Saturday 9 November 2013

Putting the user first – what does it mean?

Co-operating with Korea to put users first – that was the big news two days ago from GDS, the Government Digital Service.

According to Liam Maxwell, Her Majesty's Government's Chief Technology Officer: "As demonstrated in last month’s Conference on Cyberspace in Seoul, we have much in common with Korea, but we also have much to learn from each other. Yesterday’s signing commits both of our countries to creating digital public services that put the needs of the citizen first, and I'm excited that we’ll be working more closely together".

Francis Maude signing an agreement with Korea for no apparent reason
Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken was equally excited after his presentation to the Cabinet a few weeks ago: "Starting with the needs of users has led to a radical shift in the way we build and provision government services. That’s a huge thing. It means an end to big IT, it means smarter and cheaper services which meet users needs, and it means digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government".

Does "starting with the needs of users" mean "an end to big IT"? No. Does it mean "smarter and cheaper services"? No. Does it mean "digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government"? No. Not in English. And not in Korean.

GDS imply that "starting with the needs of users" distinguishes them from other government bodies. It's "led to a radical shift in the way we build and provision government services".

But does it?

If you ask the Department for Education "do you put the needs of students first", will they say "good lord no, we've got much more important matters to consider"? If you ask the department of Health "do you put the needs of patients first", will they say "don't be ridiculous, there's no time for any of that nonsense"? If you ask the London Borough of Merton "do you put the interests of Mertonians first", will they say "we used to but ever since Francis Maude signed that agreement we're concentrating more on Korea"?

No. Putting the needs of users first doesn't distinguish GDS from any other government body.

GDS may say that the other government bodies, with the disgracefully old-fashioned ways they "build and provision government services", don't really mean it.

But do GDS really mean it? Never mind the other government bodies, do GDS really put the needs of users first? The progress (complete lack thereof) of their assisted digital project suggests not.

What does "putting the user first" mean? Nothing? Whatever you want it to mean?


Updated 16 December 2013:

Why is [are?] design and creativity important to your organisation? That was the question Design Week was asking last Friday and a jolly good question it is.

Can you guess GDS's answer? Are you beginning to get the hang of this user needs business?
‘Because the organising principle of GDS is the user, and the user deserves services designed for the user, not the Government. Design and creativity are central to recasting public services, and indeed the civil service, if we are to create public services fit for a digital era.’
Deflect your eyes from the screen for a moment, look around you and look back, and you may see that the "organising principle" of every government department is meant to be the user, that doesn't distinguish GDS, it's not a new idea.

Design and creativity are of course important but again, that's not a new idea. You may remember that each government department website once had its own branding, designed to suit its users. Arguably, the award-winning GOV.UK took an undesign step backwards when it standardised the lot of them.

Updated 29 January 2014:

It's that time of the year again. Reinvigorating the troops with self-congratulatory jamborees. This time last year we had The future is here. Today it was Sprint 14 (which remained coyly imprecise about where the future is now).

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP gave a speech today which returns to the theme of the post above, viz. the useful versatility of the phrase "user needs":
Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s British born designer, put it best when he said:

‘The word design is everything and nothing. We think of design as not just the product’s appearance: it’s what the product is and how it works. The design and the product are inseparable.’

So what does that mean for government?

It means putting users at the heart of public services.

Updated 31 January 2014:

Anyone can play the what-does-user-needs-mean children's game to achieve any result they want. It's easy. Here's an example. Look:

A year ago, four professors reviewed the Government Digital Strategy and said: "We see little discussion of a concrete and practical change management process to support the “digital by default” strategy in the current [Government Digital Strategy]. We view this as a potentially fatal omission. Put another way, trying to drive cultural change via technology (IT) is highly risky and almost never succeeds".

What does that mean?

It means that users have not been put at the heart of public services. It means that the 25 digital-by-default exemplars (1 live, 24 not) haven't been designed. The creativity needed to recast public services is missing. It means no end to big IT, more expensive and dumber public services, and no digital sitting at the heart of teams all around government.

The following comment was submitted  at 9:14 yesterday morning, 30 January 2014, by someone remaining anonymous. The computer said no – the length of the comment exceeds some limit – which is why none of DMossEsq's millions of readers have seen it until now.

It is posted here, where the size limit is more generous, so that people can see a more grown-up way of playing what-does-user-needs-mean:
Of course putting users first is right - a sound marketing phrase that is too easy to say but in reality in enterprise software is a lot more than "design" of a user interface. GDS have built expertise in doing that for information web sites but building "a digital” service is a whole different ball game.

Historically enterprise software in all its forms was “system” centric and as a result users had to mould their action and needs to the “system”. As a result users resort to off line activity spreadsheets access database even post it notes! Over the past 15 years Business Process Management BPM emerged as the industry’s recognition of this “problem. As ever in an industry that puts hype before reality early iterations were overhyped in actually delivery capabilities but this is changing as new players now can deliver on the requirements to cover all user needs internal and external.

Here are all the requirements in software that are needed to “put users first”
  1. Process engine - to ensure all works to plan
  2. Rules engine - reflecting real world of compliance
  3. Calculation engine - automating system work
  4. State engine - real time feed back from any point
  5. BPM - focus on people and their processes
  6. Workflow - everything connected in right order
  7. Audit trail, events, escalations = control
  8. Rapid prototyping - user involvement in build
  9. Time recording - supports activity based costing
  10. Real time reporting - become predictive
  11. Prebuilt configurable dashboard - operational visibility
  12. Build mash ups - one screen multiple data sources
  13. Linked intelligent Ajax grids - enter data only once
  14. Roles and performers - people and machines indentified
  15. Management hierarchy - see who does what and when reallocate work
  16. Orchestrating legacy - recognising valuable data in legacy
  17. User interface dynamically created - linking people, roles, task type and data via forms for specific instances recognising that user forms needs to be specific for that task in hand
  18. Pre-built templates for custom documents, letters, e-mails, messages etc dynamically populated with instance specific data and edit capability in browser - automating yet giving users ultimate control over external communications
  19. Process and task versioning control - recognising change is inevitable
The supporting technology to do all this is now available without need to resort to custom coding. The speed and thus cost of build on any requirement is significant better than either custom coding or moulding a Custom Off The Shelf to the business.

It is clear GDS just do not get this evidenced by their very poor “digital frameworks” which do not reflect such capability. Also recent the Minister in an interview on BBC radio reported by Campaign 4change I was amazed to learn that GDS spent 750 man days building a prototype for UC at DWP.. Using such a “BPM Platform” with such capabilities it would have been a fraction of that?

Something is badly wrong with the Cabinet Office research to ensure best value for money? Time to find out “why” So I have a few FOIs out and I will report back. 
Our commentator, Mr Anonymous, is saying that a lot of tools for software engineering exist and that he suspects that GDS, the Government Digital Service, to the detriment of their performance, aren't using them. Item #19 in his list, for example, would address the four professors' concern about change management.

There is some evidence that he's right.

Consider, for example, this post on the GDS blog, Scaling Agile Practices to the GDS Portfolio. It's all about how GDS manage projects. Their preferred method is to use a wall.

There are at least two problems with that – walls are predominantly two-dimensional, whereas project management has many more dimensions, and you can't put walls in your briefcase and take them to another office to discuss them.

GDS have attempted to resolve those problems by developing a project management system, starting by asking the users what they need:
We addressed the portfolio implementation project, much like we would any project at GDS, in an agile way: We spent time with the users and stakeholders to understand what their needs were; we spent time workshopping to understand drivers, what success looked like, what we hoped the project would do, and what our fears were – as well as opportunities that could arise from the project.
And what did they come up with? All they tell us about is a pie chart:

That's it.

A pie chart.

Day 1 of Graphics 101.

And yet the world is full of sophisticated project management tools. Has been ever since the first Pharaoh started running up pyramids. See #9 in Mr Anonymous's list.

There's no dishonour in using other people's software. But GDS seem to have preferred in this instance to reinvent the wheel.

And not just this instance.

As part of their doomed identity assurance project, IDA, GDS have elected to develop a brand new "hub" to link government departments, people and so-called "identity providers". There was no need to do that. We already have the Government Gateway.

When the Electoral Commission complained that GDS wouldn't tell them their costs for working on individual electoral registration, you may have assumed that GDS preferred to withhold the numbers, perhaps because they were embarrassing. But there is another possibility – maybe GDS don't record time and don't cost it, maybe they simply didn't have any figures to give the Commission.

Prima facie, Mr Anonymous seems to have rather a good point. Perhaps someone at GDS should take another look at the software engineering tools already available and consider using them instead of building new ones.

But who?

Who in GDS has experience of large-scale complex software engineering? And in particular, large-scale complex government software engineering?

This is another matter that worried the four professors:
... there are many discussions on the need for better architectural insight to resolve challenges in understanding core service properties, there are frameworks for investigating the unpredictability of ultra-large-scale systems behaviour, and there are studies highlighting the challenges that arise at the sociotechnical boundary of where systems thinking meets system usability. The [Government Digital Strategy] shows no evidence that it is aware or has taken account of the impact of such thinking ...
The lights may be on when Mr Anonymous knocks on GDS's door to talk about user needs. But is there anyone in?

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