GOV.UK beta: the beginning

This is the second blog post in a 4 part series on how GOV.UK and content design happened at Government Digital Service.

If you've come into the story at this point, read the first blog post on the history of content design in UK government.

Last week, I left you at the end of convergence at Directgov. Next came the alpha of GOV.UK. As I wasn’t on the alpha, I won’t comment on that. One of my team was, the truly brilliant @lisa_e_scott, but having lunch with her once a week was as close as I got.

If you want to know about the alpha, read this wrap up blog post by Tom Loosemore.

So I’ll start this story at the very beginning of the beta. However, I am condensing massive amounts of time here. I have to or you will be here for weeks. One day, I’ll write a book about it.

GOV.UK beta

I was talking to Tom Loosemore (who worked on the Revolution not Evolution report and was leading the GDS/single domain for government project) about the new content team I was meant to lead. The one thing I was really enthusiastic about, was that digital content isn’t just words. Government really needed to see that its content people could do so much more than they were being allowed to. Content people should only be limited to what the research shows is the best way for the target audience to consume that information. That could be a tool, calculator, calendar, video etc.

Content should mean content, not words.

Shift for government

It was right then that we decided on the term ‘content designer’ for the British government.

The ‘design’ bit of it was the important bit. Previously, government confined most of its editors to words only. (To be fair, the tech we had totally supported this way of working.)

Now we were using more data and evidence, defining and working to user needs, defining, testing and iterating formats. This iterative way of working was more like a design process, than the content process government was used to. The way the content was set out, the way content and design worked together on call-outs and action elements etc; we were changing the whole way we worked, from top to bottom.

Using a new title was very deliberate. It was to show a shift.

To be perfectly honest, a lot of the departments were sniggering up their sleeves at our new title.

There was a lot of ‘they are calling themselves what now?!’

That was the idea though. (The questioning, not the sniggering.)

It opened up the conversation about what we were actually doing and how different it was to the past.

The conversation was an important one in government at the time. We needed to move the civil service from publishing what government wanted to say to what citizens needed to read. It was a different job.

User needs

There’s already posts about how we worked on user needs for the beta and I don’t want to duplicate them. Instead read this blog post, Introducing the Needotron: working out the shape of the product.

All caught up? Good. We’ll carry on.

Tom said to me: “what’s content going to look like in this new world?” I’d had years of frustration. (See the last post: History of content design if you want to know what it was like before.) Now I had a blank sheet.

I said:

  1. users need it,
  2. we create it,
  3. it’s fact-checked by experts (not ‘signed off’),
  4. we publish.

It was a complete change in workflow and governance.

Content workflow and governance

Hierarchy meant a lot in the civil service and people loved a good sign-off process. The theory seemed to be that a lengthy process was always going to result in accurate content.

At the time of the beta, almost all content went through a departmental legal or policy person for approval and couldn’t be published without it. Departmental editors tried but in some departments, it is wildly inappropriate to say to your boss that their idea is nuts. I even had a conversation with an editor who said their boss had threatened to terminate their contract if the editor agreed with us.

It was in this environment when Tom and I told all the departments that for the citizen- and business-facing part of the site, they would only get to fact-check the content, not approve it. My team would research, create and test it. They could only tell us if it was factually correct.

You can imagine how well that went down.

To be fair, at first they just blinked at us. Then they said we couldn’t do it. One stormed out of the meeting.

We carried on.

Carrot and stick

There was a carrot in all this. The stick was that they lost control of the top tasks. The carrot is that they got a part of the site on which they could publish policy and other corporate-style content using their usual language.

I am going to skim over time here. Suffice to say there were a lot of meetings, hissing through teeth, and an awful, awful lot of “you can’t do this!” (with or without storming out of meeting rooms).

One civil servant got in my face and shouted so much, I counted his fillings while his mouth was open. After all, it was rather near my face.

Undercover content

While everyone was working really hard in London, I was wandering around the country talking to various departments and asking them to work with us on the content. Some did. Some refused to talk to me because they thought they would just stop us (departments had a history of slowing or stopping projects). Some editors worked with me without telling their bosses.

Sad, isn’t it?

I’d like to name those editors. The ones that worked on the style guide with me. The ones who came up with ideas and suggestions. The ones who were talking to me on weekends when they should’ve been with their kids (and weren’t going to get that time back). But I can’t. Some are still there and so are their managers. But you know who you are – and thank you.

“She’s just sent us operational”

Whilst all this secret collaboration was going on, the beta team were building a publishing tool that was designed and developed with the content people who would actually be using it. I know. It’s the holy grail, right?

Now, at this time everything was rather new and I was in awe of this new team I was working in. It was stand up time. I delivered my succinct report and asked for more logins for the new editors I had cajoled into working with us.

One of the devs, Gareth Rushgrove was nonchalantly (but impressively) twirling a pen around his fingers when he said: ‘Can we stop for a moment? She’s just sent us operational. I think we should take a moment to absorb that’.


Total silence.

Everyone stared at me.

Here was a group of people whose good opinion I really wanted and they were staring at me.

I wanted the ground to open up.

Mostly because I had no idea what he meant but by the look on everyone’s faces, it was bad.

Read more of the story with GOV.UK beta: the middle and the end

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