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

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

November 7, 2018

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.

 

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams

September 28, 2018

 

 

In this episode, we interview outgoing head of GOV.UK Neil Williams about his time at GDS, learning about agile and scaling the nation's website.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Angus Montgomery: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and for this episode I’m going to be talking to Neil Williams, who is the head of GOV.UK. And Neil is leaving GDS shortly for an exciting new job, so we’re going to be talking to him about that and also talking to him about his time at GDS, because he’s been here since the very beginning. So I hope you enjoy this episode and let’s go straight into the conversation.

Neil Williams: I'm going to Croydon Council. So leaving not only GDS-

Angus Montgomery: South London?

Neil Williams: South London. South London is the place to be, I have to say. Yes, not only leaving GDS, but leaving the Civil Service actually, because local government is not the Civil Service of course, to go and work in Croydon as Chief Digital Officer for the council there. They've got a lot of ambition, and it’s a really exciting time for Croydon. People laugh when I say that.

Angus Montgomery: I just laughed as well. I didn’t mean to.

Neil Williams:  Croydon has this reputation that is completely unwarranted, and we’re going to prove the world wrong. It’s changing massively. It’s already gone through a lot of change. You're probably aware of some stuff. It’s got a Boxpark. There’s a lot of reporting around the Westfield/Hammerson development that might be happening, which we very much hope is happening. Also Croydon Tech City. So Croydon’s got a lot of growth in the tech industry, tech sector. Fantastic companies starting up and scaling up in Croydon, and that’s all part of the story.

Plus the stuff that’s more in my wheelhouse, that I've been doing here in GDS around transforming services. Making the public services that Croydon provides to residents and business to be as good as they should be. As good as everything else that people expect in their day to lives using digital services these days.

Angus Montgomery: So not much on your plate then?

Neil Williams: It’s quite a big job. I'm excited about it. There’s a lot about it that’s new, which is kind of giving me a new lease of energy, the fact that I've got this big challenge to face and lots of learning to do.

Which reminds me a lot about how I felt when I first working with GDS in fact. Just how exciting I found the prospect of coming and working for this organisation, and being part of this amazing revolution. I'm feeling that again actually about the job in Croydon, [00:02:33] about the work to be done there.

It seems like the right time. It’s a perfect time and place, where I am in my career, those things coming together. It’s a really good match. So it came up, and I put in for it, and lo and behold I am now Chief Digital Officer in Croydon Council from mid-October.

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been at GDS since before the beginning, haven’t you? Seven, eight years?

Neil Williams:  Yes, I was working it out this morning. It’s seven years and two months. I was 34 when I started working in GDS. I'm 42 now. I just had my birthday last week.

Angus Montgomery: Full disclosure.

Neil Williams: Yes. That’s maybe too much information to be sharing. I didn’t have grey hair when I started. My youngest child was just born, and he’s nearly eight now. So yes, it’s been a really big part of my life.

Angus Montgomery: So you can track your late 30s and early 40s through images of you standing in front of number 10?

Neil Williams: Yes, and unfortunately quite a few embarrassing pictures of me on the GDS flicker. (Laughter) There have been a few regrettable outfits for celebrations and milestones launching GOV.UK, and celebrating GOV.UK birthdays, where looking back on it I may not have worn those things if I had known it was going to be on the internet forever. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: Now you say that, there’s an image of you… I'm trying to remember. I think it’s at the Design Museum, when GOV.UK won the Designs of the Year, and you're wearing a Robocop t-shirt. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes, I am. I can tell that story if you like. That’s one of my proudest GDS moments, I think. Maybe we will get to that later. Do you want me to do it now?

Angus Montgomery: Well, no. Let us know where that came from, because this is…

Well, just as a bit of context, because I've gone straight into that, but you’ve been head of GOV.UK since the beginning, and in 2012, shortly after GOV.UK launched, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award, which is an incredible accolade. I can’t remember what it beat, but I think it beat several…

 That’s one of those awards where they judge things like buildings, and cars, and new products, and mad graphic design. So for a government website to win that award was really incredible, I think.

Neil Williams: Yes. Actually, we were talking about it the other day, and Mark Hurrell, the head designer on GOV.UK, he said it’s actually the first time a website ever won that award, which I had completely forgotten. Yes, it was amazing. That was 2013.

We had launched GOV.UK in 2012, as in replacing Directgov and Business Link, which were the previous big super sites for public services. Then we were well into the next phase, which was shutting down and replacing all of the websites of departments of state.

I was very much working on that bit of it at the time. My head was down and working very attentively, in this fairly crazy timescale, to shut down those websites, and starting to look at how we were going to start closing down the websites of 350 arms-length bodies. A huge project.

In the midst of that, in the midst of that frantic busy period, someone approached me. It was Tom Loosemore, Etienne Pollard. One of those early GDS leaders. Saying, “Oh, there’s an award ceremony. We’ve been nominated for an award, and we need some people to go. Can you go to it?”

Angus Montgomery: “We need some people to go.” That’s an attractive… (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes. It was just like, “We need a few people to make sure we’re going to be represented there.”

Angus Montgomery: “To fill the seats.” (Laughter)

Neil Williams: I now know that they knew that we were going to win, but I didn’t know that, at all, at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. “Oh, yes, fine. Yes, I will go along to that. That’s no problem at all.”

I think it was the same day. I'm not sure whether it was that same day or a different day when I was given notice, but anyway, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t dress up for the occasion. So I rock up to the Design Museum in my jeans and in my Robocop t-shirt, an OCP logo on it.

The evening included quite a lot of free alcohol. It was quite a glitzy affair, and I was definitely under-dressed for the occasion, but I thought, “That’s fine. We’re just here to be part of an audience.” Hanging around at the back, having the free canapes, partaking of the plentiful free wine that was being distributed.

Then Griff Rhys Jones, who was presenting the award, gets up on stage and announces the winners in each category, and we won our category. Much triumphant jubilation and celebration.

Then went on to reveal that we won the whole thing. We won the Design of the Year Award as a whole. Which then led to this photo call. By which point I was quite drunk as well. I had no idea this was going to happen.

Yes, so there’s that famous photo of a bunch of GDS people accepting the award, all quite smartly dressed, apart from me letting the side down with my Robocop t-shirt.

Angus Montgomery: Tell me how you got involved in this thing in the first place. You’ve been in the Civil Service before, but you're not a career civil servant, are you? Or you hadn’t been.

Neil Williams: Well, yes. I would like to think of myself as not being a career civil servant. I started in the private sector, in a communications publishing agency. It was a magazine agency.

I thought I wanted to be a journalist actually. I did English at university. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Went into publishing. Was passionate about publishing and the power of the printed word. Distributing information to people. Equipping them with information. Informing people and so forth.

I went into corporate publishing, as a way to learn about publishing, but whilst I was working for that company the internet was becoming a bigger deal, a bigger thing.

I was also mucking around in my spare time with comedy websites. That was known by my employers, who then said, as they were starting to think about, “How do we get in on this?” they asked me if I wanted to run the London office of their new digital offering to their clients.

I leapt at the chance. That was a really good leg up for me. That’s where I learnt about digital, about building websites. So that was a great place, where I learnt…

I said I wanted to be in publishing and journalism. The information is power thing excited me, and of course doing that digitally, doing that online, massively more so. More empowering people.

I fell in love instantly with the immediacy of what you get with publishing to the web, and providing services over the web, and getting the feedback, and being able to improve based on the fact that you can see in real time what users are doing. That’s been my passion ever since. After a few years of doing that…

That is now a dwindling small part of my career, when you look back on it, so it’s probably true to say that I am a career civil servant. A few years in a digital agency. Then I wanted to see the other side of things, and be client side, and see something through to its outcomes, rather than just build a thing and hand it over. I joined the Civil Service. I joined the government communications profession.

Angus Montgomery: I know it well.

Neil Williams: And my first gig was in the Department for Trade and Industry, as it was then, as an assistant information officer. A young, eager civil servant.

There were some digital elements to that job, but actually quite a lot of my earliest Civil Service gig was going to Number 10 every week to do the grid meeting, which is the Alastair Campbell era. It’s still the process now.

And I was moving around within the department. So there’s an eight-year period, which I'm not going to go into in any detail,where I moved around between different departments, doing digital things.

I worked my way up the greasy pole of the Civil Service. From a web manager, managing a bit of a website and looking after the content and the information architecture, through to running whole teams, running the website, intranet, social media side of things.

During those years I did a lot of work on product development, around online consultation tools and digital engagement platforms. And lots of frustration actually. So this brings us to the beginning of the GDS story.

Angus Montgomery: This is the 2010 Martha Lane Fox bombshell?

Neil Williams: Yes. The old way, the traditional way, and this is pretty common not just in government but everywhere, websites sprung out of being a thing led by communications teams. “It’s just another channel for us to do our communications.”

And it is, but it is also, as we all now know, the way that people do their business and transact. People come to your website to do a thing, to use a service, to fulfil a need. It took a long time for the Civil Service to recognise that.

For many years myself and others in the digital communications teams within departments were getting increasingly frustrated. A lone voice really. Trying within our departments to show them the data that we had and go, “Look, people are coming for things that we’re not providing them with. We need to do a better job of this.”

A lot of that falling on deaf ears, not getting prioritised in the way that it needed to, and also clearly fragmented across thousands of websites, across all of these organisations.

A lot of great work was done before GDS, and this story has been told on the History of GDS series of blog posts, which if people haven’t seen are really well worth looking at.

Tom Loosemore has talked about this before, about standing on the shoulders of giants. There was enormous effort, over many, many years, to digitise government, to centralise things, to put users first.

Directgov and Business Link were the current incarnations of that, of a service-led approach, but it was just a small proportion of the overall service offering from government, and it was still really quite comms focused. The conversations were about reach, and there was advertising to try and promote the existence of these channels, etc.

Lots of it was written from the perspective of the department trying to tell people what they should do, rather than understanding what it is that people are trying to do and then designing things that meet those needs.

So GDS. In 2010, this is a really well-told story, and people are pretty familiar with it now, but 2010 Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website, particularly Directgov. She took a broader remit, and looked at the whole thing, and, in summary, said, “Start again.”

Angus Montgomery: ‘Revolution, not evolution’.

Neil Williams: ‘Revolution, not evolution’. Yes, that was the title.

Angus Montgomery: And everyone at GDS, or who has been at GDS, has said, like Tom, that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and huge amounts of work was done beforehand, but why do you think Martha’s report was such a turning point? Because it was, because it led to a huge amount of change.

Neil Williams: Yes. It’s a really pithy, succinct little letter. It’s not reams and reams of paper. It was just quite a simple call to action really. Which was to say, “You need to take ownership of the user experience, in a new organisation, and empower a new leader, and organisation under that leader, to do that, to take a user-led approach.” That was the different thing. Take a user-led approach, and to use the methods that are being used everywhere used.

Government had not yet really caught up to what was going on in the wider technology industry around ways of working, agile and so forth, around working iteratively, experimentally, and proving things early. Rather than upfront requirement specs, and then out comes something at the end which you then later discover doesn’t work.

Those were the two things really. It was that focus on user needs, and work in that different way, which was bringing skills into government that hadn’t been here before. Design, and user research, and software development skills that hadn’t previously been done in-house. It had always been outsourced.

Angus Montgomery: So it was a clear and simple strategy, or strategic direction, from Martha Lane Fox’s report. There was a clear mandate. This has been talked about a lot, that we had, or GDS had, Francis Maude backing it at a very high level, and giving it the mandate to-

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. That was the other thing. It wasn’t just Martha’s letter. It was absolutely a kind of perfect storm of political will and the timing being right.

Yes, the Martha letter came out when I was Head of Digital Comms, or some title like that, at the Department for Business. I had moved around between departments. Ended up back in the Department for Business again.

It was advocating something pretty radical, that would be a threat really to the digital comms view, to a comms-led view of controlling our channels. That was an interesting situation to find myself in, right?

I was reading this stuff from Martha and thinking, “This is brilliant. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is absolutely the right thing.” But then internally my job required me to do some more maybe circumspect briefing to the minister and to the director of comms about, “Actually, well, this is a risk to us.”

So I was doing both of those things. I was talking internally about the positives of what this could mean for government, but the risks to our organisation, but publicly I blogged…

I thought, “This is brilliant.” I blogged enthusiastically, because I had a personal blog at the time, about my thoughts on how this could be the beginning of something really exciting.

That’s the thing that led me to meeting Tom Loosemore. Tom Loosemore, who as we all know is one of the early architects of GDS, saw my blog post, and got in touch and said, “Let’s have a chat.” And that’s how my journey into GDS started. It started by answering that email from Tom Loosemore and going for pizza with him.

Angus Montgomery: The power of blogging.

Neil Williams: Yes. We had a chat over pizza, where he was talking about his ideas for getting an alpha. Getting a team together that could produce something quickly, as a sort of throwaway prototype, that would show a different way of working.

Tom was saying stuff that was exciting but contained many new words. (Laughter) He was talking about alphas and agile ways of working. I don’t know what these things are.

Angus Montgomery: Now we’re at a stage, at GDS and throughout government, where agile is a touchstone of how we work, and it’s accepted that doing things in agile is doing things better, and there’s lots of opportunity for people to learn how that works, and what that means, and apply that to the things that they do, but at the time, as you said, this didn’t really exist in government. You, as someone who had worked in government, probably didn’t know what agile was.

Neil Williams: No.

Angus Montgomery: How did you learn about it, and how did you know that this was the right approach?

Neil Williams: A mix of reading up on it. Initially just going home and Googling those new words and finding out about these ways of working. But also it immediately spoke to me.

I had been through several years of several projects where I had felt just how awful and frustrating it is to build websites in a waterfall way. I've got some very difficult experiences that I had at [BEIS], when we rebuilt the website there, and it was project managed by a very thorough project manager in a waterfall way.

I was the Senior Responsible Officer, I think, or Senior User I think it is in PRINCE2 language, for the website. As the website was progressing we had a requirements document upfront, all that way of working. We were specifying, with as much predicting the future and guesswork as we possibly can, a load of stuff, and writing it down, around, ‘This is what the website needs to do. This is what the publishing system needs to do’. Then handing that over to a supplier, who then starts to try and interpret that and build that.

During that process, seeing as the thing is emerging, and we’re doing the user acceptance testing and all of that stuff on it, that this is just far away from the thing that I had in my head. So there’s already a gap between the written word and then the meaning that goes into the heads of the people who are then building that thing.

Then also all of the change that’s occurring at the same time. Whilst we are building that thing the world is not staying still, and there is an enormous amount of change in our understanding around what we want that thing to do.

Trying to get those changes in, but facing the waterfall approach, rigid change control process, and just feeling like I'm banging my head against a brick wall. It was really frustrating. Then when I…

Back to the question about how do I learn about agile, and some of these new concepts, it was really only when I got in there. I knew what the bad thing felt like, and I knew that that wasn’t right. I knew that you absolutely need to embrace the change as part of the process, embrace learning as part of the process of delivering something as live and ever changing as a website.

Then I came in as a product manager, initially part-time, and then full-time when GDS was properly established and able to advertise a role, and started working with Pete Herlihy, who is still here now in GDS.

Angus Montgomery: Yes, on Notify.

Neil Williams: Yes, he’s lead product manager on Notify now, but back then he was delivery manager.

Again, Tom Loosemore was making stuff happen behind the scenes. He was the person who introduced me and Pete. He said something along the lines of, “Neil’s the guy who knows what needs to happen, and Pete’s the guy who knows how to make it happen. You two should talk.” So we did.

I learnt a lot of what I now know from working with Pete and working as we then built out a team. Working with some terrific talented software developers, designers, content designers, and so forth, and user researchers, in a multidisciplinary way.

Learning on the job what it meant to be a product manager. Obviously, reading up about it. I went on a few courses, I think, too. But mostly learning on the job.

Zooming back out a little bit to the GDS career experience, I've learnt so much here. I've never learnt as much probably in the whole of the rest of my career as I've learnt in my time here.

Angus Montgomery: Because that first year was learning about agile, putting a team together. Learning how to build this thing. Learning how to land it. At what stage did you realise, “Oh, we’ve done this now. This thing is landing, and it’s getting big, and it’s successful. Oh, wow. We’re in charge of a piece of national infrastructure now”?

Neil Williams: That’s an interesting question. I always knew it would. We knew what we were building at the start. We knew we were building something-

Angus Montgomery: So you never had any doubts that this was going to work?

Neil Williams: Oh, God, yes. We had absolute doubt. The prevailing view when we started was that, “This will not work.”

Not internally. Internally, it was certainly a stretch goal. (Laughter) It was ambitious, and it felt a little bit impossible, but in a really exciting way. That is one of the key ingredients of success, is you want your team to feel like something is only just about doable. (Laughter) There’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a nearly impossible task. Also a bunch of naysayers saying, “This will never work.” And that really united us as a team.

Angus Montgomery: So what then happened? Because I think we talk quite a lot about the early years, and a lot has been written, obviously, and GDS was blogging like crazy in those days about the early stages, and how quickly you built the thing, and how quickly you transitioned onto it.

One thing that we have talked about as GDS, but probably not in as great detail, is what happened when it then got big, and you had to deal with issues of scale, and you had to deal with issues of…

Something a lot of people on GOV.UK have talked to me about is tech debt. That you built this thing very quickly and you had quite a bit of tech debt involved. How did you deal with that? Presumably you always knew this was a problem you were going to have to face.

Neil Williams: Yes, to a degree. That 14 people that did a bit on alpha scaled very rapidly to being 140 people. There were lots of teams working in parallel, and building bits of software just in time, like I was just talking about. Just in time for…

“We’re not going to build anything we don’t have to build. We’re just going to build what’s necessary to achieve the transition, to shut these other websites down and bring them all in.”

But that approach means you're laying stuff on top of other stuff, and things were getting built by different teams in parallel, adding to this growing code base, and in some cases therefore duplicative stuff happening. Where maybe we’ve built one publishing system for publishing a certain kind of format of content, another publishing system for publishing another kind of format of content.

Then in the process we’ve ended up with two different ways of doing something like attachments, asset management. Then we’ve got complexity, and we’ve got bits of code that different teams don’t know how to change without quite a steep learning curve, and so on. And that was the case everywhere.

Given the pace of how fast we were going, and how ambitious the timescales were for shutting down what turned out to be 1,882 websites… (Laughter) Exactly. It was incredible.

We knew, yes. We knew. It was talked about. It was done knowingly, that, “We are making things here that we’re going to have to come back to. That are going to be good enough for now, and they’re going to achieve what we need to achieve, but they will need fixing, and they will need replacing and consolidating.”

So we absolutely knew, and there was much talk of it. Quite a lot of it got written down at the time as ‘This is some tech debt that we’re going to definitely need to come back to’. Yes, we weren’t blind to that fact, but I think the degree of it, and the amount of time it took to resolve it, was slightly unexpected.

That’s partly because of massive personnel change as well. Straight off the back of finishing… Well, I say finishing. GOV.UK is never finished. Let’s just get that out there. Always be iterating.

GOV.UK’s initial build, and the transition, and the shutting down, the transition story of shutting down those 1,882 websites, had an end date, and that end date felt like a step change to many people.

As in lots of people came into GDS in those early days to do the disruptive thing. To do the start-up thing. To do Martha’s revolution. Then at that moment of, “Actually, we’ve now shut down the last website,” to lots of those people that felt like, “Now we’re going into some other mode. Now we’re going into actually we’re just part of government now, aren’t we? I don’t know. Do I necessarily want to be part of that?” So there was some natural drifting away of some people.

Plus, also, the budget shrank at that point. The project to do the transition was funded and came to an end. So actually we were going to go down to an operational smaller team anyway. So a combination of attrition, of people leaving anyway, plus the fact that we did need to get a bit smaller.

Also, at that time, that’s when the early founders of GDS left. Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Ben Terrett left around that time. Which also led to some other people going, “Well, actually, I came here for them. I came here with them. And I'm leaving too.”

So that meant that we had the tech debt to deal with at a time when we also had quite a lot of new stuff. We had all of this unknown and not terribly well-documented code, that was built really quickly, by lots of different people, in different ways. Plus people who weren’t part of that joining the team, and looking at it and going, “Oh, what have we got here? Where do I start with this?” (Laughter)

So it took a long time. I think it’s common in agile software development to underestimate how long things might take. It’s an industry problem that you need to account for.

Angus Montgomery: Well, this is the interesting thing, because it feels to me as an observer that there have been three main stages of GOV.UK so far. There’s the build and transition, which we’ve talked about quite a lot. There’s the growth and sustainability years, I suppose, where you were sorting out the tech debt, and you were making this thing sustainable, and you were dealing with departmental requests, and you were putting in structures, and process, and maturing it.

Now it feels like we’re in a new stage, where a lot of that structural stuff has been sorted out, and that means you can do really exciting things. Like the work that Kate Ivey-Williams, and Sam Dub, and their team have been doing on end-to-end services. The work that’s been going on to look at voice activation on GOV.UK. And the work that’s been done that Nicky Zachariou and her team have been looking at, machine learning, structuring the content. And it feels like now, having sorted out those fundamentals, there’s a whole load of stuff we can do.

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. We’re iterating wildly again, I would say. (Laughter) We’re back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly again.

Some of the stuff we’re doing now is greenfield stuff. Again, a lot of the ideas we had way back when, in the early days of GDS, about 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 really rich insights about how their stuff as a department is working for users, we’re getting to that now.

We’re starting to rebuild our publishing tools with a proper user-centric design. Which we didn’t do enough of, because we had to focus on the end users more in the early days. It’s great to be doing that now.

We’re also deleting some stuff, which were the mistakes that I made. (Laughter) Which feels good on my way out. Some of the things that we did, that have stuck around way longer than we intended them to, are now being deleted. We’re now able to go, “Actually, we know now, we’ve known for a while, that this isn’t the right solution,” and we’re able to change things more radically.

Yes, we’re doing really exciting stuff. Thanks for mentioning it.

Angus Montgomery: What are you most excited about? Because Jen Allum, who was lead product manager on GOV.UK for a couple of years, I think, she’s taking over now as head of GOV.UK after you leave. What are you most excited about seeing her and the team do? What do you think is the biggest challenge that they face?

Neil Williams: I'm thrilled that Jen is taking over the job. She obviously knows the product, knows the team really, really well, and she’s absolutely brilliant.

There is some incredibly exciting stuff happening right now, which I will be sad not to be here for. You mentioned one of them. That’s the step-by-step navigation product, which is our solution for, “How do you create an end-to-end holistic service that meets a whole user need?”

If you’ve been following GDS at all, which if you're listening to this podcast you probably have, then you will have seen stuff from Lou Downe, Kate Ivey-Williams, many other people, around end-to-end services and what we mean by services and service design. Around good services being verbs and bad services being nouns.

Government has the habit of creating schemes, and initiatives, and forms, and giving them names, and then they stick around for a very long time. Users end up even having to learn those names in some cases.

The classic example is, “I want to SORN my car.” What the hell does that even mean? Whereas actually what they want to do is take their car off the road. It’s an actual thing that an actual human wants to do.

Nearly every interaction or task that you have with government requires more than one thing. You need to look at some content. You might need to transact. You might need to fill in a form. You might need to go and do some stuff that’s not with government. You might need to read something, understand what the rules are, and then go and do something offline.

If you're a childminder you’ve got a step there, which is you’ve got to go and actually set up your space and get it inspected. Then you come back, and there’s more to do with government.

Those things need setting out clearly for people. It’s still the case now. Despite all of the great work that we’ve done on GOV.UK to improve all of this stuff, it’s still far too much the case that people have to do all of that work themselves. They have to piece together the fragments of content, and transactions, and forms that they need to do.

So what we are doing with our step-by-step navigation product is that’s a product output of a lot of thinking that’s been happening in GDS for many years, around, “How do you join services together, end-to-end, around the user?”

We’ve got that product. It’s been tested. It works really, really well. To look at you might just look at it and go, “Well, there’s not much to that, is there? That’s just some numbered steps and some links.”

Yes, it is, but getting something that looks that simple, and that really works, is actually a ton of work, and we’ve put in a huge amount of work into proving that, and testing that, and making sure that really works. Making it as simple as it is.

The lion’s share of that work is actually in the service design, and in the content design, going, “Let’s map out what is… Well, first of all let’s understand what the users need. Then let’s map out what are the many things that come together, in what order, in order to meet that need.”

Angus Montgomery: Before we wrap up I just wanted to ask you to give a couple of reflections on your time at GDS. What’s the thing you're most proud of, or what was your proudest moment?

Neil Williams: That’s tricky. I've been here a long time. I've done a lot of… I say I've done a lot of good stuff. I've been around whilst some really good stuff has happened. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been in the room. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Right. I've had a little bit to do with it. It’s got to be the initial build, I think. Other than wearing a Robocop t-shirt to a very formal event, which I'm still proud of, it’s got to be the initial build of GOV.UK and that was the thing that I was directly involved with and it was just the most ridiculous fun I've ever had. I can’t imagine ever doing something as important, or fast paced, or ridiculous as that again.

There were moments during that when… Actually, I don’t think I can even tell that story probably. (Laughter) There were some things that happened just as a consequence of the speed that we were going. There are funny memories. That’s all I'm going to say about that. If you want to-

Angus Montgomery: Corner Neil in a pub or café in South London if you want to hear that story in the future.

What was the scariest moment? Or what was the moment when you thought, “Oh, my God, this might not actually work. This thing might fall apart”? Or were there moments like that?

Neil Williams: I don't know. No, I think we’ve always had the confidence, because of the talent that we’ve brought in, the capability and the motivation that everyone has.

When bad things have happened, when we’ve had security threats or any kind of technical failures, just the way that this team scrambles, and the expertise that we’ve got, just means that I'm always confident that it’s going to be okay. People are here in GDS because they really care,and they’re also incredibly capable. The best of the best.

I'm not saying that’s an organisation design or a process that I would advocate, that people have to scramble when things fail, but in those early days, when GOV.UK was relatively newly launched, and we were going through that transition of from being built to run, those were the days where maybe the operations weren’t in place yet for dealing with everything that might come at us.

There was a lot of all hands to the pump scrambling in those days, but it always came right and was poetry to watch. (Laughter) Those moments would actually be the moments where you would be most proud of the team and to be part of it. When it comes down to it these people are really amazing.

Angus Montgomery: Finally, what’s the thing you are going to miss the most?

Neil Williams: Well, it’s the people, isn’t it? That’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s genuinely true. I've made some amazing friends here. Some people who I hope I can call lifelong friends. Many people who have already left GDS, who I'm still in touch with and see all the time.

It’s incredible coming into work and working with people who are so likeminded, and so capable, and so trusting of each other, and so funny. I laugh all the time. I come into work and it’s fun. It’s so much fun.

And we’re doing something so important, and we’re supporting each other. The culture is just so good, and the people are what makes that. Cheesy as it may be, it’s you Angus. I'm going to miss you.

Angus Montgomery: It’s all about the people. Oh, thank you. That was a leading question. (Laughter)

Neil Williams, thank you so much for doing that and best of luck in the future. We will miss you lots.

Neil Williams:  Thanks very much. Thank you.

Angus Montgomery: So that wraps up the very first Government Digital Service podcast. I hope you enjoyed it - we’re aiming to do lots more episodes of this, we’re aiming to do around 1 episode a month and we’re going to be talking to lots of exciting and interesting people both inside GDS and outside GDS and we’re going to be talking about things like innovation and digital transformation and user-centred design and all sorts of interesting things like that, so if you’d like to listen to future episodes please go to wherever it is you get your podcasts and subscribe to listen to us in the future. And I hope you enjoyed that episode and I hope you listen to more. Thankyou very much.