UK Government: Digital by Default

The UK’s Government Digital Strategy, released by the Cabinet Office on November 6, 2012, uses a list of principles and concrete actions to build a framework for re-engineering government.

At the release of the strategy, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, stated: “Britain is in a global race and that’s why we need to have modern, efficient, digital-by-default public services that are fit for the 21st Century”.

While the plan is complex and multi-faceted, the strategy is summed up as transitioning to a government that is “digital by default.” The Cabinet Office defines digital by default as “digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so whilst those who can’t are not excluded.”

In addition to providing better services to citizens, the Digital Strategy estimates that “moving services from offline to digital channels will save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion a year.” Those numbers come from an estimate that an hour spent interacting with government costs the average citizen £14.70, and “if just half an hour were saved by digitising every transaction currently completed offline, the total savings to the economy could therefore be around £1.8 billion.” The report notes that though the savings figures do not include the potential costs of the digital transition, they also do not include “the additional savings that could be gained from fundamental service redesign or back-end technology changes.”

So while the overarching aim of the Digital Strategy is making government digital by default, the two concurrent goals that exist within that larger aim are developing services that both “allow straightforward access to information and services in times and in ways that are convenient to the users rather than the providers” and “are more efficient and cost effective to develop and run.”

The 11 central principles informing the Digital Strategy follow:

  1. Improve departmental digital leadership – “Proven leadership in digital transformation.”
  2. Develop digital capability throughout the civil service – “Becoming a digital civil service.”
  3. Redesign transactional services to meet a new digital by default service standard – “Digital services so good that all who can use them, prefer to use them.”
  4. Complete the transition to GOV.UK – “Simpler, clearer and faster for users.”
  5. Increase the number of people who use digital services – “More users, using more services, more often.”
  6. Provide consistent services for people who have rarely or never been online – “Services for everyone entitled to them.”
  7. Broaden the range of those tendering to supply digital services including more small and medium sized enterprises – “Get the best bidders bidding.”
  8. Build common technology platforms for digital by default services – “Develop on platforms, not in silos.”
  9. Remove unnecessary legislative barriers – “A letter shouldn’t have to be on paper.”
  10. Base service decisions on accurate and timely management information – “Data trumps intuition.”
  11. Improve the way that the government makes policy and communicates with people – “Open policy making will become the default.”

These principles represent an attempt to change the understanding of government’s role—as far as becoming more responsive to citizens’ needs, supplying data to spur private innovation, making citizens’ interaction with government easier and more modern and giving a greater voice to citizens on matters of public policy—but a list of 14 concrete actions also included in the Digital Strategy demonstrates how the UK government can work toward achieving these principles right away:

  1. Ensure there is an active digital leader on departmental and transactional agency boards
  2. Empower skilled and experienced Service Managers to direct the redesign and operation of services
  3. Ensure that appropriate digital capability exists in-house across departments
  4. Support improved digital capability across departments
  5. Redesign services with over 100,000 transactions each year
  6. Ensure all new or redesigned transactional services meet the digital by default service standard from April 2014. A new set of design principlesrequires services to:
    1. be developed based on user need using agile, iterative, digital development methodologies and using open source code by default
    2. be designed, run and continually improved by a skilled and empowered Service Manager
    3. be iterated at least monthly based on qualitative feedback from users and quantitative measures and analytics
    4. be designed for inclusion, so all who should use it can use it, and include appropriate assisted digital support for people who can’t
    5. offer high-quality APIs, allowing departments to integrate services, and make these available to third-parties where there is demonstrable user benefit
    6. be designed to work well on a wide range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones. Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office
    7. use common technology platforms
    8. publish as much learning code with the public as is possible
    9. be measured against success in meeting user needs
    10. Move the publishing activities of central government departments onto GOV.UK by March 2013, with agency and arm’s length bodies to follow by March 2014
    11. Raise awareness of digital services so that more people know about, and use, them
    12. Take a cross-government approach to assisted digital, and help people who have rarely or never been online to access and use services
    13. Offer leaner and more lightweight tendering processes
    14. Lead in the definition and delivery of a suite of common technology platforms to underpin the new services
    15. Remove legislative barriers which unnecessarily prevent the development of straightforward and convenient digital services
    16. Define and supply consistent management information for transactional services
    17. Use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public

In addition to the hard deadlines included in the actions section, compliance with the Digital Strategy will likely require changes to the way many civil servants work. While the plan calls for digital leaders and a greater presence for those with digital skills, it is likely that civil servants will have to develop coding and other digital skills to keep up with the changing demands of a more digital government. This  post on the Government Digital Service blog shows that this “new trend in civil service” appears to be already underway.

The response to the Digital Strategy has been largely positive, with Tim O’Reilly as its most vocal and enthusiastic supporter. In a talk at the Open Up! conference in London, O’Reilly called the Strategy, and the design principles outlined in action number 6, the “most significant design document in software since the Macintosh human interface guidelines back in the 1980s.” Going further, at another discussion in London, he called it “the new bible for anyone working in open government,” saying that “everyone in the world should be following this,” and “if we can apply that as our scripture for government best practices at every level around the world we would be doing a fantastic service.”

While O’Reilly calls the Digital Strategy “a revolution,” it is not simply due to the increased transparency and citizen agency inherent in open government plans; rather, he is most impressed with the UK’s adoption of Silicon Valley principles, namely “building lightweight applications so that if people don’t like them or use them, they fail,” and the fact that “we have a customer here; the customer is not the government, the customer is the citizen.”

In the same discussion, Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka noted that, “When I read the strategy document I see every single obstacle that we encounter in the United States being addressed.”

UK Senior Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister Rohan Silva highlights the strategy’s leveling of the playing field for the open source community and SMEs while enabling massive government savings—with no change for citizens “other than services getting better. A win-win.”

An article on GovLoop has particular praise for the Strategy’s focus on the services that handle over 100,000 transactions each year—“I’d argue that it’s more important to optimize high-volume transactions like DMV renewals or paying taxes first or getting social security benefits before we get into more sexy topics like creating an ideation site for the city”—and the perhaps unexpected commitment to marketing the new government initiatives—“Marketing can be a bad word in government but it’s needed…Government agencies need to promote their digital offerings—they can’t just assume people know about them and know about the latest changes.”

While the reaction to the Digital Strategy has been largely positive, some, even Tim O’Reilly, still possess concerns. O’Reilly, again during his talk at the Open Up! conference, took issue with the caveat that services must be designed to offer high-quality APIs and make them available to third-parties “where there is a demonstrable user benefit.” He argues that with platforms the human benefit often turns out to be a surprise. He uses two examples to support this argument. First, he describes Ronald Reagan’s decision to make GPS data open to the public by default—this policy decision was by no means inevitable, and it created unimaginable benefits going forward. Second, he notes that by creating the App Store, Apple freed itself from the need to predict what people will want, find useful, or find joyful, and instead allowed developers and users to determine what apps are worth creating and using.

Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio views the strategy as a positive start, but he does not believe that it fully addresses all concerns. He lauds the strategy’s placement of “digital government square at the center of the top priorities of each department”; focus on departments with high transaction volumes; recognition of the importance of “assisted digital” for those who are not as comfortable using digital services; embrace of common technology platforms; and “guidance in terms of governance, prioritization, measurement” and promotion of “transparency in sharing performance data.”

On the other hand, the strategy does not mention any plan to further “join-up” government by increases co-development between agencies. He also feels that, in comparison to other countries like the U.S., Denmark and the Netherlands, the UK strategy has “no evidence of a modern-data centric approach.” While, as mentioned above, some civil servants are embracing the new digital components of their jobs, Di Maio believes the strategy does not do enough to describe the role of individual employees in transforming their jobs, particularly for those outside of transactions. He argues that “it addresses social media in a very traditional way, focusing on citizen participation in policy making.”

In addition to these specific examples that could, presumably, be addressed down the line, Di Maio believes the strategy “did not consider digital government beyond constituent transactions or consolidation of web sites, hence missing how to better equip employees and make human-intensive interactions more innovative.” Also speaking to larger concerns, he believes the strategy implementation “has the risk of being too focused on compliance and central control by the Cabinet Office,” and he muses that “it would be great if—going forward—the Cabinet Office could find a better balance between the desire to mandate and dictate, and a more organic and bottom-up transformation process.”

Jamillah Knowles expresses concern that the increased digitization of government will “leave people behind through the digital divide.” The strategy includes mention of an in-progress initiative focused on “providing superfast broadband to at least 90% of premises in the UK and providing universal access to standard broadband with a speed of at least 2Mbps,” as well as an “assisted digital” aspect of the strategy that will provide assistance to those who need help using online services. Nonetheless, Knowles notes that, “the digital divide in the UK is considerable,” with around 10 million people in the country living without Internet access. Not surprisingly, “4 million of those who do not have access are the most socially and economically disadvantaged,” and “39% of people in the UK without Internet access are over 65.” In regard to the elderly, she notes that, “these are people who could do with knowing how to find the quickest and easiest ways to access information about pensions and other services.”

Some skepticism over the strategy is based more on history than the actual body of the plan. Mark Smith of the Guardian references the government’s “track record of delivering obscenely expensive websites that users hate, such as, which cost £105m to run in its three-year lifespan.” Similarly, Michael Cross of UK Authority questions whether the proposed savings resulting from the strategy’s implementation will actually come to fruition: “The precedents are not good. The history of e-government is littered with examples of optimistic predictions of savings that were never realised, typically because digital channels failed to reach critical mass, led to higher costs elsewhere in the system, or simply because managers lacked the will to translate efficiency gains into cash savings.”

David Eaves, writing for Tech President, expresses excitement about the strategy, particularly the design principles, but proposes a larger goal for digital government to strive toward: “While I love the notion of a government service becoming simpler and easier, what really makes me happy is when, for all intent and purposes, it disappears from my mental space altogether. The true ideal is not just simplicity, but when a service transcends and doesn’t require work on my part—when I may even forget it exists. For me, the signs of success in many government services—from clean water, electricity and in some cases, transit—is that there is almost no transaction. These services just blend into the environment.”

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