Marks out of ten – how are we doing after a decade of public digital transformation?

A view from a window with the word "Users" on the window in big black writing. Below the word, a black line leads to a rectangular box on the window, and through the box can be seen a group of people holding flags and banners

Matt Jukes has posted a provocation on the tenth anniversary of his first role in a user-centred, agile digital government team. I realise that I too recently passed that milestone. There’s even a video in which you might glimpse a 10-years-younger me pointing at PostIt notes during the alpha of the service manager induction programme, which I was privileged to produce in my own first assignment for the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Readers of my weeknotes will know that I’m now deeply wrapped up in the work of urgent and emergency care and the creation of a new national organisation for the NHS. (As always, this blog represents my own views, and not necessarily those of my employer.) I thought it might be time to take a broader look at what’s changed and what’s still to do in the wider domain of UK public sector transformation of which I’m still proud to play a part.

Casting around for some prompts for my thinking about this, I alighted on the 7 lenses of transformation, published by GDS and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in 2018, roughly the midpoint in our journey. You may like them or loathe them; I’m on the fence about the 7 lenses, but they have their uses. As the guidance says, they can serve as a health check to establish how we are doing, what we are missing, and what we need to do next. For each lens, I’ll give marks out of 10 and explain my reasons why.

At the end, there’s a bonus reflection on the environment in which so much of this agenda has been achieved, but also so much still for us to do. Would we have fared better in calmer waters, or did the stormy ABC of Austerity, Brexit and Covid help to propel change faster?

I write this all with trepidation. This is my perspective on how far we have travelled, written from a seat on the bus with an incomplete view, and seen not just through the 7 lenses but also through the dusty window of my own personal biases. Doubtless I’m missing good things in some places or taking too rosy a view in others. I’d love to know where others see things differently. In fairness to the current team leading from the centre, many of the points I’ve marked down are addressed in the most recent strategy, Transforming for a digital future: 2022 to 2025 roadmap for digital and data. I hope they succeed in the missions set out there.

In the meantime, this is my personal and opinionated review of how far we have come together. In the words of the Retrospective Prime Directive:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Let’s start the countdown.


Yesterday morning, in anticipation of a difficult Teams call, I pulled on my “Users First” t-shirt and strategically angled my laptop so the vinyl office wall lettering that reads “Design for everyone” would appear on camera just over my shoulder. What other public sector reform movement has its own fan-created merchandise?

The GDS vision gets top marks for clarity, a rare thing to achieve in a massive organisation with a sea of stakeholders to please. I know how much in the early days the team had to invest in relentless articulation of the vision. The stickers and sloganeering grated with some, but they worked. This focus and clarity genuinely reset conversations at the time, and can still be used to do the same today.

When the time comes to refresh or renew the vision, I hope we will build on the fundamental starting point of human-centricity at the heart of digital transformation, and make extensive use of the communications playbook that the GDS pioneers have gifted to the world.

If I have a quibble, it concerns what got lost in achieving that laser-like focus. For good reasons, the initial vision was transactional and centred on national government departments. 10 years later, for the most part the centre’s attention remains on transactional national services.

There comes a time when the vision has to expand to challenges in wider contexts, where simple catchphrases must give way to a little strategic ambiguity, and softer spaces where more people feel comfortable to figure things out for themselves. Has the clarity of the initial articulation – brutally effective as it was – subsequently held us back from making the leap to the next chapter?

Score for vision: 9/10


It seems churlish to give anything short of a 10 for an intervention which massively multiplied the interaction and service design capability of government. Whole new communities grew around content design and user research, both of which at one point were listed by LinkedIn among the fastest emerging jobs in the UK labour market. Designers, content people, and user researchers working in virtually all the big departments of state have made significant impact on the quality and efficiency of services.

The 2013 Design of the Year award for GOV.UK (A website? Winning design of the year?) has been vindicated by the way, a decade later, the design system continues to be the foundation for a growing number of services in the UK and around the world. Thanks to the launch team’s designerly alchemy, GOV.UK pages look and feel as fresh today as they did the day the site went live. GOV.UK services work without drama on whole categories of devices that didn’t exist when they were designed.

A couple of points dropped here though.

First, despite the golden age of user-centred design in the public sector, there is not much true co-design going on. We still design for users, rather than actively designing with people, especially with people at greatest risk of being excluded from access to services. In the next phase, I hope we’ll seriously consider ways of bringing users – whether citizens or frontline workers – into government’s creative and decision-making processes. We can learn from other sectors here, including charities and health service organisations who have developed ways to involve their staff and service users more deeply.

Second, despite attempts including mine to reframe the Discovery, Alpha, Beta, Live process as a continuous cycle, we never really escaped from its waterfall depiction. This problem became more pressing over the decade as more services exited the assessment funnel into live, and there was no template for design governance of continuous improvement. I hope any future iteration of the government service design process will deal with this.

Score for design: 8/10


The creation and embedding of the Digital, Data, and Technology (DDaT) profession, centred on a multidisciplinary team model, is perhaps the most significant driver of change in government. You can change the “machinery of government” by breaking up and combining agencies and departments like Lego bricks, but true transformation starts with the people who operate that machinery. We now have a generation of DDaT professionals who have experienced up to a decade of agile, multidisciplinary teamwork in pursuit of public service outcomes – and they’re not going back.

Digital government has also positively influenced the wider market for talent. Through commercial frameworks such as Digital Outcomes and Specialists, government has used its buying power to transform the digital capabilities of some of its biggest suppliers, so they too work in user-centred, agile ways, and develop their own people and teams along the lines of the DDaT framework. It’s sometimes sad to see pioneering digital small and medium-sized enterprises being gobbled up by big outsourcing and consultancy companies. But this consolidation shows that those bigger players got the message: they had to transform themselves to stay in the game. How might government repeat that in the next cycle of skills we need for the future?

The uncomfortable truth that made me mark this down is that many big organisations continue to be miserable places for digital specialists to work. The public sector is not alone in this but seems particularly prone to it. Battles to get and keep the tools they need to do their jobs have to be waged over and over again, every time a budget holder spies a way to cut IT costs by giving everyone in their department the same mediocre default. This month it’s Teams vs Slack, next month it’ll be something else. These penny-wise, pound-foolish insults, along with some of the other blockers I’ll document below, lead to burnout and staff turnover that we really cannot afford, given the size of the skills gap.

If we can crack some of those things, then government has so much going for it in becoming a truly great place for DDaT people to work.

That leads on to another opportunity to do more: growing our own talent through apprenticeships, trainee schemes, and career change for existing public sector workers. Some of the bigger departments have established good schemes. I am proud of my own roles in the GDS Academy and in promoting the NHS Digital graduate scheme. These types of initiatives can have a real long-term impact, but they require multi-year commitment, and seem especially vulnerable to de-funding just when they’re ready to scale up.

Score for people: 7/10


I used to look longingly (no, really) up at Leeds’ Quarry House, the massive post-modernist government office built in the early 1990s for the departments of health and social security. It seemed an impenetrable fortress for a service designer and product manager like me, wanting to make an impact at national scale on public services. But here I am, at the lofty heights of an NHS ESM1 pay grade, one of hundreds of digital specialists who have moved into quite senior roles in the public sector. That would not have been possible 10 years ago.

I have worked with and learned from some inspirational digital leaders along the way, people who really understood how to create the conditions for their teams to do their best work. However, this still seems quite hit and miss. When one of those leaders moves on, the gains made in their organisation can be quickly lost, because we have yet to make digital something that the whole leadership team understands and owns together.

In the words of Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office (NAO):

“Whilst digital leaders bring much needed expertise to the public sector, they often struggle to get the understanding and support they need from senior decision-makers, who lack knowledge in this area… Government must learn from past experience and better equip senior leaders if it is to improve its track record of delivering digital change.”

The latest strategy promises “Permanent Secretary leadership for the Digital agenda on a scale never seen before.” Here’s hoping that’s for real.

The upside for my score on the leadership lens is not because of the number of digital leaders who have attained positional authority but because there is a culture of questioning and user-centred leadership that permeates all levels of the digital profession. The stand-out example of this is the #OneTeamGov movement, in which policy and digital colleagues worked together to create “a global community of innovators focused on radical public sector reform through practical action”. No one is coming. It’s up to us.

Score for leadership: 7/10


What should planning look like in an organisation that has 10 years’ experience of agile delivery? I’d expect to see more of a focus on outcomes, more experiments and hypotheses, less false certainty, and fewer artificial milestones.

I’d also expect to see more product managers taking the lead in strategic decision-making for their departments. In 2013, product managers were common in the private sector but virtually non-existent in government. Now there are many more of them numerically, but I don’t get a sense that they’re flexing all the muscles they could in the public sector. If the unit of delivery is the multidisciplinary team, then the unit of planning should be too. Most departments are still a long way from that.

Part of the problem seems to be that over the years the Civil Service allowed planning to become synonymous with the project and programme management profession, whose practices then became baked into budgeting practices and delivery governance. Digital teams have often been able to get a grip on planning for the subset of departmental portfolio that they control. But they quickly hit the buffers when it comes to planning practices for work that goes wider than digital – which, once you’ve dealt with the website and a few obvious digital transactions, is most of the work of digital transformation.

There’s a glimmer of hope in the 2022 strategy which pledges: “All departments will, as a minimum, meet the definition of ‘good’ for product-centric organisational structures and agile ways of working when self-assessed against the new Digital, Data and Technology Functional Standard.” I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like, and critically how the other functional standards, especially Project Delivery, HR, and Finance, will also be brought up to date to match.

We can keep chipping away at this within our individual departments and arms-length bodies, but an administration that really wanted to unlock transformation might start by reimagining the spending review process with service strategies, product roadmaps, discoveries, epics and user stories as the currency for prioritisation.

Score for planning: 5/10


When I talk to public servants about their proudest achievements, they’re quite often on things where multiple departments had to work together, sometimes involving local government too. I experienced this myself on Covid Pass, where health, transport, Cabinet Office and Foreign Office all had a stake in a digital service to get international travel moving again. I also witnessed the awesome power of a civil service that can mobilise anything from queue marshalling to returned mail handling at ridiculously short notice.

But these collaborations remain the exception, rather than the norm, and even when delivering at pandemic pace, we occasionally ran into the niceties of how departments are meant to communicate with each other under Cabinet government. And that’s only collaboration within central government. The real prize must surely be services that join up across national and local, third sector and civil society.

After the initial rapid shock and awe of merging hundreds of websites into GOV.UK, I thought by now we’d be further forward with common components and enablers. Credit where it’s due to the teams on Pay and Notify, but what else? Real “government as a platform” would be more than a suite of shared services between central government departments. It would mean opening up the digital capability of the state, with appropriate safeguards, so that any citizen, administration, charity or business could build and connect services together, standing on the shoulders of government, but not needing to ask government for permission.

Score for collaboration: 4/10


Martha Lane Fox’s “revolution not evolution” paper recommended that the government’s CEO for Digital should have “absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spend.” From this flowed the digital spend controls regime, backed up by service assessments, a thoughtfully designed intervention to ensure that work received peer review from suitably qualified digital specialists at regular intervals throughout delivery.

The genius of the Service Standard at its introduction was that it changed the high score for digital assurance, away from tracking milestones without evidence of quality, and towards team behaviours, processes, and Showing the Thing. This is the literal meaning of the word “accountability”: for a team, led by a skilled and empowered service owner, to give an account of their work against the standard.

The GOV.UK page of Service Standard Reports makes interesting reading. 344 reports of assessments dating back to 2013. Of the services assessed, 44 did not meet the standard, and I know from teams in my own organisation that not meeting (never failing) the standard has consequences. I hope it’s only a temporary blip that the most recent published assessment is dated November 2022.

The reason I don’t feel able to score more highly on this lens is that the service assessment net catches only a fraction of the transformation activity that would benefit from this kind of accountability, and not always the most important activity at that. Smallish transactions get detailed scrutiny while far more consequential mega-decisions about platform and technology choices seem to sail under the radar.

Gareth Davies of the NAO again:

“There has been a consistent pattern of underperformance in delivering digital business change, often resulting from decisions on technology being taken too early, before the business problem is properly understood.”

In the future, how might we harness the power of changing the high score to influence change on the scale of whole service ecosystems and problem spaces, rather than just individual transactions?

Score for accountability: 4/10

Bonus reckon: the delivery environment

I don’t think any of us back in 2013 could have predicted how the following decade would play out. Born in the era of austerity, the digital transformation agenda has had to ride the waves of Brexit and the Covid pandemic. Take in three general elections and five prime ministers, that’s a lot of pivoting, even for the most adept of agilstas.

The counterfactual is how government would have fared in March 2020 if it had not been for the 7+ years of user-centred, agile transformation that led up to it. What would have happened when lockdown loomed if HMRC and DWP lacked the capability to rapidly turn round emergency changes to the tax and benefits systems? When it became imperative to prevent crowding in healthcare settings, how would we have enabled rapid triage of Covid symptoms at scale without 111 online, which passed its live assessment in September 2019 and by mid-March 2020 was used more than 950,000 times a day? Other countries faced the same challenges and managed with varying degrees of success, proportionate to their own levels of digital maturity. We proved that digital government can be really good in a crisis – as long as that crisis can be met with rapid research, development, and iteration of national transactional services.

What haven’t we focused on while we were dealing with all that other stuff? Are we set up robustly enough for sustained engagement around the outcomes people want and need from government in the places where they live, the promotion of good homes, jobs, and healthcare? As we face into the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous challenges of the next 10 years – be they disinformation at unprecedented scale, job displacement and reskilling, our aging population, decarbonisation, the consequences of climate change – let’s make sure we’re evolving the digital transformation and co-design capabilities we need at every level, and creating the organisational contexts for multidisciplinary teams to do their best work. We have lots to do.

5 thoughts on “Marks out of ten – how are we doing after a decade of public digital transformation?

  1. This is great – and I agree with pretty much all of them except the first. I’m not sure I could articulate the current GDS strategy and while I was a massive fan I think the ‘strategy is delivery’ era has left some legacy issues of its own.

    Last week in DC for the ‘Code for America Summit’ has reminded me how far we have come and how far ahead we still are compared to some places but I just hoped we’d be further along and it was less of a line-dance (two steps forward, one sideways, one back).

  2. Matt and Matt. This is awesome and reflects many of my own thoughts of late.
    The last ten years have seen phenomenal progress and so much to be proud of; let’s not forget that swathes of the civil service machine didn’t even understand the concept of a user ten years ago.
    But there is much left to do.
    1. The service standards are still relevant but as you describe, largely focussed on the delivery of citizen facing transactional services.
    2. Delivery teams in Gov are more mature now, and rightly trying to apply the same UCD principles to more discrete, specialist or business users. And the current standards don’t support this very well if applied dogmatically…
    3. Devolution of service standard assessments from CDDO to individual Departments is a double edged sword. On the one hand greater understanding of the culture a team may be working in (never underestimate!) but can lead to dogmatic application of the standards themselves, and the loss of what makes them so special; as a set of principles to celebrate achieving within, to something more attritional and tick boxy.

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