Digital government: why outdated legislation gets in the way of good service design

Did you know it's illegal to wear armour in parliament? Or handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances? Britain has a great many old and quirky laws, that have been brought in for good reason, but hold little relevance today.

While we most probably won't be handling salmon at the local government level (I hope…), trying to design a service that sits on historic legislation can be a huge challenge.

To design a local government service, we start with people's needs

  • Who uses our services?
  • What do they need?
  • What's causing them pain?
  • Where are the opportunities for change?

The ultimate goal is to create a service that's valuable and easy-to-use.

Use the research phase to challenge outdated legislation

When researching a new solution or service, we start with a completely clean slate and let the research guide us. But this isn't just about analysing data and user feedback. We need to identify how policy relates to each service, and if this policy stops us from delivering a good service to your users.

I was tested by out-of-date legislation, when working on the Registrations Service at Northamptonshire County Council. Some of the legislation dated back to Henry VIII's time, when people gave birth, got married and died within the same area.

I philosophically wondered why births can't be registered online, much like applying for a passport.

An example: how legislation can restrict good user experience

The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1953 demands that a registrar signs the register for every birth. 

This means that parents must physically make a trip to a registration office to get a birth certificate for their child. Ok, maybe that's not so bad - it's a nice occasion to register the birth, walking out of the office with certificates in hand. But you can't go to any registration office to register the birth…

"…the birth of every child born in England and Wales shall be registered by the registrar of births and deaths for the sub-district in which the child was born.

If you give birth in a hospital just over the county border, that could mean an extra 30 minutes' drive to the correct registration office. While it's possible to make a declaration at an office closer to home, the registrar will not able to issue birth certificates on the day - they will be delivered by post at a later date.

How is that a good experience for a new parent? And how can we even begin to design a good service when legislation puts these barriers in place?

How to make things better

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. - Albert Einstein

Whilst acknowledging that some things can't change, a smooth user journey is one where expectations are managed and the process is as simple as possible.

We will only need the support of the Registration Service 3 or 4 times in our lives, but when we do, it will often involve big life events at a time of heightened emotion. This means that the process of booking an appointment and seeing the registrar needs to be as seamless as possible.

If you can design 80% of your service to be easy and straightforward, this will ease frustrations with the 20% of the process which you are unable to change. In the meantime, lobby as hard as you can to get outdated legislation repealed. You can even start a government petition for what you want to change.

If I ever have the opportunity to work with the General Register Office, I'll be ripping up this legislation like a honey badger!


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