Last week we launched a new online service allowing people to register to vote. This is a big deal. This is a really, really big deal. You can now get on the electoral roll in just a few minutes, even on your mobile phone, whenever and wherever you are in the world.
Registering to vote is undoubtedly the most fundamental service that the state must offer. The flip side of this is that it is also heavily surrounded by regulation and legislation. Regulation and legislation are not great bedfellows for usability and accessibility.
I want to talk about the law and the value in dealing directly with lawyers in public service delivery. I also want to talk about the value in investing the time to bring the lawyers with you as you build your service. These are things that I’ve got wrong in the past, and things that will definitely change the way I approach public service design and delivery in the future.
Lawyer says no
Too many times in the past, I’ve been told something can’t be done (or must be done) because “it’s the law”. I’ve usually accepted this and then been constrained by having to design the ‘least worst’ way to help people get past that.
In the early days of designing the register to vote service, I was regularly asking the lawyers if there was any wriggle room on a certain aspect. Almost every time I would get back the same response.
Lawyer says no.
This sort of thing will be familiar to many people working in government:
On the subject of why we’re asking for it, the simple answer is because legislation says we have to…… In any case the reason for it doesn’t matter, the law requires that the question is asked.
It wasn’t the policy team being obstructive, they were being as helpful as they could be. But something wasn’t working and it made designing the service extremely difficult without context around information we were being asked to collect.
Going straight to the horse’s mouth
After a time, having been through the above cycle too many times, I decided to try and sit down with the lawyers to plead my case directly.
The first thing that I learned when we got together, was that they hadn’t been taken through the service we were building, to give them the context they needed. That was a pretty big mistake. Obvious when I think about it, but I was asking people to make tough decisions without any real understanding as to why it was important, or what it was going to feel like to those using the service.
So, we set some time aside and went through the service in some detail.
It was a game changer.
I fought the law and ...
Working directly with the legal team, with a greater understanding of each other’s challenges and constraints, led to some pretty important successes for online voter registration and the people using it. We managed to:
- get some laws changed while developing the service
- find better, more user friendly ways of meeting the requirements set out in legislation
- gain agreement from the legal team to work with the service delivery team when drafting future legislation
I’m just going to make that last point again:
We managed to gain agreement from the legal team to work with the service delivery team when drafting future legislation.
And that is a special thing.
It's early days for the register to vote service, but with currently the highest satisfaction rating of any online government service, it's testament that those battles were worth having.
This is what doing the hard work to make it simple for users is all about.
Pete Herlihy is a Product Manager at GDS