There needs to be more support for digital public works

Investment in digital public works could be transformative. What’s stopping it from happening?

Every public service has a unique goal: less reoffending, more teachers, shorter waiting lists. But every digital team ends up building the same things: logins, digital proof, document storage.

This happens over and over again. The kind of components you’d hope would be common across government aren’t. Investment in digital public works could be transformative. What’s stopping it from happening?

Duplication slows down progress

Digital teams in government focus on putting existing services on the internet. To do that, they have to understand the whole, beginning-to-end problem for two groups: the people using a public service and the people running it. Everything from initial questions (‘what support can I get?’) through to delivery.

That work is the basis for the funding model most departments use. A new service is typically budgeted as a one-off cost. So the team building a service must build it to minimise ongoing, operational costs.

The problem with this approach is that it means teams start from scratch every time. They can’t build useful tools other teams might be able to use, because that’s an ongoing operational cost.

Last year we met a team from a local council. They were tasked with improving the support for young people leaving care. One policy example involved giving young care leavers free gym entry. The team needed to build a service that provided digital proof that a person had been in care. This could then be shown to other parts of the council (in this case, the part that runs leisure centres). 

Despite the fact that lots of teams in government produce digital proofs, there isn’t a common way to make one. There also aren’t platforms on offer for any team to plug in and use. So instead of solving a specific problem for their users, the council has to build something several other teams have already built.

Except for a few cross-government platforms and tools (like Pay, Notify or the Form Builder) there isn’t the scaffolding to build better and faster. Building services and accessing data is a new problem every time. Teams add value slowly. And political capital and budgets dry up within a year or two.

As two people who analyse and design public service, that’s frustrating. We want to solve the hard problems, and make a difference to people’s lives.

As a taxpayer it’s infuriating, teams shouldn’t have to burn time like this. For teams to be accountable for outcomes they need to focus on the things that matter. 

We need digital public works

We need more investment in digital public works. Teams can’t chip away at this problem while trying to build services. 

Recent investment in One Login shows that the government knows essential infrastructure is missing. Thinking about our recent work, there’s strong demand for things like digital proofs, file sharing and logins for families.

Access to data needs to be made much simpler too. Digital registers never built up the momentum needed to become core digital infrastructure. There wasn’t the political will to open up the data most useful to other parts of the government. But there are tools central government could provide to help teams manage data better, and enable faster API development.

Doing that means rethinking how these platform services are funded. When you build a housing development, you don’t just think about the houses. You think about the sewers, the plumbing, the roads and the facilities. You think about the essential services that underpin communities. That’s the investment that government needs to make to underpin digital development.

Platforms and tools that work across government should be operated like a cherished utility. They need ongoing investment. Without that, digital teams are doomed to repeat the same work over and over again, wasting time and money. 

Making it easy to help people quickly

The truth is, digital infrastructure can be absolutely game-changing.

Take GOV.UK Notify, one of the platforms operated by the Government Digital Service. Notify is a platform any government service can use to keep their users informed. It proactively messages people about things, like the progress of their application or submission. It replaced hundreds of alternative systems, and provides a simple solution for services that didn’t used to tell users anything at all.

For teams developing services, using Notify is simple. Almost all the technical overhead is eliminated. That means teams can ask the important question ‘What should I tell users and when?’ instead of ‘How do I tell users anything?’. You get value faster.

That speed means teams can test new policy approaches quickly and cheaply. In the middle of the pandemic, a London borough used Notify to send 40,000 parents and carers free school meal passes. The platform enabled fast delivery of an essential public service at a time of crisis.

That ease should be common. Policy goals quickly met. Made possible by digital public works.