Government doesn’t have needs

We need to stop talking about the needs of government; it doesn’t have any.

The words we use — often unconsciously — affect our mental model, the decisions we make, the way we design and the services we deliver.

I gave a lightning talk at a digital, data and technology event in government, to get people thinking about three things we’re doing wrong: First, stop saying customer, start saying user. Second, we’re not a business, we’re a government department. Third, government doesn’t have needs, people do.

The latter is arguably the most important. The more we talk about government needs, the more it becomes a thing. This will create a culture where people have a mental model of opposition — government needs versus the needs of people (users). If government have needs and users have needs, whose needs are more important? One will inevitably end up getting prioritised over the other, which is wrong and worrying — employees have a tendency to align with their employer first.

Holding onto the problem with both hands

I read an article by Ben Holliday, Head of User Experience at the Department for Work & Pensions, UK Government.

Ben’s post is great and goes a long way to articulate how we should be considering everything in order to deliver services that work for people, but he does so by referring to both sides as having needs. I feel this is wrong and fear it will continue to spread the problem — in time people will forget the message but the words “government needs” will stick with them, clouding their mental model and affecting how they deliver services for the worse.

Kate Tarling, Head of Service Design at the Home Office, UK Government, wrote a great response.

This is spot on — by using different words you no longer have that opposition, you can consider user needs alongside government goals/intent. Reframing the language we use in government is part of the solution.

There are better words to use

If we remember…

Functions and means can’t have needs.

People have needs.

If we start watching what we say we will start building the right kind of culture to design and deliver: services that meet the needs of users, services that truly matter, and services that make a difference.

This is important — it’s not just semantics. Semantics mean something.

The deck from the lightning talk I gave


A collection of open stories on the realities of designing a digital government, shared by the people who work there.

Charles Reynolds-Talbot

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Father. Designer. Human. Writer of #RunnerUnfiltered training for London Marathon 2019 before donating a kidney to my young son:


A collection of open stories on the realities of designing a digital government, shared by the people who work there.