Russell Davies is the director of strategy at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He is a man from the government. He has some advice about the future of your organisation and its website.

Why should you take his advice? Because the website his team created for the government,, is "better than yours"

Yes that includes ours.

Russell Davies gave the final keynote talk at our Festival of Marketing last week and as difficult it is to remain journalistically detached from these sorts of things, I found his speech genuinely inspiring.

I’ll do my best to convey some of the insight from Davies’s talk here…

Digital transformation 

Digital transformation is inevitable, either your business will do it, or you will be replaced by another business that has digitally transformed already.

When an organisation has digitally transformed, marketing teams will have less budget, influence and power. If that’s not the case, then “you haven’t done the digital transformation right”.

The product or service team in a properly digital company will have all the budget, influence and power.

Michael Slaby, who ran Barack Obama’s digital marketing campaign, offers some very blunt advice about digital transformation for those hoping for a shortcut or easy solution…

Digital transformation isn’t complicated, it’s just hard.

The journey to

The process of overhauling the government’s existing digital estate began four years ago. There was a simple premise: ‘evolution not revolution’. replaced the two big central government websites, Direct Gov and Business Link. The idea was to make something much simpler, clearer and faster, which focused entirely on users.

The GDS team eliminated thousands of pages that nobody ever visited then made sure the information that people did actually want was as easy to find as possible. 

As an example, here is the old Direct Gov page providing information on bank holidays:

GDS realised that this isn’t actually how people used the site. They actually wanted to know when the next bank holiday is.

Here is same page on the new site:

The information is displayed far more clearly, much more intuitively and it completely understands the needs of its users.   

It's so important to have the right insights about your users in order to inform your website design. Applying for carer’s allowance used to be a long, difficult analogue process that had to be done during working hours. 

It now looks like this: 

In the six months that it has existed, it’s received 60,000 claims with 89% user satisfaction.

The key discovery here is that a high proportion of people applying for carer’s allowance do so between 2am and 3am. This is the only time they have to themselves. That’s why you need to build stuff that works just as well on mobile as it does on desktop.

The receives around 9m visitors every week, it now contains every major government department under one umbrella with every service due to be digitised soon. The whole thing costs £62m less to run than previously.

No links left behind

Once the site was ready to launch, there was a problem. Thousands of old Direct Gov URLs written all over the country on various adverts, posters, leaflets and other bits of merchandise.

In order not to waste any money on marketing and also to preserve the user experience, the GDS team merely redirected every single page on the old site to a relevant page on the new site. 

This meant all of the old links and bookmarks still worked, and it also meant that the team didn’t even need to tell anyone there was a new website. didn’t get launched, it just got switched on.

“No new ideas”

It’s the current GDS team mantra. It’s written on a post-it note on their wall.

Avoiding innovation like the plague means that GDS can just concentrate on making all of its existing ideas work really well.

Product versus marketing

We’re moving from a world orientated around persuasion to a world orientated around usability.

It’s never been more true that you're better off having a brilliant product and no marketing, than you are having an average product plus some marketing. 

If you’re a digital organisation, developing a brilliant product has never been easier. Whereas marketing has become harder and harder.

In digital you can develop and test a product with a small multi-disciplined team, repeatedly iterating on the product and using exposure hours to see how users respond to it, with very few resources.

You are better off spending your time and money developing a product or service that works really well and letting people discover it then you are taking an average one and promoting it. 

With that in mind, you must build services designed around the needs of the user, not around the needs of the organisation, company or government.

It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.

Further reading…

For more on from the blog, check out the following posts:

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 18 November, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (4)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

I've been using quite a bit recently and it's pretty good. Certainly much better that UK local government sites.

The only big change that I'd like relates to advice pages, because I often find multiple pages that give slightly contradictory advice. This is inevitable when you have several pages that each address one part of a complicated issue and the underlying rules keep changing.

What I'd really like is for pages to link to a single "canonical" version for each issue - the page that's intended to be 100% correct and that is to kept updated promptly.

This would have saved me several hours recently, when I was researching how the UK Visa system is intended to work.

almost 4 years ago


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd


> I often find multiple pages that give slightly contradictory advice.

Any examples?

I'm sure there are some - but from what I've read, the team use an Agile approach, so fix things like that soon after they are made aware.

It might be that in the Visa arena - that the fault is not but the content owners of that particular content.

I love the transparency: eg their style guide:

Just look at that list of words they ban to achieve Plain English !
Imagine how much less reading consumers would have do to if marketers used Plain English. (Travel companies, you know what I'm talking about)

And they go public too with their traffic graphs - eg for the Visas section

almost 4 years ago


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

And that transparency, can be dangerous.

Eagle-eyed citizens like me, may spot that the reasoning a department gives for it's website fail (DVLA - 10 hours or more down)


May not entirely be supported by their own stats:


almost 4 years ago


sarah hughes, Director and Founder at Datitude Limited

@Chris - thanks for sharing this. Thought provoking indeed.

almost 4 years ago

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