User-centred digital government is an idea that cannot be put back in the bottle

The secret is out.

For public servants, it’s fundamentally more fun, more rewarding and more interesting to work on services that make things better for the people you serve. As humans who wants to learn, it’s more interesting to work on problems that require new skills, and that open us up to the wild wild world of data and digital technologies. And as ambitious professionals, it’s more likely to give us strong stories of success to take you along on our careers.

That’s partly why so GovCamp is always sold out, and why so many people are keen to get involved with Code for America. It’s why so many people took big pay cuts to go to the White House or the Government Digital Service. It’s why yesterday’s One Team Gov event in London happened at all, and why it was full of policy people, not just techy-types.

If you work with agile, user-centred approaches you get to tell stories like this one, about how you used research, data, technology, human psychology, statistics and new working methods to save the lives of people you’ll never even meet. You get to sleep soundly at night, mostly.

The old internal-needs-first, waterfall-ish approaches to major government projects just don’t offer this quality of life to public servants. They make life stressful and boring. You don’t get to meet the people you’re helping, to keep you motivated through the difficult bits. You are nagged by the knowledge of high project failure rates. You get bored whilst nothing seems to happen for months on end, except for watching people write more and more complex planning documents. You never even get to meet the people who are doing the actual work, because they’re separated from you by layers of consultants and managers. You may lie awake at night wondering if spending all this money and producing all these planning documents really is the ‘safe’, ‘best practice’ way of doing things, after all.

This is why, even though there are some pretty big countervailing pressures right now (especially in America) I think the ideas are out there for good. Like a new religion, the leaders of this movement can die, or disappear, but the ideas have a life of their own.

As someone who happens to think that they’re a pretty good set of ideas, I want to encourage everyone to keep talking about them, iterating them, re-writing them, until we really have worked out how to put the users first. It’s only if this conversation slows or stops that we’re really in danger of a permanent return to the bad-old-days. Keep talking, keep listening to users, and keep learning, and better will follow, eventually.

PS Come work with me

Trying to get real about the connection between digital technologies and social needs. Full list of writings at

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