I mentioned this in today's newsletter but I think the recent work of the Government Digital Service is excellent. They've got some smart people working there and are doing great things. This excellent post by Mike Bracken (Director of Digital for the Cabinet Office) talks about how they have shifted the focus to putting user need rather than policy at the centre of strategy and delivery. I particularly like how they seem to have brought agility to what must be a disctinctly complex and rigid environment characterised by multiple stakeholders, politics, competing priorities and an over-reliance on documentation.
It's worth reading the whole post but it's such a good example that I wanted to highlight some points that really resonated. Says Mike:
"One of the many lessons in my 18 months in Government has been to watch the endless policy cycles and revisions accrue – revision upon revision of carefully controlled Word documents, replete with disastrous styling…rarely, if ever, does user need get a look-in. User need, if referenced at all, is self-reinforcing, in that the internal user needs dominate those of users of public services."
There are obvious parallels here with the challenges of being nimble in a large organisation (just think about how most customer service operations are structured to suit the needs of the internal organisation rather than those of the end user via automated menus, siloed teams and lack of joined up data):
"It's usually the way with all large, rules-based organisations: that more time and effort is spent on internal logic and process than on listening to and understanding real user needs."
Mike talks about how the old process that put policy as the starting point leads to overly detailed input, 'digital versions' of existing practices, lengthy and complex procurement proceedures and inflexible solutions based on analgue thinking:
"Policy led digital service creation closes down responsiveness, builds in long-lead times and results in services which are dictated by legacy IT thinking, not by user needs"
The new process shows the transformative effect of an approach driven from the very beginning by user need. For GOV.UK they created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks based on evident user needs, and designed or re-designed services through rapidly reacting to user feedback from multiple sources (user surveys, A/B testing, summative tests, social media), precluding lengthy procurement proceedures and shrinking the time between feedback and resultant changes to live services.
"By putting user need first, and then allowing policy to changes to be understood in the context of user needs, we will have responsive digital services."
Mike notes that in many cases, delivery of services (information or transactional) has come before final strategy work is completed:
"In an analogue world policy dictates to delivery, but in a digital world delivery informs policy".
It's a great case-study, I think, for how transformational agile processes and an approach with user-need at its heart can be. And not only to the way in which technology teams work, but in the delivery of services to the end-user. Tim O'Reilly has described their work as the model for other national and local governments to follow, and the UK Government Digital Design Principles (originated by GDS) as "the most significant user interface document since the original Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines". Indeed.