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Patrick Atwater
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Still love legos
Still love legos

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+Mike Bracken demonstrates once again in this blog post just why the UK Government Digital Service is the one to watch.  It should be the model for any national, state, or local attempt to harness technology to improve the delivery of government services. I love Mike's emphasis on the importance of delivery of services that citizens want over the development of policy.

His best line, perhaps, is this one: " Delivery based on user need is like kryptonite to policy makers and existing suppliers, as it creates rapid feedback loops and mitigates against vendor lock-in."

But here's a taste of the expanded version:

"One of the many lessons in my 18 months in Government has been to watch the endless policy cycles and revisions accrue – revision upon revision of carefully controlled Word documents, replete with disastrous styling. Subs to Ministers, private office communications, correspondence across departments and occasional harvesting of consultation feedback all go into this mix.

"Rarely, if ever, does user need get a look-in. User need, if referenced at all, is self-reinforcing, in that the internal user needs dominate those of users of public services. I’ve lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of ‘Well, the department needs are different…’ How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me.

"It’s usually the way with all large, rules-based organisations: that more time and effort is spent on internal logic and process than on listening to and understanding real user needs. But in the case of public service provision, it is too often a completely closed loop, the ultimate insider job."

But it's not Mike's criticism of policy and the service of internal needs over the needs of citizens that sets him apart, it's the strategy he developed to actually reverse the priorities.

"f we put user need at the front of our thinking, the 5 steps look very different. When we created GOV.UK, we created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks. It’s purpose was to create a working, but limited, version of what GOV.UK could become. We made it quickly, based on the user needs we knew about. (Using referrer and search information, it’s not too difficult to determine mainstream user needs, like driving licenses and passport information)

"We can then design services, or re-design them, and rapidly react to user feedback. As we move towards a Beta version, where the service is becoming more comprehensive, we capture thousands of pieces of feedback, from user surveys, A/B testing and summative tests and social media input. This goes a long way to inform our systems thinking, allowing us to use the appropriate tools for the job, and then replace them as the market provides better products or as our needs change. This of course precludes lengthy procurements and accelerates the time taken for feedback to result in changes to live services. In the first 10 days after we released the full version of GOV.UK in October 2012, we made over 100 changes to the service based on user feedback, at negligible cost. And the final result of this of this approach is a living system, which is reactive to all user needs, including that of policy colleagues with whom we work closely to design each release.

"Looking at the highlights of what we have delivered, it is notable that delivery of services, whether they be information or transactional, has come before final strategy work is completed. Or put more simply, in an analogue world policy dictates to delivery, but in a digital world delivery informs policy. This is what agile means for Government and its services, and if delivered in this way, the ramifications are profound."

Read the whole piece.  Also read the UK Government Digital Design Principles (https://www.gov.uk/designprinciples), which I have described as the most significant user interface document since the original Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, and the UK Government Digital Strategy (http://publications.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/digital/).

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