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EXCLUSIVE – Setting and implementing standards for digital services across the UK government

EXCLUSIVE - Setting and implementing standards for digital services across the UK government

OpenGov spoke to Olivia Neal, Deputy Director at Government Digital Services (GDS) UK on the side-lines on the Malaysia OpenGov Leadership Forum 2017. Ms. Neal talked about the new Government Transformation strategy, setting standards and ensuring that they are followed across departments while developing and delivering digital services.

Can you tell us about your role at GDS?

I have been Deputy Director in the Standards Assurance area. Our work involves setting standards for building digital services and for procurement of technology and assuring that we meet those standards across the UK government.

During the past 3 years, we have developed around 200 new digital services across the UK government. My team has been responsible for ensuring that those digital services are of high quality and that they meet user needs.

We look into technology spending as well. We have created the Technology Code of Practice, which sets up mandatory guidelines for how the UK government should design, build and buy technology.

GDS also has the responsibility for making recommendations to the Minister for the Cabinet Office on that spend.

In addition, we advise and support departments to help make better decisions.

I have recently moved to a new role as Deputy Director in the Digital, Data and Technology Capability area of GDS, where we are developing and implementing a model for training civil servants across the UK in these skills, using Digital Academies.

What kind of standards have been set? How do you ensure that the standards are followed across government?

We have the Digital Services Standard, published on GOV.UK. It consists of 18 points, covering things like understanding user needs, working in an agile manner, having a multi-disciplinary team and testing a new service with a Minister.

We are not the experts in the services that departments provide. But we would expect them to understand the users of their services. We want to see  evidence that they have understood their user needs and that they are continually seeking feedback from  users, all the way through the development of digital services.

Departments have to show that they meet those standards, before they can make the service public. The team and the department who are building that service will come in to GDS and we will walk through the service together with them. They will show us their user research, their analysis, and their metrics and performance. And then once the service is public, it will have to display performance metrics[1], to show the public that the service meets those standards.

What are the areas of focus in your team for the next 2-3 years?

In February this year, we launched the new Government Transformation Strategy, which sets out our focus for the next few years.

So far, we have been focusing on transforming individual services. For example, getting a driver’s license, applying for a passport. These are really snapshots of a whole process that a user might be going through. Say if you needed to transport goods across a border, at the moment you might have to deal with the Home Office, Police, Customs,  up to 26 different departments and agencies.

Instead of dealing with each of those separately, how can we join all of those interactions to make that a seamless experience from a user’s point-of-view? Also, to make it less onerous to operate, from the government perspective. One of the big challenges with that is how do we work across different government departments to bring all of that together. It will be a big area of focus, an opportunity as well as a challenge, in the next few years.

So, one of things we will be doing at GDS is to focus on building common components, which will help other government departments to deliver their services more effectively, instead of being involved in individual services. We started couple of years ago, building GOV.UK Verify, which is an online identity assurance solution. We are building on that by creating GOV.UK Notify which is something government services can plug into send text messages, emails or letters to people.

I am also starting work on Digital Academies, training civil servants across government to build up their digital skills and capabilities. We have a Digital Academy which has been successful delivering for one department so far, but we want to grow what is offered and develop  a full curriculum to support Digital Data and Technology professionals across government.

You mentioned the involvement of GDS in technology procurement across government. How has that evolved over the past few years?

During the past few years, we have focused on changing the way government procures and changing the relationship with the private sector. Traditionally the UK government had a small supplier base, primarily from the London area.

One of the challenges that we set ourselves was to open that up to the wider private sector. So that government could work with smaller businesses who had innovative ideas and these businesses wouldn’t have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process.

We introduced the Digital Marketplace, which opens up opportunities to smaller suppliers.

Can you tell us about how GDS is collaborating with foreign governments?

I think that is a really exciting area. There are examples where other governments have used what GDS has done. For instance, the New Zealand government and the Israeli government have used the code that we developed for GOV.UK to build their own government websites.

I just mentioned the Digital Marketplace. The Australian government have used our code to help launch their own version of digital marketplace. Now the Australian and UK teams have a shared backdoor. As developments happen, as the Australians improve their project, we can benefit from the improvements that they are doing.

The context can vary, but a lot of the challenges we are facing in governments around the world are very similar. How do we fix procurement, how do we set digital standards, how do we meet user needs? These are common themes.

Understanding the needs of users and citizens is a common mantra. But how can this be done? How does GDS understand user needs?

It’s not easy. It has to be an ongoing process. We have a specialist profession in the UK government now, that of a user researcher. Their job is to be embedded with the team and to spend their time, understanding from the beginning what need a government service is trying to meet and how it might link with other services.

Sometimes that means doing less than we did before. Because we as government might be doing things that people didn’t actually need. Maternity pay is a good example of this. We used to provide a lot of very detailed information, absolutely everything people are legally entitled to know. When we tested with people we realised that actually what most people needed was just a figure telling them how much pay they will be entitled to when they are on maternity leave.

As the project is being developed and we have a prototype, we will take that and we will sit down with 20-30 users and ask them to go through it, while we observe them.

We have a user research lab in GDS which is a room with computers equipped with eye tracking software. We would watch someone trying to complete a service and see where they struggle, where they didn’t really understand the language, where they missed some important information because it was on a different part of the screen. Then we would keep doing our development based on the user research.

And we make sure that the developers went and observed user research. Because we think it is really important that people who are developing services understand and feel close to the users.

For me, as a civil servant, it is such an exciting area because you feel close to the users of the services. The really important thing is that we are talking to the actual users of services, rather than talking to a stakeholder group or a representative body.

The UK government has been at the top of the UN e-government survey. What needs to be done to maintain that leading position?

I think it’s going to be really hard. There are so many countries are doing such amazing work.

I think it is really important that we keep sharing what we are doing and learning from other countries as well, learning from their best practices.

We must remember to look outwards. We all have our own targets we need to deliver and our own priorities. But if we forget to look around and see what other people are doing we are missing opportunities to learn and improve more quickly.

I think the idea of leapfrogging is a great one. It’s always been very important to us that we stay open about what we are doing. We try and blog a lot, we try to communicate, we come to conferences like this.

Do you see any impact of political developments during the past year on the GDS agenda?

I don’t think it changes much for us. Our mission is to transform the relationship between the citizens and state, which means providing services that meet people’s needs and removing the friction between users and government. That mission hasn’t change

[1]Four metrics are tracked: Cost per transaction (average cost to government of each transaction), User satisfaction (based on user ratings of the service), Completion rate (percentage of people who successfully complete a government service), Digital take-up (percentage of people using government services online compared to other methods (eg phone or post)

Olivia Neal spoke about ‘Transforming the relationship between citizen and state’ at the Malaysia OpenGov Leadership Forum on March 16, 2017.

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