Along with many others, we've been full of praise for the Government Digital Services at Econsultancy.

This is why we have two speakers from GDS at next week's Festival of Marketing.

Creative Director Russell Davies is one of our headliners, and here he provides an insight into the process and strategy behind improving every aspect of the government’s online presence. 

Could you give us a brief preview of your presentation at the Festival of Marketing?

There’s at least a week to go yet. Too soon to tell.

What is your role at GDS?

Director of Strategy. That means lots of things but mostly, in this context, it means knowing enough about marketing and communications to stop us doing all the marketing and communications things most organisations do.

This may seem a silly question, but how big a job is merging the various government departments and bodies into GOV.UK?

Pretty big. It involves moving more than 300 agencies and ‘arm’s length bodies’.

We’ve created or updated about 120,000 pieces of content and trained more than 1,000 people in user needs, writing for the web and how to use the publisher tool. We’ve got a blog devoted to the process.

We were very impressed by the GOV.UK style guide. What was the thinking behind this? 

We have a style guide because our main responsibility on GOV.UK is to make our language clear and consistent.

That means that the thousands of people who write write for GOV.UK need to know what clear and consistent looks like. Simplifying things hasn’t always been a core government skill so having a defined set of rules is helpful.

How do you find the right tone of voice in your copy?

There’s no particular tone of voice we’re looking for. The tone is a product of using as few words as possible, optimising so people using a search engine can find the right stuff and being clear and accessible.

For instance, we aim at a reading age of about nine.

The priority is explanation, not persuasion. We don’t aim to engage - we aim to deliver. 

How do you measure the success (or otherwise) of GOV.UK? Do you have targets to achieve?

Lots of ways. We measure everything. But, in essence, every page on the site should be responding to a defined user need.

Our aim is to address that need as quickly, clearly and efficiently as possible. Do that right and we’ll improve services and save money.

For instance, here’s a post about a prototype that will eventually show the user need behind each page on GOV.UK, among other things.

How has reporting culture evolved at GDS (analytics dashboards etc)?

Well, our aim is to have public dashboards for everything. We’re not there yet, but we’ve made a good start

GDS has received praise from many quarters for its work over the last few years, but what do your users think?

Hopefully most of our users don’t think about or notice us. They just use the service and get on with their lives.

But usage has been going up every month. We do user research all the time and people seem to like what we’re doing - satisfaction scores are pretty high.

But there are always things that can get better, the site can always improve. Probably the most significant thing we’ve done is to make that improvement routine and easy - GOV.UK’s not perfect but it’s always getting better.

The GDS team seem to have been given free rein to implement digital strategy, has this been the case? In other words, how have you been able to be so agile in what people would assume is a very hierarchical environment?

We certainly don’t have free rein, but we have changed the central organising principle for digital services to be about user need.

So as long as we’re doing the right things for users and we’ve got data to back that up, we can generally get on and do the right thing.

You’ve talked about ’the strategy being the delivery’ - can you explain what you mean by this?

As Simon Willison said “You can now build working software in less time than it takes to have the meeting to describe it”.

Digital transformation is not about lots of thinking, it’s about lots of doing. You can’t know what your strategy is until you’ve started delivering things.

Mike Bracken’s written a blog post about why this is so important.

GDS is very open about the thinking behind its strategy, new products, changes etc - why have you taken this route and what benefits does it deliver?

Well, partly, the taxpayer’s paying for all this - why shouldn’t you know what we’re up to?

But secondly, making things open makes things better. It’s a lesson the open source community learned years ago. We’re just widening the scope of the idea.

Thirdly, we have a huge number of ‘internal stakeholders’. The best way to reach them is to make everything public.

How do you attract great staff?

We give them big important problems to work on. Stuff that matters.

Does work suffer in an election year?

Don’t know yet. We’ve not been around long enough to know. I can’t see it being a big problem.

Which service redesign has given you greatest satisfaction?

You’re going to think this is incredibly dull, but probably Prison Visit Booking. You can see a video about the service here:

It’s not sexy, but it’s important. And it hints at the future for government services: Government as a Platform.

Since MOJ built this service and made the code open source we now have code and design patterns for making appointments. Any other bits of government can now take that code and very easily build services for booking driving tests, or job interviews, or whatever they need.

They don’t have to pay anyone for that, they make the code base better and users start to see consistent design patterns across government. 

Russell Davies and Mike Bracken from The Government Digital Service will both be speaking at our two day Festival of Marketing event on 12-13 November. 

Graham Charlton

Published 4 November, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Xabier

Russell Davies is a living legend and the fact that he is working for the government will never stop surprising me and delighting me. It is certainly the best job for him to make the biggest difference. And his work there is nothing but legendary.

Great interview!

almost 4 years ago

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