A few months ago I decided to take my experience as a communications manager in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and go on secondment to GOV.UK to discover more about the work of Government Digital Service (GDS).
Those of us who work in the Whitehall family - I’ve worked in 9 departments - have years of experience of successfully delivering what ministers want. Confidently, credibly, and creatively. I was excited to see what the latest news was from our youngest family members in GDS.
Based on my time at GDS, I can see a whole new way of working that can make policy development and delivery more joined-up across government. It’s about using the best evidence possible to provide the backbone for decision making. And through GOV.UK, making government more democratic by working with citizens to give them information on what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.
Plain English and putting users first
I spent time with GOV.UK content managers writing material on a range of policies from visas and passports, to child protection, and shared parental leave. This material was put together based on the style guide focusing on clear language, easy to navigate pages, and using current user evidence. For me this was a whole new way of writing compared with my previous experience as a speechwriter. A real learning curve.
Think differently about digital delivery
The service manual team have a crucial role in helping government departments to create the digital services they need to support their policies. They create a bible, if you like, of how to create the best services. A guide to how to work in an agile way to analyse user needs before you start, map your users’ journey, design, and write for specific audiences. A way of creating evidence-based policy from the bottom up - rather than the more traditional top-down.
Show the thing
Working with the performance platform team, I learnt how they help departments build dashboards that they can use to measure and, importantly, showcase the work they are doing within their teams and more widely around government.
Information (usually statistics) is gathered around key performance indicators (KPIs). These are used to produce a dashboard to show exactly how a policy is progressing. I think this is a fantastic innovation which gives policy officials a stream of live-time information about how their work is going for that all-important ministerial meeting. Goodbye to constantly updating excel spreadsheets for programme boards.
Transformation, communication, and innovation
I also spent time with the digital engagement team, GOV.UK Verify, and the user research team. Highlights included the fascinating research into the use of the Welsh language on GOV.UK which shows that Welsh speakers tend to revert to English when dealing with officialdom, even if they speak Welsh at home. This is not because they prefer to speak English, but because the Welsh translation needs to be simplified.
Also, the process for booking prison visits (which moved online last year) has had a huge take-up. Interestingly, research also shows that the majority of bookings are made via mobile phones - not desktops.
Both these research projects have thrown up evidence of “unknowns” that will be used to continue to build better citizen-facing services.
What I’ll be taking with me
A better way of crafting messages in the right way, for the right audience, at the right time.
Showing how amazing analytical data and audience insight (there is so much of it) can make policy better targeted and effective.
I’ve learned loads in my time with GDS, the youngest members of the Whitehall family. They are clearly thriving, and as with any visit to the relatives, I am taking back gifts. These are agile, user needs, evidence, discovery, KPIs, single government platform, GOV.UK Verify ... and so much more.
I hope other Whitehall relatives take the chance to visit.