Speaker notes: administrative fairness in practice

14 November 2023

The following is (approximatly) the talk I gave as part of the Administrative Fairness Lab’s panel at the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Starting with GOV.UK in 2012, the changes to how the UK government designs and builds digital services over the past decade have been significant. User centered design practice and agile development are now the norm, at least in some form. Digital services are tested with real users throughout the development lifecycle. Common standards around design and writing set a baseline of what good looks like. They are launched early and iterated based on feedback. Long gone are the days when ministers would launch a service on the Today programme only for it to crash 20 minutes later, and the basic usability of digital services rarely makes headlines (as it did for example when DWP launched the fated Universal Jobmatch in 2012).

The introduction of user centered design to government was a necessary and, it now seems, inevitable adoption of industry best practice that means services work for users and meet their needs. However, I think it is fair to say that user centered design, at least as practiced in UK central government, is quite utilitarian. The priority is getting the immediate task done and within the bounds of a particular service. Externalities tend to remain external concerns. It is also fair to say that the framing is quite individualistic. It deals mainly in the interaction between “the user” and the service. Or we could say the surface of the service.

For digital design practitioners, the question raised by the work of the Administrative Fairness Lab, and work by others on how ‘rule of law principles’ apply in digital services, is not whether user centered design is necessary for delivering the quality of digital public services that society needs (it is clear that it is and that it’s here to stay), but whether it is on its own sufficient.

To summarise the issues we have heard today:

  1. People value the feeling of the interaction, not just the outcome
  2. People’s interactions in one service, including services they have experienced by helping others, may change how they interact with government beyond the boundaries of that service
  3. The spaces for users to discuss and reflect on services are unclear, often privatised, and have poor feedback loops to service delivery
  4. Finally, how services implement the rules that politicians make and the decisions that public servants make can be unclear and, in some situations, essentially unknowable

These issues present against a backdrop of: digital moving from the periphery to central to how public services are delivered; digital being applied to more significant areas such as welfare; design having collapsed the distinctions between different parts of government; and rapidly changing public understanding about what good digital services look like.

On the question of if user centered design practice is sufficient, it seems that there are three possibilities:

  1. Firstly, user centred design has simply not been applied to these problems yet - for example because business cases or how government organises its work mean they go unaddressed
  2. Secondly, that external professions like campaigners and lawyers have not yet figured out how to operate within the iterative development cycle and alongside digital services, meaning they are unable to articulate their concerns in a way that digital teams can act on
  3. Thirdly that there are limits to how far we can stretch user centred design to beyond the individualistic and the utilitarian, and that we may need framings in addition to user centred design to guide the development of digital public services

I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.

There is almost certainly value in applying user centred design to how, for example, welfare rights advisors could understand decisions, how services can be made to feel psychologically fair, creating spaces for public dialogue, or designing appeals processes that are as simple to use as the application process. Indeed, there are many practitioners who attempt this. However, it will be hard to prioritise that from within departmental digital teams, especially where they might cost money or the externalities are felt elsewhere in government. It will probably need to come from the centre through changes to practice, patterns, platforms and policy.

There also need to be new ‘hooks’ for other professions to work within the new normal that digital services have created. The work of the Child Poverty Action Group on Universal Credit has started to show the value of things like early warning systems, creating design provocations rather than policy documents, and mapping user interfaces of a digital service so there is a ‘ground truth’ to understand policy gaps. These sorts of processes could be systematised, but again, it’s not going to come from service delivery departments.

Finally, administrative burden and rule of law principles could provide a useful framing alongside user centred design. Administrative burden lets teams consider the psychological costs alongside the learning and compliance costs. I’d like to see an incoming government make the systematic elimination of administrative burden the aim for a revitalised Government Digital Service. A reference to rule of law principles should also be added to the government’s digital service standard, placing a responsibility on all digital teams.

To wrap up, user centered design and the digitisation of services are here to stay. Digital government practitioners need to be given the space (and make the space) to reforge and expand what design means in the context of public services.