An ode to writing with a human voice

The best of the GOV.UK blogs


One of the defining characteristics of the so-called web 2.0 era was the increase in direct dialogue between writers and audiences (in the broadest senses of those terms). This ushered in a culture and expectation of increased transparency, of access to the ‘story behind the story’. Organisations came to adopt blogs and other forms of social media as legitimate channels of official communication, struggling at times with balancing the tension between being more open with their thinking and retaining control over the message.

For me, the GOV.UK blogs were an example of repeatedly getting this difficult balance right. Like many a public servant who found themselves inexorably drifting into digital government in the early part of current decade, I was faced with a context that I knew too little about. Service design, user research, agile methodologies, roadmaps, discoveries, government-as-a-platform: these are things now so ingrained that I see them in my sleep, but before I got reading I didn’t know a single one of them.

The GOV.UK blogs were my education. From the inner workings of the people bringing about the single domain, spanning out to the specialist blogs on areas such as design, technology and data, it was possible for a novice to quickly understand what was happening at the centre of digital government (and why), and to begin to make a contribution towards that aim. Departmental blogs echoed the model, shining more light into other parts of the machinery of government.

Alongside the service manual and the design principles, the GOV.UK blogs form a playbook that is chiefly responsible for the prevailing culture in digital government. This commitment to openness has ensured that these skills and knowledge have been a force multiplier across the whole public sector, both in the UK and internationally. The question now is what happens to that open spirit as insurgency becomes incumbency.


GOV.UK blogs are in recession

Dafydd Vaughan has written recently about the declining use of the blogs, with GDS more than halving its output and a number of previously active blogs going completely dormant (despite the underlying teams still very much existing). This quantifies a growing feeling that the wheels of communication are seizing up. In the face of growing criticism, teams and departments are at risk of being perceived as closing ranks, rather than constructively engaging in a way that demonstrates accountability and responsiveness.

Stefan Czerniawski responded to suggest that that diagnosis is overly stark. Blogging itself is spread across more diverse platforms; a lot that needed to be said has already been said; and what is left to say is less to do with technical process and more to do with contentious political questions. Which is all true to an extent, but I think fails to entirely address the health warning that Dafydd’s data represents.


What are blogs for?

The editorial team at GDS have recently — coincidentally or otherwise — posted about this topic, under the banner of reviewing whether the blogs are meeting user needs. While it’s commendable that they are openly addressing the topic, it’s also revealing of a diverging attitude about their purpose. The measures of success cited include levels of ‘engagement’, aligning posts with campaigns, and instances of very senior officials publishing posts. This, to me, fundamentally misunderstands the value of blogging compared with more ‘formal’ communications. Aligning blogs more closely with PR activity doesn’t strengthen blogs— it nullifies their distinct value. To their credit, they highlight a number of excellent community-focused posts published recently, but the subheading ‘We still work in the open’ does come across as undeniably defensive.

It’s certainly reasonable to argue that personal blogging away from corporate channels long predates official blogging, and will continue to exist in many weird and wonderful forms regardless of how corporate blogs fare. But that misses something important. A post written in a personal capacity may be vital, but lack the legitimacy of an ‘official’ communication. A corporate blog post that lacks authenticity is merely a press release. A post written for an organisation in a human voice however, can result in some of the most usable and useful writing possible.


Top 10 posts on GOV.UK

Having said all that, I thought it was worth highlighting some of the specific posts that had affected or inspired me in the past. They aren’t a representative sample, and in particular I know that there have been fantastic pieces written that aren’t in my personal wheelhouse (about technical architecture, open source, data etc). Consider this a personal top 10.

What would make yours?

10. FAQs: why we don’t have them

Sarah Richards

There are a variety of styles and types of posts on the blogs, and one of the most useful tropes is the post that takes a stand, sets out why, and does it clearly. This post by the ex-Head of Content for GOV.UK is a concise masterpiece. Having not heard yet the phrase ‘content design’ at the time of original reading, this was a total ambush. What do you mean FAQs are a bad thing?? It took all of about 2 minutes to see the light. 60 seconds to read, 60 seconds to think “…ah ha!”. If that’s still too long, the 10 words in the subheadings tell the same story even faster.

9. ‘Hacking’ Google Analytics to get real-time internal search terms data

Ashraf Chohan

Another thing the GOV.UK blogs often did well (alongside the rest of the guidance ecosystem centred around the service manual) was to provide practical instructions on getting things done. The range of posts like this from the performance analysis service were gold for those of us newly responsible for understanding citizen behaviour on our websites — especially when the guidance available around analytics for websites was focused on commercial sites/aims, which have rather different considerations than government websites. I often felt like these blogs wrote too directly to central government concerns (rather than the wider public sector), but deliberately or otherwise the content here was invaluable to a lot of people beyond those whose content resides directly on GOV.UK.

8. Retiring our icons

Guy Moorehouse

A couple of things strike me as particularly exemplary about this post. Firstly, it graciously acknowledges that a previous hypothesis was wrong. Secondly, it details how that conclusion was reached. It’s a nice little nod to rigour in evidence over intuition, especially in the visual design space which is prone to flaky aesthetic preferences. It’s also been a useful thing to point at whenever a person responsible for a new website decided that they wanted icons everywhere — they seem to be like catnip to the uninitiated.

https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2013/06/18/retiring-our-icons/

7. Book a practical driving test: how changing the wording on one button increased clickthroughs by 600%

Martin Richardson

I found this post intriguing, flirting as I was at the time with the ideas around ‘nudge’ theory and choice architecture, to guide users more easily into making decisions in their own interest. So much so that I implemented the exact technique on a housing repairs service I was working on at the time, to increase the quantity of service feedback we would receive.

In retrospect, most of us have realised that this is a dark pattern. Though not as nefarious as those used to trick people into spending money, it does conflate organisational wishes with user needs, leaving users with an impression that their transaction is not complete until they give us a little something in return, which isn’t really appropriate. An interesting misfire.

6. A simple technique for evaluating content

Pete Gale

Elegant in its concision, another example of a practical post that delivers genuinely actionable skills. Reading this one came just at the right time — I used the technique in this post to demonstrate to senior managers that users did not understand changes that were happening to their service as a result of a major policy shift, and were significantly likely to fail to take the right action. The deep red highlights scrawled by citizens on those pages persuaded stakeholders far better than my appeals to ‘good practice’ had. It’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that there are a large number of households who owe their eligibility for social housing in Camden to this blog post.

5. What GDS is for

Stephen Foreshew-Cain

A state of the nation speech here, and one with a proper vision for how government should be transformed over the next decade or so. In retrospect, this was published at probably the peak of digital government, just weeks before the GDS leadership was replaced, the transformation strategy went walkabout, and open communication stalled. It’s a heck of a vision, and there are plenty of people at the coalface continuing to deliver groundbreaking stuff (such as the work on end-to-end services). It’s a shame that it no longer feels like there’s the leadership in place to propel the people doing the groundbreaking work to the extent that there was in the past.

4. Doing user research in the discovery phase

Leisa Reichelt

I could easily have made this a top-10 of just Leisa’s posts (helpfully, Leisa has compiled her posts on her own site). Of all of them, I’ve selected this one because of just how frequently I’ve referred back to the image below to explain the importance of not skipping the part where you really figure out the right thing to do.

Leisa Reichelt, https://userresearch.blog.gov.uk/2015/05/27/doing-user-research-in-the-discovery-phase/

3. You can’t be half agile

Mike Bracken

There’s an essential diplomacy to any sufficiently senior role: it’s partly understanding the importance of relationships, and partly the wisdom to know that there’s nuances to most things. But it’s also essential to call time on nonsense where you see it, and this post is about death to false compromises. All organisations are optimised to sustain their existing structures, and will attempt to quell or absorb any movement which doesn’t fit. This self-described rant by the Government’s (at-the-time) Executive Director for Digital leaves no doubt that such institutional resort to traditional project methodologies is deeply retrograde.

2. We’re not ‘appy. Not ‘appy at all.

Tom Loosemore

Daft pun aside, this post might have saved more money being spent on garbage than any other piece of government writing in the last 5 years. There’s something about occupying a standards-setting role that means that as much of your success comes from stopping bad things happening as it does spurring good things. This is especially the case when having to stand firm against the tide of ‘trends’ and ‘strategies’. Like iconography in web design but with a vastly higher price tag, mobile apps have been all the rage since the first iPhone ushered in the smartphone age. This post calmly and carefully explains why that idea is flawed, and how to meet user needs instead. Another that’s served as a vital citation in my personal experience.

1. I fought the law and the users won: delivering online voter registration

Pete Herlihy

This one has it all: Clash references, the intersection of design and policy, the definitive public service, and even a mic drop. And this is written by the Government! I think this is my favourite of all the posts to appear on the GOV.UK blogs, because it best captures the essence of personal, characterful writing while managing to remain sensitive to the gravity of the topic. It also hints at the #oneteamgov movement that was to emerge years later, reiterating the importance of service design getting further up the policy (and indeed, legislative) ladder. The more that government blog posts resemble this, the better the health of government blogging — and perhaps even the health of government itself.