U.K. government takes a page from Canada

Interview with Andrew Sheffield, director of service transformation, U.K. Cabinet Office

Q. You attended this year’s Lac Carling Congress, I’m curious to know what meaning do events like these have in the work that you do?

A. Well, we’re very much learning from Canada, and if you were to look at our approach you’d see lots of Canada. For example, two blogs that are run by our chief information officer’s council, our boss in Watmore brought back the notion of that when he was over in Canada in April 2005. And we don’t have a Lac Carling Congress in the U.K. and I’ve always felt that we should, because service design until probably about nine months ago, has been seen as peripheral and rather fluffy, the kind of stuff for marketing people.

Q. So it’s not seen as having very much value?

A. Exactly, it was a sort of nice-to-have, and although there were plenty of people in the U.K. public sector who understood it, and wanted to work on it, they were kind of out there on a limb. A lot of the really good stuff that we’ve done has involved bringing those people together, so we had a thing called a Customer Insight Forum, where we brought together the people in departments who were responsible for customer insight. Individually, they felt a little bit marginalized. They weren’t terribly powerful in their own departments, but bringing them together, we suddenly realized that there are other people out there doing this stuff. We’ve had Ralph Heintzman and Charles Vincent here talking to those groups, and saying this is legitimate, and other people are thinking the same way; it does have a value in business.

For me, Lac Carling has always been a gathering of the clans, people from all over Canada who’ve come together in one place and met each other and talk about things of common interest, and I think we will go that route. The time hasn’t been quite right for it, but when we have that delivery plan published we’re working towards the first consolidated annual report and I would love to see some event like Lac Carling in the U.K. bringing together the people from the U.K. public sector. The interesting thing about all of this is Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. are all basically trying to do the same thing, but in slightly different ways because we have slightly different systems.

Q. Tell us about your role in the U.K. government.

A. I work in the cabinet office which is basically a fairly small central department. Our role is to provide governance, carry out program management, and develop policy. It’s all about setting a framework within which things happen, rather than actually delivering stuff.

What we do is governance standards, program management, policy, all that kind of stuff. We also incubate particular projects, so for example if you spot something that needs to be done in a particular area of service transformation, we will work with it up to a certain degree, but once that turns into a fully-fledged project we will pass it over to a lead department.

For example, a project (Tell Me Once project) that is finding out whether it is possible for citizens to tell government once about particularly complicated changes in their circumstances, and having government deal with that. A particular thing we’re looking at there is what happens if you suffer bereavement.

We had one case where someone had to contact 44 different parts of government, just to tell them that their father had died. The hypothesis is you should be able to go to one place in government, say my father’s died, and have it dealt with there and then. So that was a project we helped develop, and then passed over to the Pensions Service for delivery.

Q. What is the status of the Tell Me Once project?

A. The feasibility study was launched in Jan 2007. In the summer we will be going into testing and pilots because there’s different ways we can do it, and in probably around October we will form a view as to how it will be rolled out.

But strategically, it is a very important project, because if you can do that sort of thing for having a baby, dealing with bereavement, moving, you can do all sorts of other things. If you establish identity and share data and bring services to one single point, the implications of that for how you run government are profound. We’re not rushing it out, we’re being very sensible about it, and we’ll consider it properly and make an announcement in October.

Q. Did you use focus groups for Tell Me Once, and did you consult with citizens as to how many points of service they would want?

A. We did use focus groups for this project, but focus groups tell you what you already know, partly because it’s very difficult for people to project themselves into those sorts of scenarios. So you ask people who have gone through them. But either way, you’re asking people for views of things that they’re not particularly close to at that point, so what they will say is, ‘Yes we want it to be efficient and simple and quick, but it’s kind of what you’re doing now.’ What we’re doing on this is really much deeper than that. We’re sending people out and spending time with the sorts of people we’re trying to reach here, and trying to understand what matters to them, and that involves making some sort of translation.

Q. Let’s talk about Direct.gov, which is the Web site where citizens are accessing their online services. When did this first come to fruition, and how has that evolved since then?

A. Direct.gov has been around for about four or five years now, and it started off as being a shared resource by a number of departments. It was successful to a degree but what it kind of ended up with was because it was a shared resource, instead of being truly integrated, it was on a similar Web site, and it has a section about benefits, transport, etc. The integration level was really quite thin.

The change that we have encouraged and orchestrated in the past year or so is to integrate that more so that people really can come in and address it in terms that matter to them.

With a lot of these things we started off more in information provision, and then started pushing transactions in there, so there’s quite a lot to do in building up the transactional capability of it. What we’re doing now is we’re defining a road map for Direct.gov, and at the same time, we’re targeting a reduction in other Web sites in government.

Q. So you’re integrating these content with Direct.gov, are you getting rid of any of these government Web sites?

A. Yes. But it’s not a shallow integration; it’s not just taking content and moving it across, but taking the intent and optimizing it. What you will discover is there is less stuff; fewer pages than there are at the moment. That’s because we’re integrating stuff properly and we’re getting rid of rubbish. The target is for that process to be absolutely complete by 2011.

Q. Why did you want to get into this line of work, and what is it that you enjoy the most about the work that you’re doing now?

A. When we went to our last delivery council meeting with all these slides about government, the lady who’s running ‘Tell Us Once’ stood up and said, ‘This is boring, service transformation is fun.’ Very rarely in public service do you get the opportunity to do something that is genuinely fun, exciting and innovative. Working on projects like this you can actually see something tangible and that was the attraction for me. For this particular time, and in my view, in order to get anything done, you need three things aligned.

You need financial leadership, political leadership and executive leadership. You need all of those three things absolutely in line to achieve anything. The trouble is that those three things very rarely align. But in the U.K. at the moment, we just had what is known as an Operations Spending Review (OSR). We operate in these three-year cycles, and periodically, we kind of stop and take a blank sheet of paper and we say, ‘We’re just going to look at this right from the ground up again.’ So this work is part of the OSR.

At the executive level we have a new Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, and of course we’re having a change of political leadership. So uniquely, and unusually, we have all of those three things aligned. With service transformation as being one of the key objectives, the cabinet office has got three priorities and this is one of them.

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