I ♥ the service standard

In twenty or thirty years time, when much will have changed, what will we remember of digital government in the twenty tens? I suspect it will consist mainly of the government service standard.

At this point, I should make an honest declaration of interest. I’ve sat on both sides of the assessment table at each lifecycle phase, and I’ve worked to introduce the standard into digital teams with different degrees of success. I have been part of a team that had a negative service standard assessment result that was difficult to take, but I also remember what it was like in government before there was a service standard. This all means that I do have some opinions about how to make the service standard better [1].

That’s not the point I want to make, though. The case I’d make is that the service standard is as much an icon of British design as the Jaguar E-type or the Underground Map. No, it wasn’t the first standard and – as its creators freely admit – it borrowed from others. The recent “Digital Transformation at Scale” book described the first version as being written in half an hour “in a few spare minutes found in the midst of shepherding GOV.UK towards going live”. None of this changes the fact that it’s hard to think of another standard that has been as durable [2], as influential or as portable, or one that has impacted on the level of service provided to so many.

The number of other governments and organisations that have taken it as the inspiration for their own standards is growing. During the kerfuffle of the change of leadership in GDS a few years ago, one former senior GDS member of staff described the service standard as “the canary in the mine”. I’m on the fringes of digital government and I have no formal involvement with the service standard beyond occasional lead assessor duties but I have had two in-depth conversations in the last 12 months with other organisations considering adopting it.

If “most of government is service design most of the time“, then the implication is that the service standard is a critical part of our national infrastructure. I’m not sure we always give the standard the respect it deserves. There is surprisingly little written anywhere as to why a service standard is worth the effort of creating and maintaining. (I went through as many service standards as I could and the only line I found about this was from LocalGovDigital, who say that their standard “creates a shared ambition for local government to work to in improving its services”. It’s difficult to argue with that, but is that the most we can say?)

Not everyone might agree with me that we should be celebrating with stickers, lapel badges and a national day to recognise the service standard. But maybe we could all talk more about what the service standard enables: a transparent way to measure progress, a lodestar for government to work towards, a fair and reasoned way to avoid departments marking their own homework, an important sponsor of working in the open and, most importantly, a catalyst for better services for users.


[1]  Yes, I have shared these with the team doing a great job of reviewing the service standard; yes, they have been open and receptive to a fault; and yes, they do deserve your sympathy for the quantity of feedback that they’ve had to wade through.

[2] There have been some changes, and there will be some more to come, but these are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Over more than five years and two parliaments in the middle of the digital world, that’s an achievement.

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