Thursday, 29 September 2016

"Stale" and "self-legitimising" public administrators

"... we foster a user-centred culture in GDS and across government by getting everyone involved in user research", it says in a Government Digital Service blog post today, Don’t forget! 2 hours every 6 weeks. "We have user researchers as part of agile teams, for example. That's part of our DNA ... Our natural state can be to look inwards [horror], towards our teams [awful], not outwards towards our users [that's better] ...".

This is all part of putting user needs first, rule #1 in the GDS Design Principles: "Service design starts with identifying user needs. If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing. Do research, analyse data, talk to users. Don’t make assumptions. Have empathy for users, and [you] should remember that what they ask for isn't always what they need".

This initially clear picture is clouded by the genetically modified Government as a Platform (GaaP) team at GDS, who said in May 2016: "Everyone knows we start with user needs. Except we don't. We start with the needs of our team ... When we don't do this our research isn't useful to our team and they ignore it. There's nothing more pointless than doing research that no one listens to". That's one of their Eight principles for user researchers on Government as a Platform.

Should GDS "look outwards towards [their] users" and start with "identifying user needs"? Or is that "pointless"? Should they rather "start with the needs of [the GDS GaaP] team"?

Confusing, isn't it. Which one is the doctrine? Outwards? Or inwards?

"... remember that what [the users] ask for isn't always what they need" suggests that GDS can ignore their research data and revert to their prejudices on the grounds that the users don't know what they're talking about whereas GDS do.

We've been here before, in November 2013: "What does 'putting the user first' mean? Nothing? Whatever you want it to mean?".

We're not the only ones. See also June 2016's Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation, where two Brunel University academics, Paul Waller and Professor Vishanth Weerakkody, point out that: "not much of a government or public administrative function directly involves citizens so a focus on the interface misses the point about 'transforming government processes' ..." (p.8).

And they're not the only ones. Our old friend Mark Thompson of the Methods Group and the Judge Business School at Cambridge University popped up in Computer Weekly magazine this month with Digital government isn’t about user needs – it’s more fundamental than that where he refers to the "stale, self-legitimising talk by public administrators about how they are building stuff to 'meet user needs' ...".

Have GDS already become stale and self-legitimising public administrators?

Are GDS part of the systemic failure of digital government transformation?

Are GDS going to be teaching the right syllabus in their new National Agile Polytechnic?

A bit of agile discovery work on the oldest rule in GDS's design principles book might help them and the rest of the world to get the user needs story straight.

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