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Technology at least as good as people have at home

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: User research, Users


The Cabinet Office has engaged GDS to run a technology transformation programme between now and January 2015 to showcase a different way of delivering technology to the civil service.

Our aim is to deliver modern, flexible technology services that are at least as good as those people use at home. These services will also be cheaper than those currently in place.

Our guiding principles over the next 12-18 months include the following:

  • we will start with user needs: until we understand what users across the Cabinet Office want and need, we won’t start buying things

  • we will design with choice and flexibility in mind: there will be many and different needs across the department so we will offer technology solutions that fit individuals and teams

  • we will be transparent throughout: we will be open about decisions and actions so our users and stakeholders understand why we’re taking a certain approach

  • we will architect loosely coupled services: we are not building a “system”; we are delivering a set of devices and services that can be independently replaced. A key success measure for the programme is that we should never have to do it again

  • we will favour short contracts: technology changes rapidly and we believe the age of the long-term contract is over. We need to be able to swap services in and out as the need arises

  • we will bring the best of consumer technology to the enterprise: modern devices and cloud applications are built to be intuitive and flexible with minimal need for training. We believe business technology should be the same

  • we will make security as invisible as possible: we are working with CESG and GSS to ensure all services are secure to new Official level. However, appropriate levels of security shouldn’t get in the way of the user experience of the services

  • we will build a long-term capability: technology delivery doesn’t end with the programme. We will not be handing the services over to a single outsource vendor in 2015, but instead will be bringing digital skills back into the department

The team will be posting regularly about our approach, challenges and decisions so keep an eye on this blog, or sign up for updates to see what we find along the way.

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  1. Comment by Richard Heaton posted on

    Thanks for starting the blog Tom, and for helping us to do technology differently. It's going to help us to be smarter, and a much better place to work. If we get it right (and we will!) other departments will follow in droves...

    Richard (CO perm sec)

  2. Comment by Rozanne Kidd posted on

    Really good to see the shackles coming off on Technology blockers. I work in Benefits Directorate, DWP and we have big ambitions for our folks to be better users and work more efficiently. Your guiding principles read like my team's wish list so will be watching with interest.

  3. Comment by Fraser Henderson posted on

    I hope that you will be able to run some technology demonstrators. In my experience, there is often a problem with access to the latest tech which is stifling innovation. This might be as simple as reviewing the latest gadgets, framed by their application in government or setting up a micro lending circle on something like The latter is an approach that has been set up for lincolnshire.

    The stock answer is that the tech is agnostic but actually the application of services is driven by the new capabilities of our silicone industry.

  4. Comment by Mark Darby posted on

    Being a provider on G-Cloud with pam, our powerful cloud software that helps people and organisations change for the better, we like others are hamstrung by out of date policies that inhibit change. This looks like a good vision and it's great to see this sort of initiative come alive:-)

  5. Comment by Stefan Czerniawski posted on

    It's great to see this clarion commitment to a better future - but as ever we need to be sure we don't slide into seeing this as a technology project. I have just written a post which reflects on the future of office life (or absence of it) more generally - - which I hope provides some relevant context.

  6. Comment by Duncan Hart posted on

    Great to see these principles published... Lots of food for thought and room for open source and SME suppliers to be in the picture. Bravo! Well done.

  7. Comment by Tim posted on

    Where are the share buttons? 🙂

    • Replies to Tim>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Tim. Good point! Share buttons are coming to soon then we'll enable.

  8. Comment by Richard Barrington posted on

    I'm sure " What does the business need?" will figure somewhere in your deliberations!!

    • Replies to Richard Barrington>

      Comment by Stefan Czerniawski posted on

      It certainly will - that's what Tom's first bullet point is about, and it's what I have started to go into in a bit more detail in a later post. Working out what the business needs and delivering it efficiently is the whole point.

  9. Comment by Graeme posted on

    So it will be cheaper than the current system and deliver what the customer needs, great except you have abandoned all of us with who may need something above official and if the needed solution is more expensive than the current you won't be able to use it. Still at least I know from the outset this project isn't aimed at meeting all of the customers needs I wish the lucky few all the best I guess we'll need a budget for quills going forward!

    • Replies to Graeme>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Graeme - this blog is about the project delivering a new official system for the Cabinet Office. A parallel project is underway to address the needs of users currently on confidential who will need access to a secret system.

      • Replies to Tom Read>

        Comment by Graeme posted on

        Surely what the business needs is one IT system everyone can use with various levels of security controls? Not to split the department up by what classification of work they work on, let me just have a look at 'Iraq' oh surprise surprise the material goes from unclassified to TS so lets all have 3 IT systems that'll make it simpler to work. Which file systems we currently use are supported in the new world? If between now and 2015 each member of the CO creates one worthwhile document per day that is just shy of 500,000 documents split between pst's, Shared drives, Meridio, Retriever and personal drives, putting half a million documents potentially in the wrong place is that on the appgenda to deal with anytime soon?

        • Replies to Graeme>

          Comment by Tom Read posted on

          Hi Graeme. Drop us a line at and we'll make sure someone comes over for a chat about your concerns. -Tom

          • Replies to Tom Read>

            Comment by Graeme posted on

            Actually Tom I'd be grateful if you could answer on document migration here. I have no doubt you are not intending on sending us screaming headlong into breaching the Public Records Act, the Constitutional Reform & Governance Act and the Freedom of Information Act (with the Transparency Minister down the road you would be mad to do so) so you have a plan what is it?

  10. Comment by Tim posted on

    I suspect this will be another IT disater like all the rest. The system will be slow and unwieldy like now. Regfretfully we leave these things to peopel who know about IT but have no idea baout how the user needs to use it. Can we have a system that does not need dozens of passwords that change constantly; can we have a system that can cope with calculating a modest size excel spreadsheet without us having to watch the percent complete at the bottom right hand side tick over like a dripping tap.

    • Replies to Tim>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Thanks Tim. This is why we're taking a different approach to IT. As per above: "we will start with user needs" and go from there.

  11. Comment by Malcolm posted on

    I hope it will become easier for specialists to obtain the specialist hardware and software they need to do their jobs. It shouldn't be a battle or take months.

    • Replies to Malcolm>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Absolutely - one size fits all IT simply isn't good enough. Quick and easy access to the tools you need is something we're focusing on fixing.

      • Replies to Tom Read>

        Comment by Steve posted on

        Would this include the huge range of open source software that's available for free? For example, for statistics R is pretty much the standard, used by Google and Facebook. It's free and really powerful. But we're still paying hundreds of pounds per user for SPSS and SAS licenses, presumably partly because security requirements make it hard to use open source products.

  12. Comment by Jim posted on

    Maybe I'm naive or cynical, but in 35 years of IT across government and private sector, I can't think of any conventional IT project that didn't begin with seeking "user needs".
    On the other hand how many customers expressed a need for an iPhone or iPad before they saw one?
    The problem is that most users aren't very good at articulating their needs (why should they be?), and their needs evolve as soon as they see the possibilities. That's why we use Agile methods, with some visionary thinking, and alphas and betas to refine/confirm the utility/value of the solution.

    • Replies to Jim>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Jim. I completely get your point. The key here is: there isn't just one user need, so there shouldn't be one single answer. Someone who spends 8 hrs a day travelling or in meetings has very different needs from someone crunching data at their desk. These are the needs we're asking people about.

  13. Comment by Graeme posted on

    I'm also a bit confused about the post roll out support - are GDS doing all the inductions, help desks, hardware supplies, repairs and back end things like software updates? If they aren't who is and if they are isn't that a bit of an odd thing to bring in house?

  14. Comment by Rich M posted on

    "[We] will be bringing digital skills back to the department"?
    How does this fit with the MOD's DCNS future ICT procurement strategy?

    • Replies to Rich M>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Rich - this project is about Cabinet Office technology so I can't answer that. I'll speak to some colleagues in GDS to see if anyone has more info for you on the MOD perspective. -Tom

  15. Comment by Les posted on

    I am very glad to hear that the IT needs of the DWP are being examined & finally updated. I work in a Jobcentre and despair at the equipment we are currently using. DWP should be leading the way as far as new IT is concerned not lagging behind. My office is due for Work Transformation shortly & i am hoping that it provide me with the tools to do my job more efficiently.

    • Replies to Les>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Les - thanks for your very positive comment. This blog is addressing a project specifically about the Cabinet Office's IT, but there is wider work going on to improve government IT across the board. -Tom

  16. Comment by Nicola posted on

    I'm very pleased to hear and relieved GDS is embracing this agenda. I work in Cabinet Office Communications supporting Civil Service reform - particularly re building CS capability. One of the priority areas is digital and if CS leadership aspirations on this are to come to fruition then CS should eventually expect to see digital savviness/delivery built in to the competencies of their job, so much so it will eventually impact on career progression - good eg here in DH and what they're trying to do - This of course takes time. But it will take MUCH longer if we don't open up some of the access/make improvements to IT/social media/apps/digi tools.

    As an example - we would like to run a campaign on digital capability across the CS, particularly promoting your alpha phase on Open Internet Tools - However, we know many of the major depts currently block most of these tools (security, policy, IT modernity or management decision being sited as the main barriers). But it's really difficult to unearth who may be unearthing how we bottom this all out - some of it seems quite simple to as a team we can see great value in using Trello as a proj mgt/collaborative working tool - we'd love to 'walk the talk' but we can't access it - this means we're sticking with traditional email routes and in the longer run it's inevitably a missed opportunity for our CVs...even enabling CS to know who they should challenge in their organisation about having team level access on useful tools etc would be a step in the right direction...?

  17. Comment by Jonathan Dunning-Davies posted on

    I suspect, without having read all the above comments, that I will be reiterating points already made. However, something does need to happen to address IT within the Home Office.

    I work in Border Force at a former Customs establishment. We are all required to have access to POISE. POISE piggy-backs on the old HMR&C system: STRIDE. STRIDE homes Customs systems such as Centaur and FTS which are crucial to our work, so it remains important. However, it seems illogical that nearly 6 years on from the start of the merger of the former services: Immigration (BIA) and Customs Detection, we do not have a single Border Force system, providing a base for email, internet, intranet, Centaur, CID, etc. (I feel - considering some of the people we encounter - for officer safety reasons, we should be PNC trained as well, but that is another story.)

    POISE itself needs an upgrade. Horizon has allegedly been overhauled in recent months. But no-one is (or at least, no-one should be) bothered about its appearance, how pretty the graphics are or the colours used. However, the search facility is nigh on useless. Google, it is not.

    • Replies to Jonathan Dunning-Davies>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Jonathan - I can't speak for the Home Office as this work is focused on the Cabinet Office. However, I'll pass your comments on to some colleagues here in GDS who work closely with your teams. -Tom

  18. Comment by Dee Mallinson posted on

    At what point will I be given an up to date internet browser? As a research officer I cannot believe this department is so far behind that when I try and view a website it tells me my browser is, quote, ancient and is no longer supported! I'm sure it must be a rumour that we cannot upgrade because other HMRC systems would not be compatible with newer versions of Windows and would cost far too much to implement.

    • Replies to Dee Mallinson>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Dee. That does sound frustrating. This project & blog is focused on the Cabinet Office's own systems, but I'll pass your comments on to some of my colleagues who are working with HMRC.

  19. Comment by Graeme posted on

    I assume as there is all this cross government work going on presumably the end recipient of all this information, The National Archives is heavily engaged?

  20. Comment by Richard posted on

    Hi Tom,

    I work in Technology Strategy at the MoJ. I read your blog with interest as I have long wanted to take a user-centric view to all IT provision, not just the citizen-facing apps, and I am desperate to have the tools I rely upon at home in my work environment.

    I would be very interested in finding out about your approach to this whole project, understanding how it goes and where the resistance is and how you overcome it. Most importantly, I'd like to understand what we can learn from you to improve how Justice delivers its IT.

    Would you be willing to meet up sometime so we could discuss this? Thanks!

    • Replies to Richard>

      Comment by Tom Read posted on

      Hi Richard - yes, happy to meet up to talk more. I'll drop you an email.


  21. Comment by Graeme posted on

    Don't worry all fears allayed I've done my 10 question survey to catch my user needs. Just a couple of niggles, why was there a question specifically about databases? There wasn't one about about spreadsheets or word documents so why the database question - not aiming to support them? I basically don't know my apps from my elbow when it comes to building an IT system so I'm a little concerned with a question along the lines of 'tell us anything you think we need to know'. Shouldn't that be a bit narrower am I supposed to be telling you if 'Angry Birds is an option i'll take it' whether 'I use specific software for disability reasons' or 'currently all my working docs are in pst's attached to outlook'? If i've gone the wrong end of the spectrum my ability to work post roll out might be a little hampered.

  22. Comment by Mike Smith posted on

    As an enthusiastic supporter of the long overdue digital strategy it is frustrating that we are in my Department still using XP, IE6 and Office 2003, due to be unsupported from April. Doubly frustrating is the fact that my team has been piloting the use of SharePoint but having found it a tremendously useful tool that saves time, money and data storage and reduces the risk of error the indications are that it will not be adopted. I hope the rumours are untrue but if not it would seem to run wholly counter to the thrust of the strategy. I try to maintain a positive mindset but cynicism will grow if we say one thing and do another.

  23. Comment by Kevin Stall posted on

    It will be welcomed. As it stands right now, going through the work IT system, those using the HMRC it/internet can't even view a lot of what is put out by Civil Service. The days are gone when one size fits all. There is only one computer type available for the staff to use. But if your job is not the same as everyone else, you have to find work arounds taking up valueable time. It almost reminds me of my time with the Federal Aviation Administration. We were using Iron Core memory and punch cards because they didn't want to trust those new fangled silicon chips. They didn't get rid of the key punch until parts were no longer available.

  24. Comment by Matt Neale posted on

    Certainly within the MOD (and agencies) I believe Security needs to be ever present and visible to all. Appropriate procedures must be in place to protect data and provide clear audit trails - obviosuly these need to reflect the risk that exposure of such data would impose on government and sources. Alas the greatest risk to our data is users ignoring security regulations or deliberatley publising the data.

  25. Comment by Nikita Shamdasani posted on

    Hi Tom,

    I'm a student from the US and I'm researching the ways in which the UK has improved its government IT/IT procurement structures. This research is part of a larger project on some concrete steps the US can take to improve its own structure through both its current departments (such as the USDS) and through new initiatives. Would you be able to meet up in mid-March for a brief informational interview? It seems like you all have done some really great work!

  26. Comment by Tom Read posted on

    Thanks for your interest, Nikita. I'll email you about setting up an interview.