Public sector design — time for a reset

09 July 2024

Public services should work much harder for the public. However, the new UK government isn’t going to meet its aspirations for digital and data unless it resets the public sector’s approach to design.

The approach that grew from GOV.UK and the Government Digital Service was, if not flawed, at least incomplete at source. It ended up prioritising utilitarian simplicity, at the cost of designing government out of the way, and shunned technology as inconsequential to the design of services. The public have been engaged as consumers, not as part of a democratic society, in a way that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of what makes public services public.

Minimalism can’t scale to the types of services that do much more for the public, it can’t meet the demands of accountability. Trust in a public institution is a function of their ability to deliver the public good they are tasked with, and public services only get better if there is a public understanding of them. But designing government out of the way degrades the public image of government. Shunning technology means conversations about better use of data, remain stuck in the rut of ‘data sharing’ and critical infrastructure is too easily dismissed as solutionism.

A focus on utility leads us down a route to ‘personalised’ and ‘simplified’ services which, while OK for the minimal interactions that some may with the state, are useless at explaining the messy and demanding.

User needs, as a guiding principle was, it turned out, poorly suited to situations where the needs of government and the public were at odds with each government, or where people wanted more from government than a simple outcome.

Much of this was already obvious in 2013/14. Designing the digital account for the Universal Credit digital account, it was abundantly clear that the approach to design that worked for GOV.UK and was spreading across government was fundamentally unsuited to services that used automation, intentionally placed burdens on the public through policy choice, and used data from across government. As was the need for greater transparency and accountability. But as design practice spread across government, the focus on simplicity took on a life of its own, developing into what, at times, felt like a tyranny of design, where anything that distracted from the proximate user need was impossible to justify. The idea that digital public services needed to be more than transactional was lost.