This is a powerful polemic by Lou Downe who quite literally wrote the book on good services. We experience services almost everywhere and yet often fail to notice them. We focus on the thing which the service delivers much more readily than on the service which delivers it. Worse still, the providers of many services either don’t recognise that that is what they are doing or, more subtly but more perniciously understand the service to be what they deliver rather than what the service user needs or experiences.
I wrote about a fairly trivial but telling example of that almost ten years ago (faintly ironically, in relation to GDS), observing that:
‘Resolved from the point of view of the gov.uk helpdesk’ turns out to mean something quite different from ‘resolved from the point of view of the service user’.
The reasons behind that are perfectly captured in Lou’s analysis:
For the organisations that provide them, services are often barely more visible than they are for users. They require multiple people, and sometimes multiple organisations to provide all of the steps that a user needs to achieve their goal. Sometimes there are so many pieces to this puzzle, or it stretches across such a long period of time that we struggle to see them as a whole. They’re big, they’re messy, and importantly, they’re intangible, meaning their costs are hidden and so are their consequences.
But Lou is making a much broader point, that failing to recognise that something is a service not only leaves it orphaned rather than owned, but can result in decisions being made with no understanding either of the immediate consequences or, more alarmingly, of the strategic and political implications.
At its most basic, that creates a requirement first to see services for what they are, and then to take the need for their design seriously:
We need to create organisations that can see services as real, tangible things that can and should be designed, but we also need organisations that will commit to designing those services, not as an accidental byproduct of other decisions, but as a conscious, deliberate act. In short, we need organisations that are ‘service literate’; seeing services, understanding what good looks like, and committing to designing them.
That is, of course, not an easy task. The first examples in UK central government of recognising services and customer journeys for what they are, and the need to take radical steps to address failure demand go back at least twenty years, and the job is far from done. Lou’s three components of service literacy provide the necessary foundation for continuing that work.
In the early years of online service design, the online part was felt by many to be a self-contained activity. To the extent that other ways of accessing services were to be considered, it was in terms of encouraging switching to the online service. Gradually that got replaced by a more human approach, recognising that there was a special responsibility on public bodies , because governments don’t have the luxury of choosing their customers, or more specifically of choosing which groups they feel comfortable excluding from their service offer. The current UK government Service Manual is quite clear on the need to provide a joined up service across all channels:
Users should not be excluded or have an inferior experience because they lack access to technology or the skills to use it.
That’s still as important as it always was. But in the meantime, the nature of the problem has changed and broadened. This post is a lament for a disappearing world in which it was possible to operate with cash and without technology, being replaced by a world in which not wanting to – or not being able to – adapt to changing ways of getting things done leads to marginalisation and exclusion.
Mum’s 84 but she’s as sharp as a tack. It should be her choice whether to embrace the digital era or not. And society should respect that.
In one sense, though, ‘society’ isn’t doing anything. Lots of independent decisions are being made, predominantly about the design of commercial services, with the cumulative impact of those decisions heading in a clear direction. Whatever the (imperfect) clarity of government’s role as a service provider, there is a growing and largely unanswered question about government’s role as a regulator of service provision. There have been patchy attempts to discourage the last bank branch leaving town, there are occasional suggestions that shops should be required to accept cash, and that shops should stay on high streets rather than join the migration to ring roads and the cloud, but nothing which amounts to a coherent policy, still less one with practical effect.
What counts as undesirable new technology is, of course, not a constant. I remember being told with absolute confidence many years ago that older people would always want to transact their business with government face to face, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing telephone services for them. A few years later I was told with equal confidence – as it happens by the same person – that older people would always want to transact their business with government by telephone, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing online services for them. Both the technology and the people had changed in the meantime – and those changes are, of course, why the old patterns of service provision are disappearing, because demand, expectations and generations have all moved on – and all those things will inexorably move on again.
But none of that is any comfort to those who can’t – or don’t want to – keep up with that pace of change. Each of us will adapt to every iteration until we reach the one when we don’t. Society should respect that. Whether it can find the will and the means to do so is the harder question.
‘Civil service reform’ is an unintentionally revealing phrase. Its use is a strong indicator of somebody who hasn’t thought through what problem they might be trying to solve, still less what actions might lead to solving it. That’s not because civil service reform is not necessary or not desirable – on the contrary, it is very necessary and very desirable. It is because the civil service (itself a huge collective noun, concealing variety at least as much as describing a singular entity) is part of a wider system. Honest reformers recognise the need to address that wider system; rhetorical reformers do not always feel the need to do so.
Prompted by press coverage suggesting that Francis Maude might be about to be invited to have a third attempt at civil service reform – and with the primary success criterion clearly being the extent to which the civil service ends up smaller as a result – Martin Stanley patiently explains why Maude’s first two attempts failed and why any third attempt is unlikely to do any better. He lists nine problems consistently identified in past reviews of the civil service, all of them depressingly recognisable. But what is perhaps most striking about the list is how much of it is rooted in what ministers and Parliament do (or don’t do) and how little of it is limited to what the civil service does in isolation from that wider system.
Again, that’s not an argument that all is well in the civil service or that nothing there needs to change. Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote a blog post on this issue, prompted by the civil service reform plan published in Maude’s name. It is not reassuring that the last paragraphs of that post seem just as apposite today:
The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.
If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.
This is an old post, but a good one. I had occasion to look it out again this week, so posting it here both as a service to others and to make it easier to find the inevitable next time I want to show it to somebody.
How is it that projects seem to be steadily on track for successful delivery until just before the target date for implementation – at which point they suddenly aren’t? It seems implausible that the phenomenon should be helpfully explained by reference to temperature gradients in oceans, but that is exactly what this post does. For all sorts of reasons – some covered in the post – reporting systems give false assurance to senior decision makers for far too long, until the tipping point is reached at which the actual state of readiness can no longer be concealed, when suddenly the project dashboard goes from benign to catastrophic in an instant. Crossrail provided a particularly spectacular and very public example when it failed to open in 2018 having been presented as being on track to do so only a few months earlier – despite what we now know to be a need for more than three years further work before the line could open.
But this is not a phenomenon limited to big infrastructure projects. I can readily think of examples at more or less every scale, and I suspect anybody with any familiarity with project delivery will have their own. From that experience, I see another critical factor encouraging the development of thermoclines of truth: the setting of delivery deadlines. The further ahead the deadline is set (and the more arbitrary it necessarily is as a result) and the more visible that deadline is, the more certain it is not just that the deadline will not be met, but that the fact that it will not be met will only be recognised at a very late stage. There are some pretty obvious reasons why this adds to the risks Webster identifies in his post – the stronger the commitment, the more visible the failure, and the greater the reluctance to face up to the problem, still more so to be the messenger of bad news.
Delivery happenes when the work is complete. Completion of the work does not happen because delivery is due.