Creating Technology for Social Change

Liveblog: James Stewart, UK Government Digital Service

Today James Stewart, Head of Technology at the UK Government Digital Service came to the Center for our weekly Civic lunch. 

An internationally-recognized leader in design and implementation of digital public services, James’ team is rebuilding 600 government services in the UK for the digital age. The team’s work has impacted a wide range of functions, from filing taxes and starting a business to giving citizens better ways to engage with government and participate in decision-making processes, and has been the center of an initiative by the UK government to make all public services ‘digital by default’.

This is the liveblog of James’ talk, by Ed, Erhardt and I. Feel free to point out errors and omissions. 


Government Digital Service is part of the Cabinet Office ( Established during the war to help coordinate policy – make sure different departments were talking to each other.

Some changes in the last few years – there are areas of expertise and services to be delivered that need a central capability that all departments can tap into. Provides central expertise for large construction projects, procurement, etc.

Quick background on how the UK government system is different:

There’s no separation of powers in the UK similar to the US: PM sits in the House and also runs the executive branch.

James is quite proud just to be able to simply quote the number of departments and agencies in the British government because that’s hard to keep track of.

Martha Lane Fox, founder of and proponent of digital inclusion, wrote a letter to Francis Maude that set the foundation for setting up the UK GDS. She was asked to review a couple of government websites, but instead decided to step back and ask broader questions about what digital media could mean for citizens.

DirectGov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution not Evolution

The plan:
– Create GDS: Bring lots of expertise together in one place
– Fix publishing: UK govt had about 700 content management systems to get information to citizens, costly and confusing
– Fix transactions: make processes like filing your taxes faster and more efficient
– Go wholesale: Enable scaling of services through APIs, Open Data

Five main areas

Single domain for government, the platofmr for everything (7m visitors a week, 600 publishers, with 5000 more coming soon; 2000 code releases in our first year)
* Understand your interaction through what you’re trying to do, not the department you have to go to
* Enormous opportunities for making what government does more transparent
** Example: If you wanted to know what the UK government is doing about knife crime, you used to look at the ministry of justice and several other organizations and see what they are saying about it. But now, when you have people going through a central system, you can see what people are looking at and create a landing page to answer the question, “What is the ‘government’ doing about this issue?” rather than “What is a particular department doing?”
* All work done in an agile way: hiring from would-be startups, ship code every day, usually several times a day, responding rapidly to people’s feedback. In the past, there was a cycle of 18 months from idea to action. Now the capability is there to do things overnight.

2. Identity
– A single sign-on for government services. You need to provide a simple way for a person to make assertions about their identity. For example, “I’m the person who owns this car or has this bank account.”
– Working with a several private identity providing services to make it possible to eventually provide proof of identity for 45 million users.
– Hoping to open it up to local govenrment (currently outside the GDS mandate) and change the way things are provided in the private sector too

3. Technology
– Moving away from “technology projects” and towards enabling services.
– Need to look at the entire procurement landscape
– Currently spend 6.7b GBP per year on technology, 412,000 staff, 500m GBP savings first year.
– Any large new IT contract can be scrutinized and used by people who understand technology
– I’m using a government-issued Apple device, which is rare – what’s important is not that it’s Apple, it’s that it’s flexible and allows me to get my job done. We have lots of technology that’s not fit for purpose. UK gov COO Stephen Kelly posted a youtube video showing it took 7 min to log into his laptop.

4. Measurement
– Building dashboards that provide high-level metrics that are published publicly which means they are accessible to all civil servants but also to the public, which provides scrutiny

5. Transformation
– Lot of similarity with some large corporate environments
– Worked with departments to identify 25 of the most important transactions in government, so we can improve them
– That starts with – instead of trying to outsource the whole thing, get the right capabilities in house
– e.g. Electoral registration: there’s an incentive to provide a really good, easy service. That will affect about 47 million people (population of CA + MA)
– e.g. Student finance: UK has a central student loans system, and it can be very difficult to understand what you need to to do register, what you’ll receive and what you pay back and when
– e.g. Digital self-assessment (filing a tax return): If you’re self-employed or earn above a certain amount, you need to file. Lots of people use the existing online system, but it’s not very popular and doesn’t give you rapid feedback.

With all due humility, we’re the show right now.

How did we get here?

Martha Lane-Fox’s letter: instead of being a report that goes into committees for scrutiny and a long process, Francis Maude decided that they needed a proof of concept that people could interact with. Three months later, they started sketching it out. It looked a lot shinier than what it became. It began to establish a number of principles around user needs and the ability to accomplish discrete tasks. And we had to optimize for search because often users would come in, search for what they want, click and leave.

(Shows image: — “What do you want to do?” with search box)

The people gathered in the room brought together those ideas with understanding of the big systemic issues we all face.

(Shows an image of MySociety team)

That group of people are so productive that they’ve done many many projects which are either formally or informally linked to MySociety. Along the way they learned how things worked in government.
– e.g. creates a much more usable transcript of what’s going on in Parliament.
– e.g. A way to report problems in your community easily and feed into the local council.

We deliberately started small, and by routing around the issues.

“The square of despair.”

Problems around digital government:
– Money (Lack of money)
– User satisfaction (often historically low, procurement makes it hard to focus on)
– Security (government is a huge target and all too often it’s something separate and arrives late in the process)
– Procurement

The alternative way round:
1. Work on stuff that matters
– Tim O’Reilly’s idea that has drawn a lot of people to us, people who have a zeal for improving others’ lives
– e.g. Lasting Power of Attorney: if you want to prepare for the possibility that you lose mental capacity. Previously, you had to request a series of forms by mail, and we had a ~25% failure rate in completing forms due to complexity and duplication in the forms. People also tended to ask for outside advice for help. That’s fine, but it shouldn’t be compulsory.

They worked with the Office of the Public Guardian on providing an online form tool. They made simple advances like only having to type your address in once. It is still a relatively complex process, but the rate of error is greatly reduced. Now the OPG had a new problem: they were getting calls from people to give them positive feedback, and they didn’t have a category in their CMS to handle it. They didn’t have a positive feedback button! So they had to create one.

2. Deal with the enterprise
– You can’t dodge the way government has done IT in the past
– Contrast our spending with what’s going on in other places, e.g. ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in EC London

3. Start recruiting now
– We started as 6 people, now 300 (in 2.5 years)
– Had to bring a lot of new skills in – UK govt decided to outsource everything 18 years ago, and that led to lots of developers and managers moving to work in those outsourcing companies — that led to a real lack of expertise and knowledge in government
– Jordan Hatch was a 17 year old software developer who joined us – he’s an example of the new blood we’re bringing in
– Ben Terrett, head of design, led design for many large brands at advertising agencies
– Mike Bracken was running the Guardian’s digital activities before he came

4. Start the hard reforms straight away

– Driving License application process
– Lots of parts, lots of expense
– The office where those applications are processed gets several trucks of applications every day — a significant proportion of the mail that goes through Wales is these applications

5. Deliver
– To win credibility, you have deliver the improvements that you promise
– “It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.”
– People realize that you can get things done, and they want to ask for help and get things done
– It really helps to have a Minister that ‘gets it’ — that senior backing is vital. When people from other countries / companies ask us, we don’t have much advice on how to get it, but we know it’s vital
– Mike Bracken presented to Cabinet this week, and was impressed and taken aback by the quality of questions he was getting

6. Democracy faces profound pressures
– All this change is coming in complicated times – as we were wrapping up our Alpha project, there was mass rioting on the streets of a lot of UK cities. That was a reminder that there are big gaps in our society.
– “If we won’t deliver what users need they will route around us.”
– We need to reconnect with people in order to understand what government should be doing
– Digital services are not about changing government websites, they’re about changing government

Now switching to talk in more detail about GDS work

Design Principles:

#3: Design with Data
– As government we have the privilege of having lots of data, but we’ve not been using it very well in the past
– Prototype and test with real users.
– Performance Platform
– Service creators have a dearth of tools. For instance, Getting Google Analytics added to a government service is incredibly difficult. There’s a lack of those tools in general.

Start by establishing a baseline

– Just came from the Strata conference in New York where people were talking about the potential of Big Data, but we think there’s a lot of foundational work to be done on what the basic metrics are that tell us if our services are working or not

Give people tools

– There’s a lot of similarity between the services people are providing, but people often don’t know about their ‘peers’ – we’re trying to help service providers find each others’ services
– Committed to making performance information publicly available. Comparing similar services helps give context.

e.g. Transaction Explorer (
– Gives information on 717 services across 17 departments. 1.41 bn transactions per year.
– We published this knowing that there were gaps in the data, so we created an autofilling FOIA request form so that users exploring the data could help us fill those gaps.
– e.g. Licensing Application tool (covers things like opening a street party, opening a restaurant). We helped build a tool to provide a single entry point for those applications. You can compare across localities (which areas are processing applications faster? Why?)
– Can measure uptime and load time. We had an instance of a local government where an online service was being switched off every night, and the person in charge didn’t even know it.
– People in departments have been taking this as encouragement to do more work themselves, partly inspired by the kick-off work we’ve done with them

Moving at a fast pace means that some things can slip.

– Early on we created a tool called Needatron that tracked all the user needs we thought we needed to meet, the evidence for those ideas, and the actions taken (FYI most GDS code is on GitHub)


– It’s something that you have to engage with. If you have a group of people used to working in a traditional environment and a group who aren’t, you have to think about what you’re going to value
– There’s a degree of ‘culture hacking’ early on and establishing a culture

Lessons on culture change:
1) Cuture hacking is hacking in the sense that it’s often about routing around a problem. And your approach has to change and mature.
You can give things silly names, put decorations up around the office, establish traditions. But often those are examples of routing around problems, and at some point you have to fix those problems.

2) Cultures are really about people so even if you hack you should remember sensitivity and empathy.

3) Seek forgiveness, not permission.

I was at OSCON last year and went to a session about open sourcing government, and people were talking about petitions to get the US government to open source code. We just did it. If we’d sought permission it would have taken months. By the time anyone noticed, it had already been widely recognized as a Good Thing and so we got away with it.

4) Get top level support
We are a cabinet level group, which means we have a great amount of access senior government officials and that’s important. You need that buy-in to get things done and to be sustainable. We recommend that any online service launched after April 2014 by a civil service must be demoed by the relevant Minister beforehand.

5) Then add Cake. (celebrate success)

Mike talks about this a lot. Celebrate sucess.

6) Do things With Care
Wanted to remind people that incredible design work has come out of the civil service in the past. We weren’t doing anything new, we were reclaiming great public work.

7) Reclaim traditions
e.g. Before establishing a national road network, different locales had different types of signage.
Margaret Calvert and Doc Kinnear spent a lot of time figuring out what the best typeface would be for signs. It’s called Transport. Pretty much every country in the world uses it — except the United States. We spent a lot of time talking to Margaret Calvert to understand the project. She’s creating a new Typeface – New Transport – and we’re using it on the website. That was a helpful symbol of us of reclaiming this tradition and saying that great design can come out of public service.

Deliver before you publish your strategy.

Find the processes that are really painful, understand why they’re there, learn them better than anyone else, and then work to improve them.

Make things open, it makes things better.


Saul: The US govt has had a big digital service launch recently – – have you followed that closely, and do you have any advice on how to do that better?

JS: Following it closely. We know some of the contractors involved. So many things come together to lead to a problem of that kind. I don’t know the inside story, I’ve only seen the coverage. Some of that is systemic issues around how to make projects smaller and break them into pieces. For us there were many factors leading to us being able to do this – one of them was a big failure in healthcare IT project. Sometimes failures can be instructive.

Karina: How do you attract talent to your team?

JS: Most procurement happens through frameworks of pre-approved suppliers. Before we came along it was mostly only big companies who could handle those processes. As a civil servant they were so complex that you wanted to get everything done in one shot. There were very few opportunities during the contract to ask how things were going.

We’ve created one new procurement framework – GCloud, for virtual hosting, Saas, Project Management tools – and we’re working on another. It’s called the Digital Services Framework – to acquire skills rather than commodities.

David: As digital becomes a more important service, does it have the danger of replacing face to face interactions and, if you don’t have the right digital literacy, you’re excluded?

JS: Yes, we have two programs:

Assisted Digital, for a segment of the population who we accept will never be online or be confident in using services. There we build partnerships with people who can help those users — e.g. call centers, libraries, post offices
Digital Inclusion project, which is increasing the number of people online and providing training for them.

It would be wrong to exclude people from this process.