The GOV.UK team

What’s most interesting about today’s launch of GOV.UK isn’t the savings, nor the focus on user needs, nor even the remarkable (for Government) technology stack it’s all built on.

What’s really interesting is the team that built it.

When Alan Mather or Dan Harrison describe the eDelivery Team c.2004, you get a sense of the purpose and energy that great teams can have. I’ve been part of or around some truly great teams in my career so far – teams that felt like families at times, where going to work was fun because it was challenging, where people often worked long hours but didn’t notice them, or hung out together with their awesome colleagues afterwards just because they could. It felt fabulous to be on the inside of those teams, and rather lonely to be on the outside.

Like Alan, I don’t know what life at GDS is like, but I’ll bet some GDSers would recognise that description of their team right now. Some civil servants elsewhere, and some in big systems integrator firms, might too.

There have been great developers in government before, but never with the multi-skilled teams around them to help them really deliver on their promise, and keep learning. There have been awesome project managers, but not backed with the same capacity to say no to powerful stakeholders. There have been many, many excellent content people before, but not ones given usable tools and an overriding don’t-mess-with-the-Principles Red Pen of Influence. There’s been the odd designer even, but they never went on field trips.

What’s remarkable about GDS is the culture and people magnetism that Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Richard Pope, James Stewart, Ben Terrett and others have managed to establish and nurture. People who could work anywhere, want to work for central government now. Those people, in that culture, create user-focussed experiences, great technical architectures and almost certainly, a healthy bottom line. Mike’s always said that you can’t really innovate with hired help, for the same reason that large-scale outsourcing often fails: it usually destroys the sense of team that you need for big things to happen. Hence Tom Steinberg’s ratherĀ snappy tweet.

Inevitably – somewhat tragically – the history of great teams though is that they don’t last forever. A new boss comes in and shakes things up in the wrong way. A stupid process cuts across people doing smart work. Organisations merge. Lynchpins get promoted and take on slightly too much. One or two key people drift off to see the world, have babies, deal with illness, or try new things elsewhere. Other forms of ‘teamicide’ emerge (for more on that, read Peopleware [PDF]). I’m not being downbeat: It’s a fact of corporate life – and a reason to celebrate and enjoy those teams while they’re there.

So, carpe diem, GOV.UK.

Keep doing us proud.

Photo credit: Government Digital Service

The New Boy

Mike Bracken (photo: Guardian)So Mike Bracken, former digital boss at Guardian Media Group is the new Executive Director for Digital for the UK government. Welcome, Mike. In times as tough as these for the public sector, it’s a real coup to have recruited someone of your calibre to the role.

The post was recommended by Martha Lane Fox in her review of Directgov, to give some real clout to the task of improving UK government on the web. Things have moved on since, of course, with Alpha.gov.uk open for comment and Beth Noveck due to be working on open government issues here too.

People who know Mike say he’s a delivery guy: able to make stuff happen in corporate environments, with a track record of building great developer teams and supporting practical innovators like Rewired State and even MySociety. He’s seen the supplier side too at IT firm Wavex so will be an interesting match for the big systems integrators when the contract arguments start, with Ian Watmore as his wingman.

Mike popped in to say hello to a little field trip group I organised back in February to see how Guardian Media Group approach their digital platforms, trying to understand how an Alphagov-ish vision of a mega-platform might work. I think I asked him then whether he felt a single government platform – bigger even than The Guardian’s digital estate – would simply cover too much stuff to ever be made workable. He didn’t seem fazed by the idea; government just another big corporate bureaucracy to wrangle.

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And he’ll need those wrangling skills. There are vested interests big and small that will fight a more agile, streamlined, potentially in-house digital delivery model, especially if it changes back end processes too. Alpha.gov.uk, for all its shortcomings, is blazing an exciting trail but has a long way to go to swallow the existing supersites and assimilate the dozens of rationalisation programmes underway. There are proverbial hares running throughout government on digital issues, from Skunkworks to the Government Digital Service, the Transparency Board to the Efficiency and Reform Group, the Government Communications Centre to the news-driven goals of the Number 10 digital unit – not to mention departmental restructuring and the perennial risk of getting dragged into pet projects of the centre. And these are not boom times in government, so hiring new people and investing in new platforms will be a tough sell every step of the way.

A former colleague of Mike’s blogged some slides he presented on one of the Guardian’s most audacious technical projects, its Open Platform, which combines business philosophy, commercial strategy and technical implementation. It’s a good sign for the future.

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Good luck Mike, it’ll be great to see what you do next.