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Lessons from delivering front-line digital services in the justice system

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Agile, User research

Public expectations about public services have changed. Online services have become mainstream. In the UK, 83% of homes now have access to the Internet and users instinctively expect all online services to be as compelling as the best commercial services. But public services have not kept pace.

I recently gave the 16th Namahn lecture, explaining how Ministry of Justice Digital Services is facing this challenge head-on by adopting an agile approach — more characteristic of the private sector — to inform the design and speedy delivery of new public-facing digital justice services in the UK.

Delivering digital transformation in government is often frustrated by challenges with procurement, user dissatisfaction and problems with security and money coined as the square of despair by Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

GDS was set up to fix this. It’s spearheading the government’s ambitious digital by default strategy – making online services for citizens so good that they choose them by default, instead of the traditional service.

With 250 digital specialists in the heart of government, GDS has set the private sector as its benchmark. It’s striving to deliver better services that bring business benefits while meeting the 26 service standards.

Unique challenges in the justice system

The Ministry of Justice is an early responder to the challenge – dealing with the issues in a unique context.

Citizens generally interact with our department's services only once, and typically at a highly vulnerable moment in their lives (court and tribunal appearances, prison, parole, legal aid, public guardianship, youth justice).

On top of this, the department manages critical national infrastructure and processes – which make any change, including digital change, very challenging to put in place.

The answer is digital transformation in slices. At the heart of this is our team – MOJ Digital Services, an in-house multidisciplinary team dedicated to delivering digital public-facing services thoughtfully.

The team is almost entirely made up of people who make digital services: developers, user researchers, copywriters, designers and project managers, led by a Chief Digital Officer (CDO). The CDO reports directly to the Director General, and is at the same level as the department’s Chief Technology Officer, giving the CDO major prominence in the organisation.

In a major shift from traditional procurement patterns, we are actively pursuing relationships with smaller suppliers to deliver projects. This is a positive outcome because by in-housing development, it lets the government cut overall costs for development as well as increase their control.

Changing the way we manage projects: agile and delivering in slices

Rather than traditional project management, the team uses SCRUM, an agile kitbag that guides the roles and responsibilities of a team that is 100% focused on delivery.

The agile values are a radical change from the past:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working software over manuals
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • responding to change over following a plan

Likewise, the classic procurement chain, which places the user need at the end, has been reversed to begin with thinking carefully about the user need at the start of the process.

This is followed by:

  • a 'discovery' phase – typically 2 to 3 weeks during which the business problem and success criteria are revealed
  • an 'alpha' launch – a short phase to prototype solutions, testing with a small group of users or stakeholders
  • a 'beta' launch – a fully working prototype tested with the public
  • go-live – when the final product is launched

All of these phases occur within 20 weeks and involve user testing, both internally (up to the minister) and externally.

Agile enables us to constantly deliver services in 'slices'. The short delivery cycle also means they always stay on track.

Not every MOJ service can be targeted for transformation, given the high-risk environment of many, such as prisons. Also, the outcome must be consistent for users and the legal system.

However, many services on the edge can be radically improved by digital transformation, so that rather than applying rules, they become a way of solving concrete problems.

Traffic offence pleas: an example of a service we're transforming

We're currently working on a traffic offences project, where the business case is reducing the number of people who turn up at court unnecessarily.

This project involved citizens and court officials in an ethical user-centred design process. Through interviews in court, the team first discovered that (based on the paperwork defendants received) many did not understand why they were there, what they were charged with, what penalties were involved and how they could pay.

This gave the team an organisational goal: to reduce the number of visits to court when people want to plead guilty.

Based on these interviews, they created personas to map stress levels throughout the current process, from being stopped by police to the court appearance itself.

Stressed people make bad decisions. The goal was not to make police encounters less stressful but simply to make the paperwork less stressful, so people didn’t come to court unless absolutely necessary.

Digital transformation is not complicated. We have the tools, the people, and the know-how. The secret is to keep delivering and we will get there, bit by bit. It’s just a question of time.

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