An exciting day out in London today at the Government Digital Service / LocalDirectGov Really Useful Day, looking at the user journeys between GovUK and council websites.

Hosted at DCLG, the day had a practical bent as after some initial background information was given we broke into groups and focused on re-working a user task to come up with an ideal wireframe for the journey. In the morning sessions we looked at tasks a citizen may be carrying out while the afternoon tried to focus more on services for businesses.

It was a great way to tackle the problem and get everyone involved and trying to think in the GDS way – putting the user at the heart of it all, simplifying the journeys and making savings for Government.

I joined the team working on ‘disruption to services caused by severe weather’ in the morning and ‘complaining about the council’ in the afternoon (other topics included planning applications, paying business rates, school term dates. getting a license for a street party and registering to vote).

Here’s five things I took away from the day…

The creation of simplicity is a complex process

What came out of both the journeys I looked at was that to create the GovUK level of simplicity on these tasks is going to be incredibly complicated, mainly because of the number of tiers in local government and involvement of other agencies. Not to in any way undermine what GDS has achieved (because it is a massive shift) but this, I think, is more complicated that what they’ve done so far which is typically one question / task with information from one department. They’ve made massive leaps in the way that’s presented but it’s (usually) and A to B journey.

However, it’s not going to be A to B with services from local government. It’s going to be A to B, or C, or B and C, and D. This came up pretty quickly with the severe weather topic. A user probably wouldn’t start from ‘severe weather disruption’ but the main service they’re interested in disruption of – school closures, road gritting, bin collections. Severe weather disruption could be a lot of different services from a lot of different organisations and sign posting to the right one at the right time is going to be a doozy.

The quality of information they’re signposting to is yet another potential issue with no easy answer. Anyone worth their salt working in digital will know what they should be doing in terms of content quality and user experience but whether they’re able to implement that against their organisation’s culture, technology and current offering is a different thing altogether.

Your culture is not our culture – yet

The question baking my noodle throughout the day was ‘how is the GDS culture and direction going to get embedded in local government?’. The simple fact is that the Government Digital Service has been specifically created to do this (massive) task for central government and empowered to make it happen. They can’t force that on local government but they’re going to need to persuade them to follow suit if this is really going to work.

But at the moment Agile is alien, UX is theory more than practice and digital by default has yet to reach the provinces. Of course this is a generalisation. There is massive innovation in local government, bags of passion (also pockets of apathy and resistance to change).

The people there today, and at things like GovCamp, are generally the impassioned and engaged, who want the change and are willing to do it by stealth as much as persuasion. But at the end of the day central government has been tasked and empowered to turn the digital supertanker in a way that local gov (mostly) has not.

The LocalDirectGov database is the key

It’s also been the secret. It’s been recent news to me that the way GovUK is linking to local services is via the listings councils upload through the LocalDirectGov database. I’m willing to accept I might be the last person to learn of this but I suspect I’m not.

Someone needs to do some sustained leaning on councils to take their info really seriously, get on top of their uploads and sort out their 200/404 error pages.Someone needs to tell them it’s going to be doing this job and communicate the benefit to them of getting on board.

Keep it super simple for citizens

The basic premise is that the average citizen doesn’t know which organisation delivers which of their services, they don’t care and to be frank, why the heck should they? Keep it simple, let them use words that make sense to them and get them to the info they need or through the process as simply and efficiently as possible without troubling them with trifles like who’s delivering it and how that fits in the bigger picture of society.

I don’t disagree with this approach in general, it’s a blunt way of expressing the need and desire for world class UX. However, that doesn’t mean I’m entirely comfortable with it. On some level is Government not making it ok for people to stop being engaged citizens? Is there a happy medium here?

When are we going to tackle the tough stuff?

While there was complexity in all the journeys looked at today they are, pretty much, ‘light touch’ contact. While we need to improve the digital journey they’re almost the easy wins because they absolutely can be done digitally and contact can be avoided.

So, when are we going to tackle the tough stuff? When are we going to look at digital’s role in social care referrals or child protection? I doubt that can be wireframed in an hour long session round a flip chart. And the stakes for getting it wrong are much higher. But we need to do it and I think we need to do it soon.

Final thoughts

Today was brilliant; it got me thinking and I met lots of localgov folk that I hadn’t had chance to before. I hope there are more Really Useful Days (perhaps even outside of London) and central and local can work together to really make digital fly. It would be great if as a first step GDS/LocalDirectGov thought about their communication channels with localgov – not enough people knew this day was happening and I think they really, really need to.