Why we need to protect the Service Standard

The Government Service Standard has done more to improve the quality of digital public services than anything else. It should be protected at all costs.

When organisations follow the Standard, more often than not you see good quality services and satisfied users. But when things go wrong, there can be serious consequences, and bad services can drag an organisation’s reputation through the mud and destroy its credibility for years to come.

There are some worrying signs that the Standard is being undermined and undervalued, just when we need it the most. At a time when public trust in institutions appears to be at an all-time low and in the rush to exit the EU, will it endure?

The furore around the EU Settled Status app shows what can happen when political pressure to deliver quickly can cause unintended consequences. More on that later.

Cherish the Standard

One of the things that always makes me do an eye roll is the perception that the private sector is way more digitally advanced and adept than the public. It’s just not true, or that simple. There are good and bad examples of service design and delivery in both.

There are, of course, some shining examples of private sector digital services that are genuinely world class. Public sector leaders are constantly bombarded with memes about how they need to transform their organisations to be more like Uber or AirBnB.

But for all the brilliant stuff out there, can we honestly say that the majority of private sector services we use day-to-day provide genuinely user-centred experiences? Do all customers of the traditional high street banks love their online banking? Is it as simple as getting a passport or taxing your car?

The Service Standard is something the private sector would be wise to digest and learn from.

A cautionary tale

My family and I had a recent experience with a subscription service that was impossible to use, and would never have passed the Standard. It’s a familiar story, and went something like this.

We signed up to a special offer where the first delivery would be free with no obligation to continue, and we could cancel at any time. Like most people, we forgot to cancel the subscription in time. Same thing again the following month.

The next time, we made sure we signed in to the service to cancel. But finding the ‘cancel subscription’ link took ages. When we did eventually stumble across it, it turns out, even though we’d signed up online, we could only cancel by phone during standard office hours. We were, of course, doing this in the evening.

The experience was genuinely frustrating, this service had failed us. After some searching online, we found many other people with similar frustrations who were voicing them on blogs and social media. One very public forum had a post by a deaf user who was unable to use the phone to cancel and there was no accessible alternative.

If you assess this service against the Standard, it falls way short. And most importantly, we will never use it again.

High stakes

Earlier in my career, it was common for big government services to fail in fundamental ways. For example, services would only run in certain browsers or be totally inaccessible to users of assistive technology.

The fact that the Settled Status app only worked on Android devices added stress to an already stressful situation. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not pointing the finger of blame here. I’ve experienced this kind of political pressure to hit a deadline many times in my career.

The Service Standard still applies to EU exit-related projects but there are different assessment methods for different projects, whether it’s workshops or full assessments. The Settled Status app will have been assessed in some way but for something so politically sensitive, there are always going to be pressures and with them, risks.

The app now runs on iPhones too and there are (and were) ways for people to provide paperwork offline. But all this was lost in the noise of “yet another IT failure”.

A dose of pragmatism

To be clear, meeting the Service Standard shouldn’t mean we all follow a rigid, gated process to get things done. For me, the spirit of the Standard is that:

  • you can demonstrate you understand user needs
  • have made sensible technology choices
  • you use open standards and open source
  • you can iterate your service and easily change it as you learn new things
  • your service works for everyone

How you get there should be up to the teams working on the service, and there’s a wealth of information in the Service Manual to help you.

An uncertain future

Whatever happens in the coming months, one thing is certain, we’re in for a prolonged period of change. The pressure on teams to just get things done will be massive.

The Service Standard isn’t a “nice to have”. It’s a tool that teams should use to make sure these new things work properly.

If we get digital services right, we can avoid completely shattering people’s fragile trust in our public institutions.

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