At GDS, our mission is to build a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government for everyone. Using our unique position at the centre of government, we will develop services that just work for the user, however complex the underlying systems.
The journey to today
Ten years ago, the UK government had an organically grown online presence with each government department, agency and arms-length body having their own website. Additional information was available through DirectGov and BusinessLink, early attempts at bringing information together in one place.
Following Martha Lane Fox’s report into digital government in 2010, GDS was established to focus on fixing publishing, digitising high-volume transactional services, and building “wholesale” technology platforms. GOV.UK was created, and more than 2,000 other websites were fully migrated to the new single publishing platform. Twenty five of the highest volume services were chosen as “exemplars” of digital transformation, and a programme established to deliver the transformation. While there are lessons to be learned, many of these services remain the gold standard for what excellent digital services can look like.
In the 10 years since GDS was created, departments and agencies have built digital teams of the highest quality, and many of the most important services have been built and designed based on research from real users, and are supported by agile, multidisciplinary teams.
GDS’s role in 2021 and beyond
From our position in the centre of government, we are perfectly positioned to look at the work of digital teams across government to identify where there are common needs for products, platforms and services. By building centrally we can do the heavy lifting to allow departments to focus on building services, rather than having to reinvent the wheel.
It is also important to recognise that GDS is no longer in start-up mode. Of our circa £90 million budget this year and with more than 800 people, around 60% are needed to support our existing platforms, services and content. This includes ensuring GOV.UK, which is a vital resource for millions of citizens, is available, reliable and has up to date information.
We therefore have to be selective about where we focus our people, skills and money to make the most difference to the most users of government services. We believe there are 3 main categories that enable this:
- services that hide the complexity of government structures from the end user
- services that can only be delivered by the centre
- services that should be built once, and reused widely
With this in mind, we have 5 main missions for the next 3 years.
Mission 1: GOV.UK as the single and trusted online destination for government information and services
At the heart of everything we do for the next 3 years, we must ensure that GOV.UK remains the single trusted source of information, guidance and services for the public. To do this, we will:
- continue to invest and develop our content teams
- ensure the technology platforms underpinning GOV.UK are in support, highly available, and secure
- iterate the design and operation of key features like navigation and search
- move beyond websites and look at how government information, guidance and services can be reached from where users are, rather than where suits us
- ensure that the publishing tools we provide to civil servants right across government are simple and clear to use, and encourage the use of emerging design patterns
Mission 2: Joined-up services that solve whole problems and span multiple departments
Some people only need to access government services a few times per year, they complete the forms and move on. However, there are millions of people who have complicated, busy lives and need lots of help from government, sometimes for a few months, and sometimes for years. For these users, our services appear tremendously siloed and difficult to navigate. To fix this, we will:
- build GOV.UK account functionality, and make it available to everyone who wants it, while ensuring that there are offline alternatives for those who can’t
- create a single sign-on for all services that need it
- explore developing a personalised view of GOV.UK content based on the users’ situation
- map and connect data around individuals and agree sharing arrangements with departments
- explore “one-click” completion of common forms and services using the information we already know about the user
- build a central interface to manage and update the information that government holds on you; for example, you could change your name or your address once and we’ll let the rest of government know
- develop a series of “whole services” for users from the centre of government to demonstrate how joined-up data and processes can work to make government simpler, clearer and faster. This might include things like having a baby, or preparing to retire, or turning 18. We have already started our first, which is “Starting and sustaining a business”, which you can read about on the Inside GOV.UK Blog
Mission 3: A simple digital identity solution that works for everyone
Most government services' existing login and digital identity solutions have been designed, developed and operated in departmental silos, with a focus only on meeting each department's needs. For users, this is a confusing and frustrating picture; for government, this is expensive and leaves the door open for fraud.
We will build on what we have learned from GOV.UK Verify and create a new way for users to sign-on to services from any department, and confirm their identity. The work will follow some basic principles:
- the new services will be built in partnership with other government departments
- the identity checking service needs to work for everyone in the country, regardless of their socio-economic situation. For example, someone who is a prison leaver and may not have a fixed location, or someone with an address but has a passport that has expired.
- we will design-in simplicity and relentlessly test with users
- existing services will only be integrated, absorbed or turned off when the new service has been tested thoroughly, and everyone is happy that it works as it needs to
- users will have full control over their data from their GOV.UK account, and the connected data we hold
Mission 4: Common tools and expert services
We talk a lot about our successes in digital transformation, from online tax to MOT reminders. However, for many citizens their experience is very different. Perhaps they want to sponsor a visa applicant, or change their name by deed poll, or even adopt a child. For these journeys, and more than 3,000 others, our users still have to rely on printing off a PDF, filling it in by pen, and posting it into a government office. This is bad for users, enormously inefficient for government and the army of people we have processing paper, and misses opportunities for using the data for analysis.
To tackle the long tail of PDF forms and other difficult to navigate services, we want to make it almost effortless for departments and agencies to digitise their services. To help, we plan to:
- build a new “Collect information from users” (formerly known as “Submit”) service to automatically digitise existing forms, as well as making it simpler for people to automatically create new digital forms rather than PDFs
- build a set of components and make them available to everyone - things like address pickers, company lookups and lists of countries
- develop or procure a set of lightweight back-office products for case management and other common needs to end-to-end digitise services
We also need to ensure our existing platforms are well maintained, and build and sustain a professional services division to help other parts of government (central and local) where needed. Specifically, we will:
- support and enhance the existing GOV.UK Pay, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK PaaS services, as well as the GOV.UK Design System
- develop a team of expert practitioners who can go out and help teams in other parts of government to digitise their simpler services using the Government as a Platform (GaaP) products - you can read more about GaaP on our blog
- continue to work with governments around the world to share learnings on digital transformation patterns and approaches, drawing insights to also help keep GDS at the cutting edge
Mission 5: Joined-up data across departments
To deliver any of the above 4 missions, we need to put data right at the heart of our strategic approach. That means being able to comprehensively understand how people interact with the government online, and being able to use data about people and government (with permission) to provide the level of service that they expect. This mission, delivered in close partnership with the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), will focus on:
- exploring an events brokerage service that enables departments to share information about users that would be useful for other parts of government to know - some examples might include when someone leaves Higher Education, or becomes a British citizen, or is made redundant
- creating the cross-government reference architecture and identifying, enabling and standardising the data registers across government most critical to service delivery
- creating the exchange mechanism between the citizen and the state to, in time, finally enable the ‘tell us once’ principle
- building the insight capability of how people interact with the government online to focus where we should prioritise our end-to-end service transformations and to inform policy creation and iteration
How we will achieve this
For GDS, as with any organisation, how we go about delivering this strategy is as important as what is in it. We commit to:
- continuing to champion the needs of end users above all else, as we believe that ensuring things work for end users is the only way to realise the efficiencies that come with digital transformation
- embedding the highest standards of trust, transparency and equity in everything we do and build
- working in close partnership with other parts of government and build through consensus and proven delivery
- being bold in our ambition: some of our work to join up government services will result in some difficult questions about ownership, accountability and data sharing; we will listen and react, but will push for the right thing, not the easy thing
- we will be humble rather than arrogant, and regularly get out to where services are delivered
- working in the open, which involves regular blogging, public speaking and discussions with people inside and outside government
- a continued commitment to open-sourcing our code where possible and encouraging reuse in the UK and globally
- ensuring that GDS is a safe, fun, and fulfilling place for our people to work, where we will have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, discrimination, uncomfortable banter and anything in between
- working to make our teams more representative of the society we build for: we will be carefully monitoring our diversity in all characteristics, as well as working tirelessly to reduce any pay gaps we discover
- building out GDS hubs in Manchester (initial focus) and Bristol to attract more talent, and to be less London-centric in our approach
Where we won’t be focusing
Our strategy is meaningless without an overview of what will not be focused on. For GDS, we will not be explicitly focusing on:
- government digital and technology strategy and policy, DDaT capability or spend controls: these important missions have moved out of GDS and into the newly-formed CDDO (though we will continue working closely with our CDDO colleagues)
- running another big exemplar programme for individual transactional services: most departments and agencies are more than capable of doing these themselves with the right funding and support
- legacy technology and cyber risk: our mission focuses on the interaction between end users and government, rather than the technology underpinning government departments. This will be led by CDDO and the strong technology teams across government, with support from the Government Security Group.
- shared services and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions: this sits in another part of the Cabinet Office called Business Services
- end-user technology (laptops, productivity tools and similar) for civil servants, which will be led by departments with coordination coming from CDDO
This strategy is a moment in time, and we fully expect it to change and adapt based on what we discover. Some of this work covers uncharted territory, and we may find there is limited value in what we’re building. If so, we will stop and focus on something else.
As we progress over the coming months and years, we will work in the open and blog regularly about what we are doing, so we’d love to hear your feedback.