All aboard the bullet train

Written by on 23 July 2014 in Feature

Adopting an Internet culture will bring public service out of the steam age, says a senior civil servant

Tom Loosemore, former head of digital innovation at Channel 4 and now deputy director of the UK Government’s Digital Service, was on stage answering questions at the D14 conference in Glasgow this spring. Earlier, someone had referred to encouraging change in the civil service as being “like herding cats”.

Loosemore was asked what his strategy for bringing Internet culture to the heart of government had been when confronted with this challenge: “Learn to respect cats, cats are really smart, learn to speak cat.”

Actually, Loosemore, part of a team that is transforming the way public services are delivered, had nothing but praise for civil servants: “There’s so much willingness and talent inside government that was just ready for a little bit of realignment.

“We have massive support from ministers which really helped, but the vast majority of people who have helped along the way have been civil servants who have been in the civil service for a long time and they were ready for change. Civil servants are smart, committed and motivated people; helping them be brave enough to change has been the trick.”

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is leading the digital transformation of government. It was established in response to lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox’s report, ‘Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution’.Loosemore said that there were reasons her report had an impact; it was four pages long, “so people read it”; the subtitle, “revolution not evolution”; and it had the full support of ministers and the civil service.

GDS works in three core areas: transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services; building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK web site – which brings government services together in one place; and changing the way government procures IT services.

“We are not in the technology business; we are in the service design and development business,” said Loosemore, “you have to focus on users and their needs, not the needs of government.
“Traditional government procurement of services wasn’t called service design it was called IT procurement; a 2-3 year-long process of writing documents 700 pages long, submitting them to large companies from which services maybe appeared three years later and never changed.”

The report by Martha Lane Fox recommended four courses of action: bring digital skills into the heart of government; reduce the hundreds of government websites to one; make transactions between citizens and government truly digital; and open government content to the private and third sectors, allowing them to create innovative services.

“We are trying to bring Internet culture into government, overtly. We try to be as open as we can. Virtually all of our code is open source, we blog, we tweet, we share, we try to bring that cultural openness, not because we are dogmatic about being open but we believe that by being open we just make things better; it’s as simple as that.

“We are agile. You’ve got to be humble about what you know before you launch a service; I don’t know of any service that survives its first encounter with a real user. Start small, test as quickly as you can with real users, iterate as quickly as you can and never stop listening to users. You are never finished.”

Loosemore said they started with “the basic stuff”; publishing, the hundreds of government web sites costing millions of pounds a year. An ‘alpha’ version of gov.uk was released in 2011. It was the work of 12 people and cost £200,000. “We said: ‘Let’s sketch this, in code, sketch this vision, in public, in code and gather feedback”.

Six months later a ‘beta’ version was released and iterated until October 2012 when two of the biggest government web sites’ urls were redirected to gov.uk. Six months later, 24 more sites were redirected. Today, the re-purposed content of 200 of about 300 government sites is in one place.

In 2013, gov.uk won a design award; Loosemore said he was “not that fussed” by that: “What matters is qualitative and quantitative feedback from users. It’s the digital way, the internet way; iterative and user-centred.

He added: “What’s really great to see is that this culture of openness across government is really starting to pay dividends,” citing the adoption of innovative ideas – such as the use of code for a booking system for prison visits being adopted by other areas of government and the code for gov.uk being adopted by other governments around the world, including Scotland.

“The fundamental point is we are not here to improve government web sites; we are hear to improve government. And by ‘we’ I don’t mean GDS, I mean our generation. The future won’t come from a policy paper; you can’t write your way to a future. Government actually comes from the ground up; people designing and running services. It’s going to emerge and evolve, not as top-down design but as a piece of civic infrastructure.”

Loosemore puts this civic digital infrastructure on a par with some of the great engineering feats of the past: “Something new is emerging around civic digital infrastructure; affordances, open, user-centred, focused on people not policy, software as a public service.”

He said that traditional government was like a steam train, designed in the 19th century and merely painted to appear shiny again: “We’ve been painting steam trains,” he said of the past. “That’s how most governments around the world have been operating, with the exception of Estonia.

“Shiny steam trains won’t help,” he said, bringing up a slide of modern ‘bullet’ trains. “We need the digital equivalent of these. We need to be much bolder and realign government with the affordances of the Internet. That’s what we are here to do.”

 

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