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https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2021/05/20/government-digital-service-our-strategy-for-2021-2024/

Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024

Two members of staff are presenting to colleagues on "Defining your goals", with many members of staff raising their hands.

Our purpose

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.

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40 comments

  1. Comment by Alan Rolfe posted on

    I hope that the GDS team considers the position for agents such as accountants before phasing out PDF forms.

    The advantage of PDF's is that an agent can prepare it and get their client to approve it, before submission to gov.uk. This helps the quality of submission, while still remaining digital.

    An online form that cannot be taken away for separate approval is not convenient where there is a third party (accountant, solicitor, attorney, etc.) involved in the data flow.

    • Replies to Alan Rolfe>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Alan,

      You're right to point out that this isn't always accounted for when designing online forms. At the moment, we're not aiming to phase out PDF forms. Instead, we're aiming to make sure every form is accessible, easy to use and quick to process. We currently think that means they'll all be online forms, but with an option to use PDF or other document-based forms if people prefer them.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  2. Comment by Greg Turner posted on

    Hi love the strategy and GDS aims as a whole. Civil Servants are users too and sometimes I feel this is lost in practice. I have experience in my field where an applic is so un-user friendly it goes against all that Digital Government should stand for. The User, The User, The User needs should always be the mantra and I know this does apply to GDS. Digital transformation and working within Govt Depts is giving staff more freedom to do their jobs to the best of their ability but accessibility and the user needs has to be in the fore front of any Govt applic. As I said Civil Servants are users too and more help is required to those going through digital change and reform, we all learn at our own pace. I am lucky in that I am pretty tech savvy but I know a lot of colleagues who struggle.

  3. Comment by Matt posted on

    Would you be able to expand on your aim to 'build a new “Collect information from users” (formerly known as “Submit”) service to automatically digitise existing forms' please?

    What level of automation are you envisaging? I assume you're not aiming to automatically transform existing PDF forms into Service Standard-compliant digital services as that would be nigh-on impossible.

    A WYSIWYG form/journey builder sounds fantastic, and would be very powerful, but I'm a little wary of the ambition to do things 'automatically' and 'make it almost effortless' to digitise existing forms. Many of the existing offline forms are confusing and poorly-designed, and simply lifting-and-shifting the existing form structure and content would be doing a disservice to users. Content designers, UX experts, accessibility experts and user researchers all play crucial roles in building good services and I hope they won't be marginalised in an effort to digitise everything as quickly as possible.

    • Replies to Matt>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Matt,

      We are not in a position to expand on this at this time. We will publish more as the team develops and trials their approaches.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  4. Comment by Howard Gannaway posted on

    I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the achievements of GDS but I have to say I still find it difficult to search for some things. There is a great deal of emphasis on the user as customer of government services but less on the user as interested citizen. In particular, it is often very hard to find departmental consultations or white papers or other policy documents. I appreciate that some of them may come under the heading of 'Parliament' rather than 'Government' but I do feel they should be easier to find from gov.uk. Perhaps a 'recent publications' link?

    • Replies to Howard Gannaway>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Howard,

      Thank you for your feedback - policy and consultation documents are the responsibility of departments, but we've passed this on.

      The GDS Team

  5. Comment by James Hutt posted on

    Thanks for sharing this and engaging so much through the comments.

    I wonder why the (implicit?) decision has been taken to focus only on working with other departments and not explicitly other layers of government. Most citizens wouldn't draw the distinction between what is controlled by a Whitehall department, and what their local government are responsible for, and yet working explicitly with Local Authorities to make citizen services better does not form part of the strategy. Often LAs have the most disjointed and un-user friendly digital interfaces, as do aspects of the health service which are also not mentioned, but explicitly form part of a citizen's interaction with "the government".

    How does this fit with the mission to hide the complexity of government structures from the user?

    Similarly, for mission 5, regarding data. As has been made clear during the last year, a lot of data which is needed to make effective decisions about citizen services is devolved. Joining up data between departments will only achieve so much when must of what we need to know is held not by departments, but by different layers of government.

    • Replies to James Hutt>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi James,

      There is still a lot of work to do inside central government, and we hope by doing that we can help support local authorities as well.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  6. Comment by Chris Ashworth posted on

    Hi GDS. The work streams and vision look really exciting. Pleased to see that simplication for the end users is core. Also pleased to see consideration for offline users appear. Now that some services have been zero rated (the NHS and the covid app) - it would be great to hear if you are open to zero-rating all of the gov digital estate so that the millions of the most dependent end users who don't have reliable data can fully access the services in the coming years?

    • Replies to Chris Ashworth>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you for your feedback, this is something we can consider.

      The GDS Team

  7. Comment by Confused posted on

    On Mission 5 you reference "identifying, enabling and standardising the data registers across government". There was already a registers service which was dropped by GDS in March 2021. This was a valuable source of reference data. Why not reinstate the service and improve it rather than dropping it, leaving a gap impacting data quality, and starting from scratch?

    • Replies to Confused>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Tania,

      You can read about the reasons why GOV.UK Registers is being retired on the Data in Government blog.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

      • Replies to The GDS Team>

        Comment by Confused posted on

        The blog you linked to was published in February and states "we are moving away from the existing platform to a model which sees each department publish service data individually. This data will be findable through data.gov.uk, and available for download in spreadsheet format....In the coming weeks and months, you will see more performance and reference data available via data.gov.uk."
        However, much of the previous reference data has not been updated on data.gov.uk by each department since then - so while this is a theoretical model, it is not working in practice. Individual department publishing without co-ordination/monitoring doesn't seem consistent with the strategy for "identifying, enabling and standardising the data registers across government". Data is degrading and this feels like a step backwards for joined up approaches.

  8. Comment by Ben posted on

    This seems verbose for a blog post. Might it have been useful to have posted the entire strategic plan elsewhere and linked to it?

    I feel like you could have written a blog post for each mission. You still could.

    • Replies to Ben>

      Comment by Kenneth P posted on

      Quite right Ben.

      Blog posts are supposed to explain what government is working on or the thinking behind things.

      Strategies should be published on GOV.UK as policy papers, as per GDS’s own guidance. Not least, so they’re findable on GOV.UK!

      It’s disappointing that GDS are not following their own standards and guidance. It doesn’t tick the “humble not arrogant” box.

  9. Comment by P Piper posted on

    I'm genuinely looking forward to see what develops in terms of the single sign-on / auth / digital identity.

    GOV is building so many great online services, and yet still so many people who actively want to use them are denied access because they aren't able to verify their identity, which means they can't benefit from the service.

    There are plenty of old jokes about fictitious systems where customers have to provide signatures from three great-grandparents to gain access. But the current reality is just as laughable in some cases. It doesn't take much to imagine someone who has a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, doesn't drive, and their passport has expired. Many people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic so they can't use "a payslip from within the last 3 months" as evidence of their identity. These people are being asked if they have a Northern Ireland driver's licence, or given obscure questions about a personal loan they took out several years ago. For some people, even when they do have all of the correct details to hand and enter it all carefully and correctly, they are still denied access with nothing but an obscure error message.

    And that's _before_ we start talking about GOV.UK Verify...

    The optimist in me really wants to believe that progress can be made in this area. But there's a big hill to climb! It's definitely going to need plenty of that cross-departmental working, and humility, that you mentioned.

    I sincerely wish you all the best.

  10. Comment by Puzzled posted on

    You talk about building out hubs to be less London-centric. Manchester and Bristol are both large, affluent cities with a lot in common with London's demographic. Why did you pick these locations? How does this fit with the government's levelling up agenda? What are your measures for 'less London-centric' apart from geographic locations?

    • Replies to Puzzled>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi,

      We have chosen locations which give us access to a pool of DDaT professionals and are close to other government DDaT locations. You can read more about the Cabinet Office Places for Growth Programme on the Civil Service Blog.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

    • Replies to Puzzled>

      Comment by Emily posted on

      From my experience of moving from living and working in London to living and working in Manchester, I have noticed a difference in the cultural background of the workforce, and the experiences and perspectives they bring. Manchester itself might be largely affluent but the travel times can allow people to commute from poorer areas (like Blackpool, Wigan and rural Yorkshire) so opportunities are available to more people.

      There is a wider problem with the digital services/industry attracting a more (socio-economically) diverse workforce that needs to be tackled by raising awareness of this as a career path in lower socio-economic areas, schools and communities. Creating jobs in Manchester (which is within the reach of loads of less affluent areas) is a great way to bring the industry and jobs closer to (and therefore onto the radar of) more of this potential workforce.

  11. Comment by John Mortimer posted on

    Just a few points to note in the post that was published by GDS. It is really good to read what they are doing and how they are doing it. The different working culture that is within GDS is perhaps its more important aspect, that alows it to do what it does so well.

    1. "It is also important to recognise that GDS is no longer in start-up mode."
    GDS has now matured into something more. It would be helpful then to absorb some of the aspects of maturity that any discipline needs; how to measure a service (rather than simply use KPIs), how to collaborate with other change disciplines (so you can deepen your competencies), and how to move from using Digital as the only tool in the toolbox.

    2. "However, there are millions of people who have complicated, busy lives and need lots of help from government, "
    Please note, we have learned time and time again that complexity and people are not logical. They are very messy, and uncertain. We already know that Digital is not the method by which we can design these services, or transmit that type of contextual complex knowledge.

    3. "continuing to champion the needs of end users above all else,"
    Systemic person-centred design is deeper than championing needs, and I suggest that you look at that and its implications, rather than simply user needs.

    A comment box is not nearly the right thing to have real feedback... but I tried!

    • Replies to John Mortimer>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your feedback, we really appreciate it and will consider these points.

      The GDS Team

  12. Comment by david upjohn posted on

    I just wish our council was as forward looking and put this amount of effort into digital.

  13. Comment by A Person posted on

    A lot of focus on everything that doesn't matter to citizens.

    By 2015 you'd got 20 of 25 services online. Bravo. Now knuckle down and focus on the rest.

    • Replies to A Person>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Dan,

      GDS doesn't own all services in government. As Tom mentioned, departments and agencies, who do, have digital teams of the highest quality in place and will be applying best practice in focusing on the rest.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  14. Comment by D.Rogers posted on

    Will your roadmap included a replacement for the existing online licencing act product licensify, as this uses smart PDFs or is this out of scope?

    • Replies to D.Rogers>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi,

      We expect to look at the future of licensing services this year in the course of our replatforming work for all GOV.UK applications.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  15. Comment by A Jamieson posted on

    A lot of great work already done, but so much more to do to make life easier for people.

  16. Comment by Tom posted on

    It would be great to know where the missions came from, particularly interested in how many of us outside GDS in government are working on these things - partly because you are looking to change behaviours (we will be humble rather than arrogant, and regularly get out to where services are delivered).

    • Replies to Tom>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Tom,

      You can read more about the rationale for a newly created Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and a the focus for GDS in our previous blog post.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  17. Comment by Thomas Fowler posted on

    GDS has been so helpful for the whole of the public sector, leading the way and sharing.

    I'd be interested to hear more about 'develop or procure a set of lightweight back-office products for case management and other common needs to end-to-end digitise services'.

    Case management is a significant challenge for local authorities, and I know GDS insight in this area will be welcomed.

    • Replies to Thomas Fowler>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Thomas,

      Good to hear there's interest in this. We're only just planning our discovery into this need at the moment but once we're up and running we'd happily talk to you about your challenges to inform this.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

  18. Comment by Kenneth P posted on

    Glad to see that you will “continue to invest and develop our content teams”.

    A first investment might be asking them to proofread this blog post and correct the style guide errors so that it’s accessible. Quite ironic with it being posted on Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

    • Replies to Kenneth P>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi Kenneth,

      Content on GOV.UK adheres to the GOV.UK Style Guide. You can send feedback to help make this better.

      Thanks,
      The GDS Team

      • Replies to The GDS Team>

        Comment by Kenneth P posted on

        You may want to start with putting the dates in the title in the correct format.

        You may also want to only have one sentence per bullet point, as per your style guide.

        You may also want to avoid negative contractions, as per your style guide.

        You may wish to get a content designer to proofread blog posts before they’re published.

        Come on GDS - set the standard.

        • Replies to Kenneth P>

          Comment by The GDS Team posted on

          Hi Ken,

          Thanks for letting us know. Blogs don't adhere to the Style Guide with the same rigour, as they contain pieces of prose rather than guidance.

          The GDS team

          • Replies to The GDS Team>

            Comment by Kenneth P posted on

            It’s Kenneth - not Ken.

            So you’re saying it’s ok for your blog posts to not be accessible and harder for people to read because they’re prose?

            Interesting view.

            It’s sad to see how far GDS has fallen.

          • Replies to The GDS Team>

            Comment by Kenneth P posted on

            Hello GDS team

            I note that you did not post by last comment. I wonder if you could explain why?

            And again, I ask you to explain why important things that you’re blogging (including important government strategies) do not follow the style guide which was designed around accessibility and usability.

            Your own guidance says blog posts should follow the style guide: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/content-design/blogging#style-and-tone-of-voice

            Do your users who use screen readers deserve to have a poorer experience because you cannot format dates correctly?

            Please have the courtesy to post this comment and reply to it. “Be humble - not arrogant.”

  19. Comment by Enrico posted on

    abot "long tail of PDF forms"
    PDF forms can be :
    re-scanned
    made "automatically" digital again

    • Replies to Enrico>

      Comment by David posted on

      Yes, paper forms are generally scanned in government. But it is problematic. Interpreting the scanned image leads to huge accuracy problems simply interpreting it. Creating a system with a paper form can require physical infrastructure and systems, so is slow to setup and has huge inertia if you want to improve it.

      Digital forms are usually significantly better for the citizen and for making government processes more efficient. You can guide people as they fill it in. Errors and inconsistencies can be challenged at the time of entry. You can understand where people generally drop-off in the process and improve it. You can improve the form in real time. You can test changes easily. You can pre-fill parts of the form for which you already know some of the answers.

      Of course paper has its advantages for access and low digital literacy. Digital government addresses this in all transactional services, as part of the Government Service Standard.