Government service design: outcomes and ‘fairness’?

19 October 2022

Would it be ok if a digital public service makes it simple for users to achieve a proximate outcome (get a widget licence, apply for a widget support allowance, pay widget tax, appeal a widget removal order etc) if the process feels less than fair? Or if the rules are opaque, inconsistent or unknowable? If it’s unclear who is making a decision and why? If no one has designed how it feels to interact with the procedures and processes that sit around it? Or if, collectively, services build a nagging sense of mistrust in government (or, at the very least, fail to maintain a level of trust)?

There’s a fundamental question that needs applying to todays digital government practice: is it possible to design for fairness and outcomes? Or are there trade-offs being made?

As this report from IIPP identifies, the design approach that developed at the UK Government Digital Service was a utilitarian one (see page 12): Get. This. Thing. Done. We never fully developed the words for anything else.

(As a civil servant at GDS, I tried a few times to make the case for greater transparency in how things work, but never had a good answer to the counter question of “whats the user need?” and ended up with the unsatisfactory ”sometimes the user need is: because democracy”, accompanied by copious arm waving.)

Where there are conversations about accountability and fairness in the public sector, they are more often than not in the hermetically sealed sphere of ‘innovation’, algorithms’ or AI frameworks. I wonder if that because it’s easier to have those debates in the future and hypothetical space, rather than in the day to day reality of services that people actually use?

Anyway, this is why I’m very interested in the new Administrative Fairness Lab, which is aiming to build an evidence base on how the public understands and experiences fairness across a wide range of (increasingly digital) public decision-making.

As Joe says:

Each year, millions of decisions are made in important areas such as social security, community care, and immigration using varying administrative decision-making procedures. We have very little evidence on what the public thinks fairness looks like in these procedures, and these procedures have not been shaped around what the public thinks is procedurally fair. This has negative consequences for both people and effective policy implementation. We want to change that.

Understanding how fairness is designed into digital public services is predicated on a better understanding of how the design process operates in the UK government today. The Administrative Fairness Lab’s first research project is on digital welfare and the team would like to talk to digital practitioners to understand how their practice is applied in that space.

If you are a designer (all types), researcher, product manager, developer or digital policy official and have previously worked on or currently work on a welfare project in UK government, the team would like to interview you in the new year. Please get in touch here and I can put you in touch.