Ellie Ashman

Director of Product & Services

How the Government Service Standard can benefit your digital transformation - part 1

Related post categories Digital products Public sector
7 mins read

Perhaps you know that you want to transform the way your organisation harnesses digital technologies and serves your users and customers. Perhaps you even know where you’re going to start.

The next big question is how?

You’re probably thinking about things like what roles and capabilities do we need? How does our organisation set itself up for success in a less familiar space? How do we take some of the risk and uncertainty out of all this? How do we make sure any potential disruption as we transform is more than returned in value and outcomes?

There’s a really fantastic starting place for answering these questions, and it might not be where you expect it: the UK Government Service Standard.

Now, if you're based outside the UK, outside government, or in the charity or private sector, don't turn away just yet - you'll be surprised how much of this open and well-maintained material can be adapted and reused in many different contexts. 

The Government Service Standard is a set of principles for designing truly world-class public services. It's backed by a comprehensive manual of practices and tools, and a fully-fledged Design System packed with reusable, accessible patterns and components. 

In particular, there are a few aspects of the Service Standard that can help set any service or transformation project up for success. In this context, a service is something that enables a user to complete a task or achieve an outcome. That could be setting up regular donations to their favourite charity, or registering as a volunteer for their local food bank. The guidance and resources are often particularly useful for services that happen mostly or wholly online (sometimes called ‘digital services’) but have been written with any kind of service in mind. 

Through a couple of articles, we’re going to unpack some of these standards - showing how they can be usefully applied in non-governmental contexts, and how to get started applying this way of working to your next project. 

Understand users and their needs

In most cases, teams start a digital transformation project because they have noticed a problem or an area they want to improve. 

Let’s take volunteering as an example. 

A group of local charities has come together to see if they can pool their resources to connect volunteers with volunteering opportunities. All the charities share the same challenges around things like:

  • establishing a pool of volunteers
  • keeping them engaged over time
  • training them 
  • making sure safeguarding checks are completed and recorded 

Many of the charities receive a high volume of phone calls from people who would like to volunteer but can’t figure out how to do so. Finding time and capacity to handle these calls and onboard these volunteers is a real challenge. 

Before starting the often difficult and costly work of redesigning an existing service or adding something new, it is always worth making the time to speak directly to your users and explore their experience and the problems they encounter. 

Explorative user research helps your organisation deepen its understanding of who is using your services (and who isn’t, yet), and then dig deeper than their direct experience of your service to really get to grips with what they’re trying to achieve, what motivates them, and how they found and chose your organisation or service. This kind of insight tells you far more than whether or not you should add that feature but helps you spot deeper issues that you can resolve at source or bigger opportunities that you can use to grow and further your mission. In our example, your research might help you find out what motivates someone to seek out volunteering opportunities, what information they are looking for to choose an organisation to work for, and how they expect to communicate with the organisation. You may also find out what stops someone from proceeding with volunteering, or why they disengage after volunteering once or twice. 

This kind of research is also a great way to engage your colleagues and any wider stakeholders. You could run workshops ahead of research to help understand what your team expects to see or find out, what hunches they have, or what hypotheses or assumptions you can explore and validate or discard. This helps your staff connect more deeply with the users they serve and feel invested in the service they work on. It helps show your staff how much you value their insight and expertise, and the active role they can have in your continued success. 

Starting with wider questions rather than narrow or solution-specific ones can help you: 

  • Find opportunities or generate ideas you didn’t already have.
  • Spot ways to innovate or stand out from your competition in ways that your users will truly value. Adding the latest technology might not be high on their list, and you might find that making it easier to access your existing offering is a real differentiator at a lower cost. 

Find what your users really need, and start there. They’ll feel valued and heard, and they’ll have more reason to use or interact with your organisation so that your next idea or campaign has a head start before you even begin. 

Start working towards this by: 

  • encouraging everyone in your team, and your stakeholders, to participate in research as observers, note-takers, and during analysis
  • share research insights widely, so that anyone in your organisation can see what you’re learning
  • revisit your current project plans and priorities - can you see which users they help, or which needs they meet? If you can’t, plan some research to find out more about those areas, or test your latest prototypes
  • think about how to speak to people who you aren’t regularly reaching, as well as speaking to users who are already engaged.

We love exploratory research - get in touch to talk about your project

Torchbox team gather round table

Iterate and improve frequently

One of the most valuable elements of an agile approach is that it carves out time and space for regularly checking in with your users, and adapting your priorities and approach based on the things you learn.

When you’re setting up your project, try to build in time as part of your regular rhythm to speak directly to users. Sometimes that might be exploratory research about their experience, other times you might have a prototype to test for usability and accessibility. You might even have some draft content to test for comprehension or as part of an active service journey. 

In our volunteering example, you could use the initial research to help inform some ideas about a service that lets a potential volunteer browse local opportunities and share their information in one step with as many local charities as they like. You could find out what kind of content helps them choose a suitable opportunity, and what they’re expecting to happen next. 

There is huge value in involving your team and your wider stakeholders in the process of doing this research. As your team becomes steeped in the experiences and needs of their users, they’ll develop decision-making superpowers, bringing the users’ voice into every design or planning session so that the service you develop is solidly grounded in the needs of the people who will use it. Taking the volunteering example, having observers from each of the different charities working together would bring a wider range of perspectives and ideas to the analysis, and might help highlight exciting additional opportunities to collaborate on something that achieves your shared goals and better supports your users at the same time. 

It can be difficult to reconcile this iterative and reactive planning cycle into organisations that tend towards longer-term project and budget planning cycles, but there are benefits that can help win over even the most cautious stakeholder: 

  • Frequent learning and iteration drastically reduces the risk that you will invest time and money into something that doesn’t have the impact you wanted or expected because you’re regularly checking the value of your work and feeding your findings into the next chunk of work. You plan and replan regularly so that you can always adapt to new information or changing circumstances.
  • Engaged teams building things for engaged users has long-term value because it means your staff can forge a deeper connection to the purpose and impact of their work, and a deeper understanding of the people they’re building it for. This value is impossible to measure but manifests in brilliantly creative problem solving, fast-paced and high-impact improvements, happy, talented, and developing team members, and users who feel heard and respected by the organisations they interact with. 

Start working towards this by: 

  • Plan your work in two-week cycles - start each cycle with a playback of the latest insights from users and some team thinking about how to act on those insights, before moving into reflection on the previous cycle and planning for the next. Make regular research, playback, and ideas part of every cycle. 
  • Start running review and critique (or ‘crit’) sessions as a team - get into the practice of walking through your service together, trying out different personas or scenarios, and seeing where there might be room for improvement or something you need to revisit in research. Try out new ideas and work in progress as a group, asking questions about how you’ve arrived at a particular design or piece of content to help ensure that you’re always responding to user insight and iterating for impact.
  • Run show & tell sessions as part of your regular working cycle, and invite colleagues from outside your team to watch and ask questions. Use these sessions to share things you’ve learned, ideas you’re testing, and work you’ve recently launched so that regular iteration and continuous improvement become a visible part of your working culture. 

Perhaps the best thing about starting with user research and working iteratively is that you can gain value by starting small. With careful planning, you can gather actionable insights from research with around 4-8 participants. These could save time, reduce risk, and increase impact by helping you spot the most valuable things to change for your users. 

In my next post, I look at two more aspects of the Government Service Standard, exploring how placing research insights into a wider context can help identify further opportunities for growth or innovation, and unlock even more significant improvements for your users.