Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #34: Collecting information from users

Government Digital Service Podcast #34: Collecting information from users

September 28, 2021

Our Collecting Information From Users team and a guest from the Home Office share how we’re helping people in government to create accessible, affordable digital forms.

The transcript for the episode follows:

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Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS.

 

Today, I’m chatting with colleagues about our work supporting teams across government that collect information from users using online forms, paper forms or a combination of the two. We've been partnering with other government organisations to investigate how they're currently collecting this information and what kind of help they might need. Because right now, almost all of the forms on GOV.UK that have been downloaded around 7,000 or so times are PDFs or other document-based forms. Usually they are inaccessible, hard to use, and on average teams spend 8 minutes more on processing the information they collect, compared to online forms. This is bad for users, and also bad for government, as it’s inefficient and misses opportunities for using the data for analysis. Worse, these kinds of forms are growing by approximately 6% every year and we estimate it would take the existing form-building service teams more than 70 years to convert just the existing PDFs into HTML forms.

 

So I’m joined by Harry Voss, Senior Product Manager, and Moyo Kolawole, Senior User Researcher, from GDS, who are part of a team working on a solution that will make it much easier to digitise existing forms, and make it simpler for people in government to create new digital forms - even if they don’t have technical expertise. I’m also joined by Suzanne Mycock from the Family Policy Unit in the Home Office, who has been contributing to the research our team is conducting.

 

To kick us off, Moyo, would you please introduce yourself to our listeners?

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

Sure. Hi I'm Moyo Kolawole. I'm a Senior User Researcher on the Collecting Information from Users team at GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Great, thank you. Harry how about you, would you please introduce yourself?

 

Harry Vos:

Yeah, sure. Hey, folks, I'm Harry Vos, I'm a Senior Product Manager at Government Digital Service. Um, I've been around for like 4 years or something, err, and, err, yeah I’ve been looking at forms and how people collect information from members of the public and businesses, err, since December. So I've been really lucky to be working with some amazing people across government. Thanks for having me.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

No worries, thank you. And finally, Suzanne, would you like to introduce yourself as well, please?

 

Suzanne Mycock:

Hi there. My name's Suzanne Mycock. And I'm a Guidance and Forms Editor. I work on the Guidance Rules and Forms team, part of the Family Policy Unit within the Home Office. Err, our team manages 3 of the main tools needed to implement policy, all of which are vital for caseworkers and customers. So that's coordinating secondary legislation, managing guidance and managing application forms.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Suzanne, as I mentioned, there is a mountain of work to be done to improve forms, but maybe it would help listeners if you could start us off by explaining how the process of creating or editing forms works for you?

 

Suzanne Mycock:

So for us it tends to be led by policy teams, so if a policy changes or if a new policy comes into play, sometimes they'll need a, a form to to support the work that they're doing to collect information from end users or applicants. Now, it's not just a case of a policy team coming to us and saying we need a form, we need a paper form, can you go away, create that for us? It’s kind of bigger than that, because it depends on a number of factors.

 

Many of our forms are now on GOV.UK, they’ve been digitised and, um, that they sort of stand for quite a number of the forms that we used to, we used to be responsible for. Um, that number has has shrunk. But as you just said a few moments ago, we are sort of being asked to create sort of bespoke forms, um, for low usage routes, really, or forms that may not need to be around for years and years. It might just be to suit for a short term policy or a, um,  intermediary policy.

 

So what happens is a policy team will come to us and say that they need a form. Um, we will then take that to a board and it is up to the board then to decide whether the form will, um, exist as paper or whether it will be digitised on GOV.UK. Um, and as I say, err, that decision basically comes down to the cost, the usage and how long that form would be needed for. So it's kind of, it's all kicked off by policy and rules changes and policy changes. And then if it's decided that, yes, it's it’s suitable to go, err, on a paper, paper form, the policy team will come to us with a basic set of questions that they want to ask, the information that they want to extract from from the applicants. And we will then go away and we'll put that onto, um, our software.

 

We'll try and build them a form as best as we can that meets accessibility needs, because that obviously is our number one priority, making sure that everything that we produce or try and make sure that things that that we produce going forward is, um, now and going forward, should I say, is as accessible as it possibly can be. Although we do have, sort of, some legacy forms, um, that are based on paper and can only be printed out and filled in by hand.

 

The, the work that we have on forms tends to come in sort of peaks and troughs so we can be extremely busy on forms, um, or we can have no work to do on forms for, for a while, because as you're probably aware, we don't just work on application forms, we sort of cover a wide spectrum of work than than just application forms. But it tends to be driven largely by things like policy changes. Now, they tended to happen a couple of times a year, but just recently we've sort of had, sort of several changes, um, throughout the year. So, um, we've sort of had a few, a few peaks this year and sort of late last year, err, for various reasons.

 

But again, it depends on the sort of the, the extent of the changes, because sometimes they're very minor and it could just be changing one question, err, which takes no time at all, or if it's a case of building a brand new form, um, that can actually take with some of the software that we use, um, believe, err, to like, can take a good sort of three days to, to build and pull the accessibility text behind that.

 

And the reason it takes so long is, is partly because the, the software that we currently use is no longer supported. So it's becoming slower, more clunky, more difficult to work with, and, um, it's very unstable. Err, so that sometimes means that if it's not behaving like it should, it can take us a little bit longer. Err, and of course, it depends how long the form is as well, so if it's a brand new form sometimes it can just be a couple of pages. Other times it can be a 40-page form. Um, so it, it depends on, on those different factors, really.

 

Policy are the ones who inform whether, whether a form is needed. Um, and policy teams will work with legal representatives, obviously, to make sure that the content of the, the forms is, um, sort of legally upstanding. Um, but it will also work with operational staff to make sure that the, the form is capturing the kind of content that they need to be able to process application forms. Um, and then decisions are also made by the senior management team when it goes to the board to decide on whether it's going to be paper form or whether it's going to be purely, um, digitised. So it's, um, it can be a very sort of fast moving environment, err,  depending on sort of the, the nature of what it is we're involved with, because obviously we've been involved with some sort of high profile areas.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

I'm actually curious to hear what you think works about this process and what doesn't.

 

Suzanne Mycock:

I think for, for simplicity purposes, the process works quite well. People know, err, where to go to, to, to ask about forms or to ask for changes or new forms. Um, so I think that works pretty well. People know, um, where they can get that information from.

 

When people do want changes to forms, it's quite a, err, cost effective way of, of making those changes because we don't have to go to a third party and ask them to make those changes. We can actually physically do it on our team. So it's a cost effective and easy way to make and maintain forms.

 

I like to think that we are sort of continually striving to make sure that we produce accessible forms, um, accessibility to, to us is obviously ensuring that a, a product is available and can be used by everyone. Um, so that would mean that people with certain conditions or disabilities can access exactly the same information as everybody else and that it is easy to access and to use. And it is something that we are aware of, um, and we want to get better at, at doing that.

 

We try to talk to specialists. So, um, accessibility specialists in the department and sometimes in other government departments as well to sort of try and glean best practice from them. Um, we are aware of our responsibilities under the accessibility regulations, which is why really we’re, we’re keen to get involved with this project, because the more we can do, err, to make our forms accessible, the better, because we just want to create a service or a product that is going to work for everybody and to take our responsibility seriously. So whilst we may not be 100 percent there, I think we've sort of certainly got the, the ethos on team to to and have the desire to want to be there. And we are happy to engage with anybody who can help us get there. So, um, I, I think we're, we’re doing OK, but we could do a lot better.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That makes sense. I was actually wondering, Moyo, you've been conducting a couple of research sessions. Do the things that Suzanne is highlighting chime with what other people on panels have said, or are the responses very varied across what works for them and what doesn't work for them when creating forms?

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

I think a lot of what Suzanne has said has resonated, um, a lot across the different form builders that we've been able to speak to across government. There’s this real desire to be able to fulfil these accessibility kind of guidelines, um, the 2018 accessibility guidelines. But there is a lack of kind of like time or a lack of, um, knowledge around how exactly to do that. And I think it’s, err, a barrier, like the process of creating accessible forms or knowing what to include to make forms more accessible for, for instance, um, users who might have visual impairments and therefore, you require screen readers to access information how to best design forms for them. There's, it's almost like, a lack of knowledge around how exactly to put it in practice to be able to fulfil these, um, WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines.

 

And so I think there's a real desire for a solution that not only tackles the problem of inaccessible forms, but also helps kind of upskill those who are creating the forms, um, to learn more about how they can also, you know, be better at thinking with accessibility in mind while designing. Um, so I think a lot of what Suzanne has said has definitely come out in our research.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Well, it makes sense that others feel the same way. Um, I was wondering, Harry, there are clearly common themes that are emerging. I was wondering if there's anything that you have a bigger picture on, err, besides potentially the accessibility point that, um, that really speaks to why this needs tackling.

 

Harry Vos:

So, I mean, our vision being that every single form on GOV.UK is, err, accessible, easy to use and quick to process. And it's in that order, really, I suppose, because accessibility is, is really about, um, people's, err yeah, people's rights under the Equality Act and people, you know, not being discriminated against right. How do we make sure that everybody can complete these forms first time, err, not sort of like battle through this thing that is really tricky to use and get stuck and we've got to call up because I don't know I don't even know what question you're asking me here. I don't actually have that information.

 

So there's this whole, whole thing that's kind of like around this form design and then and then also about like sort of speed of processing, a lot, we hear from a lot of teams that, um, you know, so many forms come in, err, to to their to their team inbox or, err, to to their in, in, in some circumstances in their post tray, err, and and and the forms don't have the information they need to make a decision about that person or that business or that sector.

 

And, and so, you know, it was kind of interesting to pick up on what Suzanne was saying around, you know, the policy role as having to work with those operations teams to actually understand like what is it that you need to make that decision about a person. And I suppose if we can if we can speed that up, um, you know, just simply through making sure, does does that form have everything they need to make up the decision, um, err, through you know, the things like sort of validating that that the information that is submitted is is is in the format that we would expect. Um, so if someone has put, err, the, the date of application instead of their date of birth, you know, is that something that we can we can be like, oh that's a really obvious thing. Like, um, well, let's let's fix that. 

 

So we should see some improvements there as well. And, and, and we reckon, err, just through some, some simple changes to, like, how the information gets collected, should be able to speed up, err, things by, on average 8 minutes per per form and in terms of that just having the right information to make the decision. Um, so it's going to vary from service to service and from form to form. Um, but there's some kind of big improvements we want to make there.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit more about the scale of what you're trying to tackle here.

 

Harry Vos:

Yeah, it's a it's a it's a big it's a big challenge. Um, I’m not going to lie, err, there’s, there's over 5,000 form pages on GOV.UK and, and each of those, err, can have, you know, any, anywhere, anywhere from between sort of one and in some cases hundreds of of of different forms attached to those pages. Um, so it's a really big, err, challenge.

 

And and and like you mentioned at the start, um, most of them remain solely as sort of document-based forms, err, which, err, you know, which despite everyone's best efforts, sometimes do you have accessibility problems. And so, um, yeah, it's a really big, it's a big challenge. And I think it's something that the appetite is there. So you know we heard, you know Suzanne you’re mentioning you know you really want to you and your team have got accessibility at heart and you're thinking about how to make this service as easy as possible for people to use.

 

There's lots of teams that, that that sort of want to do the right thing, err, and, and, and, try and improve those forms. Um, but, yeah, sometimes the sort of software isn't always there, um, for people to sort of, err, to to make those improvements. So it feels like a good opportunity. And yeah, we're hoping that, yeah, if you're if you're listening and the, this issue resonates with you, you know, we'd love to hear from you and find out how we can help you and partner up as well, um, because this is not something that the Government Digital Service can just solve ourselves, we're not just going to sit here and magically make this problem go away. Err, you know, we need, we need to sort of come at this together as as government collectively. So, yeah. Really keen to sort of meet and meet new people and and and listen and and find out about your problems.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

It definitely feels rewarding being the convenor of this kind of work and, and trying to get everybody, err, around the table on this issue. I was wondering, how are we approaching this process? Obviously, um, we’ve, we've been doing some research. That was the discovery phase. What else, what else is happening?

 

Harry Vos:

So, um, after we’ve kind of wrapped up our, what we call our sort of discovery research, so trying to understand more about this sort of problems, and whether this is something that our organisation is well positioned to actually affect, um, we kind of like concluded like, yes, this is a problem, that it's not going to sort of go away, and also that, yes, we think we can affect it.

 

So now we're really in that stage of, OK, we know that there are different ways of, of, of creating a form. Um, and, you know, we have a hunch that, um, online forms that are using, err, sort of web browsers to sort of complete forms and things like that, err, can be more accessible than, err, some of those document-based forms. Err, and that you can do that in a way that doesn't demand that the person creating that form has a sort of strong accessibility awareness because, um, well, Suzanne’s team, like you've got lots of, err, accessibility awareness. Um, sometimes the software isn't, doesn’t always help with that. But, um, there are other teams that are maybe more sort of policy specialists and, and, and people who’re trying to really understand, like, OK, what are the decisions that we want to make about people, err, to, to sort of provide them with some sort of public good, some public service, thinking, maybe more in that sort of like the sort of policy intent space. Err, and, and, and, won’t have those sort of specialist skills. And that's, that's kind of like that, that that should be fine.

 

And and I think that's the thing we really want to test is, you know, can we provide, um, better, better tooling to, to create those forms, err, without having to to demand that everybody is a specialist, err, designer, or accessibility person or um, that sort of thing. So, um, yeah, we've got a bunch of different, um, prototypes, if you like, of, of different ways of creating forms. Err, and we're going to be working with, err, people like Suzanne to try and sort of test out, OK, if we if we're using this this way of making forms versus the existing way and also what effect does that have on the quality of the forms and the accessibility of the forms, their ease of use, err, that sort of thing, so really excited to sort of start testing these.

 

It's, it's one thing to sort of try and understand the problem and do that sort of user research and that data analysis in that sort of exploratory phase. But now, when we’re, like, starting to test things, we can say things, like, actually let's - before we get too carried away with it - let's actually find out if that's going to work. So for me, that's the really exciting bit.

 

Really our goal is to to to compliment some of those existing forms, err, with with online forms that can be completed in a Web browser, err, on on a phone or, or anything, you don't need a printer, don't need any sort of special software to sort of edit it and start completing that form. That's, that is the goal. But, um, in 2018, err, 10% of the UK adult population, err, weren’t using the Internet. So there's clearly a whole bunch of, of people that we must support, err, and continue to support with, err, the existing forms that, that might be more designed around, err, print use.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Yeah, Moyo, so Harry's obviously giving us this big overview of what will, what will come up, I was wondering how do you then in practice carry this work on?

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

Yes, so we're doing some really exciting kind of user research. Um, I think there's a real need to understand our users better.

 

And one way in which we're trying to do that is like Harry’s saying, testing out these prototypes and kind of seeing behaviour in action: Can our intended users actually even, um, use these ideas that we've come up with in our team huddle and think this will work. Does that actually work in practice? And so I'm really excited to start kind of testing out behaviour in action.

 

And the way we're doing that is by setting up, um, a research panel of form builders across government with a variety of experience. So if you’ve touched a form once in your entire professional career or you’ve, you’ve just like spent 3 to 5 days working on forms in a given period, like we want to speak to so many different types of civil servants across government who have this, um, experience with form building to become like part of our panel. And our panel basically looks like, um, just being an ongoing research partner with us. When we, err, come up with these ideas, coming in like ripping it to shreds and being like this wouldn't work for this reason because our team is structured in this way or this sounds like a really great way of meeting this potential challenge or I like this idea, but let's reframe it in a different way. I think those people, everyone has a part to play in product development, not just people whose job title kind of reflects a DDaT role. So by DDaT I mean Digital, Data and Technology professionals across the civil service.

 

I think everyone - from the users that we're intending to solve the problems for, up until the team who are creating the product - have a part to play in, like, kind of, like, defining how this product, um, develops. And so in our research kind of sessions that we’re planning out, we’re testing out some of our riskiest assumptions, um, things that could really like test our product when we come into development, um, things such as do people even need a form builder? is one of our riskiest assumptions that we need to test.

 

And this is a time to do it in our alpha phase, where we've understood that there's a problem and we're trying to now understand what the solution to that problem is going to be. We, we’re making sure that we're being really kind of broad and wide in our thinking of how to solve the problem, but making sure that we're trying to solve the problem with our users in mind. And that comes right back down to ensuring that our research sessions are really kind of, like, full with people who have a variety of experience, who have a variety of, kind of, like, knowledge around the form space to really help us understand what works and what doesn't work.

 

And I think one thing that for me is quite exciting due to my background is that, um, this is also a behaviour change project ultimately. It's not just product development. We're trying to understand how can we shift people away from doing X to do Y. And I think a lot of the time what came out in this exploratory research is that, established ways of working are really like kind of confined and that ultimately like kind of impacts how people create or view the creation of forms. And so if we are trying to create a product, we don't want to just slip into established ways of working.

 

Why would we use a GDS, for instance, form-builder or something that GDS promoted for us to use? We need to ensure that people understand, like this is why we believe this tool is better to use for form creation than this tool because of these reasons. And this is what, how we think it will help you in your ways of working. And so we also need to do some kind of thinking and research around how our users behave around form creation and what we can learn about how we need to kind of like create, um, interventions or triggers or nudges to encourage people to change their current ways of behaviour with the view of accessibility in mind. Um, and so we're doing kind of really interesting parallel research at the same time, we've got that testing, but we've also got that behaviour understanding, um, element as well, which I'm really looking forward to.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So you mentioned the alpha phase. Do you mind just telling me quickly, what does that refer to?

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

Yeah, sure. So in any kind of product life cycle, you split it into the discovery, alpha and then beta stage, um, and the discovery stage is mainly where you kind of explore the problems faced, you have knowledge that there is a problem. You're not quite sure exactly what it is. You're using that space to explore all the different facets of the problem before coming down to, OK, this is exactly what problem we're going to tackle, um, going forwards. So the alpha phase, um, is when you take that problem that you've identified and you start kind of concept testing solutions to that problem, you're not defined to, um, a specific solution. And it's all about kind of like using that space to explore different ways to solve the problem that you've identified in that discovery phase, before moving onto the beta stage where you're starting to test out some prototypes that you probably defined normally in that alpha stage of how are you going to, like, solve the problem. You start testing out with private, um, partners or collaborators who can give you ongoing feedback about how your product is doing and to solve that problem. Um, so that's really what an overview of the kind of product life cycle is. Um, and so when I say we're in the alpha phase, we're in that stage by where we’re, we've got the problem, we understand the problem space a lot more. But now we're trying to, kind of, idea around how exactly to solve that problem.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

No, it's really wonderful to get an insight into how methodical your approach is. I hope that's very comforting to people who haven't even heard about this work that it's ongoing and who are interested in contributing to it. Like both Harry and Moyo have mentioned, if it sounds like this might help your service team, why not get in touch with us and help us in building a solution that will work for everyone. It doesn't matter if you are in Digital, Data or Technology, Moyo did say, um, if you have anything remotely to do with forms, this could benefit you. This does bring me to Suzanne. I was wondering how it was that you became involved with the GDS team. What convinced you that this was worthwhile doing?

 

Suzanne Mycock:

I think for our team, I, I, I'd like to think that we, we want to be an exemplar, um, as far as sort of forms creation is concerned. Um, and I think I kind of, sort of, said to, to Harry at the time, it was music to our ears, because the more help we can get to create the forms that we want to create, that the better, really. Um, and we sort of looked to, to people such as Harry and Moyo and, and various other colleagues who have more experience than we do and who probably, um, are better placed to, to tell us what, what we need to do to meet accessibility requirements.

 

So to work with, with you is, is absolutely fantastic for us because it just gives us, at the end of the day, it’s going to give us the confidence to know that we are producing the right kind of forms for the people that use them. Um, and that ultimately is, is our goal.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Thank you. Um, so to take things back a couple of steps in time. This isn’t new work. Technically. Harry, I think you know a little bit about the history of this. Would you mind sharing with listeners why this is different?

 

Harry Vos:

Yeah, for sure. Like I said, I've been, I've been looking at forms since sort of December time, but there are a whole bunch of people that know way, way, way more about forms than we do. So, yeah, whether, yeah, it's learning from Suzanne, whether it's learning from, um, the amazing group of people in the cross-government form building community. So, so people that have been, you know, testing out different form building technologies and approaches that we can learn so much from.

 

So and and and going back even further there was a team at the Government Digital Service called the GOV.UK Submit team, and they were also looking at sort of similar problem, at around how to how to sort of tackle all of these these these document based forms on GOV.UK and and make them much easier to use. And sort of quicker to process. I think, I think there's a couple of things that that, err, that we can sort of, err, many, many things we can learn from that community and that group of people, if you like.

 

So one thing is the actual way that form building works on a sort of technical level of how do you configure the questions and how do you make sure that once you've done that configuration, the resulting form is accessible and easy to use and quick to process. A lot of that really hard work’s been done. And so we can sort of learn from, from all those teams, which is just, yeah, we're extremely grateful for.

 

Some of the technology that they’ve developed is, is, is really, like, advanced, err, when it comes to sort of building accessible forms. And we think that, um, although that might be targeted at, err, sort of digital specialists as the users, if we can take advantage of of some of those technologies and but make them sort of simple enough for for for someone who isn't a sort of techie person, err, to use. Um, we think that there is a lot of benefit we could get from sort of reusing that. Um, so as opposed to us just starting completely from scratch. So then that way I think we're very fortunate.

 

Suzanne Mycock:

That's kind of great for, for somebody like me to sort of hear, because we're often deemed to be forms experts and we're not because we don't you know, we're not specialist designers. And sometimes it can make you feel a little bit exposed sometimes, when people come to you and expect you to have the answers for everything and to be able to build something um, when we're not really equipped with the right, err, sort of knowledge to do that, we're not really the experts.

 

So if, as, as Harry's kind of said, we could sort of pinch bits from from platforms that especially designers do use and make it, um, simple to use for people like myself who who don't have that specialist knowledge, but people come to, to create the forms, that would put us in a very sort of, err, good position really, um, and give us a confidence as well to know that we can use this the software and equipment that we've been given. But neither are we sort of expected to be sort of a specialist designer, or a specialist as such.

 

Harry Vos:

Suzanne if, if it’s, if it's any consolation. I studied design for, for like four years, err, and I still don't know my way around some of these softwares are just really quite complicated and, err, and then and then we try and sort of use that for forms because it's the sort of best thing we've got for now, like that it's always going to be a little bit of, err, a strange transition. Just kind of reflects moving from sort of paper to digital, if you like. So fingers crossed we can find something.

 

I suppose that where things are slightly different is so since the GOV.UK Submit team, um, the accessibility regulations sort of came into force the, sort of, following year. Um, and, and I think that's really sort of changes prioritisation, if you like, um, because whereas before the focus was maybe on the sort of efficiency side of things like can we reduce the waiting time to hear back about an application or whatever government service they're trying to access. That might've been sort of the goal back then. It is still sort of one of our goals, but I suppose, it’s kind of looked at things in a broader perspective. So when you broaden things out, you start to look at, um, you know, some of those lower volume services as well. So, um, you know, a lot of the Digital teams, they’re typically working on some of those higher volume services like get a passport, things that are sort of very commonly used, you've got some brilliant digital teams across government behind them.

 

You go down a little bit and so you start to look at sort of under 100,00 transactions per year, you start to go down into that sort of median volume bracket. And then there you've got some sort of digital teams maybe working on something for some of the time. So just to sort of roughly explain that model. Um, you've generally got a technology platform that does the sort of form building, but actually that is designed for specialist designers and user researchers, err, and developers. Um, that's a platform that then supports a team of people to then go and support the policy and the operations teams that are going to be designing and running that form, providing a service to them. And that's just like a really brilliant model that works fantastically for those medium volume services. You're going to get something like that that’s, that's really easy to use, accessible, quick to process. That, that's great.

 

But unfortunately, that approach is still too expensive for the vast majority of services because the vast majority of services are actually quite low volume. So you've got a lot of, sort of what we might call, like, niche, niche services, but, um, like “pay tax as a minister of religion” or “apply for an exemption for, err, electronic waste”. Err, yeah, this is kind of like fairly like specific niche services the government has to provide, and, and that ultimately won't ever be able to sort of afford like a full digital team on them, or even, a sort of a digital team for sort of part of the time. And so it's like, okay, that's the majority of government services. What can we do to help, help those teams take, take advantage of, of online forms and things like that with those goals of accessibility, ease of use and speed of processing in mind.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

It's true, our government services are for everyone. So don't be shy, listeners. If you don't work on forms, maybe you know somebody who does: get in touch with our team. How can they get in touch with you? How do they get involved with this?

 

Harry Vos:

That's a great question. Err, our team email address is collecting-users-info@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk Now that's a real mouthful.

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

But yeah, we're really keen that throughout this entire process of kind of concept, testing, product development, et cetera, we’re really collaborative, um, with a whole variety of people, from people who are just really interested in what we're doing and those who have any sort of experience in this whole form creation process across government, no matter what your job title might look like. So we'd really encourage you to get in touch and keep up to date with what we're, we’re doing, if you have the relevant experience. And also just like super interested in our work, we'd love to hear from you and learn from you, um, as we go through this entire process.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

All right, so thank you to our guests for joining me on the podcast, as it's such important work to tackle this challenge and supporting your colleagues across government who may not have that much resource or knowledge, as we just shared. Just to remind listeners, again, if you work on a service that requires information from users and you use forms to collect this information, please get in touch with the team so we can ensure that the solution works for you, too. And if you like this episode, you can listen to all other episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast and all other major podcast platforms. The transcript is also available on Podbean. Goodbye.

 

Harry Vos:

Thanks for listening.

 

Moyosore Kolawole:

Thanks for listening, bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #33: Digital identity - working with government services

Government Digital Service Podcast #33: Digital identity - working with government services

August 25, 2021

We discuss lessons learned when it comes to digital identity, the importance of cross-government collaboration, and how other service teams can get involved.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS.

 

Today, we will expand on our plans to remove unnecessary complexity by developing one inclusive and accessible way for people to log in to all government services online. An easy way to prove their identity just once, that also gives them control over who has access to their data and why.

 

I'm joined by Will Myddelton, Product Manager, and Helena Trippe, Senior Service Designer, both in the Digital Identity programme here at GDS, as well as Tom Stewart, Assistant Head of Modernisation at Veterans UK, that have been working with GDS to test their technology and processes. So let's start with you Will, would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners?

 

Will Myddelton:

Of course, Vanessa. Hi everyone. I'm Will, I'm a Product Manager on our Identity workstream. And what that means is on Digital Identity, we've split the work into 3 streams. We have one for authentication, we have one for identity, and we have one for managing data. And my work is to lead the work on our 3 teams that are thinking about the identity part of that puzzle. And as a Product Manager, really, my role is to set the direction that we're going in. And the way that we really do that is by building a shared understanding between all of the different teams so that we all understand the problem that we're working on, with the goal that we can work as the wonderful autonomous human individuals that we are. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Fantastic, thank you Will. Helena, how about you, would you please introduce yourself?

 

Helena Trippe: 

So my name is Helena. I'm a Service Designer in Will's team and in the Digital Identity stream. I have been in the programme since, for-for a year now. And it's really, really fantastic to see the excitement growing both within the programme and also across service teams for the work that we're doing. And it's growing in momentum all the time.

 

And my role within the team has really been to act as a little bit of a glue. We're a multidisciplinary team: we have User Researchers, we have Interaction Designers, we've got Business Analysts and trying to make sure that we are feeding in a lot of the learning back into the product development as we iterate and learn from service teams.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Great. Thank you, Helena. Finally, Tom, would you like to introduce yourself as well, please?

 

Tom Stewart:

I'm Tom Stewart. I work for Veterans UK, a pillar of Defence Business Services, part of the Ministry of Defence. I'm the service owner for a service called the Armed Forces Compensation and War Pension Scheme. Essentially the, the service is: if you are, if you are a service person or you were a service person and you have an injury or a condition that you believe is attributable to your time in the service, then you may be entitled to some form of compensation. And we're, we're digitising what was previously a bit of a paper heavy service. I run, I-I lead a little multidisciplinary team. And my role was the, the kind of overall responsibility for the development and the, the operation and the, the continuous improvement of the scheme.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Fantastic. Thank you, Tom, for introducing yourself as well. So there are people who might not be following GDS's work within the digital identity space, it's hard to believe, Will and Helena, but can you tell me about what your team has been working on?

 

Will Myddelton:

Anyone that's been working in government over the last 10 years knows that GDS has worked on a product called Verify for a long time, and Verify came from a really good place. It is a real common need of service teams to be able to check the identity of their users. We knew that right after we made GOV.UK right back at the start of GDS and Verify was started to address that need.

 

The pandemic was a, a really big event for digital identity in the UK. Verify usage shot up. But at the same time it magnified all the problems that there were. And so in last year's spending review, the government committed money back to GDS, which given some of the reputation we've got for doing digital identity in the past, but we're really honoured to, to be trusted to do this, to tackle digital identity from the centre of government once again.

 

And so what we've been doing since really 1 April - like that's when our, our funding settlement came in and we've got a year of funding - is we've really been trying to work out what the right approach to tackle digital identity this second time around is.

 

And we've had to be really open with ourselves and with the people that we speak to. And believe me, people around government are open with us about what we've got wrong with Verify. But we've also had to be open to the fact that there were some things that we got right in Verify that we're going to continue. So since 1 April, we've done a discovery period on identity and we did twin discoveries, one into the needs of end users and one into the needs of service teams.

 

And then from June until where we are now, we've been in an Alpha. And so what we're doing in our Alpha is experimenting with different ways that we can do digital identity better at GDS for the whole of government; and particularly how we can, this time round, design a digital identity product based on the needs of service teams.

 

Because my observation from having worked on Verify in 2015 and then having worked on, like, the next generation of platform products that we made in GDS - like I was involved in the Notify Alpha and Beta and I worked on Pay and I worked on all those Government as a Platform Products - is that by the time we started those, we'd changed our stance on how we thought about developing products for the whole of government.

 

By the time we came to 2015 and did all those Government as a Platform products, we had to instead develop things that were so good that services wanted to use them. And we developed a number of ways of thinking about product development for platforms that are going to be used by service teams across government in that 3 years, 2015 to 2018.

 

And so really why I'm here and what we're trying to do in our Alpha is, we're trying to apply those techniques to a very, very complicated and slightly overwhelmingly complex space of digital identity. We're trying to design a product that solves digital identity for the UK users of government services in a way that service teams will adopt because they love it.

 

Helena Trippe:

And if I can add a little bit of the how, I guess, in terms of how we've been delivering that: we started very early on, even in Discovery stage as, as we've moved into the Alpha, kind of honed that a little bit more, to work very collaboratively with service teams, engaging them early on and trying to really put things in front of them so we get their feedback quite quickly and working iteratively to, to make sure that we can test their expectations. We can understand kind of how they understand identity, what are their mental models around it, that we can also start testing how we are communicating these things to really get feedback really quickly and iteratively and kind of engage them throughout the process. So that's, that's kind of something that we started through the discovery and are continuing to do that through the Alpha. And I believe we'll continue to do and, and grow as we, as we move on.

 

Will Myddelton: 

We're, we are trying to make it easier to access government services where every user has a single set of credentials, typically username and password, that they can use to access any government service in the future so that users don't have to remember lots of different passwords, but also so that like new and exciting things can happen with the future of digital services, where we can start to think about sharing data more easily between services.

 

And so a key part of that: digital identity is no longer a standalone thing for us. Digital Identity is really a feature of your login to government or your GOV.UK account.

 

So at the point at which a service like Universal Credit knows that, it needs to know that you are who you say you are to pay you our money, the idea is that you will be logged in with your account, you will do an identity check that will allow Universal Credit to pay out money to you. But then that identity check result will be saved so that every other service that you use after Universal Credit doesn't have to go through the same process. So there's a huge user benefit there, which means you don't have to do this very difficult process again and again.

 

And there's actually a huge government benefit there, which is that we can start to design services that expect you to be who you say they are, which, which opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you so much for sharing with us, yeah, what, what you are working on. I was wondering, why is this work important for government service teams?

 

Will Myddelton:

That's a really good question. So...like with all the platforms that GDS makes for government service teams, we've got 2 sets of users and the really obvious one is the end users. And it's really important that we get the identity journeys right for them. But the less obvious one and the one that it's always taken us a while to work out how to design for are service teams around government. So we've done maybe 50 different interviews and research sessions so far with service teams about identity over the last 6 weeks.

 

And I think there's, there's kind of a few big reasons: one is that it makes identity checks easier for their users. Checking people's identity documents is often quite an onerous process in government. You might have to go down to the Post Office and hand stuff over. You might have to go to have an interview with a passport examiner. You might have to send your passport away - like there's lots of examples where passports are sitting in envelopes in government like processing centres, and that means the user doesn't have that passport for a long time. So services care a lot about their users. And so making things easier for the users when it comes to these difficult things like proving your identity, that's a really big benefit to the service teams.

 

A second thing that has come out of the research is that, services care a lot about including all their users. So one of the things when we talk about identity that service teams are very worried about is that, yeah, there can be a digital journey that might work for people that have like high strength identity documents, like passports and driving licences and are able to do things digitally online - and that's fine for those users.

 

But services are very worried about people that don't fit into that group, and that's a lot of people. And so they're worried about that for a couple of reasons. One: because the people that run services are generally really good people and they care. Like they just care, and they want to include everyone that should be able to use their service. And if we're running an identity check and that's the thing that excludes them, then that's a real problem.

 

But the other reason that service teams care a lot about this is: cost. And it costs service teams an awful lot to, any time someone can't do something in a kind of automated routine way, and that service team has to do manual processing or they have to procure a contract with a supplier so that the people can go and do things with them. So there is actually like a quite a hardcore cost saving element as well, which is that the less inclusive our platform is or identity checks are, the greater the burden of cost, time and effort the service teams have to bear.

 

Really, what guides all our work at GDS about platforms for service teams is that: we think that service teams should be able to spend their budgets and their time and their human creativity solving the problems that are unique to their service and identity is not really a unique problem. So really behind all of our work is this goal to save service teams time and money by not focussing on problems that everyone has, and instead to be able to focus on their unique users and the service that they're doing.

 

Helena Trippe: 

I think in terms of the findings that we've been seeing through the research, is that service teams really want to be able to do the right thing. So as part of the, the product page concept testing, we started to see that as they kind of engage with information, particularly around like choosing the right level of strength or understanding what documents can be used, they're constantly kind of making those calculations in their head around kind of what's the right trade off, for the sets of users that I'm, I-I need to kind of make sure that I get through my service.

 

But also, I think another aspect, that for me was really interesting was that we, we also need to kind of be, be aware that we're trying to kind of give them the tools and the information also to make a case internally; to be able to help them convince, I guess, external and internal stakeholders and decision makers about why this is a good thing to, to, to use in the dot. And that, that was really, really, really mind-blowing, at least for me [laughs], in terms of making sure that we can get them to see themselves in, in, in the tools and the information that we're providing.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That’s great to know. Obviously we have a service owner present which is priceless, so if you don’t mind me asking, Tom, what are your thoughts on this?

 

Tom Stewart:

Yeah, I thought perhaps I could add a bit of colour to some of the things that Will and Helena are saying. So when you consider our users, you know, a great deal of our users are, are veterans right? And I say the word veteran, and, and I'm going to guess that many people listening today, your, your mind immediately went to a 90-year old Chelsea pensioner with a red coat.

 

But of course a, a veteran can be 17 years old, a veteran can be someone who's had one day’s service, accidentally shot themselves in the foot and, and are, are out of the service. And that person is still, is still you know very much a veteran. But that person is a, you know, a lot more digitally literate than the, probably than t-t-the Chelsea pensioner.

 

I suppose what I'm saying is the, going back to Will's point, i-it was about inclusivity. You know, that's very much at the front of our minds as we, as we develop this service. Cost, yes, i-it, but, of course it factors in. Making it easier for our teams, yes, absolutely vital.

 

But the, the, the last thing that I don't think I've heard mentioned yet is also, it's about, it's about plugging into the kind of strategic landscape. So my, my ability to, to verify users, has, has a much wider applicability for our business. So, yes, it's great I can use it for Armed Forces Compensation, War Pension - fantastic. But there's so much more that I can do with that. And actually, once we have done all of the work with the integration et cetera, we can quickly pivot at that point to right, ok, we've cracked this. We're answering a whole question. Now what can we do for these people over here? 

 

Helena Trippe: 

What we started to see as well is particularly from speaking to local authorities - so we have been speaking to a few local authorities as part of the, the, the research process, that almost identity is an enabler for them to do all sorts of things, including getting staff onto the systems to be able to allocate work or do casework or, or process council tax information. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That is brilliant to hear. So I know that within 4 months, you've talked to more than, I don't know, it's been hundreds and hundreds of end users, multiple dozens of service teams. I'm really keen to find out what it is that you've learnt so far?

 

Will Myddelton: 

Yeah, I mean, there are new learnings too. So talking about the approach we've taken, I think it's important to talk about that, that we take 2 different approaches when we're thinking about designing the service team.

 

So, so the one that we talk about mostly here is, is a very bottom-up approach. It's recognising that services are delivered by small groups of motivated people working in a really distributed government, where actually sometimes the lines of communication and control from the top of the department are not always clear. So sometimes sitting at the centre of government, it looks like you can make a change around government by speaking to the departments and that that will filter down. But our experience with Government as a Platform is that's, that's absolutely the opposite of what's going on here. 

 

So we have a 2-pronged approach to how we think about designing with service teams. One is that we, we, we want to speak to people who are working in service teams, any people - Product Managers, Technical Architects, caseworkers, policy people - because these are teams of people and they, they vary considerably around government, so we want to speak to people who are thinking about identity.

 

And the reason we want to speak to them is: we need to be able to do a user-centred design process with those people that might include, like interviewing them about their context and their needs or showing them prototypes of what we're doing and seeing how they land with them and how we're talking about it or like actually watching them integrate with our system. So when we're, got some documentation, sitting them in with Developers and watching them go through our onboarding steps. And all of that is in service of: we're trying to shape the product to meet their needs and then we're trying to communicate about the product in a way that makes it clear that we meet their needs and then we're trying to make the product easy to use so that there are no barriers to them using it.

 

Unfortunately, in government, like there is no like recruitment agency that goes out and finds us service teams and there is no list of service teams in government. So what we really have to do, and we learnt this on Notify and Pay and Government as a Platform, is we have to generate hype about what we're doing and then have people come to us. And that's a really good test for us, because what it says to us is: if what you're doing is not exciting, you're not going to generate demand, which doesn't give you people for research, which means you can't generate a product that meets user needs. So it's a really high bar for us to go through. But that's the bar that, that makes this stuff work for us; is we have to generate excitement and then turn that excitement into research sessions with people that haven't seen our product before and then use that to develop a product that really excites people. It's like a little virtuous circle.

 

So we spent a bunch of time setting up that process and part of why we're on this podcast and talking about it so that anyone that hears this that works on a service team or knows people that work on a service team is thinking about identity, we would love you to get in touch and take part in our research. It's fun. Like we are really, you know respectful people, we're here to understand your stories. And you will get to play with the early versions of our prototypes and our product and you will get to influence direction. So that's the bottom-up approach.

 

But we also are not naive. We understand that there is a top-down approach as well. So we are out engaging with all of the major departments that provide identity solutions. In the last couple of weeks, I've been in really quite amazing sessions with HMRC [Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs], DWP [Department for Work & Pensions], Home Office - these people that have been grappling with identity for years, and they're very graciously sharing their learnings and their challenges and things that they should tell us to watch out for.

 

But Vanessa, what you really asked is what we've learnt, so one of the things that we've learnt is that we, we do have to be able to talk about how we're different to Verify, because people that think about digital identity know about Verify. And unless we mention it, it's the elephant in the room. So, so there are 4 ways that we're different to Verify. 

 

The first is that we're really focussed on the idea that this is for everyone this time. We didn't do inclusion well enough on Verify. We've got a team of people, we've got objectives, long-term objectives and goals in our programme, set around making sure that we don't exclude people. So that's one really big way.

 

A second way that we're different is that we don't have what are called third-party identity providers. So the way that Verify worked is you would have to pick a private sector company to verify your identity. And what it really did was it separated us from all the performance data that we should have been using to improve the system, because all of that was hidden away from us in these third-party companies by design. But it meant it was really hard for us to make incremental improvements to our product. 

 

The third way that we're really different is that we're not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Verify had a very much all-or-nothing approach. You set the level of identity that you wanted and people either passed or they failed. And if they failed, firstly, the service didn't get any information about why they failed or what they'd passed on. And secondly, the user had to enter all that information again next time around. None of it was saved.

 

So we're experimenting with lots of different ways this time that we can take a much more nuanced approach to help pass across information about the 'was successful' to the service teams so they can pick that up and do their own checks on the service if they need to. And on the user side, anything they've already entered and already passed is saved for any future identity check.

 

And then the final way, which you'll hear me go on about and you are hearing me go on about till I'm blue in the face, is that we are designing with the needs of service teams from day one. So I know we said that it can't all be about what's different from Verify, but it is really important for us to talk to teams about what is different from Verify as a way to show that we have learnt.

 

Helena Trippe:

In terms of the findings, but also I guess what's really exciting from a service design point of view is that we've also been kind of trying to understand, how - within the constraints that we, we need to operate within - so, you know, making sure that we deliver something that's easy to use, that's simple enough, so that it's not too complicated in either for us to build or for service teams to integrate with, having and exploring, I guess, where the identity check might be fitting in within a service journey.

 

So we started to see from the early discovery work, but also some of the prototype testing that we were doing on the product page, how people were kind of trying to understand as well, “well, how do I fit the identity processing, the identity journey within my, within my own kind of service journey?”.

 

But also kind of, again thinking through those trade-offs that they're making. So: “ok, so if I put it in the beginning of the journey, will that create too much of a barrier for my users? Or if I put it at the end of the journey, will that allow me then at least to collect all the eligibility information that the applicant has submitted and then take a view as to whether the applicant can actually go ahead with this particular identity journey or another identity journey that might be available?”. So that, that was really interesting to, to see and kind of see the appetite as well for, for that. 

 

I was just going to add, I guess that, a thank you, actually, for your service teams. I think they've been incredibly generous with their time, incredibly generous with their knowledge. We've, we're learning. And it, and no, no matter how many times you go out to speak to people, you kind of always, I'm always amazed at how, how generous people are in terms of sharing their time, their knowledge and what they've, what they've learnt. So a big thank you.

 

Will Myddelton:

Yeah, I-I-I totally agree with that, Helena. So I think that, from the 50 research sessions we've done with service teams about identity so far, I think there's 3 big questions that we know we need to answer really early on in that service team’s experience of our product.

 

So the first one is: “what on earth is an identity check and how does it fit in with my existing service?” And the reason that's so important to answer is because until we've, like, communicated the ways that our identity checks can fit in, you know, whether it's at the beginning or the end or at multiple points in a service, is really difficult to talk about, like the other benefits of them, right? 

 

As soon as teams understand that, they move on to the second question, which is, “ok, fine. But how do I know this is going to work for all of my users?” And the research that we've done over the last 2 or 3 weeks has really led us to think that there's 3 ways that we need to talk about that.

 

One is we need to talk about how accessible our product and our identity checks will be. But to be honest, service teams just expect that we will do that and we expect that we will do that as well. So that's more of a reassurance than a, a big question. 

 

The 2 things that we really need to talk about and be clear when it comes to inclusion are: what documents people can use - because services are very aware that not everyone has passports and driving licences, so we need to be very clear that our system allows people to use many more documents to prove their identity than simply driving licences and passports - and secondly, and I think the thing that has emerged really strongly from the research, is we need to talk much more convincingly about what it means to do identity checks in different channels.

 

And then the third question that we need to answer, which, let's be honest, is not a question of any service thing comes to us with, but as a result of the way that we're thinking about the product, is: “what are these 3 strengths of identity check or 4 strengths of identity check? And how do I pick the one that is right for my service?”

 

And I think this is the hardest thing that we face because it's quite a weird, abstract thing, these strengths of identity check. Because for each strength of identity check - we, we call them low, medium, high and extra high - you might choose a higher strength if you're doing something risky, like paying out money, and a lower strength if you're doing something less risky, like letting a user view some non-controversial data about themself.

 

But it's really hard to help services see themselves in that strength system because what you're doing in that strength system is you're trading off, like, risk of fraud and risk of security by going higher, but the higher you go, the fewer people are going to be able to complete that check because the harder it gets. And we're, we're really focussing on how we can explain that in a way that makes those trade-offs obvious to users.

 

And I think if I step back from those 3 questions, I think we've learnt something bigger in the last few weeks, which feels like a bit of an 'a-ha' moment for us, which is that the strength of the check plus the document that the user brings and the channel that the user does it in, combines to create a unique user journey for that context. And because it's combinatorial - there are 4 strengths, you might have 10 documents, each of which can be checked 2 or 3 ways across 4 channels - you're talking about hundreds of unique user journeys.

 

And so I think the thing that we've learnt over the last few weeks is that our core challenge is helping service teams understand what is going on with that weird, like, multiplicity of user journeys because they're going to be sitting in the service’s journey. So they need to know, before they even think about how to integrate, they need to understand the implications of those things. 

 

And I'll say, I'll say one more thing that we’ve learnt: there is sometimes a tension between the things that our service team users need and that our job is to resolve that tension. So on the one hand, service teams need widely inclusive identity checks, and on the other hand, in research, service teams expect to be able to do things like specify which documents they will accept or which channels their users can use.

 

But actually, if you think about the user journey, is the result of strength plus document plus channel: the service only gets to choose the strength. Because the user gets to choose the document they have and the user gets to choose the channel. Services can't choose the documents and they can't choose the channels because that widens the inclusion of the product, which is a bigger need for service teams. And we've learnt that there is sometimes a tension between the, the different needs that service teams have. And we're going to have to do a better job of explaining why our product has decided to, to do things in a certain way.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Well, I was going to ask you, Tom, Will mentioned a bit earlier in his answer that hype is necessary in order to generate interest of service teams. Is this conversation the kind of hype that drew you in?

 

Tom Stewart:

Absolutely. I-I-I love this conversation. I love the process of, of user research from beginning to end. I can absolutely attest to the, to the fun part that Will mentioned. We're having some great conversations with, with GDS and your teams just now. I-I'm particularly sensitive around content, around the language. So I, so I think I've been particularly challenging with some of your content design team about, the use of particular words and things like that. You know, all in, all in, for the best possible reasons, you know, to get the, to get the best result, best product.

 

We've, we've also had some particularly interesting conversations in Defence around that, again, the, the levels that, that we've been talking about. And a-again, I'm sitting here nodding away, whilst Will was talking. So, again, some really rich conversation.

 

To get back to your question, it was about the hype. And absolutely, yep, yep. We've, we've been caught up in that. We are encouraging it. We are, we're helping that, we're helping that, that that hype, we're helping to keep that going basically. I've been involved in this work for some, well really from its inception.

 

And I-I think it's absolutely a vital part of my role that I go back to Defence and I'm really, really quite loud about this work, you know. Anyone that will listen, anyone I think should listen or should know about this is hearing about this work because of the work that we're doing in Veterans UK. The, the, the hype is essential.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

[laughs] Brilliant. Well we're always looking forward to new listeners. I was wondering, how is it that you found out that this work was happening? How did the first contact to the GDS team get established?

 

Tom Stewart:

So, so I was one of those teams where Verify was a, an integral part of our, the technical solution. But we, you know, we engaged uh, with GDS and said, “right, how can we-- you know, presumably you've, you've got something in the pipeline. You know you're developing something new. How do we, how can we help you with that? You know, how can my, how can my user research assist you? You know, how can my Service Designer assist what, what you're doing over there? You know, can we, can we share our work?”

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That makes a lot of sense, it's great to see that the relationship has been such a productive one from the beginning. Well, in that case, Will, Helena, I just want to know, are there more opportunities for service teams to get involved with you? How do they do that if it's the case?

 

Will Myddelton:

I mean, yes, of course, there are. Like we're, we're, we're built on the goodwill of colleagues around government. Our products are only as good as the amount of, like, colleagues that volunteer their time to take part in research sessions.

 

The easiest way is to go to: sign hyphen in dot service dot GOV.UK [sign-in.service.gov.uk] and you'll see the GOV.UK sign product page and there's a big button on there called 'register your interest'. And whether you're interested in just login and authentication, which is what that page is mainly about, or whether you are interested in identity, if you register your interest on that page, one of our researchers will be in touch with you to do a preliminary interview to understand what your needs are, and then we triage that and you will be involved in one of our research sessions that is most appropriate to you and your service.

 

Please get involved. And some of the kind of research that we're likely to do over the next few months: some of it is like concept research - like there's going to be this product in the future, like how do you talk about how it would meet your needs or what wouldn't meet your needs? So that, that's really helping us design what the future state is, which then helps us design all the steps to get there.

 

And we also simultaneously doing research on the authentication products that we have launched first. So that's about like the first use of that as in your team. So if you want to integrate authentication and GOV.UK accounts into your service, you can, we're going to be doing research with people that look at the, the onboarding steps. Because what we've learned from doing these platform products in the past is that: it's not easy to onboard these platform products. And the way that we need to talk about it gets shaped by you know, round after round after round of that research.

 

So yeah, we really value that. And like Tom has said, we think they're actually quite fun experiences to be part of as well.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Right, brilliant. So you've heard it, folks, get in touch. We've clearly covered a lot of ground already, but I was wondering maybe, Helena, you could start us off with telling us what's next for you.

 

Helena Trippe:

So, as Will suggested, we've kind of, as part of the, the, the research that we've been doing in the past 6 weeks, we've been very much focussing maybe a year, 18 months ahead, looking at the future of, the future state, of the identity product: trying to understand how teams and service teams engage with those concepts to also understand whether we are understanding it in the right way as a programme and have consistency, in terms of what we're talking about, particularly around kind of strength levels.

 

But I think for, for us now, there's a lot of focus on supporting as well the onboarding for the authentication journey, including looking at some of the support models in the service, management models around supporting users and service teams to link up with the authentication side of things and the sign on side of things. So that's quite exciting. I think we're very much trying to explore the extent as well of the self-service kind of model for support and what we can put in place to make sure that people feel supported, but also that it's not too much of a burden for us and service teams to, to be able to deliver that.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Great, Tom, how about you, where do you see this going next for you?

 

Tom Stewart:

So we, we're squaring up for a Beta assessment towards the autumn this year. Which is very exciting. And there's a lot work going on just now to work out, to, to work out where precisely this work with GDS, where that lands. Like you know, should I, should I postpone the Beta perhaps for a more, for a more complete service or do I just turn up at the Beta with you know, very clear plans as to what my, what my plans are for the future and hope that I can still make a compelling, convincing case that we should be able to go live in the interim. So there's a lot of really rich conversation going on around that just now.

 

And otherwise, the plan is to-to very much pester you and GDS and make sure that we, that we stay as close to the front of the queue as possible, to continue working with you to continue to take your advice, but also hopefully to continue to have some of our advice received in kind. So, yeah, very exciting times for us in general.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, consider yourself forewarned [laughs] Tom told you he'd pester you. Will, do you want to round us off with what you think's up next for you?

 

Will Myddelton:

So we got a new Director, Natalie Jones, who's joining us in September. And that's really exciting. She comes with a huge amount of experience of delivering really innovative and you know, worthwhile, usable, workable digital identity products with the Home Office. So we're really excited about Natalie joining our programme.

 

Beyond that, identity work goes through its alpha self-assessment in September. So our identity teams are all hyper-focussed on that. A little bit nervous. Little bit excited. Getting people from around government to mark our work is a sign of a robust assessment process. And so we're, we're proud to take part in that. But it is also you know, tough, as anyone that's been through service assessment will attest.

 

And we are going live with the first service that will be using GOV.UK Signin for authentication, and that will be in October. So that's a really big deal for us. And Helena talks about we're focussing on supporting the delivery of that. So we're downing tools on some of our identity concept work for just a few weeks so that we can make sure that that launch goes smoothly because all of our identity work builds on top of the authentication work.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

I have to say, I am really excited by the picture that you're painting, so I can't wait to see how it goes. 

 

Thank you for joining me today on the podcast. It's been really great to hear how GDS is co-designing this work with other parts of government, hearing how it's being received by those parts of government, and just making sure that it's a truly collaborative product that works for all users, whether that's citizens or colleagues in the public sector. So just another reminder, in case we haven't said it often enough, if you are a service team in government and you're interested in becoming an early adopter, or if you work in a public sector service team more generally and want to share your experience for our research, you can visit the product page, that's: sign hyphen in dot service dot gov dot UK [sign-in.service.gov.uk] and you can register your interest. That was snappy. [laughs]

 

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye!

 

Will Myddelton:

Goodbye. 

 

Helena Trippe:

Goodbye. 

 

Tom Stewart: 

Thanks everyone. Goodbye. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #32: Technologists at GDS

Government Digital Service Podcast #32: Technologists at GDS

July 28, 2021

We talk coding, solving common problems once and share some of the exciting challenges our developers, engineers and technical architects are working on.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Louise Harris:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Louise Harris and I head up the Creative and Channels Team at GDS. In this episode, we're talking about our wonderful technologists. The Site Reliability Engineers, Technical Architects and Developers who work in multidisciplinary teams to engineer solutions to our complex architectural needs, evolve our infrastructure and tooling to keep us resilient and online, and develop digital products and services used by millions of people across the UK, and that are emulated by governments around the world. 

 

Technologists are a mainstay of how we help government transform and tackle complexity for users. Think about GOV.UK: it's actually 50 front and back end applications that are independently hosted and maintained that enable us to host over a million pages, deal with millions of visits a day and fend off regular Denial-of-Service attacks. But thanks to our technologists, all our end users see is a single site they can access day and night to get the information they need from government. 

 

Tackling that kind of complexity is not always easy, but it's definitely worthwhile. And it's what GDS is here to do. Today I'm delighted to be joined by Himal Mandalia and Louise Ryan to talk about the important role GDS technologists play. Louise, Himal, why don't you introduce yourselves to our listeners and tell us a bit about your roles.

 

Louise Ryan: 

Hello, I'm Louise Ryan, I'm the Lead Technical Architect and Head of Technology in Government as a Platform. I joined GDS just under 4 years ago and I joined us from the private sector where I worked in a digital agency as a Technical Architect.

 

Himal Mandalia: 

And I'm Himal, I'm Head of Technology for GOV.UK, and I joined about 5 months ago, and I've been working in digital circles for about 6 years as a contractor in several roles, including Developer, Technical Architect and a Technology Advisor.

 

Louise Harris: 

So, Louise, it sounds like we've been lucky enough to have you at GDS for a couple of years now, and Himal, we've recently lured you over from another part of government. What is it that appeals to you both about working at GDS?

 

Louise Ryan: 

Oh wow. Such, such a big question. There's so much to like about GDS and working in digital in government in general, really. I always like refer people to the GOV.UK Design Principles and the Service Standard. So if you take a look at that, it's all about doing things the right way, about doing things for everybody, having a multidisciplinary team focussing on what the actual problems are, not solutionising. Building services, not just websites, so we continuously improve things. All sorts of that stuff, but also the tech we use is really cool as well. So it's, it's pretty modern stuff: lots of Infrastructure as Code, Continuous Deployment, Continuous Delivery and lots of automated testing. Yeah, I mean, I could go on for a long, long time, but this is a, you know I think it's a brilliant place to work and I love it.

 

Louise Harris: 

And Louise, just, just for our listeners who are maybe less familiar with Government as a Platform, or what we call GaaP, can you just run us through a bit what it’s all about?

 

Louise Ryan: 

So Government as a Platform [GaaP], is a suite of digital services designed to meet common needs which can be quickly integrated into-into other service teams services. This helps reduce duplication, variation and it-it enables other digital teams to build their digital solutions much quicker, much faster, much more efficiently.

 

In terms of what the various services do, Notify is, is an extremely busy service. It's used by, I think around 4,700 other services. That's around 1000 organisations across the public sector using it. So it's scaling at around 120 new services joining every month. So that is, that's pretty big. So in, in, in terms of the last year, they've seen a-a 25 fold increase in volume of messages. And so that was a massive scaling challenge for the team that they, they just really smashed out the park. They're mostly hosted on the PaaS, which is really cool, and it's kind of asynchronous architecture so there's a lot of queues helping us process messages. You know it enables us to scale and enables us to retry when things break. So it's,it's good architecture. 

 

[GOV.UK] Pay take payments, take card payments for your digital services. It also, you can also use Apple Pay and Google Pay to pay for stuff. I think one of the main selling points of Pay is how much we care and test about the, the journey, the paying experience for people who use assistive technologies. So we really put a lot of effort into making sure it works really well for everybody. That's built mostly on Fargate, and, and uses some you know, it's got to be PCI [Payment Card Industry] compliant, so it's a, it's a complex, necessarily complex architecture. It scales really well and it's been used by, I think, over 550 large services now, and it's processed over a billion pounds.

 

[GOV.UK] Platform as a Service: you host your, you can use Platform as a Service to host your web apps in the cloud without relying on, without worrying about the infrastructure underneath. So you can build your app in Python, Ruby or Rust or pop it in a container and then push it up to PaaS. And there you go, you've got a running app in the cloud. Also provides a bunch of backend services you can use. So backend services means databases like PostgreSQL, things like ElasticSearch or queue services like simple queue service from AWS. That's, that's the scale of this is, is, is very impressive. It's being used by just over 121 organisations and between the two regions in London and Ireland that it's hosted in, it's hosts, it's running around 2,800 apps at the moment. And they're processing an amazing amount of incoming requests: so we've got an average of around 300 requests per second coming through those pipes. So that's quite cool.

 

And then we've got the Design System and the Prototype Kit Team. The Design System look after GOV.UK frontend, which is that set of styles, patterns and components that other teams use to build their frontend. What's really important about those patterns and components is that they've been researched extensively and tested extensively across a vast array of digital devices and operating systems and with real people and with assistive devices. So we can be sure that they're, you know they're, they're working. So obviously we do that once so service teams around the country don't have to keep doing that work. It really is an open source project as well, the Design System. It actively seeks contributions from the design and frontend communities a-across, across government. And that's, that's really cool. And it's yeah, it's used quite. It's, GitHub tells me it's, it's in use by over 2,600 other repositories.

 

Louise Harris: 

That must be so cool to be involved in work that’s being forked off, and used in so many other contexts. Is it safe to say that there’s some stuff that you can get done at GDS that maybe you can’t get done elsewhere?

 

Louise Ryan: 

Yeah, I think it is. We are at the centre of government, being part Cabinet Office. If we're not going to do it in the centre, then it's not just gonna magically happen elsewhere in government. Those tools exist so other service teams can-can really benefit from having things done once really well in the centre so they don't have to keep reinventing that wheel. They can-they can just get started really quickly and benefit from all that work that we've done really well just once. 

 

Louise Harris:  

And it's not, it's not just teams kind of in and around the UK government that are getting to benefit from that approach either right? Some of our code has also been forked by international governments to do their own thing too. What do you think are some of the sort of GDS led technology success stories out there? 

 

Louise Ryan: 

Oh, wow. Yeah. So there's lots of examples of this happening. So take, for example, Notify. That's been forked and used by the Canadian government and the Australian government to create their own notification platforms. And, you know, t-t-that doesn't just-just happen and then stop. We continue to collaborate with those teams working on this platforms so we can all learn from each other. And it's not just about the tech either - that's really important thing. So obviously Notify have developed a whole bunch of operational practices and services around the service itself. So we share, we share those as well and you know, help people figure out what works, what doesn't.

 

And it's not just Notify. So PaaS. PaaS works with, that's Platform as a Service, they work with their equivalents in-in Australia and, and the US government to share best practice. And then you've got the wonderful Design System that's been forked by a lot of countries. And not just other countries, but other authorities within-within the UK. So, for example, my own council, Wiltshire Council, they forked the Design System and used it to build their own website. But in terms of other countries. I think it's used in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and the Netherlands. So, yeah, massive, massive success stories of-of re-use of our, of our hard work.

 

Louise Harris: 

Wow, so lots to be proud of. And Himal, I guess same question to you - what is it that drew you to GDS?

 

Himal Mandalia:

I think GDS is sort of interestingly positioned right at the centre and, and being sort of highly visible, like it can be an exemplar of what good, sort of long live teams, services looks like. So all of the things that are articulated in the Service Standard, in the Technology Code of Practice, you know, we-we work to those ourselves since we-since we developed them. But I think what we've quite clearly put out very recently in the GDS strategy for the next 3 years, the core 5 missions, particularly the ones around GDS being the place, essentially the shop that builds and runs the common components and platforms that the rest of government build services on top of. I think that is now clearer, clearer than it's ever been. And you know there's something that, for me anyway, when I was thinking about a bit of a career change last year, drew me and I thought: this is a really interesting time to come in and join. There's a-there's a real sort of transformation of energy in the air again. 

 

Louise Harris: 

So it’s great for our teams to know that their work is having an impact not just here in the UK and for our users, but also around the world as well. And Himal, like you say to be part of that, what did you call it, transformation buzz? I think that kind of flies in the face of the idea that jobs in the civil service are sort of slow or old school right?

 

Do-do you think there are other misconceptions about what a technology job in government might be like, versus what it’s actually like at GDS day to day?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

I think what's interesting here is, you know we're about a decade into a transformation journey that's bringing in the sort of technology practices around Continuous Delivery, being Agile, having autonomous self organising teams and a lot of the-the technology driven processes that surround that in the ways of working. And I think it's easy for us to lose sight of the uneven distribution and maturity of this across government. So I think it's, I think it's interesting because government can't be seen as a, as a monolithic thing. I think if you're outside and you're thinking of you know, if you're, if you're a Developer or a Reliability Engineer or a Technical Architect and you think, you know you want to work in government, you want to work in the public sector - and that could be local authorities as well of course - it is, it is a very unevenly distributed landscape of maturity. I mean, I would say we're pretty much at the, at the higher end of the maturity curve at GDS here, of course, because what we've been doing for the last decade. And I think what's exciting for me as someone that's worn many hats and played different roles in this sort of journey is: it's, it-it can be, it can be rewarding to work somewhere where a lot of the basic capabilities, the fundamental enablers are already in place and you can deliver value and work with teams. If you consider GDS, then you would find something that's much more a-akin to a sort of modern sort of conventional tech company.

 

Louise Harris: 

I think that digital maturity curve point is such a good one. Because yeah, with almost 10 years under our belt GDS has definitely been through a lot that foundational and capability building stuff that some other organisations might still be grappling with, and I think that gives us a kind of view on what their pain points are so we can shape products and platforms that are gonna meet their needs at different parts of the curve.

 

And I think that actually leads us quite nicely to the next thing that I wanted to chat to you both about. 

 

So our regular listeners will know that earlier in the year, we launched our new strategy and centred it around 5 key missions. If you missed it, check out our May episode of the Podcast where you can hear our Chief Exec, Tom Read, talk more about that. 

 

But in essence I suppose, over the next few years, our focus boils down to this: helping to create services that just work for the user. So no matter how complex the underlying systems are or how much these people know about government, we’re going to make services that just work. 

 

So mission 4 in our strategy that’s looking at how we can make sort of effortless for departments and agencies to digitise their services by looking at centrally-developed common components. 

 

Louise, maybe you can tell us a bit about what’s happening in that area?

 

Louise Ryan: 

I mean to sum it up, you know, we've got a bunch of really cool services that are already providing value. So as a piece of work, that's ongoing to just make sure they keep delivering value and can scale with the increasing usage that they experience.

 

We're also you know, obviously building on top of that and looking what else we can do to meet user needs. One exciting part of that is the work we're doing in the collecting information from users team. So that team is well, I think it sums ups, sums up its work. It's...you know, we want every single form that's published on GOV.UK to be accessible. That's huge. A lot of the forms on GOV.UK at the moment are published in PDF or, or other document formats. They present challenges, especially to-to users who, who need to use assistive technologies such as screen readers or magnifiers. And actually completing PDF online is-is no easy task either. It's pretty difficult. Whereas completing an online form is a much better user experience and hopefully much more accessible. So it's, that is a, that is a massive problem space, and a really interesting one. And we're just entering an Alpha-Alpha phase with that team. So it's, yeah, so it's very exciting challenge we presented with ourselves in, in GaaP.

 

Louise Harris: 

And I don't think we can really kind of understate the scale of that challenge, because I think everybody around GDS we treat PDF's a little bit like our, a 4 letter word. But the team blogged recently and I think equated that if, without doing this work, if we were just relying on the existing kind of form building systems that were out there, it would take government about 70 years just to convert the PDF's that already live on GOV.UK, which are obviously growing, if not every day, then certainly most weeks. So super important work. Was there anything that came out of the discovery that-that surprised you folks?

 

Louise Ryan: 

I think-I think you've, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It's the scale of the challenge. And it certainly surprised me. But when you, when you think about it, it's, it's not that surprising, actually, because there's teams right around government that don't have the digital capability to do anything else. This is, you know PDF's and other, other document formats are the tool they have, so that's the tool they, they have to use. So, again, GaaP is uniquely placed in the centre of government to do something about that. And that's, that's hopefully what we'll be able to do in the coming years.

 

Louise Harris: 

So it sounds like through Government as a Platform right now, we are already kind of solving common problems at scale. But, but what about - and sorry to make you solutionise on the fly here Louise, because I know that everything we do is evidence based and user led - where do you see the next, beyond the collecting information from users work, do you see any themes emerging about where that next common problem is that GDS might want to solve?

 

Louise Ryan: 

Yeah, so we are doing some research on this, so, but I don't want to pre-empt that, but I'm, I can, you know, there's, there's stuff we already know that, that service teams have to just keep doing over and over again. There's you know, there's thin--complex problems that don't seem complex until you really dig into them. So things like a postcode lookup. Service teams have to keep doing that, is-is there a way we can, we can provide a solution for that in the centre?

 

Louise Harris: 

And that's all such important stuff right if we, if we want to deliver the transformation at the scale that we, we all want to see.

 

One of our other central focuses is going to be this idea of joining up services so they solve whole user problems even if that means spanning multiple departments. Himal, I guess - as the platform for government services - GOV.UK is going to be pretty fundamental to how we get that done right?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

Yes, so it's interesting because people can get a little bit, a little bit confused about what we mean when we say GOV.UK. So if we think about it as sort of layers of the onion: the sort of widest layer you have, what is known as the GOV.UK proposition. So that, as a user, you know, you go somewhere, you see a website, you see something that's branded with the crown and the stylings around that: that's a GOV.UK site. But it could very easily be a transactional service you interact with for--to do ev-everything from paying your taxes to a prison visit to renew your driving licence. And those are all on the GOV.UK proposition. So they feel like a single website as you move across them. And we have mechanisms like the Service Standard. If you work to that, that means that you're going to end up with a pretty joined up journey.

 

But for me, the-the-the layer of GOV.UK that I work on and the technology I'm responsible for, that's the GOV.UK content. That’s-that's the main page that you come to when you go to www.GOV.UK. That is a large platform with hundreds of thousands of pages of content that we-we hold and a set of tools that we run for thousands of users across government to create, to offer that content, to edit it, to manage it, including our internal content teams here. And we also run technology, which, of course, delivers all those pages so they-re, they're available globally.

 

Louise Harris: 

And right now, a lot of that content is quite static right? Because we need to publish it and serve it quickly and then hold it in the cache and serve it up again over and over.

 

Himal Mandalia: 

Yeah, exactly. GOV.UK delivers a lot of content right now, but it's usually...it's relatively static, it's relatively flat content, it's pages. And one of the things that we're exploring now is if you have an account, if we, based on consent, if we know some things about you - your approximate location or other attributes we have - we may be able to tailor that content. We may be able to personalise it, to put content in front of you that's relevant to what you're doing. Maybe even be proactive, send you personalised notifications with of course, a full consent model and opt in and easy opt out around that. 

 

But in order to do that, in order to personalise the content or even have content chunked up so it can be contextual, so a different snippet is mixed in based on a tag or some piece of data that we're using to construct that, that, all of that will require a fundamental re-architecting of GOV.UK's applications. So the front end applications need to change dramatically in order to stitch together that content in real time. The way that content is stored, the way it's structured, the schemas that are used to determine how that content is broken down into small snippets, how it's tagged, the taxonomy - all of that needs a rethink and redesign. And the publishing tools themselves, the tools that are used by the service essentially that is used by the content creators, that experience they have in not only creating content, but the taxonomy they're applying to it, how they're tagging it - all of that needs a rethink and a redes-redesign as well.

 

So that sounds huge and it is. But it's not a sort of big bang, all at once programme of work. This is an incremental and iterative stream of work, like, like how we do everything, which is going to, which is going to be done bit by bit. The interesting challenges that we are talking about rebuilding the ship while there are people in it bit by bit. And this is very much that Ship of Theseus metaphor right? We're replacing the planks, and when we're done, it's going to be a very different looking ship. It's going to be a ship that does very different things. But we're not even completely clear exactly what it looks like, but if we really extend the metaphor, we do have a good idea of where we're going.

 

Louise Harris: 

And that personalisation agenda that you talked about there Himal, it sounds to me like it's going to ma-make [laughs] the site work a lot harder. I mean, we're already processing thousands and thousands of kind of transactional services, but this sounds like a real shift. You talked about the GOV.UK Account functionality as well, which obviously we piloted last year and had, I think, about 50,000 people sign up for that as part of the Brexit Checker, Brexit Transition Checker. We’ve obviously been iterating that software ever since. Can you tell us a little bit about where we’re at now with Accounts?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

So what we've done to test the hypothesis with the Brexit Transition Checker and the-the prototype account functionality, which which has been amazing, which has been an amazing learning experience because we have had, as you, as you mentioned there, 50,000 people sign up, but because we're working off of an architecture and an infrastructure set up that doesn't support this yet, we have done those as, as a separate applications, which we've used, we've hosted in, in Platform as a Service, in PaaS actually, one of the products Louise mentioned and is responsible for which is, which is great, just to be able to use our own tools for things like this. 

 

But in order to have that as part of GOV.UK's core architecture, to support more of that personalisation, that's what we do need to have that re-think, that re-design and that re-architecting of all of our frontend apps and our publishing tools and the content platform.

 

So I'm currently working on the future platform services and architecture strategy for GOV.UK. So all of the things I've just mentioned there are going to be sort of written up in plain language around what we're thinking of. And I-I view GOV.UK breaking out into a few really simple long term value propositions or services and platforms, and they are: presentation, or the frontend, what you experience as www.GOV.UK when you go there; the publishing service or tools that our thousands of users across government use; a content platform, that engine, that heart of content that does all the heavy lifting; and underneath all of that, the infrastructure platform that runs the applications, the databases, all of those things. And really looking to put an emphasis on the content platform, that engine of content and trying to move to a world where we can almost think of GOV.UK as a, as a sort of headless machine, that it does have a frontend, but really the most prominent part is the functionality that does all the lifting. Because in future there may be an app, there may be other ways, we may be syndicating content - these are all things we want to test. But having the flexibility and the ability to do that is, is vital because the way people, the way people interact with services online is quite different now to how it was a decade ago, and so we need to move on and have a much more Agile, much more flexible architecture that lets us meet users where they are rather than having a, just a website. You know we don't, we don't live in that era anymore.

 

Louise Harris: 

So sounds then like we want to shift to a, a bit more of a channel agnostic approach then. Louise, you’re a Technical Architect, what’s your take on Himal’s just said? 

 

Louise Ryan: 

Yeah, it's-it's a bit daunting actually [laughs]. Himal won't mind me saying that. You've got, it's a, it's a big job to re-architect such a big and important platform as GOV.UK. It's, it's really exciting. And it, you know, it's, yeah, you won't be on your own Himal. You know, the rest of-of GDS is-is very interested in this work as well, and there's crossovers right? Government as a Platform is very interested in, in what's happening with GOV.UK Accounts, because we might be able to use those features in our services. So for example, [GOV.UK] Pay: when someone's paying for something, if they're signed into their account, maybe they can save that, that payment method if they want to. Yeah, just solutionising on the fly, because obviously we'd need to research that to see if it was a, a thing people would be interested in. But, but obviously we you know, we're keeping a very close eye on what, what Himal's up to and, and wanna be part of it where we can.

 

Himal Mandalia: 

I-I 100% agree with that, Louise. I think the thing here is, I think the, I think what we're doing with our, with our Digital Identity programme, with the GOV.UK Accounts, it really is, it really is that golden thread. It is the thing that ties all of this together. It does, it does offer the cohesion between all of our products and services. So we blur the boundaries between them. And I think notifications, payments, the publishing, the content delivery, all of that, and then, and then you bring into that all of the services across government as well, they're all tied together through your account. So what you end up with ultimately is a completely seamless experience, a citizen shouldn't need to, shouldn't, you shouldn't, it shouldn't even occur to them that a separate group of people delivered this piece as opposed to another bit.

 

Louise Harris: 

As you say some kind of huge, huge programmes of work coming up, sounds like we're probably going to need a few-few additional crew. If-if people are interested in getting involved in this, where-where can they go to find out more?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

So if you search for GDS careers, you'll find our careers site. We have a, we have a campaign going to hire Developers right now, but more will be launching soon. I'm particularly keen on trying to see about bringing juniors in. We need, we need more, we need more juniors into to-to-to not only be working with our teams, but also to be engaging in things that we've done previously at GDS like firebreaks, where you get that little bit of free time to experiment and come up with things. And of course, there will be a range of more senior roles as well. They'll be, they'll be more roles going out across-across the board at all levels.

 

Louise Harris:

So there’s lots of really great new job opportunities coming up across GDS. For people who might be interested in that, what would you say the culture is like in our teams?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

I think having, having just come through a crisis, or crises, where we were highly visible and doing a lot of work to surface essential guidance around Coronavirus, we've had to organise ourselves around mission focussed teams, which has meant a-a lot of the work that we planned and even written about, I-I think I've, since starting you know, I've dug into some of the blog posts that we put out in 2016 and 17, amazing planning around publishing tools and platform that we were not able to pick up or continue because, because of emergency work, urgent priorities around Coronavirus and some of the work around Brexit as well, those are all things we can return to now. 

 

H aving gotten to know my technologists community over the last 5 months, I think there's a real appetite to return to some of those longer term value streams - so working on services, being in long live teams, and what I'd mentioned earlier around things like a publishing service and content platform. You know, really giving groups of people, not just Developers, but Designers and everyone involved in a multidisciplinary team, that agency and that long term ownership over a problem and o-o-over, over the improvement of something. So I think some of that excitement is coming back now. And so, yeah, it's, it's a great time to join. It's a very active community.

 

Louise Ryan: 

I-I don’t think I’ve shouted from the rooftops enough about how important long-lived autonomous teams are. They really are the, the reason that Government as a Platform has been suc--as successful as it has. There, there's people that are really committed to these services, really understand the problem spaces inside and out and just, yeah, deliver amazing results and outcomes as, as a result. And yeah, this is, this is not just from a technical perspective that you know, we-we-we couldn't build the tech we build without the help of our, our user-centred design colleagues and product and delivery.

 

We are...the selling points from me I mentioned earlier is-is how we work in teams, as a unit, how we figure out with things that we-we should be working on, making sure they are the things of most value and really understanding the problem space and then developing the tech to solve those problems. And that, that, that way we work is to me as a technologist, is, is very compelling and, and reason alone to join but...Also we use some really modern tech - so our programming languages in GaaP are, are Python, Java, Node and then we've got some, some other programming language such as Go in the mix, but we build stuff on, on really modern technologies. So a lot of stuff on Amazon Web Services. As I said, we use modern practices like Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery, we do a lot of automated testing so we can deploy with confidence multiple times a day to make sure, yeah, we're getting our stuff out there quickly and getting people to actually use it as fast as possible.

 

And hopefully that's a, that's a compelling story about why GDS is a really good place to work. I didn't actually mention the culture in, in all of that. And I think that's what you actually asked me. But the-the agile culture here is-is to be open, to be transparent, to share what you're working on with others, and that can be through show and tells, through pairing, through having your code open in, out there on GitHub. I really, I really like the culture at GDS. It's a kind of, you know, when I was in the office, come up to my desk and ask me anything kind of thing. No question too silly. Yeah. I think it's a, it's a lovely place to work.

 

Himal Mandalia: 

Yeah, I think the only, I think the only thing I'd add and Louise said it all there really was: you know, if you a technologist that's passionate about open source development and the technologies that were mentioned there and you, if particularly if you're old enough, you have friends like me who are old enough to remember when open source was very much the underdog, and you know, we were, we were all sort of part of a rebel alliance trying to-to do a good thing. It's amazing that this is now converged with trying to do good for the public as well. So. I could, I couldn’t think of a better argument to sell it than, than that: you get to use cool tech, do open source stuff to do good for tech and do good for the public. I mean, what more do you want, really? And we pay pretty well as well.

 

Louise Harris: 

That's pretty cool, and if people want to find out about our code, which obviously we publish openly where we can, where can they find that?

 

Louise Ryan: 

All our code is published on GitHub. So you need to go to GitHub. And it's Alpha GOV.UK is our organisation. It's all in there. I can't remember how many repos that there are, but there's a lot [laughs].

 

Louise Harris: 

Okay well if anybody’s got a quiet Saturday afternoon, and they fancy digging into literally thousands of repos, head over to our GitHub to do that. 

 

Yeah so there you have it, an inside look into how technologists at GDS are doing the hard work to make it simple for users. Some seriously impressive and exciting stuff, and if you want to stay up to date with what's going on, please do follow us on the GDS blogs and check out our GitHub. A reminder that if you're a Developer, Site Reliability Engineer or a Technical Architect who fancies a new challenge as part of a great team doing work that impacts literally millions of people, you need to search GDS careers because we're hiring now. 

 

Louise, Himal, thank you so much for taking the time to come on and chat to me today. I don't know about anyone else, but you have been left with the impression of our technologists acting like a bevy of swans, calmly and gracefully gliding across the surface, totally belying all of the hard work and energy that's happening just underneath to make sure we're headed in the right direction. And thank you to you, our listeners. Remember, you can find all episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all major podcast platforms. And our transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Louise Ryan: 

Thank you, bye.

 

Himal Mandalia: 

Thanks everyone.

Government Digital Service Podcast #31: The vision for GOV.UK and the roadmap to get there

Government Digital Service Podcast #31: The vision for GOV.UK and the roadmap to get there

June 30, 2021

Rachel Tsang and Ross Ferguson share how the GOV.UK roadmap contributes to GDS’s mission of building a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. For those of you who tuned into last month’s episode, you’ll know that GDS has launched its new strategy centring around 5 core key missions:

 

GOV.UK as the single and trusted online destination for government information and services;

 

Joined-up services that solve whole problems and span multiple departments;

 

A simple digital identity solution that works for everyone;

 

Common tools and expert services;

 

and Joined-up data across departments.

 

Today I am joined by Rachel Tsang and Ross Ferguson from the leadership team of the GOV.UK programme to hear more about how their roadmap objectives are contributing to making GDS’s mission - of building a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government for everyone - a reality.

 

Ross, could you please introduce yourself?

 

Ross Ferguson:

OK, thank you. So I'm Ross Ferguson and the Deputy Director for Portfolio Delivery within GOV.UK. And this is actually my second tour with GOV.UK. I started as an Associate Product Manager when GDS was first set up. GOV.UK was the first product that I worked on and I later worked as the Head of Product Management for GDS. And then after a little overseas tour, I was very pleased to return to GOV.UK in January and, yeah, very excited to be back and to be working with Rachel.

 

Vanessa Schneider: It's good to have you Ross. Thank you. Yes, Rachel, would you mind introducing yourself to the listeners, please?

 

Rachel Tsang:

Of course. So my name is Rachel Tsang and I am Deputy Director for Governance and Assurance on GOV.UK. Like Ross, I am, I sort of boomeranged back to-to GOV.UK. So I was, I did a previous role and then stepped away to do something else. And I'm really, really thrilled. I think that's a, it's not a necessary condition to working on GOV.UK that you come back. I think it is testament to like just how much people enjoy working, working on GOV.UK. Before that, I so, I joined government as a Social Researcher and did a range of roles in different government departments and yeah, have settled here in GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Thank you. So as mentioned at the top of the episode, the GDS strategy strongly relies on GOV.UK as outlined in GDS's first mission, which is to establish GOV.UK as the single and trusted online destination for government information and services. It'd be really great to hear from both of you how this mission influenced the update to the GOV.UK roadmap.

 

Rachel Tsang:

So I think fundamentally our mission for GOV.UK is to provide a joined-up, personalised, and, and proactive service - we-we blogged lots about that recently. And we-we've evolved continuously since GOV.UK was first created in 2012. And what we're looking to do now is really a big step change in-in our offering for GOV.UK. Fundamentally, it's-it's about changing our offering to continually innovate to meet changing needs. I think that that is the crux for how we're feeding into the wider GDS strategy and vision.

 

Ross Ferguson:

Yeah, absolutely. I think departments, GDS with GOV.UK and, you know, spend control standards alongside departments has done a really, really good job over the years of bringing services that were previously paper-based and office-based, online. And a lot of them are really great in isolation. But we know that the people who use GOV.UK don't experience them, don't want them in isolation. They don't, it's not a nicely compartmentalised linear process. You know, they-they want them in combination. So really, the next maturity step for Government Digital has to be that these services are joined up. Which means that departments need to coordinate with one another.

 

GDS is in a great position and GOV.UK is a great platform for, for enabling that join-up to happen in a coordinating sense but also in in a public experience sense: that there is one domain that the public knows they can go to to get the guidance, to get access to the services. And, you know, that's what they would expect in all other walks of life when they're transacting with lots of, you know, utilities and and and entertainment. So it's perfectly reasonable that they should expect that from government, and government is perfectly capable of doing it. So that's work that we want to really accelerate this year. And, you know, it is a big undertaking. So it's something that will continue in the, in the years to come.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Yes, speaking of joined-up services, I'd like you to listen to a couple of interviews that we recorded with colleagues in the different GOV.UK teams that are working towards the objectives of the roadmap. So first we’ll actually be hearing from Tina Mermiri, who shares about the work done to connect insights across GOV.UK to enable those joined up services. This is so that government understands its users and users understand the government.

 

[Start of vox pop]

 

Tina Mermiri:

I'm Tina Mermiri, the Head of User and Data Insight for GOV.UK. I set out the data and the insight strategy for the programme, and I oversee all the work within data science, performance analytics and user research. So as a team of experts, we have 3 wider objectives and that's understanding GOV.UK users and their needs; that's facilitating data-driven decision-making internally and across wider government; and it's also monitoring the impact of the work that we deliver and the products that we ship. So with performance analytics, we're looking at how people, or users engage with the site, what content they're engaging with and how we can optimise their journeys. 

 

Then we complement that with the user research to understand what their issues are. We get feedback from them. We're actually looking at why they're trying to do certain things that are, that are failing and how we can optimise those journeys as well. And so what the data science community does is go into a little bit more detail with some of the more complicated techniques whereby we might want to look at some of the data that we've got behind the scenes and create some models and scores and look at something like related links and surface them on the site for users that have done something similar to other users and make their journeys easier. So it's all going back to optimising the journey, making it as smooth and frictionless as possible with the power of data behind that.

 

We're using Google Analytics to power a lot of this data. And Google Analytics has a cookie consent. So we will only track people who have opted in to tracking, which means that our data is not 100 percent representative of all our users, but it's pretty indicative of what they'll be doing. It also means that we hash out any personally identifiable information. We don't actually track that and don't use it for any of our analysis. And we've worked really, really closely with the privacy team to make sure that, you know, privacy is at the heart of all the tracking that we do and all the consequent analysis that we conduct around it. So personalisation, the way that we're looking at it is two-fold. On the one hand, it is without any personally identifiable information. So it is just looking at common journeys and similar content that's being consumed by different users at aggregate level. So that's the one way of doing it where we don't collect any other personal information and we don't personalise it based on their background or any of the demographics, we don't even track that right now. But it is about that journey and other similar journeys. And then on the flip side, we will eventually be trying to do a little bit more personalisation based on people who hold accounts with us, where they will, again, share some of their information with us as part of their account. And that is information that they will have opted into as well. And we will hopefully use that to personalise further, based on, based on their location, for example, and other similar attributes that we want to start building on. 

 

The nature of the data that we collect and making sure that that's representative is, is very, very important. So we could do a lot of really clever stuff with it. But if it's not in a good place, then the output-- if the inputs aren't reliable, necessary, then the outputs won't be as reliable either. So we're spending a lot of time on revisiting the way that we collect some of the data, the way that we cleanse the data, the way we make sure that it is reliable and ready for us to use. So that's one thing that we're investing in quite heavily. And we need to make sure that we're asking the right questions without, like, probing, leading wording. We need to make sure that we're able to differentiate between attitudes around, let's say, GOV.UK or what they're trying to do and wider government. We need to make sure that our data is representative across all our very, very wide range and diverse users.

 

I think the work that we're trying to do and the opportunities that it opens up for users and to make their journeys easier is, is, is really impressive.

 

[End of vox pop]

 

Ross Ferguson: 

Tina's a...and her crew, you know, clearly, clearly know what they're talking about. She was, she was giving great insights there into, you know, just how important the data usage is going to be to powering the sort of whole journeys work that we’re wanting to do, the personalisation. It's all, it's all dependent on us making, you know, proper, proper use of that, of that data. I think that she, you know, she did talk well about the tooling that we're starting to bring in to help us with that. We are, we're definitely stepping up the recruitment that we do of-of these data disciplines. And, you know, and I think it's about bringing our, the, the data scientists and engineers that we have already and have had for a while much more closer into the work with the with the team so that they're they're kind of doing less reporting and they're doing more in terms of the tactics and the and the strategy work.

 

Rachel Tsang: 

On the objective to connect insights, I'm not sure we're allowed to have favourites, but this one is-is really, really important to me because I think it really goes back to the heart of why GOV.UK was first created. Right? You think about the world before 2012, where there are almost 2,000 websites, and you needed to understand the structures of government to interact with it. And so we've come a long way. But fundamentally, the way that we analyse and approach problems remain siloed by departmental boundaries. So you know, the work that we are looking to do over the next year to join up those insights, to be able to understand aggregate trends and patterns, that's super important, not just for GOV.UK like in helping us to improve the product, but for the rest of government more generally in terms of how we approach a much wider whole user journeys.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

And I guess as with any insights, what’s important is what you use them to enable. I think it’s time to hear from Daisy Wain, one of our Lead Performance Analysts, about what we’re doing to translate insights into a more personalised and proactive service for users.

 

[Start of vox pop]

 

Daisy Wain:

My name is Daisy. I'm the Lead Performance Analyst on GOV.UK. It's my job to make sure that we are at the cutting edge of analytical technologies and practises to make sure that we're aligned with what the latest developments are and to make sure that they're fit for purpose, for what we want on GOV.UK that obviously has a strong focus around privacy and security.

 

So one of the things that we've been doing is doing a cross-government data commission. So it's been working as a small team to find out all the different transactional services there are in government, what data attributes they all collect, and if they have an account that's associated with that transactional service. And if they do, how many accounts there are, and all that sort of thing. And obviously what that allows us to think about then is how we can use that data to be proactive. So, for example, if we were to have, if we were able to know somebody's postcode or to know their date of birth, we can then start to infer things about them. So that means we can proactively show them things on GOV.UK that are specific. So, for example, we know you live in Scotland, we can show you the Scottish content first and foremost, as opposed to the English. What else we can do is obviously helping the product teams to deliver the first trial of the account. So that was what we did on the Brexit checker. So that was the product where any person could go through a series of questions related to their personal circumstances around, you know, where they live, what their nationality is, what their plans are for business and for travel, and what the output is, is a series of actions that you may need to take related to the changes related to Brexit. And the account allows you to store that information, to revisit it and to get notifications of when that might change. The job as an analyst is to look at how people are using that thing so we can look at the sign-up journey to see perhaps where certain steps might not be working as well. And then that starts to help us build a picture about the types of people that would like to use this account and where the value is.

 

I think it's important for us to think about developing this, like, next generation of GOV.UK and how people interact with government and government services. But it can't be designed just for people that want that. We have to consider people that would not want to opt into that world and to make sure that we are still designing things that allow people to not have to consent, but still have that optimised journey based on the data that we have available on those people, which is non-consented, kind of basic, so from the server. Obviously this is an important aspect for people that don't want to have that universal government sign-in, which is completely, completely within a user's discretion. So from an analytical perspective is, what can we learn about your behaviour on GOV.UK that allows us then to personalise your experience and even be proactive. It could be that you have the option to save some of your preferences. So there's things that we can start to do, which is purely based on your behaviour on GOV.UK that we can say, “hey, we think this might be useful for you” purely based on this behaviour, and then you can opt in to say, “actually yeah, that's handy. I want that to happen. I want that to persist”. Or you can equally say, “no, I'm not interested. I just want it to be, I want to be completely anonymous”. 

 

I also think that some of the biggest hurdles around this is making sure that users’ experience reflects the reality on GOV.UK. There is an expectation, I think, around - for some users - that government is government and everything is joined-up behind the scenes. And there is a confusion around “why do I have to tell my, the tax service my personal details and I have to tell the-- things related to my vehicle, the same details. Why are they not joined up? Also, why can't I sign into this thing and do the other thing?” So the hardest thing is like how can we build something that has those privacy concerns at the centre, but also then reflects users’ expectation of how to, how to interact with government. Meeting those expectations but from our perspective of delivering it, it's how can we do that kind of crosscutting, bringing all of government services, different departments together, creating this kind of, almost this single sign-on vision, which is what we're hoping to achieve in the long term, where you only have to do things once. But how you do that is very, very challenging. The front, the front of it looks simple. The underneath is horribly complicated.

 

[End of vox pop]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think one of the areas that really impressed me was how much collaboration there is across government on it. And essentially that you've got this buy-in on this objective through the commission.

 

Rachel Tsang:

Definitely. I think we were saying before, this isn't just a project for GDS or for GOV.UK, right. It-it only really, really works, and you only get the real value for users if you're enabling that cross government collaboration. And to be honest, that-that is tricky because departments don't necessarily always have the same priorities; there, there is a lot of stuff that is happening across government. But I think we all have the shared objective of fundamentally making things better for our users. And I think the extent to which this is driven by data and driven by insight is incredibly powerful, right? Because it's all very much evidence-led and led by what is going to make a difference to meeting user needs.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Definitely, and I think, again,Daisy also reiterated something that Ross mentioned before at the very beginning, actually, about how the user perception of GOV.UK isn't that there are these separations between the different departments, that it is just the monolith of government and how we're really trying to make that perception of reality. I was just wondering if you had any more reflections on that, Ross.

 

Ross Ferguson:

I think that GOV.UK makes it possible to engage with and transact with government as-as one thing, if-if that's helpful to you as the, as the user. But it is also possible to say you're a-a particular-an academic or maybe a business user - there are you know, we also do cater for those more specialist journeys through, through government as well. I think that's one of the things that GOV.UK has over the years put a lot of effort into, listened to a lot of user feedback, made use of the data that we have had to get that to get that right. And so I, you know, I like what Daisy was pointing out there that: when we're thinking about personalisation, we're thinking about it like, you know, individual needs and that somebody might be operating, coming, coming to GOV.UK, as you know, a private citizen, but they might also be a business owner. And, you know, we-we-we want to be able to-to cater for those different sorts of profiles that one person could-could have. And, you know, and that's what we, that's what we do well. We--is the care and attention we pour into these kinds of nuances, these-these complexities. These--Daisy's right to say that it's-it's complex. That's what we love. That's what we're here for. That's what every person on GOV.UK is here for, you know, to-to do that hard work to-to make, to make the things as simple as people need it to be for their circumstances.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

And it's also beautiful how you're working at it from both ends, whether somebody wants to fully connect all of their personal information that government holds, make sure that everything is bespoke to them, or if somebody prefers to really just have that interaction standing on its own, and just as they need to be in touch with government, they'll handle it on a case by case basis and and just sort of like be shepherded down the right path without government necessarily knowing everything about them.

 

Ross Ferguson:

Yeah, I think that there is so much that we can do with all the data that we generate automatically through, through our logs and that we've gathered over the over the years and that we can analyse very quickly to be able to make pretty good bets about other information on GOV.UK, other services that would be of interest to you based on the patterns of usage in a given session. Which is, you know, very unintrusive. And, you know, I think that there's lots that we can do without people telling us lots of attributes about themselves and having to sign up to things - that will always be at the core of GOV.UK. However the account is very exciting because it will put the user in the position of being able to say, to build up a profile for themselves and be able to choose how they then use that, and that will just make government work so much harder for the public. 

And I think that that is maybe a little bit of, has been a pipedream for many for many years, but it's a reality that we can that we are delivering now, that will start to see come to fruition over the next year. And I think the public will be really excited about that and it will help make government more efficient. And so I think that's-that's something that everybody wins from. And really, you know, the teams are excited about that, not just the account team, but all--that's one of the good things about what I'm seeing on GOV.UK is the way that the teams are working alongside one another. There are data insights teams that have been really proactive about how they get in touch with our team that's working on starting and sustaining a business journey. They're saying to the accounts team “look we could, we could really benefit from this functionality, this feature, can we share data on this”.

Vanessa Schneider:

We obviously need a really solid foundation for all of this work, so I guess that’s why our objective to ensure GOV.UK is always available, accessible and accurate is so important. Let’s hear from Kati now on what’s happening in that area.

 

[Start of vox pop]

 

Kati Tirbhowan: 

I’m Kati Tirbhowan, I’m a senior content designer in the GOV.UK Explore team. Our team is working on making GOV.UK easier to navigate and we’re currently working on ideas that include improvements to the site-wide navigation, mobile experience on the site, page-level navigation elements, so things like how the breadcrumbs and related links work on the site.

 

In our team we run multiple rounds of user research to improve our designs and we're doing research with different types of users. That's people who come to GOV.UK for different reasons to do different things. And within those groups, we're also including users who might have low digital confidence or skills or access needs, for example. And then each discipline brings their expertise to make content accessible. So that's from design to developers, to content design. And for content design, for example, we've got our content guidance that includes an accessibility checklist that we use to design and review content changes as part of our regular work on the site. 

 

And in our team we've also just done some accessibility testing on the new site-wide main menu design, which is one of the ideas we're working on. And to do the testing we used accessibility personas the GDS accessibility team have created and those personas are really helpful and an engaging way of raising awareness and understanding of accessibility. And from that, we identified some improvements we can make to the design and we'll continue using those personas to test our work as we go on. Um we’re also optimise-- mobile-optimising the pages and components that we're working on. So they feel like they're designed with mobile in mind, and that includes things like expanding the touch target. So the area you need to tap on to follow a link so that they're larger and easier to use, um especially for people who have a tremor or a long term impairment, for example. 

 

I think one challenge is the size of GOV.UK. It's a huge and varied site, with many different types of content, and GOV.UK provides the route to hundreds of government services operated by departments, as well as the guidance published by every department. You also have a lot of people looking for information and services to do important things in their lives. And that means for us it's critical that people can find what they need quickly and as easily as possible. And it really is the hard work of all the teams and all the different disciplines and all the talent that makes it happen. 

 

And one of our design principles is “do the hard work to make it simple”. And I think people are really passionate about this and care about making things work for users the best we can. And I feel like this is a big part of it, making it such a great place to work too. We can help to make a real difference.

 

[End of vox pop]

 

Ross Ferguson: 

I might point to this one as being one of my one of the areas I care about the-the most. I think getting the basics right is so foundational to the innovation that we might want to put on top of that. It's really important that GOV.UK is there in times of need for people. It has to be reliable. And it's the sort of site that you go to when you're not sure if the internet's working properly, you can go to GOV.UK to see well, if GOV.UK's up then it's and then everything's all right. So we do put a lot of stock in making sure it's reliable, that it's secure, that it's performing quickly and smoothly for people.

 

And, yes, that-that would--includes how our search and navigation works, how our-our pages help people to find their way around the information services and through it. And so, yeah, we've got some-some pretty major changes taking place to the navigation on GOV.UK planned. That starts with a test, of course, because we like to, you know, to test with users before we go, you know, rolling this out to everybody. We will do some multivariate, or A/B testing, with a proportion of our users on GOV.UK, who will see the site in slightly different ways: so the menu bar at the top will have some, some new options in there. And through the early testing that we've already done, we're pretty confident that's going to help people to find information quicker and then to find other related information if they, if they need it.

 

A lot of people will want to come to GOV.UK, get the thing that they're after and then get going. But some people will want an ongoing journey. And so this new navigation bar helps people to understand where things are and how things relate to one another. And then later on in this year, that same team, well obviously they'll continue improving that that nav, but they will also then be working on the homepage, which, you know I suppose, it's a kind of a cliche that people say, well, Google is the homepage, but actually, you know, really you know, a lot of people it's actually one of our it's like our top page is the homepage - lots of people go there. And so it can work harder, we think, helping people to understand what's timely, you know relative to events that are taking place in society, maybe or maybe because they've given us, they've signed up to an account and they want maybe a more personalised experience. So we're going to start with some changes to the homepage, which make it clearer what's, what's available and what's timely. And so these will be really two of the biggest changes to the design of GOV.UK, really since-since its launch in 2012. And so we're obviously a little bit excited about those.

 

Rachel Tsang:

Yeah, definitely. So I think fundamentally it all starts with this, right? We support millions of users every day. And to be able to do that effectively, we need the platform, we need the information and services on it being reliable, resilient and secure. You can't have accounts and personalisation without this fundamental infrastructure. And-and so it's super duper important. And I think it also touches on something that's been implicit to what we've been discussing throughout, which is about retaining user trust. And that is inherent in how we need to build the account, that's inherent in how we do personalisation, but it's also inherent in just being available, accessible and accurate. 

 

And you know, we think about the sort of the premise of the work that we're doing now to increasingly personalised GOV.UK, right? We start from the premise of like, well, people's expectations have changed. They think about how they interact with you know, like Citymapper or with Netflix. And-and so our premise is that why should, why should the user experience of interacting with government be any different? That's the starting premise, but for us, it--trust takes on an extra important angle, and this is where having that infrastructure of content, of the platform, of availability is so, so important.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

You're so right, you're so right. But, yeah, obviously what's coming through through all of this is really that it's all about iteration. I mean, trying out new concepts is a part of iteration, isn't it? Like GOV.UK accounts is building on things that already exist. But one of the bigger questions really is the: how everything that we're doing right now supports what the rest of government is doing. So we talked with Anna Sherrington, who is working on that objective within the GOV.UK team.

 

[Start of vox pop]

 

Anna Sherrington:

Hi, my name is Anna Sherrington and I'm the Lead Delivery Manager at GOV.UK and I'm responsible for supporting the government priorities of the day objective. What that means in practise is that I work with a number of multidisciplinary, highly-skilled teams to ensure that GOV.UK is responsive to the issues of the day and that we are the source of the government is saying and doing and what it means for people day to day. 

So there are 4 teams working on this objective at the moment, 2 are concentrating on coronavirus, 1 on Brexit and 1 on starting a business. This means we have around 60 people working on this objective. At the height of the pandemic, we had more people covering our coronavirus work and the team structure has been changing as the situation with the pandemic has developed. For example, last spring and autumn when things were very busy, we had a weekend and late evening support rota in place in order to support any updates as they happened. And although we don't have these rotas anymore, we still have the flexibility and the teams to support plans. So we have really adapted to changing needs for this objective. I feel very fortunate to be working with the teams I’m working with and very proud of the work we do every day. There's a very supportive culture within the teams and we have made it our priority to build resilience and flexibility with everyone's wellbeing at the forefront of our minds. And this has been crucial.

 

[End of vox pop]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

A lot has been achieved in the past year first of all, and it's important to recognise that. We've really managed to-to sort of scale up in a way that we are resilient.

 

Rachel Tsang: 

Talking about resilience and being able to meet the government's priorities of the day, I would completely agree with you, like it's been an extraordinary 18 months and it's super important that GOV.UK is, as the online home for government, is able to be able to be comprehensive and responsive to provide support for the government's critical priorities of the day. For-for the past 18 months, that's been Coronavirus and Brexit. And we've seen som,e we've seen some record levels of traffic. So I think during the pandemic we reached a peak of it was around 42 million page views at our daily peak. And that that is truly extraordinary, thinking about how the value and the importance of GOV.UK has grown over time. And I think what the last 12 to 18 months has shown us has really been the value of the value of GOV.UK as this critical source of truth, the value of collaborating across government, we've already talked about that, and the value of making sure that we're providing that trusted, accurate information and support to the millions of people that are relying on GOV.UK.

 

Ross Ferguson:

I am not surprised that given that people on GOV.UK are the sorts of people who will care about pixel widths on things like hover states and, you know, and and and punctuation to almost the pedantic degree - but I would never say that - that come, you know, a national, you know, emergency, an unprecedented event for for the UK and the world, that those people would rise to the occasion. You know, nobody wants a pandemic but thank goodness we had GOV.UK as a place that, you know, the civil servants, and GDS, GOV.UK and then across the government could all use to collaborate with one another in the creation and curation of guidance and services very, very swiftly. But also, you know, and then the public could be given a really clear steer on where they could go. 

 

And so I think that it's been interesting looking at the usage patterns we see, yes, an increase in the number of people overall coming to GOV.UK, but, you know, an increase in the regularity of those visits. So I think that that cross government collaboration that we saw come to the fore during the intense COVID period, paid off. And actually I think that it's, although we are glad that there's not the same urgency, I think that focus on collaboration does need to continue on now for and lots of aspects of running government, but particularly in that digital space where we're, we're good in the UK at digital government, but we're still not meeting our full potential. And so I think if we can keep that focus on-on good public services online, across government collaboration, I think that they, I'm very optimistic about the future for-for the digital government here, here in the UK.

 

We want to be doing more and we want to be doing better. And because that's what people here in the UK want us to do, and I think, you know, where you mentioned our, our blogs, podcasts, our code is all open. And we you know, we do, we share this so that our peers and other governments internationally also at the local level here in the UK can, you know, can can benefit from that and that we can benefit from their feedback and their scrutiny as well. I think that's-that's one of the things that I think the GOV.UK, GDS, UK dig-government digital does really, really well that that openness, that willingness to share and that drive to keep-keep doing better. And I think that that's what and that's what that gets me really motivated.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

We have now come to our final objective, is: be channel agnostic. So personally, I know we've done fantastic work in collaboration with third parties like search engines in order to link content outside of the confines of the website itself. I was just wondering, maybe Rachel, you can tell us about how such partnerships came about and how this has changed things for users.

 

Rachel Tsang:

Definitely. So I think we, unsurprisingly, are huge fans of-of collaborating. You mentioned that we've done some good work recently with Google to make sure that more GOV.UK content is available through-through rich search results. We also did some good work on the recent local elections as well. And so I think we start from the premise of wanting to collaborate and to think about how we can make more of our content more available. 

 

I think the broader objective on being channel agnostic, I mean, we know that users are increasingly accessing information through other channels. Right? Search engines or voice assistance and-and so on. I think we also know that in May of this year, it was around 67% of our users that were accessing GOV.UK on mobile. And we see that number increasing year on year. So the work that we've done so far is good. We're-we're responding to changes in user behaviour where possible. But this objective for this year is really about enabling that step change. So through coronavirus, all of our services were designed as mobile-first. But what we need to keep pace with technology. So this is thinking about exactly to your question, designing for provision for access to-to GOV.UK information and services beyond the website. And that's yeah, super exciting because I think it's-it's keeping it's keeping pace with the user needs and changing user behaviour.

It highlights how the 5 objectives that we have for our roadmap for the year, they're not, there's a huge amount of interdependency there. Right. We started out with the fundamental building blocks of being available, accessible, accurate. We build on with like supporting priorities of the day. We talk about personalisation. We talk about being channel agnostic. You put all of that together and like holistically that is about GOV.UK and enabling users to access information about government and services in a way that is tailor, that is personalised, that suits their needs. 

Ross Ferguson:

GOV.UK's getting close to being one of the top five, most used to most visited sites in the, in the U.K., and it goes up that-that list every-every year. And so I think that people will always value there being a site that they can go to or certainly they will value that for-for many, many years yet. There have to be other other channels that you are able to benefit from the information and parts also the services that are on the GOV.UK platform. And because, again, you might not know that you you could benefit from that information and other services, other parties might usefully be able to suggest, OK, actually you need you need to know this from the government or actually at this stage in your transaction with us, actually government can is the best place to help you with this. 

 

And so I think that we want to explore those and call them partnerships, those and those crossover's a bit a bit more. Yes with some big household name technology companies, but also with groups that are involved in civil society. And this could be a national, it could be at a local level as well, and they are providing great support and services to-to their and their constituents, their members, their-their users. So I think there's a lot that we can do there. 

 

I think what cuts across all of these, whether you're using a voice assistant more, you're perhaps engaging with some citizens advice and service or information on BBC is that you want to know that that information from the government is-is-is quality, is reliable. And so I think that that's where the GOV.UK verification, the GOV.UK brand, if you like, can really, really be useful there. And that is new ground for us. It's exciting perhaps to be--have a presence off of our own domain. And, you know, you mentioned we've been talking about trust earlier on, whatever we do in this space has to be underpinned by trust. And to get that right, we'll do experimenting and we will, we will talk to users because that is what we've always done. And that will keep us right.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So before we start to wrap up, I was wondering, what are you most excited for on this journey? Let's start with Ross.

 

Ross Ferguson: 

That's a tough, that's a tough question. I-I am excited to see what the, what the response to the account will be. I'll be interested to see the way when we--as we roll out across the whole of GOV.UK this year and how people will respond to that, whether they will see it as a good utility. I'm anticipating the feedback, anticipating it being positive. What-what I'm looking forward to most is, is the detail about what more it could do and about how it should interact with services. I think that will give us a lot to go on.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Thank you Ross. Same question to you, Rachel please.

 

Rachel Tsang: 

I think for me this is going to sound incredibly broad, but I think it's the energy around the delivery that we're doing right now. Like, we've got a really clear vision and direction and we've blogged and can I say podcasted? We've podcasted about it. And I think having that honesty and clarity about what we're doing and being really open about it is super important. Right. And I think that buzz is we're-we're kind of generating that buzz out externally.

 

But it is also very, very much with the team that's delivering on GOV.UK. And that's super exciting. And-and we can, I--can I talk about recruitment? Because I know we're very, very, very keen for lots more people to join GOV.UK. And we've got super exciting vision. We've got a clear direction of travel. So we are recruiting lots and lots of different roles. So user researchers, data scientists, product delivery, design, technology. I would say, particularly in the technology space as we design the architecture we talked about we platforming earlier on and so worthwhile having a look at the GDS career site to see our live roles, have a look at the blog. Ross and I, we published a blog post on four tips for applying for a job on GOV.UK. And we're hiring with a particular focus on our Manchester hub. Indeed, both in--both Ross and I are based up North.

 

The only thing I would add with that: this is actually really exciting, I think this is important to both Ross and I is that we are investing in junior roles, right. We want to build our-our pipeline of talent and invest in the development of people. So I would say that this isn't just about recruiting at a senior level. We're looking at all sorts of roles and all sorts of levels. So please do come join us.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you to both of you for joining us today on the podcast, and thank you also to all of your colleagues who joined us to share their contributions to the GOV.UK Roadmap objectives.

 

As a reminder, we are currently recruiting across GDS, and quite extensively for the GOV.UK programme. So we invite you to look at our vacancies and apply if you’re interested in any of the opportunities. 

 

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean.

 

Goodbye.

 

Rachel Tsang:

Bye.

 

Ross Ferguson: 

Thank you very much. Goodbye. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #30: Tom Read talks GDS’s future strategy

Government Digital Service Podcast #30: Tom Read talks GDS’s future strategy

May 28, 2021

Tom Read, CEO of GDS, sits down to chat about his first few months and what’s next, taking us through the GDS strategy for 2021 to 2024.

Do you enjoy the GDS Podcast? Help us to make it even better by completing our short, anonymous survey.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today I'm joined by the Chief Executive Officer for GDS, and that's Tom Read. 

 

Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. I know that you joined GDS back in February, which in these times feels like an eternity. But could you please introduce yourself and what do you do to our listeners? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sure. And thank you for having me. So I'm Tom. I'm the Director General and Chief Executive of the Government Digital Service. As you said, I've been here just over 3 months now. So effectively my job is to set the strategy for the Government Digital Service, work out how it aligns with ministerial priorities, how much money we've got, what we're currently working on, and then keep out of people's way as much as possible and let people get on with delivery. That's sort of what I'm here for, I think. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

OK, I hear it's not your first rodeo at GDS: do you mind sharing how this experience is different? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah. So I was, I was at GDS from for about 2 years in 2013 to 2015. Back then, I mean, everything was quite different. I worked in Liam Maxwell's area, which was the sort of, the more, the tech area than the digital area, and I was brought in to run a technology transformation programme in the Cabinet Office itself, plus DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]. It was great fun, really good fun. 

 

How is it different? I don't know. It's... GDS back then was was smaller, much more sort of a scrappy start-up. It had this sort of triumvirate of real heavy hitters in Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell and the Minister, Francis Maude, now Lord Maude. And so it had a really, it sort of felt very much on the bleeding edge and it was very much going out and trying to push down some doors to get people to-to let it exist and let it really make a difference. I think a lot of that spirit is still, still here in GDS. But there's a little thing I've written in-in our new strategy, which is we're not in start-up mode anymore. And I think that's it's quite important to recognise, we-we've, we've done that phase and now we're sort of maturing a little bit. So it's slightly different. But the spirit is the same. 

 

So after 2015, I basically I did 2 years of just like super intense work, like it was just, you know, really, really fun. So much fun but incredibly tiring. And I basically sort of said, right, that's, that's it. That's my little tour of duty in government done. And I-I went off and joined a consultancy and about 3 months in working for the consultancy, which was a lovely place, really lovely place, great people. I suddenly thought, ‘ack, I'm not done, actually. I-I-I really miss government already’. 

 

So later that year I applied for a few roles and I was successful in a role as the Chief Technology Officer at the Department for Business, as was. And I'd worked there with amazing people like Emma Stace, Mark O'Neill and other people, it was just - Andrew Greenway - it was, it was a really great team. And we really started to create a digital movement in that weird department because it's like a small policy department with loads of arm's length bodies. And it was good fun and we really got going. 

 

And then there was the machinery of government change. So energy and climate change came in, education went out so universities and things went out to education. And I don't know if any of our listeners have been through machinery of government changes, they're like mergers acquisitions in the private sector. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I thought that there isn't space for, for 3 directors in what was to become BEIS [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy]. 

 

And so I started to look around government and it happened. There was a vacancy coming up at the Ministry of Justice [MoJ] working for Sir Richard Heaton, who I worked to when I was at GDS, he was the Perm Sec[retary] of the Cabinet Office and one of my all time sort of heroes in government. And so I was sort of managed moved across to MoJ. And that's where I've been for the last 4 and a half years. Up until now, by a long way, the best job I've ever had in my career. It was just this incredible, meaningful work of helping some of the most vulnerable people in society to fix their lives and get an education and get their lives back on track. It was brilliant. So yeah, I've been, I've been in a few departments. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, they tend to say, don't meet your heroes, but it seems to have worked out really well for you. I also wanted to give a shout out to Emma Stace because the Department for Education Digital and Technology team has just launched their first podcast episode with Emma in it. 

 

Tom Read: 

Oh, awesome. Oh, well, fantastic. Well, listen to that one. She'll be amazing. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

[laughs] But also listen to us!

 

Tom Read: 

Obviously listen to us!

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So it's clear to me, just listening to you that you're passionate about digital government, always coming back to it as well and looking at your resume in general. But I was wondering why that was. What is the power of digital? 

 

Tom Read: 

What is the power of digital? That's a really good question. So the thing that's unique about digital teams in government, but also outside government, is we just have a relentless focus on users and how they work. And I know a lot of bits of government do that as well - it would be a bit insulting to policymakers to suggest we're the only people who do that. 

 

But any bit of digital design, whether you're working for a supermarket or a retailer or a bank or government, you have to design around how users use things because otherwise they don't use them. And then you're wasting everyone's time, right? In government, I think we've used digital, now more the word data, user needs, these sort of things, kind of as stalking horses, they're, they're ways of expressing designing things around how users work. And I just think that's a great opportunity. 

 

I also think government itself is fascinating because some some bits of government have been around for hundreds of years and some bits have been around for a thousand years. And without being simplistic, some of the processes haven't changed very much in that time. And so you can stick a website over it. But really, you need to look at the whole, you know, policy through to what outcomes you're trying to get, the process, and then digitise that. And I think that's really missing from how we talk about digital in a lot of cases. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So, you mentioned obviously that you've been here for 3 months and some people make a big deal out of it - the first 100 days somebody has spent in a new job, especially in a leadership position. Is there anything that you're keen to share that you've learnt in this time, or maybe you found something that surprised you? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, I mean, just so much. It's quite weird hearing it's been 3 months actually, because, in the nicest possible way, it feels like a lot longer. And I do mean that in a positive way. I've learnt a lot. There's, there's a lot. GDS is a funny place because everybody's got an opinion about GDS just anywhere in government. And beyond actually, everyone's got an opinion about what's good, what's bad. There's a whole set of people on Twitter who seem to spend most of their lives just commenting on what on what GDS is doing. And it's really peculiar. And so coming in, or sort of back in, but, but into this role from a department has been fascinating. 

 

So it's sort of off the top of my head, a few things I've I've learnt. One is I think the, GDS is just completely full of, like, super intelligent, incredibly civic-minded people who care. And I think, yeah, I don't want to go on a soapbox rant about this, but that's probably the thing that people really miss when they're judging GDS, is just how much people care about, you know, service design and, you know, the underlying technology and content design, accessibility, all these things that really matter. It just, it really infuses everything when you're speaking to people. And there are people who have been here for like 7 or 10 years who just still have the same absolute passion for improving public services, which is amazing. I mean, I've got a short attention span, so a lot of respect for those sort of people. 

 

On the, on the, sort of, the more complex side. I think, the first, we still sort of hark back quite a bit to sort of the first 5 years of, of GDS, which I don't think is uncommon in a sort of quote unquote start-up. You hark back to the early days - I was speaking to a friend who works at Monzo recently. And he was saying everyone still talks about when there were 30 of us and we were trying to build from scratch. We're not like that anymore. So I think, I think a lot of people still look back at where we had all this support and we were crashing down doors and building things. And it was busy and we were on stage a lot. And then there were 5 years of much quieter GDS over the last 5 years - still doing very important work, but taking much more of a collegiate view. And I think one of the things I've been puzzling through over the last 3 months is how do you get the happy balance between those 2? I think maybe we need to get back a little bit into the setting direction and pushing delivery as well as working together. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah I mean, I think one of the things that people remember when they hearken back to those good old days is also the mottos that sprung up. There's a lot of stuff that we say at GDS that has spread beyond, that's really been used a lot. For instance, doing the hard work to make it easy for the user. So obviously our ambition is to make dealing with government easier. Where do you think we are in this mission? 

 

Tom Read: 

That's not what I thought you were going to ask me. So I think we're at a really interesting point. So thing, things that have been done well over the last 10 years, we talk a lot about the really good services. There are lots of services in government that are better than you would find in the private sector. And I think that the narrative that government's never going to be quite as good as the private sector: I've worked in the private sector. It's just not true. 

 

We're all roughly trying hard, dealing with legacy, dealing with complexity, competing demands, that kind of thing. So there are a bunch of things that have been done just incredibly well. So, you know, the passport service is just an exemplar. There are amazing things in digital tax. There's stuff we were doing at MoJ, there's there's stuff at DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], which is really, you know, pushing the boundary and properly, you know, micro-services, architectured services that will last and stand the test of time. 

 

Equally, I think I think we just declared victory way too early. So it's one of the first things I was sent when I joined GDS was, I was like, we've got a list of the the paper forms in government, you know, the, the services that have never been touched. And I was sent a spreadsheet with with 4,000 lines, and each line is a PDF or a Word doc, that a user has to download, fill in, so they need a printer, then they can fax or post it. So you either need a fax machine - I genuinely don't know how that, how that technology works in the digital age - or you go to the Post Office and I think it's just not good enough. 

 

So I think from that perspective, we've done a lot. We've embedded amazing digital talent across government. GOV.UK is standing firm and is still a really excellent sort of front end of government. But we've got a lot more to do. And I also think we're slightly, we have still been thinking in the context of 10 years ago, where it was a publishing layer and then individual silo transactions, I think we need to move beyond that now. We'll probably talk about that a bit more later. But I think we need to move beyond what was a good idea 10 years ago and iterate - use some of our, use some of our own secret sauce for that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I am so curious. Where did you think I was going to go with that question? [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

I thought you were going to ask me about some of the mottos [laugh from Vanessa] and whether they still stand up. So, you know, ‘the strategy is delivery’ and you've got on your laptop ‘Make things open. It makes things better.’ In fact, I've got it on mine as well. I-I thought you were going to ask about some of those things. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do, I mean, if you want to riff on that, go for it. [laughs] [laugh from Tom]

 

Tom Read: 

There is a lot to be said for the, the memory that goes with catchy, meaningful slogans like ‘strategy is delivery’. It's great because the strategy was never delivery. Right. The strategy was deliver something quickly and make it so good that once people come to tell you stop doing it, they'll look like idiots because you built something brilliant, fast and cheap. It's not-- the delivery isn't the strategy. Strategy is let's not talk about it. Let's let's deliver something and then we'll have something to show for it, which is great and similar with, you know, the talk about user needs, not government needs. It's still government needs. It's just if you build it around how users work, then the service is cheaper and it'll actually be used online. It's it's sort of proxies for for what we're trying to do. Big fan of that sort of proper marketing. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering if you wanted to reflect on the mission of GDS now and for the next 3 years in context of the 5 points that you outlined in your blog post? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing we're trying to do is we need to kind of say, what are we really going to focus on? Because it's, I don't just want a shopping list of what we're busy with. It's like what can we uniquely do in GDS? We've got this, like, incredibly privileged position of being in a centre of government. We're reasonably funded at the moment. Good ministerial support. What are we uniquely able to do in that position? Let's let's leave the departments to do, to do what they do. 

 

So we've we've we've come up with with 5 points, as you say, and I'll sort of rattle through them, but sort of explain why I think they matter. So the first and kind of most important one is we have to keep the things that we're already running running. So we, GOV.UK is a obviously fundamental part of what we do. We need it up to date, we need the publishing tools to be modern. We need to be iterating some of the design patterns around finding content, around exploring, sort of navigating content. And we need to re-platform it. It sits on a tech stack in the cloud. But but that's coming out of support. So so keeping things running, it's not always sexy, but it is the most important - if we do nothing else we'll keep GOV.UK running. 

 

The second thing we really want to go to is, focus on is, is kind of what I meant earlier around moving the dial from just doing transactional services. So we want to focus on what we're calling whole, whole services or solving whole problems for users. So an example. And we're not sure which examples we're going to use, right. But an example that that we're looking at at the moment is around having a baby. 

 

So if you if you are a person and you're having a baby, I've made a list here. Things you might need to know about, that government can help you with are: maternity pay, shared leave, maternity allowances, registering the birth, getting child benefits, getting tax credits, finding childminders, getting nursery places. And at the moment, you need to understand all of those things individually. Then you need to apply for each to work out whether you are eligible. It's, well, well-intentioned nonsense. And really what you should be able to do is what you would expect in a commercial transaction where you would go on, you would have your details already stored and it would say you are eligible for these 5 things. One click and we'll sort it out for you. 

 

And I think that's, maybe that's pie in the sky, there's so many reasons why that might not work. But that's what we're going to aim for. So so we're going to go hopefully for, as I said, really early days. And a lot of people have thought about this before. We are not unique in this, but we're going to look at maybe 5 or 10 ideas and try to push them through to delivery and work out: does GDPR stop us doing this, does money stop us doing this? Does the fundamental structure of government and accounting officers accountable to Parliament stop us doing this? I don't know, but we’re gonna have a good crack at it. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think I saw on social media, because that's part of my role as well behind the scenes, that there has been work on that previously by the government, I think it was in the days of Directgov and Business Link, that life services was actually already a concept. So will it be resurfacing that kind of work? Are you going to look back at the old material and see what learnings you've made since? 

 

Tom Read: 

Probably, yeah. So Jerry Fishenden, formerly of this parish, blogged about tweeted about it. I think it was before Directgov actually, that that that screenshot. So that was kind of based around life events. So having a baby is one. I think, I think some of them aren't life events. Some of them are whole, just just whole problems, like going abroad isn't really a life event. But you do need to think about what - particularly now - you need to think about passports, COVID[-19], political unrest. You need travel insurance. You need, yeah, vaccinations, you need visas. You know, that's not real life experience. It's more a collection of whole problems to solve one thing, which is the person wants to go abroad and needs government help. So we'll definitely look back on on on on that thinking. There's very little new under the sun. But equally, we haven't done it yet. So we need to, we need to press on and deliver. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

No it's that agile principle of iteration, isn't it? 

 

Tom Read: 

Right, exactly. [laugh from Vanessa]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. You've obviously mentioned that we're looking at areas that maybe aren't being captured by government departments and also haven't had that attention previously. So I was wondering if there are still opportunities for us to learn from other departments in that area. I know, obviously, like the thing that you were mentioning with the forms, those are sort of those low-usage services, is that right? Will we be leaning on government departments that own those services a little bit or will it be solely in our purview? 

 

Tom Read: 

It's a really good question, we cannot do, there are bits that we can do ourselves from the centre, but they are quite limited. I talk to, I keep talking about the getting the balance right between centralisation and working with government departments, things like the long tail of digital forms in government. That's something we can't force people to do. The, we kind of have a two-part strategy here. 

 

So you'll be aware that there's a new bit of Cabinet Office called the Central Digital and Data Office. And basically that's set up to take the the strategy, policy, capability, those sorts of bits, and also the spend controls and like the mandate. And so they will be looking at which departments, which agencies, which bits of government still have a lot to do. And flagging that, being, you know, I don't know, a scorecard or something, but some way of measuring progress. 

 

We're ‘good cop’ in GDS. So our job is to build platforms, continue the work of government, so platforms, so Pay, Notify, we're going to build a way of submitting information in forms. And there may be 3 or 4 others that we're looking at. And the idea is if departments haven't digitised their simple lower transaction services, we'll give them everything that they need to do that, and we'll give them some help if they need some help to do it, and kind of slowly remove all the possible reasons why you wouldn't digitally transform. So we're the, we want to be the oil, the enablers to to help the long tails transform across central government primarily, but but also local government. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And if you're interested in any of those products that Tom mentioned, we have a couple of podcast episodes that could be of interest [laughs]. So is there any chance that you can share more about what's happening at GDS right now with that focus?

 

Tom Read: 

So we're in planning stages, is what I'd say. So we've got some some platforms that are really quite mature now, so GOV.UK Notify, I don't have the data with me, but GOV.UK Notify has an awful lot of organisations using it. We're going live with the alert cell broadcast system. And other platforms we're in planning stages. It's really looking at what are the barriers to adoption. And then we're also going to spin up a team to look at what are the next 5, what are the next 5 things that should be done centrally, may have already be done in 5 departments. So can we bring those together and package it and offer it back as a service, or do we have a federated approach to the platforms? We need to look at those different options over the next 3 months. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, just to add in, it's been 2.9 billion messages sent since May 2016 when Notify started up. So honestly, hats off. 

 

Tom Read: 

It's cool. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And a shout out to Pete Herlihy. I hope he's enjoying New Zealand. [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

I'm sure he is. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah. So I was also wondering, I think there might be some work on single sign-on and personalisation. I was just wondering if you wanted to give a sneak preview on those?

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, sure. So a single sign-on for government and a way of verifying your identity. So fundamental parts of our strategy for the next few years. We've got money this year. We've got a lot of political support for this. The, some of the most brilliant people I've ever worked with anywhere, worked on Verify over the last sort of 6 or 7 years, genuinely, just utterly brilliant technologists, designers and that sort of thing. And, and Verify worked, right. It's branded as like, that didn't work. It worked for millions and millions of people. 

 

Equally, there are some design patterns that that that that haven't quite worked. It didn't work for for certain sets of users in government. And we are now in a position where we take all of that learning and we're going to effectively build a new set of services that allow, as I said, a single sign-on for any services that need them across government and a way of proving your identity to government regardless of your social situation. 

 

I'm really excited about this. I'm genuinely excited about this for a couple of reasons. One is we've got all that learning from Verify that we can pick up on. Secondly, a load of governments around the world have done this now, they've they've they've gone out and built on what we did and they've built their own. Thirdly, we've got proper buy-in from across government, real buy-in from ministers and senior officials in DWP, HMRC [HM Revenue and Customs], Home Office. Everyone's kind of on board for this. They know this is needed and our new sort of, very sort of collaborative approach that we're taking is-is hopefully going to bear fruit.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's great to have those big hitters on board. Those are the services where users will find themselves logging in, in order to access the information that is specific to them, which I think brings us quite neatly onto personalisation, no? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sure. Yeah. You'll probably be getting the feel for this, that a lot of what we're talking about is interdependent. These aren't completely sort of separate silos of delivery. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Then what is in government, right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, exactly. So the way to imagine this, we're not simply building a portal, that's first thing to say. I know that’s sort of a bogey word in government and or digital design in general. GOV.UK for a lot of people is just there to get information from. And that's fine. That's fine. For for for other people, for whom government is very important because they don't access it 4 or 5 times a year, they need to go in quite regularly because they need a lot of help from government or they’re going through something quite complex in their lives. 

 

The concept is that you will use single sign-on to log on to a GOV.UK account. And from there, you will be able to access services ideally with one click, as I mentioned previously, you could have one click access to things you're eligible based on what we already know about you, or you can change your data. So the the great mythical beast in government is this thing called Tell Me Once. Right. So we we don't have a single register of citizens in UK government, but we have hundreds of them. We have, you know, our addresses, our names, dates of birth, addresses will be in a lot of databases across government. And if we move, I don't move very often because I'm at that stage in life, young folks move a lot and it's likely that most of those bits of data are wrong across government. 

 

So that's sort of, a by-product of a personalisation is we should be able to update that data and push it out to other parts of government in a really seamless way. And what's really exciting about personalisation, though, is there are, there's so much information on GOV.UK and so many services. You kind of need a Ph.D. in Government Studies to be able to to know how what you're what you're eligible for, what's out there. If you could personalise it by saying, you know, so for me, I'm in my 40s, I have children, I travel sometimes, I earn a certain amount. The amount of information on GOV.UK will shrink right down to, I'm making up numbers here, but 5, 10 per cent of that information and I should only be offered services that are relevant to me. 

 

And I think from that you're doing, you know, that old adage of - it's written on your laptop - doing the hard work to make it simple. We're doing the hard work of trying to get information about a person and yes, shrink down the complexity of government to what, to what is relevant. And equally, we're not going to mandate this, right? That's really, really key to remember. If people don't want to do that, you will be able to go into your GOV.UK account and, you know, show what data we're linking and and de-link it. If you don't want to do even that, you know, you can continue accessing services how they are now and certainly we’ll always have an assisted digital method for people who don't want to or can't access services in the ways I'm describing. But I think personalisation is-is the big, our big play over the next few years. I think it will be transformational for a lot of citizens. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, you mentioned the next few years. Obviously currently you're in post the next 3 years, am, is that right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, no, that's that's kind of artificial. I think, I'm here forever. Right. So what I've been trying to say to people, I think because GDS has had quite a lot of change at the top, I'm just trying to make it clear that I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. I think if I'm still here in 5 years, you know, maybe somebody should start to say: ‘you should probably freshen up soon’. Equally, I'm certainly not staying less than 3 or 4 years. I mean, we've got a lot to do. I'm already enjoying it.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was going to say, this is this is what you're doing for 2021 to 2024, is that right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah. I've, I've, I've tried to-to sort of focus on the current Parliament cycle. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Right, but it's a lot. [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

It's a lot. It's a lot. And we don't do anything. I also didn't, I sort of think it's slightly artificial sometimes to say, you know, here's our 10-year strategy. Who knows what on earth is going to be happening in 10 years in terms of maybe they'll be tech innovations or maybe they'll be - more likely - machinery of government changes or something else. So I want us to focus on, you know, more than a year, less than 5 years. So our Parliamentary cycle, it also slightly secretly sharpens the focus for colleagues in the Treasury and so on for for the upcoming spending review. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very strategic, I see. I know why they hired you. [laugh from Tom] Do you want to dabble in a bit of future casting? What happens beyond, or you know, say we achieve everything that you set out? What can we do after? 

 

Tom Read: 

I have absolutely no idea, I don't think. So, I think - what do I think? - The, the, the-I'm sort of stepping into areas of the Central Digital and Data Office here rather than GDS, I think. But. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It will influence our work. No doubt. 

 

Tom Read: 

We work hand in glove already. It really will influence our work. I mean, things that I'm really interested in long, long-term is the there is still a relatively low digital literacy across senior policymakers and ministers, you know, with some notable exceptions across government. And I think that will change organically. I think that is changing already. But I'd quite like to see, yeah, without wanting to be hyperbolic, I think fundamentally the way we do policymaking, it's not wrong. But it's the way we've done it for a lot of time. 

 

What what what slightly worries me about that way of doing it is 2 things. One is we've never properly stopped and really understood what are the most important policy changes for users, for people out there. You know, really, would this policy change your life or is there something else that we could do for the same amount of money with the same ambition that would change your life more? And I think we need to, the very qualitative, but I think we need to do more of that when we're doing policymaking right at the beginning. That's one. 

 

Two: We tend to use data to prove hypotheses rather than than to suggest policy ideas. Really, I think we should be, you know, the really good work that Alison Pritchard is doing over at the Office for National Statistics around creating a data analytics platform that takes government data from all departments. That that's key because you should be able to look at the data, use, you know, authentic machine learning or similar, or just complex algorithms and say ‘find the connections’ that we don't quite know. What is that group, that for some reason they share a set of character traits or share a set of socio-economic situations? And then later on, they are the people who end up in prison or big users of the NHS or similar. And let's create some policy initiatives from the data. I think that would be spectacular. So anyway, so once we fix, once we've fixed all of the long tail of government and we've made GOV.UK personalised and we've done a digital identity service, we've moved all the legacy technology in the government to the public cloud, we've made everything secure. Yeah, that's where we'll go next, I think. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Obviously yeah, that-that's some amazing work to look forward to, I hope. But I think we should finish on the hardest-hitting questions that I have for you today. 

 

And we'll start off with Marmite. Yes or no? 

 

Tom Read: 

Uh, yes. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Working from home or working on location? 

 

Tom Read: 

Both. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Jam before cream or cream before jam on a scone? 

 

Tom Read: 

Oh, well, my mum lives in Devon, so I'm going to get this the wrong way around and she'll be very upset. But jam and then cream.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ooh, that's the Cornish way. 

 

Tom Read: 

Damnit. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Early bird or night owl?

 

Tom Read: 

I'm a night owl. I'm not good at morning's.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Morning coffee or gin o'clock?

 

Tom Read: 

[laughs] Both! That's healthy isn’t it?

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We've been stalking your Twitter feed. [laugh from Tom]

 

Planes, trains or automobiles? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, I'll get in trouble with climate folk won’t I? Look, I really care about it. It's...I really miss travelling. I really miss travelling. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You're allowed to say cycling, walking, canoeing. 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, a bit of that. Bit of, I don't really canoe. I really miss travelling on-on planes. I do live near a flight path and I'm quite enjoying not having planes going over. So I'm a hypocrite like everyone else. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Totally understandable. And this is quick fire isn't it. 

 

So Batman or Superman? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sup--Batman. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. All about the journey or the destination? 

 

Tom Read: 

[laughs] I don't know! 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Too, too airy fairy for you, that's OK, no worries. 

 

What about crunchy or smooth peanut butter? 

 

Tom Read: 

I don't eat peanuts, so neither. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Allergic? 

 

Tom Read: 

No, just don't like them.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Fair enough. And finally, what do you think of the idea of an office cat? I know this one's hot on people's minds.

 

Tom Read: 

So. I'm a big fan of an office cat. I think we should have an office cat. I don't know if it's practical. We talked about an office dog when I was at MoJ with a, with a little you know, pass on its collar that was quickly squashed by our DGs [Director Generals].

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah I feel like I've put a cat among the pigeons by mentioning this. So [laughs] [laugh from Tom] there's always, there's always chatter amongst the staff, ‘Oh, can we please have an office cat?’. But unfortunately, because we share this building with other tenants, it's not been, not been an option, apparently, especially with cat allergies. I don't know how they get away with it, with Palmerston and FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office], for instance, you know, there's probably going to be people with cat allergies. But if you can put in a word, the cat people will be very grateful. 

 

Tom Read: 

OK, here's my most political statement of this whole interview. I will look into whether we can get an office cat. I think it's a great idea. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh, fantastic. Well, I've run out of quickfire hard-hitting questions for you. 

 

Thank you so much, Tom, for coming on today and sharing with us what you see as GDS's new mission and how that's going to be achieved. If you want, you can listen to all the episodes at the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Tom Read: 

Goodbye.

 

----------------------

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Government Digital Service Podcast #29: Role of Product Teams in Greener Delivery

Government Digital Service Podcast #29: Role of Product Teams in Greener Delivery

April 22, 2021

To celebrate Earth Day 2021, we spoke to people working in different digital roles in government about how product teams can contribute to greening delivery.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I'm Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. 

 

Today we will be talking about how product teams can play a role in greening delivery. While digital ways of working often mean moving away from paper-based processes, there's still plenty that can be done by professionals in the public sector to contribute to environmentally sustainable practice. The government has recognised the role it can play and set out its ambition in the 2011 Greening Government ICT Strategy. The strategy provides a vision for a sustainable digital delivery and ways of working.

 

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is also known as DEFRA, published the newest iteration of the strategy covering the government's approach until 2025. In it DEFRA identified opportunities across the government estate to deliver energy-saving benefits, for instance, in server utilisation and software design, or to include sustainability criteria in procurement. 

 

In today's episode, on Earth Day, we'll explore this important issue and hear from colleagues who are taking steps to make their delivery more green. Joining me now are Adam Turner and Emily Labram. Thank you both for being here today. Would you mind introducing yourself and what you do to our listeners? Let's start with Adam. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Hi, everyone. Yeah, Adam Turner. I work for DEFRA. And for my sins, I am in charge of sustainable ICT across all government departments. So to, to make that happen, basically I-I-I write the strategy and I chair the cross-government group. So manage the governance to make this kind of stuff happen and help and advise departments on delivering all that goodness.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. Thank you, Adam. Emily, how about you?

 

Emily Labram: 

Hi everyone, I'm Emily Labram. I'm a Lead Product Manager at the Government Digital Service. Right now I'm working in digital identity, which means I'm helping make it easier for users to access government services online. And previously I worked in the world of infrastructure at GDS, so I got very interested in how sustainably we were hosting our services. And that's where I also met Adam and worked with him on improving the sustainability of our hosting.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Perfect, thank you. 

 

So Adam, at the top of the episode, I shared a bit of information about the Greening Government ICT Strategy, but would you mind giving the listeners an explanation that's not quite so amateur?

 

Adam Turner: 

[laughs] Not amateur at all, Vanessa. Yes, so the tagline for the strategy for the new one that we published in September 2020 for the next five years is: responsible and resilience. I don't actually use the word sustainable or green in the title at all, but basically what I'm trying to say through the strategy, what we are trying to say, is that all our ICT is is delivering goodness. It's part of the solution to the climate crisis and not part of the problem. 

 

So within that, we have broken it down really into 3 key areas. So this is around firstly net zero ambitions, obviously tied into government ambitions for net zero by 2050. So it's linking your ICT sustainability targets with your departmental or organisational sustainability targets.

 

The second one is around circular. So everything around what we would used to have called waste, but now we more commonly talk about resources. Because if you're using less of the world's resources and you're using, for example, remanufactured ICT and you're taking ownership of that stuff potentially at end-of-life and thinking about where it goes, then you've got more control over the system.

 

And then the third one is around that kind of social aspect. And, yes, much of this is in the procurement space. But there's also a need to understand this from a design perspective as well. The Prime Minister set out a statement on modern slavery last year that highlighted ICT as a high-risk area. So we need to make sure we're squeaky clean in that area. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That definitely brings it much more to life. Your [laughs] examples seem much more practical than sort of the high-level stuff that I mentioned, so thank you for that. 

 

Yeah. So, Emily, as a Lead Product Manager I believe you are, and an advocate for sustainability, I was wondering where you see the opportunities to improve sustainability in your area of practice.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, so a couple of years ago, I started to wonder what the role of Product Managers and digital teams was in bringing down our emissions in line with our net zero targets. And I realised that actually getting a working knowledge of where emissions actually are when it comes to building and running digital services was the first step.

 

I realised that because services are called digital [laughs], and because they're hosted in 'the cloud', that it's quite common for Product Managers, especially people like me who didn't have a technical background, misunderstood that digital services and the cloud are something almost immaterial. That was the first shift that I made when I started realising that actually [laughs] to host a service, keep it up and running, involves these vast data centres. They are very real, they are very material, and they are kept running by electricity and water [laughs]. Electricity which you know could be produced in any number of ways, some of which could be by burning fossil fuels. And all of that was something of a kind of revelation [laughs] for me a couple of years ago. 

 

And I do think that that started to get complex pretty quick [laughs]. But just to get started by thinking, all right, let's get a working knowledge of the sorts of emissions that my job actually produces was a good first step.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh ok, interesting. We actually spoke with Mohamed Hamid, or Mo, from the Chief Digital Information Office in Cabinet Office, and he has some more insight into server space and the impact it can have on the environment."

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Mo Hamid: 

So my name is Mohamed and I'm a Lead Infrastructure Engineer at the Cabinet Office. What that means is I look after the connectivity and the backend of infrastructure that supports the services that we offer to our users. So for us and for me, our users are, are the Cabinet Office staff that consume and use laptops, IT infrastructure, wireless connectivity, internet, access to the internet from offices and then things like-like the VPN, for example. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, so we're discussing how to green delivery in different parts of ICT within government, so I was wondering where can it go wrong - is there something such as "overengineering" in your line of work perhaps?

 

Mo Hamid:

That's a great question...for me you know, just over-engineering: it is possible. In today's world, there's a big drive to move things to the cloud. So traditionally you'd have your data centres on sites in the office somewhere and you'd have a server room and that's where you would host things like email or applications. But however, there's a big trend to moving offsite to the cloud. And often what I find, and from experience is: the, you know, looking at it from a green environmental perspective is often not thought about and the reasons for that is varying. But one of the reasons would be that isn't really thought of with the requirements. There's all--the requirement seems to be, 'yep, we need to shift, lift and shift, migrate into the cloud'.  

 

‘Do I just simply migrate all the servers and create virtual machines in the cloud in the very same way as I would do in a physical server room?’ No, you wouldn't do that. You would make use of the cloud tools that are out there and and finding out you know, how do I make use of those tools to better serve the users and the environment.  

 

So to delve even further, what that means is: so in the traditional server room, you might, you might have a lot of servers running and some storage behind that, and that all requires power, and that's all producing CO2 gases, somewhere in the lifecycle there. You, you, you don't need to just have servers running all the time in the cloud. You can only have it running at a minimum level. And then when demand increases, for example, you can then spin up more servers. So this is, we're talking about scaling here. Do I need five servers running 24/7, you know, 30 days of the month all the time? Probably not. You probably, you know, at night time, your demand may decrease.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Having flexibility in a contract so that you can scale up and down is quite handy. Is there any other sort of best practice advice that you have to pass on to anybody else who might be working in infrastructure engineering and is listening to the episode?  

 

Mo Hamid: 

Yeah, sure. I mean, I mean, I don't think I can cover everything, but I think one of the things you need to look out for - and it's best to do this from early on - is to not use tools that will get you locked in to one particular cloud provider. Perhaps in the future you may want to migrate from cloud provider A or to cloud provider B, or you may want to host in A and B together simultaneously. So being locked in one isn't a good thing because you-you-you might have other players in the future, or we might have a player that are more, more, are more green.

 

Number two, when you're designing your your IT, or your infrastructure, whatever you're looking to-to provide, security I think also plays a part. Not just because you want to protect your-your services obviously, but also from-from your services being used for other malicious things. 

 

So I had a friend who was running a couple of servers in-in the cloud infrastructure, and then one day he realised that one of his servers was running at 100% CPU consistently all the time. So he logged in and checked you know, what's going on here, had a fiddle around, looked throughout, looked through his server environment and then realised his server was being used for bitmining. So, you know, cryptocurrency, finding the next Bitcoin and his server had been compromised, there was some malicious scripts running. And therefore it was running at full CP, 100% CPU. Imagine that at scale. And then that again is bad for the environment. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing all of these like pieces of information from a world that's so different to what I'm used to. I was wondering if there is anything final that you could think of which relates infrastructure engineering to sustainability yet mentioned?

 

Mo Hamid: 

Yeah, I mean, a final thought for me is probably on a more personal level, I think everyone can probably follow this is: things like clearing out clutter in our emails. And I'm, I'm, I'll put my hands up first for this - I'm, I'm the worst at this. I think I've got about 10,000 emails in my personal inbox. So clearing the up helps because you're, you're, that doesn't need to be stored anymore and because it doesn't need to be stored anymore, eventually down the line that will get deleted. And think of you know, zoom out a bit, in the, that data centre thats running that email server will have it deleted and have more storage space freed up. And then that, if we all do that, there's less storage space needed. So these are little things that we can do. So clear up your emails if you can.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So that was Mo. I was wondering, is there anything that you particularly connected with what he was saying or is there anything that you found particularly noteworthy that you'd like to explore?

 

Adam Turner: 

Well, first of all, go Mo. That was [laughs] that was awesome. It's really heartening for someone like me who's been working in this for over a decade to hear someone talking so passionately and eloquently and usefully about this topic. So fantastic.

 

I'll just pick up on a few of his points. Absolutely, sustainability's a non-functional requirement. People forget this. It should be thought of in the same way as accessibility, availability, security, safety. All of those are-are the same, and you need to think them at the beginning. The challenge is in infrastructure is that industry will be saying we're getting greener by default.

 

Across government, we've got this thing called Crown Hosting, who are super efficient, and in terms of energy efficiency and green energy and the way that they run things. So y-you move there and it's going to get greener. But the, but the reality is in lots of ways--well there's few things [laughs] going on.

 

Firstly, we forget to turn off the old stuff. So that carries on running. Because of complications, because it's often not as simple as you've just got a single service sitting on a single set of servers right? So you turn off bits of it, but you've got to leave all the rest of it going. You just lift and shift your-your stuff and you carry across those requirements. And, you know, as again as Mo was saying, you-you don't need to be running this stuff 24/7 in the cloud. You only, you only need to spin it up when you actually need it.

 

But to do this takes a bit more work. You need that sustainability thinking in there as a non-functional requirement with some expertise right at the beginning of any projects and programme when you're looking at the infrastructure, when you're making the choices so that you know that you go to the right place, you don't end up with that vendor lock in, you-you are controlling the service that you are consuming in the same way that you're managing the costs, you are tracking your use of carbon, and you're getting that data back from those service providers. Because we all need this as increasingly the world will be looking on digital to prove that it's providing a net gain, and not--as I say not being part of the problem.  

 

The-the bit about bit [Bitcoin] mining was-was fascinating. That's--it's a really good classic example of an you know, unintended consequence [laughs] of digital being this huge, huge energy consumption, which is currently estimated to be on par with the consumption of Argentina. So it-it's absolutely incredible and currently unmanaged. 

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I totally agree with-with all of that, and yeah go Mo! [laughs]. And Mo reminds me of several very conscientious Engineers that I've worked with in the past. And it's been a process as a Product Manager to learn the role that every member of the team actually plays in simplifying the services that we build on a continual basis, rather than just going super fast and optimising to deliver the features that you know, are user-facing.

 

So to Adam's point about the non-functional side: reliability, security, sustainability, all of that, it needs to be made, time needs to be made for it. As a Product Manager, I've learnt [laughs], I've learnt to understand that actually I do need to be managing and tracking things like infrastructure cost at the same time as all the other perhaps more shiny user facing metrics that I might otherwise be tracking. So something I've learnt as a Product Manager is to track those as what I might call what we call health metrics. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's great to hear reliability standing out to you folks so much, ‘cause it feels like that coincides with our next clip, where I'm talking to Matthew Hobbs, or Matt, who’s a front-end developer working on GOV.UK. So my understanding of this area is pretty rudimentary but from what I know front end is pretty important in providing that reliability of services - but clearly there's also scope for sustainability!

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Sure, my name is Matthew Hobbs or Matt Hobbs, I'm the Head of Frontend and a Lead Frontend Developer at the Government Digital Service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So for someone who doesn't know, like myself, what front-end is, can you please first explain what falls under front-end, and then, because I'm not [laughs] asking enough of you, how can it be used to support our ambitions of becoming more environmentally sustainable?

 

Matt Hobbs: 

That's a big question. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's a big one. 

 

Matt Hobbs:

It's a big question, yeah.

 

So essentially, a lot of the computation that happens in a user's browser happens within the frontend essentially. So what you see as a person coming to our website that is essentially the frontend - the pixels being drawn to a screen - is the frontend code essentially. So there's a lot of computational power that goes into that. So by optimising the frontend, you can actually make things better from a-an environmental point of view and from a performance point of view and from a user interaction point of view as well. So that's essentially where fron-frontend comes into this piece of the puzzle. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So do you have a practical example where you have perhaps optimised the code in order to improve the performance and make it more sustainable when it comes to website content?  

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Yes, so probably the, the one that I always go back to is, is from around about 2018, 2017-2018, where we were delivering our fonts for GOV.UK in a very specific way. It was quite an old school way of delivering fonts that was actually making it heavier, as in the page weight heavier for users. And we reworked how they were delivered to users, or delivered to browsers. And therefore it sort of streamlined the experience and actually cut down the amount of data that was actually being used on the frontend. And it, overall, it should have improved the experience for-for the vast majority of users. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering on that front, does it matter what kind of equipment the user has when it comes to how you code it? Or should the code work for anything, whether I've got an old Nokia phone or the newest iPhone? 

 

Matt Hobbs: 

So where, how we approach frontend development at GDS is using a methodology called progressive enhancement. So essentially we build the lowest minimum viable product first and then layer on additional features as they as, as you work through it. So if, if you're using a modern browser and it supports modern features, it will get a more modern experience. Whereas if you are on an old, old browser on an old device, they will, users with these devices will receive an experience that works, but it won't be all the bells and whistles essentially. 

 

As you are on more modern hardware and you are on a more modern browser, it's able to cope with that. Whereas if you are on an old device or an older browser, there's the assumption that the actual hardware involved in the device won't be able to cope with that additional code. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. So if we have anybody who is a frontend developer listening, is there any way that they can access this kind of best practice?

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Yes, we have, we have some guidance in the service manual and we also have some guidance in the GDS way as well.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So if they’re working on their own and are faced with a huge project, do you have any words of advice or motivation? 

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Well, yeah, I mean, the, and as you would say around improving accessibility for a website, the it's important to realise that it doesn't always need to be solved at once as long as you are improving it a little bit every day. And it's better than it was the day before. That's essentially the best you can do. And that's essentially how you should look at web performance optimisation as well as the sustainability aspects is: have I improved it today? Yes. Then we're going in the right direction.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Right, that was Matt.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I love what Matt said, and I always, I've discovered how important Frontend Developers and Designers are in the effort to reduce complexity, to reduce cost emissions and also the beautiful like win-wins that Matt was talking about.

 

So I love the fact that in improving performance that Matt would also be making it possible for users who have older phones to carry on having a good experience, which means they don't have to throw their old phones away, which is something that I with my old brick really [laughs] appreciate, and also makes a service more equitable, inclusive. Which is something that, because we're in government, we have to care about making things work for everyone, making things accessible for everyone. And it's also something that makes working government super exciting because we get to care about this. So, yeah. Thanks, Matt. Very cool.  

 

Adam Turner: 

Yeah, e-equally loved what Matt said. The-the things, we've talked largely about greening ICT so far, but, but what Matt's picking up on there is that sustainability is about all three pillars - you know, it, it's social and environmental, and about cost savings as well. And, and those three things in balance.

 

So if you're making a service, if you're designing service, making a webpage as easy to use as possible, and as Emily said, you can still work on a Nokia 3310 - although that wouldn't actually be possible, would it? But I think that's really, really important because those end users have a better experience: it's quicker, it's slicker.

 

And often to remember from a sustainability point of view, often in-in terms of government services especially, we're replacing older sort of paper-based systems or manual systems, which, which of course has that saving as well. So you want something that works crisply and cleanly and, and it needs to be simple.

 

And obviously the-the more simple it is and easy to use, the happier the-the end user is and who ends up using less energy. And you've got happier people and they've saved time and the whole thing's costing you less to run, and it all fits together really nicely. But it's a massive growing area that isn't really appreciated yet. And if you spend a bit more time, a-a bit of thought into what you're delivering, you're going to end up something that's going to keep everyone happier and, you know, will run more efficiently and cost you less. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So there's definitely something about taking your time and getting it right the first time to make it last - so the way Matt was talking about progressive enhancement, it's nice to know that you know, nobody will have to go back to the code and redo it from scratch as innovations come and go, like it’s, it's built up in a simple way, a bit different from the way that teams will occasionally accumulate tech debt because there are urgent deliverables.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I love that too. And as I've got more senior as a Product Manager, I do see now that my role as a Lead Product Manager is to push back sometimes and to create space for teams so that they do have the time, they have the time and the freedom to do things in the right way, to do that hard work that we always talk about at GDS to kind of make things simple for users. 

 

And...it's really a delivery thing as much as it is a product thing, but it's about the way that we work: and the, it's iterative, we use the Agile approach and that that means that we do reduce waste because we test early and often, we find out what works from the riskiest first. And that means we can deliver little bits of value early and often continuously, and that we waste less. So that's a kind of key, key part of how, as digital people, we, we help in the effort to kind of reduce emissions. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, it, it kind of reminds me of the reuse, reduce, recycle mantra actually. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Yeah, there's an awful lot of research out there from, from universities showing now that, you know, that kind of law of ever increasing performance of things and increasing capacity - is it Moore's Law? Can never quite remember. But yes, the, basically you can go, you can use refurbished servers and they are performing, or even outperforming new servers. And obviously, if you're buying refurbished kits, that stuff hasn't been dug out of the ground, sort of virgin resources, you're re-utilising as well. So embedding that kind of circular thinking into your hosting et cetera, it, you know the, the pace of development is not something that's scary anymore. It's quite fine to use a more sustainable alternative. 

 

Emily Labram: 

On that point about circularity as well, I also wanted to recognise Product Manager's role to, to sometimes notice that we can retire things, whether that's even just a feature that no one's really using or whether it's an entire product or service and then, and continually retiring things from small to big as well as continually building that circularity also helps, I think, to kind of minimise the amount of energy that we are using to keep the stuff that we have up and running.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, yeah, definitely good points. I know that we've been talking sort of about the physical quite a lot. But actually the thing that the user most interacts with when it comes to government services is the written word - so we have the good fortune [laughs] of one of GDS's content writers sharing their perspective with us.

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Hello, my name is Rosa and I'm a Content Designer with the GOV.UK Accessibility Team. But what that means is I help other Content Designers make sure that everything on GOV.UK is as accessible as possible to everyone who visits GOV.UK. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. So it's like guidance, attachments like PDF or HTML preferably, of course. And I think would, would easy reads fall into content as well?

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Easy read does fall into content. And that is to do with accessibility. So there, there is some guidance on that. But it can also be simple things like heading structures and using images and how to make that accessible, how to make your videos accessible. And all those little things also help save the environment as well, because it means people will spend less time looking, looking at things.

 

We do follow a style guide. So that there is consistency in how any piece of content is-is presented to our users. All our content is about making it easier for for people to find the information they need or to complete a transaction that they need to do to get on with their lives.

 

A good piece of, good content design is almost something that you don't actually notice. It's just there. And next thing you know, you're like, 'Oh, I know the information that I was looking for' or 'oh wow, I've just applied for a new passport. Didn't even know that was going to be that simple' kind of thing. So in that respect, you-you're making your users save a lot of time on whether it be their desktop, on mobile. And I think that has to be good for the environment because they're spending less time. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Definitely, yeah, I think there's so much that content design can influence on the user end of things with reducing their electric consumption. Another thing that I was thinking of that falls into content design is also sort of the-the guidance that you give on use of images, for instance, or trying to apply plain English, is that right?

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Yeah, yeah, that is very right. I mean with images, we are very clear that you really shouldn't be using images for decorative reasons. And I think you will, you'll probably have noticed that a lot of the times people like to have an image on a page just because that's what they're used to doing it. But if it adds absolutely no value to the content, then there's no need for you to add an image.

 

But of course, there will be instances where you may need to have an image: for example, if you're showing graphs or charts. But even then, we make sure that it's not, it's not a massive file size so that it takes a long time to upload or anything like that. And but we also make sure that any image used in GOV.UK that there is enough description within the text so that if you don't have the image, you'll still be able to understand the whole content. 

 

It's a bit like, it's a bit opposite to your university days actually. You know how you-you have a word limit for your essays [laugh from Vanessa] and you write 100 words and you're thinking, well, how can I make this like 500? I think in content design you start with 100 words and you end up with 20 words. 

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Emily Labram: 

Oh Rosa's so brilliant. Yeah, well, that was all about the beauty of doing away with anything unnecessary and getting to something incredibly simple. And I think it just speaks to the role that every single person on a team, in fact, every single person in the organisation actually has in cutting away that kind of cruft, that waste and getting to the simplest process or the simplest experience for users. And in that process, getting rid of unnecessary electricity usage, waste, et cetera, and therefore emissions.

 

Adam Turner: 

Yes, I-I loved what Rosa was talking about. I've-I've fallen foul of-of these guidelines, I must admit, so I've learnt things the hard way, despite working in sustainability for as long as I have developing strategies and, and reports that I've laboured over, created fantastic diagrams only to have the GOV.UK style team say: 'really? [laughs] Do you need that? And what it makes you realise is yeah, actually a lot of it is just fluff. So you just read the facts and boil it right down. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think one of the things that makes me really excited about Rosa's contribution is also a lot of the time people maybe get told that, you know, words don't really necessarily have the same impact. But in this case, the words are making the impact, you know, by thinking about how you phrase things, thinking about being able to be more concise or making things easier to understand. It then means people are spending less time on the page. They're able to go-get ahead with what they're doing much faster. And that that has that, that effect that people are essentially using less electricity and contributing less to emissions. So, yeah, I don't know, I just sort of like that cheesy thought of the pen is mightier than the sword. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Hey, it's, it's not cheesy at all. Like I say, I had to learn this the hard way. It's so easy when you're designing a-a website or creating a document or a, content or whatever to say refer to diagram, you know, reference image one or something. But you're not actually explaining it. And it really makes you sit down and think about what it is that you're trying to get across. And there's some really, really great people across the content teams across government that have, that have got this nailed in, in how to make this simple and effective. And you're right, it takes up less space, got less servers running in the background, and people can access the information quicker and more efficiently. And that has to be a good thing.  

 

Emily Labram: 

Also on that, it's about getting the right trade offs, I think is what you know, the-the great skill that the Content Designers have is that they're able to, to get to that 20 words, but those 20 words are actually the right ones and they get across exactly what's needed, even though there's hardly any words there at all. I think what you're pointing out, Adam, is these trade offs are quite painful sometimes. You-you might have invested loads of time in-in kind of perhaps it's a particular feature or it's a piece of content or it's a you know, a user journey and, and then having those brave, difficult conversations to kind of challenge and go: actually, do we need all of that? How does that actually work in user research in practice, and being ready to sort of kill off stuff that isn't working.

 

I think that's why you need highly skilled people in these disciplines in order to help make the best possible trade offs between you know, for example, the amount of bandwidth that the NHS service is using for video and the amount of usefulness of that video to users and getting the amount of bandwidth for the, the exact decision right, and, or iterating those over time.

 

Adam Turner: 

So I'd like to make a couple of little plugs, if I may. Firstly, the, the strategy that we mentioned right at the beginning Vanessa, mentions the idea of a responsible digital citizen. And the idea behind that was me trying to get across - and I've been engaging with the DDaT profession across government to try and make this happen - is that every single role across the Digital, Data and Technology profession across government recognises that they need to think about everything through the sustainability lens. And I think personally that's really important. And I think what we've heard today is even in the most unlikely places, like how, how we put things on a webpage and you know, how we think about the phrasing of those words to replace a picture, and actually that's going to be better, is, is having a huge sustainability benefit. 

 

So the other quick plug I'd like to mention is the professional body of IEMA, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, and their basic drive is that everybody in every profession should think about sustainability. So that's just as relevant to us here in Digital and Data as it is to everyone else.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, so obviously we've heard from three colleagues and we've had Emily as well in the podcast, giving us these practical measures that maybe people who are listening who work in the digital space could apply or convince their colleagues to apply. I was wondering whether we can maybe pull back a little bit and think about sort of like what effect we're hoping this will have. And maybe that's something, again, for you, Adam, to talk about. But I know, Emily, you're quite invested in in sustainability work as well and it might be an opportunity for you to reflect on why this is important to you as well.

 

Adam Turner: 

Sure. So, as I say, the most important thing for organisations out there to, to, you've got to understand where you are at the moment. And the most effective way of doing that is to look at your current ICT footprint. So there's numerous ways you can do that. But effectively it's your asset register with a bunch of assumptions tagged to it. And then once you understand that and then you start looking at your ICT waste, you get this, this picture of where you're at. 

 

Now obviously increasingly we've been talking about the move to the cloud. And the big chunk of the work we've been involved with for the last couple of years has been working with our cloud suppliers to try and understand our footprints in the cloud. We've been working really closely with our key service providers in public cloud, private cloud and more traditional hosting to try and get to the bottom of that. Once we got all of that - and we are publishing a new report in the next couple of months - and we've got the last 10 years worth of reports up there, you can see the government footprint for our hosting.

 

All the stuff that we've been talking about today you would hope would help bring that figure down and it would get lower. And then all the other benefits in digital that kind of, that we've all experienced through COVID, you know, all that reticence that was out there for using tools like Zoom, with cultures that told people that they had to go to offices, they had to commute - suddenly that's all up in the air.

 

And you can see all of the savings across, carbon savings from travel, from hopefully flights - we'll see where that one goes - from...well, other areas as well. And y-you can see all those coming down and they've been enabled through digital. But we don't want digital to keep rising up. Data growth is rising exponentially. But the hosting of that is not rising exponentially because we are managing to green the grid and operators are greening.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thank you, Adam. Yeah, Emily, any personal reflections regarding why, why you want to have this positive impact on environmental sustainability?

 

Emily Labram: 

I think what motivates me is to know that I am doing, doing my bit in my role, that I know how my role connects to the commitments that we've made as a nation. And that's taken two forms now. 

 

First thing is hampioning the commitments that we have made and making sure that as an organisation, that we are tracking, we are managing our emissions in the same way as we manage the other things that we care about. And so I have pointed to Adam's work and pointed to the tools that are available and asked questions at the relevant moments. [Laughs] And we've made some good progress there.

 

But the other thing I think I've realised is that it's about really focussing on what I can do within my craft and within my role and how I can become a more deep expert on what it means to do Product Management in a sustainable way, what it means to lead Product Teams and enable them to do, to build products in sustainable ways. And that's where my effort and my interest is now.

 

Adam Turner: 

I think it's important to recognise where IT and digital has moved from. And it's moved into the centre of organisations and therefore vital to deliver their corporate agenda and their commitments. So whatever organisation is out there, it-it, it's unfeasible to say that you, you can deliver the objectives of your organisation and your commitments whoever you are, whether your sustainability organisation or not, you can't do it without digital and tech.

 

But I think it's very important to know that we're, we're at the beginning of this journey in recognising how everyone can get involved. And it's great, the, the momentum’s there. Everyone's really passionate about this. Everyone's recognising that they need to cut down on their flights. Think about, you know, the meat they consume. Think about where their energy is being sourced. And slowly but surely, we're waking up to the role of digital and tech in that. And as we learn more about this, we as a profession can share expertise. And it's been wonderful to hear all of these examples today. And get this as part of training for everyone and share best practices and really start to create the momentum to push this forward.

 

Emily Labram: 

I was going to recommend Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick. And I would say if there's any digital folk listening who want to just start to get a more, a general understanding of where emissions are and how they can be managed and reduced in digital team, that's the book that's helped me out the most.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Gosh, it's so exciting [laughs] hearing you respond so positively to what's already happening in government. I know it's Earth Day, which of course will be a reminder to many to think about the impact their actions have, but much more encouraging that even when it's not Earth Day, these efforts are underway here.

 

So on such a positive note, I want to say thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today and sharing all this best practice and giving us motivation, hope, advice to do our best when it comes to greening in government, especially in the digital space. So you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. Goodbye. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Bye. Thank you.

 

Emily Labram: 

Bye everyone. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #28: Demystifying GOV.UK PaaS

Government Digital Service Podcast #28: Demystifying GOV.UK PaaS

March 31, 2021

The GOV.UK Platform as a Service team provides insight into how the service works and how it helps public sector organisations to host digital services.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today we will be talking about GOV.UK Platform as a Service. GDS has a reputation for creating best in class digital products and services for government, and GOV.UK Platform as a Service - or GOV.UK PaaS for short - is one of them. 

 

GOV.UK PaaS helps public sector organisations to secure and swiftly host their digital services without worrying about infrastructure. It’s currently used by 131 organisations, runs 1,652 applications and recently celebrated passing its live service assessment, providing a joined-up experience across channels. 

 

Joining me are Clare Barnett and Mark Buckley. Thank you for being here. Would you mind introducing yourselves to the listeners?

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah. Hi, everyone, I'm Clare. I'm a Senior Researcher on GOV.UK PaaS. And my role involves spending most of my time with users of GOV.UK PaaS, understanding what they need from our platform, understanding how current features work and what we can do to improve them, and also understanding how we might need to develop the product in the future to help meet needs that we're not currently catering for. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thanks, Clare. Mark?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Hiya, I'm Mark Buckley, I'm Product Manager on GOV.UK PaaS. And that means that a lot of the user needs and things that Clare identifies and other folks on the team, I help to prioritise in order to iterate and hopefully make that product better. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. So both of you mentioned GOV.UK PaaS and I also gave an introduction at the top of the episode but I’m sure [laughs] our listeners would value hearing from an expert what GOV.UK PaaS actually is. 

 

Mark Buckley: 

So GOV.UK Platform as a Service - or as we abbreviate it to PaaS as it's quite the mouthful - is a cloud hosting platform essentially, where service teams around government and public sector can use us to host their applications and digital services in the cloud. So whether that's a service living on GOV.UK like the Teaching Service or a simple informational website such as technical documentation or something like that, they can host their app, those applications on our platform.

 

The platform side of it, and is doing this sort of hard work of connecting and running the infrastructure that underpins the World Wide Web. So is akin to the plumbing in a house. So, yeah, we take care of that so the service teams don't have to. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thanks Mark. 

 

Clare, as a user researcher, can you tell us why should people use PaaS? Does that come up maybe in your work? 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, it absolutely does. And, you know, I'm talking close all the time and I'm always hearing: one of the things that we hear is how we can improve the product. But we're always hearing the good stuff as well and why people use us. And I mean, essentially PaaS is there to help teams avoid unnecessary overheads.

 

So it means that they don't have to run the infrastructure themselves and they don't need to have Web Ops capability in-house, which means they can focus their time and budget on running their service. And what we hear from our users is that using GOV.UK PaaS, it means that they can avoid procurement blockers, it's much easier to-to use us than it is other commercial services because they don't have to go through long procurement processes.

 

We also offer a great developer experience, which we've spent a lot of time developing and improving over the years. And we're trusted - we hear from a lot of users that the fact that PaaS is developed by the public sector for the public sector is a really good thing for our users. It helps avoid lock-in with expensive suppliers and it feels much more collaborative as well. And overall, we're offering teams much better value for money than, than some of the commercial providers out there.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you ever have people coming in thinking they know what PaaS is and you've got to clear up a couple of misconceptions? 

 

Clare Barnett: 

I mean, I think we have people who maybe think they can use PaaS in a slightly different way to the way that they, they do. But I mean, I would say some of the common misconceptions are that: it's only for developers. And actually that's not true at all. We do have a number of designers using GOV.UK PaaS to host their prototypes. So yes, we-we do have some misconceptions, but we're able to clear those up quite easily. 

 

Mark Buckley:

Yeah, I-I suppose more often than not, we get misconceptions the other way, as in they don't know what PaaS is or aren't clear on sort of the benefits or the purpose for us.

 

A lot of teams we hear from: 'oh, well, it's only for, available for central government. It's made for central government by central government'. But that's not the case. We've done a lot of work over the years in opening up those contracts and focussing on the-the needs of not just central government, but the wider public sector. So we have teams and services from the devolved administrations, Northern Ireland Assembly use like pretty extensively, local authorities use us, NHS use us, College of Policing use us there - so we have representation from right across the public sector.

 

And I suppose another kind of misconception   is that GOV.UK PaaS is only suitable for very simple services, such as, as I mentioned earlier, sort of a static website or something like that. But again, that's not true. We have quite we're a, we're a very flexible and powerful platform actually. And some of the services that folks might know: so the Document Checking Service is running on GOV.UK PaaS and GOV.UK Notify, which is, over, certainly over COVID, has become pretty much the UK's notification platform that also runs on GOV.UK PaaS. So we-we have the kind of full spectrum of services living quite happily and running reliably on GOV.UK PaaS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I imagine that listeners know maybe of the word cloud, cloud hosting - because we do have a sizeable audience in the Digital, Data and Technology space. I'm sure they also know that there's commercial providers in this instance. So what motivated government to create this tool rather than just relying on external providers?

 

Mark Buckley: 

GOV.UK PaaS, yeah, is not the only Platform as a Service offering or cloud hosting offering that is available to public sector. Indeed, there is a somewhat confusing overlap with G-Cloud where you could procure different types of cloud hosting provider potentially. But we as a GOV.UK PaaS is a Platform as a Service which when it comes to cloud hosting and that type of thing, is different from Infrastructure as a Service, which is generally what private sector infrastructure providers would provide. 

 

And if services or teams decide to use that, they will have to stitch together and do all of that kind of plumbing themselves because there's sort of more raw materials. And in-in doing that, will have to hire and recruit significant web operations capability. Because we are a platform, we've done all that, built it once with the needs of government at its heart. So to-to fit with the-the kind of M.O. of the rest of the government as a platform products. So GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay and our ourselves: we built it once so that it can be reused and across the public sector, so that there isn't that same duplication of effort. And cloud infrastructure and hosting is not a simple kind of area and takes a lot of investment. So it's, you know, the, that we've provided or invested a lot in that is beneficial hopefully to other service teams.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, definitely build once, use many, it's a favourite phrase in-in our organisation. 

 

Right. So obviously, you are working on the product itself. I was wondering if you maybe in user research, hear about the kind of challenges people have been able to overcome thanks to GOV.UK PaaS or whether you've got a particular case that you'd consider a success story.

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah. So we-we hear a lot of the time that teams are able to move a lot faster when they are using GOV.UK PaaS. So they're able to deploy faster. Just generally it kind of helps their internal processes. We take away a lot of the work that otherwise they might have to do themselves. 

 

So some research that we did recently around users evaluating PaaS for use. One user actually said to us: ‘largely all of the effort is offloaded onto ourselves’. So they see the value for money in that the-the service doesn't really feel like very expensive at all. You know we're taking away a lot of the work that-that users would actually have to do in their teams, that's being placed on us.

 

On top of that, the support that we offer is really comprehensive. So whereas if a team was using a commercial competitor of ours, they might be paying quite hefty sums to have a support model in place. With GOV.UK PaaS, they get all of that included and they get access to 24/7 support. So it-it really is-it's the speed at which people are able to operate and the fact that they can reduce their team size, they don't have to have web ops capability. And the fact that overall that these things combine to help them save money and get bet-better value for money in the long term.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

If someone is curious to find out more, maybe take their own time and to look at information, where can they go?

 

Clare Barnett:

Yeah, so if you'd like to find out more about PaaS and how it works, then you can go to our website, which is cloud.service.gov.uk for more information. If you're already using PaaS, then you can contact our support channel, and again, if you go to cloud.service.gov.uk, you'll see a support thing in the top right hand corner of the page. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So obviously we've heard brilliant things about PaaS now, but don’t just trust us seeing as we are the organisation [laughs] that developed GOV.UK PaaS. We’ve actually chatted with some tenants. So first off we will be hearing from Himal Mandalia. 

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

Himal Mandalia: 

Hi I'm Himal. So I've joined GDS recently as Head of Technology for GOV.UK. I've been working around government digital for about the last 6 years. Working at the Ministry of Justice Digital and the Department of Education.

 

So I've just joined about a month ago, but over the last few months since last year, there's been some experimentation running, some trials around GOV.UK Accounts.

 

As part of the trial, the first step was to-to offer an account along with the Brexit Transition Checker. So as a user, as a citizen, you-you go through a journey, you get to some answers that you might want, but then you may want personalised notifications when some of that content changes and you may want a return journey, you may want to come back and, and see, see what you selected previously.

 

Now, that's not being hosted along with the sort of main GOV.UK stack. GOV.UK is quite a large, complex service made up of many, many applications which are hosted on an infrastructure platform that's fairly manually set up and we are shifting over to something that will meet our evolving and quite sophisticated needs.

 

But for the experiment particularly the-the Accounts prototype - GOV.UK PaaS was the obvious thing to use for that. You know, just get it in there. You can deploy to it easily. You can tear it down. You can spin up additional things. And, you know, in my role as Head of Technology, I'm quite comfortable with advocating PaaS for any additional things like that. And as we, as we, as we go about re-platforming a lot of those components for GOV.UK, I definitely want to keep PaaS on the table as an option for some of those services that are very modular, that can just be, be stood up and, and then run very easily. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind sharing what you think the advantage is of hosting on GOV.UK PaaS versus other solutions?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

What things don't you want to have to worry about? What things are just, you know, what's termed the undifferentiated heavy lifting. It's really the same for many of these use cases, and you just want it to happen magically. You don't want to have to think about it. You don't want anyone doing it. And a lot of that is that that site reliability engineering, the the infrastructure engineering required to create the environment in which your application lives. And you and this is where, this is where PaaS comes in because that's all set up for you. A developer can just issue a few commands and create an environment, and launch the app. 

 

I was describing this to some non-technical stakeholders and leadership in DfE a year or 2 ago, there was some confusion around, you know, why would we want PaaS when we have a cloud platform already? And I said, well, it's like having access to a-a really, really high quality construction site. So you've got your space to-to build your roads and your houses and you've got these amazing construction tools, but you need a level of specialism. You need actual-actual architects. You need people that can lay, can lay the electricity, wires under the road. You need to do a lot of stuff to build a few houses, but you have complete control in how you set, in how you set that up.

 

PaaS is much more like moving into a, moving, moving into a flat that's just ready, and all you need to do is worry about the furnishings, what you're going to put in there. And that was a very sort of loose sort of metaphor that I kept sort of pushing the boundaries on, and it broke a few times. But it's, it's, it's pretty much that: it's that, it's that thing, your application just needs somewhere to live. You just want to take care of that furnishing layer of it, not have to worry about the wiring up the walls for any electrics. 

 

You know, organisationally you need a range of options. You do need the very low level infrastructure offering for-for the things that are very differentiated. And you need to have a very customised infrastructure build. But you also need those things that remove all of that heavy lifting and just let teams put apps out there.

 

And I think I've encountered in some places a very one dimensional view of what cloud means. It's, it's, it's basically a case of a one size fits all solutions, which is, which is not really the nuanced view that's needed. A nuanced view is ensuring you have the capabilities across the spectrum to handle all of your use cases. And some will be very IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service. But PaaS should definitely be there. And I think the, I think, I think the zenith of something like that is fully self-serve PaaS, which is, which is where we are with GOV.UK PaaS. It's, it's, it's great. And we just need to keep iterating it, improving it.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if anything particular stuck out to you or maybe we can discuss what it is about people working with PaaS that you all go to building and construction metaphors [laughs]?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah, well, thanks to Himal for speaking so eloquently and positively about GOV.UK PaaS.

 

A couple of things sort of jumped out at me that it'd be really good to sort of reiterate. And one of those is: Himal mentioning it's not a, there's not a, it's, it's not a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all when it comes to PaaS. There's absolutely no reason why services and departments can't use things in addition to PaaS, or as well as PaaS.

 

So Himal mentioned where there are those really sort of complex or specialised differentiated services. Then absolutely GOV.UK PaaS probably isn't the platform for-for them. But there are also vast swathes of services and applications across government that are quite typical, sort of 3-tier applications as they're kind of known in development terms. So there might be a presentation layer and a data layer and application layer all mixing together. They work really well on GOV.UK Paas, and that essentially is probably the majority of the services that run on GOV.UK, for instance, or not on GOV.UK but are part of that.

 

So if you're searching for a teacher vacancy as kind of said before or looking for your energy performance certificate at MHCLG [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government], these are all services that run really well on GOV.UK PaaS and take that stress or drama away from Developers and Web Ops Engineers so they can concentrate on other things.

 

Clare Barnett: 

I was just going to add to that - that's something that kind of stood out for me was when Himal talked about wanting to use GOV.UK PaaS for other applications that they're looking to standup on GOV.UK as well. Because we hear that from a lot of users of the platform that once they've used it once, quite often they become advocates for GOV.UK PaaS.

 

You know they are selling it within their own organisations and wanting to use GOV.UK PaaS for as many things as they can and as many services suitable for. And basically end up with a really strong community of users who are really good at sharing with each other and, and, and sharing the patterns that they use and the way that they do things with, with other users to help them understand how they might be able to use the platform for their specific needs, which is, which is really great. And yeah, and it's nice for us to know that, you know, once someone used us once, actually they want to use us again. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, I'm, I'm really enjoying hearing all the positive news about it, and it must be really nice to have that sort of unintended consequence of people becoming these evangelists essentially and also supporting each other when it comes to the use of it.

 

So next we’ll be hearing from Colin Saliceti and his experience using GOV.UK PaaS at Department for Education. 

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Colin Saliceti: 

Hi, my name is Colin Saliceti and I work for the Department for Education in the Teacher Services area. Teacher Services is a big area in the Department of Education [DfE], and our goal is to get excellent teachers for every child. My job title is actually Lead Infrastructure Engineer and me and my colleague, we take care of the cloud infrastructure for all the services that are developed in Teacher Services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So Colin, thanks for introducing yourself. You work in Teacher Services, I was wondering, how does that relate to PaaS? 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

In Teacher Services, we create and develop a number of services for, mainly for teachers and their careers. So we have a number of service teams which do a lot of development. So we need to provide them with the best tools to deploy their services and make it available for the, the public. And PaaS is a very good tool for that. We have different options. But we have experimented with one service which was teaching vacancies earlier, and this proved a massive success. And then next, we expanded to more and more services. 

 

For example, Get Into Teaching, which is our main information website for teachers. That's where they can get information about the career, they can get in touch with an advisor, they can subscribe to events, and they can actually start the process to get them to-to become a teacher.

 

And it ties well with another service that's also on PaaS, called Find Teacher Training. So the future candidates can find a-a teacher training. So this is a very important website that the providers of training all across England advertise their courses and the candidates can apply for them through the website.

 

And we also have another one, which is Register Trainee Teacher - which is also on PaaS; it's not live yet, but it's almost there - where we can actually track all the, the trainees and see at which stage they are in-in their training and follow them in the beginning of their career. So there's quite a number of different services and it's just growing.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So our next question is what the advantage is of hosting on PaaS versus other solutions, would you mind explaining what the benefit of it is? 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

The first thing is because it's easy compared to different platforms. 

 

It's not easy because it's simple. It's easy because t-the platform packages a lot of features, but the way to use it, the interface to use it is, it's-it's quite easy for us. So we don't actually need a highly skilled specialist, at least in the beginning, to get on board with PaaS. So a Service Team with developers, they can manage themselves to deploy to-to PaaS without any assistance, at least in the first stages.

 

It's very important that it's a very flexible platform. And we can deploy the production website, but we can deploy many test websites if we need to, and we can deploy a new one for, to test something in particular, and then we can destroy it because we don't need it again and we don't need to pay for it again. So that, this flexibility is very important. And it also makes it very cost effective because we only pay for what we use and when we don't need it, we can scale down or just delete it.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if you have a user story that relates to the service that shows why it was a good idea to go with PaaS. 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

I got a very good example in the, actually, in the other part of the department.

 

After Teaching Vacancies, which was the-the first, it became obvious that PaaS was a good choice and some of other teams adopted it as well in, in DfE. So you may have heard of the laptops that we delivered to all the schools and for the disadvantaged kids who, to help them do the homeschooling. And so this was done thanks to a programme called Get Help with Tech. This was built very quickly and it was built on PaaS from day one. And PaaS proved that there was very important because we were able to build very quickly and iterate very quickly until we got the service right and we're able to deliver to all the schools in England. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering if I was a member of a different government department or a different team, how would you convince me to use GOV.UK PaaS?

 

Colin Saliceti: 

First of all, the reasons I already explained: that it's easy to use and the, the learning curve is very easy. This flexibility is amazing as well, and that's really cost effective.

 

It's also very important that it's provided by government, it's not a separate commercial platform, it is actually provided by GDS. So all the security assurance has already been done and it's assured up to different levels of confidentiality. So you don't actually, in your department, you don't actually need to do that work again because it was already done by GDS.

 

And another thing is that because it's supported by GDS and we have an amazing relationship with them and we get an excellent support for them, from them, from the people who build and actually run the platform, and we have direct contact with them. And they're also here 24/7 in case of an issue. Which, so it's a great experience to run things on PaaS. 

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So that was Colin. I also want to hasten to add, he was very concerned with appearing impartial because he did work at GDS previously on PaaS. Just wanted to make sure that he was completely representing DfE only.

 

Mark Buckley: 

And that's the impartial version? Well, that's, that's good to hear. [chair squeaks]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think your chair just laughed.

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah, potentially. 

 

No, we've been working with DfE and Colin for, for a long time, but it's, it's great that Colin is still enjoying the benefits of our platform.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Anything stand out otherwise? I was wondering, he mentioned, for instance, the really good support that you provide and I think, Clare, you mentioned that as well, coming out in your user research interviews. 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, that comes up a-alot when we talk to our users, because it's part of what makes PaaS so cost-effective for people, but it's also it-it means that people feel reassured that they're going to get the help and support. They get you know, responses. There's a really quick turnaround time for, for responses.

 

And we offer it not just through our support platform, called Zendesk, but we'll say through Slack. So there-there's multiple channels that people can use to get that support. And they will always be speaking to somebody from the team, as Colin said, who is well-versed in the platform, very experienced. And often the team will pair on them if they're trying to troubleshoot or problem-solve something and-and often help them fix problems that are not actually a PaaS problem. It might be that there's a problem with their, their code their end and quite often the PaaS team help identify that. So there's a lot of added value in that support package for our users.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That seems to chime a lot as well with what Colin is talking about in terms of it being a really good test environment, in terms of being able to try things out, see if they work or not. Is that a common kind of use case across government?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah it's, but...we-we support services and applications running from everything from discoveries and alphas. As Colin was kind of mentioning, sort quick prototypes to check the viability. As Clare mentioned earlier, designers using it to test out and iterate sort of content and things like that. So you've got that at, at the start of the journey, but also all the way up to running mature products and services that teams do iterate on and improve those as well after going live, as it were.

 

It’s, in a sort of roundabout, roundabout way both Colin and Himal mentioned that things like Infrastructure as a Service, IaaS, and requiring real expertise and specialists. And quite often in government and early on in those services when they're getting up and running, will rely on suppliers and external parties to come in, maybe contractors, to come in and build things. And if they're built with incredibly specialist skills, then that becomes really difficult to maintain in the long term when the build team might have moved on to other projects for instance.

 

Having a platform like GOV.UK PaaS enables services to only need to recruit and employ Developers that they need and not the additional specialists and some, that kind of thing so that they can quickly iterate and test things out and not be at risk of not being able to support what they're doing over the long term. So, yeah, it's, what Colin said kind of brings a tear to the eye, right, in terms of being able to quickly build those things on a supported platform that can then enable support to folks in lockdown that really need help with education and homeschool. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We always love it when our services have that direct impact, I think it's a lot more relatable to people to say I've got my kid a refurbished laptop, rather than saying that now you can get your document checked, because obviously Document Checking Service is much more a business-to-business kind of environment, isn't it?

 

So we've heard from some of the people who are using GOV.UK PaaS about why they like it, and about how your team develops it, but I think it's time now to share some GOV.UK PaaS fast facts with our listeners. As a starter for 10, can you tell me whether there's maybe a record for how fast a service was stood up via GOV.UK PaaS?

 

Mark Buckley: 

You know, even though we are, from a development point of view, you can do a cf push and your application is running in minutes, in terms of actual real life bonafide services, the Shielded Vulnerable People Service as part of the support for people shielding and to get them support during coronavirus, the, there was a first kind of pull request on that service at 4pm on a Thursday, and the service itself went live when the Prime Minister a-announced it on, on the Monday.

 

So you know, within the space of 4 days, you've got something stood up and running on PaaS that, and the first care packages, or support packages, delivered to people within a week kind of thing. Which, yeah, at-at the beginning when, you know it seems like a long time ago now, was this was almost, almost almost a year ago, it was like indispensable to have GOV.UK PaaS and the other common platforms as well, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay as ways to very quickly, cheaply and easily stand up new services. So 4 days to support the Vulnerable People Service was a really nice thing to do. I don't know if it's a record, but it's a good, good story.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

If you want to hear more about how this service was stood up, you can listen to our February episode of the podcast. 

 

Clearly GOV.UK PaaS has had an important part to play in the UK government response to coronavirus but what other services do you host that you think listeners might be surprised by? 

 

Mark Buckley: 

It's not only GOV.UK designed system services and things like that, as, as mentioned, NHS, local authorities, various kinds of things are hosted. I think the probably most unusual service that is hosted on GOV.UK PaaS is called Cosmic Bazaar - and not bizarre as in unusual, although it is unusual, Bazaar as is in markets or souk [laughs] I suppose - which is a forecasting platform for economists to hone their, yeah forecasting and evaluation skills as part of the Cabinet Office. So that was an unusual one to be posed with. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Clare, I'm thinking that across all of these various services that are being set up on PaaS, the user research element of it is probably still going to remain consistent even as the applications vary across the 'bazaar' to the mundane. Is that right?

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yes, we have a really wide variety of services, but within that we have a kind of core set of different types of users - they fit into you know, a certain user type that we see. Which means that we can build the product around those user types rather than building and designing the product around very kind of specific niche services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So my final question is just about whether you've known about any other governments taking advantage of our research here. For instance Notify, we've been quite grateful and flattered where the Australian government, the Canadian government, the Department for Veteran Affairs in America, they've used the GitHub basically forked it and made their own variations of it. I was wondering, have you heard about that being the case maybe for PaaS?

 

Mark Buckley: 

We actually have a bit of a kind of community ourselves with other, other 'PaaS's' from around the world. So our PaaS, GOV.UK PaaS, is built upon a technology called Cloud Foundry, which is the abstraction layer I suppose away from the raw infrastructure that Colin and others have talked about. And as well as ourselves, also the Australian government and the American government, Cloud.Gov, use Cloud Foundry as well. So there's been quite a lot of sharing between our teams. So 18F was the kind of equivalent of GDS in America. We have quite frequent contact with them. We have shared our repos, we've used some of their repos. So yeah, that's a lovely global community of Cloud Foundry and PaaS users.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That’s so great. Like I know we do a lot of international work but it’s, it’s really quite heartening to see that what, you know that we’re collaborating internationally in something that’s so important. What a lovely note to end on right?

 

So yeah, thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. The transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye. 

 

Mark Buckley: 

Bye. 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #27: Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service

Government Digital Service Podcast #27: Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service

February 24, 2021

We hear from DWP, Defra, and MHCLG about their role in the cross-government response to help clinically vulnerable people during coronavirus.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today we will be talking about the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service and we will be joined by several guests.

 

You'll be hearing from Sally Benson from the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP], Martin Woolhead from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], Kate Nicholls from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG], and Nick Tait from GDS. As you can tell by this long list of participants, the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service involved a lot of people working for a lot of departments - it was truly a cross-government effort. 

 

But you might not be clear on what it is. In March 2020 as a critical response to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, GDS rapidly built the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service, also known as VPS, to provide support for clinically extremely vulnerable people in England, who had been advised to shield. The service was stood up over one weekend and then continuously iterated to support emerging policy and user needs.

 

The service enables clinically extremely vulnerable people to register their personal details and support needs, which are securely stored, validated against NHS shielded patient lists for eligibility and securely transferred to frontline service providers. During the period of national shielding from 23 March to 30 July, that is wave one of shielding, the Vulnerable People Service facilitated more than 4.2 million deliveries of essential supplies, support with basic health and care needs, as well as providing priority supermarket deliveries.

 

Joining me now are Kate Nicholls and Nick Tait. Thank you for being here. Would you mind introducing yourselves to the listeners? Let's start with Kate.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Sure. Hi, I'm Kate Nicholls. I've been working in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of the shielding programme, particularly on the Data Policy Team. So we work really closely with GDS on the kind of ongoing development of the Vulnerable People Service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Thanks for joining us Kate. Nick, would you mind introducing yourself? 

 

Nick Tait: 

Absolutely. Hello everybody. My name is Nick Tait. I'm the Service Owner for the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service here in GDS. And I've been with the programme since 5 May 2020.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you. So both of you work for parts of government that have been instrumental in the development of the service. I was wondering how you came to join the teams that were working on this?

 

Nick Tait: 

It was pretty much born of necessity really and, and practicality. As you said in your introduction Vanessa, there were a, and there remain, a lot of interested parties, a lot of stakeholders, too much for any one department to do, given the, the nature of our response to the emergency that we found, we find ourselves in. And the 2, as far as GDS and MHCLG were concerned or are concerned, we're the 2 main players: we represent the policy and the delivery of said policy as far as the digital service goes. And furthermore, as the project has progressed, it's become expedient for us to get closer to both policy makers and, and people they know - so relationships with local authorities, for example, are best facilitated by colleagues at MHCLG. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Kate, I know that you joined the MHCLG team working on this a little while into the VPS [Vulnerable People Service] being set up. How did you experience that?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

It was actually a really great time to join because all of those kind of key relationships between GDS and MHCLG had already been established. And when I joined the team, it already really had that kind of “one team” feel. So I-I'd come from a completely different job elsewhere in government policy. And I came here and it was just, yeah, this kind of efficient machine [laughs] that was just like achieving things every single day. So, yeah, it was, it was a great kind of feeling joining in with that.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Both of you touch on relationships being established, being really valuable. Do you think you've experienced anything on this scale where you've had to tap in so many departments working on the same project before? Or do you reckon that this is, and I dare use the dreaded word, unprecedented?

 

Nick Tait: 

M-my experience of a civil servant, there has been nothing quite like this. And for me, the fact--sure, I've worked on other programmes where there are perhaps as many stakeholders, but not at this pace. We have excellent governance practises in, processes in place. But they happen at 2 weekly cycles. But you know, at-at the working level of getting the job done then to really hone in on where those key relationships are, that's something that we have had to do in order to respond at scale. And, and I should add that because there are so many stakeholders, we have Engagement Leads on the project whose main job is to consult with local authorities or with DWP or with the food and medicine supplies and so on and so forth. So it-it multiplies out. But yeah, nothing quite like this before. I think it's fair to say.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Completely agree with Nick. So I've worked on teams in the Civil Service before where there's been, you know, a degree of close working with departments. But I don't think the kind of level that we've got to where, you know, you could just pick up the phone and speak to anyone on the GDS side if you're in MHCLG and, and vice versa. And it's just kind of, it's just right there at your fingertips. I think that's something I've never quite experienced before. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I'm, I'm really glad to hear that went [laughs] well then.What was it like working with colleagues in departments like Department for Health and Social Care [DHSC] and external organisations like the NHS, who may be structured differently because of their work being so focused directly on the public?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Sure. Yeah, so we've, we've worked really closely with NHS Digital (NHS D) because they sort of provide the shielded patient list, the SPL, which is basically the kind of the heart of the whole project. 

 

So while GDS have built this wonderful registration system, the people that that's targeted at are the people who are identified clinically by doctors and other clinicians to be extremely vulnerable. So we've had to kind of, similarly to how we've done with GDS, we had to build up really good working relationships with them, have sort of regular meetings, joint governance, and really kind of create that kind of “one team” feel to make sure that, that the right sort of data on those who are clinically extremely vulnerable is flowing through our system, is flowing to local authorities, you know, whilst also keeping patient records safe, secure and, and sort of operating legally. So that's kind of the challenge of what we've have to do with NHS D. And I think by building up really good working relationships with them that's how we've managed to kind of overcome that and, and use that data in a way that hasn't, you know, really happened with patient data ever before in the past.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Nick, was there anything that you could add about either the working relationship with DHSC or NHS Digital?

 

Nick Tait: 

So my, my experience around DHSC, the one that I'd sort of pinpoint is, is their involvement at the overall, overall programme steering board - where we have had regular contact with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer [DCMO]. And having, having senior stakeholders as, as embodied in DCMO to go, and there is all of this happening helps frame our work a little bit more, and then that comes down to, to working level, where it is the nuts and bolts of the all, all important shielded persons list, which, as Kate says, is, without which we'd be scrabbling about. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So we actually talked to Martin Woolhead from DEFRA, which is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, regarding the Vulnerable People Service. And he also shared with us a little bit about the working relationships between the departments. 

 

[CLIP STARTS]

 

Martin Woolhead: 

I'm Martin Woolhead. I'm Deputy Director for Food for the Vulnerable in DEFRA, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. My role essentially is overseeing policy and work on food for vulnerable people. So that ranges from work with food charities and local authorities to essentially get and look after food needs for vulnerable people. 

 

One of the things I think constantly cropped up throughout the process was that, for example, on what we did on food supply, MHCLG could also have done that, you know MHCLG as programme owners, and working on this across government and leading it, could also have essentially contracted with food suppliers to deliver the, the packages of essential supplies that were delivered. The reason it wasn't done in that way was simply because of those relationships and the urgency that we had. So because we had the existing relationships, DEFRA was able to kind of work specifically on that bit and get it done quickly.

 

So, so where DEFRA worked on food supply because of its existing relationships, other departments had relationships with others. So in regard to the supply of medical supplies so medicines and things, DHSC led on that element because they had the relationships. And so with MHCLG convening, they were able to kind of use the relationships that other departments had and kind of, you know, outsource those bits. And for me that's part of the reason why it was done so quickly. So with all of the urgency, we used existing relationships to get things done. 

 

From, I think, the first ask for, you know, essential supplies to help shielded people, to boxes of essential supplies starting to appear on doorsteps, took around 10 days. And from the announcement of shielding, so when shielding was first announced publicly, to people first receiving their essential supplies was 5 days. And you know, in the context of panic buying across the country, in the context of the global pandemic, the fact that we were able to organise direct doorstep, essential packages to any doorstep in England, and, and most services don't offer that. You know, most supermarkets won't offer doorstep delivery to every address in England, in just 5 days, I think was an incredible achievement.

 

[CLIP ENDS]

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, we already had people that were experts in food supplies that knew the supermarkets. We already had a Government Digital Service with like expert content providers, people who are experts in, in data protection. We already had MHCLG, who have, like, links into councils and a really good understanding of what councils do on the ground and deliver. And also everybody in each of those departments already knew that we already have those people in the other departments. And you know I've missed people: DWP, who, you know, know everything about [laughs] how to set up an outbound call centre. So I guess it's kind of, it's a really positive story about the kind of existing connectivity between departments and different levels of quite, sort of deep expertise in different areas that we were able to draw upon pretty quickly.

 

Nick Tait: 

Yeah, I think, I think I'd echo that. I mean no individual department needed to reinvent any wheels really. The, the programme trusted each department to, to focus on its, its domain area and to do that well. Which, which happened. The, the challenge wasn't sort of reinventing the wheel, it was to build the new one. And the new one was around the data sharing, was around actually gluing a, a relatively disparate bunch of people within, within government to work together. And once people sort of trusted that ‘Department X’ would take care of their stuff and ‘Department Y’ would do theirs, then it was just the governance and the working that needed to be worked out. Which sounds dismissive. It isn't at all. There was, there was hard work to do there. But we didn't sort of go, “'oh, well I've, I've done food policy' says non-food policy department, 'so I'll get involved with that.'” There was, there was no time for that sort of shenanigans, and people were focussed on what they knew best. And that was the, the real strength. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was going to say, in a very cheesy way, everybody brought their own wheels, and it turns out they were cogs that all worked together, and it made a very smooth machine. [laughs]

 

Nick Tait: 

Indeed. Indeed. [laughs] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So clearly relationships are a key part to this having worked so well, but are there, are there other drivers that you can think of that supported the development of the service?

 

Nick Tait: 

I guess..so like the-the key driver, as in everything we do, is meeting the needs of our users. That's you know, primary directive: users first. And I think what we've learnt over the project is like, when everything was stood up in April, May 2020, the primary needs to be met were those of the clinically extremely vulnerable population. And, and as we became one team, we, we began to expand or, or more fully understand who our users were, how best are we serving service providers, whether it was wholesalers delivering food boxes, whether it was local authority, civil servants at the front line, who are in fact proxies, or can act as proxies, for CEV [clinically extremely vulnerable] users and use the system themselves and have their own requirements in their own local authorities.

 

And then sort of a, a third section of, of our users would be our stakeholders in terms of those who consume and then act upon the data that is presented via the dashboards that, that the Management, Information and Data Analytics teams provide. So I think, you know, the key driver has, has always been and will remain our users and that's sort of enshrined in how the service has been built. But what has changed, and, and continues to be iterated upon, is, is how we understand who our user population is and, and how best to serve that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that the service benefited from products such as GOV.UK Notify already being in place? But also, for instance, the data lists for the shielded people - because that data already existed, was that something that made your lives easier?

 

Nick Tait: 

Notify, yes, I can't, I don't, I don't want to entertain thinking about how things might have been had we not had a readily accessible solution to communicate in as many channels as possible, whether it's a physical letter, whether it was an email or a text message, which would have happened via Notify. And, and don't forget that, either t-that DWP colleagues had o-outward bound call centres. We also had our interactive voice recognition system that was part of the initial wave one service that allowed people to, to register - that was inbound only, but, but nonetheless. So having, having access to tools and technology that, that we could trust because they've been tried and tested before us, made, made our lives easier.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering as well: because the user was required to submit their details that were checked against that list provided by the NHS and DEFRA provided details to retailers under specific and secure conditions, I was wondering how the safety and security of user data was ensured and how was the data joined up to make sure the right people were giving the appropriate support?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

That was something that again is kind of, to use the, the much used word, unprecedented. So that was an area where we had to get all of the right people with the right legal expertise and data protection expertise - so with you know, the data protection leads across DEFRA, DWP, MHCLG, GDS, the Data Protection Officers - all together. They formed a kind of data governance oversight board. Whilst we you know, we were kind of under a lot of pressure to work really quickly and get data to, to you know supermarkets, to councils, et cetera as quickly as we could, we had a really kind of rigorous group of experts holding us [laughs] to account to make sure that we had the right data sharing agreements in place, the right MoUs [Memorandum of Understanding] and, and all of that kind of information governance documentation. So that was really appreciated, and it sort of goes back to the running theme of that cross-government working - if we hadn't been able to get all of those people in place and we just couldn't have made it work.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I believe there was a transfer tool as well. Could you tell me more about that perhaps? I believe it meant that you could select how people or which people could access what data if I got that right. 

 

Nick Tait:

So we-we use...for the cloud hosting service that we use for our data storage, ben-benefits from its own internal security reviews that they perform on the overall system. And then their secure storage solutions are compliant with our strict regulatory requirements. So in our case what this means, and this is where the, the data transfer tool comes in, is that all of our data is encrypted, both when we store it in the database and when we share it with whosoever we are sharing it with, whether it is a local authority or another government department.

 

And then at the same time, and talking of regulations, we've, we've established a sort of our own processes around the database. So if you think about GDPR and the principle of the 'right to be forgotten', that's, we have our own processes for this. And if, if our listener is interested, then they can, they can go to our service page and our, all of our privacy documentation is open and, and available there.

 

So like even for our teams or members of the engineering teams who have access to production, only those with security clearance can access them. It's not available to Tom, Dick or Harriet, so to speak. And we, we log and audit everything. So at any given time, who accessed which piece of data at one point, that information is always available to us. So, you know, we, we take personally identifiable information very, very seriously on this. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It sounds like you're doing your due diligence, I hope the listeners are heartened by that.

 

Nick Tait: 

Yeah. [laughs]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So next I was wondering, obviously we hope that something like this never happens again. That's the whole point behind the unprecedented language of course. But I was wondering if at the very least, there are learnings that you can take away from this project and the collaboration that you've carried out as well as maybe what not to do?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

I guess the main, the main thing I've learnt as somebody who's a-a policy official, who's never worked on a digital project before, I think I've learnt something very valuable from colleagues in GDS about, about that user base development and continuous improvement, particularly in an environment where you're setting something up very, very quickly as an emergency response.

 

And I think the more, as we've gone along, the more we've consulted our users - and I'm particularly, from an MHCLG perspective, thinking about councils - and ask them you know, what they think and take in their feedback and expose ourselves to kind of their, their comments and their perspectives, the better the system has become. And I think that's definitely, I guess, a general learning for me. But also if, if I, if, you know, we were ever in a position to be doing something like this again, doing that kind of immediate, constant almost consultation with users would be my main learning from kind of a policy person from the digital world, because I know user base, [laughs] user base development is already a kind of a thing that, that is common across the development of digital platforms.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You're sounding like an ambassador for Agile and user-based research there. That's amazing. But I was also really keen on you identifying, sort of, users outside of the clinically extremely vulnerable people and the local authorities. Because obviously the, the service has now changed because it's a much more local approach to providing these services, isn't it?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, definitely. I think there are, so both in wave one and wave two, on the ground in councils, the picture is a lot more complex. You know, our service talks about kind of basic support needs, but the kind of detailed assessment of each individual is happening at that council level, and, and the delivery of that support is happening across all sorts of organisations, voluntary organisations, NHS volunteer responders, charities, et cetera. And I think a-another kind of key, I guess key groups that we've tried to listen to are you know, groups like Age UK, all those voluntary groups that are actually on the ground doing these things. They're not direct users of our service, but kind of by proxy of, of being connected to the council, they are linked to the eventual kind of frontline service that our platform leads to.

 

Nick Tait: 

To echo Kate: having policy at a sort of a, a high level, have, having policy and delivery in the same room a-a-around the same virtual whiteboard makes for better service delivery. And I-I think that's the, you know, p-personally and then sort of to, to share more widely within GDS that that, for me, it feels like the only way that this can work. Because otherwise it, it will be a far more protracted process. So, I mean, we, we talk about closer working and collaboration and the tools that sort of facilitate all of this, but we, in my experience, we do that because it's true. And this, and this project is, is proof to me at least, and I, and I hope to our users that, that is the case.

 

So I think the other thing I, I'd reflect on over the time of the project was: at, at the very beginning, our, our, our overall governance was, was weighty. There was a lot of it. And over, over time as the working relationships have developed and the collaboration has developed and some of that governance has been more focussed on the bits that we're actually working on. So I think that's another reflection from me. 

 

And I, yeah, again we say it very sort of readily now, and, and we took it quite lightly to start with, but the whole “hashtag one team”. Again, i-it's not a joke, it really is, it's the real deal for us and wi-without that, we, we wouldn't be, I think, having a happy conversation like this. And as you say, I hope we don't have to respond on this level before, but there is enough learning here to, well to make an, a really active and considered response quickly, rather than as fast as you can, which is kind of where we were to, to start with, back in 2020.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Of course. At the time, you know it was just about getting it stood up, wasn't it? 

 

So we did talk to a couple of your colleagues in other departments. And one of them was Sally Benson from the DWP, that’s the Department for Work and Pensions. So we’re just going to listen to something that Sally shared with us. 

 

[CLIP STARTS]

 

Sally Benson: 

My name is Sally Benson, and my day job before being involved on the National Shielding Helpline as part of the critically extremely vulnerable service is working for the Department for Work and Pensions. More specifically, I'm a Senior Operational Leader in the Child Maintenance Group.

 

I think when we actually bring it home, 2 people stick out in my mind in terms of people that we phoned. Samantha, a blind lady that had no, no friends or family, immediate support around her, wasn't on a, you know, a mobile telephone. But the National Shielding Helpline were able to get in contact with her and, and put her in touch with those people that were able to help her.

 

Another lady that we also spoke to was a lady called Carol. And it became apparent from the outset of the call that, that Carol was, was experiencing some, some health difficulties on the phone and was talking to us about how she was having trouble breathing. And actually, we had a process in place that enabled us to call the emergency services. Our call centre agents remained on the call talking to Carol, making sure that she was ok and staying with her until the emergency services actually arrived.

 

It turns out that Carol was actually suffering a heart attack whilst on the phone to us. And unfortunately, there were 1,400 people throughout the whole of the, of the shielding contact centre process that, that actually needed us to refer to the emergency services. And I think, you know, w-wherever you are and whatever part you played in the, in the national shielding service, whether it be, you know, the data side of it and, and enabling us to actually contact people like Carol in the first place, whether it be decision makers and policy makers that, that actually decided that people like Carol needed, needed our help and our attention, or whether or not you were part of the actual contact centre that, for Department of Work and Pensions. 

 

Everybody played a part in, in making sure that we genuinely supported and protected those most vulnerable. And I think we've got to keep Samantha and Carol at the forefront of our mind when, when we are truly understanding the difference that, that we made. And, and it's those, those things that really give that sense of pride, real sense of purpose, and, and how together working across government, we, we really do look after those most vulnerable in our society. And the National Shielding Service was a perfect example of, of that.

 

[CLIP ENDS]

 

Nick Tait: 

For the GDS teams, we are intimately connected on the user research level because our user research involves speaking directly with the clinically extremely vulnerable as well as our other user groups. And this is on one hand, very, very stressful for people; especially in the earlier days of the service when people were in dire straits for the need of basic care supplies. And that, that has an impact and an effect on, on the people who are conducting that research. And we have to take care to support and, and look after our own team members who are open to this.

 

It's a very present now-now validation of the work that you're doing. I think as civil servants we are all contributing to the enhancement, I hope, of the society within which we live, but to have that [finger snap] instant feedback or relatively instant feedback is very, very powerful indeed.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, I'd agree with Nick on that point. I think you always, you know, as a civil servant, working on, kind of, policies that you hope will have an impact on the public. But often you might be waiting months or years to actually see that manifest - just because of, you know, how long policy development in normal times takes. But yeah, to be able to, kind of, immediately see how what you're doing is actually helping people in, in some small or big way is, is a really great thing about working on this. Even though it definitely comes with some of it's, kind of, pressure and stresses. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if you had any achievements that you wanted to call out specifically, any milestones, any, maybe shoutouts to colleagues that you wanted to praise publicly?

 

Nick Tait: 

So I think it's, it's...whilst I'm not a huge fan of milestones, there are certainly achievements that, that it serves us well to remember. So the service itself was stood up over a weekend, 4 days or thereabouts. And then for those registered users, essential supplies were arriving on doorsteps 10 days later. That's pretty amazing. And then over time in, in, in, from the March to the end of July 2020, just over 4 million deliveries of essential supplies were made. So you know this is real stuff happening. So I'm, I'm quietly proud of those things. And I think all of the teams genuinely have done the, the best they could with the tools they had at hand a-and with the information they had at the time, and we've taken time throughout the, the project, or the programme, to pause and to reflect and to ask ourselves: 'what can we do better?' 

 

And some, and some of that has been sort of like recognised formally. So in terms of shout outs, then I-I guess we'd give a shout out to David Dilley from GDS, who was very surprised on a personal level and nonetheless very, very happy to receive an excellence and leadership award at the, the Cabbies last week. So, these things are all good to have. And, and to work on a service that, that impacts people's lives pretty quickly is often enough.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, again, I-I feel like specific milestones maybe aren't quite what the thing that makes me kind of the proudest of the, of working on the project. I think the kind of continuous professionalism and kind of, I guess thirst for improvement is what impresses me about working on this project. So obviously the beginning, you know there was a very clear emergency response and, and a lot of momentum [laughs] that kind of comes with that. But I think it's really impressive that even though that kind of initial phase is, you know, of emergency is, is past us now, there's still kind of that appetite to constantly, to constantly test [laughs] with the users, to constantly improve. We just, just last week, we kind of implemented some improvements to the data feeds based on local authority feedback. And I think it's really inspiring to see people who are so enthusiastic about, sort of, delivering not just something that's good enough and does the job, but something that is constantly getting better. 

 

Nick Tait: 

A-a really like serious achievement in terms of like the overall, sort of, easing of some of the pressure has been the overall relationship with, with local authorities. So we, we meet regularly, fortnightly at the moment. It used to be weekly with our, our local authority working group, which is made up of, unsurprisingly, members of local authorities from different parts of the country who have different experiences and, sort of, maturity of, of, of digital. And when we started there were a lot of, sort of, folded arms and like, 'what, what are we all doing here then?'

 

But that group of people has stayed relatively constant, has put the hours in, has, sort of, really risen to the challenge of collective working and collaborative working. And, and now, as Kate has just, sort of, evidenced, that group of people is co-designing the service. And, and that for me is an, is an achievement. But there's no, sort of, milestone because it's been continually being, being worked at and worked t-towards by, by everybody in that group. And, and again, like so many things, it, it hasn't been a particularly smooth ride, it's been a bit bumpy in places. And that's totally fine. But because, again as Kate said, everybody was kind and humble and professional about it and, and felt free to, to air any concerns that they had. And, and collectively that group is delivering, and that's just wonderful.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, I definitely think we owe a lot to the kind of openness and, and I guess willingness to give us their time of local authorities. Obviously I would say that being from MHCLG. But you know, in, in so many different fora we have across the shielding directorate, the stakeholder engagement forum, where we get lots of valid feedback, we run kind of weekly surgery sessions with councils where we get so much kind of valuable insight into what it's actually like to use our service on the ground to deliver real stuff [laughs] to people. 

 

Yeah, as Nick said, we've got our invaluable local authority, working group. So, yeah, I think that's a really, really big part of any of the success that we can, we can claim to have had from the system comes from that, for sure.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Yeah, it's, it's not always easy for these external parties who might not have been there from the beginning to work on this in a way that they might not be familiar with. Obviously, it's a very Agile approach with GDS, and that's been something that's been spreading around government. But it's not necessarily something that local government has had to work with yet. So it's, it's great that they're signing on and that they're really engaged with it as well.

 

Well [laughs] on that positive note - thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye. 

 

Nick Tait: 

Goodbye.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #26: GDS Quiz 2020

Government Digital Service Podcast #26: GDS Quiz 2020

December 30, 2020

We look back at what happened over the past 12 months at GDS, highlighting work on accessibility, the coronavirus response and more.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today, we are looking back as fondly as we can on 2020. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this was a momentous year and we have many reasons to be proud of what our organisation and our colleagues have achieved. 

 

What better way to reflect on the year than to ask a couple of my colleagues to put their knowledge to the test? We're going to see who has been paying attention to GDS happenings in 2020. Please welcome my guests Louise Harris and Kit Clark.

 

Louise Harris: 

Hey, Vanessa, good to be here.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great to have you on, Lou. Do you mind telling us what you do at GDS and to spice things up a little bit for the end of the year, maybe a fun fact about yourself?

 

Louise Harris: 

Sure. Well, of course, we know each other very well, Vanessa, because I have the pleasure of working with you in the Creative Team. But for everybody else, I'm Lou and I head up the Channels and Creative Team at GDS. I'm a relatively new starter - I'm one of our lockdown joiners because I joined in May 2020. In terms of a fun fact, it may surprise some of you given my accent to know that I'm a fluent Welsh speaker.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You sou-I-do you sound very Welsh? You know what? We've got to put it to the test. Can you tell me what the team is called that you work for in Welsh? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Ok, this is something I think I can do. So I'll give you my intro again in Welsh. Louise Harris dw’ i, a rwy’n gweithio yn y Tim Creadigol a Sianeli yng Ngwasanaeth Digidol y Llywodraeth.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ok, anybody who knows Welsh, you've got to contact us and tell us if she got it right or not. Kit, would you mind introducing yourself? 

 

Kit Clark: 

Sure. My name's Kit, I'm an Engagement Manager within the Strategic Engagement Function. An interesting fact I suppose about myself, is that my uncle composed the Eastenders theme tune. So that's something I always, always bring out in introductions.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was warned that your interesting fact would be amazing. And I think it does live up to that disclaimer. I think that is a very, very fun fact indeed.

 

Louise Harris: 

I was not warned that your fun fact was going to be as good Kit, I'm so impressed by that. What a claim to fame.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think I might just start with the quiz. Of course, if you're at home, you can play along if you like. Just make sure to keep score as you go, as I'll be sharing the answer after each question.

 

So let's start with the first question of the quiz. 

 

Here it is: what was the most popular GDS podcast episode in 2020? So what topic do you think was in the most popular episode? I'll take that as an answer. 

 

[horn noise] 

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm presuming that we're excluding this episode from the list of most popular ones, so it's the most popular one before this one, right? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yes. I'm afraid we don't have any foresight, so it'll have to be one from January to November. 

 

Louise Harris: 

OK, well I think we've had some really great guests and different people from across government this year. The big one has got to be the GOV.UK response to Coronavirus and setting up the Coronavirus landing page - I think that was such a big achievement, both in terms of the work that was done to get that product up and out, but also for you folks over here on the podcast, because I believe that was the first remote recorded podcast that we did.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hmm. Any thoughts, Kit? Any competing offers?

 

Kit Clark: 

Not too sure. I know that accessibility's been quite a theme this year, and I believe that was in January. But I also know there was a couple of celebration ones - there was one looking at two years of Local Digital Declaration. So I think I might I go, I think COVID's a great shot but I'm going to go different and go accessibility. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. So there are some pretty solid guesses with both of you. Well done. I can reveal that the third most popular episode was in fact our accessibility episode. Good hunch there Kit. Second most popular was about the GOV.UK Design System. But indeed in first place, most popular episode this year was on the GOV.UK response to COVID-19. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wahoo!

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Points go to Lou on that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. So GDS has run a lot of stories this year. My second question is about the blog and which post attracted the most attention?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Louise Harris: 

This is a really tricky one because I think we've had so many good stories go out this year about the work that GDS has been doing across government. And of course, so much of what we do is used by our colleagues in the public sector. So there's often a lot of interest in what we have to say, which is great.

 

I mean, a big moment for me this year was our Global Accessibility Awareness Day celebrations where we were joined by thousands of people who came together to talk about digital accessibility and the work that we needed to do. So I feel like maybe the wrap up blog that we did about that, which had all of the links to the training webinars, I feel like that might be pretty popular. And even if it wasn't the most popular, it was definitely my favourite. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, I, I can reveal to you that the third most popular post this year introduced GOV.UK Accounts. 

 

Louise Harris: 

How could we forget? That was such a big story. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, you might want to hold onto that thought. It could just help you later in the quiz. Our second most popular post described the launch of our online Introduction to Content Design course. Content Design, hugely popular. I think we might have done a podcast episode about that. Finally, I can reveal our most popular post in 2020 explained how GOV.UK Notify reliably sends text messages to users. 

 

Let's go on to our next question. As a bit of a preamble GDS leads the Digital, Data and Technology Function in government, which is also known as the DDaT Function. And we believe firmly in user-centred design, hint hint - keywords. So there are several job families in DDaT, but can you tell me how many job roles feature in the user-centred design family? 

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

There's seven.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You seem pretty sure about that. On a dare, could you name all of them?

 

Kit Clark: 

I hope so because I've had some training on it relatively recently. So in the user centred design family, there's the user researcher, content strategist, the technical writer, and then there's the content design, graphic design, service design, and the interaction design.

 

Louise Harris: 

Wow, hats off Kit. I had a feeling it was like about seven roles, but I don't think I could have named them. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I am, I am very impressed. You gotta make sure that that team doesn't poach you away from us now. For those of you following along at home, you can find out more in the DDaT Capability Framework which is hosted on GOV.UK. 

 

And as it happens, we actually spoke to some content designers earlier in the year. So we're going to play a clip. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens: 

So GDS is actually the home of content design in the government too as the term and the discipline originated here under GDS’s first Head of Content Design, Sarah Richards. And why do you think it came out of the early days of GDS?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

So really good question. And I think it is really useful for us to pause and reflect and look back sometimes upon this, because it's not, you know, content design, as you said, it came from, as a discipline it came from GDS.

 

So really, it only started to emerge around 2010, so 2010, 2014. So in the grand scheme of things, as a discipline, it is very young. And so it's still evolving and it's still growing. And so back in the early 2000s, before we had GOV.UK, we had DirectGov. And alongside that, we had like hundreds of other government websites. So it was, it was a mess really because users had to really understand and know what government department governed the thing that they were looking for. 

 

So what GOV.UK did was we brought websites together into a single domain that we now know of as GOV.UK. And that was a massive undertaking. And the reason for doing that was was simple. It was, it was to make things easier for users to access and understand, make things clearer and crucially to remove the burden on people to have to navigate and understand all of the structures of government. 

 

So back in the early days, GOV.UK, GDS picked I think it was around, I think it was the top 25 services in what was known as the Exemplar Programme. I think things like that included things that Register to Vote, Lasting Power of Attorney, Carer's Allowance. And so I think through that process, we, we, we discovered that it actually wasn't really about website redesign, it was more about service design. 

 

And that's where content design and service design, interaction design and user research kind of came together under this banner of user centred design because you can't have good services without content design essentially. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright on to our next quiz question. So at GDS, we like to talk about “build it once, use it often”, and are responsible for a number of amazing products and services as part of our Government as a Platform or GaaP offer. Many of our products have been put through their paces during the coronavirus response and have hit some impressive milestones in the last 12 months. 

 

I'm going to award 2 points in total. It's a 2-part question, so I'll ask the first part first. So how many messages had GOV.UK Notify sent as of the beginning of December?

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it two billion? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oooh, ok.

 

Yes, Notify has sent more than 2 billion messages as of the beginning of this month. As you buzzed in first, I will give you first right of refusal. How long did it take Notify to send its first and second billion messages? 

 

Kit Clark: 

I'm going to pass it over to Lou and see, see what she knows about Notify?

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very gentlemanly.

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm really glad that Kit kicked this over to me because I remember seeing one of our colleagues, Pete Herlihy's tweet, which said that it took them a full 4 years to send the first one billion messages, but it only took them 6 months to send the second billion, which is an absolutely incredible achievement for Notify, and has shown just the kind of pace that that team's been working at. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Truly is an incredible number. But Notify has really had a big year. And Pete Herlihy actually shared some of Notify's story in our May episode of the podcast. Let's have a listen. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens:

But to talk specifically about Notify, they, in the blog post it’s talking about this huge increase in numbers, like 2 million SMS messages were sent using Notify on a single day in March compared to the daily average of 150,000. I’ve also got a figure here of daily messages up as much as 600%, as high as 8.6 million a day. 

 

So what services are using Notify to help with the government’s coronavirus response?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah, there, so the, the increase in communication is obviously massive and needs to be. And one of the biggest users of Notify is the GOV.UK email service, and they, they do all of the email for people who subscribe to any content that the government publishes - so travel alerts for example, if you want to know can I take a flight to Namibia, here’s the guidance, or if there’s hurricanes coming through the Caribbean and these countries are affected, then I need to like push out information to say don’t go to these places, or whatever it might be. 

 

And those alerts are, you know, again potentially protecting people, life and property - they’re like really important. And there’s been a huge amount of travel advice and alerts being given, as, as you can imagine. So that’s been one of the biggest users. 

 

And then I think, from, from the health perspective there’s, I’ll just say NHS because there’s like various bits of the NHS that are working like ridiculously hard and fast to spin out new services really quickly, and these services are like just incredibly crucial right now. 

 

So the extremely vulnerable service, this is one where the government said if you are you know, in this extreme risk category you should stay at home for 12 weeks, and they’ve been texting this group of people.

 

There’s all the stuff around testing and results for testing, ordering home test kits, all these sorts of things. So there’s the very specific COVID response type stuff and that is, there is a significant volume of that that’s still ongoing.

 

It all came very quickly as well. You know this wasn’t a gradual ramp up over weeks and weeks to 5,6,700%, it was, it was almost overnight.

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ok, I feel like this has been a bit too easy. So I thought about making the next 2 tricky and then I thought I was being too mean. So they are again connected questions, but they will be multiple choice this time. So again, if you buzz in for the first one, you get first dibs at the second question as well. So on 20 March, the GOV.UK Team shipped the Coronavirus landing page, which established a critical central source of guidance and information for people across the UK. But do you know how many days it took to go from concept to live? 

 

Was it A, less than 5 days, B, less than 12 days or C, less than 15 days?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Lou. 

 

Louise Harris: 

I think it was less than five days.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. That is correct. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wahoo.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

In fact it was only 4 and a half days. We had Markland Starkie and Leanne Cummings join us on the podcast in April to explain how we did this and what effect it had.

 

----------

[clip begins]

Markland Starkie: 

The thing that the landing page I suppose was able to do over and above the standard solution was really to bring together, in a more consolidated fashion, wider signposts to existing and new content across government. It also allows us the flexibility to redesign or extend or iterate on that landing page at pace, which we’ve been able to do in the, in the week since. So that’s based on ongoing research into the landing page and insights to move certain content around, add certain content that was missing in the first instance, and remove content that’s not working, all of those things.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was also, one of the reasons why it’s been able to be built quickly and iterated quickly, is we’re using other GDS tools that already exist, for example the GOV.UK Design System. Is that, was that, has been part of it as well? 

 

Markland Starkie:

Oh absolutely, yes. So without those things in place, like the Design System that you’ve mentioned, this would take weeks and weeks. So we’ve been able to take existing patterns, modify them where needed to. So being able to bring in elements whilst using existing patterns to really like kind of push it through at pace.

[clip ends]

----------

 

Kit Clark: 

I mean, I personally still find it incredible that things went from conception to actually delivering in such a short span of time. It’s incredible I personally think. And also when you're talking with such high stake products as well. You know, this is a time when the nation was looking for trusted sources of information about what they could do to keep themselves and their families safe. So it's just an incredible body of work to have done. And not only that, but also in true GDS style, they were keeping the user at the centre throughout the whole process. So I believe the Coronavirus landing page was the first landing page that we designed to be mobile first because we recognised that was where our users were going to be accessing that information. So in addition to delivering some incredible services and information at a pace we’ve probably never had to do before, we’re also continually iterating and innovating to give people the best possible experience on the site. I think there's so much to be proud of. And just really hats off to GOV.UK. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've earned yourself the right to answer the next question first. GOV.UK receives thousands upon thousands of visits every day, but in a week in March, it experienced a peak of how many visits? Was it A, 2 million, was it B, 67 million or was it C, 132 million?

 

Louise Harris: 

Ok, so it was back in March, so that is kind of peak COVID times. I think it's got to be 132 million. It must be. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You are officially on a roll. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wooo.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yes, the answer to the second question is 132 million. Although that is probably an underestimate as our analytics only count users who accept cookies that measure the website use. So the true figures are likely even higher, as Jen Allum explained in a blog post on the topic. So visit gds.blog.gov.uk to check that nugget out. 

 

Onto our next question. GOV.UK Pay has also had a busy year and last month we celebrated some recent milestones with them on this podcast. What were they? 

 

[horn noise]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Lou.

 

Louise Harris: 

I think it's been a really exciting time for Pay over the last couple of months. And I know that we spoke to them on a recent podcast, so I think that the milestone you're looking for is that they've onboarded their 400th service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, I'm sorry, Lou, but that was only half the answer I was looking for. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh no.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Kit, it's your chance. Do you want to score another half point maybe? 

 

Kit Clark:

I believe they processed half a billion pounds since their inception. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well done. That is spot on. And together, those two factoids make a pretty sweet nugget - that was so cheesy. But yeah, it's, it's incredible. And they only started in 2015. So that's an amazing number of services and sum of payments to process. 

 

So my next question for you both is that we were also very busy on the GOV.UK Twitter account this year and saw a huge spike in users coming to us with queries and looking for support. That is something that I actually blogged about back in May. But can you tell me as a percentage how much our engagement increased on our posts? Was it 12,500%? Was it 150% or was it 700%? And for a bonus, can you tell me to the nearest 100,000 how many people are following the GOV.UK Twitter account right now? 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

I want to go with the 12, 12 and a half. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Kit, I can confirm that you are right. Do you want to, do you want to try and punt for the bonus point? Do you reckon you've got that?

 

Kit Clark: 

Yeah, I’ll go for it. I think the GOV.UK Twitter account has got around 1.2 million people following it. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh, you are so close. I'm going to give you a half point. It's 1.8 million. And I have to say, it's been a real whirlwind of a year because of that. So we completely changed the way that we approach community management, responding to people. Lou I think you oversaw the project, what did you think? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Well, I think it certainly felt like we experienced a 12,000% increase in engagement, and I know that you, Vanessa, and so many of our colleagues over in Comms have been working really, really hard to make sure that we get back to the, frankly, thousands of people who come via the GOV.UK Twitter account every day looking for advice and signposting to guidance on the GOV.UK website. So it's been a phenomenal year. You've all done a phenomenal job and I think you've got lots to be proud of.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That's very kind of you to say. I wasn't really fishing for compliments, but I'll take them anyway. 

 

You can actually find out a little bit about how we tackle that, as I mentioned in the blog post I wrote. But we've also put out our Social Media Playbook earlier this year. We've made an update and it just talks about the kind of things that we've been considering over the course of the year. It includes updates on accessibility, security and very important in this time of year, mental health.

 

Louise Harris: 

I think that's a really important point, Vanessa, because so often in digital comms, people think about the technology, but not the people behind that technology who are using it day in, day out. So I was really pleased when we were able to include that section on wellbeing in our GDS Social Media Playbook. And it's just another example of that GDS mentality of build once, use many. So we created that as a resource to share how we do things and what we're learning and what's working for us. And we just hope that that's a useful tool that our colleagues across government can put into practise as well.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. I think we've got some points to pick up on this next question. Earlier this year, we launched the Data Standards Authority with our friends and counterparts over at ONS, which is the Office for National Statistics and DCMS, which is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. You’ll hear from our former Director General Alison Pritchard now who explains a little bit more about the DSA. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Alison Pritchard:

Government holds considerable volumes of data in a myriad of places. But often this data is inconsistent, incomplete or just unusable. If the government is going to realise the benefits data can bring, we'll need to fix the foundations. And one way of doing this is by focussing on data standards. 

 

GDS is leading a new authority, the Data Standards Authority (DSA), that focuses on making data shareable and accessible across government services. The metadata standards and guidance we published in August were our first deliverable. They cover what information should be recorded when sharing data across government - for example in spreadsheets - to assure it's standardised and easy to use. It's a step in quality assuring how government data is shared. Our focus on standards is one part of the bigger picture around better managing data to assure better policy outcomes and deliver more joined-up services to citizens. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So now, you know what the DSA is. Have your pens at the ready. I'm going to read out a series of letters that relate to the DSA that I would like you to unscramble. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oooh, ok. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. 

 

So it's T-E-M-A-T-A-A-D. Those are the letters, 8 of them. 

 

Louise Harris: 

I find these so difficult. I'm so rubbish at these. 

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

I think I've got the letters written down right in my dyslexia mind might not be playing in my favour here but is it Data Team?

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh, I would love that. That is a great one. And it makes use of the right letters. It's not the answer I'm looking for unfortunately. It has to be about the Data Standards Authority.

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, ok. I don't think I would have got this had Kit not unscrambled half of it. But if it's not Data Team, is it metadata? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We've got a winner here. That's right. I'm not going to repeat the letters. It definitely spells out, if you get them in the right order, metadata.

 

So Kit do you mind sharing with our listeners what metadata is? 

 

Kit Clark: 

I realised that I was going for speed over quality in that answer and Data Team is a bit of an overly simplistic answer. Metadata is correct me if I'm wrong, but actually data that provides insight into other data, it's a little bit inception. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Other Leo films are available. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Spot on. Yep, that's right. 

 

Last month, so that's November, we blogged about the Document Checking Service pilot that is running until next summer. And there's still a number of points up for grabs here.

 

So let's see who's been paying attention. What does the Document Checking Service let you do?

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

So the Document Checking Service is a project to see whether organisations outside government can use real time passport checks to build useful digital services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh, I will score that as right. So it is great that we've got this pilot underway, especially considering that a lot of people are working remotely right now, given that individuals can provide their details without needing to go any place in person to prove their identity. 

 

All right. So now we're onto a topic that both of you've already broached. So I'm confident we're going to get some points to some people here. In May 2020, we celebrated Global Accessibility Awareness Day by running a series of webinars and talks to help prepare public sector organisations for a forthcoming accessibility regulations deadline. Can you tell me what deadline we were building up to?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Lou, point, a potential point for you.

 

Louise Harris: 

So the most recent deadline, and particularly the one that we were working to for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or GAAD, would have been the 23rd September 2020, which was the date by which all existing public sector websites and intranets needed to be accessible. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

 

Yep, that’s right.

 

To hear more about that, we are going to go back in time cheekily to January where we had Chris and Rianna on the podcast telling us a little bit more about public sector duty to accessibility. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens:

I guess part of this is also thinking like why is it particularly important that government is a leader in accessible services. Like what, why is that so important?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean as you said at the beginning, you know you don’t choose to use government, you have to use government. So you can’t go anywhere else. So it’s, it’s our obligation to make sure that, that everything is accessible to everyone. And it does have to be everyone, and especially those with disabilities, or needing to use assistive technology, tend to have to interact with government more. So we do have an obligation for that.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think if you think about it, these are public services. They’re online public services so they need to be able to use, be used by the public not exclusive groups. And I think that’s what it's all about. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So looking ahead, there is another accessibility regulations deadline coming up. When is it and what is it for? One point to award here. 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it the 23rd of June next year, so 2021? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's right. Yes. And what is the deadline for? 

 

Kit Clark: 

And I think it's all mobile apps to become compliant as well. So not just websites.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is right. If you are worried about those deadlines, we have some great resources. You can find them on accessibility.campaign.gov.uk. That's not just restricted to the public sector. Accessibility is important to everyone. So please visit. We've got everything you need there. 

 

All right. So we are slowly but surely coming towards the last few questions. GOV.UK is built on the principle that you shouldn't need to know how the government works to use government services. Very prescient. But the way people interact online has changed a lot over the 8 years since GOV.UK launched. Services like shopping, banking or entertainment are increasingly personalised, and that is something that GDS wants to explore for citizens too.

 

In September, we were excited to share our future strategy for GOV.UK Accounts. We think this is important and exciting work that will make it simpler for citizens to interact with government to do the things they need to do. But can either of you tell me how many times will the average individual in the UK visit GOV.UK in a year? Just guess away please, folks, guess away. 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it 400? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I like the optimism, but also in a weird way, that's pessimistic, isn't it? I'd say it's a, it's a 2- digit number.

 

Kit Clark: 

I doubted myself halfway through that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

No worries. No worries. Try again. Like cut a zero.

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it around 40 times a year?

 

Louise Harris: 

I think this is a really difficult question because on the one hand, GOV.UK is such an important part of our national infrastructure. I mean, you can do so many things on GOV.UK, you know, you want to renew your car tax, you do it there. You want to check when the next bank holiday is, you do it there. But on the other hand, it's so easy to use that it's almost you're in, you're out. You got what you need. So often, like, I'm trying to think how often I maybe visit it. It's got to be at least like 4 or 5 times a month. So yeah, I think I would maybe land some where where Kit is. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That's a really good point, Lou. I think you've just overestimated it a little bit. We’ve done rough calculations and it looks like it’s more like 2 interactions with GOV.UK a month. So according to our rough calculations - it's something like 22 times a year. If you head over to the GDS blog you can see how we reached those numbers.

 

But yeah, it's really hard because obviously there's no competitor to government to provide the services that people need. It's not like you can register your car somewhere else. So we, we have to just try and make this kind of interface, the service, as easy as it can be. So it is painless, you know, that people aren't frustrated with that experience. 

 

And we've come to our final questions of the quiz and we're ending by testing your knowledge of some common words and phrases you’ll hear used in digital government. So a lot of people refer to us as GDS, which stands for the Government Digital Service. But how well do you know other acronyms that we've been throwing around all year long? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, I think Kit is going to have the edge on me here because he does so much cross-government engagement. I think this is where I'm going to really fall down. 

 

Kit Clark: 

Fingers crossed.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. So fingers on buzzers.

 

What is DDaT? 

 

[horn noise]

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm going to get in there with this and an easy, early one. So DDaT is Digital, Data and Technology. And I know that because during my round of welcome coffees on day one, that was the acronym that kept coming up. And people said, if you just get one acronym under your belt today, make it DDaT, because it's so important to the work that GDS does as the Head of the DDaT Profession.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That is correct.

 

All right. Our next term that we're looking for is Retros.

 

Kit Clark: 

Does it stand for retrospective? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's as simple as that. Indeed. So what happens at a retrospective, if you don't mind sharing? 

 

Kit Clark:

So a retro is I think it kind of does what it says on the tin really, where the group that's been working on a project will come together and essentially evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly of the work that's just being done to see what could be applied in the future, both in terms of positives as well, and things that could be improved in future, future pieces of work. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Nice. An iterative process. 

 

So obviously there's been a lot of change this year, but I think most of it has maybe been unanticipated. However, what we had been planning for this year is recruiting two leadership positions and I know everyone at GDS is excited about welcoming them in due course. One of them is for CEO of GDS and the other is GCDO. No pressure, given that they'll be your bosses and you don't know, they might even be listening. 

 

But can you tell me for one more point what GCDO stands for? 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

GCDO stands for the Government Chief Digital Officer. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is correct. Sorry Lou. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Missed out, too slow.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

The quiz has come to an end. So let me quickly tot up the scores.

 

I hope everyone listening did well and I hope we don't have to go to a tiebreaker. 

 

Louise Harris:

Oh, do you have a tiebreaker? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, fact is, I won't need a tiebreaker because the winner is Kit. Well done. Congratulations to Kit and commiserations to Lou. You almost had it.

 

Louise Harris:

Kit, a worthy opponent. Very well played.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So, Kit, finish us off. Why don't you share with us what your highlight of this year has been? Might be tough. It's been a crazy year, but I'm sure you've got something.

 

Kit Clark:

Yeah, it's been a bit of a funny one starting a role completely remotely. I think the the people that I work with have been a definite highlight, but also with this being my first role within the Civil Service and within the public sector, just the kind of confidence of standing on my own two feet and being more confident in the work that I'm doing and getting more responsibility with each passing month is, is a really good feeling. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is such a lovely thing to say. I'll make sure to pass that on to your colleagues, because, yeah, I really enjoyed that. How about yourself Lou? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Well, I think similar to Kit it's all about the people, so I'm lucky enough to lead the team that's responsible for recording the podcast that you're listening to. And what you folks don't get to see or rather hear is just how much work goes into this each and every month. And of course, earlier this year, the team had to pivot, as so many of us did, to do things differently because recording in the way that we once did would not be safe or within the guidance. So I wanted to say a big shout out to Emily and to Vanessa. So Emily is our Producer, you never hear her here, but she's a big part of the podcast. And also to Laura Stevens, who's one of our old hosts and is now in another part of GDS. And to everybody else that's been involved, because it really is a huge challenge to do this. And I think they do a phenomenal job. So we hope you enjoyed listening and we hope to see you again in the New Year.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, but actually it's been a really good year for me. I've had a lot of great opportunities come up this year, maybe because of what's changed, you know, and working remotely. But I don't think it's a bad idea to not acknowledge it. I got to write for the blog for the first time at GDS. I presented to the entire organisation, which was simultaneously nerve wracking and thrilling. And I've been able to share my expertise among members of the devolved nations thanks to our National, International and Research Team. So there's a lot to reflect on really positively. I think all of that could not have been done without having a really good team backing me. So I think that's probably my highlight. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, my God. So cute.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Thank you so much to our guests Lou Harris and Kit Clark for coming on today. We wish all of our listeners a happy New Year and look forward to sharing new episodes with you in 2021. You can listen to all of the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye.

 

Louise Harris: 

Bye folks. 

 

Kit Clark: 

Bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #25: GOV.UK Pay

Government Digital Service Podcast #25: GOV.UK Pay

November 30, 2020

The GOV.UK Pay Team explain how the government’s payment service works, and hear from those who use it across the public sector.

The transcript for the episode follows:

-------------

 

Laura Stevens:  

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS.

 

For this month's episode, we're going to be taking a look at GOV.UK Pay. GOV.UK Pay is the government's payment platform, letting service teams across the public sector take payments quickly and securely.

 

It's hit a few milestones this year as it's now used in more than 400 services in around 150 organisations. These services include applying for a Blue Badge, sending money to someone in prison and further afield in many British embassies around the world as part of the apply for an emergency travel document service. 

 

And since it started in 2015, GOV.UK Pay has processed more than 10 million payments to the total value of more than £537 million. And today, we're going to hear from users of GOV.UK Pay from central and local government, and we're also talking to Miriam and Steve from the GOV.UK Pay Team to hear about the product, its features and where it's going next.

 

So welcome, Miriam and Steve. Please could you both introduce yourselves and what you do on GOV.UK Pay. Miriam, first, please.

 

Miriam Raines: 

Hi, I'm Miriam Raines. I am a Product Manager on GOV.UK Pay.

 

Steve Messer: 

And hello, I'm Steve Messer. I'm also a Product Manager on GOV.UK Pay. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I gave a brief introduction to GOV.UK Pay at the start, but I was hoping that you could both maybe explain a bit more about what it is and how it helps service teams across the public sector. So could you describe a bit more about the product, please?

 

Steve Messer: 

So the GOV.UK Pay is like a part of the Government as a Platform programme. And the basic idea behind that is that service teams across government and local government have to do a bunch of the same stuff in order to move users through transactional services. So loads of people have to pay for things inside of a service, people have to apply for things, they have to receive emails - that kind of stuff.

 

And there was an idea a while ago to turn those common problems and solve them with like components, common components. And that's where the products from Government as a Platform come from.

 

Miriam Raines: 

And there's sort of 2 parts to Pay: there's the bit that the paying user would see and they're one of our key groups of users. So these are the payment pages that will ask for your card details and give you sort of helpful guidance and helpful error messages, make it really easy to pay, they're really accessible, they're designed in line with the Service Standard and Design System and they're intended to be really easy to use and we're really regularly user testing those to give a sort of consistent, trusted, experienced for users who are paying online across the public sector.

 

And then there's the other part of Pay, which is for our other group of users, which is sort of public sector workers. So that is civil servants in central government and arm’s length bodies, it is police teams, it's finance people or digital teams in local government or the NHS. And this allows you to set up and manage your services, to take payments to really easily see what money you've had come in and make, issue refunds and track cases and applications and transactions. 

 

Again, very much designed to be as simple to use as possible. We don't want to make this something that needs like a whole lot of training. We want to be really intuitive. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Ok, so how does GOV.UK Pay work with a service?

 

Miriam Raines: 

So you can plug Pay into your service. So if you've already got an existing online service, you-your users are on that service, they're paying for their licence, they're paying for, they're, they're making their application. At the point in which they're ready to pay, they're transferred over to Pay, it should look really seamless for that user, and it doesn't feel like jolting that they're going somewhere unexpected. That user can then really easily pay and is redirected back to that service. So that's when we do it in a sort of fully automated, integrated way.

 

And we've also got options for teams that don't have digital services to really be able to take payments online instead of taking payments via a cheque or expecting someone to call up and pay over the phone, which we know can be time consuming, it could be quite expensive to handle those, you're much more restricted on the hours that you're able to manage those payments. So we've got those 2, those 2 options for different users. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you describe some of the services it's been used in? 

 

Miriam Raines: 

Yeah, we've got sort of a whole range of services. We've got some really big central government services right through to, so you mentioned, ours, we're open to local government, to NHS and police forces as well. So at sort of big central government level, we work with DVLA, we work with the Passport Office, so if you're making a digital application for passport, you'd be paying on GOV.UK Pay. We work some national services like Blue Badge. So we support a, lots of local authorities to handle Blue Badge payments. Right down to some really like small services that don't see a lot of transactions: we can have like yacht racing certificates. If you want to pay for an image of Field Marshal Montgomery at the National Archives, you can pay for that using Pay. It's quite, quite a variety. It's absolutely fascinating seeing all the things that government handles money for. 

Laura Stevens: 

So you mentioned there how some of the people who use it are from health and also from local government and central government, and I’ve got here as a brief history, we started off in 2015 with central government departments, then opened up to local government in 2017 and then in 2018 the health sector started using GOV.UK Pay. 

 

But I also wanted to talk about some of the successes that have happened this year, 'cause this year has been a big year for GOV.UK Pay. I see from Steve's weeknotes - every week there seems to be a new headline. So I just wondered if you could just take me through some of the highlights from this year in GOV.UK Pay.

 

Steve Messer: 

Yep. So I think it was a couple of weeks ago, so maybe mid-October when we had our 400th service go live, which was a good milestone. I think compared to last year, there were, I think there was something around about 100 live services. So we've seen a massive increase over the last 12 months, which is fantastic. It's good to see that the product is being used and talked about, but you know, it does mean that we have to work a bit harder now. So many more needs coming up, but that's fine, that's what we're here for. 

 

I think we've also just before then, so I think it was around about September, we passed a milestone in the value of payments that we've taken and we've now taken well over £500 million from users and passed that on to government departments. So you know half a billion pounds moving through the product is quite a big milestone because you know, a lot of people on the team remember when the first quid went through.

 

But it's also it's, it's, it's exciting to see the benefits that it can generate as well. So in our economic model, we know that it can save service teams, tens of thousands of pounds in procurement costs and the time that's associated with that. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

I think we've also seen, we've able to sort of respond quickly when teams have needed to get set up with services that related to sort of COVID support. You know we are one small part of that massive thing that those services are handling, but if we can make just even the payments bit of it that bit easier and take that burden off the team when they've got all these other things to work on and get people set up really quickly, that's felt really valuable.

 

Steve Messer: 

There was another episode just after the lockdown got lifted as well where like, no-one was applying for fishing licences because everyone was inside obviously. And then all of a sudden the, the, the break of the stay at home order was announced and people could go fishing again. And the number of fishing licence applications went from 0 to up to something like 2,000 per minute or something like that, within an hour. And it was just, it was fascinating to watch the dashboard just go, 'bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep' and you know things start happening. It was, it was a very cool. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And yes Steve, you actually set that up very nicely as well, because we're now going to hear from the Environment Agency and they are talking about fishing, so you've clearly got some friends over there.

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Haroon Tariq: 

I’m Haroon Tariq. I'm the Delivery Manager for the I Want to Fish Team, who are responsible for digital service that enables anglers to purchase fishing licences and submit catch returns.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

Can you tell me a bit more about what the service provides?  

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So the I Want to Fish Team looks after the service, which allows anglers to buy fishing licences which are legally required by law and also to submit catch returns, which basically means that if you go fishing for salmon and sea trout fishing, then we need to know where you fished, where you've caught, et cetera. So that's what I help look after.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so I wanted to just give our listeners some context for this service for anyone who doesn't regularly fish, and because the numbers involved are quite big, aren't they? I've got here a million licences are purchased a year.

 

Haroon Tariq: 

That's right, yeah, so so about kind of a million licences get purchased a year. I mean, just to give some context, in England alone, angling is worth 1.4 billion and supports at least 27,000 jobs. Angling is increasingly being used to address mental and physical health, social inclusion, which are key issues in society, especially pertinent in recent times with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you describe what the licence is? Is it something that's on your phone? Is it a physical licence or how does that work? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So the licence is basically provided via you get an email confirmation and you will typically get a paper card with that licence as well. And that is something that we're looking to review going forward, so watch this space! But at the moment, it's a legal requirement. If you get caught fishing in England or Wales and you don't have a fishing licence, then it is a prosecutable offence. So it is very important that anglers do have a fishing licence. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how does GOV.UK Pay work with this service?

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So GOV.UK Pay is our kind of payment services platform. So we use it to process online card payments for fishing licences. We are one of the larger volume services that use Pay. So we process between 2 to 5000 transactions per day.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you mentioned it earlier, and also from my research you mentioned about how more people are fishing now with coronavirus with the lockdown when it lifted over summer.

 

So from my research, I’ve seen that when lockdown lifted in summer, there was a huge increase in people who wanted to fish, 6x in fact an increase with a peak of 1,575 applications per hour after the ease of restrictions, when there had been no higher than 252 applications per hour in the previous 30 days. So how did GOV.UK Pay help you process these?

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So when lockdown restrictions eased, licences sales are shot through the roof and the service suitably with the additional load of anglers purchasing licences over a short period of time. This is made really easy due to the close collaboration between our internal teams at I Want to Fish and the GOV.UK Pay teams, making enhancements to service to cope with the surge in demand for fishing licences. 

 

GOV.UK Pay was very good in working with us to understand in terms of the potential spike in peak of kind of people buying fishing licences. So effectively, we made the systems even more resilient than they already were. So they are very resilient anyway, just to kind of try and support that additional surge in demand. 

 

And I'm pleased to report that it did work really well. As you've quoted in some of your figures there, sales figures for fishing licences kind of hit the roof when Boris did kinda ease exercise restrictions back at the beginning of the summer. So, yes, it was very well kind of work together and it worked well for us.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so what features does the Environment Agency make use of GOV.UK Pay in both now with coronavirus, but also all the time? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So I think one of the key benefits of working with GOV.UK Pay as a kind of payment services provider is that it allows us to benefit from platform enhancement. So what I mean by that is as the platform evolves and iterates, then we can kind of gain benefit from that. 

 

So one of those examples is the recent card masking feature, which basically masks the card payment details when they’re entered. One of the other features that kind of is out of the box that we use is the transaction reporting, so we can review kind of transaction volumes and look to kind of forecast any potential peaks, such as you've mentioned, in light of Covid and exercise restrictions being eased.

 

One of the other features that I quite like is that if there are any production instances that occur on the service, we have the access to a live issue monitoring alert system, which allows us to track what those are, keep abreast of any updates and help us kind of predict any volumes going forward.   

 

Laura Stevens: 

And looking forward with the future of your service, how can GOV.UK Pay help you with that? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So we've got lots of exciting stuff coming up on the service for us, on I Want to Fish, which you'll have to wait and see. But GOV.UK Pay is our kind of payment platform provider as it kind of continues to try and add enhancements on the service. We will look to kind of gain the benefit from those as we move forward. 

 

So I've already mentioned about the card masking feature. I'm sure there will be other benefits such as this that will look to glean and take forward. So I think that's one of the key things for us, is having a payment service provider that can iterate and move forward and kind of give us the benefit without us having to kind of spend time and research and money in that area. So with the GOV.UK Pay Team, it's very good. We've worked well together and look forward to working for in the future.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I'll be playing this back to the GOV.UK Pay Team during the podcast, is there anything you'd want to say to them? Anything, any requests you want to put in for any of these new features? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

Firstly to say thank you, we've kind of created a really good partnership with all the people that we work with, with the team and very much going to continue the good work. We've got some exciting stuff coming up. We're looking at different payment methods, which we're going to be working with GOV.UK Pay going forward on. So watch this space, but for now thank you. 

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Steve Messer: 

That's just really nice - it's so lov-lovely to hear. That was wonderful. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

One, one thing I thought was really good and really interesting to hear about that sort of idea of partnership. I think we really do try and work very closely in partnership with our services. We sort of regularly talking to services about how they're finding it, you know what's working well, what's not working well, and really involve all of our users in shaping that future roadmap. So when we're talking about releasing new features and make sure that functionality is available, and really just sort of like upgrades that get sort of passed through to the teams without them having to do any sort of additional work - all of those things that we build in our roadmap are really based on these conversations with users that come out of the, the feedback we get from them and trying to understand their needs and expand the way that Pay can support that. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, that's, that's the cool thing, really, and that's, I think that's one of the reasons I get up in the morning as a Product Manager, is that the job is never done. There's always more to be doing. So whilst we've created a product which allows government to take card payments pretty easily and simply and then manage those, there's always going to be some other problem around the corner that people need solved. And as you hear from Haroon there, they're sort of looking at other payment methods in the future. Things that were interesting to explore with people and looking at the moment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And Miriam, to quote your words back at you, you along with Mark Buckley, blogged about the use of GaaP products with Coronavirus, and in there you said “some services needed to stop taking cheques or reduce reliance on call centres as offices close and call centres have fewer staff. GOV.UK Pay has been able to help these services start taking payments within a day and keep important services running.” So what I wanted to do is I want to play a clip from Home Office who, like the Environment Agency, are a long established user of GOV.UK Pay to hear about their journey with GOV.UK Pay. 

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Lisa Lowton:

Yeah, so it's Lisa Lowton. I'm from the Home Office and I am the Head Functional Lead for our ERP solution - and the ERP solution being the Enterprise Resource Planning Tool that we, we look after all of our HR and finance activities.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Lisa, I know you've worked in the Civil Service for quite a long time, particularly in finance and project work, could you just give us a brief description of your career? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yeah, sure. So my career started, I was an accountant in the private sector and decided I wanted to change. And an advert came up to work in the Home Office as an Immigration Caseworker - so that's where I started.

 

Done a number of years as an Operational Caseworker and then moved into the project space. And that slowly moved me then back into finance and looking at ERP [Enterprise resource planning] systems again. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And as well as obviously being in the Civil Service for while, you've also been involved with GOV.UK Pay for a while I believe since its inception back in 2015 with, under Till Wirth at the time, the then Product Manager. So can you tell me how you used the GOV.UK Pay over the years?

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yeah sure. So, yeah, I met Till 5 years ago it was, at a Civil Service conference down in London, when we were allowed to travel at that point. So, so Till and I met when he was doing a stall and he was talking through payments and, and how things were going to be done in one place for government, and, and I kind of really enjoyed speaking with Till and I was quite interested. 

 

It was literally by chance that about 4 or 5 months later, where I was working at the time, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), decided to look at developing a product in-house and that would mean an element of payments that would be taken - so straightaway Till came to mind. So that literally was the-the start of the journey really. 

 

So that was the DBS Basic Disclosure Service and they use all 3 of the GDS products - so Verify, Notify and Pay. So we were the first ones to go live with that. And it took around 2 years and it went live in January ‘18. And Gov.Pay was obviously a key element of that. So it was really nice to see from inception, them conversations in Civil Service Live to then actually it rolling out into that service - so that was where it started. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And more recently, I know coronavirus has, like for many of us, pretty much all of us, have forced you to change some of the way you take payments on services. So can you explain a bit more about this service and how GOV.UK Pay has helped you with that shift? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

So we were looking at the, the pay portal to move all our invoice payments to. So, so currently our card payments were, are taken through another provider, and they're kind of a shared service centre as such, and, and card payments are actually took through manual card terminals, which was, obviously means the-the agents having to obviously be in the office at the time, and also the number of issues that the guys faced with their manual card terminals including lack of, lack of Wi-Fi, that type of thing was-was also an issue. 

 

So we were already looking to move the service to Pay. It was just by chance that COVID came along and meant that there was a real risk that the, the guys in Wales potentially might not be able to be in the office, which meant that we would, we would then have a bit of a gap as to how we would take payments for invoices that needed to be paid over that period, and who, who, people prefer to pay by card as well. So so that was the opportunity that we had. 

 

And therefore we-we had a conversation with your development team as to look how we could use a payment link in that situation. We put it through our internal governance - our DDaT [Digital, Data and Technology] governance - who were really supportive of us in-in getting this up and running. And it took around about 5 weeks and we managed to, to get it up and running to be able to provide that as, as a backup service should, should the team in Newport not be able to be in the office.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you mentioned payment links there, and I know this is a feature that's been really helpful to you. Could you explain a bit more about what a payment link is and how it helped you? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yes, sure. So as I spoke about before the, the COVID response was how, how are we able to give customers the way to make a payment without having to, to call the call centre for example, or where the call centre can't take that payment.

 

So the payment link was,was really handy so that we were able to put on, counter the IVR - so the telephone solution, where we can say, you know, we can't take a payment right now so if you go to this GOV.UK and, and provide that information, and also we've put it on a number of, or we are about to put it on a number of potentially e-ma, at the bottom of emails that, that go out from the shared service centre, as well as the, the kind of the longer term view of putting it on the back of an invoice, and also on some of the, the penalties, which is also where we need to add that payment linked to as well.  

 

So just on the payment linked functionality - really easy to set up, very quick. Obviously the, we had some thinking internally as to how we make sure people provide the right information, because at this point, weren't quite sure how, how the data would come in. And so, so that was really easy to set up. And there was, you know, we did some internal reviews and to be able to make the changes like we did so quickly, I think there was absolutely astonishment because normally when you make changes on any type of, of portal, it normally takes a number of weeks, a number of months, and normal has a pound sign on it. 

 

And that wasn't the case. It was all, it was all at our fingertips and we were able to change it there and then in the sessions that we were having with the internal business colleagues as well. So that, that was really good.  

 

So we've been going for 5 months now, and again, this is not been advertised anywhere specific, this was only set-up for the, for people who weren't able to make a payment when they called up - to date we've had just under £200,000 of, kind of, revenue coming in. So which is great, which, which has come through a portal that would never existed 5 months ago.

 

So, so we've got to remember kind of you know, some of our customers you know don't want to, don't want to pay, you know some of these are penalties, and, you know, like any, anything like that, you, you potentially do struggle to, to get the income in. But it does show either how easy the solution is and how people are, the usability of it is really good. Because therefore, you know, we've got that promise to pay and you know, over 90%, which is, which is superb. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And what other features have you used?

 

Lisa Lowton:

I guess one of the advantages of going to GOV.Pay was that obviously as the payments industry develops, GOV.Pay are absolutely there at, at the frontend of this. And a recent example, well maybe not that recent but you know, 12 months ago when Apple and Google Pay we're, we're very much kind of hot on the heels of, of how people want to pay. That was something that, as part of where I spoke about before the Disclosure and Barring Service, Basic Service, that's something that we wanted to use. Again it gives people the opportunity to you know, more, more opportunity to pay through however they want to pay.

 

I was really surprised, I don’t know why I was surprised, it was just a really good example of the where you guys had built the technology, and all I did was click a switch and that was it. And then my customers were then able to pay by Apple and Google Pay. And, and that for me was a real key benefit because it was something similar that we were looking at in another area of the service, which potentially would have cost that organisation quite a lot of money. So that is, that is something that I'll always remember that first kind of, I suppose it's an enhancement as such, of how that work was done you know, in GDS and we were all able to benefit from it. And that's something that I want to kind of make sure that people are aware of these types of things and the benefits of moving to GOV.UK Pay. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when I'm playing this clip back to the GOV.UK Pay Team, is there anything you'd want to say to them, or any requests you have or anything else? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Ooh..so, so firstly it is a massive thank you. And I guess it's, it's just what I suppose, you know, when I think about how, how can we make this service better, we've got to get the word out there. So things like this podcast, you know other, other advertisements that we can do, that I can do as a department to try and sell this service will only help longer term, and will also mean that you know the guys back in the GDS office, or in the, or in their living room or wherever they are now, understand that the important job that they do for central government. 

 

It's very easy for people in the back office not to understand the impact of, of the front line. And I can give you an example really, a quite recent example of conversations that we're having with our colleagues at the border who want to be able to make sure they've got access to see information 24 hours a day, you know, our operation does not close down in the Home Office, it absolutely stays open 24 hours a day. 

 

And we are now working with them and using the Pay, using the Pay portal to provide them some information to which they, they're over the moon with. We're still early days. But just, you know, just for me to hear these guys tell me the impact of having this information 24 hours a day was, was quite emotional if, if I'm being honest, and sometimes people like ourselves and people in GDS might not see that front end impact, but it absolutely does, it does make a difference. And we need to make sure that we always keep that in mind - is that why we're doing it.  

 

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Miriam Raines: 

I'm pretty happy to hear Lisa's happy. Lisa's been such a great advocate for Pay, and you know, as she said we've been working with her you know, for the last 5 years through various, through her various jobs that have taken her to different parts of central government. As Pay has grown and changed and been thinking about the new things that we can offer, and hopefully you know, sounds like she's had some benefits from, from using us and from the things we've been able to add, but we've also gained hugely from like getting her insight into what it is like to be a finance person in central government. Like how, how can that work better, what are the problems they've got, what are the things that we can help with to make that easier. So she's been really great with her time sort of sharing that information with us. 

 

Steve Messer: 

So that's one of the things that really excites me, is thinking about these different scenarios that people are in when they do need to pay government. So they might be on their way to work, on the bus using their phone, and they don't really want to like have the hassle of sort of going through a government service really. They have to do it. But knowing that they can just like coming along to GOV.UK, go to a service, fill in a form, use Pay to pay us, and then get on with the rest of their life quickly, simply and easily, I think is the value of what we do.

 

I sort of did actually wonder what are the different devices you can use to pay government on? Because not everyone has access to the latest smartphone or a laptop or a computer or that sort of thing. So I had a bit of a play using some devices that might be more common that are a bit easier to get hold of, like a really old Kindle. So it's nice to know that you know anyone, no matter their digital access or requirements, they should be able to just pay government and get on with their life.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Any other devices or just the Kindle? I know we've had, we've heard before that GOV.UK's been accessed by a PlayStation, services have been used on that as well. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, PlayStations, games consoles, I've used it on a TV as well, that's like quite common. People have smart TVs but might not have a smartphone. So you can use it on that. I don't know what else I've tried it on. That's it - I need to try it on the very first Web browser and see if it works on there, I'm hoping it does. That's a bit of time travelling if you do that, it's quite fun.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And yes, and before we hear from our final clip, which is from Surrey County Council, I wanted to talk about local government. And I wanted to talk about the collaborative project with local authorities and the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government or MHCLG. Could you tell me a bit more about that, what it was and what you found out about it? 

 

Miriam Raines: 

So, yeah, MHCLG had set up the Local Digital Collaboration Unit and GDS has been working very closely with them to support that. They had a fund that local authorities could apply for to help solve common problems. And so local authorities could form groups, partnerships with other local authorities looking at the same problem, apply for money to investigate that either at sort of a discovery level or sort of alpha level if they'd already done some work on this in the past. 

 

And there were a group of local authorities led by North East Lincolnshire that included a few other local authorities of different sizes and different sort of geographic places around the country, who wanted to look at how they could make GOV.UK Pay easier to use and make it more sort of widespread within local government. They saw there was an opportunity there, but they wanted to understand you know, why wasn’t it necessarily being used more, how could they check that it was meeting the needs of local government as well as central government and sort of understanding the case for using Pay. So we worked with them January 2019. And it was really, really interesting.

 

We travelled round to lots of different local authorities. We watched finance teams and caseworkers sort of doing their jobs, what the tools they were using at the moment. Try to understand what the current payment platforms that they use, what were sort of good things about that, what were the pain points around that, how Pay might be able to address it now with the functionality we had at the time and what things you might need to do to enhance Pay. So again, basing our future roadmap entirely on the feedback that we've got from users, making it much easier to use and thinking about some specific issues for local, for local government as well. And I think it's been really beneficial so we've been able to do some of the changes that we looked at. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, that would be great actually, if everyone could go to our website and look at the roadmap and just let us know if something's not on there or definitely let us know if something's on there and you're excited about it. This kind of feedback is what helps us make Pay and make it work for people.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And now we're going to hear from a local government user from Surrey County Council. 

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David Farquharson: 

So my name's David Farqharson and I work at Surrey County Council and I'm a Developer who works in our integration team, which is a team that is specifically concerned with system integration. And part of that integration is the online payment solution.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could you tell me how you came across GOV.UK Pay?

 

David Farquharson:

Yes. So my first exposure to GOV.UK Pay was when we implemented our Blue Badge scheme. And as part of that, there's a payment that has to be made. 

 

We implemented a government solution as part of the end-to-end system, incorporated the GOV.UK Pay platform for online payments and the GOV.UK Notify for the messages and notifications. So that was my first exposure to it. 

 

And as we implemented it, I was quite impressed by what it was offering. And so decided to do an assessment of whether it would be a solution that we could look at for the whole council online payment strategy. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yes, Surrey came across GOV.UK Pay through the Blue Badge. I also wanted to ask about how GOV.UK Pay helped Surrey County Council during coronavirus. On a blog post on the GDS Blog there was a quote from Surrey County Council talking about a service that was set up in one day using GOV.UK Pay. 

 

David Farquharson: 

Yes. I mean, we had a particular example where we needed to take for COVID-19, we needed to take payments for a crisis fund. So it was a sort of fund set up where people could donate money to help people that were in immediate problems due to the COVID-19 issue. And as a result, we needed to get something up as quick as possible, to start taking that money. And so we used the payment links function that is provided by GOV.UK Pay, which is extremely quick way of getting up a payment page and taking those payments online. So that was the particular one that we were probably talking about. 

 

But since COVID-19, we've already set up a number of additional live services, some using the payment links and some using more sort of in-depth integration. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so what features does GOV.UK Pay have that make it helpful to you as somebody working in local government? 

 

David Farquharson: 

The GOV.UK Pay platform underpinned fully by the accessible rest APIs [application programming interfaces], which enable developers and local authorities like ourselves to build custom add-ons and to access data and information from the system and embed it in some of our external applications. And also allows us to do things like journaling for our ledger, by accessing the APIs. And the documentation of support for developers is excellent - it's accessible on the website so if anyone went to your website and looked, there's a documentation section and it's excellent on the APIs and how to use them. In fact, on the whole on the whole admin site and how to integrate it, it's very good for that. And the support both online from the call logging system and telephone supports has also been very good and responsive to our needs. 

 

We've also actually been in personal discussion with some developers from your team, and they're very willing to speak to us and listen to our requirements. And we've actually, in conjunction with them, requested some additions and amendments that they have actually now developed and put live. 

 

Another major advantage is how quickly it is to set up a test service on the admin site, it literally takes minutes. You can start, your developers can start carrying out some initial developments and proof of concepts very quickly. So we were able to do that. And it fits in with an agile development approach as well. So you can quickly get something out very quickly, show your, your customers so they immediately get an idea of what it is they're going to be getting. 

 

We've touched on the payment feature, but again, that's a very nice feature. If you are looking at taking online payments that you don't need to integrate with another system and are fairly simple in their nature, you can set that up literally in a day, you could have something up and have a new URL that you can put out for people to take to make online payments. 

 

We also found that each service set up, so we at Surrey, we've got 50 plus payment services that take online payments and that's growing all the time as well. So each one of these we call a different service. So they could be completely different things from highways to education to music tuition. So a lot of different services involved. And each of those is set up as a separate service in the GOV.UK Pay admin site. And you can then control the security and the access to those services. If you will use the admin site and using the admin site for your users, you can control the use of security so that they only see the service they're responsible for. And so in the council where we've got a very disparate level of services and of users, that's was very useful to us.

 

So, I mean, that's just an example of the advantages. But that’s why we’ve changed our whole strategy, which is to move over to the GOV.UK Pay platform.

 

Laura Stevens: 

If GOV.UK Pay didn't exist, how would that have impacted your work at Surrey?

 

David Farquharson:

We possibly would have had to have built a similar thing ourselves. 

 

So it's probably saved us a lot of our own in-house development work, but would also have been specific to Surrey County Council and one of the things we're looking at with this is the hope that this might lead to more of a standardised local government approach as well. We've been in talks to local authorities because then we can share our experiences. We can look for joint improvements rather than working independently and developing separate solutions. And I think there is a benefit in terms of costs going forward for local authorities to do that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

If any of our listeners are from local government and want to know a bit more, how would they get in touch with you?

 

David Farquharson: 

If anyone wanted to follow up on any of the comments I've made or ask us how at Surrey we've approached some of these issues, I'll be more than happy to talk about that. I think the easiest would be to contact me on my work email address, which is david.farquharson, which I better spell F for Freddie a r q u h a r s o n. S for sugar, s o n. At Surreycc.gov.uk [david.farquharson@surreycc.gov.uk] 

 

So just drop me an email and I'll either get back in the email or I can contact the person that's I’d be more than happy to do it.

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Miriam Raines: 

Surrey have been such good supporters of, of Pay and we've, it's good to hear they were saying we've worked really closely with them: we've done like a couple of really useful research sessions with them. And yes, as you mentioned, we were able to release some changes pretty recently based on feedback that they'd given us. And yeah, that's really, it's just really positive. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And would you say there, where, what David was talking about the sort of experience of GOV.UK Pay - is that typical for a local government user of GOV.UK Pay?

 

Miriam Raines: 

Yeah. So it's actually interesting, we've got some local government users who do sort of split everything out so they've got a different service in Pay for every different type of transaction and then they can really carefully manage the nuances sort of each of those services and who's got access to it - and in some ways that can make sort of, if it works for their process, it can make finance and reconciliation easier. And that was one of the things that we were doing research with Surrey about. 

 

There are other teams where they just have one service in Pay, and they run absolutely every single thing through it. They've got other ways of handling reconciliation and they like to sort of just, keep, keep it quite simple with their sort of interaction with with Pay. So it will depend on how teams use it.

 

Laura Stevens: 

I was thinking about how GOV.UK Pay will develop next. So we've talked a lot about the various features since it's launched and there seems like there's been lots of things added and has adapted with different users, different features. So what are you thinking about looking forward in the, in your roadmap? What's, what's on the horizon? 

 

Steve Messer: 

So there's quite a few things, because the payments industry has changed quite a lot since the internet came along. You know it's not only online payments that have been enabled. Some exciting - if I can say that, regulation, exciting regulation, does it exist? Yes - exciting regulation went through in 2017 I think, which is open banking regulation. And this, what this does is it sort of opens up the way that you can transact with services by using your bank account.

 

Previously it would have been like quite expensive to build these kinds of things, but now there is a way for any kind of online service to integrate with an open banking solution and then provide information from your bank account to that service. And also to, to send money as well. So there’s quite exciting opportunities there where for people who don't have access to a card maybe could pay by bank account, which in most scenarios is quicker and might be simpler for them.

 

I think we also want to be looking at how we can make it cheaper for government services to use GOV.UK Pay. We are pretty competitive and we work with the market rather than against the market, which means that you know services can save a lot of money. But again, there are ways that we can really reduce these transaction costs and make it quicker and easier for service teams to convince their governance to start using Pay. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

And sort of related to that, we've also been working very closely with Government Finance Function and Government Shared Services. So we're looking at what their aims and ambitions are for sort of better efficiency or sort of automation in those processes in government. And then we looking at how Pay can sort of support that, how we can be the vehicle to enable them to roll out these new sort of finance standards or data standards and make it easier to have that sort of that same technology used and reused across, across government. So that's really, that's really interesting - and Lisa has been very helpful in that. She's been very involved from Home Office as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I guess out of all those plans, what excites you both the most coming up in the next few months to work on GOV.UK Pay?

 

Steve Messer: 

I'm quite excited about so, we do offer a Welsh language service for our services. And so if you're a Welsh language speaker, you can go from start to finish with a completely Welsh journey until Pay sends you an email confirming your payment - that's the only bit we haven't done yet. So I'm quite excited to work on that because it means I get to use the people I live with as a test group because they all speak Welsh. It might make the Christmas dinner quite interesting.

 

Miriam Raines: 

Steve's learning Welsh, so Steve can practice too. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, I can show myself up in how poor I am at my Welsh.

 

Miriam Raines: 

I think we've been thinking about, I don't know if I'm allowed to get excited about invoicing, but I think I might be excited about invoicing. One of the things that Lisa was talking about in her service was they're using Pay for invoices. And definitely we have teams that are using Pay in that way, they might be using our API integration, more likely they're using that payment links functionality. But there's a lot of ways that we could probably make that better and tailor it a bit more to how people share invoices, receive invoices, want to check the invoices have been paid.

 

So I think there's some work there that we can do because that can be quite expensive to handle in government, it can be quite manual, it can be a bit awkward for users: lot of time they might have to make, you know call up and pay over the phone or something. So we're looking at how we could do that. So that's pretty something we might look at in the, in the New Year. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Fab. And if I've been listening and I want to find out more or I want to get in touch with you, how is best to do so? 

 

Steve Messer: 

So probably go to our website, which is payments.service.gov.uk. There you'll be able to find information on what Pay is, how to get started, our roadmap that shows you what we're working on now, next and things that we're exploring. It also has a page that can allow you to get in touch with us. You can contact the support team or get in touch with us to tell us about anything you're excited about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yes, thank you both and thank you to all our guests for coming on the podcast today. This is actually my last episode as I'm moving onto a new role in GDS so it's been great to leave on a, such a great product. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. So thank you again both. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

Thanks, Laura. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Thank you. That was great.

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