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April 27, 2021

Focus on the user

We’ve been talking about public service reform for so long now, and with so little to show for it, it’s as if we don’t expect it to happen anymore. And in this context, when we talk about technology and digital innovation, our public services tend to assume they can simply incorporate technology into existing systems in order to move faster or more cheaply. But this, argues Chris Yui, is to completely miss the point and the potential of digital to transform the public service relationship. The laser focus of the design process has to be – what does the user need?

Chris Yui, Tony Blair Institute

A lot of governments still think about technology as something they can graft onto their existing ways of working to make things run a little bit faster and / or cheaper. What many fail to grasp is that real digital transformation runs much deeper: not just seeking to improve industrial-era bureaucracies at the margins but rather to re-imagine them altogether for the internet era.

If you could X-ray institutions then peering inside a truly digital state would reveal something set up very differently to its predecessors, like comparing an iPhone to an IBM 700 Series or Google to the Library of Congress.

But what we didn’t talk so much about last time is motivation — and motivation for public sector reform comes in two very different guises.

A lot of public sector reform activity is driven by instrumental motivation. In other words, it’s done in the hope that it will lead to something else: saving money, stopping complaints about a failing service, consolidating power, getting re-elected, or one of the countless other things vying for leaders’ attention.

Governments that are used to operating under this sort of direction tend to look inward, and to organise around a hierarchy of needs that puts themselves at the top.

The counterpoint to this is reform driven by fundamental motivation. From this perspective public sector reform has inherent value; progressive leaders champion it so that the public can better and more freely enjoy the benefits and security the state exists to provide.

This is where the comparison between running a country and running a company is most instructive. A company put in charge of the business of government would view the citizen as the customer — and consequently build government services around them based on a sophisticated understanding of user needs.

The late Clayton Christensen described his jobs to be done theory as follows: the customer has a job to do and will hire the best product or service to get it done.

The threat that a competitor will provide customers with a better alternative forces businesses to focus relentlessly on user needs. Tech companies in particular owe a lot of their success to their proficiency at translating an understanding of customer needs into service design and product strategy.

Google indexes web content, but the job to be done is finding answers, which helps to explain why snippets and cards now appear alongside links on search results pages. Tapping on the Uber app requests a car, but the job to be done is getting easily from A to B, which is why things like maps and payments are a core part of the experience.

Apply this lens to public services and it’s clear that many of the touchpoints between citizens and the state are still optimised for government silos and historic processes, not for people or the lives they lead.

Every time you’re asked to call between 9am and 5pm to complete a transaction, or required to print out and return a paper form to get something done, or a service is impossible to find in the first place without an intimate knowledge of the machinery of government — all are stark reminders of just how far there is still to go.

There are of course instances of great user experience design in and around the public sector. Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is one iconic example: while most maps drawn at the time tried to stay true to surface geography, he realised that for passengers the job to be done was getting from one station to another.

More broadly, in our increasingly digital lives we’ve come to expect both great usability and a high and rising standard of customer service. The best digital services present information in ways that are easy to navigate and understand, communicate with us using channels that suit our lifestyles, are sensitive to our personal circumstances, make transactions quick and simple, give us status updates at our convenience, and so on.

Governments are getting better at this: Estonia is out in front (of course), and for some time now many countries have tried to organise official websites around citizens’ interactions with government.

Investments in digital infrastructure like GOV.UK Notify (for notifications) and a renewed appreciation for service standardspattern libraries and inclusive design, along with collaborative projects like FixMyStreet Platform (for civic issue tracking), have made it significantly easier for public sector teams to focus on user needs.

All of this is welcome and long overdue. It’s also only the start: political leaders in particular need to realise that, in the end, delivering on user needs isn’t about changing websites but rather about changing government itself.

After all, an obsolete operating model made incrementally better is still an obsolete operating model (if you don’t believe me, ask Blockbuster).

Show, don’t tell

There is huge potential to improve public services by fusing digital technologies with a laser focus on user needs. There are also some important considerations that weigh more heavily on the state than on private companies.

Unlike companies, governments can’t choose their customers or opt out of serving difficult demographics. Techniques intended to optimise for commercial metrics like engagement or conversion may not be appropriate for public services. User needs for many public services can be much more complex than for consumer products — in healthcare for example, there are clinical needs, practical needs and emotional needs to consider. And the public is complicated; the many and varied things citizens want from government may well add up to incompatible demands and inconsistent priorities.

Some people see this complexity as a reason to push back on bringing more of a business mindset into public service delivery. But retreating to tired debates about the size of the state and the extent of privatisation is a sideshow that a busy public has little patience for and that progressives ought not to indulge.

For too long now, governments’ monopolies on public service delivery have insulated them from the internet revolution.

At first, as the gap between our experiences as citizens and as internet-era consumers started to widen, it was easy to shrug it off. Being on the cutting edge of innovation is exciting but also risky and expensive, and not where we expect most public services to be.

Now that great digital experiences are commonplace in our lives, however, a yawning chasm between the user experience in public services and everything else may be a bigger risk that many political leaders realise — particularly if repeated disappointment causes some people seriously to question the point of speaking up, showing up to vote or paying the tax they owe.

But this risk is also an opportunity for leaders bold enough to rise to the challenge. Technology makes it easier than ever before for new collaborations to build and deploy services that do a much better job of meeting user needs.

Modern states that put citizens’ needs first will measure themselves not by what they themselves control, but by what they make possible for the people they serve. In many cases a public sector entity will still be best placed to meet user needs. But other times the state will do far better by providing the digital platforms and infrastructure upon which companies, social enterprises, charities and communities can innovate.

It’s even possible that, with enough imagination, political parties of the future will win support not by writing grand manifestos or crafting viral tweets, but by shipping better public services — whether they find themselves in government or in opposition.