LSST students speak with the British Government’s digital estate – GOV.UK – about power, progress and potential amid the pandemic
By Kunal Chan Mehta | Article Date: 29 January 2021
Moving from a world orientated around persuasion to one around usability, GOV.UK was built to help transmute how people interact with the British government. As the single source of truth for government services, GOV.UK makes these services quick to find, easy to understand and simple to use. Several LSST students were given an exceptional and extraordinary opportunity to speak with Jen Allum, the Head of GOV.UK, about the power, progress and potential of the digital estate amid the pandemic.
LSST student interviewers: Irina Barariu [IB], LSST’s Student Union President, Carmen Gheorghiu [CG], Business Management student (Aston campus) and Daniel Ivan [DI], Business Management student (Aston campus).
1. [IB] GOV.UK is a repurpose of much of the government’s digital estate but since its inception in 2012, has the estate simply become too big, too fast?
GOV.UK isn’t finished, and never will be. It’s constantly being updated and improved in response to feedback and changing circumstances.
GOV.UK was designed and is constantly being developed using a user first approach. The design process is iterative.
To meet changing user expectations, and enable the level of public services the government is committed to, GOV.UK is shifting from providing discrete transactional services to joined up, personalised and proactive services.
2. [IB] In what way is GOV.UK saving money for the taxpayer?
In 2012, GDS took nearly 2,000 government websites and turned them into a single publishing platform for government. Together with other departments and agencies, work began to remove content that nobody needed and saved the taxpayer over £60 million in year on year savings.
The single domain for government was created to provide value to the taxpayer by reducing the need to learn government structures and providing a consistent user experience with access to joined-up government services. GOV.UK delivers savings to government through the avoided costs to departments of building and running individual websites.
Of course, this is a conservative and financial assessment of GOV.UK’s value, and we are increasingly looking at additional measures of value – like trust – to see how we are performing there too.
3. [IB] In 2012, the government stated that Digital by Default aims to transform online public services, to be better and cheaper for taxpayers – and more effective and efficient for the government. Has this been successfully achieved through GOV.UK?
GOV.UK’s mission is to enable the UK government to provide world class public services, serving the right things to the right people at the right time. Since 2012, the site has consolidated information and access to over 200 services for 43 departments and 403 public agencies and public bodies. GOV.UK allows users to interact with government without the structures within it, with an average of over 77 million page views every week.
Over the past three years, GOV.UK has been working on specific, high priority content and products to support citizens and businesses through the events around Brexit and the Transition Period. We’ve worked with the rest of the government to develop tailored new services and guidance for users, including the ‘Transition Checker’ tool, and step by step guides for importing from and exporting to Europe.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve worked hard to provide a secure, stable and trusted platform for government, to provide citizens with the support they need. We’ve built a new COVID-19 landing page, bringing together information, signposting users to key guidance, highlighting daily announcements, and live streaming press conferences. We’ve received praise from parliament and the public for our work throughout the pandemic, and won the 2020 Horace Hockley Award for technical communication.
More recently, we’ve begun looking at improving different user journeys across GOV.UK, including for starting a new business. We’re bringing together what we’ve learnt over the last year, to support users over time, making mandatory tasks simple and the help available to them clear.
4. [CG] When carrying out this trial, how did you consider the opinions of the citizens? Have you pre-surveyed for this purpose?
This trial, like all services on GOV.UK, has been designed by testing prototypes with real users. Before we started developing the trial, we developed prototypes to test with users to try and understand more about how they felt about government accounts generally, and how they would respond to an account on the Transition checker. The findings from this research informed the design of the trial.
We tried to test the prototypes with a range of different users, with a range of different jobs and lifestyles, to try and learn as much as possible about how different users would respond to an account. Now that the trial is live, we are continuing to do user testing and users can also leave feedback in the account. We will be analysing this feedback and the user testing results to inform how we iterate the trial account, and draw conclusions from the trial.
5. [CG] In a rapidly developing digital world and with millions of daily users, how is personal information stored securely on the GOV.UK website?
GDS uses insights from anonymised data on how users are interacting with GOV.UK to help inform policy across government, and to improve the website itself.
GDS takes the privacy of citizens’ data extremely seriously, and has a process in place to remove personal information from analytics data before any actual analysis takes place. We follow the UK’s data protection regime and Government’s Data Ethics Framework and we work closely with data protection and privacy experts across government.
GOV.UK’s collection and use of data has oversight from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and we work closely with ICO to ensure that our use of data remains compliant with the Data Protection Act (2018) (the UK’s implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)) and transparent.
6. [CG] What will you do if the trial is a success?
The purpose of the trial is to learn more about how users feel and interact with an account on GOV.UK, rather than to hit specific targets for example for usage or sign-ups. It will enable us to test assumptions on attitudes about privacy, consent and personalisation; and it will enable us to learn more about the technical and operational aspects of building and managing an account. The success of the trial will be in generating insights that can inform future design decisions.
7. [DI] During the initial GOV.UK launch, members of the public could suggest corrections and improvements via GitHub (a code collaboration programme) – is this ongoing or will this be replaced?
GOV.UK continues to use GitHub for storing and sharing code. The vast majority of all GOV.UK’s source code (where not sensitive) is open for any member of the public to review and suggest changes and improvements. For example, here is a change submitted by a member of the public to our COVID postcode lookup tool: https://github.com/alphagov/collections/pull/2007
8. [DI] Do you cooperate with the European Data Protection Supervisor or do you provide an independent method for the internal application of such data protection rules?
GOV.UK is managed by GDS which is part of the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is registered in the UK as a data controller and is therefore required to comply with all applicable data protection legislation such as the UK Data Protection Act 2018 and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As a UK-based data controller, we are regulated by the UK’s data protection supervisory authority – the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Our approach to data protection is informed by our legal obligations and our interactions with the ICO but is ultimately determined by an internal team of data protection specialists including our Data Protection Officer (DPO).
9. [DI] It is more than evident that, apart from the colossal efforts, building GOV.UK consumed vast resources. What were the costs of creating this website and how long did it take to complete this project?
GOV.UK is the single source of truth for government services and information online. It is being continuously updated and improved, and therefore its development is ongoing. While the original GOV.UK platform was created in under a year back in 2012, it has continued to be expanded since to eventually consolidate nearly 2,000 government websites, and around 300 departments/agencies, onto a single site.
This has meant significant efficiencies for government, and has made navigating government services and guidance online simpler and more intuitive for users. GOV.UK has saved taxpayers over £60m per year, when compared with the services it replaces, and substantial further savings are achieved as more departments and agencies move on to the platform.
10. [DI] The GOV.UK website is a strong example for countries where leadership is particularly inadequately organised and less interested in the needs and struggles of citizens. From your own experience, what advice can you give such countries to potentially reduce any bureaucracy?
GDS International, the team leading international engagements, work with international governments to share insights and expertise as appropriate. This includes highlighting the importance of user-centred design; robust governance mechanisms; and agile methodologies.
GOV.UK takes a user-first approach – we are consistently developing GOV.UK in response to user feedback. We run regular user research sessions to develop and iterate products on GOV.UK, engage with colleagues across government and industry leaders. GOV.UK often engages with international governments to share insights and expertise, as appropriate.
Acknowledgements: LSST and its Student Union wish to full-heartedly thank Jen Allum, Julia Lupez MP and their colleagues for their work on GOV.UK and for their generous support, inspiration and expertise provided for this article.
For more information on how GOV.UK is evolving visit:
● GDS Blog
GOV.UK (2021). Interviewed by The Student Union for London School of Science and Technology, 29 January. Available at: www.lsst.ac/news/govuk [date accessed online].
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