How to improve local government digital services projects

Annie Heath, UCD Principal at Made Tech, shares her insights on why projects often stall at the discovery stage and what local government teams can put into place to ensure the running of a successful digital services programme.

Posted 27 September 2022 by Christine Horton

To improve digital services within local government, we need to transform the ones that aren’t fit for purpose into ones that create a better user experience, are accessible and inclusive, and meet user needs. This all starts by understanding the problem that needs to be solved at the discovery phase.

A discovery sets the priorities when delivering a new service or improving an existing one, and it’s where you’ll identify the problem, and come up with ways to fix it.

Not all projects make it out of discovery, and sometimes for good reason. It could be that there is nothing you can viably build to solve it, or the benefit is far outweighed by the cost, people and time needed. But some projects that would be really worth doing also don’t make it out of discovery, and in my experience there are some common reasons. Here are four things you can do to ensure your project makes it past the discovery stage.

Define a clear outcome

Find the right things that are the burning issues of the teams you’re working with and try to tailor your discovery towards that to help them. Talk to the right people upfront about the latest priorities and strategies.

Legacy systems power much of the public sector, and there are several traditional players who have provided big, legacy back-office systems for local government that lock in data to proprietary formats and platforms. These cost a fortune, if for example, you want to improve your in-house coding system to allow for developments such as online council tax bills.

If you don’t have ownership of a system because of this, your ability to fix things becomes very tricky. The changes outside of your control can take months to complete. This can happen in-house, too. Teams tend to be stretched. If something’s broken they must fix it but it’s hard to keep to time frames because there’s always so much going on and so few people.

For an organisation to genuinely be able to redesign and transform, you need to be able to give people the time to go and do the thinking, meaning they’d need to step back from day-to-day operations. Local government doesn’t have this luxury, so you need to be a little strategic and pick work least likely to be delayed by these types of legacy and supplier factors. Not least because this gives you the best chance to show what your team can do!

It’s essential to focus on making sure everyone agrees on any changes, and everyone decides on the priorities.

Agree a defined budget

Some local government teams have lots of time and the right people to do discoveries. They’ll have a digital transformation team, for example, who can present their discovery to the board and move it forward. But sometimes there isn’t enough money to deliver it.

This isn’t a user-centred design issue – it’s an organisational one, so it’s important to understand your environment. For example, if your organisation only uses suppliers to deliver projects, understand how that affects your ability to do a discovery in the first place. Agree to a defined budget or within certain parameters. Make sure there’s one system for getting work approved, and that you’ve defined ownership of it.

Play to your team’s strengths

Sometimes, the money for transformation is placed in roles where people might not be experts in digital service redesign, like service improvement roles. These roles may not know the detail and expertise involved in user-centred design (UCD), just as we don’t in social work or planning legislation.

Get clear on everyone’s roles. Have one team working together in a way that allows everyone to play to their strengths. The service improvement people can tell you everything you need to know about the problem needing to be solved, and the digital design team can make sure that the solution is based in UCD so that it does solve the problem.

Work to the government Service Standard

The government Service Standard sets out all the things you need to have done to make a project successful.

Using service design tools and techniques, based on the Service Standard, will uncover evidence so you can make objective and strategic decisions about the future of the system and the service based on the needs of the people who will be using it.

You don’t need to pass a GDS assessment for it to be a valuable thing to do, because you’ll still need to meet the standards of your IT and security team to be able to get a project approved and live. Everything’s there to make it easy for you. If you’re confident you’d pass an assessment then the thing you’ve built is good, and your organisation is more likely to agree with that.

Remember, the best way to get people to understand the value of good agile discovery is to remember this: the strategy is still delivery. That can be really hard, but if there’s an acute or emergency situation you can use for the benefit of all, that’s when people get it.

Local government plays such an important role and has so much to do that it is easy for teams to be overwhelmed with demand and good work can get lost in the process. These suggestions should help to prevent this happening and allow good discovery to progress and develop an improved service that helps the lives of residents.

Annie Heath is UCD principal at Made Tech