Evidence to Select Committee inquiry into Digital Government

On 27 November 2018, along with Dai Vaughan, I gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Digital Government.

Courtesy of the House of Commons, you can read the transcript, or watch the video below. Bewarned, it’s about an hour long.

A couple of tech journalists wrote it up, while The Times picked up that civil servants (not Ministers) sought to hide the phone numbers (£) of their services in an unethical and pointless ploy to reduce demand.

Interview in Offscreen Magazine


Last year I was interviewed by the mercurial Kai Brach for his magazine Offscreen, which seeks to highlight the human side of technology, and does so in style. You should subscribe. Quite understandably, Kai doesn’t normally allow the contents of Offscreen to be republished online, but wanted our conversation to get a wider audience, so granted me permission as a one-off. Thank you, Kai. 

[Offscreen] Back in the ’90s you were studying towards an engineering degree when a cover of Wired magazine changed your career plans pretty dramatically. What was so impactful about that cover?

It was 1994 to be exact. The cover of the European edition of Wired prominently featured the quote, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world again. – Thomas Paine, Digital Revolutionary.’ That cover stopped me in my tracks.

By then I had been messing around with the internet for a few years. It was pure magic. In my gut I knew this internet thing was going to change everything, but I didn’t dare to share my excitement with anyone else because it felt sort of ludicrous. I mean, at the time, it was pretty geeky, clunky computer stuff, mostly running off a command line.

Seeing that cover crystallised what I had been feeling for a while. The ability to copy and share at zero marginal cost with zero friction globally was an incredibly powerful new concept. It meant that as a society we had it in our power to reinvent a lot of things – for good or for ill. I remember feeling a sense of responsibility, even then. That’s when I started putting my thoughts into writing and ended up publishing articles about the web in various newspapers in the UK.

After graduating I scored a job at Ove Arup, a respected engineering company, though I didn’t last very long there. In the first week I got wind of an internship opening up at Wired and there was nothing that could stop me. A month later I had a full-time job at Wired as ‘Internet Editor’.

[Offscreen] What did you take away from working at Wired?

Getting a glimpse into the world of the pre-dot-com bubble was incredible. I was lucky to work with and learn from amazingly creative people. I also got to know the early internet community that was forming in London and San Francisco. Most importantly, it taught me to see through the hype and realise that the digital revolution was initially going to be one driven by utility – by making people’s lives easier. That was reflected in my writing, in which I often made the case for putting train timetables on the web, allowing people to bank online, and so on.

Eventually, the UK edition of Wired shut down and I was out of a job. In retrospect, this was a good thing because I realised that I didn’t want to be a journalist. It was time for me to stop writing about web stuff and start doing web stuff. I got a job at Capital Radio, the UK’s biggest commercial radio group, where I helped roll out their first website. I then moved on to work for the BBC and lead the creation of their website for the 1998 FIFA World Cup – my first large-scale product development project. It really opened my eyes to what a small team with tight deadlines and complementary skills is capable of.

After doing my own thing for a while – including launching UpMyStreet.com, a local information website – I went back to the BBC as a senior manager in 2001. With an incredibly talented team, we pushed many ideas that were ahead of their time – digital identity, social networking, instant messaging, online streaming. Sadly, few of them saw the light of day. The headwind coming from the BBC bureaucracy was strong. They were just too scared to really go all-in.

[Offscreen] Is that where you first learned how to work around the bureaucracy of large organisations?

It was at the BBC that I learned how to hack corporate politics. First, though, I tried to play the game and do things through the right channels. I tried to not upset anybody and get consent every step of the way. But none of the interesting projects got past the scrutiny panels and the editorial policies.

At one point I was invited to spend a week at the Stanford Research Institute in California and that changed my view completely. It taught me the power of fast iteration with small teams, the notion that you’ll be wrong many times before you’re right, the idea of optimising for feedback loops, how to pitch ideas up the chain of command, and so on.

When I returned to the BBC I was determined to fly under the radar. If I just had enough top cover I could invent the future at the BBC with a small team of just three or four people. We acted like a startup. We just did it our way and managed to get quite a few interesting projects out the door, including a developer network and a precursor to what is now iPlayer, BBC’s online streaming app.

The important lesson I learned was that if you do something good, something you believe in, it will generate its own positive momentum regardless of whether you have permission or not. By showing a better way and backing it up with results, you can achieve a lot with a little. And it’s almost impossible to get fired for doing good work.

[Offscreen] When did you decide to become more politically involved?

That actually started a bit earlier. In 1998, a group of friends and I ran an online campaign to try to persuade the UK government not to adopt a range of very stupid encryption policies. We created a service called ‘Fax Your MP’ to turn up the heat. At the time, MPs (Members of Parliament) didn’t use email; not even their fax numbers were available online. Luckily, through a personal connection, I got hold of a parliamentary booklet that contained a list of MPs and their fax numbers. We built a web-to-fax gateway that allowed people to send faxes to their MPs very easily. I remember running around London with a fax modem under my arm, moving our base closer to Parliament in order to qualify for free local calls, which was crucial given that we were sending over 100,000 faxes in a short period of time.

In the process we realised that most people didn’t even know who their MPs were, much less what their opinion on specific issues was or how they voted on them. So in our spare time we built a system that would scrape the Parliamentary record to compile a plain-English profile page for each MP, making everything that person said and voted on easily accessible to the public. TheyWorkForYou.com instantly shot to number one on Google for MP-related searches and went on to become quite influential, showing Parliament how to operate more transparently through digital media. The project was a forerunner of a charity called mySociety which now provides freedom of information and other digital services to parliaments and governments around the world.

[Offscreen] In 2010 you got the chance to make a much bigger splash and help start GDS (Government Digital Service), a new publicly-funded office to transform the way the UK government operates online. How did this opportunity come about? In other words, what conditions do you think were necessary for government to come around and commit to a new way of doing things?

I think setting GDS up was one thing. Being able to go as far and as fast as we did was another. As such, the conditions were not unique, but they were pretty rare. Quite a few people, of which I was one, had spent a considerable amount of time before 2010 talking to politicians in a non-partisan way, making them aware of the fact that reforming public services through digital means was not just the way to go, it was absolutely necessary. We essentially said, “If you get into power, we will help you do this, but don’t underestimate quite how much change is required and how much top cover we need to make it happen!”

Once there was a new administration coming in, we had a set of ministers of different parties who understood and agreed that the traditional way of ‘procuring IT services’ in government was an absolute joke. There had been so many expensive failures, so much political damage, with some IT projects costing tens of billions of pounds coming disastrously off the rails. So we were at this unique juncture where there was a real appetite for a new ‘internet-era way of working’.

In Francis Maude we were also lucky to have had a minister who had been around the block, knew a lot of other ministers, and was a superb operator with a great forceful personality. He didn’t have any ambitions to be Prime Minister, which meant he was willing to spend his political capital, not try to earn it. He pushed for bringing on very talented external advisors, like Martha Lane Fox, a successful internet entrepreneur and respected digital spokesperson here in the UK. I came on with Martha to help establish GDS.

[Offscreen] Anyone who’s ever worked on publicly-funded projects has experienced the endless bureaucracy and the political power games. How did you manage to create an agile, dynamic process that wasn’t stifled by the environment it operated in?

Having a deep understanding of how bureaucracies work is essential. Mike Bracken, who joined us from The Guardian to lead GDS, and I both knew that the logic inside the civil service was insane. It was a strong logic, but it was insane.

We basically set up and scaled a startup inside the government and then tried to protect its culture by any means possible. We intentionally chose an office location not inside existing government buildings. We hand-picked a talented team with some people from inside and some from outside government who all had that kind of anger with the current way of working, a strong desire to see it improve, with skills centred around user needs, and no interest in playing games. The idea was to build a bubble in which the main strategy was delivery: let’s deliver great stuff so quickly that bureaucracy can’t catch us. And we would be completely transparent about it. We’d blog, tweet, talk to journalists. Even the code was open.

Within eighteen months we’d replaced hundreds of government websites with GOV.UK and fundamentally shifted the way information was published through a massively collaborative effort with like-minded people across all parts of government. Then we realised that the real heart of public services isn’t just providing information, it’s transactional service: paying taxes, receiving benefits, buying a fishing licence, receiving power of attorney, et cetera. It’s great to have a website that tells you what to do, but doing the thing, that’s the actual service. And that’s a much harder problem to solve. They were traditionally seen as ‘IT problems’, but we knew they were service design and operational problems.

So after two years we cashed in all our political capital. We stopped being a bubble and tried to spread our way of working to twenty or thirty umbrella locations around the UK, which turned out to be a much bigger undertaking than setting up GDS in the first place. After four years, many parts of the bureaucracy were starting to adopt digital ways of working.

[Offscreen] As you said, GDS openly shared a lot of its internal language, principles, and guidelines, one of which was ‘start with user needs’. This seems pretty obvious to most people working on the web, but why is this such a revolutionary thought for people in government?

It’s hugely challenging to the internal logic of *any* organisation made up of multiple silos, not just people in government. At one point it becomes about what a specific department needs, rather than what the customer needs. That’s what drives most decisions. The internal games of climbing up the greasy pole become the purpose of those running each silo.

The intention behind that principle was to shock people out of their internal logic. Actually, our version of the principle ‘start with user needs’ had a little asterisk. If you followed the asterisk to the bottom it said ‘not government needs’ and that was actually as important as the first part. I’m afraid the footnote disappeared recently – deemed no longer necessary, though I’m afraid it still is very much so.

[Offscreen] How did you enforce that principle more practically? With a lot of user research, I assume?

Yes, we made use of a lot of videos of user research, people expressing their frustration and fears navigating existing sites and services. That was very powerful, particularly when we showed it to ministers.

But often the first conversation would be about the conceptual framework that people were working in. A civil servant would say, “We need to rebuild the site that allows people to apply for welfare!” – to which we would push back by asking, “What’s the user need here? Is it to build the world’s most efficient welfare system or is it to support people to get healthy quickly and get back to work?” Or another example: fishing licences. The established attitude would be, ‘We need a licence issuing system so that people can print their licence instead of our sending them in the mail.’ So what’s the user need? To be able to fish without breaking the law. You don’t need a piece of paper to get the green light – a simple text message makes it even more convenient.

It sounds like a little thing, but framing the problem in a different way can sometimes be all that’s needed to save millions if not billions of pounds. By putting user needs first you suddenly open up possibilities for service design, the operating model, *and* policy that are far more empathetic and more efficient. I think that concept is now understood more deeply in the UK. People accept that starting with the user’s need, then applying a solution assisted by technology, offers far bigger breakthroughs than simply digitising an analogue, paper-based process.

[Offscreen] Another principle you mention in a lot of your talks is ‘the unit of delivery is the team’. What do you mean by that?

It really means two things. Firstly, it means that the culture within a team is the most important factor for it to be effective. We never hired rock stars, no matter how talented or driven they were. We hired people who had the empathy and openness required to work well in a collaborative environment, people who recognised that there is value in leadership *and* followship coming from *all* members of a team. It means celebrating the output of the team and not making heroes of individuals. And that is the unit you should be assessing against: the output of a brilliant team.

Secondly, we recognised that there is an optimal size for a team. Once there are fifteen people you may need to split it into two or even three teams. In that sense, scaling doesn’t mean putting more people in a team, it means creating more teams. Again, this sounds easy, but with traditional programmes in government or large organisations you very quickly end up with enormous teams of hundreds if not thousands of people, which is a recipe for an expensive disaster. Start small and fast; stay small and fast.

[Offscreen] Your work was also guided by the idea of ‘policy visible in code’. Can you give us an example that illustrates what you mean by that?

That idea came from my former colleague Richard Pope, one of the smartest people I know. He always felt that the fate of people is increasingly decided by algorithms – not just in everyday life but also as they interact with government services. Many policies are just instantiated by an algorithm that, for instance, determines whether you are eligible for a benefit or not. Richard felt obligated to make those algorithms more transparent.

In a very basic way, we did this by open-sourcing all of our code. And it didn’t take long to realise the benefits of doing so. There was a case where a member of the public noticed an error in our code and notified us within thirty-six hours of going live. We were able to push out a fix within the hour. As this was happening, a story made the newspaper that a solicitor had found a mathematical error in an interactive PDF calculator provided by the government to determine divorce payouts. For eighteen months this solicitor had tried to persuade the government that there was an issue with the calculator but he simply wasn’t heard. Going to the media was his only option to make the government aware of the issue. And mind you, that issue affected tens of thousands of divorce payouts.

These two examples perfectly highlight the benefit of running government services more transparently. To be fair, the member of public who alerted us to our bug was a developer. The long-term goal is to make those algorithms understandable to non-coders as well. We need a change of language so that everyone knows how and where their data is being used. We need new design patterns and consent models that put an end to the black boxes that are government policies.

[Offscreen] Where do you see the biggest opportunities for digital government services? Is the goal to ‘get out of the way’ and reduce government to a search bar?

In government the risk of ‘designing for people like us’ is much greater than for most businesses. Many of us are in a position from where we see anything government-related as a hassle. We want it to disappear or reduce the friction of government interaction to zero. I think that’s a dangerous over-simplification, because the people who really need government the most don’t want the government to disappear. Quite the opposite. For those who are really struggling – and it could be any one of us at some point in our lives – the government is a safety net, and that safety net cannot be invisible nor completely frictionless. We need to facilitate a proper relationship between someone with a difficult problem and a public servant empowered to build a relationship with them.

That’s where digital poses a real opportunity. For those who would like government to ‘get out of the way’, let’s make it frictionless. This will save the government money and the individual time. Let’s then invest that money to make government more present and more useful for those who really need it – be it digitally, via phone, or face-to-face. No matter the medium, people in need require the state to be empathetic, efficient, effective, and human.

In the pre-digital era it kind of made sense to have one usually paper-based process to serve sixty million Brits. This inevitably caused a lot of bad friction for a large amount of people. But now it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution anymore. Digital technology allows us to offer a differentiated service design that suits the needs of the user much better. With the concept of ‘government as a platform’ we can build unified systems that underpin all government services across the board – things like identity assurance, payments, notifications, and so on. This makes developing a range of different, more targeted service designs much easier and cheaper.

Unfortunately, no current government has really grabbed that opportunity yet. The thinking is still very much, ‘We have one policy, ergo we have one service design to deliver that policy.’ Whereas my vision is to deliver a particular policy through a range of service designs that adapt to the user’s needs.

[Offscreen] Do you think an improvement in service delivery is enough to regain the public’s confidence in government and politics in general?

That’s our only bloody hope! There is currently a gigantic gap between service quality in government and service quality in the best of the commercial world. The wider that gap gets, the bigger the distrust in government becomes. The result of this is dangerous: just look at recent elections around the world. Our only hope is to make government serve its people in a way they expect it to – efficiently and empathetically.

That’s just the baseline though. I think we can then go beyond that and do some interesting things around accountability, transparency, and potentially allowing people to shape policy. But right now, we’re far from that. We’re in a delivery crisis in which we have nineteenth-century processes that over the years have been badly corrupted by ‘adding IT’, costing billions, and getting ever further behind expectations.

What we’re talking about here is civil service reform. It’s a reform of the machinery of government more than a reform of politics itself. I think the vast majority of politicians are now reasonably aware of the power and ability of digital technology – just to get elected you need a good understanding of it. What they are not aware of, though, is the rotten, antiquated state of the machine they will inherit once they get into power. That machine is not able to deliver the simplicity and quality of service citizens now expect. It’s going to take something reasonably dramatic to overhaul the current shape of public services, which is made up of lots of vertical silos. What we need instead are horizontal layers connecting all parts of government.

So there is a crunch point coming. The good thing is that we can become involved. In fact, I believe those of us who work on the internet have a duty to pull up our sleeves and do our part to reform the machine.

[Offscreen] What would a digital-first government of the future look like?

It would most certainly have fewer people, but those who remain would be far more empowered. They would be working in small, multidisciplinary teams consisting of policy makers, lawyers, operations people, developers, designers – you name it. Those teams would have the authority to make decisions quickly to iteratively deliver a service design that meets users’ needs and achieves the minister’s intended outcome. The system would be underpinned by a twenty-first-century data infrastructure with shared platforms around identity, location, consent, payment, notifications, and so on. These platforms would be operated by the government but also made accessible to the commercial and not-for-profit worlds in order to increase the economic and cultural performance of the whole country.

The impact of some of the more recent technological developments is difficult to predict – for example, machine learning. The impact on areas like health services or education could be dramatic, but it requires a lot of discipline around data and consent. I think that’s something governments may well get catastrophically wrong before they get it right. Another domain that’s still very scary is cyber security and the fact that a bunch of hackers can take down a whole country. Again, it’s something that governments will probably become better at over time, with many bumps along the way. Then there are lots of regulatory challenges. Global competition laws, for instance, are woefully out of date given the concentration of power that comes from data monopolies.

[Offscreen] Going back to a point you made earlier, how can we ‘do our part’ to reform government?

I’ll be honest. If you live in a stable, democratic country you should give five years of your time to uphold that stability. We owe it to our countries to help them close the technology gap. Our institutions are crucially important. Everything else is just play.

For many years I worked outside and around government trying to influence how things are done on the inside. I can tell you now that the impact you can achieve working from the inside vastly outweighs anything you can do from the outside. It’s important to understand that what you are actually changing isn’t politics, it’s the culture of an organisation. You cannot change culture from the outside.

I admit it, it’s not always sexy, but the work matters. And I have an even tougher message: if you already work for government and find that your efforts to change things are fruitless, then go and try to get fired for doing the right thing! Why are you waiting for permission? If you feel like you are a victim of the machine then just quit. We need people to go in there and ruffle some feathers, show good leadership, and inject a new culture. If the machine rejects you, fine, try another way in or do something else. As someone working in tech you’re not going to struggle to find a new job, really.

[Offscreen] So you think software designers/developers carry a bigger responsibility for improving government than everyone else?

An old friend of mine, Matt Jones, said something that really resonated with me. He started by quoting Arthur C. Clarke’s famous law which goes like this: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In practice this means you can now tap a button on your phone and two minutes later a cab turns up in front of your house – that’s magic! Matt then added to that, ‘And magic is a power dynamic.’ If you create magic, you have power over those who consume magic. In other words, if you are writing code or designing services that hide ‘the magic’ away from the user and you are the only one with the key to changing that magic, you are in a *very* strong position of power. And with great power comes great responsibility. Let’s be honest, as developers and designers in today’s ultra-connected, digital world, we really have the power to make or break lives. It’s that simple.

Sticking with the Uber example, there has been a huge amount of negative press and commentary around their dubious business methods. What really interests me was why their engineers decided to go along with this. Clearly, Uber’s leadership had a certain goal in mind, but why didn’t their engineers think twice about the ethics of some of the code they wrote? To me that again highlights the power each individual has – that personal responsibility to do the right thing and be mindful of the impact of one’s decisions.

So, if you’re making software, you are actively reshaping power dynamics between citizens, consumers, companies, and governments. Shifting power relationships is politics. If you are in software, you are in politics. I don’t think we as citizens and consumers have yet properly understood the power technology gives us. However, we’re lucky to be part of the digital revolution, because unlike most generations we’re able to shape and build our future.

[Offscreen] That’s a great way to circle back to my first question about that *Wired* cover from the ’90s. In retrospect, has the internet so far realised its potential to ‘begin the world again’ and if so, has it been for the better or the worse?

Well, I didn’t see that headline back then and think, ‘The world is inevitably going to get better!’ What I thought was, ‘My god, we’ve got a duty to try and make it better because it’s inevitably going to change a lot!’ And that’s pretty much how I still feel today.

It’s no surprise that some bad things have happened and continue to happen, but equally, some brilliant, life-affirming things have come from it too! And so it’s a constant battle to bring our values to bear at a period of rapid change, to maximise the benefits for as many people as possible and reduce some of the inevitable side effects. Because there is only one certainty: we’re never going backwards with technology.

Many of the negative effects come down to culture. We cannot just be passive consumers or companies selling products. That’s why I worry a lot about Silicon Valley culture where anything goes – *anything* – in order to become a unicorn. The stories about normalising unethical behaviour and growing attention monopolies at any cost really appall me. History should teach that a predatory culture like that never leads to a good place. Hopefully, over time we get better at understanding the global network effects inherent in some of these companies and get better at regulating them. In the meantime, we need to work on what is socially acceptable amongst our peer group and weed out rapacious, unethical behaviour.

But at the end of the day, we’re only safe because we have trusted public institutions which respect the rule of law. That’s the only reason we’re safe on the streets. Public institutions need our help to keep up and stay relevant. So it’s time to shape the future we want and be engaged, pro-active citizens – not just consumers.
Copyright Offscreen Magazine, 2017. Republished with permission. 

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Thank you, Liam

I first met Liam Maxwell in February 2010. It was at a Tory-dominated event called “The Network for the Post Bureaucratic Age”.

Not one of my usual stamping grounds.

William Heath and Tom Steinberg had urged me to go, but it was only the chance to hear a keynote by my hero Heather Brooke that persuaded me to go.

I found myself standing at the back next to a man who joined me in nodding fiercely as William Heath launched into his familiar IdealGov rant about the abject failure of the civil service to embrace the opportunities of the internet age.

We got chatting. Once I’d got over the shock of his being the Head of IT at Eton, I was impressed.

Here was someone with a well-informed, and very healthy anger about the waste and inefficiency of government IT. He knew the scale of self-harm and wasn’t afraid to shout about it.

In 2016, the kind of ill-fated multi-year, single supplier  IT-led programmes which were the norm in 2010 are no longer acceptable within HMG.

Liam changed the weather.

That didn’t always involve making friends. Such change rarely does.

Liam and his IT spend approvals team coming to work for GDS in April 2013 was a crucial moment.

The joining up of those demonstrating new ways to transform services with those able to stop ‘bad’ IT spending provided a powerful carrot and stick with which to challenge and change behaviours across central government.

Liam does good stick.

And boy, from 2010 – 2015 did the government IT crowd need his stick.

Which is probably why now is good moment for him to move on from the role of CTO for government.

Digital government has entered a new phase.

Hundreds of teams all across government are learning to work in new ways: agile, iterative, user-centrered service design, supported by new platforms like GOV.UK Pay, properly managed data via registers, and using the 1000s of suppliers and cloud services available on a pay as you go basis through the Digital Marketplace (itself a legacy of Chris Chant & Denise McDonaugh’s stick and carrot double act) –

Those teams want to work this new way. They include some amazing people. But they need support from the centre. It’s a more collaborative time. As Stephen Foreshew-Cain (GDS’s new boss) says, GDS has got their back. Less stick needed.

Liam’s moving to a more political, special advisor-like role, to which he’s admirably suited – and I don’t say that with any sense of snark. Political savvy is vital to changing government.

Bringing someone with his knowledge into this more political court is long-overdue. The technology rhetoric coming from senior politicians is often embarrassingly ill-informed.

So I look forward to hearing Number 10 et al taking more practical and enlightened technology policy positions;

Less of the damaging ill-informed knee-jerking about encryption. (As any teacher knows, you can’t ban maths.)

More about the need to stop smooth-lobbying incumbents messing up the level playing field for disruptive tech innovation.

And much more about the importance of a level playing field to let *everyone* in UK gain full benefit from this digital revolution.

And I’m sure he’ll continue to support GDS from his new perch.

Good luck, Liam. And thank you.

The UK owes you one.


Blockchain vs Democracy (aka ‘software is politics, now’)

The Economist succinctly nails the issue I have with “federated trust” distributed ledgers such as Blockchain / Ethereum:

The idea of making trust a matter of coding, rather than of democratic politics, legitimacy and accountability, is not necessarily an appealing or empowering one.

To be clear, append-only, immutable, verifiable ledgers (distributed or otherwise) are properly exciting as a new form of digital civic infrastructure .

There are some good posts on the GDS blog exploring their potential.

It’s the ‘federated trust’ bit of Blockchain that worries me, more for reasons of democratic accountability than wasted electricity.

Democracy has evolved as the least bad way we know of managing the tensions between collective and individual needs. You mess with it glibly at your peril. Or rather, at our peril. Careful democratic thought required, as well as careful code.

As Richard Pope says, “Software is politics now“.

Update 14 Nov 2015 :  Jeni Tennison, Deputy Director of the Open Data Institute, has written a very fine blog post explaining far better than I can why using blockchain to store personal data is fraught with issues.

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 http://ift.tt/1OUnXmu


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, beta.govt.nz


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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