We've talked a lot about the preparation work we're doing for Government as a Platform. One of the benefits of having GDS sit at the heart of government is that we can take a cross-government view on how to best use digital to deliver better services for users.
Today I want to tell you about one small part of our work on Government as a Platform. It shows how digital people, technology, and thinking could transform the justice system. Service design, not silos.
Discovering digital justice
The Digital Justice discovery was a 12-week project led by Mark O’Neill here at GDS, and supported by Natalie Ceeney from HM Courts and Tribunals Service, and Matthew Coats and Indra Morris from Ministry of Justice. They were looking for answers to questions like: what could happen if all the different parts of the criminal justice system were better interconnected, if everything worked with everything else? If we dismantled all the silos and incentivised departments and agencies to take a cross-government view, and talk to one another?
To get answers to those questions, you first have to take a close look at the current set-up. A multidisciplinary team from across the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and GDS did just that. They started by creating a map of the entire criminal justice system, completely agnostic from the organisations that run it. It's very big. It looks like this (you can download a full-size version of the map on our Flickr page):
This is something that's not been done before. It's a view of the system as its users experience it, a visual echo of our number one design principle: "User needs, not government needs."
Not a system at all
Take a close look at the full-size version and you might notice that the map doesn't name any organisations or government departments. That’s because that's not how users see the system. They talk about going to court, rather than dealing with "HM Courts and Tribunals Service"; they talk about going to prison, rather than being part of a "National Offender Management Service" process. Also, this is a living map, something that can be maintained and updated as the team learns more.
The more you look at this map, and the rest of the (extremely detailed) work the team has done so far, the more you realise that the criminal justice system isn't a system at all. In reality, it's a series of events and processes made of bits of policy from MoJ and the Home Office, interpretation from the Judiciary, implementation from local police forces and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the Crown Prosecution Service and much more besides. Each one of those acts as a separate entity. A silo.
They all do things in different ways. They all store data differently. They all count and measure things differently. They all notify one another (and members of the public) about changing circumstances in different ways. Their processes are chock full of legal jargon which means little or nothing to offenders, witnesses and victims of crime.
Of course it was never designed to work this way, but that's because it was never actually designed. The system we have today is the result of years of accretion, ad-hoc process on top of ad-hoc process, letter by letter, form by form. It needs a good dose of proper service design thinking.
Paperwork isn't working
During the discovery phase, the team found out that paperwork is the third biggest cost in policing.
Police, court and prison staff frequently have to copy information from one form to another, by hand; sometimes literally copying words on one piece of paper to another. Pre-trial hearings, usually held to confirm that information like names and addresses is all correct, could easily be transformed into a simple digital service. A large number of low-level, non-imprisonable crimes could be resolved without a court hearing, again using a digital service.
It's 2015. Police and court officers shouldn't have to waste hours of time copying words from one box on one form into another box on another form. This is astonishing, needless bureaucracy, the sort of work people end up doing “because it’s always been done this way”.
Computers can fix things like this.
The discovery team came up with a short list of recommendations:
- make the language simpler, so users easily understand how to report or resolve crimes
- make it easy to resolve low-level crimes online
- make digital services to help repeat offenders break the cycle of offending
- use consistent, structured data across the entire system, and make it easy for different departments and agencies to access it
An opportunity for radical reform
I'm barely scratching the surface of what this team's been doing, and I hope they'll be able to share their work in much more detail soon. We want to show it to some other people in government and get their feedback before we do that. There's a lot of ongoing reform work across the Criminal Justice System, including courts reform, and we're keen to make sure our work fits together with that.
This project is impressive for all sorts of reasons. It's uncovered a tangled mess of inefficiency and failure waste, so much of which can be fixed by the careful introduction of properly structured data, cross-government technology platforms and user-centric digital services. It's found opportunities for radical reform and setting new standards, and for creating more unified systems that focus on user needs, not organisational needs. It's a starting point, pointing towards very real infrastructure change at very large scale.
Well done to everyone involved. Matthew Coats told me this was the best piece of analysis he’s seen in government. It’s another brilliant example that demonstrates the power of the discovery phase: get the right people in a room together, and give them a few weeks to think things through. Amazing things can happen. This project's one of those.
You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to receive a PDF of the Digital Justice roadmap, or if you'd like to discuss it.