Government Digital Service Podcast

Government Digital Service Podcast #18: GOV.UK’s initial response to Coronavirus

April 28, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And today’s episode is recorded a little bit differently, as we’re all remote now, this will be our first podcast done via hangouts. 

 

We’re going to be talking about GOV.UK’s initial response to the coronavirus. GOV.UK is the online home for the UK government, and it’s where millions of people access government services everyday. Of course COVID-19 does not need an introduction as the pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives.

 

In the first few weeks since lockdown began, GOV.UK has created products and services to help people understand what to do in these uncertain times. GDS has set up a landing page, built new services and now streams the press conferences live from GOV.UK. All of this work has helped people. It’s helped make sure food parcels are delivered to extremely vulnerable people, it’s helped businesses offer essential support, and it’s helped give people answers to important questions - like how to attend a funeral or manage a payroll. 

 

All this high-profile and important work is being delivered remotely, under intense scrutiny and at pace. To tell me more about this work is Leanne Cummings and Markland Starkie, both of the GOV.UK Team. So welcome both to our first remote podcast. Please can you tell me who you are and what your role on GOV.UK is.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Hello everyone. This is wildly exciting. This is my first ever podcast, so that’s great. I am Leanne Cummings, and I’m the Head of Product for GOV.UK.

 

Markland Starkie:

Hi, hello, hello. My name is Markland Starkie, and I am Head of Content for GOV.UK. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you’ve both been about, at GDS for about one and a half years, is that right?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, that’s right. We both started around the same time roughly. So yeah, about a year and a half now.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And this is my first job in government. So I’ve joined at an, an exceptionally busy time, and I’m loving every minute of it so far. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah mine too actually. People, I think they’ve stopped saying that it’s not normally like this now. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

But I definitely heard that a lot for the first year, maybe up till last week pretty much. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I thought a timeline might be helpful, because things are moving so quickly. So I’m sure by the time this is published, there’ll be lots more things that the GOV.UK Team has done so we’re just going to be focussed on that initial response. 

 

So some dates. GDS started remote working fully on 17 March. The coronavirus landing page on GOV.UK was published Friday 20 March at midday. Three days later, on Monday 23, the extremely vulnerable people service was launched. And that evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation in a special broadcast. And then that Friday, on 27 March, the business support service was launched. And, on Tuesday 31 March, the first press conference was streamed live from GOV.UK. 

 

So that is an intense period of delivery over a fortnight. And there’s lots of firsts in there - first time working with 100% remote workforce, record numbers visiting the site and the first time a broadcast has happened from GOV.UK. And of course this work continues, it’s not just made live, it’s, it’s always being iterated and scaling up happens. 

 

But let's talk about that first product, the coronavirus landing page. So what, what is the coronavirus landing page, perhaps Markland, you’ll be able to answer that.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, yeah sure. So yeah GOV.UK/coronavirus, it is essentially the, the campaign landing page for all the government content for coronavirus support and information. 

 

We first started working on coronavirus information back in probably January actually. As part of our kind of business as usual stuff, we’re monitoring feedback that the public leaves on the website, and we noticed probably from about mid-January onwards, that we were getting an increasing number of comments and questions from the public around specific areas to do with coronavirus. And it was a real trickle at that stage but it was definitely, we could see it increasing. 

 

And we started working with mainly the Department of Health and Social Care [DHSC] and Public Health England [PHE] on kind of how to bring together some of the content that was being written around that time, and it was mainly in the healthcare space then. 

 

What we came up with was a, what we call, a topical events page, which is a kind of out of the box solution that we have. We could quickly see like throughout the beginning of February, as content was being generated across departments in government and Number 10 is thinking about this from a central point of view, and we could see public feedback and response to the content increasing as well. And we knew at a fairly early stage then that as the crisis escalated, it was going to become not just a healthcare issue but actually incorporating much wider things across government. 

 

As the crisis continued to escalate we knew that we would need something more bespoke to pull things together. And that’s where the conversation around a new bespoke landing page that would replace the kind of ‘out the box’ solution came into being. Once we had made that decision things moved very quickly. Obviously the government was responding extremely quickly to, to the escalation of the, of the crisis. And we knew we needed to get something out ahead of any further government announcement and action for, for UK citizens on coronavirus. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So for, when I was researching this podcast I spoke to Sam Dub, a former guest of this podcast but also a GOV.UK Product Manager, and he said he was yeah, given the brief on Monday and then it went from zero to live in 4.5 days. 

 

Markland Starkie:

And from there like it, we obviously took an MVP [minimal viable product] approach but actually the MVP covered quite a, a large range of user needs to the point where we, we’ve continued to iterate but we haven’t, we haven’t had to drastically change the designs or the functionality of it.

 

So on that Friday yes, the new landing page went live. We worked with the Department of Health [and Social Care] and Public Health England to take down the original topical event page and redirect that stuff through, and that was then in time for the, the Prime Minister announcements that happened in the following days to the public. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

This landing page received heavy traffic, so in the first 24 hours, there were more than 750,000 page views. And, in the first 7 days, there were 18 million page views. And as I was talking about record numbers earlier, there was a huge peak on the 24 March of 9.2 million, which is a record for the biggest ever spike in GOV.UK traffic. 

 

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.

 

Laura Stevens:

And maybe this is a question more towards Leanne as well. This was the first ‘mobile first’ product is that right to say? Why was that important and why did you decide to do it like that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, I believe it is. I believe it is the first one designed specifically on a mobile with the desktop being the alternative. We decided that, 2 reasons really. 

 

One the data showed us that mobile was increasingly the mechanism by which users are picking up government content, advice and services. And what felt more critical in this particular situation was it felt, there’s a reason for that being, that the coverage of mobile phones was much more prolific across a much wider set of people across the country than, than access to a laptop or access to an iPad could be. 

 

So this one felt absolutely critical that we nailed that experience on a mobile first. And I couldn’t be prouder of a team that turned this around in 4 and a half days with that as a new requirement. And honestly it was completely pushing on an open door, the team were really excited to make sure that in people’s hands, would be this critical information.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah.

 

Leanne Cummings:

So we did, we did a great job of that. And the data that we got, even immediately afterwards, was just absolutely underlined. I think it was something like, in the early days, it was something like 90% plus people were accessing through that mechanism.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, shall we talk about these 2 new services? In the first week of launch, the extremely vulnerable service received more than 1.4 million page views. And for the second one, business support service, there were more than 40,000 page views in its first 7 days. 

 

But I think we first want to talk about the extremely vulnerable people service. Perhaps Leanne, could you explain what this service does and how it was set up?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. It was, it was a request that came from another, other departments actually. They, the NHS teams had acknowledged that there were a group of people that were, that had illnesses, critical illnesses often, that meant they were extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. So that meant that they had needs that had to be met, probably more isolated at home, and that included access to food.

 

So there was a list compiled of people that were likely impacted here, and that we needed to find a mechanism by which they could, they could let us know, let government know whether they needed help or not. So they were going to be contacted directly by the NHS teams via letter initially, and invited to, to go to a service that we built around answering, answering a series of, of simple questions around what their needs were in this situation. And that is the extremely vulnerable people service. 

 

So again we had some experience of building this kind of triage journey, and so that was kind of a, a pattern that we were familiar with, and again a really simple journey flow of what, finding out from you what the need is and how we could help you and then that feeds into a, a database and is, is actioned.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was this able to be stood up quickly because of other GDS work? We mentioned the Design System already but there’s also the GOV.UK Platform as a Service or PaaS. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yes for sure. I mean the shoulders of giants right? 

 

We have a lot of experience of, across GDS, of working at this kind of intense pace and response. So we’re prepared for certain spikes in behaviour that could be led by, obvious examples of that could be led by an election or whatever but we have experience of this kind of service deployment and so could forecast a bit what could happen and be very prepared for that. 

 

So there’s some things we won’t compromise on and stability is, stability and security are 2 of them. And again that, both of those things involve working with a wide range of genius teams across GDS, and wider but definitely across GDS.

 

Markland Starkie:

I do think it’s important to say like, while we have these services available to, across GDS. This is an, the unusualness of this particular situation in bringing all teams together across GDS, so not just GOV.UK as a programme like working on this, but as you say Platform as a Ser--like right across GDS, teams are working together has been a really amazing experience for, for me, myself, Leanne and others. To see that we’ve, we’ve all come together to, to sort this out. It, it’s just, yeah it’s great.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I couldn’t agree with Markland more on that. And our team is absolutely not the only team that has been under a significant amount of intensity, I could wax lyrical about all the teams. I don’t think we’ve got enough time for that. 

 

But Pete [Herlihy] and the Notify Team have worked incredibly hard on an intense period of, the thing that we featured on the landing page is around getting people who are overseas back into the UK and lots of emails going out and, and lots of message and and just such an, a massive amount of work across the group that we should definitely spend future podcasts describing in a massive amount of detail.

 

Laura Stevens:

I like that plug in there as well.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I’m really really available for future podcasts everyone. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And then can we also talk about the business support service.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Sure.

 

Laura Stevens:

Leanne, are you best to speak to that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think, I think we both can but this one is, this one is brilliant for its demonstration of how not only we at GDS are in it together but sort of the country is too. This was stood up to reflect a need for government, and for local authorities and for NHS to, they need a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff ranging from testing equipment, warehousing to keep things and, and lorries and lorry drivers to take things places. And so we stood up a service which allowed businesses to say, ‘yeah I’ve got some time and some people and, and some resources to enable us to pitch in here’. And we stood that up again really quickly, another really dedicated team across GOV.UK and wider GDS. 

 

And within, within I want to say hours but I’ve lost track of time, but within a really short time, 2,000 businesses had offered support across a huge range of, of different services. And honestly we’ve been a little bit emotional some of us across GOV.UK about many things - the, the, the type of work that is going on, the commitment from the teams, the commitment from GDS, the type of work going on across government but this was a real demonstration of, of the commitment of everybody being in this together so we did get a bit emotional, and I can still can so I might take a minute now and have a little moment.

 

Markland Starkie:

And I would also say just that the way we worked, or GDS worked, with departments like the wider Cabinet Office. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Crown Commercial Service. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The teams right across government who we really needed input on, to make this work at pace. It’s been, it’s been a real, eye, eye opener for me. I think working in government at this time, to see when it comes down to it we really can make a difference quite quickly.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. And you don’t need to talk anyone into that, and that’s, and, and probably that is what you’d expect but you, you really don’t. It really is just a, a an exercise in everybody working together to try move things forward and get help to people that need it. 

 

Laura Stevens:

This is the first time that we’ve done a live broadcast from GOV.UK. So these are the daily press conferences, you can watch them from the coronavirus landing page, which is streaming this. And what was sort of the user need behind that, how did that come about being created?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah it, it was a discussion with us and Cabinet Office Comms Hub and Number 10 around really having a central source for the press conference to be broad-broadcast, and obviously it makes sense that GOV.UK is, is the home for that. We, we provide the platform on which they can, we can stream. So that was built into an iterative, an iteration of the landing page.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I feel like and, if we sit as we do between, digitally between government and the user, it kind of makes sense for us to be showing that. And also reinforces that if you’ve got any queries, online queries about anything that is impactful to you around coronavirus, then this is the place to come and see if you can find that. So that just sort of reinforces that message too. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I, I also wanted to ask now, now we’ve spoken about the landing page and the 2 new services and the live broadcast that was set up, what sort of challenges did you face, and is there anything that you sort of wish you knew before you’d started this process, that would have helped you? And yeah, how have you, how have you sort of tackled that? ‘Cause obviously you’ve been working at such pace, is there sort of, have you had to reflect on those more challenging aspects of it?

 

Markland Starkie:

I, I think that is, it’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having at the moment. And yes, there have been challenges right throughout that. From, I guess from my point of view as Head of Content, it it’s trying to get ahead of and help departments coordinate having user-centred content, so clearly written, accessible content, going up on GOV.UK by yesterday.

 

And we, we realise, I certainly realised, that there is an element of we just need to get information out. And as policy is being decided across government, that information needs to get into the hands of citizens and businesses as quickly as possible and that, that means as we’ve been standing up new processes and new teams across government that have not worked with each other before, that it’s not going to be perfect. And it’s trying to kind of try and build in the processes that make the content better over time and more useful, useful over time.

 

But that’s been a, that’s been a sort of, real thing on my mind over the most couple of weeks is, is how we, we can continue helping government; because this, this is not just a, obviously, this is not just a GDS thing to tackle. There are countless teams across departments right across government who are all working to produce services, who are all working to produce content and define policy as quickly as possible using GOV.UK as the platform to surface these things through. And it’s our job to try and support them as best we can to make sure that those services are accessible, are usable, are clear etc. etc.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it’s that, I think it’s exactly as Markland describes. I think this is unique, an unique challenge that we’re all facing. I guess it’s a lived experience as well as well as a worked experience so you, you’re experiencing it as a person as also as someone who’s trying to help navigate through it. So that gives you a little bit of insight into how you can really cut to the nub of what you know people might need to understand.

 

But the pace of change on that is, is, is, is rapid. So we have to react to that in, in new ways and put in processes whereby we can reflect on the landing page you know, the most recently announced policy or guidance that means that users who are seeing that are getting the most recent and up to date advice and guidance. So that is, it’s just a pace question really here then, then I’ve known it ever in, in government before.

 

I think there’s something, to answer the question in a slightly different way, there’s some things that I thought would be a bit more challenging; working remotely from teams of people that are used to bouncing ideas off each other, I was a little worried about that initially. When you’re building landing pages or services at pace, then often the best way to do that is get in a room. We’ll probably supply, supply pizza, there’ll definitely be a lot of Haribo. And I thought that was, was gonna be a really big problem. And in some ways it is a problem but not in anywhere near as big as we thought. And the products and services we’ve got out, I think haven't reflected the fact that we’re in 30 different houses across London and the south, it’s reflected a group of people who know what they’re doing, are committed to it, and are used to working in a certain way and they can do that in separate houses. And I think the only thing that I could say is we’re possibly a little bit healthier because of the lack of Haribo. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Agree with that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I also wanted to touch on how this work is tying in with the GOV.UK future strategy. I saw, I watched Jen Allum, the Head of GOV.UK, present her virtual talk at Code for America on Twitter, about how GOV.UK is moving to a place where it helps people with complex interactions by being personalised, low friction and data informed. And how does this work tie into that and, or does it just confirm your initial, your thinking with that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it ties in directly when we’re thinking about - so the landing page collates information together around certain themes but some of our tooling starts to ask a, a, hopefully a simple set of questions but then enables a real doubling down for the user on the thing that impacts them the most in their particular set of circumstances. And that’s definitely a thing that we’re moving towards because that also acknowledges that, that people that are using these products and services aren’t sort of one dimensional, you’re not just a person with a business, you’re a person with a business and a family. 

 

And so it sort of addresses both those complexities in simple ways, and just tries to make that a bit more personalised to you and your set of circumstances where possible. So I think we’re reflecting the strategy in that way and, and is data driven. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, I’d, I’d really agree with that. Obviously, a lot of the work that we were doing around Brexit over the past year and a half, was kind of like moving towards the early explorations of this set of scenarios you were just suggesting around personalised by consent, device agnostic, all of those things. And that, and that worked helped inform the future strategy that Jen was then talking about, and has been talking about recently. 

 

And this is the way that GOV.UK is going. The, the complex user journeys and complex user needs that Leanne was just talking about, they’re not going away. Like the more we understand about our users, the more individual those users become and the more we need to provide solutions that cater for that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I wanted to talk about something that’s been alluded to throughout this recording, and it’s about the sort of the coping with the stress and the demands of working in this situation. The work being done is under intense scrutiny, it’s high profile and it’s important that it’s right. So how are you both and how are the team, sort of, are there ways of working with this pressure? How, how are you faring with that?

 

Markland Starkie:

I think there’s a lot of swearing. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

There is, there is quite a lot of swearing for sure. I think we’re finding some time to do some regular things. I think we all understand the purpose of all this work, and in a funny way you’re in a luxurious position right? So, I’m telling myself this very much late at night and at the weekends, that you’re in a luxurious position where you can really put your shoulder in and help in a crisis. And a lot of people don’t get to say that, a lot of people this is just sort of happening to and so we are quite lucky, and that is felt across the programme. So, at the best of times, that is the best of times right, in terms of OK you get it, you’re on it. 

 

Markland’s right though. We are also finding time to hang out together a bit. And that’s with you know my peer group but the also the, the product teams where you just get to let off a bit of steam.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah. The teams on GOV.UK have been just incredible in this regard.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The self organisation, just the pragmatic adult approach to this.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Everybody recognises the importance of the work that needs to be done, and this is not your normal you know, 9 to 5 whatever situation, and, and people have, where needed, really put in the hours to support the work and get it through. And then worked with each other to, to make sure that they’re getting time off and they can recuperate.

 

And this, this is obviously happening you know, right across government and beyond. Like all businesses are having to kind of reconfigure their working practices. But just seeing, from a personal point of view, just seeing the, however many people we have on the programme, just seeing them kind of self-organise around this and then allow us as kind of senior managers to try and bolster in support and kind of pull in extra people where necessary and where possible, has just been great to see.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And we’ve kept some of the rigour so we have, Jen does, Jen Allum the Head of GOV.UK does a regular weekly programme check in, which is what it says really. ‘Cause I guess that’s another thing, we’re all in this situation where we’re at home, so you definitely see the thing that you’re working on a lot, but you don’t necessarily get to see in the way that you would in a, in regular working office environment. But it’s another way we’re getting, everybody gets to celebrate the successes and help out when there’s a challenge. So there’s, we’ve, we’ve definitely kept to the rigour of how we work in the office a bit, and maybe just upped some of that because to, to cater for the fact that we’re all online.

 

Markland Starkie:

Definitely quite a lot of cats as well. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, there’s cats. So there’s themes developing, and we definitely know a little bit more about each other than we did previously too. So that’s helping us cope because there’s quite a lot of teasing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And over these sort of, over the first few weeks where it really sort of ramped up, were there, was there any particular moments that stood out to either of you of being particularly like emotional or important or sad or just anything that just really stuck out to you?

 

Markland Starkie:

The first one to me was where we as the senior management team, got together and were like ‘essentially, right this is a thing. We now need to be pausing existing work, re-prioritising, talking to teams about what they need to do, making new teams out of existing teams and figuring out what’s next’. And, and it was that initial conversation that was like ‘right OK, it is time to, time to get on with it’.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think for me, emotional about some of the delivery, which there’s usually a compromise, there’s a cost, there’s a compromise to delivering things rapidly. And I don’t think that the products that we have developed necessarily reflect that. I think that they’re the opposite of that, I think they’re brilliant products. The mobile first was an emotional moment for me on the landing page, for sure. 

 

And then, so all of those things definitely but I think the moments that have really got me more than I thought they would, are when people who are really tired, have done really long days, on Slack channels saying ‘well OK I’ve finished my bit, so does anybody need a hand with anything else?’. And I just feel like that’s the stuff that gets me every time. ‘Cause you wanna say ‘no dude, you definitely need to go and get some sleep now’. But they just wanna roll their sleeves up and get you know, good stuff out the door and that for me, is a sight to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

For sure.

 

So thank you both so much for coming on today, I know you’re both extremely busy so thank you again. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Thank you very much.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

And 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. 

 

So thank you both again