designing online social security for the future

On Wednesday, the Design Council and the London School of Economics hosted a 1 day conference on “Moving Social Security Online“. It brought together a healthy and eclectic mix of people including civil servants, policymakers, designers, technologists and academics.

I’ve long believed, based on experience, that if you’re going to get current and future plans to work, you need to understand the past and what has worked previously – and what has failed. And why. Much has been learned over the past 15 years. In looking at where social security is heading over the next few years with the major DWP Universal Credit programme, I first took a brief look back over the past 15 years of trying to use online services to modernise and improve the design and operation of key public services.

As you’ll see from my slides (embedded from Slideshare above), there’s long been an aspiration to improve public services using technology. And there have been many promising prototypes along the way, joining-up services and improving the citizen’s experience. But most have failed. As one of my slides makes clear, rather bluntly, at times this was because of senior officials wilfully resisting change: the quotes in this deck are verbatim from meetings I was in, around 2004, when there were many attempts to try and modernise key public services and move them to be focused on citizens’ needs rather than those of the owning department or agency. Whilst the technology was able to deliver what was required, the bigger challenge time after time was in overcoming cultural blockers.

Lord Bichard in his introduction correctly highlighted the challenge of delivering services that are joined-up and horizontal at the edge, when at the centre they remain vertical and silod. This is another reason why designing from the edge inwards is so powerful, as it results in a design built around citizens’ needs rather than centralist organisational perceptions. Easier said than done of course – but the new agile project methods being adopted in government will involve citizens and service users throughout the programme lifecycle, ensuring their active involvement in design. And building these new programmes through the use of open, digital by default platforms based on open standards with open APIs means that providers at the edge – such as “Big Society” mutuals or co-operatives – can design innovative new ways of presenting and interacting with those services.

Thankfully, I think that the narrow, organisationally-centric mindset of some officials that I encountered in the past is consigned to history: certainly the officials I deal with today are positive, progressive and want to make a difference. They are focused on how to deliver services based on user need, with government re-engineered as a genuinely open platform. These new initiatives are adopting a digital by default DNA that will ensure they are built from the ground up using open standards and open APIs.

This will be an effective way to support the necessary multi-channel infrastructure, delivering services not only to websites, but also to mobile phones and tablet devices, for example. It will also empower what administrations of all colours have wanted for well over a decade – for other individuals and organisations in the voluntary, private and public sectors – to be able to deliver public services. So, for example, a charity dealing with homeless people will be able to use the underlying open platform of services such as Universal Credit to tailor its own way of helping those it deals with – rather than them necessarily having to visit a local DWP office. Or a local authority could provide a one stop shop service for residents that spans central and local government services.

Over the next few years, we could finally see delivered the type of citizen-centric public services that have long been spoken about. It’s often said that it takes 20 years from an idea to its mainstream take-up. So perhaps in 2016 we will finally see delivered what was originally intended back in that 1996 paper on “Government Direct” (PDF).

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