundamentally, we have duplicated analog communications by continually transferring knowledge through human communications rather than machine to machine.

Why do we develop government budgets and then publish them in a PDF? Why do we develop regulations and legislation (arguably the business logic of government and the economy) and then publish them in lawyer speak, from which a lawyer has to translate into a business logic for consumption and use in the business? The answer is that we have not yet recognised the efficiency and benefits of digital communications of ideas, rules and processes.

New technologies enable us, and the incredible machines we build, to work in completely new ways. Why would you ask someone to send you 10 pieces of information that you can then use to validate their claim of eligibility when you could make the rules of eligibility available, and simply ask them (or an agent on their behalf, like an employer or bank) whether they meet the eligibility test? Why not differentiate between information we need to share for its own sake (a name perhaps, to establish a customer record), and information that we currently just use to validate a claim? 

If we were to adopt a verifiable claims approach to the business of government, two key benefits emerge. Firstly, the citizen has improved control and privacy because they don't need to have bits of their information being copied and pasted to systems all over government. Citizens also don't have to share personal information, like how much they earn, to verify they meet the criteria, for example a means test. Similarly, you shouldn't have to share your name, date of birth and address to buy alcohol if you can prove you are over 18.

The benefit for government in this approach is the significant reduction in processing, data transfer, storage and other systems. When combined with user consent based information sharing government can also get rid of the need to validate paper artefacts as authentic, because the user would be able to either share a verified claim condition, or authorise the sharing of digital information from the authoritative source.

Can you give us some example of how verifiable claims might be implemented in practice?

Blockchain would be an appropriate technology to deploy for the implementation of verifiable claims. A means test is a good example of how that would work. Here are the business rules of the means test. Let’s publish the business rules and then let’s have a blockchain transaction that says if you agree for us to speak to the taxation department or your bank or your employer then we can effectively do another transaction with them and ask the questions to decide if the person meets the means test based on these rules.  It would then verify that claim and produce an immutable record that captures the rules of that transaction at that point of time and the result is of that transaction.

As I mentioned earlier, this would enable us to differentiate between sharing information because it needs to be shared and verifying claims based on conditional questions where you don’t actually need to share the information.

What are the expected outcomes of this experiment? What would success look like? 

We intend to show what good could look like, both in the future and today. We will deliver a first iteration service based on a life event that can then be iterated towards a genuinely transformative future state.

We will provide demonstrator reusable services for existing services to consume. Success will be in testing our design and technical assumptions, in understanding what a true user centric service could look like, in understanding what government needs to do to move in this direction, in testing whether the innovation lab model delivers better services, in validating with the broader community and industry their needs and potential role in this model of service delivery, and in understanding the broader benefits of new approaches to government services.

We will also measure success through the improvements for the user in the MVP service. Ideally, should this experiment be successful, measuring and monitoring success would require all of a government services analytics capability, but we will do our best to approach this experiment as scientifically as we can.

What are the biggest challenges foreseen? 

We don't actually expect any major challenges, apart from charting new ground. The time is right, the conditions are favourable, the people and agencies are supportive, and New Zealand has some of the most mature thinking and effort I have personally encountered in this space. It is such a pleasure and privilege to work with such innovative and forward thinking people, not just in our team, but across all the public sector and broader community. This is a short, sharp 3-month experiment that we have designed intentionally to not rely on any one factor, so that every new collaboration, function or opportunity is sugar on top. Every lesson learned will be a step forward for New Zealand, and this is an opportunity to do something quite remarkable. The DIA’s Service Innovation team, wlook forward to sharing with you our progress and success in a couple of months time. Please follow along at @NZLifeEvents or the Service Innovation Lab posts at https://webtoolkit.govt.nz/blog/tag/service-innovation-lab/

1Ms. Pia Waugh has extensive experience working in the public sector to enable greater transparency, democratic engagement, citizen-centric design and real, pragmatic actual innovation in the public sector and beyond. In September 2016, Ms. Waugh started working at Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) the Australian financial intelligence and regulation agency, looking at international engagement, open data and APIs, and introducing hackathons for the financial sector. Her previous positions include Director for Data Infrastructure and Government Engagement in the Australian Government Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and prior to that, Director for Gov 2.0 and Coordination, Technology and Procurement Division at the Department of Finance in Australia.

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