Understanding your services is the first step towards improving or transforming them, as well as supporting a service-oriented approach to organisation design.

One of the key challenges organisations face is fully understanding their role as service providers. It can be difficult to know where to start or know how to build a shared understanding that captures the needs and context of how people use and interact with services.

Services as verbs, and not verbs

Louise Downe’s 2015 blog post for the Government Digital Service helpfully set out that good services are verbs:

To a user, a service is simple. It’s something that helps them to do something — like learn to drive, buy a house, or become a childminder. It’s an activity that needs to be done. A verb that comes naturally from a given situation that cuts across transactions, call centre menus and around advisors towards its goal.

We’re increasingly seeing parts of government and public-facing service providers recognising this and designing what can be described as more joined up end to end services. In many places, this has shifted the focus away from discrete or individual transactions and interactions.

Working more broadly across local government, the health sector and third sectors, we’ve also seen some of the limitations of thinking about services in a transactional way or starting with a transactional perspective.

Many services, especially at the local level, are much broader than a set of transactions. Thinking about areas like employment, housing, children’s services, adults’ services and health means considering multiple and often recurring types of interactions. As well as different types of service models, partners and how organisations work together as part of a larger system. All of these services need to balance different sets of outcomes for the people and communities they serve. For example, improving employment and opportunities within a local area, helping more people have a sustainable place to live, or making sure children are kept safe.

You can treat a type of service like ‘find somewhere to live’ as a verb. But it’s also often necessary to understand the context of the role of a full housing service in a local area, including policy choices and the outcomes the service supports. Housing is about finding people homes, but it’s also about balancing other outcomes including creating and maintaining strong communities.

In reality, not all services are verbs all of the time. It depends on how you start to understand and organise your services from your organisation’s perspective, and at what level.

Finding your level

How you start to understand your services is important. This understanding will determine how you start to shape future priorities in your organisation.

It can be easier to start with a higher level or more strategic-level thinking, but this can quickly become detached from understanding the detail needed to deliver improvements. This is especially true with the ability you have to create better digital transactions and to join up parts of existing services–incorporating better uses of technology, supported by improved and more consistent standards of interaction and content design.

Likewise, if you start to build an understanding of your services from a detailed or more technology-led perspective, then it’s easy to lose sight of context and the strategic view of why services exist and the needs they should be meeting. This includes how services align to strategy in a local area and thinking specifically about the role that service delivery organisations play.

Wherever you start, the important thing is being able to continually question and then adjust your level of focus. This means asking the question of whether you have the right level of focus balanced against a sense or understanding of what is driving priorities inside your organisation.

Making a useful map

Where we’ve supported organisations to understand their services, this usually becomes focussed around creating an ‘as is’ map.

It works well to start with an ‘as is’ view to understanding how things work right now. No matter how disconnected or siloed services may seem in your organisation, or how much you want to change how they work. This is a starting point that helps bring everyone onto the same page.

Take the time to ask yourself what the goal of your map is. Does your organisation need a high-level overview or your services? Or, do you need a more granular detailed view of service-based components in your organisation?

The taxonomy of the map you start to build is therefore very important. Designing an approach to this collaboratively can help with consensus building and helping teams collaborate towards a shared understanding of their services.

This is an example of a taxonomy FutureGov and Essex County Council Service Design colleagues designed together as part of work to understand common service patterns

Like any kind of map, a map of your services if only useful if it helps you to navigate something. A service map is something that should help you get somewhere else. That something is change in your organisation. It needs enough detail to help you create a shared understanding and to shape priorities, enabling decision making.

The goal here is to find a view that gives you enough detail to take the next steps and decisions you need to make.

Higher or lower

This is a prompt poster we’ve introduced to help with mapping services, to continually question and adjust the level of focus when working through service mapping exercises.

FutureGov going higher or lower

If you ever saw the UK game show Play Your Cards Right you might be familiar with the concept of ‘higher or lower’. You can apply something similar to understanding your services:

  1. Go higher when you need more perspective, or to understand the context of services/parts of services.
  2. Go lower when you need to better understand the detail of services/parts of services.

There is no perfect answer for what level to understand your services. It depends on the needs, priorities, and often the politics of your organisation that you need to help people navigate.

If you’ve not captured enough detail, your map won’t help people organise how your organisation is structured in a way that helps you deliver joined up end to end services. Go too high and you might be in danger of running too directly into issues of power and politics, rather than demonstrating the potential and value of service design at a more transactional level.

Be careful with how your map aligns to existing strategies and the direction of an organisation, especially any overarching political intent in government and business. It’s always important to be aware of how what you’re creating is being perceived, i.e. whether it’s perceived as a threat or challenge to a status quo and by who.

Likewise, if you’ve captured too much technical detail, people will get distracted by the wrong level or type of detail. You are more likely to get lost, or conversations will get stuck in the wrong places. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture or your map could simply become too detailed to be of any use. If it feels like you’re capturing too much detail, you probably are. You need to go higher.

Always keep questioning your level. Higher or lower.

Case Studies and further reading

The GOV.UK Service manual has recently published a guide for creating a list of services. This also links to Kate Tarling’s work creating a list of services at the Home Office.

There are useful case studies emerging from the work I’ve talked about happening in the Service Design team at Essex County Council — you can read more about this here:

Parliamentary Digital Service has also been working to understand their services, which you can read more about: Understanding services through user needs.

At FutureGov, our thinking has been developing around understanding services and service patterns, starting with this post in 2017: What do we think about service patterns for local government?

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