Bracken: Channel shift journey has only just begun

The jury is “still out” on the government’s attempts to get citizens using digital public services by default, Mike Bracken has acknowledged.

As director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) since 2011, Bracken has overseen Whitehall’s efforts to introduce a single platform for online services – GOV.UK – and brought in the Digital By Default Service Standard to try and ensure common standards across government. 

Under that Standard, departments offering services through GOV.UK should also come up with an “appropriate plan to phase out non-digital” channels and services, encouraging a process known  as “channel shift”. But Bracken told the Policy Exchange think tank on Monday that he believed there was still some way to go before government could start switching off traditional services in favour of their online equivalents.

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“I think the jury’s still out on full channel shift,” he said. “I think of it as a timing issue. We’ve created a lot of digital services. Many of our services that we have now didn’t exist – there wasn’t a digital option. So this wasn’t about improving stuff we had, it was doing stuff for the first time. 

“There’s no way that you can engineer channel shift and move potentially millions of people to a really mature digital service unless you’ve taken them on that journey. And we’re still taking some people on that journey.”

Data published on the government’s “Performance” platform shows that while some interactions between citizen and state are now carried out entirely online – such as the Find an Apprenticeship service or the Universal Jobmatch scheme for those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance – others, including vehicle tax renewals, voter registration, and claims for the Carer’s Allowance, still fall some way short of full digital take-up.

Bracken admitted that government had “not yet got to the maturity” of being able to “turn off” non-digital services and switch to fully digital transactions, even though take-up was “above the 80-85% mark in probably about 30 of the newer types of service”.

“That’s not quite enough to really put your hand up and say, ‘Yes, we’ve engineered channel shift’,” he added. “But I think that will come.” Ultimately, Bracken said, it would be “a ministerial decision” to judge the levels of digital take-up and decide whether or not to abandon non-digital transactions.

Elsewhere in his speech, Bracken said that while GOV.UK now provided a largely “terrific experience” for users, government had to be wary of setting too much store by the traditional separations between departments, arguing that citizens “by and large don’t really care which bit of government they’re talking to”.

“You have to kind of whisper that around here because we’re all very important in the departments we’re in,” the GDS boss said. “But actually, users just want stuff. And the difference here between the local and the national, the difference in the buildings around here [Whitehall], is largely absent in their thinking. They just want the government stuff to work, they want it to work quickly, and they want to get on with their lives and do stuff.”

Bracken said that while government services were now much more uniform than they had been, there were still “far too many” ways digital interactions with the state could vary, potentially leading to user frustration.

“We’ve still got dozens and dozens – probably hundreds – of payment routes, which all look a bit different and you have to learn them all a bit differently. There’s no reason you should do that – as a consumer, as a business, you should make it easier and more simple. You’d be surprised if one of the major digital brands or John Lewis or Marks and Spencers made you check out in a different way every time. Why does government do that, at least for some of its services? So I don’t think we’re there yet. But I think we will [get there].”

Colin Marrs

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