ReallyUsefulDay – GDS meets localgov

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.

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19 thoughts on “ReallyUsefulDay – GDS meets localgov

  1. Awesome simply awesome..

    I wasn’t there but the questions you raise are the same ones I’m asking myself right now…literally right now 😉

    Thanks for posting yours insights Sarah.

  2. A pleasure to share my thoughts from the day Carl. The day was definitely billed right – it was Really Useful! Getting people involved in redesigning the journeys was great – even those of us pushing UX probably don’t get to do much paper prototying or wireframe design in the day job.
    It was also Really Useful in clarifying some of the questions I’m asking myself – there’s quite a list of them now & they’re all quite big! But they do need thinking about, talking about and getting some traction toward really moving toward answers and solutions.

  3. That is a very interesting question about whether keeping it simple for citizens validates them not being engaged with their government.

    On the one hand, with machinery of government changes and executive agencies and such like opening and closing and being reorganised all over the place, it is hard enough for someone who follows this kind of thing professionally to keep track of it all.

    But on the other hand, I think you are right to ask if the KISS approach over-simplifies thing. Unilever doesn’t insist that people looking for either Bovril or Persil all have to go to They have different brands serving different communities and purposes. Maybe some of the need for a single website could be reduced by better marketing and branding…. though I guess that raises a question about whether government would need horizontal community-based brands for people to relate to, rather than vertical organisational ones.

  4. Hi Sarah, and maybe Carl

    In answering the challenges you outline, it might be worth considering the advent of personal data stores, and services. This is where individuals own their own data, and proof of identity, have a right to choose privacy, assert proof of claims and the level of sharing they wish to do, and basic human rights extend to the digital realm.

    It is the emergence of an eco-system where individuals are in greater control of their lives with the freedom to choose how and what to share and do, and have a balanced relationship with each other, society as a whole, governments and organisations

    This system empowers individuals to manage their lives more effectively through convenient, trustworthy access and control of their personal data and how it is used by them and others

    To do this requires us to create, evolve and maintain a secure, trustworthy and convenient open personal data eco-system.

    In such a system, organisations are not losing data in data sharing partnerships. The individual is volunteering personal information.

    It’s only by turning some of the existing norms on their head, that we will succeed in tackling these much bigger issues.


  5. Thanks for the comment Richard – I agree that it’s an interesting question. The people in my group in the morning were definitely very passionate about this being something which needs further thought. It was a shame we couldn’t pause longer to discuss it as for the purposes of the day we sort of had to assume they either weren’t any issues with KISS for citizens or that they’d already been settled.

    From a personal perspective I feel I do ‘identify’ more on a local level and the few transactions I make every year with central gov, for me, would be better sitting within this rather than the other way round. But yes, it could be branded or presented better, I guess, if it was just ‘PlaceGov’ rather than ‘county+district+parish+multiple other agenciesGov’! But then I’m not particularly representative as I know more about layers of government, digital and am more engaged that what we’re saying is the average citizen.

    I did a little informal research into digital transactions a while a go called CitizenSarah. I think some of my thoughts which came from that buffer up against this stuff: CitizenSarah reports.

  6. Thanks Alex – I agree that we need to think differently and get rid of some digital delivery habits.

    Personal data stores do sound like a possible solution – I can certainly see with that level of authentication and buy-in from individuals it would possibly allow more work around ‘heavy’ transactions needing much more info to be supplied and verified (the social care, benefits, identity (passports etc) and perhaps some education services for example).

    I wonder though whether digital is pervasive enough through all sections of society for this to work at the moment? I guess a lot of that would depend on UX, access and supported access or what the alternative was but given there is likely to be a cross over between hard-to-reach groups and the services a personal data store would really benefit I think it would be an important part of the question to answer.

    Thanks for your comment – certainly an interesting suggestion that bears investigation.

  7. Thanks Wendy. I’ll catch up with you about the specifics at work tomorrow / this week but I definitely think overall the hands on format of the day made it more useful than just a sit, listen and die the slow death of endless PowerPoints!
    They’re planning more events so I think it would be good for us as a team to stay involved, especially given the sort of ideas for developing our site that are being discussed at the moment 🙂

  8. This post illustrates the problems of a technology push perfectly. Go and read John Seddon’s stuff and think about the organizational implications of some of the things you are saying. “I don’t care where my food comes from, so long as it arrives” – no, actually I DO care, and I expect the supplier to care about the fact that I care. Services are co-created not delivered by a ginormous state gov website. The key issues are about getting government staff to work with the citizens they are paid to help, and good UX by guerrilla-geeks ain’t going to help. Accurate data is not just a technical issue.

  9. I agree with a lot of what has been commented already. I raised the issue of some of the surmises being made by GDS at their open day/launch event and offered further assistance – but enough said and I’m not working in local government much longer.

    There’s also differences between big and small, urban and rural that even if legislation is changed can’t change the practical issues, and one of the major causes of complexity is legislation (or guidance).

    At least the conversations are happening, which is new – people just need to listen, as well as talk.

    Keep it up!


  10. The point about empowering and structuring delivery teams is spot on. People with digital skills need to be allowed to use them without undue influence from those without. Tools and talent are relatively easy to come by – power isn’t.

  11. Thanks for your comment Brian – I’m reading a John Seddon book at the moment and you’re right that there is cross-over here.
    Your comment about UX not being a help is interesting though. I don’t see changes to system thinking and good UX / content strategy as mutually exclusive – they both go toward changing the way services are delivered digitally in my view. As I’m not part of the Government Digital Service who are creating GovUK, nor am I a policy-setter within my own (local government) organisation it’s hard for me to comment on whether co-creation and system thinking are being tackled.

  12. Thanks Mick – I’m glad the conversation’s are happening too! It’s great to see something move as fast in Government as GDS has with GovUK and I hope that while they want local gov to follow their lead that they will, as you say, listen as well and learn also.

    I also agree about regional variations. On a specific delivery level we touched on this in the team I was with in the morning session looking at the user journey for severe weather service disruption. While I mentioned briefly the complexity of the vertical journey between GovUK and the correct tier of local government in my post the group also talked about how horizontal journeys would / could be incorporated – in the session I mentioned the work done by #wmgrit to try and serve people making a journey across several local authority boundaries.

    But #wmgrit wouldn’t work in the same way in a rural setting as it does in the urban and suburban area of the West Midlands. I think it’s down to the digital delivery teams in local government to work with their communities and citizens to understand their needs, the networks they use or want to use and what they want now and in the future from the organisation. This can then be fed back up to GovUK – it might not give the universal one-size-fits-all approach that they seem to want at the moment (and I might be wrong on that) but it should give the right service to the right people in the right way.

    Sounds simple, right 😉

  13. Thanks Alan – glad there is recognition of this issue. I think generally the will is there but the way is blocked or just unclear as to how local gov can emulate the GDS model at the moment. Hopefully the GovUK work will show there is a different way of doing things digitally and the benefits of doing so. I’m really interested to see how this all starts to shake down across the sector!

  14. (Honest admittal: Not an expert in any way in this area)

    I thought this was a great comment though:

    “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.”

    I think this is one of the big challenges. And it’s generally not about ‘poor’ culture, or ‘outdated’ technology, the issues are not really faults and failures, they’re just different organisation approaches that aren’t quite compatible with new approaches to implementation.

    I think Sometimes it’s about the people too – it’s nice to deliver digital, but not every local service has a customer group that responds to it. I think that will shift rapidly given the internets ubiquity amongst younger people, but perhaps audience is one driver of the speed at which people realise the value of joining up.

  15. Hi John and thanks for your comment.

    I agree that ‘digital by default’ is a nice idea but not always appropriate. I think this is just another reason why a ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t going to work – the audience / target for a service in rural Derbyshire may not be able or want digital where the same service delivered digitally may be preferable to the target group in inner London. The driver to get online and do it well is certainly going to be stronger in an area with a very digitally active and engaged population.

  16. Hi….

    On “The LocalDirectGov database is the key”….

    I couldn’t agree more. I think that one way of making this stick is for councils to use it in their own websites. At least that way, its part of each website’s core function, and so provides a real incentive to keep the info up-to-date. how can we make that work?

  17. Hi Steve,
    The LocalDirectGov database & API are interesting and clearly remaining as important as ever in feeding the single domain beast!
    We’ve been looking at using the API to replace our current A-Z offering. Our idea (as a county) is to use the API to pull & display links to district/borough info against related & relevant services on our site. So, on our recycling centres page you will see deep links to rubbish / bins / Kerbside collection info on the district sites. That’s a pretty broad overview and it doesn’t really put that onus on keeping info up to date. However, if all council websites used the info from the database on their own sites, I suspect as you rightly say, the need for up to date entries would become clear.
    Would be interestedyo hear if any other localgov folk are already or plan to use the database/API.

  18. Firstly, thank you Steph for your ever insightful outhghts and for hosting this discussion. I am really happy to see similarities between what is being suggested by Martha Lane-Fox and being discussed here and the stuff we have been talking about on the smaller scale of a city web presence. However, I think that, to badly misquote Phil Anderson, smaller is different and I’d really like to talk about some of those differences, even if it is slightly off topic.The idea of centralising standards, guidance, expertise and controls rather than production is one that was core to the web strategy we recently worked on with Sheffield City Council. However, when talking about an entire city’s web presence (including local businesses and citizens) the control often becomes irrelevant and has to be replaced with persuasion.The methods then become about providing the builders of web systems with facilities that add value such as a common search mechanism, joined up branding, taxonomies, geo-coding tools, single-sign-on systems. These facilities can then be used by Council departments, partners, businesses and citizens to build web systems from the most effective technologies available, including the open source and low cost platforms that Steph referred to.To my mind the reasons to build a centralised CMS to manage all content is simply an extension of this. If the features provided by the content management tools are useful and/or there are savings to be made in training/expertise, then it should be used, else, use a tool that fits better. This is predicated on the fact that most of the features that are commonly integrated into a CMS are offered as separate services (i.e. search, commenting, login, profile, semantic/geo-analysis, etc).I feel that the major challenge of adopting a federated service approach to local government is persistence of existing and enshrined off-the-shelf applications. It is quite easy to justify the cost of creating an transaction with a user experience that meets the required standards when there are tens of millions of potential users and massive savings to be made. But in the local government market, the aggregation of requirements is done (if at all) by software vendors, who seem to have a shallow view of user experience. Each council gets the choice of taking a standard package off the shelf and disappointing and alienating their users or spending more to provide a user experience that will achieve the channel shifts they need. How many will choose to believe the sales material of the software vendors and dismiss the importance of good user experience to save money.

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