Why we need service literacy

Lou Downe

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.

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