Is the GDS a revolutionary success in online government - or a trendy disaster?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The Government Digital Service

The Register has run a pretty brutal hatchet job on the Government Digital Service, which has, up until now, received pretty much universal acclaim. This is from a section on the visa and immigration website transition:

Despite all its much-vaunted focus on users and usability, the transition is now widely acknowledged to have been a disaster. GDS didn’t seem to know who the users of government services actually are. Specifically, the “jean-wearing Post It Note wranglers” at GDS (as some government IT types see them) didn’t realise that visa applications come not just from tourists, but from universities and business applicants too. Businesses typically use specialist agencies to accelerate the bureaucratic process and these were scuppered by the transition.

This certainly has strong hints of the old-school IT establishment pushing back – and pushing back hard – on an approach that completely upturns their old assumptions. The “jean-wearing Post It Note wranglers” is a give-away. In other words, read the article with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The backlash

But it’s an interesting counter-point to the general praise that I’ve heard internationally for the work of the GDS. And certain statements made by GDS personnel are certainly wince-worthy:

increasingly of the view that domain expertise is a hinderance not an advantage when you’re doing service design & user research.— Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) February 13, 2015

The response to that tweet – which was quoted in the article – was strong enough that Reichelt felt compelled to blog to explain what she meant:

What is equally problematic, though, is a team full of people who have extensive experience working on the problem space they are just about to tackle.

Teams like this have so many shared mental models and assumptions about how things work, what things mean, where the constraints are, and how people think and work, and, despite their experience, not all of these things are right.

All of which is a fair point – but is not really what she said up front. Ah, the dangers of tweets.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.