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Standards drive innovation and user experience

(Image credit: Image search: Shutterstock/nenetus)

Technology should not operate in a vacuum. The best, most modern, customer-focused tech companies should want to integrate to as many different IT systems as possible – preferably without the potential ‘drawn out’ involvement of legacy back-office system providers – because what matters most is user experience. Doing what’s right for the customer is more important than protecting the fiefdoms of software and IT suppliers. 

This is never more important than in public sector where poorly integrated, legacy IT systems are holding back service provision. It was noted in August 2018 that the Met Police was using 750 incompatible IT systems preventing information sharing and as a result, draining public resources. This, means being good at integrating to different systems with different mechanisms is an increasingly important skill set to have, as government seeks to rationalise systems and optimise service transformation.

Common standards [or lack of] in the public sector IT industry also contribute to the problem. Until recently, there were very few examples of standards one could use; IT systems could be implemented or evolve with little or no thought for future integration. 

Lack of commodity IT is another issue. In many areas and use cases of government, people may need to pay for something and to also be notified of something. Historically, in central government each department would pay multiple software suppliers for different versions of systems which made taking payments and sending notifications possible. In doing so, they weren’t taking advantage of their scale to procure smarter. More importantly, they were not standardising any of these mechanisms across departments.

Drill down to local government level and virtually every individual local authority will have different solutions for taking payments and sending notifications to their residents. Indeed, the issuing of notifications is probably delivered via many different systems within a single council.

This three-way challenge of integration, standards and commoditisation of IT really shouldn’t exist in 2019.

There is some progress though. GOV.UK PAY and NOTIFY are interesting alternatives to the usual department-by-department and organisation-by-organisation purchasing we traditionally see in public sector. They are:

  • Free/low cost compared to the alternatives
  • Using the very best practice in terms of API design
  • Enabling a council, for example, to potentially deliver all of its notifications via a common method and enable more communication via alternative channels such as SMS
  • Looking to be further enhanced at no cost with smarter functions such as being able to pay via Apply Pay 
  • Examples of Government-as-a Platform (GaaP) services

On the final point, they are GaaP services because they provide the ‘plumbing’ to enable a payment or notification service for any use case, rather than a public sector organisation procuring multiple systems that achieve the same (or worse) outcomes. Making a payment/sending a text message needn’t, and shouldn’t, require every individual council to have a different mechanism of doing so and paying for the privilege.

Standards make innovation possible

The Digital Blue Badge Service (DBBS) is also a good example of where standards can have a big impact on tech innovation and implementation benefitting user experience.

As a user’s Blue Badge application is progressed, real time and template driven notifications are sent via the GOV.UK NOTIFY service to the customer, based upon the preference they selected at the time of their application. Customers are kept updated and can even track the progress of their application through a back-office API that is called upon during the creation of the application. By doing this, the unique/secure details associated with the trackable process in question could be passed. This is what, at IEG4, we call process ID. The back office contains the task to be done but, importantly, it has the context (process id) of the trackable process.

This also required a secure mechanism of updating the trackable process when activities occurred in the back office. By building a set of APIs the user was able to:

  • View documents created when the online form was submitted - with the form and evidence uploaded
  • Add a note that will automatically notify the customer of the update so that they can view within their trackable process
  • Update/complete a task and will automatically notify the customer of the update so that they can view within their trackable process

In the situation where the customer has an outstanding payment, they are automatically notified using GOV.UK NOTIFY, and when they do make the payment, they do so by using the GOV.UK PAY service.

It would be unlikely that the constant status updates and payment function for the DBBS would be offered if the technology had to integrate to ten systems across different councils. This would hinder and damage the overall user experience as the customer would have less visibility into the process and the status of their application. In this day and age, when customer experience is key across all industries, the public sector cannot fall short.

A new scope for technology

For years, the lack of standards meant that the crucial parts of local government and citizen interaction, such as notifications and payment, were unnecessarily complex. Having standards means that the public sector’s technology partners have a new scope.; they can provide technology that focuses where it can make the biggest impact on people’s lives, whilst delivering the best user experience.

John McMahon, Product Director, IEG4