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.