Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #2 An interview with Terence Eden

November 7, 2018
00:0000:00

In this episode, we talk to Terence Eden, Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. We discuss his job, a digitally-equipped civil service and emerging technology in government.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Sarah Stewart:

Hello. Welcome to the second GDS podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, Senior Writer at the Government Digital Service. Today I’ll be joined in conversational paradise with Terence Eden. Terence is known variously as a tech enthusiast, as a digital troublemaker, as the man who hacked his own vacuum cleaner to play the ‘Star Wars’ theme tune, but in a professional capacity he is the Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. Terence, welcome.

Terence Eden: 

Thank you very much for having me.

Sarah Stewart: 

So how do you explain what you do?

Terence Eden: 

What I tend to say, in a very reduced vocabulary, is, “We have computers. Government has computers, and those computers need to talk to each other, but sometimes those computers don’t speak the same language.” It’s my job to say, “Hey, can we agree on a common language here?” Then, when we can, those computers speak to each other.

It’s, kind of, as simple as that. If we publish a document and it’s in a format that you don’t understand, that’s a barrier to entry for you. You can’t get access to the data or the information you need. If we publish it in such a way that it’s only available on one manufacturer’s type of smartphone, that’s a barrier. We can’t do that, so it’s my job to say, “No, let’s make it available to everyone, in a common language.”

I’ve got a big sticker on my laptop which says, ‘Make things open. It makes things better.’ That applies to a whole variety of things, and there are people here working on open data, and open source, and open government, but my part of the mission is to say that, when government produces documents or data, everyone should be able to read them.

It’s unacceptable that we say, “Okay, if you want to interact with government, you need to pay this company this money, for this software, which only works on that platform.” That’s completely antithetical to everything we’re trying to do, so my mission – our team’s mission – is to go around government, saying, “There’s a better way of doing things, there’s a more open way of doing things, and we can help you with that.” 

Sarah Stewart:

That sounds completely straightforward.

Terence Eden:

You’d think, wouldn’t you? Most of the time it is. When you tell people and you say, “If you publish it like this, then only people with that computer can read it,” it’s like a light goes off.

Sarah Stewart: 

Do you go out to departments proactively, or do they come to you?

Terence Eden:

It’s both. I spent last week talking to the DWP and the Government Statistical Service, and I’m speaking, I think, this week to a couple of different departments and ministries. We go out, we chat to them, but quite often they come to us and say, “Hey, users have complained about this,” or, “Hang on. We think we need to do something better. What should we do?” and we offer just a wide range of advice.

Sarah Stewart:

Government is huge and technology changes all the time so how do you make sure you are progressing in the right direction, that you’re achieving what needs to be achieved, and that your work is ‘done’, I mean is it even possible to say your work is ‘done’?

Terence Eden:

Wow… It’s a slight Sisyphean task, I think, because there’s always going to be a new department coming online which doesn’t get it, or someone who’s come in, and a bit of work which only gets published every five years, and the process is never updated. It’s a rolling task.

We monitor everything the government publishes. My team, when we see a department which only publishes something in a proprietary format, we drop them an email and say, “Hey, look, here are the rules. This is what you need to do. Can you fix it?” Most of the time they do, and we’ve seen… We’ve published some statistics. We’re seeing a steady rise in the number of open-format documents which are being published.

That’s great, so we’re on our way with the mission. You can’t expect everyone to keep on top of every change in technology and the best practice all the time, so there is always going to be a need for bits of GDS to go out and say, “You know what? This is best practice. This is the right way to do it, and we can help you get there and make things more open.”

So… we need to do, I think, in GDS and across government, a better job of understanding what our users want – what they need, I should say – and also explaining that user need back to the rest of government.

Sarah Stewart:

But what’s your focus at the moment?

Terence Eden:

We have a problem with PDFs. I don’t think that’s any surprise. I’ve published the stats, but there are some critical government forms which are being downloaded millions of times per year, which could be better served being online forms. When someone has to download, print out a form, fill it in by hand and then post it back, for someone else to open it up, scan it, or type it in, we-

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s the worst.

Terence Eden:

It’s the worst. It’s rubbish. It’s a rubbish user experience. It’s expensive and it’s not very efficient. It means you’re waiting weeks to get an answer, whereas if you can just go on your phone and type in your name, address, and all the other bits that they want, and hit ‘go’ and then get either an instant or a rapid decision, that just transforms the relationship between the citizen and the state, as we say.

So, a large part of the next six months is going to be finding those… It’s not low-hanging fruit, but it’s just those big, horrible things which just no-one has got round to tackling yet. Some of them, there are good reasons and there are whole business processes behind, but we need to be pushing and saying, “Look, in 2018 this isn’t good enough. This isn’t the way that we can behave anymore.”

A lot of what I do is going round to departments, and doing presentations, and talking to people individually and in groups. I see that continuing. We also work a lot with SDOs: standard development organisations. I’m on a committee for the British Standards Institute, and I work with World Wide Web Consortium, and so we’re making sure that the government’s view is represented.

We don’t ever want to produce a standard which is a government standard, and it’s the government’s own standard. It’s the only one, and we’re the only people who use it, because no-one wants to deal with that. We want to have… We want to be using internationally accepted standards. If you’re an SME, if you’re a small-medium business and you want to pitch for some work for government, you don’t need to go and buy a huge, expensive standard, or you don’t need to do a piece of work just for us. Your work can be applicable everywhere.

That said, it’s important for us to be on these standards development organisations so we can say, “Actually, our user needs are going to be slightly different from a FTSE 100 company, or from a charity, or from someone else.” We can just shape those standards so that they’re slightly more applicable for us.

Sarah Stewart:

Someone listening might ask: why can’t government use, say, something like Google Forms instead of a PDF? Why can’t government just do this?

Terence Eden:

In some ways, they can. With that particular example, we need to understand people’s concerns about privacy. If we were using a third-party form supplier, for example, do you want, if you’re filling in a form which says how many kids you’ve got, how many have died, and your health issues and all that, do you want that going to a third party to be processed? Some people will be comfortable with it. Some people will, rightly, be uncomfortable with it. We need to make sure that any solution that we pick actually addresses users’ very real concerns.

There are several pieces of work around government trying to get forms right. Part of the problem is that each department has their own set of users, with their own set of user needs. If you are a, I don’t know… If you’re a farmer applying for a farm payment, you have very different needs to if you are a single mother applying for child benefit, to if you are a professional accountant trying to submit something to HMRC.

So, just saying, “We’re going to have one standardised way of sending data to the government” might actually not work. We have to realise that users all have different needs. It’s tricky, and there are ways that we are helping with it, but I think that’s going to be a piece of work which is going to continue rumbling on, just because some of these processes are very old-fashioned, and they still rely on things being faxed across and being handwritten.

Sarah Stewart:

Faxed? That can’t be right. Actually, no, I can believe it

Terence Eden:

Lots of stuff just goes through via fax because, if you’ve got a computer system built in one department, and a computer system built by someone else in another department, and they don’t speak the same language, actually the easiest way to do something is to send a photo of that document across. That’s easiest and quickest. Fax is relatively quick, but it comes with all of this baggage and it doesn’t always work right. We see that fax machines are vulnerable to computer viruses and stuff like this.

Sarah Stewart:

And the noise.

Terence Eden:  

And the noise, but sometimes we have these little stopgaps, which are good enough for the time, but they never get replaced. Part of the work that we’ve done with the Open Standards Board is to make sure that all emergency services use a standard called ‘MAIT’ – Multi Agency Incident Transfer – which basically means you don’t need a police department to fax across details to an ambulance or to a coastguard. Their computers, even if they’re made by different people and run different operating systems and programs, they all speak to a common standard.

So trying to find where those little bugs in the process are is part of our job. If people want to help out, if they know where problems are, if they come across to GitHub, we’re on ‘github.com/alphagov/open-standards’. They can raise an issue there and say, “Hey, there really ought to be an open standard for,” dot, dot, dot, or, “Look, this process really doesn’t make sense. There’s this open standard which would save us a lot of time and money. Can we adopt it?”

It’s as simple as raising a GitHub issue with us. We do most of the hard work to find out whether it’s suitable, and we take it through a slightly convoluted process, but it keeps us legally in the clear. Yes, then we can, hopefully, mandate that across government and start the work on getting people to adopt it.

Some of the stuff we do is small. Saying that text should be encoded using Unicode UTF-8, that just basically means that, when someone sends you a document with an apostrophe in it, it doesn’t turn into one of those weird… We call it ‘Mojibake’, where there are just weird symbols in place of-

Sarah Stewart:

The squares.

Terence Eden:

Yes, the weird squares. That is a really boring, low-level standard, but it just makes everything easy, all the way up to something like MAIT or International Aid Transparency Initiative, which allows you to see where all the foreign aid that we spend, and all the grants that we make, goes. That’s hugely important for understanding, if you’re a taxpayer, where your money is going, but, if you’re in the charity sector or the aid sector, understanding how government is using funds to improve lives.

We don’t want information to be locked away in filing cupboards. We don’t want it so that, if you request some information, you have to send an FOI and then you get a scan of a fax posted off to you. That’s rubbish. We want this information front and centre so that, if people want to use it, it’s there, and that it works absolutely everywhere.

It doesn’t matter which phone you’ve got, which computer you’ve got, you should be able to access all of the information that you’re entitled to, with no intermediaries, no having to pay for extra software. It should just be there. If we make things open, then we make things better.

Sarah Stewart:

Another area of focus for you is emerging technology - innovation is a hot topic in government at the moment with the publication of the tech innovation in government survey, the GovTech catalyst fund, and the development of an innovation strategy. How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at new fashionable tech because it’s new and fashionable?

Terence Eden:

The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed yet.” That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that, if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. You’re right: people just go a little starry-eyed over this.

What we need in government is people who understand technology at a deep and fundamental level, not people who see what a slick sales team is selling, not people who read a report in a newspaper and go, “We could do that.” You need a fundamental understanding.

Sarah Stewart:

Do you really think it’s possible that every Civil Servant can understand the fundamentals of emerging technology and digital practice?

Terence Eden: 

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Because it can seem quite frightening.

Terence Eden: 

Yes, absolutely. We wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t read or write. We can be as inclusive as we like, but we need to set minimum standards for being able to engage with the work that we do. Similarly, we wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t type or use a computer in a basic way.

I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about digital natives. What a digital native is: someone whose parents were rich enough to buy them a computer when they were a kid. That’s great, but not everyone is that lucky, but what we can do is say, “We’re not going to just train you in how to fill in a spreadsheet. We’re going to teach you to think about how you would build a formula in a spreadsheet, how to build an algorithm,” and you can start building up on that.

We have to be committed to lifelong learning in the civil service. It’s not good enough to say, “Okay, this is your job. You’re going to do it for the next 25 to 40 years, and there will be no change in it whatsoever.” That’s unrealistic. I think as part of that – and it’s not going to happen overnight – we need to make sure that when someone comes in and says, “We’re going to use an algorithm,” that everyone in the room not only understands that but is able to critique it, and potentially be able to write it, as well.

I think that’s what the ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’ is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.

We have a slight problem in that we don’t want to tie ourselves to tech which is going to go out of date quickly. It would have been… You can imagine a GDS in the past saying, “Let’s put all of government onto Teletext.” That would be great, but that has a limited shelf life.

We’ve got a statement which says that government shouldn’t build apps, because they’re really expensive to use, and they don’t work for everyone. Okay, maybe there are some limited circumstances where we can use them, but by and large we should be providing on neutral technology platforms, like the web. We need to understand exactly what the limitations are when we say, “Bitcoin, blockchain, the cloud, AI,” anything like that.

So, there are new technologies, and we do adopt them. We can be slow to adopt them, and part of that is: are we chasing fashion, or are we chasing utility? It’s very easy to confuse the two. We wouldn’t, I think, go for transmitting government documents by Snapchat, for example. How cool would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

The filters, yes.

Terence Eden:

Brilliant, but what’s the user need for it? Is it just we want to do something that looks cool? That’s not a user need.

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. The amount of times I hear people talking about headsets, as though everybody in the country is going to have a VR headset.

Terence Eden:

Yes, we’re all going to be jacked into the cyber matrix, (Laughter) watching VR stuff. Yes, and maybe VR will take off; maybe we will… In a year’s time, I’ll be the head of VR for GDS. How cool a job title would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

Well, remember me, or look for me in the matrix.

Terence Eden:

Yes, but is there a user need for it? For some parts of government, you might say, if you’re doing planning decisions, for example, “Would it be good to strap on a VR headset and take a look around this 3D representation of the town after the remodelling or after the bypass has been built?” whatever it is. Okay, yes, you could make an argument for that. Do people want to interact with government in something like ‘Second Life’, or ‘Minecraft’, or ‘Fortnite’, (Laughter) or any of these things which are just coming out? Maybe.

Sarah Stewart: 

I’d love to see the customisable characters.

Terence Eden:

Yes, brilliant. We’ve got to be ever so slightly careful that this cool, shiny tech is going to last, because, if we make an investment in it, that’s other people’s money that we’re spending. When I was in the private sector, it’s shareholders’ money that you’re spending. It’s still someone else’s money that you’re spending, and you have to have a really good business case.

It’s alright for us to experiment. Some people in Department for Transport are brilliant at this. Take an idea, run it for a few weeks, and don’t spend more than a few thousand pounds on it, and a few people’s time. Can it work? Does it work? If it doesn’t work, brilliant, we’ve saved money by saying, “Look, doing it this way is probably not going to work for us.” What we don’t want to do is go full in and say, “We’re going to make 3D ‘Angry Birds’ avatars of all civil servants, and then you can play them on your Oculus Rift, or something like that. It’s nonsense.

Sarah Stewart:

Is sandpit testing something that happens across government, it happens loads in the financial industry, but in government does that exist?

Terence Eden:

In part it does. One of the big problems that I see is people are afraid of failure. They shouldn’t be. If we were to say, “We are…” It’s very easy to run a procurement exercise and say, “We’re going to choose the best,” but sometimes what’s the necessary thing to do is, “We are going to ask three or four people to build something, to build a prototype in a few weeks, and we expect two of them to fail.” When you say that and you say, “Hang on, we’re going to spend money and we know that it’s going to fail?” Yes, but we don’t know which one is going to fail. We need to try four or five different approaches. Rather than wait until we’ve spent £1m and there’s a public enquiry on it, let’s get the failure out of the way as soon as possible.

That’s really scary for people of all levels in the civil service, but it’s absolutely necessary. We need to experiment. We need to take risks – small, self-contained risks where, if it fails, okay, so we’ve spent a bit of money, but not an extortionate amount. We’ve spent a bit of time, but only a few weeks, and what we’ve come up with is: “You know what? Doing it that way, it just won’t work. We’ve experimented, we’ve failed, but that’s going to save us more money in the long term.” It’s a mind-set change, and it’s psychologically difficult to turn to your manager and say, “I want to fail at something, please,” but it’s absolutely necessary.

Sarah Stewart:

So somewhat related to that is learning and development. I know that you were involved in the pilot ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’, which was run through the GDS Academy, could you tell more a bit more about that?

Terence Eden:

So, I’ve already gone on a course to learn ‘R’, which is statistical language. My statistics skills weren’t great, if I’m honest, so being able to learn how to use a really powerful tool like that, and start doing some machine learning on the data that we’re getting in, has been incredibly useful for my job, but I’m also going around talking to other civil servants about things like facial recognition and digital ethics.

It’s really easy for us to see, “Wow, we can do something like face recognition. How cool would that be for our department?” but we also need to think about, “What are the problems? What are the dangers? What are the moral, legal, and ethical considerations that we have to do?”

We know, for example, that, with a cheap webcam and some open-source code, you can do crude gender recognition, so you can say that “This face looks 90% male,” or, “80% female.” That might be useful in some circumstances, but it’s also particularly scary, and difficult, and troubling if you get it wrong, or if someone doesn’t want their born gender revealed, or anything like that.

Where we see bright, shiny, new technology, “We could do something really cool with this,” we also need to temper it and say, “Well, what are the downsides? What are the moral limits to what we can do with this tech?”

Sarah Stewart:

You mention moral limits, and I would like to talk to you a little more about government and ethics, especially as it relates to emerging technology - what is our responsibility?

Terence Eden:

I’m not sure – I’m not a politician, obviously – I’m not sure whether it’s our place to say for the private sector, or for individuals, or for open-source projects what to do, but we absolutely have a duty to talk to civil servants about what they are responsible for.

We have a civil service code, and it says that all of us have to act impartially, and a whole bunch of other things, but it doesn’t… It talks about acting in an ethical fashion, but it doesn’t necessarily address the code that we create. If you’re working in a big department, and you’ve got a big project and we’re going to create some cool machine-learning thing to look at data, then you should be doing an ethical review on that. The Department for – what are they called, ‘Data and Ethics’?

Sarah Stewart:

Oh we have the Centre for Data Ethics.

Terence Eden:

Centre for Data Ethics, yes. If you’ve got a big project that you’re working on, and you’re doing some big data, and you’re trying to learn something from there, then talking to the Centre for Data Ethics is a good thing. You should absolutely be doing it, but, if you’ve just got your laptop one lunchtime, and you’ve downloaded some open-source code from GitHub, and you’re running a machine-learning algorithm on a huge dataset, you can do that by yourself, with no oversight. Should you? What are the ethical considerations that you, as an individual, have to consider?

Sarah Stewart:

Okay, cast your mind back to July. You were at the National Cyber Security Centre. I was there, too. I saw you with a robot. What was all that about?

Terence Eden:

The robots are coming for us. There’s no doubt about that, (Laughter) but what we have to understand is, when we say, “The robots are coming for our jobs,” what jobs do we mean? What are the limits of robotics? What can they do? What can’t they do? We built a really simple Lego robot which solves a Rubik’s Cube. You can go online. The instructions are there. The source code is there. It took my wife and I an afternoon to build it, and this solves a Rubik’s Cube faster than nearly everyone in the building. There’s one person in this building who can beat it, so his job is safe. (Laughter)

Okay, so government doesn’t sort Rubik’s Cubes, generally. That’s not our job, but we do lots of repetitive work with data which is just rote work. Can we train a robot to do that? How do we deal with edge cases? What are the limits when we start doing robotic process automation? That’s what people need to start thinking about now, is what value do they bring to a job which couldn’t be encoded in an algorithm? I think that’s a challenge for all of us.

Sarah Stewart:

Just to confirm, the robots are or aren’t coming for our jobs, specifically writers?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Do you have a spell check on your PC?

Sarah Stewart:

I do.

Terence Eden:

There we go. There is a piece of AI which is doing your job. We don’t think of that as AI, but there’s some really sophisticated technology going in to say, ‘Not only have you misspelt that word, because it doesn’t match the dictionary, but, looking at the context, you probably mean this word.’

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. That’s already happened. Do you remember the Microsoft paperclip? It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Terence Eden:

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Actually, I was having a conversation with someone a couple of months ago about speechwriting and how, if you have all of the elements of speechwriting and a computer program, so kind of the rule of three, repetition, a story that includes a beginning, a middle and an end, you actually don’t really need a human to do that.

Terence Eden:  

Absolutely.

Sarah Stewart:

Although I probably shouldn’t say that, because I need my job.

Terence Eden:

I think what we’ll see more is robotic enhancement, if you like, so, as you say, writing a speech, maybe having Clippy coming in and saying, ‘You’re writing a speech. Do you need help with that?” isn’t-

Sarah Stewart:

Clippy, yes.

Terence Eden:

Maybe that’s not what you want, but having something which will gently guide you down the right path, making sure that your spelling and grammar is correct, that the structure is correct, that will all be great. Similarly, when you receive a document and your email program has already scanned it and gone, ‘Well, that’s the address, and this is the person who sent it,’ and things like that, you’re just being augmented a bit by a robot, by a bit of artificial intelligence.

That’s slowly creeping in. I think lots of email programs now offer buttons at the bottom where you can just read the email and it says, ‘You can either reply, “Yes, that’s great,” or, “No, I need more time to think about it.”’ Realistically, that’s what you want to say, quite a lot of the time.

So… Robots are coming for us all now.

Sarah Stewart:

As long as they don’t come for us in… I’ve seen, like, five films in my entire life, and there’s… Is it ‘I, Robot’, with Will Smith? At first the robots are friendly, and then in the second half I think the robots try to kill… This is like when I try to explain ‘Star Wars’ to you, and you actually know...

Terence Eden:

We need a podcast of you explaining ‘Star Wars’, because it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really complex. Let’s talk about the past - you used to sell ringtones - what made you want to work here?

Terence Eden:

Working in the private sector is great, and working in the public sector is also great. I think people get really hung up about there being a difference, and there isn’t. I’ve worked for some of the biggest companies in the UK, and they have all the same problems that a large government department has. I’ve worked for tiny start-ups, and they can be just as agile as GDS is. There are positives and negatives.

I’d spent a long time doing private sector stuff, and it was great fun, but I saw the work that GDS was doing and thought, “I want to be part of that. I want to be pushing the conversation forward. I want to make sure that the government, the civil service in the country where I live, is doing the right thing.”

It’s really easy being on the outside, snarking, and I think we’ve all done it. (Laughter) It’s like, even if you’re just snarking about the train company or whoever it is, it’s really easy just to go, “They’re all useless,” nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, but it’s harder to come in and say, “Right, I’m going to try and push from the inside.” I don’t think I’m going to succeed at everything that I want, and I’m not coming in with the attitude that I’m going to revolutionise government. I think it would be dangerous if any one civil servant could do that. (Laughter)

Sarah Stewart:

I did try.

Terence Eden:

Did you? But I’ve come in with the attitude that there is a task here that I believe in that I think is important for this country and internationally. If we can lead the way, then we can help influence other people in other countries to do the right thing. That’s fantastic.

I’ve met with government representatives from around Europe, from around the world, and they’ve been consistently impressed with what GDS is doing. Some of them are going, “You’ve got some open-source code. We’ll take that, thanks. Wow, these open standards principles that you’ve got, that makes complete sense for us. Yes, we’ll take it. We’ll shuffle it around to meet our local needs, and go off and do it.” That’s brilliant.

This job wasn’t my career goal. It just so happened that all the work that I’d been doing with standards, and with open source and stuff like that, suddenly this job seemed to fit perfectly. I’ve not had a career plan. I’ve just, sort of, jumped from thing to thing that I found interesting and has coincided with what I’ve been doing anyway, so, yes, it’s mostly luck.

Don’t get me wrong, ringtones are fun – but this is actually having a positive impact on people around the world. That’s great. I love it.

I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. I’m proud of the departments who have invited us in, been sceptical and gone, “No, alright, yes, we’re going to make some changes to that,” and I’m proud of the fact that, when we go around to departments, they quite often…

I had a lovely chat with a department who said, “We’ve done this, and we’ve done that, and we’ve opened this, and we’ve opened that. How are we doing?” (Laughter) When I said, “My goodness, you are just streets ahead of everyone else,” they just beamed with pride. That was absolutely lovely.

Sarah Stewart:

For the uninitiated, can you explain what open standards are and what open source is?

Terence Eden:

They’re two very different things. Open standards means that, when you’ve got two computers that want to communicate, the language that they use is standardised. Everyone can understand it. We actually have a 48-point definition of open standards, which I’m not going to go onto here, but basically it’s the organisation which creates it. They create it in an open fashion. That means you can see the process by which it happens and that you can go in and make some changes.

They publish it for free – we don’t want government departments to be spending thousands of pounds on standards again and again – and that they have wide international adoption. That’s what open standards are. It just means that our computers can work with computers around the world for free.

Sarah Stewart:

Tell me about open source.

Terence Eden:  

People have the right to see how decisions are being made. Open source is about… In one sense, it’s about publishing the code that we use to run bits of the country. You can see how the GOV.UK website is built. All the code is there, but when we start saying, “Okay, this is how a decision is made, this is how systems integrate with each other,” we should be publishing that. There are several good reasons for doing this. Firstly is it increases trust. If you can see, if you’re a user and you can see how this code works, hopefully you will trust it more.

Sarah Stewart:

So how are we doing in the world stage on open standards?

Terence Eden:  

Good. Could do better, but I always think we can do better. We’re involved with some EU committees around the world, and we are one of the few governments which are on the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium’s advisory committee. Yes, we are going out, we are leading the way in certain areas, but what we’re seeing – and I think this is fascinating – is some countries leapfrogging us.

When I worked for the mobile phone industry, one of the problems with the UK was we had this huge investment in 2G networks, and then another huge investment in 3G networks. You would find countries in Africa which never had, even, landlines before, going, “We’ll just build a 3G network.” They don’t have any of that legacy investment, so they were able to leapfrog us in terms of speed, and connectivity, and price. GDS has been going for, is it, like, six years now?

Sarah Stewart:

Seven. I think we’re approaching our seventh.

Terence Eden:

Six, seven years, yes, so, naturally, we’ve got a lot of legacy stuff that we’ve built up. That means some processes which are a bit slow, and that’s fine, but then you see other countries who’ve skipped to the end. They said, “Okay, so we’ve seen all the mistakes GDS have made. We’ve seen what they’ve come out with at the end. We’ll just take that end piece and run with it.” Brilliant, that’s great. I think we have paved the way for lots of people, but there’s always more we can do.

Sarah Stewart:

So internationally, who do you think is doing good work - which governments are piquing your interest?

Terence Eden: 

I’ve got to give a shout out to New Zealand. I think they’re doing some amazing things, making their government more open, more transparent, getting on board the open source and the open standards train. That’s partly – that’s entirely – a testament to the people who work in New Zealand’s public service. They absolutely get it, and we’re seeing them spread out around. I know that some of them have gone off to Australia, which is great.

We’ve got some GDS alumna off in Canada, and now they are doing brilliant stuff. One of the lovely things about Canada is lots of their digital strategy is on GitHub, so you can just go along and say, “Hang on, you could do something better there,” or even as simple as, “There’s a spelling mistake there,” and fix it. I think that’s wonderful for openness.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re a bug hunter yourself, aren’t you?

Terence Eden:

I am, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re in Google’s Hall of Fame.

Terence Eden:

My wife and I are, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Oh both of you?

Terence Eden:

Yes. No – well, it was my wife who discovered the bug, and then I reported it, so we’re joint recipients, think.

Sarah Stewart:

What was the bug?

Terence Eden:

So Google Calendar, if you typed up a reminder to yourself which said, ‘Email boss@work.com about pay rise,’ if you put that in the subject line, it would automatically copy it to your boss’ calendar.

Sarah Stewart:

That’s a big bug, isn’t it?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Basically, yes that’s what happened, so we reported it and they fixed it, but finding bugs is good fun. If people find bugs in government, they should tell us, because we’ll fix them.

Sarah Stewart: 

So what does your vision of a future government look like, a successful future government, look like?

Terence Eden:

The government of the future – I hope – will be more open, and it will be more collaborative. I don’t want GDS to be a single government department. I want GDS to be everywhere. I want everyone to know what good looks like and how to code in the open.

I think the government of the future will have fewer barriers. Someone asked me the other day what department I was in, and I said, “GDS.” They went, “No, which subdivision of GDS?” I haven’t got a clue. I just work for GDS. Really, I work for Cabinet Office. If I’m completely honest, I work for the civil service.

If someone from DWP says, “I need some help with something,” I’m going to go and help them. Of course I will. If someone from anywhere in the country in the civil service says, “We need some help with this,” why wouldn’t I go and help them? I think we need to break down these barriers. If the best team at content design happens to be in Defra, or wherever, great, we should be learning from them. They should be teaching us.

I would love it not only if the government of the future was more open, and more transparent, and more open source, and used more open standards, but that the civil service was really just one civil service. It wasn’t just based in London, and that we can… It’s not based in London now, but that we felt free to move more or less anywhere within it and give people the help, and the advice, and the support that they need, and learn from anyone in any department, because we are not Defra, and DWP, and Department for Health and anything else. We’re not. We are one team, OneTeamGov.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really interesting that you've said that – we’re actually recording a podcast with Kit Collingwood from OneTeamGov and DWP fame in December. Okay final question – you’ve hacked your vacuum, your car is on Twitter, your house turns off when you leave it – what’s next?

Terence Eden: 

The next thing that I’m interested in is biohacking. So I’ve got some fake nails, just like fashion nails, and they’ve got a small bit of computer circuitry in, which is kind of like your Oyster card. It’s an NFC chip, and they glow when I put them around electromagnetic fields, so, if I’m on the tube and I put my hand against an Oyster card reader, my fingertips glow.

You can also put data on there, so I can transfer data from my fingertips. That’s kind of silly, but I’m fascinated by how we can enhance people.

What are the things that we can put on us and in us which will make us better? That’s what I’m interested in.

Sarah Stewart:

Terence, thank you so much.

Terence Eden:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Sarah Stewart:

That brings us to the end of this month’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ll listen again next month when we talk to another interesting person about interesting things. Until then, farewell.