The Government Digital Service has been one of the great design success stories of recent times. The website, winner of the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award in 2013, has been held up as proof of the value that good design can bring to our most important organisations. And thanks to an open, sharing approach to its principles and methods, the site has had a big influence on other governments around the world.

Much of the original management team who built the foundations of the GDS have since left Government but the work is far from over. Instead, the GDS is embarking on the next phase of its mission of ‘transforming the relationship between citizen and state’.

After establishing the principles of what good design in Government looks like, and delivering major projects like and Digital Marketplace, which helps those in the public sector find suppliers or resources for digital products, the GDS is now concentrating on delivering services. “The work we’ve done to date is just the beginning. As Government, we’ve ‘digitised’ a lot of transactions but for the most part the fundamental structure – a 19th century model based on ‘paper factories’ – remains the same. What we need now is a radical change in the way we deliver public services, designed for the internet.

“That’s what I’m here to do,” says Lou Downe, who was appointed head of design for the UK Government in October 2015. “What we did really early on was to establish principles of what design was in Government and how a consistent experience should look and feel for users. What we need to do now is to address the massive challenge of services – the functional problems.”

Like many service designers, Downe is a convert to the discipline, having recognised the need for it while in another role. Up until 2011, they were a producer at the Tate, working on the digital elements of exhibitions – “everything that wasn’t an artwork” as they describe it. “We were producing a mobile tour of an exhibition and I went to check that everything in the gallery was OK. Then I realised there was sign on the gallery wall saying ‘please don’t use your mobile phone’! Nobody had thought of the entire experience of going to an exhibition, no-one had designed all those as one thing.” After similar experiences in other contexts, Downe says they began searching for a way to address such issues from beginning to end. “I thought ‘there must be a thing for this’. Turns out there was – service design.”

After spells at the agencies Seren and Engine where they specialised in the design of large, recently privatised utilities like health, telecommunications, energy and finance, Downe joined the GDS in 2014 to ‘introduce service design to government’. Their first year was spent helping the DVLA to transform its services then moved on to become head of service design, building a team within the GDS working on a variety of new, user focussed services from ‘importing and exporting goods’ to ‘arriving and staying in the UK’. They now lead a team of 300 designers both at the GDS and across government.

“Most of what we do is service redesign not the initiation of completely new services,” Downe says. They liken the role of their team to that of archaeologists –  “a service may have been created 50 years ago, the people who created it are probably not around anymore and we have to work out what user need that service is fulfilling and if it is doing it in a good way,” Downe says.

Infographic that breaks down the usage of the website
Infographic that breaks down the usage of the website

That ‘discovery phase’ on a project “involves a multidisciplinary team working with users to research the scale of a problem they want to fix.” The team will work to create an ‘alpha’ version of the redesigned service for testing. That is then developed into a ‘beta’ of more production ready code, which becomes the live version.

As well as their own projects, GDS also plays a supporting role for all of the designers in Government and the ten different heads of design, providing advice and guidance.

“We also operate a bit like a university in that people have their own pet ideas and interests and they are free to follow those and start project teams and pieces of work themselves,” Downe says. “For example, at the moment we are looking at the service and graphic design of print and post – when and where do you send a letter? What should it look like? That came about because of the interest of a few designers here who wanted to tackle that.”

That inquisitiveness is one of the qualities that, Downe says, makes the GDS different to other civil service departments. “The thing about leading a team of designers is that their job is always to question and sometimes that can cause conflict in a team. So a lot of what I do is making space for that to be OK, to support people to be able ask questions.” That doesn’t always make GDS designers popular: in fact, Downe says, they get worried if “people say one of our designers is really nice and does everything asked of them!” Their role is not to make people feel good about what they are doing, but to question everything.

Screenshot of the DVLA website
Screenshot of the DVLA website

We often hear creative leaders talk about the importance of allowing people to fail – how is that possible in such a vital area as Government? “The whole idea of working in an agile way – as we do,” Downe says, “is that you give yourself space to be able to fail. The stakes are high when you are working on a live service and we have accountability to provide 100% service 100% of the time, so we like to do our failure before it has an effect on the user. The reality is that a lot of services are failing very slowly but in a quiet way – where people are not able to make it from the start of a service to the end. Those long, quiet failures are what we have to watch out for.”

The GDS’s multidisciplinary teams include ‘product owners’ and usually a mix of interaction, service, graphic and content designers (the latter being mainly writers and editors). “They will have daily stand-ups and twice weekly ‘sprint’ planning meetings – all the basic good practices of agile stuff. Most of that takes away the anxiety of deadlines: if a deadline can’t be met by a team, it was never a good deadline in the first place!”

Downe’s team have weekly design meetings at 11am on a Friday. Two people will always do a show and tell of what they are working on: “It’s a crit session,” Downe says, “An environment where it’s OK to say ‘I’m not sure why you did that’. It’s important to feel like one design team, to spend time together talking about what we are doing.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 17.20.19
Image from the GDS Flickr stream

The team also regularly posts work to the Hackpad collaboration site. “Our job is to facilitate other people to make things better,” says Downe, “so we put all of our design patterns [assets, tools or templates that can be applied in multiple scenarios] on Hackpad for designers to be able to contribute to and discuss in the open. The GDS site has over 900 members – it’s live policy being written in the open, with guidance on everything from content advice on say, how and when you ask a question on sex and gender, to which services need that question and which don’t, to basic graphic design assets, to code you can use to put that in your service. So there is a full stack of the information people need.”

Downe says they have a “definite preference for the types of designers we have here – people who are very critical of their own work, always asking questions, who will go and find problem and will fix it without waiting to be given work, who work really quickly and are very open about their work.” They also favour “extreme specialists” over all-rounders and “people who get up in the morning and get very excited about coming to work on a black and white website and tackle bigger problems!”

Image from the GDS Flickr stream
Image from the GDS Flickr stream

Working on Government, though very fulfilling, is a very different proposition to working in an agency or studio, Downe says. “The practice of designing something inside of an organisation is so fundamentally different that a lot of the skills I had prior to coming into government are not that useful. You must never underestimate the fact that the vast majority of the Civil Service will already have had your idea at least a hundred times. The fact that it hasn’t worked is not because they didn’t try but because it’s really hard. You have to be really determined and resilient to do this job. I’m very mindful of the fact that a lot of people really want to do a good job and your role is to help them and do it in a nice way that doesn’t lead people to think that designers are table-tipping divas. I think of designers like doctors: your job isn’t to give people what they want but what they need and sometimes that’s an uncomfortable process.”;