• Dan Smith, Partner |
5 min read

There has always been an expectation that government services are efficient and responsive. But the public is expecting more.

Most citizens are now tech savvy and are familiar with accessing services through digital channels. There is now a natural expectation that government services are also joined-up, tech enabled, easy to find, easy to access, simple and intuitive. Some great strides across UK Government are being made in response, but few would argue there isn’t a long way to go.

On one hand, many cross-government initiatives continue to progress well - from the one login programme, modernising legacy technology estates, updating digital functional standards and continuing to improve cyber security. In parallel, the shared services strategy is driving efficiencies across Department Finance, HR and Commercial functions through common policies, processes and technology.

But when we turn to the front office – or citizen facing services – things get a lot more complex. Typically, services have been developed in isolation with single products or outcomes in mind. Many challenges are preventing us from getting to where we want to be – from data quality, interoperability and privacy issues to governance and funding challenges.

How can we overcome these barriers? In my view, we need to define some simple, common principles and be relentlessly guided by them. In other words, we need to be very clear about ‘what’ we are seeking to achieve and ‘how’ we will deliver it together.

What principles should we be guided by?

Firstly, joined-up services should be designed with the citizen at the heart:

  • All demographic groups should be catered for – in particular those that are less tech savvy or those that have specific service access needs.
  • Solutions should be modular in nature so they can be easily evolved or upgraded.
  • Processes should be designed with an optimum outcome in mind but this should not dictate everything – the so called ‘unhappy path’ also needs to feature more prominently. Sometimes the effort and associated costs in resolving service issues for the minority of cases can outweigh the benefits obtained from the majority

Secondly, services should be designed end to end and holistically from the outset – transcending traditional Department boundaries and making sure the right capabilities are in place across three layers:

  • Enterprise layer – making sure services align to policy goals and ensuring the right enabling cultures are in place.
  • Operations layer – building, maintaining and evolving services across functions and supply chains.
  • Technology layer – empowering DDaT teams to put the architectural and data building blocks in place to robustly build, run and scale the services.

Finally, and importantly, there needs to be much better sharing of high quality data. By definition, joined-up services need joined-up data. Moreover, without consistent and high quality data, the benefits of automation and AI will always be out of reach. Much of our public service data however still sits in silos, and is of low quality due to errors, duplications or a lack of consistent structures. This means that analysts often spend two thirds of their time cleaning and manipulating data before they can actually do anything useful with it – a huge drain on our valuable resources.

Government can learn from the private sector here. For example, financial institutions are already combining large datasets from multiple sources at scale and pace to provide complex services such as Know Your Customer and Anti-Money Laundering checks. Large, cumbersome data sets aren’t required here – just targeted, high quality data that supports the precise service needs. In this sense, less is very much more.

How can we deliver on this?

Then we come to the how and I would call out three key aspects here.

Firstly, Funding. We need to think differently about how best we can apply the commercial vehicles at our disposal to support joined-up working. Benefits should be considered holistically – in terms of not just the immediate and primary benefits that investments can enable but also the longer-term secondary benefits that they unlock. When preparing large business cases – typically in line with green book principles – increasingly so called ‘programme cases’ should be considered, with appropriate HM Treasury consultation. This will help move towards phased funding models to maintain delivery momentum in agile environments and minimise exposure to big funding injections which can sometimes feel like sink or swim moments for all involved.

Secondly, Governance. Joined-up service transformation programmes are challenging traditional delivery methods that many of us have become accustomed to – stretching our complex stakeholder webs even further. When a service spans multiple Departments, a lead Department should be elected to drive the transformation forward. To be successful, this model should be underpinned by a clear memorandum of understanding between Departments and well-defined lines ownership and accountability – in both strategic and operational terms – that cover all teams involved.

Finally, Trust. There is still a long way to go in building trust with the average citizen. Some remain sceptical about the benefits of joined-up services if it means they need to share more of their personal data. We should proactively recognise this challenge and not only enhance privacy and data security across the services, but also focus on being more transparent with the public on the great strides being taken in this area. Through targeted awareness campaigns, education and incentivisation, there is opportunity to significantly increase levels of confidence, support and ultimately benefits.

Shifting the dial

It is clear that bold, collective ambitions cannot be delivered by a single Department or service alone. We need integrated approaches that break down silos and a renewed focus on simple, common delivery principles – that we all stick to when the going gets tough – if we are to truly shift the dial.