By Joshua.Chambers

11 Apr 2013

People are using their mobile phones and tablet computers for a fast-growing range of tasks, and service providers must keep up. Joshua Chambers reports on how digital by default has morphed into mobile first

You’re running late, and you really can’t afford to be. Where is that bus? Fumbling for your phone – keys, tissues, loose change; ah, there it is – you look at your transport app and exhale: the bus’s GPS system tells you it’s nearly here and, looking up, you see it coming round the corner.

It’ll only take 10 minutes to get to the hospital, according to your phone. “I’m on my way”, you text and, as the bus creeps through the traffic, you read the NHS advice for new parents, scrolling down the screen to watch a video. It’s proving tricky to concentrate, though – you have to keep restarting it – so you just bookmark the site for later and try to stay calm.

Failing, you dash into the hospital sweaty and out of sorts, but nothing’s happened yet so a burly midwife sends you out to fetch tea. Mum and Dad call to say they can’t find a parking space, and you look one up online before impatiently roaming the wards, searching for lunch.

Buying crisps from the machine, you notice that the bin’s overflowing, so you log onto the hospital feedback site and let them know as the minutes idle away. Then there’s a tap on the shoulder, and you’re wanted back in the ward. That advice for new parents is about to come in handy.

From cradle to grave, the public sector provides citizens with services and information – but the way people access them is changing, and the civil service needs to keep up. The Office for National Statistics found in February that over 30 per cent of adults use their mobile phone to access the internet every day – and if that’s just the adult population, imagine how it’ll be for the next generation.

Clunky websites designed for desktop computers won’t keep with people’s changing habits; and if government doesn’t adapt, it risks not being able to serve citizens in ways they find convenient. Mobile technology also presents huge opportunities – as the scenario above demonstrates – because it allows for greater flexibility and feedback in public service delivery. CSW has, therefore, spoken to experts inside and outside the civil service, investigating how public services are adapting to new technology and the opportunities created by the growth in mobile devices.

A change for all of government
First, CSW must confess that the scenario above isn’t yet entirely possible. But it isn’t far off: the potential of mobile technology is enormous, with implications for officials across the spectrum of government – from those who think up new policies and services, through those who communicate them to citizens, to those who ultimately deliver them.

Taking healthcare as an example, Rachel Neaman, the Department of Health’s (DH’s) digital leader, explains that mobile technology will make a big difference to how new services are designed, because it allows for greater feedback as policies are being developed. “We’re looking to make it easier for people to contribute to consultations; and if people have access to them on their mobile devices, it’s simpler for them to respond at a time or in a way that’s convenient for them,” she says.

Last year, the DH posted draft legislation – the Social Care Bill – online in a format that allowed people to comment on it, using any device. No department had ever done that previously, Neaman says, and the result was positive: “We had over 700 very useful responses.” Clearly, the department has learned from the problems it experienced two years ago, when the then-secretary of state tried to force through unpopular changes to the NHS without proper consultation, and was subsequently pressured into running a costly, time-consuming “listening exercise”.

Mobile devices are also changing communications. Statistics from network provider O2 last year show that smartphone owners don’t primarily use them to call people: they are far more likely to browse the internet and check social networks. And as people’s communications move online, government comms must keep pace – tracking opinions expressed on social media, for example, and blogging and tweeting to engage with people.

Communications teams won’t be the only civil servants talking directly to citizens, however. If people are unhappy with policy proposals, they’re increasingly able to simply contact the senior officials involved. Paul Maltby, the Cabinet Office’s director of transparency, told CSW last month that “after my position was announced in mid-December, the open data community was there in my face on Twitter, asking questions, pointing things out.” He believes that such engagement via social media “means that, in real time, you’ve got a feel for what the policy issues are,” and adds that this “augurs for how it will feel being a senior civil servant” in the future. As permanent secretaries join Twitter, they’re increasingly exposed to the unvarnished views of the ‘Twitterati’.

New systems, new possibilities
This ability to give and receive immediate – and sometimes unconsidered – feedback doesn’t just apply to policymaking, though; it’s set to grow through all parts of public service delivery. If someone’s unhappy with the service they’ve received from government, they’ll soon be able to log it online, there and then. The NHS is even building a system to allow people to do just that, Neaman says.

Meanwhile, government can be more proactive in providing people with information, potentially reducing demand for more expensive face-to-face services. “It’s about freeing-up valuable resource for when that interaction is necessary,” Neaman says. So the NHS Choices website allows people to check up on their symptoms as soon as they appear, and there are also preventive public health campaigns: last year the DH launched the Information Service for Parents, which sends text messages and emails to parents providing advice on how to raise young children.

While healthcare is a useful example, the same immediacy of information and feedback is possible in any public service – from welfare to agriculture.

Does it make a difference?
Where government has adapted its sites for mobile devices, the demand has been astronomical. Healthcare has seen a 300 per cent increase in the number of people accessing services using a mobile phone over the past year. And – which is optimised for mobile users – has also seen a large increase in people using such devices to access information on the site. Over Christmas, when Santa boosted the numbers of smartphone and tablet owners, the proportion of mobile users on jumped from 20 to 25 per cent, where it has stayed – according to Tom Loosemore, the deputy director of the Government Digital Service (GDS). “There are millions of people using on mobile devices every week; when you optimise your site, millions of people have more satisfying experiences,” he says.

This trend to use mobile devices is something that’s affecting all the websites in the UK. “The trend is pretty broad: if you look at the BBC, they had a doubling of their traffic demand for iPlayer on tablets over Christmas,” Loosemore says. “There’s a huge latent demand already, and it’s growing incredibly quickly.”

The GDS is, therefore, quite clear: “Nobody should be designing a website in 2013 that doesn’t adapt to a mobile device. You are alienating a quarter of your user base, so it’s not a question of whether we can afford the extra complexity,” Loosemore says.

There are now rules to ensure that departments incorporate this thinking into their service design. A new “digital by default standard” will be released in a couple of weeks’ time, Loosemore says, and all services anticipating more than 100,000 transactions a year will have to be responsive to mobile devices before they’re allowed to launch.

Meanwhile, all existing services that conduct more than 100,000 transactions per year will need to be redesigned, ensuring that they meet the GDS’s standards and are accessible on mobile devices. The government’s Digital Strategy has asked the biggest transactional departments (HMRC, transport, work and pensions, justice, business, environment and the Home Office) to pick three services each to be redesigned. Work is beginning to rebuild these services this month, and will be completed by March 2015. “It’s not about IT at all – that’s just an enabler. It’s about the redesign of public services in the light of people’s digital expectations,” Loosemore says, “just like any sane organisation is doing, from Marks and Spencer to British Airways.”

Appsolutely not
A key point is that mobile accessibility should be hardwired into all government websites, rather than being tacked on at the end. This means designing websites to automatically adapt to any screen size, rather than redirecting phones to dedicated mobile device websites or building separate apps for them. “You have one website that adapts its layout to different screensizes, but not its functionality,” Loosemore explains. Some of the links and pictures tend to change size so that it’s easy to select options with your fingers, while the layout generally becomes more vertical to allow users to scroll easily down the page.

From a technical perspective, this means that websites are now being designed first to appear on mobile devices. “If you look at the way Google builds its services, they design a mobile version first when doing their website. Then they add extra complexity” to add value for PC and laptop users, Loosemore says.

This move to responsive sites is significant for departments currently using, or considering building, dedicated mobile apps – because the GDS doesn’t think that they’re appropriate for most tasks. First, apps are expensive to develop, in part because they have to be developed to install on a number of different operating systems. An app that works on an iPhone won’t work on a Samsung; it needs to be rebuilt. Then, when a new iPhone is released, the app may need to be updated – often while an old version is maintained to ensure existing users don’t lose out. And apps need to get approval from mobile device builders, so Apple vets apps before they’re offered via the App Store. This slows down the process of launching and updating them.

Where government does build apps, Loosemore warns, departments may find themselves bound up in costly legal agreements. They are bespoke pieces of ‘proprietary software’; so if government pays a supplier to build an app, the supplier owns the right to the code and the department may have to pay again to modify it. The GDS builds responsive websites using ‘open source’ code, however, so it’s possible to quickly update services without paying for permission.

Okay, maybe occasionally
The GDS believes there may be occasions where apps are still required: “There will be some areas where government builds apps entirely appropriately,” Loosemore says. But the Cabinet Office unit is keen to prevent a “kneejerk response” to IT trends, he says, whereby departments simply assume that apps are the best way to serve their users.

Apps are needed when citizens need to access something without logging onto the internet. So in health, for example, two apps have been built because a constant presence on service users’ phones is required – whether or not the phone has signal or a wifi connection. Both the Change4Life and the Stoptober anti-smoking apps allow people to enter and access useful information without logging onto the internet, making them simpler and faster to use. “Having discussed them at length with Tom, we all feel that these behaviour change apps need ‘always on’ persistence to help people overcome negative behaviours,” Neaman says (see box below).

Where departments have built apps, Loosemore says, they should let them go out of date unless they can justify the further investment. And the Cabinet Office has now put in place a spending control regime, meaning that building a new app requires permission from the centre of government.

Who does what?
While the GDS has responsibility for setting standards and granting approval for new transactional services, its staff won’t be rebuilding these new sites – departmental IT teams are doing the bulk of that work. For example, the Ministry of Justice is currently developing the capability to do the work in-house, Loosemore says. The GDS provides support and advice, and is helping departments improve their capabilities, he adds.

Meanwhile, a network of digital leaders – including Rachel Neaman – is meeting regularly to discuss the challenges in their own departments. The emergence of this network is one element of a shift in IT leadership in government, under which power has moved away from chief information officers – concerned with systems and processes – and towards digital leaders, tasked with rethinking service delivery for the digital age.

Outside government, a growing set of organisations is using government information to improve public services. For example, builds sites such as FixMyStreet (see box) and WriteToThem – the latter of which provides contact details for your local councillors and MP. Mysociety’s director, Tom Steinberg, explains that his organisation emerged because government was simply looking to put existing services online, rather than utilising digital technology to develop new services. “The public and voluntary sectors did not realise that they might be able to build services online that were different to what they supply offline, but there’s no offline version of Facebook,” he says. His organisation fills this niche by creating services designed solely with the internet in mind. As a social enterprise, it makes money from consultancy, and also receives donations.

The coalition wants to support these organisations by publishing reams of open data – and this is another reason why it’s not building apps: private and voluntary sector bodies can take this information and do so themselves, creating jobs and boosting the economy. Maltby says that the Home Office published crime data and developed its own maps to display these. However, since that point “you’ve seen an organisation like UK Crime Stats develop, who are essentially competitors at some level, saying: ‘Well actually, we’d like to provide a publishing service like this’ – and they’re doing some really interesting stuff that’s not on our UK crime maps.”

“Where’s the appropriate role of government?”, he asks. “It’s got to be about getting the appropriate data out. [Open data’s] going to spark quite amazing things into life, but I suspect that civil servants aren’t perhaps best placed to be doing this themselves.”

As government develops its online services, there are a couple of things it needs to watch for. First, Loosemore says, it should ensure that it doesn’t become too “creepy”. Modern smartphones give websites the potential to tailor information to the user’s location – the FCO could provide specific consular advice, for example – but Loosemore advocates a cautious approach. “Something might seem appropriate from a government perspective, but from a user perspective, we need to think about how they would feel about [government knowing their exact location], even if it’s technically possible,” he says.

Mysociety’s Steinberg adds that officials shouldn’t forget desktop users’ experience in their eagerness to make services accessible on mobiles. “There are things that are only do-able out and about, or easier to do; but there are also things that you need to do back at home with a cup of tea, feeling relaxed,” he says. “When did you last book an entire holiday on your phone?”

As public services move to be delivered online, they need to continue to be as accessible as possible. Mobile devices also provide great potential to improve services, through direct feedback, accessibility of information, and improved engagement. Traditional services will continue to support citizens from cradle to grave, but if their online incarnations are developed to cope with all new devices – and built to be easy to update – then the value they add to face-to-face services will expand just as fast as UK’s citizens’ use of the latest gadgets.


Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro

Share this page