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Are the government’s Digital by Default plans on target?

If you’re going to make a rod for your own back, it’s a good idea to create it from the most flexible material possible.

That’s the feeling some in the Government Digital Service (GDS) could be excused for experiencing after reading this recent piece, questioning whether it will ever fulfil its Digital by Default plans.

According to its author, the GDS is unlikely to meet its original target of 25 exemplar services going live by March 2015. This has prompted GDS executive director Mike Bracken to claim:

We’ve got a lot of work still to do. Everything can’t change overnight, but our organisation attitude and mindset is starting to change fundamentally, which makes a huge difference to what is possible

But what progress has been made to date? To be fair, GDS has made some pretty impressive strides as it has redesigned and rebuilt digital services to become ‘so good people prefer to use them’.

Seven have already gone live and are being used by the public. These are:

1.    Online voter registration (for 37m confirmed electors)

2.    Patent renewal (380k renewals per year)

3.    Student loans and grants (1.3m students supported)

4.    Viewing driving licence (6m enquiries annually)

5.    Civil claims (small claims regarding money and possessions)

6.    Prison visit booking (1.5m visits per year)

7.    Lasting power of attorney (300k applications annually)

Next month, the online service for the 3.2m people who may be able to claim Carer’s Allowance will also go live.

Of the remaining services, 14 are also in public beta – being tested and improved in the real world – and only three services are in the ‘alpha’ stage of being built. One of these, apprenticeship applications, is due to reach public beta next month.

Add to this the fact that Mike Bracken was recently named as the first UK Chief Digital Officer of the Year by the CDO Club, the world’s largest network of Chief Digital Officers, and it would seem that – far from being unlikely to fulfil its Digital by Default plans – the GDS is doing something very right.

Indeed, what the GDS appears to be doing is changing government culture permanently and for the better – even if it may be slowing down delivery times in the short term. As Bracken pointed out in a recent speech to the Institute of Government,

We deferred our digital development by grouping digital services into enormous, multi-year IT contracts, what we refer to as ‘Big IT’. Or in short, we gave away our digital future to the IT crowd.
While most large organisations reversed these arrangements we have only recently separated our future strategy – digital literacy and digital service provision – from the same contracts that handle commodity technology. By clinging to this model for 15 years, we have created a huge problem for everyone involved in delivery and policy.

Bracken argues that the public sector needs to learn more from the private sector, using as an example the ‘behind the scenes prison service’ that is ‘stuck with a decade-old IT system’.

Take Internet retailers. If they worked like the prison service works right now, behind the scenes you’d have people entering orders into stand-alone databases; typing, printing and posting letters of confirmation; manually taking stock, and entering that data into yet another database. They wouldn’t survive in 2014, much less thrive.

However, Bracken believes that a fear of failure – of major, expensive projects collapsing as they have in the past – has blocked progress. That’s why he advocates a different approach.

Build a core service quickly, then fix it and continually improve it by concentrating on user needs. Then, you not only accept that failure is inevitable, but that it’s desirable. We should say to critics in the media or elsewhere that failure is an essential part of government, just as it is in private enterprise. And the cost of failure should be tiny, dwarfed by its rewards.
Every government service now needs to pass a Service Standards assessment. We publish all those assessments, whether or not the service passes. Some don’t. So the teams go back, make adjustments, and try again. Sometimes we stop the project, but it’s having spent only a few tens of thousands of pounds, not millions because we’ve signed a binding contract.

We couldn’t agree more, especially as we have witnessed government at all levels using online collaboration via Kahootz to design services and refine them while keeping expenditure low. It’s an agile way of working that stimulates innovation and is a catalyst for the culture change that Bracken wants.

And that’s one reason why we’re not too worried whether the GDS hits its completion targets in March 2015. If it is able to create first class services, which meet the needs of the public while cutting expenditure, then a short delay is more than worth it.

The Australians certainly think so. If we’re behind by a few months, they’ve barely started their own journey to Digital by Default. There’s a lot the GDS should be proud of after all.

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