Designing digital services for the public sector

For many public sector organisations, finding new ways to improve the services they offer is an ongoing challenge. Fundamentally, it’s about designing a service that can bring greater efficiencies for the staff managing the service and improve life for the end users engaging with it.

The design process itself performs a central role in delivering better outcomes for the public sector. For many organisations who are looking to significantly develop their services, there’s not a one solution-fits-all-approach. But there are a few fundamental things to consider when you are laying the foundations for change.

So what are the key design considerations that can help improve public services at scale?

The challenge of transforming services at scale

It’s often the larger inherited underperforming or disjointed services that hold organisations back. These services will usually have been built up over a number of years and any issues or problems can be deeply ingrained. Of course, there are likely to be good reasons why things have evolved in the way they have. Across many areas of the public sector, including central and local government, things like changing policy, rules and regulations all have an impact on how a service is shaped over time.

For organisations looking to transform these large scale services, an in-depth discovery exercise is needed to kick off the design process to understand the existing landscape, so that all of the basic elements of the service are identified. The first step is to compartmentalise the existing service, breaking it down into its simplest form. This can be challenging but it’s the best way to gain a better understanding of how the service works now.

Once you have each element of the end-to-end service laid out, you can start to build an understanding of the user journey. From the customer experience interacting with the service at the front end to the employees behind the scenes, it’s important to look at the journey and identify the pain points along the way. Understanding the user journey is a vital part of the design process as it enables you to identify how best to achieve the desired goals and outcomes for the service.

Continuity is key, there’s no room for interruption

Continuity is important across the public sector and there are vital services that can’t just be switched off while we work on fixing them. Services are live and serving citizens at all hours of the day. The Home Office, for example, works with multiple agencies and public bodies including HM Passport Office, and is constantly reviewing and approving applications. Delivering digital transformation for these types of services must be done in a way that avoids disruption.

Transitioning a live service over to a new design architecture requires careful planning. It’s important that it happens smoothly and users are able to understand the value of the new design, whether that be enhanced features or a more stable and robust platform. With a service that’s already live, this often means a redesign to make it operate more efficiently, rather than building something completely new. This has the advantage of making the process more fluid, as familiarity with the system remains and staff don’t need to learn an entirely new process.

Cultural collaboration is paramount

In our experience of delivering these projects at scale, collaboration and communication are vital to the overall success of the transformation. As well as tasking multidisciplinary teams to lead the delivery, it’s about uniting the operational, customer and marketing teams to ensure communication is joined up and key elements of the delivery are agreed and understood throughout.

Embedding the project team within the organisation to fully understand the policy behind the service and ways of working, will help with the overall seamlessness of the delivery. Understanding the organisation’s culture and getting buy-in early on is important, particularly when you need to change mindsets around how work gets done. If staff are used to working in a particular way, their needs have to be understood and designed for so that in turn, change will improve their own role and deliver a better service going forward. Successful change is often more about people, than technology.

Keeping communication open and encouraging feedback during all stages, means everyone can keep learning throughout the process. Updates and iterative improvements can be made and shared, as and when they are needed. People who are involved will feel valued.

Across any organisation, people hold different views about how good design and delivery happens. If the goal is to design a cohesive, joined up service then collaboration sits at the centre. At scale, it takes the work of many different people to redesign a service. By approaching the process in this way, your service will deliver greater impact for both your teams and the users who rely on it.

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Coca is Director of design at dxw and an advisor at the Social Design institute

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