Government Digital Service Podcast

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

December 7, 2018

In this episode, senior writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart look back at the year at GDS.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS, and today I’m joined by Sarah Stewart, who is also a senior writer at GDS.

Sarah Stewart:
Hello, and thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s really great to have you here, Sarah. I mean, we spend all week sitting opposite each other across a desk and now we’re going to sit across from each other and speak into microphones.

Sarah Stewart:
I quite like the idea that I’m assuming the role of guest speaker with specialist knowledge of any one subject.

Angus Montgomery:
You are the one with the expertise here, let’s face it.
The reason that it’s me and Sarah doing this podcast… If you’ve listened to GDS podcasts before you’ll know that what we’ve done previously is, kind of, either Sarah or I have interviewed an expert speaker, so we’ve had Neil Williams on GOV.UK, Terence Eden on open standards and emerging technology, and we’ve also spoken to the GDS Women’s Network.

But, what we want to do with this podcast, because it is the final podcast of 2018, is do a look at the year in review at GDS, what GDS has done over the last year, the things it’s achieved, the things it’s launched and kind of just go back through those and our take on them, we’ve even got some audio clips from the people who were involved as well.

I think Sarah and I, because we work across GDS and our job is to help people, kind of, tell the story of their work, we’ve kind of had a ringside seat for a lot of this stuff.

GDS’s work has kind of been split, broadly, into three themes this year, and this podcast is going to split into those three themes as well. Those three themes are:

Sarah Stewart:
Transformation; collaboration and; innovation.

Angus Montgomery:
Full marks for that.

Sarah Stewart:
Thank you very much.

Angus Montgomery:
So, transformation, collaboration and innovation is, kind of, how GDS talks about its work. when we first started to use those terms, at Sprint ’18, which was the big event that we held back in May, where we, kind of, talked to the rest of government and the rest of the wider public about what we were doing. So, let’s get into it…

Oh yes, sorry, just to… Someone who did also speak at Sprint, as you well know, and you’ve worked closely with him throughout this year…

Sarah Stewart:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden, and here’s what he had to say about us:

[Audio starts]
‘Though transformation innovation and collaboration you’ve not only saved billions of pounds across government, but you’ve changed the way people interact with government every day. What you do really matters, it really does genuinely improve people’s experience of government in their day-to-day lives.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
Oliver Dowden there really summing up what GDS does and why it’s here, and it’s really nice to hear that sort of thing from senior backing.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, exactly. I think the really encouraging thing about having Oliver Dowden overseeing the work of GDS is that he really understands the link up between creating a modern government and involving the tech sector. We have to be honest about the limits of government, we don’t have all the answers, but what we do have, in this country, is an amazing tech sector that’s attracting billions of pounds of inward investment. We’ve got some amazing companies just literally down the road, of course we should be partnering with them. It just makes sense for us to all link up, the tech sector, the public sector, and push our digital agenda forward.

Angus Montgomery:
I think he’s been really heavily involved in GDS, particularly recently with the innovation stuff as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, I suppose we’ll come to that in a bit, but he’s been really behind… He announced the Innovation Strategy, I think the emerging themes from that will really address things like how we connect more with the private sector and how we focus on upskilling existing civil servants, and also policy makers so that they understand emerging tech. I was thinking about it the other day, about how if people are buying technology, so people are utilising technologies in government, those people who are buying also need to understand what those technologies do.
So, in the same way that you’d go to the doctor and say, “I’ve got this ailment” and the doctor prescribes the information and the medicine, and you expect them to know how it works as well, it’s not just going in and taking something off the shelf. So, I think that’s a really encouraging thing that’s he’s championing as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant. Top marks Oliver.

So, the first theme we’re going to discuss is transformation. We published a Transformation Strategy at the beginning of 2017, and I think 2017 and 2018 have been the years when we’ve really started to deliver against it. I think we’re now halfway through it as well?

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right.

Angus Montgomery:
Growing common components is a big thing, because I think one of the aims of the Transformation Strategy was to drive common components across government, and by common components, obviously, we mean things that can be built once and used again and again by departments, like GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay. This year has seen some really impressive examples of services using those things.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they’re using GOV.UK Pay to help people who need to pay for emergency passports. Also, increasingly, GP surgeries are using GOV.UK Notify to remind patients of their appointments, which I really need. I mean, it’s improving efficiencies as well, because of the amount of people who don’t turn up to appointments and just that little reminder is so helpful, and it’s on your phones.

Angus Montgomery:
They always show those dire warnings in GP surgeries, don’t they, of the number people who’ve missed appointments that month. I know GP’s surgeries aren’t over resourced a lot of the time, so it’s a real drain on them if that happens. I think things that will prevent that from happening are amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
The really cool thing about these common components, and especially Notify, is that it’s really meeting people where they’re at. People are looking at their phones, people spend so much time on their phones it makes sense to have that reminder to your phone. It’s just efficient and it just works. So, I’m not surprised that take-up has been so incredible.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the other things that’s quite exciting is because a lot of these common components are reaching maturity now, like they’ve been around for a year or so, but what’s starting to happen is you’re starting to see services using them all together. I think in the Disclosure and Barring Service are one of the first people to do that, and we’ve got some audio:

[Audio starts]
‘We’ve relied heavily on GaaP components. We’re the first service to integrate with three of the GaaP components all at once.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
There you go, the first service to integrate all three GaaP components at one. So, I think that’s really exciting, seeing these things not used in isolation but seeing whole services built on these things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, and that’s been a huge emphasis this year, end-to-end service design, and if you can incorporate those common components… It just makes sense, doesn’t it, going offline and online might be an option for your particular service, but it’s nice to have that option to integrate more if you need them to.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, and making it easy for the teams as well. I think if you’re starting to use Pay and Notify platform as a service you, as a developer working on that team, have got all this stuff just to hand that you can build a service really quickly around. That was, kind of, always the government’s platform vision, and it’s really amazing to see that starting to happen.

Sarah Stewart:
I can’t remember where I was, actually, I went to do some filming this year and think it might be with DVSA, but they talked about how it’s not just having common components that you can just take off the shelf and your relationship with GDS is done, there is a continued relationship. They invite feedback and they want to support you in your use of it. So, I think we’ve done quite a lot of work in terms of… Maybe helping isn’t the right word, but like guiding people and being a supportive friend of take-up and how they’re going to integrate it into their systems.

Angus Montgomery:
Again, that is, to me, exactly that. That’s one of the reason these things are so amazing, is because they’re designed and built for government, but you’re not just designing and building something and handing it over to a team and saying, “Go ahead and use that.” You have a relationship. If you’re using Pay you have a relationship with that Pay team, you can give your feedback on it and they can make the product better based on your feedback. It’s this symbiotic thing which is really cool.
The other thing that we should probably mention, which happened, I think, a couple of weeks ago, is that GOV.UK Notify won a civil service award, or the team that build it.

Sarah Stewart:
Wowser, that’s really cool.

Angus Montgomery:
Wowsers indeed. A big hats off to that team, who are awesome. They won an award, I think, for operational delivery. But, basically, the award recognised the work that that team has done, not just to develop a product but also to support it and work with government services to make sure that Notify is a great thing to use, so that’s really cool. But one of the things we’ve started to do a lot more this year is work more closely with local authorities. What is it about local authorities? Why should we work closely with them?

Sarah Stewart:
I suppose, it’s because they’re the ones who are delivering user-focused services, and because the needs of the people that they’re dealing with are so complex, and the services that they use are so complex as well. So, of course it makes sense to help them simplify how they’re interacting and give them the tools that make that process a lot more straightforward and a lot more efficient.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s brilliant. A lot of the challenges that the government has had that GDS has been working on, those are replicated in local authorities and, like you say, they’re the ones that are, kind of, delivering a lot of these services, like blue badges and collecting bins and things, the things that, kind of, really rile you up if they’re not done properly. So, GDS being able to get involved in that is really exciting.
I think there’s a clip from one of the local authorities we’ve been working with, and they use the Digital Marketplace, that’s Hackney Borough Council, and they’re doing some really exciting stuff as well.

[Audio starts]
‘One of my personal favourite projects that we’ve used Digital Marketplace for in the last year was a piece of work to examine what the opportunity is to use digital to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers, which was incredibly valuable for the council and for our residents, but also could develop a true partnership as well as long at some longer-term opportunities to use technology very differently.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
That’s Matthew Cain who’s, I think, head of digital at Hackney Borough Council, and that’s a really interesting example of the kind of thing a local authority does. The recruitment of foster carers and using digital, and in that case a digital marketplace, to improve something like that is really cool.

Sarah Stewart:
The other thing that’s going to support that, so it’s not just an ad-hoc relationship that we’re having with local authorities, is the publication of the Local Digital Declaration as well, which shows our commitment to working with local authorities across the whole of the public sector. I think it has 100 signatories on it now?

Angus Montgomery:
I think there are 100 signatures.

So, we’re one of the co-publishers, I think with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government and various local authorities, and there are something like 100 signatories already. Yes, it’s a commitment from all the signatories that they will follow these principles of digital development, which are the things that you would hope they’re talking about, like focusing on user needs, using the right technology, and all that sort of thing.

Yes, you’re right, it’s really interesting. I think the world of local authorities is so big, there are so many and they’re delivering so many different, often quite small and challenging, services. It, kind of, seems like a world that is really hard to get a handle on. I think that it’s really interesting to see GDS approaching that in a kind of structured way, through the Local Digital Declaration, but also giving really tangible things that can help, like common components. It’s amazing to see the progress that has already happened with it as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Just on that, I used to work for a charity and when people were interacting with their local authorities it wasn’t just the case that they were going just for one thing, they had a host of different needs that needed to be addressed, and local authorities are the people who are servicing those needs and making sure that all of those things get done.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, 2018 was a year in which GDS launched quite a few things and updated quite a few things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the GDS Design System.

Angus Montgomery:
The GDS Design System, which I think is really… This appeals to the geek side of me because this is, basically, a collection of all the patterns and components that a designer or a front-end developer and, for the most part, would use to create a government service. So, you’ve got things there telling you about how to design a button, which typeface to use, which colours to use-

Sarah Stewart:
Why is that important?

Angus Montgomery:
It’s important because, in much the same way as GaaP components, it’s about making it easier for those teams to use something so that they don’t have to design their own button style or design their own dropdown menu, or whatever. There is one that they can just pull the code from and put it into their service.

Also, then it provides consistency. So, if all the government services are using the same things… And the things in the design system are heavily user researched, so, it’s the kind of GDS principle of, like, “Do the hard work for service teams, but also provide a consistent experience across all things.” If you want to lose an hour or two then go and have a mess about in it, because there’s something really cool stuff to find and look at.

Sarah Stewart:
The geek emerges.

Angus Montgomery:
Exactly.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a year of launching and relaunching at GDS, so we introduced a new spend controls process and we’re rewriting the service standard, which you know more about than I do, Angus.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, the service standard is really exciting, and we’ve blogged quite a bit about this already, I think Stephen Gill and Lou Downe, who are both working on it, have written quite a lot. The Digital Service Standard has been around for quite some time, and was initially developed, primarily, to help develop digital touchpoints and digital services, and is focused on that. The idea of the rewrite is to help government and teams within government to think about whole end-to-end services, what that means and how they can help the user do something from the very start of a service to the very end of it.

It’s going to be really exciting and interesting to see what that means and how that works. There are quite a lot of blog posts about it as well, if you should go to the GDS blog to find out more, as you should do for all of the things that we’ve discussed.

Sarah Stewart:
Excellent plug.

Angus Montgomery:
Excellent plug... there is plenty of amazing writing about all of these things, even if I do say so myself!

Sarah Stewart:
I’ll tell you what else is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
What else is exciting, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
GOV.UK is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
GOV.UK is never not exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a big year for the team behind GOV.UK because they’ve been doing some super-cool work with organising their content. So, they’ve been doing supervised machine learning to organise all of the content on GOV.UK, or in certain sections they’re organising their content. That means that we can do cool things, like voice activation.

And the example is, if you speak into a Google Voice system and say, “How old do I need to be to drive a car?” the information that is surfaced is GOV.UK content, and this content is the best, it’s the most authoritative.

Angus Montgomery:
That is amazing. I think what is really amazing is, like you say, they sorted out the structure of the sites and then they did the fixing the basics, solving hard problems and all that stuff that GDS says all the time. This is a really good example of that. Like, sorting out the content, which was a really hard and a really challenging thing to do, but having done that they can do really exciting whizzy stuff on it. We were discussing the word whizzy just yesterday, I think.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, the amount of times…

Angus Montgomery:
But, it is whizzy. I think you said it was a public-school boy word, which I’m pretty-

Sarah Stewart:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

Angus Montgomery:
No offence taken.

But, it is whizzy stuff, like voice activation and like the step-by-step work that they’re doing as well, which kind of takes all the content involved in a particular service, like you used the learning to drive example, and puts that all in order for the user to be able to navigate really quickly and easily, and to understand where the are in the process.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s so brilliant, because when you think about things, life impacting things, like learning how to drive, it can be so daunting. If you can just shine a light in the darkness and say, “Look, these are the eight steps that you need to get your driving license, let’s tackle step one. Let’s do it all in the same journey, and at least you can tick that off.” How amazing is that? You don’t need to rootle around the internet, you don’t need to Google the internet, that’s another phrase we’ve been using a lot recently, to find the answers. It’s just all in one place. It’s bliss.

Angus Montgomery:
It is, and it’s great. It has been a really big year for GOV.UK and it’s really amazing to see them developing this stuff and the new stuff that’s happening.

Plug time as well, if you want to find out more about this, we did a podcast with Neil Williams, who, up until recently, was head of GOV.UK, he left in September, I think it was, to go and be head of digital at Croydon Council, but before he left we recorded a podcast with him in which he said this:

[Audio starts]
‘Absolutely, we’re iterating widely again, I’d say, so it’s back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re actually able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly, again. So, some of the stuff we’re doing now is actually greenfield stuff, again, we’re back to a lot of the ideas we had, way back when in the early days of GDS, around making the publishing system really intuitive and giving data intelligence to publishers so that they can understand how services are performing and see where to prioritise and get that really rich insight about how their stuff, as a department, is working for users.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, yes, we talked a lot about transformation, and it’s time to talk…

Sarah Stewart:
About collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
About collaboration.

Sarah Stewart:
What do we mean by collaboration?

Angus Montgomery:
What do we mean? Well, collaboration, basically, means working together, which is the thing-

Sarah Stewart:
I do actually know the answer to this, sorry, in case the audience don’t think I don’t know what collaborative means.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s just be clear, this is an interview trope which is to ask a question that you know the answer to in order to illicit a comment from the person that you’re talking to. Just because we’re asking each other these things doesn’t mean that…

Sarah, tell me about GDS and what it does… We do actually know what this means, or I think we know what this means, anyway.

Collaboration, in order to answer your question, Sarah, basically means working together, which is, of course, what GDS has done since the very beginning. So, GDS was set up to work with and across government to help them develop digital services, transform what they’re doing and make things better for users. We can’t do this stuff unless we are collaborating, unless we are working together.

We mentioned Sprint earlier as well, which is the big event that we held back in May, where GDS and other people from across movement talked about the really cool things that they were doing, and there was a strong collaboration angle throughout that.

And there were a lot of really good case studies, interesting case studies of work that was going on. After the day we were looking back on Twitter and talking to people who’d been at the event and they were saying, “This is one that made me cry, and I didn’t expect to,” “I went to this workshop, I came out and I was so emotional that I was weeping.” It was a workshop about open standards, and this was the case study that they used:

[Audio starts]
‘Hands off. He’s got a belt on, get his belt. Up… Okay. In you come, fella. Alright.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, for the benefit of people who obviously couldn’t see what was happening, because that was a video clip and we played it on a podcast, which is an audio medium, so it was quite a lot of indiscrete splashing, but what was actually happening there was that was someone being rescued-

Sarah Stewart:
A real person.

Angus Montgomery:
That was a field video-clip, or however you describe it, from the RNLI, rescuing someone from the River Thames. The reason that was played in an open standards workshop is open standards is super important when it comes to things like emergency services, because you might get various emergency services, like the police or RNLI or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency responding to various incidents at the same time, and they need to be able to share information about those incidents really, really quickly.

Sarah Stewart:
The profound takeaway from this is, obviously, people’s lives are being saved, but the launch time for lifeboats is reduced from 10-15 minutes to under 2 minutes.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s incredible.

Sarah Stewart:
If you can think of what can happen, even in two minutes, to someone who’s in the water for that long…

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, falling in the Thames in December, and you don’t want to be in there for 10-15 minutes. So it’s amazing.

I mean, obviously this got people really emotional because you’re seeing a video of someone, literally, getting pulled out of the Thames, and the work that you have done to develop and open standard or to develop a common system for sharing information, which seems like a really abstract thing, but then you see the real-world example of this stuff and that’s really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
We spoke to Terence Eden, who’s the open standards lead at GDS, about open standards, and if you want to find out more listen to that podcast. There are some things that you think are so mundane, in a theoretical sense, but the real-world practical outcome is so so important. So, I highly recommend you listen to that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, another plug for the podcast, which is a good thing.

Also, one of the big things, staying on this collaboration theme, that we’ve been doing is helping government work together and build capability through things, like the GDS Academy, which has gone from strength to strength this year.

Sarah Stewart:
There have been some big milestones. We’re nearing 10,000, would we call them students? Colleagues?

Angus Montgomery:
Students/colleagues/civil servants/people trained through the-

Sarah Stewart:
Those with a thirst to learn. We hit almost 10,000 who have passed through the GDS academy and about 1,000 of those students have been through the Agile foundation course.

Angus Montgomery:
This is really important work because it’s showing people the opportunities that a digital government brings for their skills and capabilities, and for their jobs as well. I mean, people are training in new and interesting jobs because of the GDS Academy, and that’s really exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
What I think is super-cool about it is that people can feel left behind when things move forward and when people move from different processes. Digital can be quite a daunting thing and something that they feel like might be a stumbling block to them or might prevent them from continuing their work in the civil service, but what the academy does is say, “Actually, we can support you in your knowledge and we can support you in your growth, and if you want to learn about all these really cool and interesting things that we’re doing, and the ways of working that are open to you as well.”
So, we’re not just abandoning people who don’t have those digital expertise, we’re saying, “Here is a foundation course that will help you get up to speed and give you the confidence to go and bring it back to your departments and deploy it.”

Angus Montgomery:
You’re right. I think one of the things about digital, and not just in government, I suppose, but in general, is that it can be seen as quite a clique-y thing, it’s like, “If you understand this digital thing then you’re part of it, but if you don’t then,” you know, as you say, “You might get left behind.” The idea that we’re, through the GDS Academy, able to bring people into this is really cool, and makes it not a clique-y thing but make it a big, kind of, community, potentially, of civil servants, and that’s really cool.

Like we say, we’re approaching 10,000 students, we’ve got new academy classrooms in the GDS building, I think just the floor below us as we speak.

Sarah Stewart:
It looks very swish.

Angus Montgomery:
Which does look very swish, indeed.

They did a pop-up in Canada as well, which was quite good.

Sarah Stewart:
Did they?

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, they went over there and spoke to the Canadian government about what they’d done at the GDS Academy, and after that the Canadian government set up their own. So, there you go…

And it’s been an exciting year for GOV.UK Verify as well, the government’s online identity assurance programme, because the standards and guidelines which currently underpin the way Verify works are now being opened up to the private sector to build on. And what this means is that in principle, the same digital identity platform that helps you check your state pension could in future also help you check your savings account too and other things that you do in your kind of day to day non-government life so that’s really exciting as well.

So... we’ve done transformation…

Sarah Stewart:
We’ve done collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s move onto innovation.

Sarah Stewart:
Which I feel is my specialist subject. Do you want to do the music?

Angus Montgomery:
What? Is this innovation music? Oh…

Sarah Stewart:
No, that was Mastermind.

Angus Montgomery:
Sorry, that reference just went straight over my head. Sarah Stewart…

Sarah Stewart:
...on innovation. So, 2018 has been a big year for innovation, and not just in this government but in governments all across the world. So, in summer, I’m sure you heard, that the French government announced a £1.5 billion investment in research into artificial intelligence. The Singaporean government, or actually the prime minister said, that innovation was an obsession for them, not just an interest, an obsession. Countries like Norway are doing some really interesting things, actually, the prime minister launched this programme calling it a kind of Tinder…

Angus Montgomery:
Nice.

Sarah Stewart:
So the government is helping clean tech industries reach out to international markets.

Angus Montgomery:
To literally hook up with those markets.

Sarah Stewart:
Exactly. Oh God…

But, what we’re interested in is the UK, sorry, let me bring you back. Let’s land at Heathrow and tell you about what’s happening in this country. So earlier this year we published a survey of all emerging tech activity across government, so we know the extent and where innovative activity with emerging tech is happening. So, we know, for example, like we mentioned earlier, that GOV.UK is using supervised machine learning, as is the UK Hydrographic Office, and that BEIS, DFID and Defra are using big data and sensors to improve agricultural yield and protect crops.

Angus Montgomery:
So, lots of cool stuff happening, but I think one of the things that we talk about a lot that’s really interesting is that all this work going on in isolation is great and really exciting, but for it to have an effect you kind of need to have an overarching strategy, you need to be able to do it in the right way you need to be able to make sure that you’re not just chasing after the latest shiny thing…

Sarah Stewart:
Whizzy things.

Angus Montgomery:
Whizzy things, to make it a theme. Sarah, you interviewed Terence Eden, as you’ve already mentioned, for the podcast that we published a couple of months ago, and Terence had some words about this as well:

[Audio starts]
‘How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at the new fashionable tech, because it’s new and fashionable?’
‘It’s a good question. The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is ‘The future is already here, it’ just not very equally 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. Yes, you’re right, people just go a little starry eyed…’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, Sarah, how do we avoid people being all starry-eyed and just chasing after the latest whizzy new technology?

Sarah Stewart:
We use a strategy, Angus, which is exactly what the minister announced after the publication of the survey. So, it was good that we had a landscape and we had a much better understanding of the emerging tech that was being used across government, but we needed to round it up with a strategy. To ensure that we’re moving forward in a clear and sensible way the strategy was the thing.

So, GDS is leading this, but the minister has been attending quite a few engagement meetings to get the expertise from tech leaders, academics and practitioners in the field about what this strategy needs to address, because we don’t want to get into the situation where, in five years’ time or ten years’ time, we’re playing catch-up. So, I think that’s going to be published in the spring.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, I look forward to it and look forward to seeing what we have to say in that.
One more thing, we talked about this earlier on but the idea of the academy and GDS as a whole, upskilling and helping build capability across the civil service and digital, we’ve been taking that into emerging technologies as well, through the pilot Emerging Technology Development Programme. Sarah, you spoke again to Terence Eden about this, because I think he’s one of the first people who went through the pilot.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. The idea is that there are going to be people who are skilled up and specialists in emerging technologies, so they can go into departments across government to help other teams and spreading the word. The pilot was run earlier this year, and you’re right, Terence Eden was on there, and here’s what he thought of it:

[Audio starts]
‘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.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, super important stuff. Just one final, but super important, part of the innovation work that GDS has been doing over the last year is the GovTech Catalyst Challenge.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. This is a £20m fund which is designed to incentivise tech companies to help the public sector with challenges that they may face.

Angus Montgomery:
So, two really cool things about this is it’s dealing with really interesting public sector challenges, like how do you deal with loneliness and isolation in rural areas, or how do you help track a waste chain across its whole process or how do you help to keep firefighters safe when they’re out on emergency calls? But, what it’s also doing is bringing in the interesting emerging technologies, so things like artificial intelligence or location sensing or wearable tech and, kind of, using them on these specific examples, but by doing that it’s proving the value to the wider public sector as well.
So, if you use that emerging technology in one particular incident or in one particular incidence you might then find other applications for it in the public sector. So, it’s kind of like a testing ground for stuff as well, which is really exciting.

I think what is really cool about this is that the GovTech Catalyst Fund has been going now for some time and, as you mentioned, there have been a number of challenges launched. We’re starting to see potential where it could tackle real issues, like I mentioned earlier about keeping firefighters safe.

Sarah Stewart:
The other really cool thing as well is that it’s a London team, so the team is based in London, but the challenges that are coming in are not solely London based challenges, they’ve come from all over the country as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s hear from Wales.

[Audio starts]
‘If I was to wear the tracking device and I was committed to a building it would make me feel safer, because I know that if any of my other communications fail or if I’m needing assistance then they’re going to know where I am.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So that’s Mid and West Wales Fire Service, who have a GovTech Challenge competition out for the moment, for tracking for firefighters when they’re out on emergency calls.

Sarah Stewart:
The other beautiful thing, if I can call it beautiful, if I can call boosting the economy beautiful, is that it gives small, kind of, nimble SMEs a chance to do business with government. So, it’s not just monopolised by massive companies, it’s really helping the burgeoning GovTech sector to grow, and this is one very tangible way in which is happening.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s helping the right people work on the right problems, which is what it’s all about.
That was innovation. So, we’ve done it all.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, we’ve done it.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve done transformation, collaboration and innovation, and that was an overview of 2018 at GDS.
What was your favourite moment of 2018, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
Good question. I think it was April, when the late Jeremy Heywood, came in to talk to the organisation. I was impressed by the amount of stuff that he knew because his portfolio must’ve been enormous. To know in very precise detail exactly what’s happening in every part of government was really inspiring, not only from a digital perspective, but also as a civil servant. You just think, “Wow, that’s colossal intellect deployed just brilliantly.”

Angus Montgomery:
Yes I think I’d agree with you about when Lord Heywood came in. Like you said, he was such an impressive speaker and showed such a massive intellect, but also a real interest and passion about what GDS was doing. Like you say, his brief was so massive that he would’ve had to have a handle on so many different parts of government, for him to come in and be really interested, engaged and talking to individual people and talking to the organisation as a whole was super-impressive. So, I think that was definitely a highlight for me.

I think the other highlight was something we’ve talked about quite a lot, which was Sprint, which was super hard work, I think, for everyone involved, but really amazing and really amazing to see people at GDS and people from across government get the opportunity to talk about the work that they’ve been doing and see the reception that that got. Having a workshop about open standards that left people in tears and things like that were really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
For the right reasons.

Angus Montgomery:
So that was really cool.

Next year, what are you most looking forward to?

Sarah Stewart:
Spring, because in spring the Innovation Strategy will be published.

Angus Montgomery:
Ah, the strategy.

Sarah Stewart:
The strategy… How about you?

Angus Montgomery:
For me, I guess, it’s a bit of a cop out answer, but more of the same. I think what I really value about GDS is that there are lots of organisations that use words like transformation, collaboration and innovation, and other words like that, but use them in quite intangible ways, and just don’t really deliver against them. I think what we’ve proved over the last year is that we are delivering loads of really tangible, amazing things.

There are things that we and other parts of the government have done this year that are changing people’s lives. That, to me, is the reason GDS exists. We talk to the talk but we’re delivering this stuff as well, we’re actually doing stuff, and more tangible things. The Innovation Strategy is a part of that, obviously, and seeing tangible outcomes from that, more people using common components, more services that have been transformed in a way that it’s going to help people go about their lives and make people’s lives better.

I think just the stuff that we’ve done over this last year has been brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of its next year.

So, that wraps up 2018 and the 2018 year in review podcast.

Sarah Stewart:
What a year it’s been.

Angus Montgomery:
What a year it’s been.

Sarah Stewart:
Wait. We’ve forgotten to mention the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in 2019.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s that?

Sarah Stewart:
The continuation of the GDS podcast series.

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. As I mentioned before, this is the fourth episode of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done, and we’ve got plenty more exciting ones planned. So, if you’ve enjoyed this one and you enjoyed the previous ones that we’ve done, then go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcasts because we’ve got a ton more exciting stuff happening next year.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh yes.Thank you very much for listening. Thank you for joining me, Sarah.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh, you’re welcome.

Angus Montgomery:
And goodbye.

Sarah Stewart:
Goodbye.