Enough Lipstick on Pigs

Many governments are busy digitising their existing institutions and services. Too often, they’re digitising an analogue government, locking in the waste, delay and frustration inherited from the era of filling in paper forms. Bad mistake. A nation bold enough to invest in new, natively digital foundations can transform the simplicity and cost of public services and unlock innovation far beyond the public sector. Based on experiences in the UK and around the world, Tom will explain how.

First things to get out of the way…

  1. the pig – not the cute pigs… think of Napoleon the pig from Animal Farm
  2. luck – we, the people in this room, are the luckiest people alive

“We have it in our power to being the world over again.”- Thomas Paine

But the key question is… who is the “we”? The digital revolution is being done by the people in this room. If we’re going to be inventing things, let’s do things that matter!

In 2010, the UK Goverment opened the door to people from the internet. Francis Maude used a great deal of personal capital to get digital people into the civil service – this gets digital people into the heart of the government.

These people did not join to fix government websites – they joined to fix government. Because government needs fixing! There has been a growing gap between the expectation people have of web services, to the quality of services they are receiving from government.

So what was broken? Even when they weren’t dreadful, government services never got any better. Much of this can be tracked back to the grindingly slow methodology of going from policy, through procurement and finally inflicting on users… and then the stasis of operation.

So what did GDS get right?

  • They created a diverse, multi-talented team – “the unit of delivery is the team”
  • The did a quick prototype of the gov.uk website; then they iterated with quarterly updates… eventually went live and won an award, leading to the headline “Boring website wins award!”
  • There were creative, smart, frustrated people in government already – who had just never had the place to become a great product manager. GDS gave him a space to do so.
  • They also brought some new talent in from outside
  • They changed the language – no requirements, resources, specifications. They talked about “users” and the needs they have.
  • Designed with data – they put up a wallboard showing how many people were on gov.uk and what they were searching for (“slightly filtered…”)
  • Devops – they had a baseline that had to be able to release any time and must always release once per day.
  • They brought some humanity into process – there was a 400-question survey to get a small carer’s allowance. Over the years more and more questions had accreted until people had just forgotten the real human reason for the allowance. They massively simplified it.
  • They simplified many processes; or in many cases assisted other teams to do so – registering to vote brought down to a five-minute process. Prisoner visit form was built mobile-first…and they simply never did a “desktop” version.
  • They actually needed to put a speedbump into the process to set up lasting power of attorney – because it was such a serious decision, they’d made it too easy.
  • Harder stuff – identity assurance, UK Gov Verify
  • They set up design guides, a service standard, and importantly…. They did stickers!

They were trying to deal with the “square of despair” – policy, procurement, security myths, just making everything terribly unhappy.

So what did they get wrong? You know in hindsight… they had a huge opportunity and they weren’t bold enough. They were digitising a paper-based government. They’d put lipstick on pigs. They’d taken bad processes and made them prettier, a bit easier to use. But each service was an iron-clad silo.

The siloed services each separately collected and stored data. They essentially ignored the existend of all the other silos. Users were left bouncing around getting different things from different silos; and giving up their details each time.

New public infrastructure requires new public institutions.

So Tom made a small team and asked them “What if we started again?” …with everything except democracy itself. They did a great job and came up with many fantastic ideas, like APIs onto open, canonical government data.

Nice idea: minimum viable data. Eg/ You don’t need to know how old someone is, you just need to know if they are over 18.

(Live demo of starting and updating a business through a unified service based on open data, using blockchain to guarantee integrity.)

Whether this model is absolutely right is not certain, but it is certainly better than what we have now.

Some government is going to get this right first. It could be Australia. We do have a PM who wants his party using Slack.

Have no poverty of ambition. Do stuff that matters and invent a future that matters!