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U.K. digital service visits U.S. to begin series of exchanges

Image: Photo courtesy of Ross Dakin, Presidential Innovation Fellow

Across the pond, the motto of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is “the strategy is delivery.” Over here, we say “delivery is the strategy,” but we’re both focused on the same thing: Fostering positive change across government by shipping quality digital solutions.

Or as Chris Ferguson, Director of GDS’s digital group, recently put it, “Get on with it and demonstrate that you are there to get things done.”

Ferguson and a team from GDS recently spent a week in Washington meeting with teams at 18F, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), and others in the federal digital coalition. The teams shared successes, challenges, and plans for how they will continue to support digital progress in their respective governments. This follows a summer trip by digital coalition leaders to the UK to share knowledge and seed partnerships across civic technology groups. And it comes on the heels of regular video chats this summer and fall between GDS and 18F content teams to share their latest work, ideas, and problems.

During their visit to the nation’s capital, Ferguson sat down for a fireside chat with Phaedra Chrousos, associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies 18F, and Hillary Hartley, deputy director of 18F. Throughout the conversation, all three talked about the importance of putting users at the center of digital public services.

“The whole idea of putting the user first is about putting the taxpayer first, it’s about putting the citizen first, it’s about putting the person who has recently arrived in this country first, and making sure the services you’ve designed are not prohibitive, are not exclusive, but are available in the easiest possible way and are as simple as possible to use,” Ferguson said.

He said improving the government’s digital services is a “politically neutral area” and something whose appeal should cross political parties and agendas. He also talked about the importance of user testing.

“When you want to persuade someone who doesn’t get [the importance of focusing on user needs], a supplier or a member of government, just sit them down and let them watch people trying to do something. The frustration they show. The anger they show. Or, just the feedback where they talk about the existing service,” Ferguson said. “It’s very powerful because it’s objective…It’s real users saying powerful and persuasive things.”

Chrousos talked about how important user research was to the College Scorecard project. The project had spent years focused on stakeholder needs before the team went out to local high schools to talk to real users. That research was able to drive the project forward and produce a highly successful product.

Both leaders also talked about how their next challenge is to organize and coordinate the various offices working on digital transformation within the government. The GDS was recently reorganized into a data group, a technology group, and a digital group. As various branches of the UK government develop their own digital offices, these three groups will focus on supporting and accelerating change in those offices.

Here, we’ve also got three digital service groups inside the General Services Administration (GSA).

“We have the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, which has products that have been seeded by Congress that are good for government, across government. We have the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which bring innovators in from the outside to work on presidential priorities, and we have 18F, which is a rapidly growing bench of technologists that help agencies build and buy user-focused, efficient, and easy-to-use digital services. The future lies in continuing to bring these three pieces together and having them leverage one another,” Chrousos said.

This trip was part of the first phase of a series of digital exchanges between GDS and the Digital coalition of 18F, PIF, USDS and the digital services teams inside federal agencies. The goal of these exchanges is to have teams tackle specific technical problems while also sharing techniques to achieve each organization’s mission. Both teams are tackling a similar set of problems, and these exchanges will help save time and effort through the sharing of solutions and the application of collective knowledge to the challenge of creating a modern digital government.

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