Dan Brember, Deputy Director of GOV.UK Content for the UK Government’s Government Digital Service (GDS), tells agendaNi about how the UK Government is aiming to reclaim its former status as a pioneer in the delivery of digital services for citizens.
With GOV.UK now over 11 years old and Government Digital Service (GDS) over a decade old, the world at large in a state of flux following the seismic reverberations of events such as Brexit and Covid-19, and the constant progress of both technology and society, Brember says that GDS are taking the opportunity to reflect.
“One of the things that we are asking ourselves at the moment is what are the big things we have perhaps taken for granted or assumed have remained true that we need to revisit and consider whether or not there are opportunities for us to change,” he says.
“One of the big touching points for us has been our relationship with other peers around the world, looking at what they are doing well. Many of them are solving similar challenges to us in their contexts and we, for a long time, considered ourselves to be among the world leaders and that is probably no longer true, so there is something that we can learn there.”
Considering the recent social, political, technological, economic, and legal developments, Brember says that GDS asks the question: “What should the next generation of government digital services look like?” A redesign of the interface is thus central to GDS’ efforts to improve the citizen digital experience.
“For many people, the main user interface is GOV.UK. The 2012 Digital Efficiency Report said that digital services are very often better for the users and cheaper for the taxpayer. However, internet years are sort of like dog years and 10 years on the internet is probably more like 30 years in any other sphere. We need to look again at what the central paradigm is for digital services in the UK.”
Central to the improvement of this paradigm are already existing GDS applications within the GOV.UK umbrella, such as GOV.UK Pay, which allows users to make a payment through a separate platform that does not appear to be separate at the point of use. Similar products such as GOV.UK Notify keep users updated on the status of applications.
“GOV.UK remains a wonderful service despite the fact that we are a decade old, and it is something that we need to protect and develop,” Brember says. “Every time we meet peers from other nations, they are envious of the fact that we have managed to consolidate a single user experience for the many government services and websites that could potentially exist. There are still thousands of services where a user has to download a PDF and post it. Imagine that you are extremely low income, with no laptop or printer, and you are faced with forms with over 100 questions.
“Services that require you to post in documents that we already have somewhere else are extremely frustrating. People who fill in these forms and send them in at their own expense have got to wait weeks or months for a decision, which is very poor. That being said, digital services across government are mostly good. So, why do we need to reconsider and challenge that paradigm?”
The economic context that these changes are happening within is “obviously changing”, Brember says, with the victor of the next UK general election inheriting “a very challenging economic reality to deal with”, which will mean “continued pressure for more efficiency” in how the Civil Service delivers services. Against these pressures, the “promise of transformational efficiencies through digital services has not been fully realised”, Brember says.
“The Civil Service has continued to grow and the cost of running services is still far too high. This is partly because of Brexit, partly because of Covid-19, and the gradual increase in the UK population. It is also partly because we have made the front-end services better while not fundamentally fixing the back end. It takes too long, is too hard, and takes too much energy to do simple things.”
Pointing to broader trends of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with politics and the very concept of democracy, Brember states that there is also a growing satisfaction gap with regard to GOV.UK. This gap does not surprise him: “The in-browser/on-platform experience of the web is a declining medium. Younger audiences are used to apps, personalised experiences, and short-form videos. A large website with forms is fundamentally not a good user experience.
“This trend is not surprising: in 2016, most visits to GOV.UK were on a desktop computer; but by 2021, 65 per cent of visits were on a mobile phone, and for major services such as Universal Credit today, that number is as high as 90 per cent.
“A great digital experience is often mobile app-based, highly personalised, ruthlessly simple for the user – which in practice means fewer than 10 clicks to do whatever it is you need to do – and finally, integration with user data, particularly the data the organisation already holds about the user.”
Falling behind in this regard has led to the UK falling from first in the UN’s eGovernment Index to 11th, and Brember says that GDS’ “big bet” is a pivot towards a single GOV.UK app. “In GDS, we talk a lot about user needs, asking what the specific problem is that we have to solve. We have had to pivot slightly, and we are now thinking around user utilities: what are the common things that people need to do with government that we can provide through an app?” Such common things would include identification, passport and driving license renewals, MOT, booking for appointments as is already seen on the NHS app, and notifications to remind citizens of pressing matters such as upcoming appointments or Universal Credit balance.
“There is nothing more personal, intrinsic, commonly used by people than their native smartphone, so why can we not release the benefits of that to support people to do things more quickly?” Brember asks, before concluding: “These are the things that we have already got the power to do, we just need to bring things together to make it happen.”