I am sure that everyone who worked at GDS when it was in its infancy will have their own stories to tell of how it was founded and got to where it is today. One thing I am sure that not many people will know about is that very early on, when Chris Chant was the interim Digital Director, we came up with the name Government Digital Service. The debate we had at the time was whether it should be called the Government Digital Service or the Digital Government Service. So, it could have been known as DGS!
This is an abbreviated version of my story and the role I played in setting up “the best start-up in Europe we can’t invest in”.
My role as Chief Operating Officer for Directgov, morphed into the COO role at GDS. In summary, I led the smooth transition of Directgov and several disparate organisations to become the Government Digital Service and managed the large-scale business change programme this entailed. I also managed the relocation of the new organisation to suitable accommodation with an IT system that gave people the tools they needed to do their jobs. I built the organisation from a Whitehall start-up of around 70 people to a sustainable organisation of around 500 people and a secure operating budget in three years.
In 2010, shortly after the coalition government came into power, Directgov completed its orbit around departments having moved from the Cabinet Office to the Central Office for Information then on to DWP before arriving back at the Cabinet Office in July of that year. Around the same time, Martha Lane Fox’s role had expanded to UK Digital Champion and she was asked to advise how online public service delivery could help to provide better and more efficient services, as well as getting more people online. Her report, Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution set out four key recommendations to achieve that and the Government Digital Service was born from the ashes of Directgov and the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams.
When setting up GDS, there were three immediate priorities that had be resolved:
GDS needed to be far enough away from Whitehall so that it could be seen to be operating somewhat outside of the Whitehall machine, but close enough to Whitehall to be part of it. As luck would have it, the 6th floor of Aviation House in Holborn was available and so began the challenge of having the team relocated in a working environment that was fit for purpose and with an IT system that would give people the tools they needed to do their jobs.
The working environment itself was the easy part. OFSTED has moved out of the 6th floor in Aviation House so it was already furnished and only needed the walls being whiteboarded or painted. The IT system represented more of a challenge as we needed to meet the needs firstly of the digital teams who required open internet access and, secondly, those who needed more secure network access to protect sensitive data. A two-tier solution was implemented. One which was virtually completely open, although with essential encryption. The other was provided through a secure solution to ensure sensitive data was protected. This was achieved in six weeks – no mean feat working within government.
Eyebrows were raised when we started using MacBooks, but the business case showed these delivered a 40% efficiency saving over the then current IT system. And this didn’t include the fast log-in that the MacBooks provided compared to 5 minutes or longer using the official laptop.
Around the time GDS was being setup, the Cabinet Office had gone through a voluntary exit programme through which we had lost some good people. It’s also probably fair to say that morale could have been better. It was, therefore, critical that the new GDS organisation structure was put in place as quickly as possible and people reassured. Firstly, so that people would feel secure in their jobs and, secondly, so that GDS could get on with delivering its mission. This was done over a three-month period, which included the design of the organisation, TU consultation and running an expression of interest exercise so that people could apply for roles in the new structure. I also launched a recruitment campaign, working with some great people on the Cabinet Office HR team to challenge and overcome barriers to ensure that we recruited world class talent. As a result, GDS went from 70 people to around 500 in three years.
Ways of working
One of the biggest changes that the existing team had to overcome was cultural. This included what was pretty much unknown in government at the time: agile working, minimum viable products and, last but not least, bunting. I remember when the small team that were to work on the alpha version of GOV.UK arrived in Hercules House and were joined by some of the existing members of the Directgov team. The first thing that went up was the ‘beard wall’ (sadly no photographs remain) followed by the Kanban wall and the introduction of the regular daily stand-ups which are now a way of life in most teams, digital or otherwise. To get around the constraints of using the official IT system, which was then completely locked down, the team used MiFi devices. My job was to either break through the blockers or secure the necessary approvals to ensure that the team could work effectively and deliver alpha.gov. The look on the Delivery Manager’s face when I talked him through the approvals process was something that still makes me smile. And then the look of relief when I told him he didn’t need to worry about that as it was my job to do so. In the event, the prototype was developed in 12 weeks with the MVP delivered by an in-house team working in an open, agile way, placing user needs at the core of design process. The rest is, as they say, history.
The proudest moment for me, and highlight of my career, was when in I was awarded the OBE in 2014 for services to the provision and improvement of digital public services.
The whole of the GDS story and my part in it is far too long for me tell in this article. If you would like to read a detailed diary of GDS, then have a read of the story GDS have produced on their blog. One thing that is missing from the blog however is when two senior members of the team, who shall remain nameless, were asked to return a desk they had ‘borrowed’ from another floor after being seen on CCTV carrying it up the stairs!
- Episode 1: Where it all began
- Episode 2: Modernising Public Services and my introduction to user needs
- Episode 3: Public services all in one place
- Episode 4: GDS, Revolution not Evolution