The value of horizontal services: Tell Us Once

Now that the internet is part of everyday life, citizens’ expectations of public services have been dramatically raised. Now more than ever, we expect public services designed for our convenience, not the convenience of the government.

To create public services that meet these raised expectations, government needs a suitable structure to accommodate the characteristics of the digital era. But with its strict vertical departmental jurisdictions and associated funding model, the structure of government has largely remained the same since the Victorian era, when paper was the dominant information technology.

Just as data shouldn’t be constrained by departmental filing systems, neither should services.

Too often, the constraints of traditional government lead to inefficient services which are complex for users, and burdensome for public servants. For instance, consider how many different sections of government you need to inform when you change your address.

Why? Because to produce truly user-friendly digital services fit for the internet era, you need to work effectively across rather than within the boundaries of government departments. The traditional structure, culture and incentives of government are ill equipped to allow this.

This means it is only through extraordinary circumstances and dedication that teams in government can create services which make the most of the opportunities of the digital age.

No example illustrates this better than the story of the UK’s Tell Us Once service.

Tell Us Once

My family has benefited from the UK Government’s Tell Us Once service a couple of times recently, following the deaths of my wife’s father and aunt. When someone dies, the Tell Us Once service informs the various parts of the national and local government which need to know. That means the local council stops charging council tax, the DVLA cancels the driving license, the Passport Office cancels the passport, the Department of Work and Pensions stops paying the pension etc.

It is a relatively simple service which reduces the administrative burden for those recently bereaved, as well as for government itself. Its core systems are run by a team within the Department for Work and Pensions, supporting 1,600 local council registrars across Great Britain.

You are told about Tell Us Once when you visit your local registry office to register a death, at which point you are given a unique code. You then visit the relevant page on GOV.UK, input your code, and, after a few clicks, you will get a reassuring message confirming that everything is in hand.

Screenshoot of Tell us once service in
Tell us once,

Tell Us Once is a quiet triumph of vision and will: A long-term collaboration between a small core team based in the DWP and dozens of other operational teams inside the likes of HMRC, DVLA and local councils. Their hard work created a simple, highly efficient service now used by hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Simple ideas for improving public services such as Tell Us Once have appeared in numerous transformation strategies stretching back more than 20 years. The logic is obvious: Don’t make people contact all the different parts of government that need to know when something has changed. Instead, enable people to tell the government once.

The application of this system could go beyond registering deaths. Maybe you’ve moved home. Or your business wants to take on its first employee. Or your name has changed after a divorce. If you could inform all the relevant bits of government about what has changed through one simple process, it would be more convenient for you, and more efficient for government. This, as those working on Tell Us Once discovered, is easier said than done.

The problem with horizontal services

New services which span multiple parts of government are notoriously hard to establish. Government is made up of fiercely independent departments and agencies, all vertically aligned, and ‘horizontal’ services such as the one which facilitates Tell Us Once cut across the institutional grain. Most of the time they don’t make the transition from strategy to delivery, however desirable the service may be.

It is difficult to align incentives across multiple government departments, agencies, and jurisdictions. It is difficult to agree democratic and financial accountabilities, and to persuade one part of government to trust another part of government. It is difficult to decide who should fund the service, or where its benefits accrue. It requires courage to push back against a culture that rejects anything ‘not invented here’. It is difficult. But Tell Us Once proves that it is not impossible.

To develop horizontal services, what it does take is passion, persistence, and a remarkable amount of individual goodwill from already-busy public servants.

The power of persistence

Tell Us Once was conceived by the Pensions Service in 2005, and a pilot went live in a few local council areas in 2008. It took until March 2020 for the last mainland council to come on board (the service is not available in Northern Ireland). That is serious persistence.

But without the passion of a handful of mid-ranking civil servants deep inside DWP, Tell Us Once would have been the victim of departmental budget cuts several times over. Such are the headwinds faced by services which cut across multiple sections of government. Thank you to those inside DWP who persevered – you know who you are.

The future of internet-era public services

The story of Tell Us Once, with its myriad challenges and its painstaking 12-year implementation timescale, shows us that the traditional shape of central government – vertical silos, with an accountable Minister at the head of each – is no longer fit for the internet era.

We need new public institutions that offer platforms for more services like Tell Us Once, supporting, ideally, both the public and the private sector. For instance, the Tell Us Once team originally hoped to allow banks, utilities and other private sector companies to join their service for the benefit of all. Working inside a department whose focus is welfare and pensions, that broader ambition was always going to be stretch.

For this kind of planning to be possible, we need government to change. We need services like Tell Us Once to be created, nurtured and supported in government institutions whose perspectives are not constrained by a traditional policy brief.

In an ideal world, the Tell Us Once team and its associated funding would be moved from DWP to the Government Digital Service (GDS), which already operates similar horizontal services and platforms like GOV.UK, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay; GDS would then be funded to create a new range of similar horizontal public services.

Such radical re-organisation may be ambitious but it is needed: As it stands, digital public infrastructure cannot thrive inside analogue institutions.

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