Autumn budget statement: Implications for digital public services

The Treasury made some interesting comments around the recent Autumn budget statement that will have an impact on our sector. Most notably, the Chief Secretary said that ministers will be seeking savings through ‘rooting out waste’ and ‘turbo-charging’ plans to digitise public services.

This is an opportunity that the digital consultancy community needs to embrace. After all, rooting out waste is what we do when we digitise public services. However, I also believe that we should be cautious about the idea of turbo-charging digital service design. Move fast, with real purpose, by all means. But if we move too fast in the wrong way it will lead to more waste of taxpayers’ money. 

Here are my thoughts on how we can make sure that doesn’t happen. 

  1. Stick to the process

When you move quickly, it’s tempting to skip steps. This is a big mistake in the context of digital service design. The GDS has established the Service Standard and its delivery phases of Discovery, Alpha and Beta. The Discovery phase helps us get a deep understanding of what user’s need is and the real problem we’re trying to solve. During Alpha, we test assumptions about what we might build, rather than what we inevitably will build. This helps us to ensure that we don’t waste any development time or budget when we move to Beta. Or even worse, build the wrong thing or don’t solve the actual problem. 

Skip or skim over either of these phases and we are likely to end up back at the start of the process. Government departments need to avoid this temptation. If they don’t, budgets and timescales will double. The focus should be on doing more with less in truly agile ways to complete each phase more quickly and effectively. We’ve learnt a lot from doing and making our own mistakes. We will share our learning in a Playbook very soon.  

  1. Get the end-to-end processes right

The Chief Secretary talked about the need to accelerate the digitisation of more public services. What he didn’t mention is there is still a need to reduce waste in existing services at the back end. 

There are many cases where public sector departments have built digital services that provide a good external user experience. Behind the scenes, however, civil servants are still working with multiple legacy applications and expensive manual processes to deliver the service. 

Moving forward with plans to develop more digital services is an admirable goal. But we also need to root out the waste within digital systems by getting end to end processes right and solving the whole problem. That means we need to focus on the needs of the civil servant user as much as the citizen.

  1. Push back when it’s right to do so

When a minister says jump, all-too-often the response is ‘how high?’

Typically this leads to fixed-deadline, Waterfall-style projects that focus on delivering the wrong thing rather than solving the whole problem. We know, we’ve been in some of them and have the scars to prove it. This is because these projects are driven by snap political imperatives rather than user centred design to solve the whole problem. 

This is a personal bugbear of mine. Collectively, digital service design consultancies and government departments need to be better at pushing back on projects that are ill-defined and have fixed timescales because of a ministerial steer. Again, we need to follow the process. By doing so, we will be much more likely to deliver a service that delivers full value for investment more quickly. 

  1. Aim for sustainability through self-sufficiency

The government wants to push forward with the digitisation of services. But the Autumn budget statement means there will be less budget around to make that happen. This means that public sector departments need to get maximum value from their spend with consultancies. They also need to become more self-sufficient when services go live. 

At Zaizi we have a purpose called realising potential together. It means many different things relating to how to work as a team and with the community around us. Most importantly in this context, it also means we focus on passing on our knowledge to the public sector departments that we work with. Our goal is to upskill our customers’ teams so they can be self-sufficient without any further intervention from us.

It’s important to mention this, because it enables organisations to get full ROI from every penny they spend. We hope it will also help them to accelerate the development of the digital services of the future.

I have written more extensively about our purpose here. If you would like to discuss any of the issues I have raised in this article please get in touch.

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