• Opinion
  • October 9, 2018
  • 11 minutes
  • 3

What I learned in 7 years transforming the UK government’s website

Opinion: It’s a responsibility and privilege to transform public services

Neil williams gov.uk

This opinion piece was written by Neil Williams, formerly head of GOV.UK and now the chief digital officer for Croydon. The text has been adapted from an episode of a new series of GDS podcasts.


Back in 2013, I was asked to represent the UK’s Government Digital Services (GDS) at a ceremony at London’s Design Museum. The UK government website GOV.UK, which I have now headed up for many years, had been nominated for a design award.

At that time, GOV.UK had just launched, replacing the previous big super sites for public services. We were still shutting down and replacing nearly 2,000 websites of various departments of state and 350 arms-length bodies — at the rate of about two sites every day.

I didn’t know, or think, we were going to win. We were up against the Shard, the Olympic stadium, the Raspberry Pi and amazing projects from all over the world — and a website had never won before. So I rocked up in what I happened to be wearing that day — jeans and robocop t-shirt, expecting just to hang about at the back.

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Not only did we win our category — we won the overall design of the year award, a pretty incredible achievement for a government website. Despite a photo of me looking awkward, surrounded by glitzily-dressed people, that remains one of my proudest moments in more than seven years at GDS.

I was interested in sharing ideas with people, excited by the whole notion of “information as power”

I started my career in the private sector, in a communications publishing agency. I wanted to be a journalist — I was interested in sharing ideas with people, excited by the whole notion of “information as power”.

But the internet was growing, and I was spending increasing time building hobby websites in my spare time. One day, I was asked to run my publishing company’s new digital offering. I loved it: sharing information online is massively empowering. There’s more connection with people, immediacy and feedback, because you can see in real time what users are doing and use that to make things better.

I then joined government as a digital communications professional, and moved around different departments for around eight years, working my way up. I did lots of work on on product development for websites, intranets, online consultation tools and digital engagement platforms.

However, for me and many others working on digital in those days, there was lots of frustration. Websites were still seen as just another channel for communications — as ways for organisations to tell people the things they should do, rather than enable users to do the things they actually wanted to.

But, as we now know, websites are also the way people do their business and transact. People come to your website to do something, to use a service and fulfil a need — not just to find information. (The word “browser” has a lot to answer for!)

In 2010, Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website. In summary, she said start again: revolution, not evolution

It took a long time for the civil service to recognise that the web was a way to deliver services, not just corporate PR. Then, in 2010, Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website. In summary, she said start again. Revolution, not evolution.

It was a simple call to action: government needs to take ownership of the online user experience with a new organisation, and empower a new leader to re-build its website from scratch.

Martha said we needed to bring skills into government that hadn’t been here before: design, user research, software development. Government had not caught up with the new ways of the wider tech world; agile working, iterative testing, proving things up front.

While her letter was in some ways a threat to my digital communications profession, I thought it was incredible — just what we’d been waiting for.

I blogged enthusiastically, and Tom Loosemore, one of the early architects of the now famous GDS, got in touch. He wanted to get a team together that could produce something quickly, a prototype, that would show a different, agile way of working — something that’s now a touchstone of the way the entire government works.

I learned a lot of what I know now from working in a multidisciplinary way in those early days with some terrific software developers, designers, content designers and user researchers. In fact, in my time at GDS, I’ve probably learned as much as in the whole rest of my career.

We’ve done a lot of thinking on how you join services together, end-to-end, around the user

The prevailing view when we started, tasked with revolutionising the entire government digital offering to users, was that, “This will not work.” We were shutting down hundreds of websites and bringing all that information into one new place.

But we did it, and 14 people scaled very rapidly to 140 people. There were lots of teams working in parallel, building bits of software just in time to shut these other websites down.

That did lead to some real problems around duplication and a growing code base — problems that took much longer to resolve than anyone thought at the time.

Now, several years down the line, with those issues largely dealt with, GOV.UK is starting to iterate wildly again. We’re back to that early feeling of turning ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly.

There is some incredibly exciting stuff happening right now, which I will be sad not to be here for. One of those is the step-by-step navigation product. It’s our solution for, “How do you create an end-to-end holistic service that meets a whole user need?”

Nearly every interaction or task that you have with government requires more than one thing. You need to look at some content, to transact and to fill in a form. You might need to go and interact with other organisations, and then come back to government.

Over several years, we’ve done a lot of thinking on how you join services together, end-to-end, around the user. The lion’s share of that work is actually in the service design and in the content design: mapping out what users need, then mapping out the many things that come together to meet that need.

It’s a responsibility and a privilege to work on the digital transformation of public services, and I love it

We’ve now got a product, that’s been tested, and that works really, really well. And that’s incredibly exciting. I won’t be here to see it really come to life, because I’m moving off now to a new role as Chief Digital Officer in local government for Croydon in South London.

But while my time transforming services for GDS is over, I’ll continue that transformative work, making the public services Croydon provides to residents and businesses as good as they should be, and as as good as people now expect.

It’s a responsibility and a privilege to work on the digital transformation of public services, and I love it. My seven years of doing that at the heart of central government have been some of the best years of my life, and I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned in local government. — Neil Williams

(Picture credit: Flickr/gdsteam)

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