Government Digital Services – what went wrong?

By Chris Averill, CEO & Founder

March 1, 2015    5 mins

Government Digital Services (GDS) have done no wrong, let’s get that straight to start with. I don’t speak to GDS teams, I’ve never worked on a GDS project, but I do know some very good people there, a few who have come through WAE.

In a recent article on The Register titled “GOV.UK, Chaos and Nightmare…” GDS get a real kicking for messing up swathes of Government websites in their drive to get everything under one domain. Poor design and chaotic management are blamed for failure of key sites including Visa & Immigration, through a far poorer understanding of what the public actually needed than the relevant government departments did, according to GDS’ own analysis.

Forget design, think people and organisational change

Based on our work transforming both public and private organisations, my experience tells me that the problem lies not in GDS’ original remit or approach, but in the changing requirements of the client.

What started off as a challenging information re-architecture project to improve the ease of use of most government services, has turned into a massive organisational change program, and I’m guessing the team in place have limited experience, as a whole, in change management, and have not been briefed on the new direction of the GDS program.

How does one manage change?

The speed of change of today’s technology creates both opportunity and fear in equal measures. The opportunity to make products and services available instantly to a massive audience is countered by the fear of change, driven mostly by those who’s jobs are at risk from the efficiencies created.

There are very few examples of enterprise businesses that have managed to keep up with this rapidly changing world, and most of these are not open to the scrutiny that the public sector is subjected to.

Change has to be led from the top, and supported from the bottom. Telling teams to change will, in our experience, force more resistance to the change, and far worse is a leadership team who don’t believe in the change required. I have often heard boards talk of “the cost of doing nothing”, no risk, no pain, let’s just ride it out.

Taking your team along for the ride during a change process is never going to be easy, and it has to be undertaken quickly and collaboratively. We use creative tools to help develop “whole brain learning” in teams where there are often more left than right brainers.

There is one universal truth in every business

And it’s the customer. You may think this view too simplistic, too obvious or just to easy, but never underestimate the power of the customer (or end user) when it comes to focusing on what a business (or organisation) needs to prioritise.

My customer’s customers are my customers. And that sums it up for me, in a world where once the brand was powerful and the customer grateful, the customers are now very powerful and the brands very grateful.

“Not only have they changed the way we work with our customers, they’ve changed the way we work with ourselves”.

Chris Macleod, marketing director, TfL.

We bring customers into the heart of every client we work with, often by physically setting up a space in the client office and run a program of test and learn where everyone can see both the customer, and the rapid transformation they bring to the business. Our work to transform organisations by empowering the teams to think and act in a customer centric way has seen dramatic improvements both their products & services, and they way they do business.

In summary

Having talked to a few people who are closer to GDS and their work, my view still stands, but the warning is to be politically astute and avoid upsetting too many people as you forge forwards with change.

So if all this makes you feel worried about making change happen, I’ll leave you with my favourite daily quotes that I use (to death):

  • What’s the worse that can happen? (Dr Pepper / Shalien Joshi)
  • Be the change you want (Ghandi)
  • Just do it (Nike)