Public service digital in the time of COVID-19

BBC news on computer screen

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has stretched public services across the UK (and world) and heroes have been emerging daily – hopefully it will lead to a real rethink about how society treats these people and roles in the future.

From my little corner of the internet I have been watching the response of digital government and civic technologies in recent weeks. As you might expect it is a bit of a mixed bag but with many more highs to celebrate than lows to dwell on.

The Good
I suspect there has never been a time that the UK’s public service digital capability was in a better position to handle something like this than now. Especially centrally but the efforts of the teams across local government – working all hours with fewer resources and even sharper deadlines in many cases – should not be ignored.

The fact that there are so many experienced, talented, in-house teams now – and not just at GDS or NHSX but at other Government Departments, Local Authorities, NHS trusts, arms lengths bodies and beyond – means they were ready, willing and – importantly – able to pivot to the new priorities immediately and deliver at pace. This would have simply been impossible not long ago.

These teams have been hugely supported by the availability, understanding and acceptance of open source technologies and the existence of amazing resources like the GOV.UK design system (and the similar pattern libraries that have emerged across the public service) and the equivalent developments at the NHS mean that usable, accessible, performant designs are quicker to build than ever.

The commitment and understanding of content design has never been more important either – at a time when some of the messaging from the very top was less than crystal clear the language across our Government websites was.

The existence of the GOV.UK Platform as a Service – allowing teams to get new products and services live in a fast and secure way should never again be underestimated and the utility of GOV.UK Notify is fast becoming ubiquitous – the backbone of crisis communications across Government. These shared services/tools have empowered the talented teams across the public service to concentrate on solving the problems not the infrastructure.

Building things right is only half the battle though – you have to build the right things and it has been amazing to see the continuing commitment to a user focus even under all the pressure to deliver

All of this has allowed teams to move fast…without breaking things. I do think everyone is going to have to take a breath at the end of all this and make sure all the lessons are learned – this is no time to lose sight of those hard fought principles that have enabled all of this.

It isn’t just about websites and apps though. This project that ensured UK mobile operators gave free access to NHS websites throughout the crisis was born from a service design agency (Snook), their partnership with Nominet (the official registry for .UK domain names) and the NHS.

The fact that so many organisations have been able to transition to remote by default working in days (many after dilly dallying over it for years) is down to the remarkable work of IT and digital colleagues all over the public service. All the years of shadow IT and processes are finally coming to fruition as teams find their feet in this new world and realise it really isn’t so different and the tools were never the problem (the bored children seeking attention is a different story!)

Also the work of Citizens Advice during this whole period deserves an enormous amount of attention. Their role in the provision of public service to this country is growing every day and their search dashboard gives an amazing insight into what is troubling people at the moment

There are many other positive tales we could pick but there are a couple of examples from the other side of things.

The Bad
If the crisis has shone a spotlight on the power of shared tools and open source it has also shone a light on the deficiencies of the data infrastructure and the current state of public service ‘open’ data. Hours/days are being lost accessing, cleaning and preparing data. All the issues that people were complaining about at the dawn of the open data era. Standards aren’t being complied with, data is being hoarded or hidden and access restricted when openness is claimed.

There is a common acceptance that data is the foundation of most modern digital services so this really needs attention. Public service can’t rest on its laurels about the strides taken around open data years ago – it needs to be fit for purpose to support modern services. Now.
This summed it up nicely;

The glaring gap in the service standard is a clear expectation about master data management. Building a national service that can’t identify a unique property reference number creates risks of delay and error. The lack of unique identifiers risks wasting resources. Poor data schema risks lives.

The foundation layer of ‘government as a platform’ is about common data, captured once and re-used many times.

Matthew Cain – Hackney

Also there has been widespread examples of tech & design savior complex writ large. The hackathons and ‘think pieces’ and general second guessing from people on the sidelines with no specific knowledge of the situation – just an unshakeable belief in their own skills – has distracted from real effort to support those who needed it. Civic tech hasn’t been innocent in this space either – the rush to create something new rather than to support existing initiatives is a common problem.

The Ugly
This isn’t really ugly as such but it is something you fill digital government folks across the UK lamenting at the moment.

The failure to support the development of GOV.UK Submit.

Somebody once said something like ‘government is mostly forms, most of the time’ and Submit was based around an ambition to support that across Government in a way that pushed good practice as well as providing a powerful tool to support delivery teams.

It was part of the original group of common services investigated alongside what became GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Notify (maybe PaaS as well – I don’t really remember.)

Anyway it didn’t happen – not because the need wasn’t proved or an approach wasn’t identified – but for other, somewhat oblique, reasons.

It has become slightly mythical and certainly you would be hard pressed to find any current or former GDS (or wider digital government folk) who wouldn’t sigh wistfully and mutter something like “..if only” when it is raised.

Anyway we could do with it now and hopefully this whole experience will encourage a return to the whole ‘platforms for Government’ approach again.