Sharing control: design principles for local government log-ins

How can we improve the experience of using local government services? Why not begin at the beginning: signing in. Authentication remains a pain point for millions of people when they try to use a digital service.

Whether it’s paying council tax, applying for a school place, or paying business rates – local services are often used by families, businesses and other groups. But in local government, and the public sector generally, the default is to design authentication for individual people. This means users waste time and energy, and often come away with a negative experience of local services. 

We can solve this with a simple change in mindset – accepting that it’s fine for someone to do something on someone else’s behalf. This can remove barriers stopping people from making full use of digital services and change someone’s experience of using local government for the better. 

These principles are based on things we’ve learned from the work we’ve done with local government organisations. I put these together ahead of a GovX local government panel on citizen experience management back in November, so thank youGovX, the other panellists and everyone who intended, for making me sit down and think these through.

1. The best authentication is sometimes no authentication

Does your service actually need to prove who someone is to use it? This is always the first question to ask. Say someone on their lunch break is trying to pay council tax for their elderly father. The trouble is they need a reference number that’s on a letter their dad can’t find. They try calling, but the council says the named person can’t contact them – a measure to guard against fraud. Do fraudsters really try to pay other people’s taxes? 

In reality, what’s really being prevented is someone supporting a family member at a time of need, increasing the risk of late payments. 

2. Research people’s social context

User researchers can add a lot of value: learning about the wider context of people’s lives and how that relates to using a public service. Say a family is applying for school places. Who are the parents or guardians applying? Do they necessarily have the same last name? Is it just them? Is it a grandparent or family friend applying to save someone else time?

Here are two essential things we’ve learned over the years working in and with local government: 

1. Assume people have others they trust to do things on their behalf.
2. Don’t assume who these might be. Get out there, meet users, and learn. 

3. Understand who needs control by default

Understanding people’s social context you can decide who it makes sense to give control to by default. It’s not always obvious. 

I’ll give an example. One of our designers was working on a service that connects people in local refugee resettlement schemes with missing families. Given the sensitivity of the service, the team started out by assuming people looking for missing family should have access to information by default. But, user research showed local caseworkers almost always used the service on people’s behalf, because of language barriers or lack of confidence in using the forms. 

4. Let people share control

Always give people the option to change who can use a service for or with them. Say someone runs a shop on a town high street. They need to pay business rates to the local council. Their business grows and they need to delegate tasks like taxes to a new employee or accountant. That should be as easy as sharing a Google doc. Yet the likelihood is they have to set up a whole new account, or face being prevented from doing this altogether, as so often the assumption is people only use services as individuals. 

Someone might sell their business and the new owners will likely have to start from scratch. By letting people easily delegate, share or swap control, we can save a lot of time and money for everyone involved. This doesn’t just improve the citizen experience – it makes life easier for the council too. 

5. Think beyond accounts

Sometimes, creating more accounts may not be the best answer to this problem. Applying one solution to all group scenarios may cause more problems than are solved. Rather than making everything about who’s logged in, start first with why they’re using the service. Is it to help a child, a business, a house or a car? Start there rather than with log-ins. 

Recently we’ve been working with local housing officers on how they report statistics on social housing. We learned that, while their current software system centres on organisation and individual log-ins, it would be simpler if property addresses were the organising principle for everything. This would make it easier for multiple people and organisations to collaborate on supplying and updating information about a property. This in turn reduces both the admin burden on individual people and duplicated data over multiple accounts. 

Ultimately this leads to better record keeping, which in our experience makes a huge difference to citizen experience, as services become faster and more accurate when underpinned by up-to-date information. 

Multi-disciplinary teams learn more, faster

We couldn’t have learned these things without taking a truly-multidisciplinary approach to the work we do with our customers. It’s been invaluable to have user researchers and designers working in client teams, close to the important problems in local government. As a result we’re always learning what does (and doesn’t) work when it comes to improving the citizen experience for people accessing local public services. 

We look forward to learning much, much more in 2022. If you’d like to learn with us, take a look at our open user-centred design roles.

About the Author

Harry Scott-Trimble

Principal Designer at Made Tech

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