Government Digital Service (GDS)
GDS turns 9
Fiona Deans, Director General
Today GDS turns 9. We’ve come a long way since a small team assembled in a government building near Waterloo, tasked with making a revolution in digital government a reality. Since then, we’ve called several UK offices and - more recently - countless kitchen tables, ‘home’.
Hundreds of people helped us to get where we are today. Some have been with GDS from the beginning, others moved on to pastures new. Many, like me, joined somewhere along the way. Together, we’ve grown and matured as an organisation, and have taken up our place to lead the government’s digital, data and technology (DDaT) function at the very centre.
We’re older and a bit wiser, but our mission hasn’t changed. The decision to focus on user needs didn’t just make it onto the alpha project walls - it stitched itself into the fabric of GDS.
It’s a guiding principle, a GDS “golden thread”, that features as prominently on day 3,288 as it did on day 1. It’s there in the Government’s Design Principles that evolved from design rules scribbled on post-it notes stuck to the walls of our first office.
You can see it in the digital leaders who once felt disconnected but now enjoy influence in cross-government networks, and find fellowship among 18,000 members of the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Profession.
And, as recently set out by an Institute for Government report, the impact and influence of almost a decade of digital transformation driven by GDS, and of enablers like our Service Toolkit, can be felt in government’s ability to unblock departmental boundaries and rapidly spin up services during the coronavirus response.
We have a great bunch of people working at GDS (not to mention plenty of alumni doing fantastic work across digital government too). It’s undeniably been a tough year for everyone, and I’m so grateful to team GDS and our DDaT colleagues for pulling together and putting in the hard yards. From supporting the delivery of millions of food parcels to those most in need, to delivering a billion messages using GOV.UK Notify between May and November of this year alone - we should all feel proud of what’s been achieved.
If this last year has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t always predict what’s ahead. But I’m confident that with the lessons learned, the resilience built and the relationships forged in our first 9 years, as long as we keep user needs as our north star - GDS will be up to whatever challenge comes next.
GDS then, now and next – reflections from our people
Later in the month, GDS will publish the next chapter of the GDS Story – our annual, deliberate exercise in institutional memory. Until then, to celebrate our birthday, we asked a handful of GDS’s people – some long-standing and some new starters – to reflect on their experiences of digital government with GDS so far, telling us what they’re proud of now and what they’re excited about in the future.
Chris Watson, Head of Campaigns, Creative and Events – joined GDS in 2011
I joined the communications team in 2011. We were split between borrowed space in different buildings, getting ready to move under one roof at Aviation House to officially launch. It was great being among people with a passion for, and relentless focus on, user needs. Getting to play a part in telling that story was irresistible.
Now, 9 years on and what started as a small dedicated group of people has grown into a big group of dedicated people! Governments around the world have mirrored our work and there’s a global focus on how to transform government to put citizens and their needs at its heart.
So what’s next? I’m looking forward to planning our flagship Sprint event and getting the DDaT profession together to celebrate the great work being done up and down the country. What excites me now is the same as on my first day – our work to put user needs first. It wouldn’t be a relentless focus if it was any other way.
Liz Lutgendorff, Senior Research Analyst, International – joined GDS in 2012
My GDS journey started in January 2012, when I joined to transition ‘Business Link’ to what would later become GOV.UK. We sat in a whole empty section on the 6th floor of Aviation House (if you can even imagine). It was an exciting and busy time, and as my first role in government, I had no idea we were doing something revolutionary - but we were.
Now it’s 2020 and I’ve got deja vu, as we work with other global governments who want to consolidate their web estates to a single domain – just as we did. So much of what still GDS does is revolutionary: spend controls, service assessments, capability frameworks, standards, platforms and GOV.UK. We shouldn’t lose sight of how important GDS’s work in digital government is, not just in the UK, but internationally: we have shown what’s possible for international governments who want to embed digital skills and drive procurement reform. Though more than ever, we’re keeping our eyes on the horizon so we can continue to iterate, and improve.
Next year I’m looking forward to continuing conversations with colleagues from around the world about how to make digital governance work, and how to keep users at the centre of it all.
Christopher Short, Head of Operations, Global Digital Marketplace – joined GDS in 2012
I joined GDS in 2012 to work as a Commercial Manager in the Commissioning team and in 2014 was promoted to lead it. Procuring at the pace needed to support the development of GOV.UK and the 25 ‘Exemplars’ was a real challenge. This was helped by the arrival of G-Cloud and the development in GDS of the Digital Marketplace (which recently celebrated its 6th birthday), which I supported. The beauty of being part of GDS is that you’re able to support areas of development that are linked, but outside your daily work.
Between May 2016 and December 2019 I moved to work at (what was then) Business, Innovation and Skills to help set up their Digital Team, and then at Crown Commercial Service, where I used the skills I had learnt in User-Centred Design approaches to support development of new Commercial Frameworks.
I returned to GDS just before Christmas 2019, and am now working on an international anti-corruption and procurement reform programme – the Global Digital Marketplace. We’re supporting National and Local Governments in Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and South Africa to make procurement more open and effective, and designing out opportunities for corruption and fraud to manifest.
Helen Wall, National Lead – joined GDS in 2014
I joined GDS in 2014 to work in the digital identity programme. I knew all about GDS, having started my civil service career at Directgov, and I was even the one who got to send the tweet announcing GOV.UK’s launch from the Number 10 account!
It was a super exciting time to be playing in sandbox environments working with everyone from big banks to the shared economy, asking what users’ thoughts were for a government-issued digital identity being used for commercial services - turns out, very happy… unless they were accessing adult material - then they were less enthusiastic…
In 2018 I became the National Lead, and had the privilege of setting up a team looking at levelling up digital transformation across the UK, supported by GDS products and services.
Highlights from my time with GDS include the Local Digital Declaration reaching over 200 local authorities, Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) signed with each of the devolved nations and some really great collaboration work in response to COVID-19.
As a team we feel we’re just getting started, and have big plans on mapping digital maturity of public services, supporting tangible change with supplier relationships and working with colleagues across the devolved administrations.
Louise Ryan, Lead Technical Architect and Head of Technology for Government as a Platform (GaaP) – joined GDS in 2017
I joined GDS in 2017 as a Technical Architect on the Digital Marketplace. From pretty early on I knew it was an excellent place to be. The Digital Marketplace runs 2 procurement frameworks for government (G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes & Specialists) and even though I knew precisely nothing about this complex domain, the team welcomed me with open arms and happily answered my many, many questions about the digital service, and procurement fundamentals.
I’m now the Head of Technology for Government as a Platform (GaaP). For me, this is the best job in GDS. I get to work with several, incredible teams who are diligently, skillfully and continuously improving brilliant services that millions of users interact with every day. It is a privilege.
I’m also a technical service assessor for the Service Standard, which helps teams across government build and run great public services. I really enjoy speaking to other teams of DDaT professionals about the services they’re building (often using GaaP components created by GDS!) and how we can all work together to make government services work better for citizens and Civil Servants alike.
Steve Messer, Product Manager GOV.UK Pay – joined GDS in 2018
I joined Government Digital Service in 2018, having previously worked as a product manager at a small company in Brixton, working on digital products and open data projects for local authorities.
It’s really humbling working at GDS as you have to think about the scenarios people are in when they need to do something with government.
They might be on the bus heading to a job interview, or watching telly at home, or up late at night worrying about their bank balance while paying government for something. It’s our job to help them through those moments, to empathise with the person behind the screen, so that they can finish that task and get on with their life.
Those ‘life moments’ have been important to design for over the last 9 years at GDS, and it will be important to design for those moments in the future too – wherever that takes us, with whatever technology we’re using then.
Chucks Iwuagwu, Head of Delivery, GOV.UK – joined GDS in 2019
Joining GDS was a dream come true for someone like me, who has been around Agile delivery across various levels of government, from devolved administrations to local government and central government. GDS was the place to be for an Agile practitioner in government, and I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to work at GDS.
I initially joined as Head of Delivery for the Verify programme, and found it incredibly challenging but also rewarding – mainly because I was working with a group of people whose dedication and commitment was unrivalled in all my experience. They had a complex problem to solve and did nothing but work round the clock to make sense of all the conundrums that this area generated.
I moved after 6 months from Verify to be Head of Delivery on GOV.UK and it would remain part of the most valued decision and experience in my life. GOV.UK is a fantastic programme, like Verify, staffed by people for whom working in GOV.UK is never going to be a job – it’s more like a vocation. I’ve never known a group of people who cared about a service/product as much as people in GOV.UK do.
I think the future for GDS is bright because – to borrow a phrase coined in Glasgow (a city I call second home), ‘People make GDS’.
Nesha Russo, Accessibility Officer, Accessibility Monitoring and Reporting Team – joined GDS in 2020
I joined GDS’ Accessibility Monitoring and Reporting team in March 2020. I’d only worked in the office for 2 weeks, and had just about gotten to grips with finding my desk and the names of the people I’d be working with, when we were told we needed to work remotely. The transformation to a “remote GDS” was automatic and seamless: I felt as connected to my colleagues and as much as part of the team as ever - and that’s testament to GDS’s strong culture.
I’ve had the privilege of working on the accessibility auditing process from the beginning. In true GDS style, we’re iterating and improving things all the time, and I’ve been empowered to define the work, make the process more efficient and contribute solutions to challenges. I couldn’t feel more proud of what I’m doing, as I know it makes a real difference to the lives of millions of people who expect, and deserve, accessible public services.
As a team this is only just the beginning. There’s a long way to go and we're excited for the future. We want to make sure public sector organisations understand the benefits of digital accessibility, and take action to make their website work better for everyone.
Isabella McQuaker-Kajiwara, DDaT Capability Framework Support Officer and Product/Delivery Management Support, DDaT Capability Team – joined GDS in 2020
After taking part in the Summer Diversity Internship Programme earlier in 2020, I stayed on at GDS to work with the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Capability Team. In the short space of time I’ve been here, I’ve really benefited from agile ways of working. As a recent graduate, it’s been refreshing to be surrounded by colleagues that encourage you to use your own initiative on projects, work across teams and take on levels of responsibility you don’t always get at this point in your career.
As someone from a BAME background, I’ve also appreciated being in a department where Diversity and Inclusion is understood and where it underpins every aspect of our work. User needs are at the heart of each project, and it’s been fascinating to learn about the diversity of those needs across different parts of the population, and how digital government works to deliver services to address them.
Going forwards, I’m looking forward to seeing how Communities of Practice grow and develop within GDS and across government. One of my highlights has been exploring the range of different careers there are in the DDaT profession, and these communities are central to that!
Mohammed Shahjahan Ahmed – Service Standard and Manual Support Officer, Community-led Service Standard and Manual Team – joined GDS in 2020
I joined in 2020 through the Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP), where I sat in GDS’s User-Centered Design team. Taking part in the SDIP was a great experience - I was given a high level of responsibility with projects, my team was so welcoming and supportive and I got to work across different workstreams and teams.
That led me to secure a role in the newly-formed Community-led Service Standard and Manual team. We work with people across GDS to create and follow guidance on designing and building public services. We also manage the regulatory guidance in the Service Standard and GOV.UK Service Manual.
As well as working on my own projects, I’m able to complete online courses and take part in shadowing opportunities across GDS. This gives me a better understanding of different career paths open to me in future, and of how my current work fits into the bigger picture of GDS, and Cabinet Office.
GDS represents my values - it’s a place which champions learning and development, and provides opportunities to explore interests. I’ve only been here a short time but I’m excited for what’s next! In particular, exploring data governance and technology policy to deepen my understanding of how policies are shaped, and the challenges around the management of data.
We hope that you’ll join in our celebrations on our social media profiles: you can find us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. If you have any fond memories of your time with GDS, share them with us on those social media profiles using #GDSTurns9, or here in the comments. We look forward to reminiscing with you, and working on our fantastic future!
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