Eyes on the prize: How to improve civil service delivery

With big savings and a better citizen experience up for grabs, the NAO’s Alec Steel offers practical advice on using information to improve service delivery
Photo: Nick Kenrick/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Alec Steel

20 Jan 2023

I recently renewed my passport. Within six days, I had my freshly inked passport and was ready to travel. Contrast with headlines from 2022 when the media warned of delays and backlogs. It got me thinking. Perhaps demand for passports had dropped? Maybe the Passport Office’s performance information told it what problems to fix? Did it radically change the service? Maybe I just got lucky?

What it does tell me is that managing and improving government services is a complicated, tricky task. Whether it be people applying for a passport, benefits, business grants or people using A&E departments in hospitals, each service has its own challenges. But the service provided is where policy intent becomes reality. It is what people experience and how they get the help they need. So getting the service right, and improving it, makes a real difference to people.

But it is not easy. For a start, government cannot just provide services for those with the simplest and easiest needs to meet. A one-size-fits-all approach which works for the majority can impact vulnerable people the most. On top of this, government organisations are feeling the pressure on public finances. That pressure is not going away and there is a huge financial prize. Government expects to spend around £400bn in each of the next three years on providing services, grants and administration. Even small changes have the potential for significant financial savings and service impact.

It can be tempting to look at service improvement and efficiency purely through your own organisation’s lens. Having fewer people, stopping services or doing what seems right in your organisation’s eyes. But what happens after you make that one-off saving and start having to deal with unintended knock-on effects with problems, added demands and extra costs from elsewhere? How do you make sure you don’t push problems in other areas or delay dealing with them to another time? How do you improve services and reduce costs in a sustainable way?

Government can achieve that if it improves the quality of services by changing how it provides them. That helps reduce cost and improve efficiency. You spend less time fixing problems or doing workarounds. Or, worse still, continuing with sticking plaster measures for so long that they become the norm.

In my role at the NAO I have worked across government seeing how services work and the challenges that people are dealing with. Our current series of good practice guides on improving services is our way of sharing that insight with government.

There are three basics that government struggles with: understanding demand, using information to improve performance and systematic improvement. Get these fundamentals right and you will know what work is coming, spot when things are going right or wrong, and make changes that help you meet service challenges. Doing that well has to be part of how organisations work all the time, so you can manage the service in an informed way. It is not just for when there are backlogs or financial pressures.

Take using information to improve performance. That is about understanding how the service is performing and deciding what to change, why and how. You need the right information, in all parts of the service, to know if performance is going in the right direction. Without that insight you can make changes, but that is not the same as improving. So what does using information to improve look like in practice?

First, start measuring what matters to the people that use your service. That seems obvious and simple. But you need to accept that what matters to you can be quite different from what matters to the people using your service. What people think of your service and what they experience is often unseen. To demonstrate, in 2020 HMRC was dealing with unprecedented levels of customer complaints about PAYE. It discovered customers felt uneasy because of a lack of visibility on what was happening with their complaint. HMRC then introduced SMS messaging to update customers on progress, which reduced the number calls chasing progress by 18% and improved customer satisfaction by 7%.

Second, understand the reasons for service performance. Knowing you have not provided a service on time is one thing, but you need to know why, otherwise any changes you make are guesswork. The Department for Education created a way to predict expected timeliness of responses to parliamentary questions. It identified from its case management system what it needed to do by when to answer a parliamentary question in time. This predictive measure of expected timeliness allows them to offer support when it is needed and train teams on how to improve the speed of their responses.

"You need to accept that what matters to you can be quite different from what matters to the people using your service:

Third, give people providing services the skills to use performance information. That needs capability in analysing data, such as how to spot signals from noise in performance data, and a working environment that encourages curiosity and learning. Trying new ideas and learning from that should be the norm. You might not have all the information you would like, but simple insight can help you decide how to change. For example, how often do people provide everything you need to complete a process step? Team conversations about performance information also need to be future focused. What questions do people ask about performance? Are they about output and what has happened or, more helpfully, about the why behind performance, quality of work and ideas on how to change?

Of course, using information to improve performance is only one part of the puzzle for improving services. Being good at it in isolation has limited impact. Improving service needs you to integrate capability in using information with understanding demand and systematic improvement, the two other guides in our series. Getting these three areas right is not easy – but the size of the prize is worth it. And maybe a week to renew a passport will be the new norm one day.

Alec Steel is the head of operational management at the National Audit Office

Read the most recent articles written by Alec Steel - Every improvement is a change – but not every change is an improvement

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