Why Doesn’t Your Government Run Like This?

Imagine your company got a 90% approval rating on its latest app. You’d be rich, right? Now imagine that your government got a 90% approval rating on anything, like passport approval or paying a parking violation or … well, anything.

No, really. Stop laughing.

In the UK, a slew of changes to how technology is delivered has upended decades of dissatisfaction with government services. So much so, in fact, that one recent service upgrade netted a 90% approval rating from citizens.

What’s going on?

Putting Citizens First

Mike Bracken (@MTBracken), executive director of the UK’s Government Digital Service, is a man on a mission, and that mission is to revolutionize how the UK government serves its citizens. After joining the UK’s Cabinet Office in July 2011, Bracken created the GDS and launched an all-out assault on IT incompetency.


Mike Bracken, executive directly of the UK Government Digital Service

His first big move was to change the definition of service. As he tells McKinsey & Co.:

Government around the world is pretty good at thinking about its own needs. Government puts its own needs first—they often put their political needs followed by the policy needs. The actual machine of government comes second. The third need then generally becomes the system needs, so the IT or whatever system’s driving it. And then out of those four, the user comes a poor fourth, really.

So Bracken “inverted that,” creating a set of Design Principles that govern how the UK thinks about citizen services:

1. Start with needs (user needs, not government needs)
2. Do less
3. Design with data
4. Do the hard work to make it simple
5. Iterate. Then iterate again
6. Build for inclusion
7. Understand context
8. Build digital services, not websites
9. Be consistent, not uniform
10. Make things open: it makes things better

Such design principles would serve any organization well. Now imagine bumping into a government worker who has incorporated these principles into her DNA. Amazing. 

Opening And Sharing

One of the most impressive things I’ve seen Bracken and his team do, however, is to inculcate a culture of sharing through GDS. In a recent blog post, Bracken describes how two organizations ended up sharing code to solve a common problem:

Early on in the project, the Registered Traveller team found they needed software to help them work out what all the different possible visa documents are—a big task. Thankfully, the same problem had already been solved by another team in the Home Office working on another exemplar project. The Visit Visa team built a product catalogue to help make sense of it all, and shared their work on GitHub…. So even at that early stage, the Registered Traveller team was able to make use of the Visit Visa team’s code, saving themselves considerable time and effort and ensuring their own work didn’t get held up.

GDS isn’t alone in turning to GitHub. As recently reported, more than 10,000 government users are active on GitHub today, with an ever growing number of code repositories residing on the popular service:


Credit: GitHub

But Bracken’s UK team is pushing this sharing agenda much more actively than most, and to good effect. Even as President Obama’s Healthcare.gov was melting down, the UK’s gov.uk was scaling to meet user needs without a hitch.

Not because it was designed to scale perfectly from the start in a traditional waterfall development process—but rather because Bracken had infused the UK government with an agile development process that enabled them to iterate toward a scalable model. Gov.uk launched without major issues.

Why Can’t Your Company Operate Like This?

Most governments struggle to function this efficiently. But then, so do most enterprises. The reason is that both tend to put user needs second to organization needs, and both struggle to share. 

On this last point, Bracken concludes, 

If one team shares code, another team benefits. Today it’s a couple of teams in the Home Office, tomorrow it might be a few more in other departments. Imagine how much better public services will be when this becomes the default behaviour across government. That’s what we’re aiming at.

Or imagine how much better your company would be. It all starts with the right principles.

Lead image by Michael D. Beckwith

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