How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
I’m a Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service, leading the UK government’s expert international digital and technology unit. I was previously the programme director for GOV.UK Verify, the UK’s digital identity and assurance function, leading the strategic design and delivery of our flagship identity verification system.
For almost a decade, GDS has been leading the digital transformation of government in the UK, redefining how a modern government should serve citizens. By harnessing the power of technology and doing things digitally, the UK government has already produced services that are simpler, clearer and faster for users, and significantly cheaper to run.
Since GDS was first founded in 2010, the UK has been widely recognised by other countries and multilateral organisations as a global leader in the field of digital government. GDS has been a consistent champion for public sector use of digital methods, open data, civil service capability development, and the better use of technology through open standards and procurement reform.
We have done all of this work in an open, transparent and repeatable way. Because of this, the international team now works with governments and organisations around the world to share GDS’ digital expertise and methodologies to help deliver real change globally.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?
This year was my first opportunity to deliver digital transformation globally. I have been working with partners from countries and multilateral organisations around the world, and also in collaboration with colleagues from across the UK government. It’s hard to pick a favourite project, but one of the most exciting things about the work is how much value there is in sharing all of our different government approaches.
We have been able to scale the way we work in several ways as a result: scaling digital techniques within government, promoting common principles and standards for digital development, as well as scaling to address new challenges and contexts we haven’t seen before in the UK. Adapting our expertise so it is as effective elsewhere is hugely exciting!
What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?
I’ve worked on some pretty challenging projects in my career, including general elections, rebuilding national websites, and national digital identity. However, I am never more proud than when I see my team delivering great work at pace and doing their talented, driven and creative best to solve really complicated problems.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?
Digital government has the potential to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state. But it is not inevitable that governments will achieve the benefits of transformation.
It is no longer as simple as it was five years ago. As technology and experiences around the world advance, digital transformation has become much more layered. In addition, as the general level of literacy and familiarity with basic digital concepts grows across governments, there are more stakeholders with more sophisticated demands and expectations. Those two things taken together mean that the challenge is significantly broader than it was.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?
I think it is usual at this point to talk about all the exciting developments within emerging technologies and it is a hugely exciting field, but I think it is at its most exciting, most useful, and most effective when looked at in terms of the problems it helps to fix. For example, at GDS we have used machine learning to make our GOV.UK content more findable and accessible to users.
Innovation done effectively within government can look quite different to the private sector. For example, on GOV.UK we have developed ways for users to access our content without even visiting our site. Our goal is to find ways to help users get the information they need as quickly as possible, and not prioritise traffic to our site. We have structured information so that it gets displayed fully within search engines and the user does not need to visit GOV.UK; this also has the benefit of being usable by voice assistants.
Governments are perfectly and uniquely placed to leverage technology markets by using a blend of aggregating government demand and supplying seed funding to use technology to rapidly explore ways to tackle social problems or high priority policy areas, and invest only where its proven to add value. In the UK, with the GovTech Catalyst challenge, GDS builds on this approach to work with the private sector to expose them to the challenges we see in government, so they can generate ideas for how to tackle them.
What are your priorities for 2020?
My focus for 2020 is on growing and extending the work that GDS’ International team is doing with partners overseas. As we continue to work with teams across the world, we are planning to design a shareable best practice that endures, delivers value to our partners, and offers an opportunity to genuinely reshape digital government.
What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?
Design! It is a fairly big challenge, but so many of the problems we find in government are actually design issues masquerading as legal, policy, security or technology ones. Governments are not traditionally seen as places where amazing design makes a difference to end users, but once you look at the problems in terms of design it is hard to imagine anywhere it is needed more!
Historically, we did not include service designers when thinking about how to deliver UK policy. In practice, this meant that services were often delivered by lots of different parts of government, and a user had to navigate that complexity when trying to do something. Service design is working out how to fit all of this together and making it work for users.
GDS developed the design principles to embed this design thinking approach across the UK government, and the principles are the key to getting a grip on the hardest parts of transformation.
What has been your fondest memory from the past year?
GDS receives hundreds of delegations from overseas governments, keen to learn from our experience in transforming digital government. I really enjoy this process, and I have a great appreciation for the growing impact that work we have done in GDS can have on another country’s efforts to undertake digital transformation.
The tools and techniques we have developed over many years (and have frequently iterated) are being repurposed to support transformation and reform in other countries, which is exciting to see!