This article was originally published in The Guardian and reproduced with permission from The Guardian.
Cheaper, easier and more time-efficient – digitising sounds like a no-brainer. But despite recent improvements, governments still have a long way to go.
Car windscreens used to be festooned with tax discs and parking permits, while our drawers were stuffed with reams of irritating vehicle-related paperwork such as MOTs. Happily, much of this admin is done digitally these days, saving time, windscreen space and costs for vehicle licensing and parking authorities.
State services, long synonymous with Byzantine form filling and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, are finally becoming user-friendly.
Since the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011, many of the public’s interactions with state bureaucracy have been digitised, making life simpler and quicker. This has taken some of the drudgery out of paying vehicle tax and filing accounts. But not all attempts have succeeded and there have been missed opportunities. There is still huge scope to improve the ways citizens interact with the state.
Departments such as the DVLA, Companies House and HMRC have pioneered the drive for creating customer-friendly communications with citizens, and many local authorities have followed suit. Creating accessible digital services means putting the user at the forefront of digital design, says Ed Poyntz-Wright, account delivery lead at DXC Technology. “The mantra is inclusivity,” he says. “The strategy is to make a service accessible to everyone and ensure the language used is easily understood, so there are no assumptions as to the user’s digital competence or how web savvy they are,” he adds. Seeing things from the point of view of the least sophisticated user is the starting point – he says the language for digital services is aimed at the reading age of an 11-year-old.
Poyntz-Wright says that it is vital for the government to make services approachable, as people are often intimidated by filling in forms online. They worry about what could happen if they make a mistake – the forms often include threats of fines for incorrect information.
The GDS deploys a four-stage process for creating user-friendly services known as “discovery, alpha, beta, live”. First, users are interviewed to find out about their needs, then an alpha prototype of the service is built and tested to prove fundamentals of the proposed new service. Using feedback from users to improve the service, the system is put into a private beta test with a few users, then a public beta test, all the while feeding in improvements obtained from user research. Finally, once all the user pain points have been addressed and the digital service has been made easy to use and intuitive, the service is ready to go live with the public.
Poyntz-Wright cites that one example of this process is the digitisation at Companies House, where an unwieldy 60+ page PDF that allowed users to file corporate accounts was turned into an easy-to-use online service. Under the old system, user satisfaction was low, the PDF was hard to use and the language difficult to understand.
The project followed the GDS framework, discovering the needs of users, creating a first pilot, getting initial feedback then creating a beta version. The old system generated lots of enquiries to the Companies House helpline, so the aim was to make the online version intuitive and lead people through the process. Poyntz-Wright says people warmed to the new online form, and user satisfaction has reached 80%, showing the positive early signs in making services more user-friendly.
But for Poyntz-Wright, governments still “have a huge mountain to climb if they are going to be successful”. Digitisation of existing services is just the first step. Bigger gains will be made when government services become integrated into a single consistent and consolidated user journey, he argues. When a citizen logs on to pay their vehicle tax, they could be alerted to other benefits and liabilities they face. They might be told their tax return is due soon. There could also be Amazon-style recommendations, telling people about benefits and credits relevant to them.
Poyntz-Wright envisages a future where governments offer citizens their own calculator to work out how a budget will affect their income. And when political parties publish their manifestos, a calculator could allow members of the public to work out how the policies will affect them.
“The next step is to integrate services, so you have a consistent user experience across different departments. That is where the government’s relationship with citizens will really start to change. Imagine if the government could deliver these integrated services around important events in the citizen’s life, such as getting married, voting in elections or registering a new car,” he says.
Scrapping paper tax discs in favour of digital payments is just the start of a wholesale transformation of government. But for the state to really become responsive to the needs of citizens, it must put the interests of the end user at the heart of its digital strategy.