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We’re all involved in government services

The UK government has created and delivered services to its citizens for centuries. These services are the things that help people do what they need to do: start a business, learn to drive a car, check and claim their pensions.

In the past, these services generally evolved from administrative procedures and processes designed to deliver policies and implement laws. They were rarely designed or thought about in a structured way, and the users of those services could find themselves at the bottom of the priority list.

But over the past decade or so, government has started to adopt a user-centred design approach to shape services for everyone. Now, we see civil servants research user needs in qualitative ways, collaborate to design services that address those needs, and prototype and test underlying policies upfront. This is a process that is happening across central and local government, as well as the third sector, and similar developments are happening abroad.

Someone holding a smartphone showing a step by step overviewing of getting tax-free childcare on GOV.UK

This is a process that involves everyone working in the Civil Service. From user researchers and designers working on digital services to policy experts developing policies, to front-line staff delivering these services to users.

This blog is for all of us involved in making services work better for users.

Here are some of the things we’ll be talking about:

Where we are

Taking a holistic view

Over the past few years, we have talked a lot about designing services holistically by looking at them end-to-end, front-to-back and in every channel. ‘End-to-end’ means understanding and designing from when a user need arises to when it’s met. By working on the frontstage and backstage of services, we are changing things that are both visible and invisible to users – including processes, artefacts, software, behaviours, and policies. The work is not limited to the online version of the service either. Instead, it involves all the channels people might be using, including telephone, face-to-face and letters.

To reflect the expanding scope of the government’s work on its services, a team at the Government Digital Service (GDS) consulted with many other parts of government to update the Service Standard. Now, in its third version, it goes beyond the online service and encourages teams in departments to solve whole problems for users and provide a joined-up experience across all channels. The updated standard was rolled out over the summer, and new services going into discovery are already following it.

To look at users’ whole problems, departments like the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have collaborated to bring together their pensions data – for both citizens and caseworkers. Before, pensioners-to-be would have had to request and read various paper statements and guidance from both departments. Now, all data is accessible in a single Check your state pension service. The team in charge not only built the citizen-facing frontend, but also a custom interface for the internal support workers. The insights and learnings from working on the web version of the service were later fed back to the paper version, too. At DWP, there is extensive work going on around designing letters as part of the whole user journey.

Collaborating across boundaries

In the last 2 years, GDS helped establish service communities, networks of people from various public sector organisations working in the same service area. DWP has established a service community around health and benefits, which brings them together with colleagues from the NHS and Department of Health and Social Care. In regular workshops, policy advisers exchange experience with nurses and work together on improving the service. Based on the learnings from the first service communities’ work, there is now guidance on working across organisational boundaries in the Service Manual.

Often, service improvements have been proposed by people in delivery or operations functions. Increasingly, government departments have established their own user-centred policy labs that operate more upstream and get involved in the early decision-making which impacts services. Designers and policy advisors work closely together at the Ministry of Justice, at HMRC, and at DWP. They have prototyped family law policies in code, researched the most effective ways to develop a waste-reducing levy, and tested ministerial ideas before announcing them publicly. Taking an iterative research-prototype-test approach allows teams to test assumptions early, which leads to more effective policies, better services and improved outcomes for users.  

Solving problems once

Over the last 3 years, various people across government looked into service patterns. Understanding the similarities of services and designing them in a modular fashion, makes services easier to use, saves time and money designing them, and increases trust in government. Last year, we came up with 10 principles for service patterns. Now, the newly established service design team at Essex County Council is looking deeper into the application of service patterns for local government services.

Creating service lists

Several departments have been creating and sharing lists of all the services they offer to the public. The Home Office’s list contains 50 services it provides to achieve its policy outcomes. The Ministry of Justice and its 30 agencies and public bodies counted 226 services in total. So far, 27 of them have been redeveloped as true digitally rethought services, while 134 require users to download, print and send a paper form.

The Department for Education found even 400 services while mapping them on different levels. 

Creating an inventory and getting an overview of what a department is delivering to its users is important before doing transformation work. The development of service lists creates a backlog of work, helps prioritisation in departments and programmes, supports new business cases and links new pieces of technology to direct user outcomes. Earlier this year, we added guidance to the Service Manual on how to create a list of services. Departments started sharing their approaches and following a common approach.

Stitching together content and guidance

From various ends, people are trying to improve the user experience of complex journeys. The GOV.UK team has been stitching together the many separate transactions and bits of content that make up an end-to-end service, like getting tax-free childcare or learning to drive a car. For those services, step by step navigation helps users understand what it is they have to do to achieve their goals and in which order. Millions of people have used such stepwise guides, written in simple language, to understand and follow what government wants them to do. Through service mapping workshops and content reviews involving different government organisations, more step by step guides are being created to help join up fragmented services.

Where we are heading

Across government, there is the realisation and ambition to collaborate more and better. This has been highlighted in the 2017–2020 Government Transformation Strategy and refreshed during this year’s Sprint events.

The vision for a better government is a joined up and trusted government that responds to user needs. It needs a cross-government effort that overcomes organisational silos and bridges disciplines to build end-to-end services that solve whole problems for users.

What to expect here

The new ‘Services in government’ blog is a platform to show the good, yet hard service transformation work that is ongoing in many parts of the UK public sector. We will hear from people involved in shaping and delivering services from all levels of government – with an operations, policy or digital background. We also plan to invite voices from the wider public sector as their challenges are often similar.   

You are invited to not only read, but also propose topics and contribute blog posts. We want to highlight case studies, show best practice, share tools, guidance and tips and tricks. Our goal is to broaden the view and present diverse views on how to make services work better for users. So, we will benefit from hearing from different voices. Please leave a comment below if you want to share a story on the blog. 

This blog is for people who are transforming services all across the public sector, from local to central government.

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