Digital is needed now more than ever

PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall salutes the outstanding efforts of public sector technologists in helping to respond to coronavirus


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There may still be some in Whitehall who might hear the words ‘agile methodologies’ and ‘design thinking’ and conclude that these concepts sound like exactly the kind of thing government does not have time for in the midst of a crisis such as this.

Others – almost all of PublicTechnology’s readers among them, I’m sure – will recognise that agile is needed now more than ever. And that what government and the NHS is currently striving to do across its coronavirus response is a perfect exemplification of what agile is all about.

Working in short, structured bursts of activity toward in support of clear near-term outcomes.

Being able to reassess and, if necessary, change direction or approach frequently and rapidly, as the changing circumstances and context dictate.

Starting out by defining a minimum baseline for a useable service that can then be incrementally improved.

Such principles and practices are probably the kind of thing you would come up with if asked to draw up guidelines for how officials should respond to an evolving emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic. It just so happens that they will already be second nature to all digital professionals.

There have been more £300bn-plus of new schemes announced by Boris Johnson and his administration, and daily updates made to policy and operational direction. It is worth noting that there have been no digital disasters, the kind for which government was once infamous.

From the very first stages of the outbreak, researchers, designers, developers and others across the public sector have done excellent, unheralded work – under enormous pressures of time and a huge weight of responsibility.

Complex and crucial services have been built and launched in a matter of weeks, if not days. Examples include online tools through which the self-employed and businesses furloughing staff can claim money, a platform with interactive data on the geographical spread of coronavirus, a site allowing citizens to book a test – and countless more information and service-delivery tools throughout the public sector.

This extremely important work would not have been possible without highly skilled digital professionals and the ways of working they have helped introduce in recent years. Agile development, with its focus on outcomes, usability, MVPs, flexibility, and speed, is exactly what government has needed, when it needed it most.

Every time the government has unveiled a new policy or initiative in the last few months, there is likely a digital service or at least an online resource that is needed to support it.

There have been more £300bn-plus of new schemes announced by Boris Johnson and his administration, and daily updates made to policy and operational direction.

It is worth noting that there have been no digital disasters, the kind for which government was once infamous.

Wrinkles, such as the delays in the application process for Universal Credit, have been met with a swift and pragmatic response; digital staff at the Department for Work and Pensions were quick to make changes and improvements, including increased investment in the Verify identity-assurance tool, and further easing the claims bottleneck by opening up access to the platform via Government Gateway. Even in the midst of the current crisis, the DWP found time to improve the accessibility of the UC platform by implementing a video sign-language translation service for deaf claimants.

Against this backdrop, PublicTechnology’s How to Design a Government Service project could not have been better timed. Running over the course of a week, from 27 April to 4 May, the project saw the publication of a range of dedicated analysis, interview, and feature content dedicated to the design and development of government services.

We learned a lot during the week, culminating in the publication of exclusive research that found that one in six government services fails its assessment against Government Digital Service standards. The most common stumbling blocks are the basics: a proper understanding of user needs; and building a service that is simple and intuitive.

This demonstrates that, no matter how flashy or easy-on-the-eye your service, the most important thing will always be that it does what users need with the minimum of fuss.

GDS director general Alison Pritchard also told us about the organisation’s own role in designing services – which will continue to be an active one in the coming years. Increasing the use of personalisation and artificial intelligence will be a key objective.

One government body that has embraced digital is the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. The organisation’s digital chief Alex Fiddes told us about the important role of agile and technology in its work.

New advocates
The Civil Aviation Authority is a relatively new adopter of agile methods but, in this video clip, the regulator told us that is already reaping the benefits(A full version of this conversation is available to view for free by registering here.)

Meanwhile the design lead of Dean Vipond wrote a piece in which he explained why, although the current situation may feel like a heavy burden for service designers, if you stick to good practice and principles, it need not be scary.

More PublicTechnology research found that use of agile procurement routes varies a lot across government departments, and is even sketchier in local government and the NHS.

Our sponsor for the week, BJSS, also provided a wealth of insights, including guides on how to approach the discovery and alpha phases of service development and assessment, and tips on how to maintain team culture while working apart.

But, for all we learned last week – for which you can access all the content here – the main takeaway was something we have known for a long time: digital professionals across the public sector are doing fantastic work that has never been so important.

We thank them all.


Sam Trendall

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