Ben Terrett on Making the U.K.'s One-Stop Government Website Cool

The chief designer at the U.K.’s one-stop government website on making it cool and easy to renew a passport
Sophie Davidson for Bloomberg Businessweek

I don’t know if you’ve ever used a government website, but typically no one wants to hang out there. No one’s ever paid a tax and then said, “Brilliant! What else can I pay while I’m here?” Before we came along, there were more than 1,700 different government websites in the U.K. Each one had a different look and feel. Each one had a different user experience. In each one the language was different.

Our goal at the Government Digital Service was to create one site and one user experience. And what that means is, if you schedule your driving test, that should be the same user experience as booking to go renew your passport. If you buy something, that should be the same all across the government. You shouldn’t have to learn how government works to be able to interact with government. You shouldn’t have to relearn how to do something every time you need to get something from government. Typically people visit government websites once or twice a year. We need to make it really simple and really obvious.

We exist because this lady, Martha Lane Fox, who is a dot-com entrepreneur in the U.K., was asked by the government three years ago to look at government digital stuff and write a report. [Lane Fox is currently chair of Go On UK, a coalition helping small businesses and individuals get online.] She wrote this brilliant report—brilliant partly because it’s really short: 10 pages long. It’s like a long letter. And also brilliant because she called it revolution, not evolution, and that’s kind of all you need to know. We can’t just change little bits. We kind of need a revolution.

The report was submitted to our minister, Francis Maude, and he just said, “Yes, do all that.” Normally what happens is people say, “Thanks very much. We’ll do a bit of that. We’ll do a bit of this. We’ll do another report about that.” He just went, “Yeah, go and do that.”

She set four really clear actions. One, create the Government Digital Service, something that sits centrally in government with the power to control user experience, and hire the talent to do it. We’re in London; there’s plenty of great digital talent. Two, fix publishing. By publishing we mostly mean information—government department websites and citizen and business information and how much tax do I have to pay, what age do my kids have to go to school—those kind of things. Three is fix transactions—renewing a permit or a license or paying a car tax or applying for a passport. And four is go wholesale. That’s harder to define, but on one hand it means make [application programming interfaces] so people can build stuff with government data and government services but also open up procurement to a wider selection of people than perhaps government was working with before. And that’s what we call digital transformation.

The report said there should be one government website, one place where all this stuff sits. One of the things we’re doing is highlighting 25 of the most important transactions in government, the big ones that will reach the most people and where we can have the most effect. An example is registering to vote, so if you move you can change your address and tell the government. That’s a very paper-based process at the moment. We’re designing that so you’ll be able to do that on your mobile. In fact, everything we do works on mobile. The site is fully responsive, and mobile traffic is soaring. Then there’s lasting power of attorney. Typically, if your parents become mentally ill or incapacitated, you may have to control their financial affairs. You can now apply to do this online.

So we’re using design to make decisions simpler. We can only do this by really focusing on user needs. We have these 10 design principles, but No. 1 is the most important: Figure out what the user is trying to do, and then design the service around that, not what the government process is. Make stuff, test stuff, relentlessly focus on users. The other design principle that’s really important: Make things open; it makes things better. I really passionately believe in being open, and partly because it’s public projects, public money. All the code is open. Other countries and other governments are starting to use it. New Zealand has basically taken the code, and they’re completely redoing their digital service, which is fantastic, and we encourage that.

We publish everything we do in something called the Government Service Design Manual. That is information like code, but it’s also got job descriptions in it. It’s got how to hire people. It’s got how to organize a team. Everything we do goes in, and it’s all in the open.

Of those 1,700 websites, there’s probably about 300 that still exist, that we’re slowly folding into the platform. We’re working on the 25 transactions. There are 772 transactions that we know about in government. I’m sure there are more that we don’t know about. We’ve still got a lot to do.

Sometimes this gets talked about as a design project, and it really isn’t. You can’t just be good at design; you have to be good at other things as well. And it’s not about changing government websites either. It’s much more about the service and making that end-to-end service user-focused. This is about changing government, changing the way government thinks—the digital transformation of government.

And why might this be interesting if you’re not a government? I think because the people I talk to—any large organization—is having these same problems. Any large organization is needing to transform themselves digitally. Any large organization is gummed up by process and procurement and other things, and they need to start rethinking their organization. There are lessons here.

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