Government services aren’t done yet, so neither am I

Government_services_aren't_done_so_neither_am_I_2015In the wake of all of this month’s resignations Tom, Ben, Russell, Leisa and Mike it’s tempting to talk about ‘why I’m staying’ at GDS.

To be honest though, I’d rather talk about what we’re doing, because as far as I’m concerned the work has just started.

It’s been a while I’ve written anything here, I’ve been busy.

Last year, Ben hired me to fix services at GDS, in that time I’ve realised just how we need to fix service design too.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Providing services to individuals and businesses makes up roughly 80% of the cost of government.

Of this 80%, around 60% is spent dealing with calls and casework. Most of it completely unnecessarily.

This money doesn’t go to giving benefits, or printing passports – it’s spent dealing with the fall out of millions of applications, renewals, and revocations made by users those who aren’t eligible, don’t actually need to do a thing, or do so in the wrong way.

Let’s be clear, this is not ‘user error’.

Government has haphazardly created ‘transaction’ after ‘transaction’ – licences, taxes and benefits that are not part of a viable service that a user can use successfully unaided.

We’ve helped government to digitise 25 of the largest of those transactions.

There are literally thousands left.

To fix those, we need to stop ‘digitising’ and do what it’s never done before. Build services as services.

I’ve spent nearly a year working with DVLA in Swansea on what this looks like. They’re now the first department to hire service designers (all the credit needs to go to them for doing that, it was a hard and brave decision).

Over the past three months I’ve also started to build a talented team of GDS service designers that will help other departments to do this.

Our first job will be to take the first step towards going wholesale (as Martha said) by building standardisable services – like licensing, ownership exchange and funding. We’ll will be merging transactions that are the same (there are currently 5 ways to ‘delegate responsibility’) and building new services that start with user needs.

It’ll be hard. There will be lots of noise, but that’s a good thing. If you fancy joining them, let me know.

In the meantime, thank you Tom, Ben, Russell, Leisa, Mike for making all of this possible.

Hole covers

Manhole_master-19.gifI’ve been collecting pictures of manhole covers  for over a year.

Envelopes – specifically the patterns on the inside of them – got me into it.

3 years ago (according to Tumblr) I started a collection of the security patterns printed in envelopes. I was drawn in by the variation of shapes used in the patterns that were designed to disrupt the shape of letters. A pattern to disrupts other patterns.

So I started comparing the shapes used in envelopes to the ones used to disrupt waves in sea defences.

There were some similarities – like a consistent use of squared, sharp edges. Also, most were formed of small, rigidly regular patterns that were in direct opposition to a bigger and more chaotic pattern formed in in the thing they were trying to disrupt – like a wave or a word.

Manhole covers on the other hand, mimic the patterns of the things they are designed to interact with – like the tread on a tyre or the sole of a shoe – as their purpose isn’t to push something away or disrupt it but to mesh two unfitting things together.

They’re also importantly, signposts for the utilities they cover.

Some are adverts for ease of location and use by the right people – like water mains and fire hydrants. Others, made shortly after the introduction of a new technology though – like telephones or broadband – are as much a protection for that technology as an advert for it.

‘C’ shapes are often used over CATV covers in the UK. And some of the late 60’s telephony covers in Italy may just as well have been Pintori posters for telephones.

They remind me of the stories my dad tells about his job designing church fittings in the 70s. Despite trends for big bold colours and abstract shapes, a balance between invisibility and current trend had to be found when making something that would fit with the sediment of histories in a church, meaning that what you often ended up with was something ‘classic’, or timeless. A bit showier than you’d expect somehow but completely impossible to date.

I’d like to track down the people who designed some of the patterns on manholes. I wonder if their stories are the same as my dads. For now I’m trying to isolate the patterns, understand why they are the way that they are and give them some of the credit they’re due.

Anyway, for now, here’s some of the more interesting shapes.


Finding the unfamiliar

Entering a corporate building you’ve never been in is always slightly odd.

Every component of the place – from the size of the name space in the sign-in book, to the direction of the door handles – seems significant.

Small procurement decisions seem to form a pattern of accidental iceberg-tips that you’re sure, given enough time/knowledge/certainty, would map to some larger structure within.

Or maybe I spend too much time in other peoples offices.

Either way, last week I repeatedly turned the lights off in a large call centre in Peterlee.

I hit (as many do) a light switch I thought was a door release. At that moment, though the lights were out, I was the most visible thing in the room. Stranger. Person in need of assistance.

Unschooled in how to operate the building, I fell into its traps, several times. Each time, someone quickly came to restore normality, turning the lights back on and asking me if I needed help/escorting from the premises.

It was a very efficient way of finding me. An unfamiliar object in the midst of the familiar.




Relative economies of scale II

Without people telling me, I know what they want. The only problem is, when they go away without telling me.

Sue Kirk runs the shop on Eigg – a small island in the inner hebrides.

It has a great selection of local beers, alongside what seems to be a disproportionately vast array of “ambient groceries” (things that don’t go off at room temperature) for the size of the island’s population – which bottoms out at about 90 permanent residents.

Three types of Tahini, 20 herbs, four types of sausage, five kinds of kitchen roll – all in a shop the size of your average east-end off licence. There are however, only one or two of each item – one packet of pork and apple sausages, two packets of rosemary, and two Jars of dark tahini.

Sue can stock what most people on the island want with a reasonable amount of certainty – so long as their tastes don’t change too quickly – but what she doesn’t know is how much they’ll buy.

People often leave the island, for work, to visit family or to do all the usual things that in a larger community don’t have an affect on the shops they use. But with such a small number of people, the affordance for change is small – or as Sue told me “you don’t have to lose very much before you’re losing” so Sue orders small daily deliveries of a wide number of goods, changing the amount and range whenever she notices a change in buying behaviour.

In theory, the faster the supply, the more it can be scaled up or down as necessary, so alongside this short-order method, Sue uses as much island produce as possible. This too is affected by a relative scale though – with the export of goods off the island not as easy as selling to the shop, Sue has to absorb the unpredictability of supply as well as demand. An imbalance in the ease of import and export means that when “everyones hens are laying like crazy” there’s little you can do about it but eat more eggs.

A system never exists in isolation, and with an unbalanced friction in and out of that network, someone has to absorb change, in this case, literally.

This is the second of three short films I made on Eigg as part of Devfort 8. You can read the post I wrote about the first one with Simon Helliwell (the founder of Hebnet, Britain’s smallest ISP) [here](

Up next: Lucy Conway, founder of Eigg Box on building shared, non-specified space in a place that has little room for casual work-based crossover of expertise, knowledge or interest.