We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.
Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):
Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.
Different coloured pins
But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.
So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:
When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.
Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:
Expanded userbase = more insights
Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.
There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.
Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.
That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.
The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.
If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.
If you live almost anywhere in the UK, you can use FixMyStreet to report problems to councils.
The vast majority of councils have no problem with this, and they do a good job of responding to and dealing with reported problems. A bunch of councils even like the service enough that they’ve actually become clients, paying for customised versions that sit on their own websites.
But there have always been a small number of councils that have said ‘no dice’ to FixMyStreet: they either refuse to accept reports at all, or they tell FixMyStreet users to re-submit problems through another channel. Today the total number in the ‘no thanks’ column stands at ten councils – that’s out of about 430 in total.
Idealism versus Pragmatism
Recently we had a bit of a debate about what to do. On the one hand we want users to succeed in getting their problems fixed. But on the other we don’t want councils to simply opt out of the transparency and convenience that FixMyStreet offers.
We could digress into a long post with many other related issues, but today we’re simply talking about how we have decided to change the user interface for users trying to report problems to the minority of councils that claim not to be able to cope.
What to expect if you report a problem in the unlucky 2% of the UK
In order not to leave you high and dry, we’ll provide a link to the council’s own reporting system—because, irrespective of the platform, your report still needs to be made.
But we don’t think that this situation should be quietly accepted, by us or by our users, especially since it means some councils get to simply opt out of transparency about problem handling.
So at the same time we’re telling a user how to report the problem, we’ll also invite them to tweet about it, and/or contact their local councillors.
Why the situation arose
You may be wondering why some authorities won’t accept our reports. We do not, after all, ask councils to adapt or modify their internal systems in any special way, unless they actively want to adopt the Open311 standard.
The messages our users generate are just plain text emails, and they go into the same email inboxes as any other message to a council would.
These reports are carefully appended with lots of useful details, too, including the category of the problem, its exact longitude and latitude, and the postcode or street address where available. Users can also attach photos.
Generally the reason cited for not accepting such email reports (or the same reports made by the industry standard Open311 API) is that the computer system inside the council can only handle problems reported via the council’s own official web interface. Why this is only a problem in 2% of councils is a mystery that remains to be solved.
Does your council accept FixMyStreet reports? Input your postcode on the site, and see if you get the alert. If not – there’s no problem.
FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.
Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.
1. Proven cost savings
FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.
Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Council and the city of Zurich to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.
2. We take the risks
In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.
Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.
3. Sustainable contracts
We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.
4. Meet your Social Values Act quota
As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.
mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.
5. Accessible—for all your residents
FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.
6. Open and transparent
If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.
FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.
Get in touch
if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.
Residents of East Sussex County Council and Hart District Council can now report potholes, broken street lights, and other local issues, simply and speedily. The two local authorities are the latest to integrate FixMyStreet onto their own websites.
Whether reports – and subsequent updates – are made on the councils’ websites, or within their boundaries on FixMyStreet.com, they will be published on both the council site and FixMyStreet.
FixMyStreet is a proven aid to channel shift, moving report-making online, to save time and money for both residents and councils. Hart and East Sussex’s adoption of the software is just one strand of their ‘digital by default’ approach to transactional services.
If you’re from a council, and would like to find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils, everything you need to know is here.Image: Dominic Alves (CC)
You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.
mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.
Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.
Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.
Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us. With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.
The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety.
Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.
The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.
We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.
Why did you decide to implement the new system?
JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.
We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.
How does it work?
JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.
Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.
What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?
JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.
Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?
JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.
Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.
Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?
JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.
Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?
JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.————————————Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.
The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.
We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.
How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.
So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map. You see other problems, already reported so maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there and we won’t have wasted any of your time making you tell us about it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.
And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.
Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern e-commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.
This post was written by mySociety developer Dave Whiteland, and first published on our DIY mySociety blog.
FixMyStreet.com has always tried to make it as simple as possible to report a street problem. When we built FixMyStreet for Councils, we wanted to simplify things for local authority employees too.
So, as well as offering the option to integrate with council back-end systems, we also put together this nifty dashboard (right – click to see full-size). It’s one of several extra features councils get when they purchase the FixMyStreet for Councils package.
What do councils need?
- At-a-glance statistics, for all kinds of reporting. Perhaps the local newspaper have asked how many potholes have been fixed this year, or internal staff need a report on which types of problem are most rapidly fixed.
The top half of the dashboard allows for this sort of analysis. The drop-down category list means you can filter the view to show one category of problem – say, fly tipping – or all of them. Results are shown across a variety of timeframes.
FixMyStreet for Councils allows councils to designate their own progress statuses, beyond our standard ‘fixed’ and ‘open’. So, in this case, the statuses include ‘in progress’, ‘planned’, ‘investigating’, etc. Each of these is shown separately.
- A realistic picture of how long it takes to deal with issues. The ‘average time to council marking as fixed’ is a great measure of just how much time it is taking to get reports resolved.
Perhaps just as important, though, is the ‘average time to first council state change’ – that could just mean the report has been acknowledged, or that its status has changed to ‘under investigation’ – but these are still valuable mileposts for keeping residents informed of progress.
- Quick access to problems, as they’re reported. At the foot of the dashboard, there are links to all problems reported within the council boundaries.
There’s an option to filter them by any of the statuses, as above.
- Access for multiple people, in different locations. The dashboard is web-based, so it can be accessed by any employee with internet access – or several at once.
- But at the same time, complete security. It’s password-protected, so it’s only accessible to those who have been granted access.
- A responsive provider. mySociety believe that the launch of new software is only the beginning of the story.
When people start using new products, they often do so in surprising ways. They often ask for features that would never have occurred to us, and indeed might never have previously occurred to them.
We will remain in active development, of the dashboard, and of FixMyStreet for Councils as a whole. We’ll be soliciting feedback, and listening to it very carefully.
The FixMyStreet for Councils dashboard is only available to councils as part of our FixMyStreet for Councils package – find out more here.
Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.
More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.
How do you know where to start?
Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?
Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.
What are your users trying to do?
So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:
- Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
- Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
- Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
- Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.
If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.
Talking to service managers
Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.
The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.
With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.
This is the third of our recent series of Open311 blog posts: we started by explaining why we think Open311 is a good idea, and then we described in a non-techie way how Open311 works. In this post we’ll introduce our proposed extension to Open311, and show how we use it in FixMyStreet.
The crux of our suggested improvement is this: normal people want to know what has happened to their problem, and Open311 currently isn’t good enough at telling them whether or not it has been dealt with. To be more specific, our additions are all about reports’ status change, by which we mean something like this:
I just totally fixed it.
That’s robot-311 from the previous post, if you’ve dropped in here without reading the previous posts. Once again we’re blurring the distinction between client and user (the girl you’ll see below) a little, to make things simpler to follow.
Every month in the UK, thousands of problems are reported on www.fixmystreet.com and, moments later, sent on to the councils who will fix them. Here’s what happens with a problem report for something like a pothole or a flickering streetlight:
- You create the report on FixMyStreet.
- FixMyStreet sends that report to the right department at the right council.
- That body puts it into its own back-end system.
- Later, when the council fixes the problem, FixMyStreet is updated, and everyone knows it’s fixed.
On the face of it, you might think we need only care about 1 and 2. But really, FixMyStreet isn’t just about dispatching reports, it’s about helping to get things like potholes actually fixed. And neither citizens nor local governments benefit if work gets done but nobody finds out about it – which is part 4 on the list above.
What do we mean by “status change”?
The example at the top of the page shows the robot effectively changing a problem’s status to “fixed”.
Actually, statuses can be simple, such as either OPEN or CLOSED, or more detailed, such as “under investigation”, “crew has been dispatched”, “fixed”, and so on. But since we’re only concerned here with the status changing, that specific vocabulary deployed doesn’t really matter – it can be anything.
In situations where FixMyStreet is not integrated with council systems (i.e we just send email problem reports) FixMyStreet problems still frequently get marked as fixed, because anyone can change the status of a report just by visiting the page and clicking the button. Obviously, though, we prefer to have FixMyStreet directly connected to the local government back-end databases, so that news of a fixed report can be automatically bubbled from the back-office up into FixMyStreet and out onto the net.
And here’s where the problem lies: Open311 doesn’t quite support this business of getting problem updates from the back office out to the public. So first, we’ll show you how it can be done today, using Open311, and we’ll explain why this isn’t a good option. Then we’ll show our preferred solution, which we’ve proposed as an extension.
Looking at everything just to spot one change (bad)
One way to notice if any problems’ statuses have changed is to use Open311 to ask for every single service request, and see if any of them have a different status since the last time you checked.
Tell me all the service requests you’ve ever received
request 981276 the pothole on the corner by Carpenter Street is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
request 988765 the pothole by bus stop on Nigut Road is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
request 998610 gaping hole at the end of Sarlacc Road is now OPEN (the pothole fell through)
request 765533 where the street was cracked outside Taffey’s Snake Pit is now CLOSED (I filled in the pothole)
. . .
continues for thousands of requests
Um, OK. Now I’ll look at all these and see if any have changed since I last asked *sigh*
Obviously there are some problems with this. Even though Open311 lets you ask for quite specific service requests, you have to ask for all of them, because by definition you don’t know which ones might have changed. Remember, too, that problems can potentially change status more than once, so just because it’s been marked as CLOSED once doesn’t mean it won’t become OPEN again later. This exchange is very wasteful, very slow and ultimately (with enough reports) may become de facto impossible.
Asking for just the changes (good)
So here’s a better way of doing it. We’ve actually been doing this for some months, and now seems the time to share.
The client asks the server for just the updates on a regular basis, so any requests that have recently changed get updated on FixMyStreet automatically, usually just a few minutes later.
Have you changed the status of any of service requests today?
Yes, request 981276 was CLOSED at 3 o’clock (I filled in the pothole)
Or, more practically for keeping FixMyStreet up to date:
Have you changed the status of any of service requests in the last 15 minutes?
This is handled by our extension to Open311,
GET Service Request Updates. There’s also an optional equivalent call for putting updates into the server (
POST Service Request Update), which would apply if the client changed the status after the service request had been submitted.
Note that the server identifies the problem with its own reference (that is,
981276is the council’s reference, not a FixMyStreet ID, for example). This is important because not all these requests necessarily came from this particular client. Remember that all service requests are available through the Open311
GET Service Requestscall anyway (as shown above). So the server doesn’t send each service request back in its entirety: just its ID, the new status, when it changed, and a brief description.
In practice the client wouldn’t usually ask for “today”. In fact, we typically send a request asking for any updates in the last 15 minutes, and then at the end of the day ask for the whole day’s updates, just to check none were missed.
The technical bit
From a client’s point of view, this is simply an extra call like others in the Open311 API. So it’s just a request over HTTP(S) for XML (or JSON, if required).
We deliberately make the client poll the server for updates and pull them in, rather than expecting the server to push updates out. This frees the server from any obligation to track which clients (for there may be more than just one) care about which updates. The requests themselves are sent with unique IDs, allocated by the server, so the client can dismiss duplicates. It’s also robust in the event of connection failures, so if there are timeouts or retry logic, that’s for the clients to worry about, not the server. Basically, this is all to make it as light on the server as possible: the only real issue is that it must be able to provide a list of updates. This usually means adding a trigger to the database, so that when a problem’s status is updated a record of that update is automatically created. It’s the table of those “service request update” records that incoming requests are really querying.
Is that it?
Yup, that’s it.
This extension is in addition to the Open311 specification — it doesn’t break existing implementations in any way. Obviously this means FixMyStreet’s Open311 implementation is compatible with existing Open311 servers. But we hope that others working on Open311 systems will consider our extension so that clients are kept better informed of the status of the problems being fixed.
Why are statuses so important that it is worth extending the Open311 spec?
mySociety didn’t originally build FixMyStreet because we wanted to get potholes fixed. We built it because we wanted nervous, politically inexperienced people to know what it felt like to ask the government to do something, and to be successful at that. We wanted to give people the buzz of feeling like they have a bit of power in this world, even if the most tiny amount.
If the government fixes a problem and the citizen doesn’t find out it’s a double loss. The citizen becomes disillusioned and weakened, and the government doesn’t get the credit it is due. Everyone loses. We think that Open311 is a key mechanism for making large numbers of people feel that the government does respond to their needs. It just needs a bit of an upgrade to do it better. We hope very much that the wider community tests and endorses our extensions, and it can be folded in to the next official version of the Open311 standard.
Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.