This is one part of ‘A GDS story’. Please read the introduction and the blog post that explains this project

More of the story: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.


Three members of the user research team working at a table with a laptop and Post-It notes on it

One of our cross-government design community training events

We started the year with the GDS Academy launching a new courseResearch and design in government.

At the Government Digital Service (GDS) everything we build must be accessible. We blogged about one of the ways we achieve this – by improving accessibility acceptable criteria. This is a list of conditions that a user interface must meet to be considered accessible.

We also set out our priorities to help make government services better.


Last February, we published the Government Transformation Strategy. A year on we reflected on how the strategy was working. GDS’s director general Kevin Cunnington outlined his 3 priorities for the next 12 months: being innovators for government, building capability across government and supporting the EU exit.

Later in the month John Manzoni visited GDS to talk about the progress of the strategy.

Journey mapping is an essential part of building step by step navigation on GOV.UK. It’s a process that can also be used elsewhere so we shared how we map service journeys.


Five GDS Academy students attending a course and working together

The GDS Academy celebrated its 1,000th graduate from its 10-day digital and agile foundation course.

GDS marked International Women’s Day and we profiled women working in technical roles across the organisation to share what it’s like to work in government.

GOV.UK Notify was scaled up to cope with sending 500 million messages a year.  

And this was also the month the Digital Marketplace announced it was expanding with the Global Digital Marketplace.


A poster from one of the service standard workshops saying: Challenge 4 - Support development of whole services - end to end, front to back - with ideas on post-it notes

One of the posters from our workshops on defining a service

As we are iterating the Service Standard, we undertook cross-government research to define what a service is.  

The Open Standards Principles were revised to make it easier for departments to adopt open standards.  

GOV.UK is built and run using agile methodology and as part of this, we adapt our ways of working based on what we have learned. So we put in place 4 new principles to help overcome challenges with GOV.UK delivery:

  • spend only 3 months per mission
  • measure stuff with numbers
  • have firebreaks
  • prioritise sustainable building

A GOV.UK consultation was launched to hear from users on the forthcoming EU Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Websites and Mobile Apps.  

And we also continued to improve the Digital Marketplace by launching the G-Cloud 10 framework.


A GDS staff member explaining something to Oliver Dowden

Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation and GDS’s minister, came to visit us at our offices in Whitechapel, London. He met staff, including the GOV.UK team, and heard about their work.

We rolled out improvements to the spend controls process with updated guidance for IT and digital.

Along with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, we published The 7 Lenses of Transformation, a practical guide for understanding complex transformations.

Two GDS staff at Sprint 18

The GovTech Catalyst stand at Sprint 18

GDS also held its flagship event, Sprint 18. We celebrated the great work happening across digital government and launched the first GovTech Fund competition. The £20 million fund helps private sector innovators tackle public sector problems.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law came into force. We had been preparing for the regulations for almost a year.  

We also spoke to students at TeenTech City 2018 about careers in technology and science.


We launched the GOV.UK Design System. It contains styles, components and patterns to help teams in government create user-centred digital services.  

We blogged about the UK government’s accessibility empathy lab, which is based at GDS. It’s open to any public sector employee to raise awareness about accessibility and be an assistive technology testing space.

GDS needs to make sure GOV.UK can keep pace with whatever technology people are using to access it. This is why a huge amount of work has been done on the GOV.UK structure which will allow it to be read by newer technology, such as voice assistants.


One of the ConCon sessions - a TV screen reads: How to produce technical content

ConCon7, the seventh cross-government content designers conference, was held. It was the most wide ranging event yet with presentations from 18 organisations across government.

The first International Design in Government Conference took place in London. Participants came from 96 different organisations based in 26 countries and across 6 continents. We reflected on what we learned at the event a few months later.

GDS and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government launched the Local Digital Declaration. This is a set of guiding principles to support local authorities to deliver digital services and platforms.

Following successful trials, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay became available to all local authorities.

Our post on why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF scored the accolade of being the most-read post in our blog’s history and received global attention, with people reading it from as far away as Japan.

We also caught up with former GDS employees to find out what they’re doing now for governments around the world.


Screen showing the GDS Instagram page

We updated our Social Media Playbook and we blogged about how we use our Instagram channel to show behind the scenes of GDS, amongst other things.

With half of all search queries predicted to be spoken by 2020, we published a blog post on the work GOV.UK is doing with voice assistants.

The Product People Community wrote about how to organise and run your own local network, in 8 easy steps. Another cross-government community, the Service Design community, blogged about its group’s history and what it intends to do in the future.  

The Technology Innovation in Government Survey was published. It reported on what is happening across government with new or emerging technologies and our Innovation Team visualised the document’s findings.

Almost half of government digital spend through the Digital Marketplace went to small and medium-sized enterprises, according to the August spending figures.


The second round of GovTech Catalyst challenges were revealed. These included a challenge to make firefighters safer when tackling blazes in buildings.

We published an update on the work we’re doing for the Service Standard.

GDS revamped its YouTube channel. We refreshed it with a new look, reorganised the content and made films easier to find. This was part of our move to a more strategic approach to communications at GDS.

The GOV.UK Design System was opened up to contributors. This means that anyone across government can add to a set of patterns that everyone can use.

We launched our first podcast. Our first guest was Neil Williams, the now former Head of GOV.UK, who had been at GDS for 7 years.

Angus Montgomery interviewing Neil Williams

Neil Williams recording the first GDS podcast with Angus Montgomery

Our accessibility empathy lab proved so popular we blogged about free assistive technology tools that people can test with themselves if they cannot visit the space at GDS. This month, new accessibility regulations came into force and we published advice to support organisations to meet the requirements.

We’ve been working at the Whitechapel Building for over a year now. But the move required a lot of behind the scenes support from the GDS network team who had to configure and set up the internal infrastructure for 600 people.


GOV.UK celebrated its sixth birthday. This last year has seen a lot of changes to GOV.UK with work on step by step navigation, end to end services and design. There’s also been a lot of work on the publishing tools on GOV.UK and making GOV.UK pages load faster and use less data.

GOV.UK Verify entered the next phase in its development. The government’s platform for secure digital identity is now mature enough to be opened up to the private sector to lead on its next developments.  

An image of GDS's Tia Priest at the event standing in front of a screen saying: Let's Talk About Race

The first Let’s Talk About Race event aimed at increasing diversity amongst senior civil servants in the Digital, Data and Technology Profession was held in London.

The GDS Academy shared its expertise overseas on a visit to Ottawa to meet members of the Canadian government. Following our return, they announced the creation of their own Digital Academy.

And at the cross-government open source meetup our open source lead Terence Eden presented the 11 common barriers to coding in the open and how to overcome them.


3 GDS posters which say: Services Week 2019, 28 Jan to 1 Feb, will be taking place across the country. Get involved and contribute your event to the agenda

Details about our first Services Week were revealed. It will be a series of cross-government events looking at how we can work together to deliver end-to-end user-focused services.

We explained how we’re working on an innovation strategy for government, which will be published next year.

We published more advice on the accessibility regulations that came in this year, this time on website accessibility statements.

And we shared how we’ve changed and updated our GOV.UK content training to better support the ever growing number of government content designers.


GDS turns 7 on 8 December.

We rounded out the year with a podcast looking back at some of the things we achieved and our successes.

Sarah Stewart and Angus Montgomery recording the podcast


Subscribe for blog updates.

Original source – Government Digital Service

Chris stood in the foreground with mountains behind him

Chris on one of his climbing expeditions

Last year I raised £5732 for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). I’m a member of the DWP Digital TechSupport team in the North West and I’m now looking forward to my next fundraising expedition, climbing the highest peak in Africa – Kilimanjaro in January 2019.

Everest and beyond

I recently decided to tick off all those things I said I would do when I was younger. I have a degenerative disc problem with my back – so I decided to go for it.

My friend Darren asked me to travel to Peru to visit and climb Macchu Picchu in 2016. With no training it was a tough ask to reach the 3,000 meter summit. But spurred on, I then vowed to annually fulfil one of my dreams, and first on the list was Mount Everest.

I asked Darren and he was up for it. Darren’s a volunteer with the Blackpool RNLI lifeboat station, and as it’s also one of the official Civil Service charities, it felt like the right one for us to fundraise for.

To make it to Everest Base Camp meant we would have to walk for 17 days. To help us get in shape, I booked us onto a Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge in May 2017. Covering the three highest peaks in Yorkshire over a distance of 24.5 miles was a real test of our stamina. However, nothing can prepare you for the altitude trekking to Everest Base Camp, which we did later that year. It stands at 5,364 metres and only has half as much oxygen as there is in Blackpool!

Chris and Darren stood at Everest Base Camp

Chris and Darren at Everest Base Camp

So what do you do when you achieve a lifetime ambition? You go higher – and next on my list is Kilimanjaro one of the 6 summits of the world and almost another 500 metres higher than Everest Base Camp.

Raising money for RNLI

For years I have watched Darren disappear from birthday celebrations, weddings and nights out to run down Blackpool Promenade to the lifeboat station and risk his life to help people in difficulty around the Fylde coast.

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea through lifeboat search and rescue, lifeguards, water safety education and flood rescue. DWP is a big supporter of the Life Boat Fund, which was set up by civil servants more than 150 years ago to raise money to pay for a new lifeboat for the RNLI.

Having the idea to fundraise is one thing. Turning it into a reality is another.

Thankfully the Civil Service has a history of raising money for charity and the Civil Service still has its own Life Boat Fund, raising money to fund new life boats.

Dareen and Chris stood at a table with a bucket collection for the lifeboat fund

Chris and Darren collecting for the RNLI

With the help of my colleagues and the local life boat crew we did a mixture of bucket collections, dress down days and promotion of our Just Giving site to raise funds. I was blown away by the generosity of others.

About the Kilimanjaro climb

The trek up Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s seven summits, will take us 8 days, leaving the UK on 16 January 2019. It’s the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 5895 metres. We’ll reach the Uhuru summit with a final six-hour climb, setting off at midnight, through bitter cold and snow, hopefully arriving for the sunrise.

Photo of the mountain Kilimanjaro with trees in the foreground


The final day of ascent will be the crux of the trek. Climbing 1,200 metres that day will be the toughest thing I’ve ever attempted in my mountaineering experiences – we will be walking for 12-14 hours in the snow. It will be a huge physical and mental challenge. Many people fail to make it to the top and some return with frost bite, so it’s not going to be easy but knowing people have sponsored us will keep me pushing through the pain to succeed.

Watching the sun come up on Africa and witnessing the curvature of the Earth will be a fitting reward, however, the real winners will be the RNLI thanks to everyone who has donated to the cause.

You can find out more about what’s happening in DWP Digital by subscribing to this blog and following us on Twitter @DWPDigital. Visit our DWP Digital careers website and have a look at our LinkedIn page.


Original source – DWP Digital

By Francesca Attolino Al Forum Mondiale per la Democrazia del 2018, tenutosi a Strasburgo dal 19 al 21 novembre, ho incontrato una brillante giovane donna. È islandese, ha 24 anni, è una politica e sostiene di dover ringraziare le quote per la sua presenza in politica e al Forum. E lei era nel posto giusto,…

Original source – The Democratic Society

By Francesca Attolino At the World Forum for Democracy 2018, held in Strasbourg on November 19-21, I met a smart young woman. She is Icelandic, 24 years old, a politician, and she claims she has quotas to thank for her presence in politics and at the Forum. And she was in the right place, because…

Original source – The Democratic Society

Changing the way we see & approach transformation

Transformation is hard. It’s a big deal, with pressure to get things done right and done quickly. There’s a lot happening, and when you can’t see the edges of your work it’s hard to know where to start (and stop).

Change programmes and the people they involve can get lost in ‘the system’; drawn into big, cross-cutting issues.

It can help to break down these big, overwhelming challenges into smaller parts with achievable goals. Specificity isn’t the enemy of vision or strategy. By thinking about the specific parts of a system or service, and how they relate to one another, we can begin to understand the interactions between them and identify opportunities for change.

Start small, think big

At FutureGov, we’ve been using these lenses for service transformation to help organisations work through the challenges of breaking down transformation into smaller parts. Each lens is an area of focus which staff have agency over, allowing us to examine where problems and change opportunities are. When added together, they are the parts that make up a whole system.

Eight lenses for service transformation

These lenses support us in our mantra of ‘start small, think big’, because it’s easier to think about change to content or a change to policy, rather than immediately conceptualising what total change in all areas of a service might look like. For example, while a change to content alone won’t solve system level issues, it will begin a process of change that shifts practice and perception in other areas. It can be the first step towards the ever elusive momentum.

Putting it into practice

Over the past six months, I’ve led a review of adult services with North East Lincolnshire Council. Together, we’ve focussed on how the council can provide better, cheaper services that improve the experiences of residents. Throughout the project, how FutureGov approach change has been a recurring topic of conversation. These eight lenses for service transformation have proven instrumental in answering this question.

On many occasions, I’ve been lucky to have large groups of willing and determined senior leaders in the room, ready to make change happen, which has faced me with the interesting challenge of tempering the desire to try and solve everything at once.

Examples of focusing on different areas for change

By focussing on specific challenges, starting small and thinking big, we’ve been able to test assumptions and build a platform for long-term change.

Skills & ways of working

It’s one of our core beliefs at FutureGov that we not only make change happen, but we make it happen in a sustainable way that supports people delivering better services. Throughout this project, we’ve focussed on supporting the team in North East Lincolnshire to build the skills needed to continue to solve big challenges, long after FutureGov has left.

Working together throughout the project in multidisciplinary teams, we’ve solidified a culture of working in the open. Through a mixture of “Lunch & Learn” sessions on agile project management, user research and service design, we’ve planted the seeds for the team to confidently continue improving services using new ways of working. Together, we’ve laid a solid foundation for the future.

User experience

Through user research, we’ve developed a clear picture of the way people in need experience support in adult services. Visually sharing the emotional impact of change for real people at key points in their journey, we were able to build empathy within the team to understand the experience of their residents doesn’t always align with their own professional experiences. It was a moment where it felt like a penny dropped. Everyone could suddenly see the system-wide impact of these individual changes. We’ve never looked back!


Our research uncovered that a lack of data sharing between commissioners and providers was having a negative impact on the experience of service users. It meant that they have to repeat themselves, and are tired of telling their story more than once. To address this, we’ve explored different ways of capturing and sharing data through prototypes. Our hypothesis was that by building consent into the referral process for services early, we could minimise the number of times people have to share their personal information. A mixture of paper and online prototyping meant we could see and measure the impact of this change on people and operational models. Our testing for consent revealed other issues related to data and technology, that are being fed into our roadmap for change.

Our clickable prototype for testing how consent is captured and shared


A lack of a shared vision has a negative impact on the ability of teams to work in a user-centred way. It means they struggle to work to outcomes rather than organisations. Together with North East Lincolnshire, we designed a prototype vision and set of keyword definitions. This prototype established a common language and perspective across health and social care. The teams will be testing and iterating on this over the coming weeks with key partners and service users, ultimately designing the key outcomes and metrics that support it. The potential impact of this at a system level is significant but was started by a much smaller action.

What’s next?

We’re in the process of developing a transformation roadmap for the future to help guide the Adult Services team. Through these activities, they can explore ways to improve user experience, their use of data, the content that is available to service users, and how they can make better decisions. Being able to demonstrate the value of individual ideas using these different lenses is right at the heart of this.

North East Lincolnshire Council now have the foundation to do the things right and with the right intentions, focused on users and starting small to make big, meaningful changes.

If FutureGov can help your organisation, please .

8 lenses for service transformation was originally published in FutureGov on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Original source – FutureGov

By Rachel Bruce, Policy Designer in Policy Lab

Last week Policy Lab facilitated three workshops (in London, York and Bristol) for the Innovation in Democracy programme. Run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), this programme will support 8-10 Local Authorities to run their own citizen assemblies, as well as sharing the learning more widely. Policy Lab’s workshops were designed to prepare the attendees – who numbered roughly 100 across the three days – for the practicalities of filling in the Expression of Interest form, as well as helping them to generate ideas for their citizens assemblies.

Bringing people together to co-design

I have just joined Policy Lab as a Policy Designer. I come straight from a Masters in Medical Anthropology, preceded by a professional background encompassing data analysis, research, product design and illustration. The London and York workshops were my first two days at Policy Lab. These workshops were the perfect introduction to the work of the team, not least because they represented a double-dose of innovation (being a new DCMS and MHCLG project facilitated by Policy Lab’s innovative design approach).

Throughout the workshops I joined attendees on their journey through sharing their hopes and fears for the project, to building empathy with key stakeholders, to identifying challenges and quick-fire solutions.

The murmur of approval in the room when attendees were asked ‘What’s the wrong solution?’ followed shortly after by ‘What’s the opposite of that?’ was palpable, and is testament to the way in which Policy Lab’s approaches can turn a problem on its head, and allows people to approach it from a different angle. The workshops were also filled with fun, creative techniques, high-quality graphics and lots of imagination – all key components, I am quickly learning, of a Policy Lab experience.

Surveying the evidence

As ever, in our commitment to open policy making, we have made the resources we designed for this project publicly available. The promise of making them available online was also a necessary protection against the frequent threat of resource theft (which we take as a big compliment)! We hope they will be useful for attendees to revisit, and for local authorities – who weren’t able to attend – to use in their own time. We have also put together a handy one-page guide for using the tools, so as to make them accessible for anyone else who is interested in citizens assemblies, or in the Lab approach more generally.

Most of all, we hope the resources can be used by citizens to co-design what they want out of citizen assemblies.

By Rachel Bruce, Policy Designer in Policy Lab

Some materials in use

Original source – Policy Lab

income generation advice for local government.jpg

the art of the budget possible and an offer of help…

by Eleri Salter

If you’ve got more budget for communications than you know what to do with next year – then read no further.

For everyone else working in local government, getting hold of bigger budgets for your campaigns at any point soon seems like a pipe dream.

But posting this on the day we get to celebrate the best in public-sector creativity (which often means being just as imaginative with resources) at the comms2point0 UnAwards 2018, the picture isn’t as bleak as we sometimes believe. Honestly.

At October’s LGComms Academy, I shared a few things I’ve done at Haringey Council to generate new sources of income from sponsorship and advertising – you can read a summary here – and was slightly overwhelmed by how much interest there was in what I had to say.

Untapped assets = new income

I spent the next few weeks having follow-up conversations with the people who got in touch after Comms Academy and the three most frequent statements they made about income generation to me were:

  1. We need help to understand our income potential

  2. We looked at income generation but haven’t been confident enough to take action

  3. We’re not aware of all the things we could do to raise income

Basically, local councils have many assets they could use commercially that just haven’t been tapped into.

Much-needed extra finance could be sitting in places like your digital, print and outdoor media. And advertisers want to be associated with socially responsible organisations like councils for a guaranteed ‘safe’ environment in which to showcase their brands (instead of rubbing up against dodgy content and fake news).

Free advice this way!

To support local government in making the most of their income-generating potential, I’m offering my time free to take you through what’s possible.

I can help prioritise what would work best for you and write up recommendations you can use in internal planning conversations. It won’t be a formal audit or consultation, just some pointers so you can get on top of your income potential and a simple plan to help you realise it.

CAN we help?

I have eight free sessions available for an income-generation appraisal between now and the end of January. Email me or if you like the idea and we can get a conversation in the diary.

Eleri Salter is commercial manager at the London Borough of Haringey and sales manager at CAN

image via Petras Gagilas

Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0


Seven delegates listen to presenters at the front of the room explaining how to participate in a Game Day scenario-based learning event.

Delegates at the AWS ‘game day’

At DWP Digital, we’re using public cloud-based services to support our hosting strategy in line with Government Digital Service’s (GDS) Cloud First Policy.

As a team, we’re always looking to expand our large-scale cloud capability and develop our skills. We do this by attending a wide range of events and developing our learning on programs such as Docker and Kubernetes.

One of the most recent events we attended was an interactive, cross-government ‘game day’ in London hosted by a number of cloud market suppliers.

What are game days?

In a similar way to hackathons, game days are designed to provide participants with a hands-on, scenario-based learning experience. Attendees are tasked with running and operating live Amazon Web Services (AWS) resources.

Throughout the day, teams win points and face challenges ranging from configuration errors, traffic growth and threats that impact platform performance, which you have to adapt to and work around. The goal for each team during a game day event is to keep the infrastructure online, secure and optimise it using the services AWS has to offer.

Game days help bring individual unique skills and expertise to the table while learning about AWS best practices, new AWS services and AWS architecture patterns in a risk-free environment. The challenges teams face mirror those that you might expect in a real-world environment. They really keep you on your toes to find creative solutions and become inventive with problem solving.

Collaborating to take on a virtual challenge

On the day, we formed into 10 cross-government teams across 6 public sector departments and organisations including HM Revenue & Customs, Ministry of Justice, the Government Digital Service, the Met Office and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Each team took on a challenge to resolve a fictional company’s infrastructure issues. We competed against each other to accumulate points and the event was scored by the opportunity cost of running the infrastructure against orders processed.

The morning was spent trying to resolve an ‘S3 bucket issue’. These buckets are used to store data related to orders and it was our task to retrieve data from a missing bucket. After thorough investigation and reaching multiple dead-ends, we decided to switch off the infrastructure as it was costing money to run a system that was unable to produce orders. This tactical decision was the right one, because the missing bucket had actually been deleted. It was a good example of a situation where asking the right questions and involving your stakeholders can help remove obstacles.

The scores of the 10 teams participating in the AWS game day are presented on the screen.

The AWS game day score card

Next, we moved on to exercises to change the application front end and increase the amount of orders to understand if the system could withstand higher loads.

One of the exercises involved scaling an application which took 4 seconds to process each request. The application was bundled up in binary code. Frustratingly after multiple approaches we found ourselves at a dead end. One of the teams decompiled the application, taking it back to the source code which they were able to change. The efficiency of the application was dramatically increased, resulting in a negligible 100 milliseconds processing time for each request!

Thinking laterally and failing fast are key

We really enjoyed the game day. It was good fun using our technical skills and getting the chance to gain experience with AWS CloudFront, Amazon’s global Content Delivery Network, because this helped grow our capability in a safe environment.

But interestingly the main learning for us was not the technical management of infrastructure. Instead, the time taken to organize the team and establish collaborative ways of working proved equally pivotal. If we jumped into a task to without agreeing who was doing what, it wasn’t the right way to deliver the best results.

The main key to success during the game day lay in creatively developing solutions and thinking about how to apply new ideas. Experimenting by deviating from the standard ways of doing things helped us use the applications more efficiently and have some fun at the same time.

There were definitely frustrations that emerged if we couldn’t find a solution and reached a dead end. Although it’s uncomfortable to fail, it taught us that failing fast is a painful but necessary part of creative problem solving. It ultimately helps us reach better digital outcomes.

Roll on the next game day event!

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Original source – DWP Digital

How your MP voted… in your email inbox

Posted by

If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

Find out more about votes

Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

How to sign up for alerts

Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

Image: Luca Micheli

Original source – mySociety

The intersection of public policy, technology and society is complex. And yes, that’s something of an understatement. A mix of politics, law, design, architecture, usability, privacy, security, accessibility, technology and ethics (amongst many other factors) all interplay in often unpredictable ways when creating and providing public services – not least when they encounter real people.

And yet this complexity is rarely understood at the top levels of most organisations, leading to inadequate comprehension of the political, human and socioeconomic impacts of their decisions. In the same way, few technologists comprehend the potential political implications of the design decisions they make, or the damaging folly of the snake-oil claims of easy technological solutions to complex problems that inevitably turn out to be nothing of the kind.

Dr. Melvin Kranzberg’s laws include the much-quoted “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral“, but often missing its full context:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral … technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves.

Kranzberg, M. (1986). ‘Technology and History: Kranzberg’s Laws’, Technology and Culture vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 544-560. Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology

Policy decisions – and manifesto declarations, public expectations and legislation – are often made before the associated delivery project or programme is set in motion. And they usually operate almost exclusively within the existing departmental or agency silos of the current configuration of the public sector. So any genuine ability to meet the well-intended mantra of “user needs” has already been compromised (as Cassian Young and I have previously discussed in Escaping waterfall government and the myth of ‘digital transformation’).

Let’s consider a simplified example to illustrate what I mean: the adoption of a mandatory state-backed identity system. Whatever political choice is made – whether it’s one that requires all citizens to be enrolled, Napoleonic-style, on a central, state-mandated identity register; or one that requires citizens to enrol via commercial third parties; or something else – that policy decision effectively imposes a service design, leading to an architecture with specific privacy, security and ethical characteristics, and the role and relative power of the various actors – government, business and citizen – within it and the human consequences that result.

Political decisions, by definition, are all too often the result of ideology rather than an objective evaluation of evidence and the best ways of achieving a desired outcome. And while they may be made with the best of intentions, they bring with them a lot of baggage, a whole series of top-down constraints on how a particular outcome might be achieved.

Going back to our example, consider the upfront decision of the UK’s 2006 Identity Cards Act, which mandated the solution – plastic cards and a central database – in a piece of legislation. In doing so, it skipped the actual requirement (a desire for the state to require citizens to “prove who you are / prove you are entitled to something”); missed the opportunity to objectively explore alternative options and whether they might achieve better policy outcomes more effectively; and rushed into an arbitrary choice of solution.

The 2006 Identity Cards Act and resulting programme is far from being the exception. It’s part of a well-documented portfolio of so-called failed “technology projects” that have often brought delays, overspends and even raw human misery – together with long, and rightly critical, National Audit Office reports. These “technology projects” are basically the by-product of top-down political choices, imbued with all the same conscious and unconscious ideological biases as the decisions that created them, and with inadequate feedback mechanisms to iterate and refine the approach as the programmes proceed.

The consequences of these political decisions ripple into every corner of the resultant delivery programmes, constraining areas such as discovery, service design, procurement, architecture and privacy and security. The result is all too often not only failed outcomes, with the promised political objective never or only poorly achieved, but also an erosion of trust in the political system and those who continue to promise simple soundbite solutions to complex problems. 

Policymaking generally fails to comprehend Kranzberg’s thirty-two year old observation, ignores the essential role of continuous feedback and improvement, and forgets the value of the type of iterative, experimental and methodical approach that the late Carl Sagan outlined:

“In almost all … cases, adequate control experiments are not performed, or variables are insufficiently separated. Nevertheless, to a certain and often useful degree, policy ideas can be tested. The great waste would be to ignore the results of social experiments because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable … Since there is no deductive theory of social organisation, our only recourse is scientific experiment – trying out sometimes on small scales (community, city, and state level, say) a wide range of alternatives.”

The Demon-Haunted World. Science as a candle in the dark. Carl Sagan. Ballantine Books. 1996

When people suggest for example – often with the best of intentions – ideas such as consolidating welfare processes and rules into a single unified model, or propose changes to the balance of nationalisation / regulation / privatisation, or ID Cards, or a need for data portability or data sharing, they are making implicit assumptions about policy options and the technical architecture, service design and privacy and security issues that flow.

It would be far better to prevent this repeated rush into failed “solutions” by instead teasing apart and testing and refining ideas and options, rather than starting from the wrong place with potentially humiliating or degrading human consequences. But often conscious, or unconscious, ideological or technical bias makes us blind to exploring better ways of achieving a desired outcome.

We need a way of enabling more time to be spent on modelling and testing outcomes and how best they might be achieved – including human consequences, public policy, service design, architecture, privacy and security (and indeed other areas, such as ethics) – if we are going to move away from the broken cycle of simplistic promises and resulting failed programmes that continue to litter the landscape.

Whether our political system, and the understanding of the role and impact of technology within it, can evolve to the level of maturity required however remains to be seen. But Sagan makes a good case for why it’s so important we try: 

“The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t confirm to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

The Demon-Haunted World. Science as a candle in the dark. Carl Sagan. Ballantine Books. 1996

Original source – new tech observations from a UK perspective (ntouk)