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A common theme in government service delivery is how digital, policy and operations teams can work better together. Some current trends may point the way.   

I’ve been thinking more about a recurring theme we come across in government service delivery: how we bridge the gap between policy and operations people and those in digital delivery, so government services don’t end up failing users. 

It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about since my attendance at UKGovCamp in January. This year’s ‘unconference’—the biggest so far— had numerous discussions centred around this issue of misalignment between policy, operations and digital teams. This resonates with the practical challenges I encounter regularly while working in government service delivery.  

In the first instance, it’s important to understand why challenges continue to exist in this area as we think about potential ways we can try and progress. 

Mismatched motivations are the heart of the issue?  

Policy and operations teams are driven to get services delivered, usually to aggressive timescales. They can’t afford the ‘luxury’ of in-depth user research and prototyping and often don’t understand why it’s necessary.    

Digital teams, on the other hand, are acutely conscious that services must be designed around users if they’re to deliver the best outcomes for users. Designing a properly user-centred service takes time and requires the involvement of users throughout. While policy and operations stakeholders may believe their ideas can pave the way for the best solution, digital teams would point to examples of where user research has completely transformed the ‘what’s possible’ approach.  

Several sessions at this year’s UKGovCamp highlighted such stakeholder misalignments, including sessions titled:  

  • Relationship management and convincing people who are ‘not digital’   
  • How do we stop poor commissioning by non-digital teams?  
  • How do we help .gov people understand user-centred design (UCD) principles?   
  • Making digital teams less impenetrable to other civil service teams culturally   

I wasn’t surprised to see topics like these being voted on to the GovCamp’s agenda once again. In fact, last year, I ran a similar session at GovCamp on how we explain digital to non-digital people. At that time, I was leading the Digital, Data and Technology Strategy at the Home Office, and trying to secure more buy-in from all kinds of different stakeholders outside our digital function.    

As one participant said in a GovCamp session I attended, policy teams are focused on finding—and commissioning—a solution. Digital teams are focused on solving a problem. So how do we bring the two sides together to co-design effective services?  

Here are six approaches that may help: 

1. Finding common ground with lean UX   

One solution might be for each side to give way a little, by compromising on a ‘lean UX’ approach rather than insisting on a full User-Centred Design (UCD) or full waterfall approach.    

We’re already starting to see this happen. Some UCD teams are combining alpha and discovery stages when working with Policy and Operations on fast-paced projects where there’s little time for exploratory research. As an approach, it reduces timeframes by starting with a set of design assumptions and testing them with users at the outset. Ideally, exploratory research would still be carried out in parallel to this assumption-testing.    

UCD professionals may see this as worryingly ‘solution-first’, but it does seem to be a way to get policy, operations and digital teams working together while still preserving some of the principles of UCD. Most importantly, this could be a good way to introduce non-digital colleagues to UCD thinking and approaches and may pave the way for more effective collaboration in the future.  

2. Making greater use of reusable components    

Continuing on the above point, one way to support a lean UX approach without forsaking UCD principles is to make more use of reusable components and standards.  

This has been happening in government for years with the Cabinet Office pushing the agenda for ‘Government-as-a-Platform’, and notably so in the current day with the roll-out of One Login. Most government departments have their product reuse strategy. Additionally, using common development standards, like the Government API Standards, can help simplify development strategies as scrum teams don’t have to think about weighing up the practicalities and benefits of different design methods and technologies.   

The standards also help development timelines as lots of the decisions get standardised. When I was leading the design of these API and data standards for government, back in my Government Digital Service (GDS) days circa 2016/2017, I became acutely aware of the amount of time being invested in understanding different methods of API design, such as which method of authentication to use. By bringing departments together to agree on the authentication standard OAuth, we removed a lot of that investigation.   

3. Aligning around accessibility and inclusion   

Another possible solution is for teams to align around a shared vision of what a great digital service looks like. Such a vision has already been defined by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which is now on a mission to make the top 75 government services ‘great’ by 2025.   

What’s interesting is that accessibility is one of the CDDO’s five key metrics for service greatness. In response, we’re seeing many departments developing their own accessibility standards over and above the minimum standards all public sector organisations have to meet.   

This redoubled focus on accessibility may help to bridge the divide between policy, operations and digital. Designing truly inclusive and accessible services demands a UCD approach, with many types of user needs to be considered. UCD teams are also using their research to develop standards and templates that can accelerate project timescales for deadline-driven policy teams.    

4. Building capacity with digital culture training mapped to departmental context   

At the Home Office, one of my responsibilities was to lead the design of a Digital Culture course for Senior Civil Servants. This was aimed at helping Civil Servants in non-digital roles understand digital processes and methods. Behind this was our hope that through this training and capacity building, we would be able to create more understanding of the Home Office DDaT Strategy.   

As part of this course, we rolled out workshops and online courses to help us build a common language across the different teams. One of the most interesting challenges was how different groups of people defined the word ‘digital’. In the training we created, digital was defined in the context of creating services, products, and policies for users, and at the heart of this was needing to understand the users you are trying to serve.   

While the Cabinet Office is currently rolling out digital training to all departments to upskill in digital, there are significant benefits in tailoring digital training to the departments’ specific context. At the Home Office, we received positive feedback on the rollout of the course.   

5. Building and leveraging cross-functional teams  

In my current project working with HM Revenue & Customs on the transformation of the tax service, I’ve witnessed first-hand the positive impact of having cross-functional scrum teams. We have a daily stand-up with digital, policy, and operations team members present. This cross-functional working keeps everyone in sync and helps us promptly address concerns. Meanwhile, the transparent sharing of project progress ensures that every team member, regardless of their background, is on the same page.   

This collaboration with individuals from policy, operations, and digital backgrounds within the same team has helped to foster a holistic understanding of project goals. Adopting agile working in this context also means we can be flexible to changing requirements and accommodate any additions from the different function areas.   

6. Harnessing data, personalisation and AI as a unifying force 

Digital, policy and operations teams can—and should—also collaborate around new approaches to service delivery. Data has long played a key role in breaking down silos, with feedback loops facilitated by data helping to drive continuous improvement in service delivery, while also helping to inform strategic decision-making. Now, the growing requirement to personalise services also requires stakeholder collaboration if the user experience is truly going to be improved.

On the AI side, discussions at GovCamp highlighted some key ethical considerations, particularly around how inbuilt biases could lead to discrimination against individuals and groups. This has been covered in the news—a Guardian article from October investigated potential bias in algorithms used by Government departments to detect benefits fraud and sham marriages, for example. Although that investigation was inconclusive, the risk of bias due to the use of unrepresentative data sets to train AI models is real.

I recently wrote about my reflections on the AI revolution, noting that practitioners need to collaborate with data colleagues to mitigate biases and ensure the appropriate use of AI. However, it's essential for policy and operations teams to also prioritise user-centric approaches as rushed implementation of AI-driven services could lead to adverse outcomes.

Policy discussions on the appropriate use of AI in government services are underway. The Algorithmic Transparency Recording Standard (ATRS) is a notable step in the right direction, requiring public sector organizations to transparently disclose information about the algorithmic tools they use in decision-making processes impacting the public.

The will to collaborate is there—let’s make it happen.  

One of my most heartening experiences at this year’s GovCamp was in the session titled ‘How do we stop poor commissioning by non-digital teams?’ A lone policy professional in the room confessed that she desperately wanted to improve the way she commissions digital services, but she didn’t know where to start, and the digital people she wanted to reach out to always seemed so busy. To this, a service designer responded that UCD people would always make time to talk, if it led to better outcomes for service users.  

To me, that one interaction shows there’s willingness on both sides to get together to design better services that deliver better outcomes. Now, we just need to make it happen on a day-to-day basis across government, rather than once a year in one small room.

Rosalie Marshall

Senior Manager, Public Sector Consulting, UK&I, Cognizant

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