The UK government has published a new digital and data [for government] strategy for 2022 to 2025. It’s the usual mix of things.
One of the interesting things is in the first commitment, it says:
By 2025, at least 50 of the government’s top 75 identified services will move to a ‘great’ standard, against a consistent measure of service performance
The word great is in ‘quotes’, but not defined.
The strategy goes on to say:
Each cross-government commitment is being translated into quantifiable, department-level targets against which progress will be measured
This could be useful, but, what does ‘great’ mean?
The definition of ‘great’ matters
Definitions, measurements and targets affect behaviour.
The behaviour of the people who are building and operating public services, as they are set the target of doing something ‘great’, and the behaviour of the people collecting measurements and monitoring targets. The second group might be people inside or outside government.
Politicians, civil society organisations, and communities across the country might track and debate the measures and targets while, with careful design, they could be available to citizens at appropriate moments during use of the service.
And those are just some first order effects.
But the strategy does not say much about what makes a ‘great’ public service
The foreword from the Minister includes the following:
When people order their groceries, book a holiday or check their bank accounts, they expect and receive a seamless and easy experience.
The foreword from the Executive Chair of government’s Central Digital and Data Office says:
People expect government services to be as good as the best online experiences in the private sector. Rising to meet these expectations will require change on a scale that government has never undertaken before
While the annex, which lists the top 75 services says:
these prioritised services will have great user experience and efficient processes that reduce their cost to run.
These are useful things but they speak to some of the definitions and measures that the private sector might use for online services – ease and speed of completion, volume, cost, perhaps even
They don’t speak to the different qualities of a public service.
Perhaps ‘great’ should include accessible, transparent and accountable?
Public services need to be accessible by anyone who needs them so perhaps the definition of ‘great’ could include accessibility measures and targets to support that, for example:
- the number of people who have the required digital skills for the online service channel as measured against the government’s digital inclusion scale
- verifying that the service can be used in non-digital ways by people without a device or enough money for internet access
- travel time to physical locations – like a job centre, library, community centre or town hall – where the state provides access to the service
Governments hold a lot of power over citizens so we expect more transparency from public services than we do private services. Measures and targets could be set around transparency, for example:
- timely publication of performance information
- publication of legal assessments, so that people can be confident a service is lawful, and what the potential impact is for human rights, equality duties, data protection or web accessibility
- publication of the evidence, research and design decisions, source code, data, tests, and other components that form part of the service
And because of the power governments hold over citizens we also need public services to be strongly accountable. Again, you guessed it…, measures and targets could be set around this, for example:
- understandable information about which organisation, or even individual, is accountable for different parts of the service
- how easy dispute resolution processes are to access and use
- measures of dispute resolution processes, such as the volume of disputes and the amount paid out in compensation
A ‘great’ debate could be useful
But, these are just ideas. Ideas that I have kept deliberately short for a quick blogpost.
Other people will have better ideas and government needs – please excuse the puns, I have Coronavirus this weekend – great ideas.
Performance measures need to be carefully designed to make sure that they are useful. It is all too easy to create metrics that have no impact or, even worse, drive the wrong behaviour.
I can imagine some of the people I know suggesting measures of ‘great’ that might encourage things like:
- Being responsible and trustworthy
- Meeting user needs, policy intent, and capability to operate
- Meeting some principles of ‘good’ service design
- Delivering equitable outcomes, particularly for historically unheard or excluded groups
- The level of public ownership and control of the service
- Co-creation and participation with communities
- Adoption of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, the metaverse, or digital twins
- Subsidiarity and localism
From that ‘great’ debate this Government might come up with good ways to define and measure ‘great’ public services, and so might the UK’s other national, regional and local governments. Different governments are likely to use different definitions and measures, because measures tend to include our values and the various governments around the UK have slightly differing values. That’s perfectly healthy and normal.
But they should all be definitions and measures for ‘great’ that go beyond the private sector and recognise the unique characteristics of public services.
That could be useful.
 Question: “Would you recommend this <pay your tax bill service> to your friends?” Answer: “well yes, but that’s because I believe in a well funded state that uses taxes to provide great public services to people who need them, rather than because the <pay your tax bill service> was particularly easy or hard to use this year”
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