You wait ages for a good reason to celebrate, and then two come along at once. Barely had the birthday candles been blown out on last month’s second anniversary cake for GOV.UK and now it’s the 20th anniversary of the launch of the original government website that started it all.
Central government’s online presence has undergone numerous Dr Who-like regenerations since November 1994. There was the original text-dominated Government Information Service, the colourful clutter of UKonline, the eyeball challenging hallucinogenic orange of Directgov, and now the elegant simplicity of GOV.UK.
This evolution is only the most visible part of the wider initiative to bring public services into the internet age. Moving existing services online won’t in itself fix the real challenges of the public sector, which is why the focus is on redesigning them from front end to back, rather than merely applying a new shade of lipstick to what’s already there.
This is no trivial task: services need to meet many diverse and complex user needs — from citizens and businesses, to public employees, charities, suppliers, ministers and Parliament. These users often have different expectations and requirements from public services. The move online is therefore also about taking the opportunity to rethink and redesign services to improve on what went before.
Many current, paper-age ‘transactions’ need to be radically redesigned, reduced, or even switched off, not merely shuffled from one channel to another. Every increase in the use of these improved online services should not only improve the user experience, but also witness a reduction in demand for other channels, such as call centres and the post. It will need to shift resources away from obsolete internal administrative and clerical overheads to frontline services.
This is why insight such as the GOV.UK performance dashboard is essential: it monitors services in near realtime — how much services cost to run and how many people use them. We need much more information like this. Detailed data, for example, about precisely where finance goes in the public sector — how much repeatedly gets spent on identical platform requirements such as tax or welfare calculation systems, HR, payments, case management and so on. Such data will make it easier to understand the potential scale of the reallocation of resources possible, eradicating duplicate roles, functions, processes and systems in multiple places, and redirecting taxpayers’ money to where it matters most.
It would be easy to dismiss the slow journey of online services over the last 20 years as a sign that real change in government will never happen. But digital culture is currently gaining momentum in the backroom Tardis of the public sector, with an enthusiasm for the opportunities of public service redesign that cuts across the old, fragmented and poorly performing model of the past.
This is no longer simply about moving services onto a website. GOV.UK is just the tip of a much more significant shift in the way our public services are being re-thought and redesigned — and well worth a double celebration and another cake.