Going digital at the Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice is making progress on its digital strategy, with CDO Paul Shetler at the helm

Citizens who require services from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) generally do so at a point in time when something terrible has happened in their life. Perhaps they need lasting power of attorney over an ill parent, to visit someone in prison or gain legal aid - but no one actually wants to do any of these things.

Making these processes as simple and painless as possible is the task of Paul Shetler, the MOJ’s chief digital officer (CDO) who joined the department nine months ago after founding two mobile app startups over the last three years.

Speaking at the Whitehall Media Central Government Business and Technology event in London last week, Shetler said that when developing the transactions, the MOJ digital services team took inspiration from commercial digital services like online banking and e-commerce.

“You don’t need a lawyer to tell you what button to click next on Amazon to buy a book,” he said, and the same should apply for digital transactions with the MOJ.

“If people need to use an MOJ service, their life has turned upside down,” said Shetler. “They’re not happily choosing which beach to go to - they’re trying to navigate what is a complex process at an emotional time.”

Working with the Government Digital Service (GDS), the MOJ has been digitally transforming its transactions to be more user friendly, and in turn also saving money for the public sector. The government claims digitising public services will make cumulative savings of £1.2bn in this Parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7bn a year after 2015.

GDS is currently 18 months into its project to move 25 of the most used government services online. The ambitious project kicked off in January 2013, allowing 400 working days to complete the transformation of 25 services - from visa applications to benefit claims - which were identified as the first “exemplars” to be redeveloped. By the end of the 400-day period, the 25 exemplars should be live or in the last stage of public testing. 

Four of the 25 exemplars are MOJ services, including lasting power of attorney, civil claims, apply to an employment tribunal, and prison visit bookings, while the department is also working on 16 other digital projects.

Like GDS, the MOJ digital services team has a deadline to transform its exemplar services by March 2015, but at the beginning of this year the team was concerned they would not meet the timelines. Shetler said when he was brought into the department in January, he had to “drastically de-scope” the technologies in the MOJ and change the digital services team’s way of working.

Now three of the four exemplars are already live – including prison visit bookings

Previously, the way you would go about booking a visit would be to call up during a dedicated half-hour time slot, where two people would answer the phone and book the visits. This short timeframe meant people would be on hold, and the phone lines would be jammed.

“It was an absolute nightmare,” said Shetler.

MOJ has one of the largest digital teams in government with 135 people working on transforming public transactions using agile methodologies. Shetler said he imposes a strict timeframe to work on individual services, of no more than 20 weeks, which means the teams have to work on small aspects, get them right, get them live and move on.

“We don’t talk about two years, we work to human timescales which makes a difference to people’s lives," he said. “We deliver first, then iterate, iterate, iterate - it is never ending, until we saturate the functionality the user needs.”

It’s taken a lot of discipline over the last few months, but Shetler said the team is the best he’s ever worked with.

“You’re absolutely nowhere without in-house digital capability,” he said, noting that the capability can’t just be a portfolio or strategy team, but needs designers, product managers, developers and researchers.

“If MOJ didn’t have that when I came in, they would not have been able to deliver,” he said.

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