tl;dr The GDS has the potential to change how government serves citizens. This is a story about the little bit I did about a year ago. I’m quite proud of it.
I had originally meant to write this post a month ago, but Chickenpox as an adult does some funny stuff to you.
A year ago and a month ago, just about now from what I remember, I was nervous. Very nervous. I was also probably quite wired and very tired. I’d started working with Mike Bracken at the artist now known as the Government Digital Service on July 3rd as Mike’s auxiliary brain (as someone described it) and as part of the team pulling together the vision for the Government Digital Service. We’d had to hit the ground running at great speed. I started 2 days after Mike I seem to remember, on 3rd July. On the 26th July he had to present the vision and the background as to why GDS had to totally transform Government service provision to Francis Maude and ask for the mandate and the budget to do it. The picture below is me sitting outside Francis Maude’s office. Trying not to fall asleep on a comfortable seat and feeling rather underdressed in cords and crocs. However people had to get used to people going to meetings dressed like this and it was a hot sunny day.
I had 22 days to help Mike do this; gathering information on what was broken, what was working, where the big wins might be, how Government compared to internet scale businesses and working diplomatically with many people already within the organisation to build the values of the new organisation. He needed help as he was being pulled this way and that. He was in so many meetings he’d have never been able to collate, synthesize and produce the required vision. I’m incredibly proud to have been asked to help him and to have been able to. It’s a highlight of what I’ve done professionally, and I’m lucky to have had a few of those, this may well be the most important one. Producing such a complicated vision in such a short amount of time would be a huge statement about being able to deliver as an organisation. A key principle.
Lots of what we wrote is now part of the walls of the new GDS building. It’s important stuff. It’s contains messages for Whitehall like the one below.
It contains reminders of how it should be done to all who enter the building. If you want to see more of these, go and visit them. I suggest if you are committed and good enough at what you do that you apply for a job and go for interview as part of your visit.
The original vision also reminded government that it has the monopoly on delivering services to the public, but it should act as if it could lose that position at any time, just as any internet scale company does. It’s all about exhorting the government to build services on and in the internet; as if it is a company such as Google, Facebook or Twitter (all of whom along with Mind Candy and others provided sensitive information to help inform Francis Maude how internet scale businesses worked, thank you).
People use these services everyday, they buy things through services such as Amazon and Ebay and they have expectations about how services work. Going forward they’ll used Government services online almost every day too; that’s the implication of Digital by Default. Government services should and can be as good as these services if not better. Through better public service provision the population will have the times of their life when they need government made easier. One slide in the deck shown by Mike to Francis Maude included the phrase “Design with Empathy”. I stand by that as a key principle of any user centric design.
The GDS will, I believe, work. It is doing what it needs to do. Building its services in the way that they should be built, with the user at heart and the technology stack of the web at its core. It is building a very talented team who are owning the creation of these services; an important distinction from managing the creation of them as has gone before. It’s already resetting the metrics for success. No one can claim a service is successful, even if it has come in on time and on budget, if less than 70% of users successfully complete a transaction through it without having to go off to the call center.
I was equally proud to sit in the front row at the Guardian Activate Summit and see Mike present, a year and a day later, the core principles of the GDS that we’d worked so hard on. Proud and very moved.
These core Organisational Principles and Ben Terrett’s team’s Design Principles I think set out the framework for delivering on the promise of better public services for the citizens who pay for them. I know of no other government organisation who are doing so much with such conviction and such thought and at such speed. What they’re doing is inspirational and brilliant.
I look back on that hot day, the 26th July with very fond memories. Mike was in with Francis Maude for a long time, longer than any of our practise runs of the presentation of the vision. It could have been good or bad. It felt like waiting outside the headmaster’s office for your best mate at school. I’m glad to say it took a while and Francis liked it and the rest is becoming history. An amazing day and feeling, I’m honoured to have signed this sign.
Image kindly provided by Paul Downey
Onwards GDS. I’m proud to have been a part of what became you and I hope to help wherever I can in the future. You are doing stuff that matters.
Tim of the FT photographing “that” graphic. Job done :-)