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Report of the Digital Government Review

Putting People First: what does this mean?

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There is a lot to be said about, first and foremost, listening to people and focusing on user needs when building digital services. We would recommend that all people building digital services read the GDS Service Design Manual and blogs for strong advice on these topics. There is much that can be learnt by teams outside of central government.

But there are also issues with the bigger picture. We are not, currently, sufficiently stimulating the arrival of ideas from outside government. We are not capturing or listening to all of the needs that define people’s relationship with government today.

As we discussed earlier in the review, the selection of which services to digitize is at the moment being made by government based on cost savings. This begs several key questions that are currently going unasked, let alone answered.

Why don’t we have an open suggestions process? Why aren’t we actively and continuously crowd-sourcing ideas? Where can citizens go to report faults with public services? What happens when they do? Why aren’t central government and local authorities actively publishing their roadmaps of intended activities, or lists of urgent problems, and openly asking for help with the answers?

Acting in response to this last question in particular would highlight potential services and answers that decision-makers may never think of.

American cities, led by the example of Code for America, seem to be at the forefront of this movement. For example, the Chicago Civic User Testing (CUT) Group [99] has been built by that city to support their digital transformation. It makes the new digital services people-powered by encouraging people, with or without digital skills, to participate throughout the process. A community group facilitates this process whilst using digital tools to increase efficiency and provide openness and transparency. The CUT group has researched the communities within the city and actively works to ensure that it is representative of them.

This seems a useful model for local government in particular to explore. Some local authorities will lack the scale to select specific user groups for each service, while local services tend to need to be more tailored to their place and community. People also tend to care more about their local services; they are more willing to volunteer their time to them.

This approach works for individuals. But the communities that we are building services for and the expertise that we can bring will help more widely. A local authority may need to involve universities, local private and voluntary sector, communities and individuals in its processes to create the best output and services that are right for their people.

By better communication of roadmaps for services being developed, by active engagement of stakeholders, by holding open meetings and processes we can expand input and build better services.

Recommendation 15

Priority: Medium

That public sector organisations should publish open roadmaps of service improvement plans and develop communities to actively request and listen to feedback on existing services; suggestions for improvement and ideas for new services.

These roadmaps should not be limited to digital activities, although they have been our focus. An open and participatory roadmap process would provide a straightforward route for a community group to request or access useful data without them having to navigate the complex and occasionally technocratic world of open data requests.

For example, it would provide a startup with the opportunity to request an API to help it integrate and operate more efficiently; it could enable a citizen to suggest an idea to one local authority which they saw in another; it could enable a group of citizens to start up a social enterprise to solve a local problem; it could allow residents to raise concerns about the quality of waste collection.

At the moment these processes are closed to many people. They are only available for those ‘in the know’. This is what we are setting out to change.

Similarly once new services are live we should not stop listening to expressions of needs and measure of satisfaction. By this, note that we don’t mean simply measuring satisfaction when a transaction is completed [100]. We mean actively researching satisfaction. We mean having an open process for people to suggest improvements or to report errors.

An open process will mean that the feedback is open and available for others to comment on: for others to build upon ideas, or to gently point out why they may be wrong. These models are widely used elsewhere, and we are starting to see signs of use in the NHS with Patient Opinion [101]: we should use them more widely in government.

Listen to this feedback is not a simple task. It will create a lot of noise as well as useful information. It will require a culture change in many public sector organisations: a change that must make the organisations more adaptive and responsive to needs.

Inevitably, the feedback will be a place where people let off steam as well as being constructive. Similarly public sector organisations will make some mistakes at first. But we trust that the public and the media can tolerate those mistakes if the general direction is healthy. It will initially create more work for busy workers, but it will also create more energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

It will require updates to processes to ensure that, in some cases, the correct legal processes are followed. It will require resource to moderate the feedback, although as a community develops we would expect healthy behaviour to emerge. The ideas that come in will not be limited to digital. They will be about process, about design, about needs. We will be using digital techniques to gather feedback about non-digital parts of the service. That is a good thing.

In line with best practice we would recommend that such online communities support anonymity while providing authoritative identity to those responsible for the community in case of need.

We would encourage public sector organisations to foster, moderate and actively participate in such online communities to provide suggestions for new services and feedback on existing ones. It will provide an additional route for support for those who require assistance to use digital services.

We would also recommend that public sector workers be allowed, if not encouraged, to participate anonymously if this does not conflict with their duties and responsibilities. They have that right elsewhere on the Internet, they should also have that right in these communities [102]

Such communities should be complemented with more structured research to provide decision-makers and service owners with the highest quality information.

The crowd does not always create wisdom. We cannot control the membership of the crowd we can only influence it by providing incentives and capability. We should be listening to all voices, not just the loudest, and responding honestly and transparently. This does not mean shirking responsibility. In the vast majority of cases the final decision will still need to rest within the public sector.

Case studies: People powered innovation in Helsinki, Leeds and Newcastle

Brickstarter is an emerging concept being developed in Helsinki. It aims to combine crowdfunding principles with social media so that citizens can help “make good things happen in their neighbourhood”. It is not yet operational but functions as a blog, a beta website, a set of supporting documentation and has been the subject of several admiring press articles.

The concept is that individuals can easily put forward a proposal and the website would encourage others to contribute their time, expertise or funds to help it become a viable project. It changes the dynamic of public consultation. Rather than local government officials sending out fully formed proposals for public consultation, the Brickstarter concept is about developing and evolving an idea with community consultation and creating public momentum.

There are several exciting initiatives in UK cities and regions, where new technology and open data is being used to encourage greater participation and innovation. For example Leeds Data Mill is promoting the use of open data sets from public, private and third sector sources to give citizens greater insights into the performance of their city (The Leeds Dashboard) as well as promoting new business opportunities. In Newcastle, Information Now is a website aimed at providing a range of valuable information for older people in one place, including a directory of service providers, advice and articles.

“A digital agenda should not be a way of taking power from the citizens, and merely providing public services to them, but a way of involving them in its provision.” – Think Tank

“There needs to be more two-way interaction. Mostly at the moment it’s one way. They will send you a text, you can’t reply or have a dialogue.” – Civil Society Organisation

“Government needs to show that it is serious about wanting feedback from citizens. Feedback mechanisms – physical or virtual – should be established for Government to listen and respond to.” – Civil Society Organisation

[100] In some cases misleading satisfaction scores are produced by this mechanism. The voter registration service captures satisfaction after completion of an application form; rather than upon completion of the voter registration process. In our own test the application form took 2 minutes with satisfaction being measured at that point. The whole process took 6 weeks with no opportunity for feedback after the initial application. It is useful to measure satisfaction with the form but this should not be presented as satisfaction with the service.
[101] Some other examples would be for the Firefox web browser or within the travel sector
[102] At this point it would be remiss of us not to applaud those public sector workers who already contribute openly. Sir Bonar Neville-K is our particular favourite:

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