An assessment failure can stop your public sector project in its tracks, causing unplanned funding issues, delays and extra work. Plan ahead with our Research Lead, Callum Bates, to avoid this happening.
What is the Government Service Standard?
The Government Service Standard (GSS) is a set of criteria created by the Government Digital Service (GDS), which is meant to “help teams to create and run great public services”.
It has been around for a while (over ten years). Currently, there are 14 points in the service standard – many of which are directly related to understanding the needs of users and designing a service to meet them.
Over time, the service standard has become more ambitious, evolving into a guide that “supports the government’s ambition to deliver joined up, end to end services that meet user needs”. In addition, it has gone from being the ‘digital service standard’ to THE ‘Government service standard’ to recognise that many services have a combination of online and offline components.
How is the GSS used by technical teams?
A given project is appraised on its alignment to the service standard, through a service assessment. Not all projects require an assessment, but if it is deemed to require one, they will take place at the end of Alpha, Private Beta and Public Beta.
Service assessments themselves involve a panel and usually last around half a day. The panel is made up of professionals from across design and development, including service design, interaction design, user research and technical specialist areas. The assessment can feel quite daunting, but assessors are not there to catch anyone out. Rather, this is an opportunity to get the panel to take a look, offer a fresh perspective and validate that the project team is heading in the right direction.
In practice, if the assessment generates a ‘not met’ result, the panel will provide recommendations in the form of actions that will need to be worked through before a reassessment can take place. Only when a project meets all the criteria, can it progress onto the next phase of delivery.
Whilst the service assessment uses a tried and tested framework – which goes a long way in helping to ensure project success – we know, from experience, that there’s room for interpretation on each service standard point. This room for interpretation is the main challenge I have with the current set-up. Some assessors will expect one thing, others might not, and the result can unfortunately hinge on this interpretation.
Why you need the GSS in your public sector project?
Whether your service requires a service assessment or not is dependent on a few key factors, which are well documented on the Gov.UK website. But whilst service assessments might seem like an added layer of bureaucracy, in the words of the Government, “people should not be following the standard because they have to: they should be following the standard because it helps them to deliver better services for users.”
As a user researcher I’ve found the assessment structure to be particularly useful for these reasons:
It ensures that projects remain user centred
Any strong design project involves the alignment of desirability (user needs), viability (organisational and/or policy needs) and feasibility (what is technically possible). Because of this, services often cut across departmental boundaries and there are lots of people involved with different agendas. With these competing voices and perspectives, it can often become difficult to know what to prioritise and how to progress projects.
The service standard helps us to navigate this weird and wonderful world. It ensures that when we create something, that – at its most basic level – it is built for the people that will use it. This happens by spending time with our ‘end users’, conducting ethnographic research to understand the problems they face and establishing a solution that will materially improve the situation.
It helps to ensure value for money and reduces risk
Not meeting the criteria within a service assessment means that more work needs to be done, which can lead to delays and overall higher delivery costs. At the time, this can be frustrating and, when viewed through the lens of a single project, looks counterintuitive. Ultimately, however, service assessments act as a key risk mitigation strategy for spending public money.
There are hundreds of government services that currently exist, but some of the larger digital projects are only remembered because they failed to deliver real value for taxpayers. Having an effective way to identify, block and/or re-scope risky projects before they make it into the public domain makes logical sense, especially when some of these services are classed as critical national infrastructure.
Some of my personal favourites from the GSS criteria
In my experience with GSS, there are a few points that have stood out as particularly interesting.
Point Two: Solve a whole problem for users
“Services that do not work well with other related services make it hard for users to do what they need to.” – GDS
It is quite possibly the trickiest of the lot to achieve a ‘met’ result on this point. It requires the project team and stakeholders to have a really clear scope from the outset.
More often than not, a lack of focus comes back to haunt project teams as they head towards building the service. For example, we may end up trying to build something which doesn’t solve the actual problem users face, or it becomes too complicated to deliver a solution for. (There’s definitely a ‘Goldilocks’ analogy in there somewhere!)
In a recent Alpha project, the Government’s ‘Register to Vote’ service, we were required to really narrow our scope from the outset. We needed to adapt the Overseas Elector user journey, so that they could submit a register to vote application (due to changes to enfranchisement rules).
The project required us to add in an intuitive document upload feature, so that electors could provide documentary evidence to support their application. It involved numerous iterations of prototyped journeys before our user testing indicated that we had got it right.
Ultimately, we went on to pass our GDS service assessment, with the panel stating that “the team have a really good awareness of the overall user journey front-to-back and end-to-end”.
Point Five: Make sure everyone can use the service
“Government services must work for everyone who needs to use them. Public sector organisations have a legal duty to consider everyone’s needs when they’re designing and delivering services.” – GDS
‘Accessibility and inclusivity’ is one of the key tenets of GDS principles. This is because, in the case of Government services, the users tend to be a broad range of citizens with a diverse set of needs.
Accessibility testing gives us a totally unique understanding of how users interact with government services. This helps us to design a service that meets the needs of people with various disabilities, so we can be confident that everyone can use the service. To gain the most benefit, we try to do accessibility testing sessions as early as possible.
For example, using the same ‘Register to Vote’ service example, we delivered an Alpha project to enable members of the public apply for absent votes (both postal and proxy votes). The existing service was paper-based, which created a pressured and overwhelming experience for users.
We designed an entirely new end-to-end service to replace this, testing it with users who had various accessibility needs. It went for assessment and achieved a met result. The service assessment panel were impressed saying that, as part of our design process, the service team “considered accessibility in every sprint”.
Help is available to guide you through GSS compliance
When we build government services, we want to make sure we’re delivering value for money. Aligning with the service standard helps us do that; because regardless as to what the solution ends up being, it ensures projects are driven by the needs of users.
The Government service standard is not perfect. It doesn’t work smoothly in every instance, but I believe it does its job – it can support service teams to have a real-world impact and influence how millions of people interact with the Government.
Working with a technical team that understands how it can be used, where risks in interpretations can occur and how to mitigate them will save you resources, bringing about a greater and faster return on investment.
 Op. cit: Government Digital Service (blog.gov.uk)