10 principles for creating digital public services

Collaboration, creating digital services, e-Estonia

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Everyone wants to create good digital services based on user needs. Unfortunately, knowledge and understanding vary, and so does the quality of services. So what should be kept in mind when developing digital public services?

The Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications came up with the basic principles for developing digital services, i.e., the so-called “10 Commandments”. Many people contributed to this – service owners and managers and technology, data protection, cybersecurity, and legal specialists.

  1. Identify the user’s actual problem and need

The most important thing to keep in mind when carrying out this command is not to assume that you know. If users are dissatisfied with the service, the problem may lie elsewhere than it seems at first glance. Even if users do not complain about the service, but it fails to create broader value, something may have been overlooked. Perhaps this service solves only a tiny part of the users’ concerns? Are there other parties involved in the service? A solution must never be created until the actual problem and needs are clear. There are several tools and methods you can find in the toolbox to provide this clarity in the near future.

  1. Involve innovative people who have varied knowledge in the team

Once the real problem and need have been identified, this knowledge must also be transferred to the level of the institution’s managers. Understanding and support from decision-makers are critical to moving forward. The team should invite the best colleagues and, if possible, help from outside. When assembling a team, we must not forget the main idea of this command: let people with different competencies be involved in searching for a solution from the very beginning. Then no legal nuance is ignored (or changed), and also, the choices made will be the best technologically. You will save yourself the painful experience where the work done has to be redone halfway.

  1. Play through the possible solutions and choose the best one

Have the alternatives been considered, and in what way did the chosen solution outweigh the others? This will undoubtedly be asked by decision-makers when an application for IT funding or draft legislation related to the development of services arrives on their desk. Naturally, comparing different solutions and ideas reveals the best. However, it is also vital to remain sensible: assess the costs and benefits and examine whether a similar problem has already been solved. At the same time, you have to be inventive and creative when looking for the best solution, and therefore playfulness is written into this command. By giving freedom of thought, you get rid of the past legacies and can come up with a completely unexpected – but brilliant – idea. But don’t forget to test it with users!

  1. When considering solutions, look to the future, too

The world around us, especially the world of technology, is changing rapidly. If the solution is made thinking of tomorrow only, the service may be out of date the day after tomorrow. Therefore, it is essential to consider general trends and broader changes and consider innovative technological solutions. A team with diverse knowledge and innovative mindset has good prerequisites for this, and the toolbox can offer fresher methodological help. One thing to keep in mind when implementing this command is that we cannot anticipate all changes, and when planning the so-called future, we must also think about change management.

  1. Create a necessary and easy service

The most important thing to remember here is that the service must be necessary and easy for users in particular. If the work of public institutions becomes easier and less costly at the same time, it will undoubtedly be an added value. It is important not to copy the logic of the paper world into digital services – neither in the view of the user nor in the view of the official. Saving the user from submitting the same data (once-only policy), providing services (proactivity), automation and event-basedness are the keywords. If data protection and cybersecurity requirements are not forgotten, the service will be reliable and straightforward.

  1. Develop the service with users and other parties

It is necessary to work closely with others if the service being developed is part of a set of services related to a life or business event, i.e., it is part of an event service. But not only that. Cooperation should be a matter of course in the development of all services. The users of the service give valuable feedback both when planning developments and throughout the process. Representatives of the private sector and civil society are ready to contribute their time and good ideas. The involvement of other authorities is essential to avoid duplication or overly diverse solutions and when the development of a good service is hampered by outdated legislation in another area.

  1. Ensure interoperability, reuse existing ones, and open your creation to others

The peculiarity and strength of Estonia is the information system of our state. We have technological solutions and a legal environment that allows data to be exchanged and reused securely. In addition, solutions have been created – such as an authentication service – that is for everyone’s use and do not have to be developed separately for each information system. All this makes the life of the service users easier and saves costs. Assuming that the interoperability requirements of information systems should be followed and no duplicate developments made. You must also pay attention to the other side of this command and allow others to use your own software (code, reusable components) and data, including the open data.

  1. Work agilely

The word agile is not in Estonian and is used mainly in IT developments, but we found that it conveys the meaning best when formulating the command. It is essential not to take too big of a “bite” when developing services but to move to the final solution in small steps, each of which creates new value for the user. Moving gradually ensures flexibility, especially if during testing of the solution feedback from users reveals that the original goals need to be changed. This should not be considered a failure, as the necessary changes can be made quickly and without higher costs. Lessons learned, as well as successes, should be shared.

  1. Create and keep the service secure and transparent

Data protection and cybersecurity risk assessments and the protection measures proposed based on them must have a place in developing digital services. Risks need to be assessed throughout the life cycle of the service, including, in particular, when introducing new technologies. The Estonian public sector has been a reliable custodian and user of data, and this trust must not only be maintained but also increased. In addition, people need to have a clear understanding and ability to control how and for what purpose their data is used. The service process must also be understandable and transparent to all parties.

  1. Run your own service

Work on the service does not end when the users’ needs are known and the prototype of the solution is made. Work on the service will not end even if the developments are completed and the service goes live, i.e., it is open to users. Service management is a cyclical activity, which means that it is necessary to monitor how the service works, whether users still reach it and are satisfied with the latest developments, the expected change, etc. Sometimes it is necessary to start over, and sometimes – if the service (no longer) fulfills its goals – end providing it instead. The service manager or “owner” is responsible for the quality of the service until the end of its life cycle.

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