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Lessons from the public sector

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The public sector kept accessibility top-of-mind while moving at pace during Covid-19

The public sector has an often completely undeserved reputation for being inefficient and that it could ‘learn a thing or two’ from the private sector – but in many ways the complete opposite is true,” says Sam Ineson, director of public sector at Kin + Carta.

“Corporates, to a large extent, face exactly the same problems as the public sector and can learn a lot by looking at how the civil service has handled changes during the past two years.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold around the world, there was an unprecedented shift online. From shopping to working, doctors’ appointments to drinks with friends, activities that had always been carried out face to face were suddenly conducted via computer or phone.

Nowhere, though, was this shift more vital to basic human needs than in the public sector – and the way in which it has responded holds valuable lessons.

Test-and-trace, furlough, PPE and more

Completely new health programmes such as vaccination, PPE procurement and test-and-trace had to be started from scratch more or less overnight. According to a UN report, around 86% of countries had launched brand new pandemic information and guidance services through their national portals as early as April 2020.

Emma Charles, Kin + Carta’s director of public sector delivery, says Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) was forced to move very quickly to introduce new furlough payments and grants for self-employed workers. This meant major efforts in data collection and collation to identify and then notify eligible people, all of which had to be carried out in a privacy-centric way. The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme was built from scratch in only a few weeks and received 1.7 million applications on its first day.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – was also handling huge amounts of data about rates and cases from local councils, which now needed to be shared with political decision-makers. The answer was the speedy introduction of dashboards. “Suddenly, they needed to make enormous amounts of data available in an accessible format, so that ministers could make decisions on a daily basis,” Charles says. “It meant a massive change in the way that data was collected, visualised and used.”
“They’ve had to pivot incredibly quickly and accelerate all their plans because face- to-face interaction stopped overnight.”
Emma Charles, Director of Public Sector Delivery, Kin + Carta

Existing services had to change too. Benefits claimants were forced to apply online and schools moved to remote lessons. New systems had to be introduced, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) Blood and Transplant Service started to scan health data in order to find donors urgently.

Meanwhile, new open-banking models were created, allowing those in financial need to share their income with HMRC to fast-track their applications for new welfare entitlements.

“Prior to Covid if you were looking for a job, you had to go to the job centre and sit there for half an hour in a queue – but all of that immediately went out the window. All these services that were largely manual had to become fully digital very quickly,” says Ineson.

“They’ve had to invest hugely in making digital services as analogous as possible to real-world services. They’ve had to pivot incredibly quickly and accelerate all their plans because face-to-face interaction stopped overnight.”

Indeed, for Adobe’s UK 2021 Public Sector Trends Report, 66% of respondents reported ‘unusual growth’ in digital and mobile visitors during the last six months of 2020 and more than half said they experienced a change in user journeys.
Man walking silhouette in blue gradient

Digital accessibility: getting it right for everybody

One notable pressure for the public sector is the need to accommodate people who, because of their complex situation, might have previously been dealt with face to face.

“The public sector needs to design and create digital services that work for everyone, including people with disabilities, people who have really, really complicated situations, people who have complex employment or residential histories. Often what you’ll find is that the people most in need face multiple complexities in their situation,” says Ineson.

“For example, if you’re homeless with a disability, then this could make your benefits case complex for more than one reason.”

As a result, public sector digital services need to meet complex user needs right from the start. This means prioritising inclusivity and accessible design and conducting extensive testing with a large and diverse set of users throughout the development process.

“You’re launching to the general population, so public sector projects are critical
things. If you’re launching a new mobile shopping app and there’s something a little bit off you can tweak it. That’s not an option with public sector projects – you can’t get it wrong,” says Clara Monnet, lead strategist Kin + Carta Europe.

“The product stages are clear – discovery, alpha, beta and live – and so too are the basic principles for creating digital services, the Government Service Standard. To progress to the next stage, you must pass through quality gates to show that you’ve really considered user needs and are protecting their interests. This enables teams to focus and be evidence-driven.”

Teams are required to set out from the start of their development process how they’ll meet user needs, measure customer satisfaction and monitor and improve services. And it’s this clear focus that meant that, even under the extreme pressure of Covid, public sector organisations were able to launch useable new services to millions of people in record time – and with a degree of success that would be envied by most corporates.
“The product stages are clear – discovery, alpha, beta and live – and so too are the basic principles for creating digital services, the Government Service Standard.”
Clara Monnet, Lead Strategist, Kin + Carta

Another way in which public sector organisations tend to differ from their private counterparts is that teams tend to be larger, with each individual focused on their own core discipline. Again, says Monnet, there are lessons to learn. “In the research and design space, they’ve got a content designer, a user researcher, an interaction designer, and so on, whereas in the private sector we tend to have very small cross-functional teams where we might not necessarily have all the focus,” says Monnet. “With a larger team, you have a lot more time to think, learn and test. You can focus on one specific thing and get that right rather than having to prioritise or take shortcuts, which leads to a better product in the end.”

Designing with empathy

The need for public sector projects to work for everybody, right off the bat, means a powerful focus on user research, and in particular co-design. Defra, for example, has been co-designing services in partnership with farmers to make sure they are user-centred and is actively seeking participants with low digital literacy, minority groups and those with accessibility needs.

Meanwhile, a Home Office programme to replatform the Police National Computer was revolutionised by the decision to include police officers at oversight level.

Monnet explains: “Now every team on the programme has a project manager from the Home Office and a project owner from the Police. They work together within their teams and we’re getting the outcomes we were hoping to achieve.”

And when it comes to external users, the only way to make sure that a system works for everybody is to test it on, well, everybody. In the past, this hasn’t always been a particular priority for private organisations, which may be more focused on maximising profits.
“In times of Covid, accessibility has become a burning issue and one which the private sector has had every incentive to embrace.”
Sam Ineson, Director of Public Sector, Kin + Carta

UK supermarket chain Tesco, for example, quickly moved to accelerate work to improve the accessibility of its mobile shopping app when the pandemic struck and customers, particularly those with health problems, wanted to avoid shopping in store. “What that meant was taking the principles of designing with empathy, which has allowed them to build something that works for everybody as well as something that has actually opened up new markets,” explains Ineson.

As a result, he adds: “The PR and goodwill that they have received for investing in, and building for, inclusivity has been really positive.”

Learn from public sector transparency

Learning from the public sector is relatively easy because public sector organisations are expected to demonstrate a high level of transparency. Late last year, for example, the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office released a national standard for transparency for public sector organisations using algorithms to support significant decisions affecting individuals.

“This is a pioneering move by the UK Government, which will not only help to build appropriate trust in the use of algorithmic decision-making by the public sector but will also act as a lever to raise transparency standards in the private sector,” comments Adrian Weller, programme director for AI at The Alan Turing Institute and member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation Advisory Board.

Estonia – one of the poster children for digital government – has made transparency the cornerstone of its policy, with the government partnering with private companies to offer expertise.

“If you’re in the private sector, looking at what happens in government,
how they share their work and what they do in public is really helpful,” says George Proudfoot, Kin + Carta’s director of strategy and ventures.
“This is a pioneering move by the UK Government, which will not only help to build appropriate trust in the use of algorithmic decision- making by the public sector but will also act as a lever to raise transparency standards in the private sector.”
George Proudfoot, Director of Strategy and Ventures, Kin + Carta

“Public sector transparency can really help where teams in a particular speciality are able – and encouraged – to be transparent about that process and how they’ve performed. That’s generally good for boosting the quality of digital work in the country.”

Key takeaways

• Transparency is baked into public sector operations, so successes and failures are clear to see. As the pandemic finally recedes, the private sector should take note of what’s worked well and emulate it.

• User experience and accessibility have assumed increased importance over the past two years, so don’t forget to use diverse groups when it comes to user testing.

• Getting it right first time means being wary of agile methodologies. Instead, involve specialist teams and carry out thorough user research.

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This article originally appeared in Thread, Edition 1. Thread is Kin + Carta’s quarterly magazine that cuts through the complexity of digital transformation. Making sustainable change real, achievable and attainable. 

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