In praise of…the Government Digital Service


And it’s not just because they took Puffles out for a pub lunch!

Puffles and I were in London (again) on Wednesday to meet some friends from the Government Digital Service. The wander round GovUK Towers reminded me of the feelings I had when I transferred from a now-closed regional office to a central policy team in Whitehall – it was a huge step-on from what I had become used to previously.

One of the first things I noticed was the familiarity several people had with Puffles – but not with me. A case of “Yeah…who’s that bloke with Puffles?” but in a working environment rather than in a small bar near Kings Cross. Which I actually quite like because every time it happens I’m reminded of the growing influence of how people are using social media, and because Puffles is a nice safe conversation starter.

How does the GDS differ from a normal Whitehall department?

The absence of ‘normal’ office clutter for a start. They do ‘hot desking’ – a concept that during my civil service days I was initially hostile to because I’d never seen it work in practice. But it worked here. The stereotype of the ‘office cubicle’ and meerkat-style behaviour (popping your head up from behind your workstation) is non-existent because everyone uses laptops and all of the barriers between people’s faces that you normally find in such environments are done away with.

They had big screens, but but screens that fed back useful realtime information that could help inform people on what they were doing. Not the bland corporate messages imploring people to work harder but, for example some metrics on say social media chatter on a given issue. Useful given that this was the run-up to the publication of the Open Data White Paper.

It was also very public to the teams and people working inside as to who was doing what judging by the writing on the wall – literally. Post-its, cards and whiteboards the size of which I’d never seen all made it clear what was the essential stuff and what was the ‘nice to do if we have time’ stuff. Who needs round-the-table weekly updates when it’s all there in front of you being updated as you go along?

Scrapping the hierarchies

The place was also noticeable in that it was very difficult to spot who was in charge of everything. But being a creative environment it didn’t need to have a big boss with his own office guarded by an ante-room with a couple of secretaries posted to guard access. There was something beautifully autonomous about the whole set up. You got the sense that everyone there was there on merit, that they were working hard but were also having fun at the same time. (I can’t comment whether this is actually the case, but that is the impression I got!)

This is different from the days of having signs hung from the ceiling saying ‘Here sits the director of…’ in times gone by. You may not have needed the physical walls but there was always a sense that the area of the office where some of the senior civil servants sat was ‘sterile ground’ for which people should not tread unless they had permission. It was less that way with those senior civil servants that chose to embed themselves in their teams – a set up that I think made them far more accessible and gave them the ‘soft intelligence’ to nip burgeoning problems in the bud. With those ones that I worked with who adopted the latter approach, they seemed to be far more effective in their jobs and at managing their teams because they put themselves at the heart of them rather than as a disinterested overseer.

Combining the best of the public and the private sector?

Again, this was also a feeling I got. Many of the people there could be earning far more in the private sector. Yet at the same time the sense of the public service ethos has not been lost on them. Combining this with a very clear set of projects to work on, sound leadership and a critical mass of people from within this field working on it seems to have gathered enough momentum to change things.

I’m sure many of the people in GDS will probably find themselves back in the private sector at some stage, but for now here are a series of projects they are working on that are open and transparent – and increase the openness and transparency of the whole of Whitehall and beyond. Combine this with creativity and flair that a number of people have brought to the operation and it all looks quite exciting.

You could say that the culture was partly reflected by the welcome Puffles received. I can imagine in other places Puffles would have been seen as a security threat & locked away.

Puffles at GovUK Towers – visiting the Government Digital Service in Holborn, London

At GovUK Towers they gave Puffles a desk and took a few pictures too! (This one by Emer Coleman). You can even see the **hugs** marks around Puffles’ neck!

Why the nice welcome for Puffles? Well apart from being a cute dragon fairy, Puffles (and I) are helping deliver on the whole social media and open data agenda. This is whether it’s in my own paid commissions on social media training or in the voluntary work that I do both off my own back and in collaboration with others – such as Teacambs. It all helps.

I’m not normally one to praise Francis Maude but he’s been one of the key drivers, along with Sir Bob Kerslake and Mike Bracken in the whole digital agenda. So credit where it’s due on this area of work. Interestingly, it may have been the splitting of the role of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service (along with the shrinking of the Department for Communities and Local Government) that may have freed up Sir Bob to help drive this from a civil service perspective. Would a civil service head have as much time to do so if he was also acting effectively as the Prime Minister’s chief civil service policy adviser? Possibly not.

In terms of the work that they have done, have a look at the new social media guidance for civil servants (esp if you are in the wider public sector as this is likely to come your way too), and the Open Data White Paper. With both of these documents, the processes by which these were put together and the way things are going to move forward for me are just as important as the content themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how they are delivered – not least because it’ll be a test of the new culture that the civil service (from the very top at least) says it wants to embrace.

If you are a serving civil servant – particularly in a policy field – you may want to get in touch with the GDS and arrange a visit. (Especially if you are a social and digital media type). What they have got there may pleasantly surprise you.


One thought on “In praise of…the Government Digital Service

  1. Having the fortune of being a civil servant it was indeed refreshing to step inside the GDS Offices. At the time there were some additions to the pictures on the wall as a result of the National Hack The Government Day that were most humorous, which were unfortunately removed on my second visit.

    I’ve also had the good fortune to work a couple of days a week over the last nine months in the Cabinet Office Transparency Team office, while they were busy drafting and editing contributions to the Open Data White Paper. This was as part of my work for the pan-governmental UK Location Programme, which gets a short mention in the paper so it’s good to know the depth of interest.

    The offices where I’m based most of the time in Defra are currently going through a refurbishment, I’m not sure if we’re end up with something like GDS but I can only hope. Maybe when were settled in Puffles would like to come for a visit.

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