This is the first of a series of blog posts for Show The Thing; a new series of convenings of government digital teams from around the world, hosted by Public Digital and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation. In the first event, civil servants from the UK Government Digital Service described their journey of scaling three cross-government platforms to deliver efficient and consistent service provision for internal and external users.
GDS has committed to making digital services simpler, clearer and faster for everyone. To support this, GDS have a suite of digital service platforms which provide common functionality to anyone building government services. These have been widely adopted across UK government, local authorities and the wider public sector, and include some of the most complex and important functions, such as building interfaces and hosting code.
Three Digital Service Platform teams showcased how they support better citizen-facing digital services:
GOV.UK Pay, represented by Lead Product Manager Beth Brown, is the payments platform for the UK public sector. It provides a simple way for service teams to take and manage online payments.
GOV.UK Notify, represented by Lead Product Manager Irina Pencheva and Tech Lead David McDonald, is a messaging platform which enables services to send emails, text messages and letters to their users.
GOV.UK Forms, represented by Engagement Lead Iain Boyd, allows users to create, complete and submit forms for a variety of government services. This platform is currently in private beta.
Their success is demonstrated by widespread adoption and continued growth. Since September 2016, GOV.UK Pay has processed 56 million transactions totalling £3.5 billion. In January 2023, it reached 2.5 million monthly transactions and is being used by over 870 government services. GOV.UK Notify, meanwhile, has sent over seven billion messages since May 2016.
Behind the numbers has been a common and considered strategy which incorporates internet-era approaches applied consistently across functions.
And, as Iain pointed out, their creation and adoption at scale represents the unique value that in-house digital teams can provide to governments, society and citizens, otherwise unmet by the market: “None of the tech behemoths have built an accessible tool that you can build online forms with, which is why we did it ourselves.”
Consistent design benchmarked to government standards and focussed on user needs
Digital service platforms provide common functionality, so teams don’t have to build services themselves. This saves development time and cost when implementing new services.
Developers and users can also be confident that platforms delivered by GDS comply fully with government standards, whilst code is also openly shared to encourage openness and collaboration across government functions. Crucially, the same standards and design principles apply to all platforms, boosting interoperability between services.
Ultimately, GDS wants to create services that any user, in any government institution can use, regardless of technical expertise. As Public Digital Partner and former GDS Deputy Director, Tom Loosemore, observed: ‘This is where many platforms get it wrong. The most important user needs to focus on are those of the people running and developing services (but don’t ignore citizens!)’
The premise is simple: if service team users’ time is freed up, they can invest more time in delivering for citizens. For example, the data from a document-based form takes on average 9 minutes longer to process than a digital form. So using GOV.UK Forms can save significant time for government teams. Similarly, GOV.UK Notify lets all government users easily and instantly apply consistent government email branding, building citizens’ trust and confidence.
Starting small to go big: scaling government platforms
GDS platforms share one common approach that seems counterintuitive. They started out by targeting services at the ‘long tail’ of government operations, looking at the smaller, lower volume users. This gave an iterative environment in which to establish high-calibre services that would act as exemplars - benchmarks on which to develop and scale services for larger users. The chart below shows how GOV.UK Notify adoption increased exponentially once exemplars had proven the concept, and the platform could address new use cases.
As the platform scales up, visibility increases and more government institutions see the benefits of adoption. These include:
Procurement: costs are reduced by adopting in-house solutions, and additional complexities of managing third-parties and vendors are removed.
Economies of scale: a centralised service leads to lower costs, for example in payment processing with GOV.UK Pay or text messages with GOV.UK Notify.
Innovation and sustainability: when a new feature is added, all users will benefit with no additional effort. This was particularly beneficial during the Covid pandemic - though not without challenges.
Compliance and consistency: all GDS products align with the UK Government service standard with high user accessibility.
All platform teams remain committed to continuing to scale operations and see innovation as key to ensuring that government services keep pace with market and user expectations.
For example, for GOV.UK Pay, diversifying payment types is a key strategic objective. Building capability to accept recurring card payments (RCP) will permit debt recovery to be taken in instalments and simplify renewals for licences and permits automatically and securely. And Open Banking, a significantly cheaper alternative to card payments, will provide a new way for citizens to pay government through the use of standardised APIs. GOV.UK Pay is now consulting other government departments to help develop a shared approach to open banking across the UK public sector.
Above all, these platforms can prove their financial value as they scale.
Challenges of scaling platforms
Scaling the three platforms has not been straightforward.
For example, the pressures of the Covid pandemic posed challenges, particularly for GOV.UK Notify, whose service was vital in facilitating communication.
Acting urgently to accommodate developing needs, changes were made to the platform without consideration of how to properly set up and support them in the long-term . These changes, whilst vital as a short-term measure, have required the team to focus on scaling its operations and performance to support the increased scale.
Linked to this is a stretching of the service capability beyond the original intended scope, with GOV.UK Notify’s involvement in services that were not applicable for its initial use. The team learned that whilst the platform can cover the majority of government to citizen messaging, the scale of government services is so vast that there will be exceptional cases.
This first Show The Thing session was valuable in explaining how GDS has built strong platforms to deliver better services. They candidly explained how the platforms had been scaled, how they will continue to grow and what challenges they faced on the way. They were also kind enough to share API documentation, code repositories and other useful information.
We would like to take the opportunity to thank Beth, Irina, David and Iain for their time and efforts, as well as all attendees for making our first event such a success. It was fantastic to see participants from 13 countries engaged in lively discussion in chat and we are heartened by the positive feedback and collaborative atmosphere. A big thank you too to our hosts David Eaves and Emma Gawen for running the event so smoothly and lending their expert eyes to proceedings.
If you would like to get in touch with us, please do so at [email protected].