UK government sets up user research lab to create less “arrogant” digital services

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 31, 2014
The Government Digital Service has also revealed that it has played a role in hiring over 100 digital experts into government over the last year – firming up its relevance in Whitehall.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY - The Government Digital Service has set up a user research lab to create digital services that suit the needs of British citizens. It has also outlined a number of new digital hires [/sws_grey_box]

The UK Government Digital Service is attempting to make the public sector less arrogant in how it approaches the delivery of digital services, by creating a

user research lab that aims to 'empathise' with British citizens and their online needs.

However, while GDS may be trying to be modest in its delivery of services, it has also taken the opportunity to boast about its role in the hiring of digital experts across Whitehall departments over the past year – which will serve as a nice reminder of the department's importance to all political parties in the run up to the general election next year.

GDS has always had a focus on designing around user needs, largely by following its set of 10 design principles which have been developed since the department launched back in 2011. However, it is now taking this further with its user research lab, where state of the art technical equipment is being used to hone in on how people really want to use the government's online services.

At present the government's all-important 'exemplar' services are the focus of the lab, which includes things such as accessing online driving and road tax records.

For example, the London-based lab is being used to record facial expressions to see if someone is distressed or excited, track eye movements on the screen, monitor when someone moves and clicks their mouse cursor, with interviews and workshops also being carried out to find out about habits, lifestyles and thought patterns.

In other words, no assumptions are being made and GDS is using hard data to, as it keeps saying, 'empathise' with the user. Several government research teams that have existing contracts with external rented labs will now move their projects to the GDS lab, which it estimates will be 25 percent cheaper for taxpayers.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude provided the usual soundbite about cheaper and more effective online services. He said:

You can bank online at midnight and shop from your bedroom so people rightly expect high-quality digital services from government. That’s why we built the award-winning GOV.UK – a simpler, faster and cheaper set for government information and services – and we will continue to innovate with this new digital lab.

Our digital-by-default programme will save taxpayers, businesses and the public billions over the next decade and it’s all part of this government’s long-term economic plan.

However, Mike Bracken, head of GDS, gave a more interesting interview in the Telegraph this week, where he gave a bit more detail about the lab and how its going to be used by Whitehall departments. Bracken made a point of outlining how this is about making government less 'top down' in its approach to services and getting rid of excessive public sector bureaucracy (whether or not everyone is on board with this, is another matter).

mike bracken
He said that the research lab has allowed GDS to discover that, for example, a significant proportion of applications for carer's allowance are filed between 1am and 2am, as this is the only time of day that the people involved have time to fill in a form. Bracken said:

The vast majority of transactions that people do with government are pretty anodyne – getting a license, having a form signed. They’re not in any way secret or financial, they’re just procedural.

And yet we’ve made it so that every bit of government does it in its own way, which is so insanely arrogant. It’s basically saying, you’ve got to learn how we’ve set ourselves up in order to deal with us; and by the way you pay for us. It’s crazy.

These are services that only the state provides – we're the only game in town – so we owe it people to make them accessible and digital. In the past we’ve acted as a monopolist. We’ve said, our office is open from 11 til 2, come and get a form, we might post it to you if you’re lucky. We’ve not acted in an empathetic way.

However, Bracken also hints that these changes not doubt come up against the challenge of changing government culture. He notes:

And by the way, finding it out makes our lives easier, because it’s cheaper, there’s less waste, there’s less friction in the system. It’s about a change of attitude and mindset.

The government has had some success in the past with these research labs, however. Back in 2010 it set up what was seen as a very experimental behavioural insights team, or as it became more commonly known – the nudge team. This was the first of its kind and many weren't sure how it would fare in a system that thrives on sticking to the path most trodden.

However, a few years on and the nudge team is now selling its services to the public and private sector and has been replicated by governments elsewhere. Examples of its successes include bringing forward the payment of £30 million a year in income tax by introducing new reminder letters that informed people that most of their neighbours had already paid and recruiting 100,000 more people each year to carry organ donor cards, by introducing a slogan online when applying for a new tax disc that reads - “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one?”.

The nudge group is all about making small changes to services that bring a big impact – changes that appeal to the user. GDS' new research lab will no doubt be looking for similar success stories a couple of years down the line, with its services potentially being sold across the public and private sector.

In other news, GDS has also announced that it has played a significant role in boosting Whitehall's skills over the past year with 100 new digital and technology experts hired (mostly from the private sector). GDS makes a point of highlighting that it is leading the ongoing recruitment of specialist skills into the civil service – something that the government has lacked in the past and is increasingly facing criticism for.

One of the most notable appointments is former Credit Suisse CIO, Magnus Falk, who will take up his role as the government's new Deputy CTO, reporting to government CTO Liam Maxwell. Other recruits include:

  • Ministry of Justice Ian Sayer, who was Global at Electrolux
  • Government Chief Technical Architect Kevin Humphries, former CTA at Qatarlyst
  • HM Revenue & Customs Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley, formerly CIO of Vodafone
  • Ministry of Justice CDO Paul Shetler, who previously co-founded 2 start-ups and was CTO for Banking at Oracle
  • Office for National Statistics Deputy Director for Digital Publishing Laura Dewis, who was Head of Online Commissioning at The Open University
  • Jacqueline Steed, former Managing Director and CIO for BT Wholesale, who starts as CDO at the Student Loan Company (SLC) next week
  • Department for Work and Pensions CDO Kevin Cunnington, who was previously Global Head of Online for Vodafone


Bracken pointed out that the work of GDS and its transformation of services in government has made attracting people for jobs possible. He said:


The transformation of government digital services, and the technology that underpins it, is a compelling proposition. By creating an environment in which this kind of change can happen, government is now able to attract technical experts who want to do work that matters.


The evolution of GDS to include a world-class user research lab is a natural one. It is something the private sector is doing, particularly in the retail sector, and GDS is sticking to its commitment on creating digital services that work for the people that use them, rather than creating services that work for government. Expanding its footprint in Whitehall will also do it no harm in the run up to the general election next year.

Although the Labour party has said that it will keep GDS and build on its work if it wins a majority in the votes next year, Bracken and his team want to continue to make sure that their existence is justified and they are on the right track with their work – which is no doubt part of the reason behind the skills press release that was put out at the tail end of last week.

Government departments have always struggled to hire strong talent from the private sector, something that it so desperately needs – so if GDS can prove that it has this ability, it certainly puts it in a certain position of power if there is a leadership change in 2015.

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