The UK government’s digital services platform, gov.uk, has won the Design of the Year award — and if I were running a big IT consulting firm grown fat on big government contracts, I’d be worried.
Gov.uk is a revolutionary web operation that governments around the world are beginning to notice. Twenty four UK government departments will be on the site by the end of the month — and Government Digital Services (GDS) plans to bring 300 adjacent agencies on board in a next phase. In all, the program will replace 2,000 websites.
In the UK, more than a billion transactions billion per year take place between state and citizen — from passport applications, to requests for fishing licences. This Monday alone, more than six million people visited the site.
And it’s all been built in just over a year by an in-house team that began with just 12 people, and now numbers a still modest 150.
The anticipated cost-savings on their own are startling. The UK Cabinet Office estimates that a digital transaction is 20 times cheaper than one by phone, 30 times cheaper than a postal transaction and 50 times cheaper than a face-to-face transaction.
Until Gov.uk, only half of all UK government services were available online. “We basically still run paper factories,” Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office told The Economist ruefully at the time. Only half of the 46m payments made for driving licenses each year each year, for example, happen online, even though three-fourths of Brits buy their car insurance via the web.
The Gov.uk project is based on “revolution, not evolution” — an approach advocated in the government’s “digital by default” strategy, authored by Lastminute.com co-founder Martha Lane Fox.
One journalist visiting the website was “hard-pressed to see where the design is” —and this, for GDS head of design Ben Terrett, is precisely the point. “We’ve removed everything that gets in the way of fast and easy access to information to make it as legible and intuitive as possible”, Terrett told The Guardian; “you shouldn’t have to understand how government works to be able to find something out. The idea is to get people in and out as quickly as possible.”
Making something look simple is easy; making something simple to use in practice is much harder — especially when the underlying legacy systems are complex. Terrett explains that they’ve built according to 10 design principles that include “Do less” and “Build digital services, not websites”. The best way to deliver digital services right now is via the web, Terret explains, but that might change, and sooner than we might expect.
The GDS team has also worked on the basis that it’s designing for a very diverse group of users with very different technologies and needs. “We’re not designing for a screen, we’re designing for people” explains Terrett. “We think hard about the context in which they’re using our services. Are they in a library? Are they on a phone? Are they only really familiar with Facebook? Have they never used the web before?”
The GDS team can code and deploy changes continuously, and speedily, thanks to its agile development system and process.
Chris Heathcote, GDS’ creative lead, gives the example of a proposed improvement, posted on Twitter, about the way a page explains ‘When do the clocks change?. He was able to make a prototype, solicit feedback from the team, tweak the code, get a content editor to review the change, and post the revised page live — all within a single day .
“GOV.UK. was big and hairy and we did it by being agile” explains Programme Manager Jamie Arnold. By focussing on delivering small chunks of working product in short time-boxes — typically, in one week development sprints — we always had visible deadlines and a view of actual progress. By continually delivering, we were able to show real users, and our stakeholders, working code very early on and get their feedback.
A GOV.UK programme dashboard, using using tools like Pivotal Tracker, used data generated by the teams doing their day-to-day work. “This was the bit that made me most happy”, Arnold recalls; “it made tracking and managing the programme much, much easier. We’ve learned that within GDS agile can work at scale. We’ve embraced it culturally and organisationally”.
Lessons for policy
For Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, Gov.uk is not just a website — it’s about making government as a whole work better.
Bracken quotes a 2009 Institute for Government study which found that 19,436 civil servants were employed in ‘policy delivery’. Each of the government’s 24 department produces an average of 171 policy or strategy documents each year. This river of paper feeds an endless policy cycles and revisions — revision upon revision of carefully controlled Word documents.
For Bracken, this is an avoidably clunky and costly process. “While many digital issues require clear policies, many more do not” he argues; what they actually require is the very quick delivery of a working version of the product. It’s often just quicker, cheaper and more efficient to build, rent or pull together a new product, or at least a minimum viable product, charges Bracken, than “go through the twin horrors of an elongated policy process followed by a long procurement”.
The lessons do not just apply to governments but to all large, rules-based organisations, Bracken explains, where more time and effort is spent on internal logic and process than on listening to and understanding real user needs.
This process is rendered doubly heavy, slow and expensive because so much ‘delivery’ is procured externally from a small number of large suppliers whose core capability, if it can be called that, involves long-term procurement cycles. “Their approach is the opposite of how leading digital services are created” Bracken reckons; ” from Amazon to British Airways, from Apple to Zipcar, there is a relentless focus on, and reaction to, user need”.
His alternative strategy is disarmingly simple: just deliver — often, iteratively and repetitively. “When we created GOV.UK, we created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks”.