The government’s digital transformation is galloping ahead, but ‘digital tsar’ Mike Bracken tells Sophie Curtis that no one will be left behind
From viewing a driving record and updating your PAYE status to claiming carer’s allowance and managing your tax affairs, the way we consume government services is undergoing a profound change.
The UK government is now three quarters of the way through a two-year project to make the 25 most-used government services ‘digital by default’. As well as providing better services for millions of users, the initiative – based on the recommendations of Martha Lane Fox back in 2010 – is expected to deliver £1.7 billion in annual savings.
This will be achieved because staff spend less time processing digital transactions compared to offline alternatives. And less money will need to be spent on estates and accommodation, postage and packaging and supporting IT systems, according to the Government Digital Service (GDS), a unit of the Cabinet Office tasked with leading the transformation.
Of the 25 ‘exemplar’ services, which reportedly account for 90 per cent of all government transactions, five are currently live, 17 are in beta (meaning they are being tested with users) and three are still in the alpha phase (meaning a working prototype is being built).
One of the most significant launches so far has been the online voter registration system, which went live on 10 June, and allows citizens to apply to register to vote in just three minutes by typing their name, address, date of birth and National Insurance number into a form on the GOV.UK website.
Over the last two months, 82 per cent of the one million people who have applied to register to vote have used the new online service rather than paper-based methods, with around a third of those accessing the service through a smartphone or tablet. GDS claims there is over 90 per cent satisfaction with the new online service.
“In the past you’d have the canvass, where someone would come round to your house and drop off some forms. “Then you’d fill those in and send them back, and they then had to be checked against DWP’s records and triangulated,” said Mike Beaven, transformation programme director at GDS.
“All that matching is now done automatically from the online records. In terms of something going to a real big mass market, that’s the first one that’s made it into the live domain.”
However, online voter registration is just one small piece of the government’s wider ‘digital by default’ strategy, which means providing digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so, while those who can’t are not excluded.
The online services for renewing a patent, applying for a student loan or grant, making a civil claim and applying for lasting power of attorney are all now live, and the service for viewing a driving record is due to go live next month. GDS claims that all of the 25 ‘exemplar’ services will be completed by March 2015.
“The vast majority of transactions that people do with government are pretty anodyne – getting a license, having a form signed. They’re not in any way secret or financial, they’re just procedural,” said Mike Bracken, head of GDS.
“And yet we’ve made it so that every bit of government does it in its own way, which is so insanely arrogant. It’s basically saying, you’ve got to learn how we’ve set ourselves up in order to deal with us; and by the way you pay for us. It’s crazy.”
With the digital transformation project, GDS aims to shape government services around real user needs, based on data rather than assumptions. Each web page is designed with simplicity and accessibility in mind, based on a set of design principles that the US Digital Service is now seeking to emulate.
Today, the organisation unveiled a user research lab equipped with state-of-the-art technology, allowing researchers to closely monitor how users interact with the new digital services.
This includes recording facial expressions to see if someone is distressed or excited, tracking someone’s eye movements on screen and recording where they are moving and clicking their mouse cursor. Research sessions also involve interviews or workshops to find out about habits, lifestyle and thought patterns.
Bracken said that this kind of research allows GDS to uncover insights that can be used to improve website design. For example, a lot of the applications for carer’s allowance are filed between 1am and 2am, because it is the only time of day the people involved have time to fill in a form. Understanding this allows GDS to better tailor its services to users’ needs.
“These are services that only the state provides – we’re the only game in town – so we owe it people to make them accessible and digital,” said Bracken. “In the past we’ve acted as a monopolist. We’ve said, our office is open from 11 til 2, come and get a form, we might post it to you if you’re lucky. We’ve not acted in an empathetic way.
“And by the way,” he adds, “finding it out makes our lives easier, because it’s cheaper, there’s less waste, there’s less friction in the system. It’s about a change of attitude and mindset.”
However, even with this research, Bracken acknowledges there are some people who will remain resistant to online government services. These people represent about 20 per cent of the population and fall into two groups, which GDS calls ‘assisted digital’ and ‘digital inclusion’ (or ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’).
Assisted digital users include people who are offline, and people who are online but genuinely can’t complete a ‘digital by default’ transaction by themselves, perhaps due to a disability. Digital inclusion users are those who won’t go online because they don’t see any advantage in it.
GDS is working with both of these groups to enable more people to benefit from the internet, but one in eight British adults has still never been online, according to Ofcom. Some suggest this as a reason for clinging on to the old ways of delivering government services, but Bracken claims that progress should not be hindered by these ‘edge cases’.
“Until you’ve done the mainstream service, you don’t know what the edge cases are. In the past there’s been too much worrying about the edge cases, with people saying let’s not make this thing digital because what about the five people that might not be able to use it,” he said.
“If you get on and make it, you might find out there’s only four who can’t use it, or maybe three, and then let’s tackle that. You have to do it in order, and this parliament is the one where this programme has really broken the back of having mainstream digital services. We’ve got a lot of work to do around understanding what our assisted digital users really need.”
The question still remains whether this new approach to delivering government services will put paid to costly disasters like the National Programme for IT in the NHS, which was abandoned in 2011 and cost the taxpayer around £10 billion . The collapse of the project was put down to a “systemic failure” in the government’s ability to draw up and manage large IT contracts.
Bracken said that GDS launched its own framework last year to get more digital talent into the government supply chain, opening up the market to around 250 additional suppliers – including small businesses. It will not sign a contract with a supplier for more than 2 years, and has controls in place to stop money being spent on “random technology”.
GDS is also working with the Crown Commercial Service to assess suppliers based on their ability to write code and understand user needs, (as opposed to their ability to fill out lots of paperwork and give slick presentations), through initiatives like the ‘G-Cloud’.
“Technology goes in cycles. New players come in, some of the older ones adapt and they survive. What we’re looking for is people who can work in the way we want to work. We don’t want a £450m 10-year contract, we want a £250k six-week, let’s-build-a-prototype-and-see-if-it-works type of relationship,” said Bracken.
“Over 80 per cent of our supply chain was going to seven companies. Today, with the G-Cloud we have thousands of suppliers – more SMEs and more even distribution. We don’t ask suppliers to manage a supply chain, so small medium and large companies should contract with us directly.”
Change will not happen overnight. The government has a history of signing multi-year contracts, and in some cases it is more expensive to break these contracts than wait for them to expire. It will therefore be up to the next parliament to start retiring the old systems and transferring the data over to new platforms when the time is right.
However, one of the conditions of exemplar services being given the ‘live’ label is that the older systems have to be switched off – so until they are, the services will remain in beta. In the case of waste carrier registration, for example, the service is up and running in public beta, but will not go live until DEFRA’s managed services contract runs out in 2017.
“We’ve had a number done on us in government for a long time, but one of the big numbers that particularly the big systems integrators and big IT vendors use that if you deal with us ‘we’re a safe pair of hands’,” said Bracken.
“It’s just not true. We can give you company after company who now deal with the government directly. It’s not perfect, every few months we iterate it, we’re now on to the sixth version of G-Cloud. But the underlying myth that you’ve got to tie in with a systems integrator is just nonsense.”