Stuff that matters, done the right way

There are so many committed teams delivering digital services all over government, it feels unnatural to highlight just one – but when it comes to doing stuff that matters, at scale, and under pressure, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) team developing the Universal Credit (UC) Digital Service is impossible to ignore.

Here’s a video demonstrating the UC Digital proof of concept developed by DWP and GDS following the 2013 reset of UC:

Not an easy ride

Their mission is to simplify the welfare system, and to help more people to move into work, while supporting the vulnerable.

From the moment the UC Digital Service team was established in summer 2013, they’ve been at the sharpest of sharp ends. The entire UC programme was being reset. The UC Digital Service was given the herculean task of developing the strategic “end state” service, to support the full diversity of people who might claim UC at some point during their lives.

It hasn’t always been an easy ride.

And as the UC Digital Service scales up from a few hundred diverse claimants in South London to cover the whole of the UK, there will doubtless be more bumpy moments ahead. This stuff is hard.

Doing the hard work to make things better

But, when you spend time with this incredible team, it’s impossible not to be impressed with just how much they’re getting right in designing a service that will give this radical policy the very best chance of success.

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. They’re not building a website; they’re creating a new service to deliver new policy. That requires a new organisation, with new ways of working and a new culture, as much as it requires great user journeys or quality code.
  2. They have strong backing from the top of DWP, from Ministers and Permanent Secretary down. The Universal Credit SRO Neil Couling provides exemplary leadership (he’s at every show and tell), chair of the UC Programme Board Sir Robert Walmsley is applying appropriate governance with refreshing alacrity, and the digital support from Kevin Cunnington has been crucial.
  3. They make sure they really understand and meet the needs of UC’s users. All users. Even the most vulnerable. Especially the most vulnerable. And they never forget that DWP frontline staff are vital users too.
  4. They don’t pretend they get everything right first time. They watch how users interact with the service, and then they iterate the whole service to better meet the policy intent. Sometimes they iterate code, sometimes process, sometimes training, sometimes policy – it’s all one service.
  5. They’re not scared to deploy the real-world user insights they’re gaining to challenge policy decisions or existing custom and practice, sometimes long-standing. Doing the hard work to make things simple.
  6. They swiftly and cheaply prototype multiple different ways to meet the policy intent, ditching those that don’t work in practice in favour of continuing to iterate those that do. That’s the future of policymaking.
  7. They’re confident enough to start small, recognising that the value of early work often lies in learning about the reality of users and their needs, and testing the most important assumptions.
  8. They know that the unit of delivery is the team, and that each team must contain the right mix of specialist skills and experience. Those with deep frontline operational experience are highly prized for their often priceless insights.
  9. They scale up carefully and organically. They started with one team, and are now up to six, but have grown at a steady pace so their culture and quality hasn’t been compromised.
  10. They invest the time in hiring high-quality specialist skills, and are happy to seek support from the centre when they need it, be that from GDS, CESG or elsewhere. From its inception, the UC Digital team welcomed the support GDS can offer, a close collaboration which continues to this day.
  11. They make sure all those joining understand the intent behind the policy. Indeed, they constantly remind each other of the point of UC – to simplify welfare, help people gain sustainable employment, support the most vulnerable.
  12. They are agile. They update the service early and often. They are highly disciplined in their agile planning, they prioritise ruthlessly, and their testing and integration is continuous.
  13. But they’re not dogmatic. Where it makes sense, they’ll accommodate other project methodologies – for instance, when integrating with some parts of DWP’s legacy IT estate.
  14. They don’t try to do it all themselves. If they can use an existing tool or capability they will – though they know when not to compromise the coherence and quality of the service. They’re not afraid to do less.
  15. They know that security, like user experience, is the responsibility of the whole team, and requires defence in depth, awareness of emerging threats and agility to respond swiftly.
  16. Openness. They’re open with each other about what is and isn’t working, and honest with stakeholders about what is and isn’t possible. They know the value of such a culture, and fight tooth and nail to protect it and maintain it.

I could easily add more.

The challenges continue

It would be wrong to suggest that the UC Digital Service team is getting everything right – indeed the demonstrations they give during their regular cross-government show-and-tells rarely go unchallenged.

The challenges that lie ahead as they build on and replace the existing ‘live’ UC service remain profound; daunting even. It’s vital the team are given the time and space to iterate towards a mature operational service, able to support a reality that is often messier and more complex than appreciated.

But if anyone can do it, they can.

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via Government Digital Service » Tom Loosemore


The Wall of Done. Image courtesy of @psd

It’s five years since Martha Lane Fox tempted me into digital government. The mission: put the needs of users at the heart of the design of public services.

The report we wrote in 2010 was subtitled “Revolution, not evolution.”

Martha, we got that bit 100% right. And the conversation inside government has changed. It’s increasingly about the redesign of services centred on the needs of users, and the skills the civil service needs to deliver in the digital age.

Tom Watson was right, too. The zeal of the vanguard has been essential.

I’m leaving the civil service at the end of September.

I’ve done my turn manning the barricades. I’m keen to learn some new stuff.

I know I’ll miss the place horribly, but I’m confident that the Government Digital Service is in capable hands, under the wise leadership of Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

It’s grown up since its early, scrappy days in a grotty, now demolished office in Lambeth. Much of the culture and practice established back in 2011 has now become the new normal for governments. Good.

Yet, for all the world-class skills inside GDS, the Aviation House lot are now but part of a wide and deepening diaspora of digital talent stretching across Whitehall and beyond. And one that’s packed full of the next generation of HMG’s digital leaders.

Your turn, gang. Back yourselves; you’re awesome.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last five years. I owe so many people so much, not least those who looked out for me when times were tough. Mike Bracken’s post says “thank you” with more eloquence than my engineer-brain can muster, though I must re-iterate his recognition of the debt we owe to the digital gov pioneers who came before GDS, and upon whose shoulders we stood. Unlike us, they did not always have the backing of a totally committed Minister. On which note, thank you, Francis Maude.

Since 2010 I’ve worked all over HMG, one way and another. I’ve had a proper good rummage under the bonnet of the state.

And while criss-crossing the UK I’ve met amazing digital teams doing the hard work to make things simple. Incredible people, civil servants. Doing stuff that matters.

But I’ve also learned a crunchy lesson; in the 21st century, the public deserves better than the 19th century institutions of Whitehall are capable of delivering.

The first project I did as a civil servant was to re-imagine how government should present itself on the Internet.

The last project I’m doing as a civil servant is to re-imagine how government should institutionally reinvent itself to be of the Internet.

The latter offers a huge prize, there for the taking by any nation bold enough to reinvent its civil service institutions.

The first government to reinvent its institutions such that their role and values are native to the Internet era will find that it can transform both the efficiency and empathy of public services, whilst creating new digital infrastructure offering the private sector a global competitive advantage. And that’s even before we get onto the potential positive impact on trust, data security and democracy.

The best, most successful teams (Digital UC, I’m looking at you) have demanded and gained the freedom to completely redesign not just their services, but their entire organisation – its culture, operations, skills, location, kit, recruitment, procurement – the lot.

That this freedom is seemingly only ever gained after a crisis gets to the heart of the problem. Absent a crisis, the scale of institutional change demanded by this digital era is too scary. But, as Mike put it in his Institute for Government speech last autumn, “government is not immune to the seismic changes that digital technology has brought to bear.”

Transformed digital services require transformed digital institutions.

In the UK, the imperative of such a radical re-invention of the civil service is yet to be recognised. It will require bold, brave, reforming leadership from the centre; leadership with the conviction, commitment and authority required to successfully challenge the shape, the size and the dominant culture of Whitehall.

Come that revolution, I’ll be first in line to serve HMG again.

So, in October I’m off to pastures as-yet-unidentified-even-by-me.

Your ideas as to what I might do next are most welcome.

Safe to assume I’m up for trouble.

Digital UC FTW

Keynote at the Code For America Summit 2014

Code for America are a fantastic US not for profit, injecting digital thinking into all levels of the US Government through a range of initiatives. For example, they’ve been instrumental in the setting up of the nascent US Digital Service.

Last year Mike gave an overview of the UK Government Digital Service at their annual Summit in San Francisco. This year I had the pleasure of showing off some of the digital transformation going on across the UK government, both with and without the help of GDS.

Great to meet so many fine people; friends old and new. A long, rich conversation with the mayors of Miami and Sacramento was a particular highlight of the visit; they showed such awareness of the issues that mattered to their citizens, allied with a seriously crunchy clarity of accountability.

Scotland D14 Conference Talk: Reinvention, not repair

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at the D14 Conference in Glasgow.

I had a fine day, going to several interesting workshops, and catching up with old friends from my BBC and Channel 4 days. The speech itself seemed to go ok; the questions were excellent.

And in my talk I was invited by the organisers, Interactive Scotland, to do some gentle future gazing. So if you already know about GDS and GOV.UK, skip to about 19m30s in which is where the new stuff starts.


Webstock 2014 talk: Institutions: An Internet survival guide

Earlier this year I was honoured to be invited to talk at Webstock 14.

Webstock is a truly fabulous, unique conference, organised for the pure love of the web, not the money. If you get a chance, go. As a speaker, it was easily the best organised conference I’ve attended, as well as the friendliest.

While in Wellington, I shared the UK experience of digital transformation with civil servants from the New Zealand government, and met up with representatives of many other southern-hemisphere governments. I was especially pleased to meet the team re-using GOV.UK open source code on the beta of the New Zealand equivalent,


One link on GOV.UK – 350,000 more organ donors

Last autumn we shared early results of testing various versions of the GOV.UK ‘Thank You’ page. First introduced a year ago, people see this page once they’ve bought their tax disc via GOV.UK. People are generally more open to trying out new stuff after completing a successful transaction, so we’ve been using this page to encourage as many  as possible join the NHS organ donation register.

 Over 350,000 people have now registered for organ donation via this one link on GOV.UK [since Jan 2013]

Via a comment on that earlier blog post, Claire reminded me recently that we’d not shared the final results of the experiment, notably which type of message was most effective at persuading people to register.

What we tested

Working with the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights team, DVLA and NHS Organ Register team, we tested eight different calls to action with a total of over 1,000,000 visitors to the tax disc ‘Thank You’ page.

The eight variants below appeared at random, and we worked closely with the NHS Organ Donation team to see which one generated the most completed registrations. This is known as A/B testing.

Variants of Done page for organ donation 1 to 4Variants of Done page for organ donation 5 to 8

What we found

Here are the results, showing which variant was most effective at getting people to actually register for organ donation. The percentages are not just for click-throughs; they’re actual organ donor registrations.

Bar chart showing which variant was most effective at driving organ donation registrations

The most successful variant introduced concepts of reciprocity and fairness by asking people: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so please help others.

I don’t feel qualified to speculate as to the reasons why this particular message performs best – data trumps intuition. But, feel free to add your thoughts via the comments below.

We ended the experiment in the autumn, and have left this “reciprocity”  message in place. Meanwhile, the new digital team at DVLA has got on with updating the tax disc service.

Since the DVLA tax disc online service is used by around 2m people every month, the impact of such optimisation is significant.

Extrapolated over 12 months, some 96,000 more people will register compared with the original call to action. (“Please join the NHS Organ Donor Register“). In December the former Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights team published a paper with more statistical detail on the experiment.

In total over 350,000 people have registered for organ donation via this one link on GOV.UK since we added the original call to action just over a year ago.

Stuff worth doing.

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via Government Digital Service » Tom Loosemore

Report a misleading website to search engines

Government services have been getting a growing number of complaints from people who feel misled by websites which charge for access to public services that are either free or much cheaper when accessed via the official GOV.UK website.

Examples include people trying to renew their passport or driving licence, book a driving test or apply for a European Health Insurance Card via the NHS.

Example of google search  result and advert

Example of a legitimate advert above Google’s search results. If you feel misled by an advert, Google has a simple form to let you report your concerns.

Many people complain that they felt these third-party websites did not provide of any value over and above the service already available on the official service, accessed via GOV.UK. Some of those complaining felt misled into thinking such 3rd party websites were actually the official, government-run service.

The vast majority of people end up on such websites after clicking on an advert appearing above the normal search results on Google, Bing or Yahoo.

If you feel misled by such an advert, Google now has a simple form to let you report your concerns.

We have been working with Google, by far the largest search engine in the UK, to tackle this aspect of the problem. Over the past few days, Google has  stopped selling adverts to some of the websites which have been the cause of many complaints.

But Google remains very keen to hear from people who feel misled after clicking on such adverts appearing above their search results.  This will help them remove such adverts as quickly as possible.

If you feel misled by such an advert, Google now has a simple form to let you report your concerns.

Google now offers a simple form to let you complain about misleading adverts

Google now offers a simple form to let you complain about misleading adverts

We would encourage people to complain to Google if they feel aggrieved, since this may prove the swiftest and most effective way to fix this problem.

You can also report concerns about potentially misleading adverts appearing above Bing and Yahoo! search results.

On a related note, if you’re concerned about phishing emails, or other Internet scams, visit this page on GOV.UK.

via Government Digital Service » Tom Loosemore

DVLA, we salute you

My first visit to meet DVLA in Swansea back in the summer of 2012 filled me with hope.

I met Carolyn Williams MBE, who runs DVLA’s tax disc service. She showed me a wonderfully well-categorised list of feedback sent in by users of her very popular online service; tens of thousands of comments each year.

Here was a service manager who was listening to her users. She knew precisely which aspects of her service could be improved.

Her problem was how to deliver dozens of relatively small improvements, without breaking the bank or disrupting other priorities.

So I’m delighted that DVLA, under the new leadership of Oliver Morley, has found a way to help Carolyn and her users. Just before Christmas a new multi-disciplinary delivery team started work in Swansea, using Government Service Design Manual as a guide. When I popped in to see them in late January their story backlog was looking healthy.

Yesterday DVLA announced that they had put the beta release of the online tax disc service live. See the invitation to try the beta at the bottom of the screen grab below.

Screen Grab of new tax disc start page with beta link

The renew your tax disc page on GOV.UK, showing the invitation to try the new beta

Given the user research already done, the DVLA team are confident that the beta will be simpler, clearer and faster for users.

For example, the design now responds elegantly to different screen sizes, meaning the near-40% of visitors to GOV.UK who are using a mobile or tablet will get a vastly improved experience. That’s got to help encourage even more people to join the tens of millions who already buy their tax disc online every year.

The new beta now works properly on small screens

New vs old: The new beta now works properly on small screens

So if you’re due to renew your tax disc, visit the tax disc page on GOV.UK you’ll see an invitation to try the new beta version. The team is as keen as ever to improve the service in response to feedback from users.

What’s new is that DVLA can now iterate their service in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost.

So, in no particular order, congratulations to the DVLA team responsible: Matthew James, Craig James, Emma Kapias, Dianne Williams, Simon Taylor, Bethan Jewell, Michelle Phillips, Nic Walters, Ian Davies, Rhian Williams, Jim Frewin & Mark Jones.

We at GDS salute you. 

PS GDS has had almost no involvement in this project, other than applauding from the sidelines. This isn’t one of the 25 exemplar services we’re helping departments and agencies transform. As with the new DCMS intranet, this is simply DVLA demonstrating the new normal.

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Browser, operating system and screen resolution data for GOV.UK

Browser, operating system and screen resolution data for GOV.UK

(Image courtesy of  Guy Moorhouse)

Earlier this month I dug into the analytics data to better understand what devices people are using when visiting GOV.UK.  I thought I’d also quickly share headline data on what browsers, operating systems and screen resolutions we’ve seen over the past month across the whole site. I hope it’s useful.

Rank Browser Jan-14 Jan-13
1 Internet Explorer 29.2% 38.7%
2 Chrome 27.5% 21.8%
3 Safari 25.0% 20.4%
4 Firefox 8.5% 10.7%
5 Android Browser 7.0% 5.8%
6 Safari (in-app) 0.8% 1.4%
7 BlackBerry 0.7% 0.4%
8 Amazon Silk 0.5% 0.0%
9 Opera 0.4% 0.5%
10 Opera Mini 0.2% 0.2%

We’ll publish more detailed browser version breakdown data soon, though I can’t resist sharing that Microsoft IE6 usage seems to have halved to 0.4% from 0.8% over the past 12 months. Note: this browser data combines both desktop and mobile versions.

Rank Operating System Jan-14 Jan-13
1 Windows 57.0% 67.9%
2 iOS 22.5% 16.3%
3 Android 12.0% 6.6%
4 Macintosh 5.8% 5.9%
5 Linux 1.1% 1.1%
6 BlackBerry 0.7% 1.0%
7 Windows Phone 0.7% 0.3%
8 Chrome OS 0.2% 0.1%
9 (not set) 0.1% 0.5%
10 Series40 0.0% 0.0%

No real surprises here, with Android and iOS mobile operating systems eating into Windows desktop share.

Rank Screen Resolution Jan-14 Jan-13
1 1366×768 17.9% 19.4%
2 768×1024 10.4% 7.7%
3 1280×800 6.9% 9.8%
4 1024×768 6.6% 9.8%
5 1280×1024 6.6% 7.0%
6 320×480 6.3% 7.3%
7 320×568 6.0% 1.0%
8 1920×1080 5.2% 4.2%
9 1440×900 4.3% 4.9%
10 1600×900 2.6% 2.5%

Again, the story here is the rapid rise of “portrait” smartphone screen resolutions such as 768×1024 at the expense of traditional “landscape” desktop resolutions. Further evidence of the rapid shift to a wider variety of screen sizes as mobile device use takes off.

(Data sourced from Google Analytics for all visits to GOV.UK for the month up until January 20th. Sample size Jan 2014: 36.4m visits. Jan 2013: 28.4m visits.)

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When will more people visit GOV.UK using a mobile or tablet than a PC?

Yesterday the BBC published data showing more people accessing iPlayer via tablet than via computer. This prompted me to update some of the data I gathered for the government’s agreed approach to mobile last this time last year.

The objective of the UK government’s digital strategy is to make sure our  digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so. But what our users consider to be ‘straightforward’ and ‘convenient’ is far from static. We need our services to be able to adapt quickly to potentially quite profound changes in people’s behaviours and expectations.

For example, here’s a graph showing how the devices people use to visit GOV.UK have changed since its launch. (To be precise, the data is for visits, rather than users.)

Percentages of visits to GOV.UK from computer, mobile and tablet
Percentages of visits to GOV.UK from computer, mobile and tablet

Since 1 January 2014,  63% of visits to GOV.UK have come from a computer, 23% from a mobile and 14% from a tablet. In January 2012 it was 77% computer, 15% mobile and 9% tablet. If you visit the GOV.UK performance dashboard you’ll see that the sample sizes are non-trivial.

Compared with the general UK population, the graph above may be skewed by a minority (around  2%) of GOV.UK users who visit the site more than 100 times a month, often to research government activity as part of their job, typically from a work computer.

I’ve tried to get more representative UK data by looking at the visit data for the two weeks following Christmas Day, when such power users are probably not quite so busy.  The device breakdown for this period last year was 74% computer, 16% mobile and 10% tablet. This year saw 61% using a computer, 24% mobile and 15% tablet.

On Christmas Day 2013, only 51% visited GOV.UK from a computer, compared with 66% on Christmas Day 2012. (Over 300k visits to GOV.UK this past Christmas Day; 34k were looking for a job; over 5k bought a tax disc.)

Such a shift in the devices people use to access the internet should come as no surprise, but the pace of change might. And I do not expect this switch away from PCs towards more personal, portable, touchscreen devices to slow down anytime soon.

The UK government e-petitions service has seen incredible changes in how, when and where it is used. Pete Herlihy has product managed this service since it went live in summer 2011. As he revealed recently, only two years ago over 75% of visits came via computers. Now a mere 27% do so, with 56% from mobile, and 17% from tablet.

Not every service will end up with such proportions, but e-petitions demonstrates just how rapidly and radically user behaviour can change. Here’s current data for some of the transactional services on GOV.UK:

Book your practical driving test:

Computer – 67.4% (was 71.3% in March 2013)
Mobile – 21.4% (was 17.7% in March 2013)
Tablet – 11.2% (was 11% in March 2013)

Change date of practical driving test booking:

Computer – 56.9% (was 61.3% in March 2013)
Mobile – 32.4% (was 30.3% in March 2013)
Tablet – 8.7% (was 8.4% in March 2013)

Apply for a Student Finance:

Computer – 64.6%
Mobile – 26.6%
Tablet – 8.8%

Make a Lasting Power of Attorney:

Computer – 84.3%
Mobile – 12.4%
Tablet – 3.3%

Apply for Carer’s Allowance:

Computer – 67.1%
Mobile – 17.7%
Tablet – 15.2%

I hope this helps explain why the digital by default service standard requires that, from April 2014 onwards, all new or redesigned central government digital services must be designed with an appropriate range of devices in mind. As we say in the GDS Design Principles, our services must understand the context in which people will use them. And for many people, for many services, that context is swiftly becoming more mobile, more personal and more touch-controlled.

Designing for small screens can be a real challenge. Which is why for many of the 25 exemplar services we’re now designing the mobile version first, despite visits from computers still being in the majority. Why? Simply, it’s often easier to make a service also work for a computer monitor and keyboard if you’ve already made it work really well on a small touchscreen than it is to go the other way.

Moreover, as Andy Washington, MD of Expedia UK & Ireland, explained at a recent panel, designing within the constraints of a small touchscreen helps keep your underlying service as clear and as simple as it needs to be to serve all your users, including those who may be new to the internet, or find it a struggle.

Finally, to answer the question posed in the title to this post: When will more people visit GOV.UK using a mobile or tablet than a PC? On Christmas Day 2014, if not before.

NB I’ve seen no data over the past year to suggest the government’s approach to downloadable apps should change. We’re still not ‘appy about them, and central government departments and agencies must seek an exemption before they start developing any.

Filed under: GDS, GOV.UK, Service Manual

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