Government & Organizations:National
Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams
In this episode, we interview outgoing head of GOV.UK Neil Williams about his time at GDS, learning about agile and scaling the nation's website.
The full transcript of the interview follows:
Angus Montgomery: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and for this episode I’m going to be talking to Neil Williams, who is the head of GOV.UK. And Neil is leaving GDS shortly for an exciting new job, so we’re going to be talking to him about that and also talking to him about his time at GDS, because he’s been here since the very beginning. So I hope you enjoy this episode and let’s go straight into the conversation.
Neil Williams: I'm going to Croydon Council. So leaving not only GDS-
Angus Montgomery: South London?
Neil Williams: South London. South London is the place to be, I have to say. Yes, not only leaving GDS, but leaving the Civil Service actually, because local government is not the Civil Service of course, to go and work in Croydon as Chief Digital Officer for the council there. They've got a lot of ambition, and it’s a really exciting time for Croydon. People laugh when I say that.
Angus Montgomery: I just laughed as well. I didn’t mean to.
Neil Williams: Croydon has this reputation that is completely unwarranted, and we’re going to prove the world wrong. It’s changing massively. It’s already gone through a lot of change. You're probably aware of some stuff. It’s got a Boxpark. There’s a lot of reporting around the Westfield/Hammerson development that might be happening, which we very much hope is happening. Also Croydon Tech City. So Croydon’s got a lot of growth in the tech industry, tech sector. Fantastic companies starting up and scaling up in Croydon, and that’s all part of the story.
Plus the stuff that’s more in my wheelhouse, that I've been doing here in GDS around transforming services. Making the public services that Croydon provides to residents and business to be as good as they should be. As good as everything else that people expect in their day to lives using digital services these days.
Angus Montgomery: So not much on your plate then?
Neil Williams: It’s quite a big job. I'm excited about it. There’s a lot about it that’s new, which is kind of giving me a new lease of energy, the fact that I've got this big challenge to face and lots of learning to do.
Which reminds me a lot about how I felt when I first working with GDS in fact. Just how exciting I found the prospect of coming and working for this organisation, and being part of this amazing revolution. I'm feeling that again actually about the job in Croydon, [00:02:33] about the work to be done there.
It seems like the right time. It’s a perfect time and place, where I am in my career, those things coming together. It’s a really good match. So it came up, and I put in for it, and lo and behold I am now Chief Digital Officer in Croydon Council from mid-October.
Angus Montgomery: You’ve been at GDS since before the beginning, haven’t you? Seven, eight years?
Neil Williams: Yes, I was working it out this morning. It’s seven years and two months. I was 34 when I started working in GDS. I'm 42 now. I just had my birthday last week.
Angus Montgomery: Full disclosure.
Neil Williams: Yes. That’s maybe too much information to be sharing. I didn’t have grey hair when I started. My youngest child was just born, and he’s nearly eight now. So yes, it’s been a really big part of my life.
Angus Montgomery: So you can track your late 30s and early 40s through images of you standing in front of number 10?
Neil Williams: Yes, and unfortunately quite a few embarrassing pictures of me on the GDS flicker. (Laughter) There have been a few regrettable outfits for celebrations and milestones launching GOV.UK, and celebrating GOV.UK birthdays, where looking back on it I may not have worn those things if I had known it was going to be on the internet forever. (Laughter)
Angus Montgomery: Now you say that, there’s an image of you… I'm trying to remember. I think it’s at the Design Museum, when GOV.UK won the Designs of the Year, and you're wearing a Robocop t-shirt. (Laughter)
Neil Williams: Yes, I am. I can tell that story if you like. That’s one of my proudest GDS moments, I think. Maybe we will get to that later. Do you want me to do it now?
Angus Montgomery: Well, no. Let us know where that came from, because this is…
Well, just as a bit of context, because I've gone straight into that, but you’ve been head of GOV.UK since the beginning, and in 2012, shortly after GOV.UK launched, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award, which is an incredible accolade. I can’t remember what it beat, but I think it beat several…
That’s one of those awards where they judge things like buildings, and cars, and new products, and mad graphic design. So for a government website to win that award was really incredible, I think.
Neil Williams: Yes. Actually, we were talking about it the other day, and Mark Hurrell, the head designer on GOV.UK, he said it’s actually the first time a website ever won that award, which I had completely forgotten. Yes, it was amazing. That was 2013.
We had launched GOV.UK in 2012, as in replacing Directgov and Business Link, which were the previous big super sites for public services. Then we were well into the next phase, which was shutting down and replacing all of the websites of departments of state.
I was very much working on that bit of it at the time. My head was down and working very attentively, in this fairly crazy timescale, to shut down those websites, and starting to look at how we were going to start closing down the websites of 350 arms-length bodies. A huge project.
In the midst of that, in the midst of that frantic busy period, someone approached me. It was Tom Loosemore, Etienne Pollard. One of those early GDS leaders. Saying, “Oh, there’s an award ceremony. We’ve been nominated for an award, and we need some people to go. Can you go to it?”
Angus Montgomery: “We need some people to go.” That’s an attractive… (Laughter)
Neil Williams: Yes. It was just like, “We need a few people to make sure we’re going to be represented there.”
Angus Montgomery: “To fill the seats.” (Laughter)
Neil Williams: I now know that they knew that we were going to win, but I didn’t know that, at all, at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. “Oh, yes, fine. Yes, I will go along to that. That’s no problem at all.”
I think it was the same day. I'm not sure whether it was that same day or a different day when I was given notice, but anyway, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t dress up for the occasion. So I rock up to the Design Museum in my jeans and in my Robocop t-shirt, an OCP logo on it.
The evening included quite a lot of free alcohol. It was quite a glitzy affair, and I was definitely under-dressed for the occasion, but I thought, “That’s fine. We’re just here to be part of an audience.” Hanging around at the back, having the free canapes, partaking of the plentiful free wine that was being distributed.
Then Griff Rhys Jones, who was presenting the award, gets up on stage and announces the winners in each category, and we won our category. Much triumphant jubilation and celebration.
Then went on to reveal that we won the whole thing. We won the Design of the Year Award as a whole. Which then led to this photo call. By which point I was quite drunk as well. I had no idea this was going to happen.
Yes, so there’s that famous photo of a bunch of GDS people accepting the award, all quite smartly dressed, apart from me letting the side down with my Robocop t-shirt.
Angus Montgomery: Tell me how you got involved in this thing in the first place. You’ve been in the Civil Service before, but you're not a career civil servant, are you? Or you hadn’t been.
Neil Williams: Well, yes. I would like to think of myself as not being a career civil servant. I started in the private sector, in a communications publishing agency. It was a magazine agency.
I thought I wanted to be a journalist actually. I did English at university. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Went into publishing. Was passionate about publishing and the power of the printed word. Distributing information to people. Equipping them with information. Informing people and so forth.
I went into corporate publishing, as a way to learn about publishing, but whilst I was working for that company the internet was becoming a bigger deal, a bigger thing.
I was also mucking around in my spare time with comedy websites. That was known by my employers, who then said, as they were starting to think about, “How do we get in on this?” they asked me if I wanted to run the London office of their new digital offering to their clients.
I leapt at the chance. That was a really good leg up for me. That’s where I learnt about digital, about building websites. So that was a great place, where I learnt…
I said I wanted to be in publishing and journalism. The information is power thing excited me, and of course doing that digitally, doing that online, massively more so. More empowering people.
I fell in love instantly with the immediacy of what you get with publishing to the web, and providing services over the web, and getting the feedback, and being able to improve based on the fact that you can see in real time what users are doing. That’s been my passion ever since. After a few years of doing that…
That is now a dwindling small part of my career, when you look back on it, so it’s probably true to say that I am a career civil servant. A few years in a digital agency. Then I wanted to see the other side of things, and be client side, and see something through to its outcomes, rather than just build a thing and hand it over. I joined the Civil Service. I joined the government communications profession.
Angus Montgomery: I know it well.
Neil Williams: And my first gig was in the Department for Trade and Industry, as it was then, as an assistant information officer. A young, eager civil servant.
There were some digital elements to that job, but actually quite a lot of my earliest Civil Service gig was going to Number 10 every week to do the grid meeting, which is the Alastair Campbell era. It’s still the process now.
And I was moving around within the department. So there’s an eight-year period, which I'm not going to go into in any detail,where I moved around between different departments, doing digital things.
I worked my way up the greasy pole of the Civil Service. From a web manager, managing a bit of a website and looking after the content and the information architecture, through to running whole teams, running the website, intranet, social media side of things.
During those years I did a lot of work on product development, around online consultation tools and digital engagement platforms. And lots of frustration actually. So this brings us to the beginning of the GDS story.
Angus Montgomery: This is the 2010 Martha Lane Fox bombshell?
Neil Williams: Yes. The old way, the traditional way, and this is pretty common not just in government but everywhere, websites sprung out of being a thing led by communications teams. “It’s just another channel for us to do our communications.”
And it is, but it is also, as we all now know, the way that people do their business and transact. People come to your website to do a thing, to use a service, to fulfil a need. It took a long time for the Civil Service to recognise that.
For many years myself and others in the digital communications teams within departments were getting increasingly frustrated. A lone voice really. Trying within our departments to show them the data that we had and go, “Look, people are coming for things that we’re not providing them with. We need to do a better job of this.”
A lot of that falling on deaf ears, not getting prioritised in the way that it needed to, and also clearly fragmented across thousands of websites, across all of these organisations.
A lot of great work was done before GDS, and this story has been told on the History of GDS series of blog posts, which if people haven’t seen are really well worth looking at.
Tom Loosemore has talked about this before, about standing on the shoulders of giants. There was enormous effort, over many, many years, to digitise government, to centralise things, to put users first.
Directgov and Business Link were the current incarnations of that, of a service-led approach, but it was just a small proportion of the overall service offering from government, and it was still really quite comms focused. The conversations were about reach, and there was advertising to try and promote the existence of these channels, etc.
Lots of it was written from the perspective of the department trying to tell people what they should do, rather than understanding what it is that people are trying to do and then designing things that meet those needs.
So GDS. In 2010, this is a really well-told story, and people are pretty familiar with it now, but 2010 Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website, particularly Directgov. She took a broader remit, and looked at the whole thing, and, in summary, said, “Start again.”
Angus Montgomery: ‘Revolution, not evolution’.
Neil Williams: ‘Revolution, not evolution’. Yes, that was the title.
Angus Montgomery: And everyone at GDS, or who has been at GDS, has said, like Tom, that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and huge amounts of work was done beforehand, but why do you think Martha’s report was such a turning point? Because it was, because it led to a huge amount of change.
Neil Williams: Yes. It’s a really pithy, succinct little letter. It’s not reams and reams of paper. It was just quite a simple call to action really. Which was to say, “You need to take ownership of the user experience, in a new organisation, and empower a new leader, and organisation under that leader, to do that, to take a user-led approach.” That was the different thing. Take a user-led approach, and to use the methods that are being used everywhere used.
Government had not yet really caught up to what was going on in the wider technology industry around ways of working, agile and so forth, around working iteratively, experimentally, and proving things early. Rather than upfront requirement specs, and then out comes something at the end which you then later discover doesn’t work.
Those were the two things really. It was that focus on user needs, and work in that different way, which was bringing skills into government that hadn’t been here before. Design, and user research, and software development skills that hadn’t previously been done in-house. It had always been outsourced.
Angus Montgomery: So it was a clear and simple strategy, or strategic direction, from Martha Lane Fox’s report. There was a clear mandate. This has been talked about a lot, that we had, or GDS had, Francis Maude backing it at a very high level, and giving it the mandate to-
Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. That was the other thing. It wasn’t just Martha’s letter. It was absolutely a kind of perfect storm of political will and the timing being right.
Yes, the Martha letter came out when I was Head of Digital Comms, or some title like that, at the Department for Business. I had moved around between departments. Ended up back in the Department for Business again.
It was advocating something pretty radical, that would be a threat really to the digital comms view, to a comms-led view of controlling our channels. That was an interesting situation to find myself in, right?
I was reading this stuff from Martha and thinking, “This is brilliant. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is absolutely the right thing.” But then internally my job required me to do some more maybe circumspect briefing to the minister and to the director of comms about, “Actually, well, this is a risk to us.”
So I was doing both of those things. I was talking internally about the positives of what this could mean for government, but the risks to our organisation, but publicly I blogged…
I thought, “This is brilliant.” I blogged enthusiastically, because I had a personal blog at the time, about my thoughts on how this could be the beginning of something really exciting.
That’s the thing that led me to meeting Tom Loosemore. Tom Loosemore, who as we all know is one of the early architects of GDS, saw my blog post, and got in touch and said, “Let’s have a chat.” And that’s how my journey into GDS started. It started by answering that email from Tom Loosemore and going for pizza with him.
Angus Montgomery: The power of blogging.
Neil Williams: Yes. We had a chat over pizza, where he was talking about his ideas for getting an alpha. Getting a team together that could produce something quickly, as a sort of throwaway prototype, that would show a different way of working.
Tom was saying stuff that was exciting but contained many new words. (Laughter) He was talking about alphas and agile ways of working. I don’t know what these things are.
Angus Montgomery: Now we’re at a stage, at GDS and throughout government, where agile is a touchstone of how we work, and it’s accepted that doing things in agile is doing things better, and there’s lots of opportunity for people to learn how that works, and what that means, and apply that to the things that they do, but at the time, as you said, this didn’t really exist in government. You, as someone who had worked in government, probably didn’t know what agile was.
Neil Williams: No.
Angus Montgomery: How did you learn about it, and how did you know that this was the right approach?
Neil Williams: A mix of reading up on it. Initially just going home and Googling those new words and finding out about these ways of working. But also it immediately spoke to me.
I had been through several years of several projects where I had felt just how awful and frustrating it is to build websites in a waterfall way. I've got some very difficult experiences that I had at [BEIS], when we rebuilt the website there, and it was project managed by a very thorough project manager in a waterfall way.
I was the Senior Responsible Officer, I think, or Senior User I think it is in PRINCE2 language, for the website. As the website was progressing we had a requirements document upfront, all that way of working. We were specifying, with as much predicting the future and guesswork as we possibly can, a load of stuff, and writing it down, around, ‘This is what the website needs to do. This is what the publishing system needs to do’. Then handing that over to a supplier, who then starts to try and interpret that and build that.
During that process, seeing as the thing is emerging, and we’re doing the user acceptance testing and all of that stuff on it, that this is just far away from the thing that I had in my head. So there’s already a gap between the written word and then the meaning that goes into the heads of the people who are then building that thing.
Then also all of the change that’s occurring at the same time. Whilst we are building that thing the world is not staying still, and there is an enormous amount of change in our understanding around what we want that thing to do.
Trying to get those changes in, but facing the waterfall approach, rigid change control process, and just feeling like I'm banging my head against a brick wall. It was really frustrating. Then when I…
Back to the question about how do I learn about agile, and some of these new concepts, it was really only when I got in there. I knew what the bad thing felt like, and I knew that that wasn’t right. I knew that you absolutely need to embrace the change as part of the process, embrace learning as part of the process of delivering something as live and ever changing as a website.
Then I came in as a product manager, initially part-time, and then full-time when GDS was properly established and able to advertise a role, and started working with Pete Herlihy, who is still here now in GDS.
Angus Montgomery: Yes, on Notify.
Neil Williams: Yes, he’s lead product manager on Notify now, but back then he was delivery manager.
Again, Tom Loosemore was making stuff happen behind the scenes. He was the person who introduced me and Pete. He said something along the lines of, “Neil’s the guy who knows what needs to happen, and Pete’s the guy who knows how to make it happen. You two should talk.” So we did.
I learnt a lot of what I now know from working with Pete and working as we then built out a team. Working with some terrific talented software developers, designers, content designers, and so forth, and user researchers, in a multidisciplinary way.
Learning on the job what it meant to be a product manager. Obviously, reading up about it. I went on a few courses, I think, too. But mostly learning on the job.
Zooming back out a little bit to the GDS career experience, I've learnt so much here. I've never learnt as much probably in the whole of the rest of my career as I've learnt in my time here.
Angus Montgomery: Because that first year was learning about agile, putting a team together. Learning how to build this thing. Learning how to land it. At what stage did you realise, “Oh, we’ve done this now. This thing is landing, and it’s getting big, and it’s successful. Oh, wow. We’re in charge of a piece of national infrastructure now”?
Neil Williams: That’s an interesting question. I always knew it would. We knew what we were building at the start. We knew we were building something-
Angus Montgomery: So you never had any doubts that this was going to work?
Neil Williams: Oh, God, yes. We had absolute doubt. The prevailing view when we started was that, “This will not work.”
Not internally. Internally, it was certainly a stretch goal. (Laughter) It was ambitious, and it felt a little bit impossible, but in a really exciting way. That is one of the key ingredients of success, is you want your team to feel like something is only just about doable. (Laughter) There’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a nearly impossible task. Also a bunch of naysayers saying, “This will never work.” And that really united us as a team.
Angus Montgomery: So what then happened? Because I think we talk quite a lot about the early years, and a lot has been written, obviously, and GDS was blogging like crazy in those days about the early stages, and how quickly you built the thing, and how quickly you transitioned onto it.
One thing that we have talked about as GDS, but probably not in as great detail, is what happened when it then got big, and you had to deal with issues of scale, and you had to deal with issues of…
Something a lot of people on GOV.UK have talked to me about is tech debt. That you built this thing very quickly and you had quite a bit of tech debt involved. How did you deal with that? Presumably you always knew this was a problem you were going to have to face.
Neil Williams: Yes, to a degree. That 14 people that did a bit on alpha scaled very rapidly to being 140 people. There were lots of teams working in parallel, and building bits of software just in time, like I was just talking about. Just in time for…
“We’re not going to build anything we don’t have to build. We’re just going to build what’s necessary to achieve the transition, to shut these other websites down and bring them all in.”
But that approach means you're laying stuff on top of other stuff, and things were getting built by different teams in parallel, adding to this growing code base, and in some cases therefore duplicative stuff happening. Where maybe we’ve built one publishing system for publishing a certain kind of format of content, another publishing system for publishing another kind of format of content.
Then in the process we’ve ended up with two different ways of doing something like attachments, asset management. Then we’ve got complexity, and we’ve got bits of code that different teams don’t know how to change without quite a steep learning curve, and so on. And that was the case everywhere.
Given the pace of how fast we were going, and how ambitious the timescales were for shutting down what turned out to be 1,882 websites… (Laughter) Exactly. It was incredible.
We knew, yes. We knew. It was talked about. It was done knowingly, that, “We are making things here that we’re going to have to come back to. That are going to be good enough for now, and they’re going to achieve what we need to achieve, but they will need fixing, and they will need replacing and consolidating.”
So we absolutely knew, and there was much talk of it. Quite a lot of it got written down at the time as ‘This is some tech debt that we’re going to definitely need to come back to’. Yes, we weren’t blind to that fact, but I think the degree of it, and the amount of time it took to resolve it, was slightly unexpected.
That’s partly because of massive personnel change as well. Straight off the back of finishing… Well, I say finishing. GOV.UK is never finished. Let’s just get that out there. Always be iterating.
GOV.UK’s initial build, and the transition, and the shutting down, the transition story of shutting down those 1,882 websites, had an end date, and that end date felt like a step change to many people.
As in lots of people came into GDS in those early days to do the disruptive thing. To do the start-up thing. To do Martha’s revolution. Then at that moment of, “Actually, we’ve now shut down the last website,” to lots of those people that felt like, “Now we’re going into some other mode. Now we’re going into actually we’re just part of government now, aren’t we? I don’t know. Do I necessarily want to be part of that?” So there was some natural drifting away of some people.
Plus, also, the budget shrank at that point. The project to do the transition was funded and came to an end. So actually we were going to go down to an operational smaller team anyway. So a combination of attrition, of people leaving anyway, plus the fact that we did need to get a bit smaller.
Also, at that time, that’s when the early founders of GDS left. Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Ben Terrett left around that time. Which also led to some other people going, “Well, actually, I came here for them. I came here with them. And I'm leaving too.”
So that meant that we had the tech debt to deal with at a time when we also had quite a lot of new stuff. We had all of this unknown and not terribly well-documented code, that was built really quickly, by lots of different people, in different ways. Plus people who weren’t part of that joining the team, and looking at it and going, “Oh, what have we got here? Where do I start with this?” (Laughter)
So it took a long time. I think it’s common in agile software development to underestimate how long things might take. It’s an industry problem that you need to account for.
Angus Montgomery: Well, this is the interesting thing, because it feels to me as an observer that there have been three main stages of GOV.UK so far. There’s the build and transition, which we’ve talked about quite a lot. There’s the growth and sustainability years, I suppose, where you were sorting out the tech debt, and you were making this thing sustainable, and you were dealing with departmental requests, and you were putting in structures, and process, and maturing it.
Now it feels like we’re in a new stage, where a lot of that structural stuff has been sorted out, and that means you can do really exciting things. Like the work that Kate Ivey-Williams, and Sam Dub, and their team have been doing on end-to-end services. The work that’s been going on to look at voice activation on GOV.UK. And the work that’s been done that Nicky Zachariou and her team have been looking at, machine learning, structuring the content. And it feels like now, having sorted out those fundamentals, there’s a whole load of stuff we can do.
Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. We’re iterating wildly again, I would say. (Laughter) We’re back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly again.
Some of the stuff we’re doing now is greenfield stuff. Again, a lot of the ideas we had way back when, in the early days of GDS, about making the publishing system really intuitive, and giving data intelligence to publishers, so that they can understand how services are performing, and see where to prioritise, and get really rich insights about how their stuff as a department is working for users, we’re getting to that now.
We’re starting to rebuild our publishing tools with a proper user-centric design. Which we didn’t do enough of, because we had to focus on the end users more in the early days. It’s great to be doing that now.
We’re also deleting some stuff, which were the mistakes that I made. (Laughter) Which feels good on my way out. Some of the things that we did, that have stuck around way longer than we intended them to, are now being deleted. We’re now able to go, “Actually, we know now, we’ve known for a while, that this isn’t the right solution,” and we’re able to change things more radically.
Yes, we’re doing really exciting stuff. Thanks for mentioning it.
Angus Montgomery: What are you most excited about? Because Jen Allum, who was lead product manager on GOV.UK for a couple of years, I think, she’s taking over now as head of GOV.UK after you leave. What are you most excited about seeing her and the team do? What do you think is the biggest challenge that they face?
Neil Williams: I'm thrilled that Jen is taking over the job. She obviously knows the product, knows the team really, really well, and she’s absolutely brilliant.
There is some incredibly exciting stuff happening right now, which I will be sad not to be here for. You mentioned one of them. That’s the step-by-step navigation product, which is our solution for, “How do you create an end-to-end holistic service that meets a whole user need?”
If you’ve been following GDS at all, which if you're listening to this podcast you probably have, then you will have seen stuff from Lou Downe, Kate Ivey-Williams, many other people, around end-to-end services and what we mean by services and service design. Around good services being verbs and bad services being nouns.
Government has the habit of creating schemes, and initiatives, and forms, and giving them names, and then they stick around for a very long time. Users end up even having to learn those names in some cases.
The classic example is, “I want to SORN my car.” What the hell does that even mean? Whereas actually what they want to do is take their car off the road. It’s an actual thing that an actual human wants to do.
Nearly every interaction or task that you have with government requires more than one thing. You need to look at some content. You might need to transact. You might need to fill in a form. You might need to go and do some stuff that’s not with government. You might need to read something, understand what the rules are, and then go and do something offline.
If you're a childminder you’ve got a step there, which is you’ve got to go and actually set up your space and get it inspected. Then you come back, and there’s more to do with government.
Those things need setting out clearly for people. It’s still the case now. Despite all of the great work that we’ve done on GOV.UK to improve all of this stuff, it’s still far too much the case that people have to do all of that work themselves. They have to piece together the fragments of content, and transactions, and forms that they need to do.
So what we are doing with our step-by-step navigation product is that’s a product output of a lot of thinking that’s been happening in GDS for many years, around, “How do you join services together, end-to-end, around the user?”
We’ve got that product. It’s been tested. It works really, really well. To look at you might just look at it and go, “Well, there’s not much to that, is there? That’s just some numbered steps and some links.”
Yes, it is, but getting something that looks that simple, and that really works, is actually a ton of work, and we’ve put in a huge amount of work into proving that, and testing that, and making sure that really works. Making it as simple as it is.
The lion’s share of that work is actually in the service design, and in the content design, going, “Let’s map out what is… Well, first of all let’s understand what the users need. Then let’s map out what are the many things that come together, in what order, in order to meet that need.”
Angus Montgomery: Before we wrap up I just wanted to ask you to give a couple of reflections on your time at GDS. What’s the thing you're most proud of, or what was your proudest moment?
Neil Williams: That’s tricky. I've been here a long time. I've done a lot of… I say I've done a lot of good stuff. I've been around whilst some really good stuff has happened. (Laughter)
Angus Montgomery: You’ve been in the room. (Laughter)
Neil Williams: Right. I've had a little bit to do with it. It’s got to be the initial build, I think. Other than wearing a Robocop t-shirt to a very formal event, which I'm still proud of, it’s got to be the initial build of GOV.UK and that was the thing that I was directly involved with and it was just the most ridiculous fun I've ever had. I can’t imagine ever doing something as important, or fast paced, or ridiculous as that again.
There were moments during that when… Actually, I don’t think I can even tell that story probably. (Laughter) There were some things that happened just as a consequence of the speed that we were going. There are funny memories. That’s all I'm going to say about that. If you want to-
Angus Montgomery: Corner Neil in a pub or café in South London if you want to hear that story in the future.
What was the scariest moment? Or what was the moment when you thought, “Oh, my God, this might not actually work. This thing might fall apart”? Or were there moments like that?
Neil Williams: I don't know. No, I think we’ve always had the confidence, because of the talent that we’ve brought in, the capability and the motivation that everyone has.
When bad things have happened, when we’ve had security threats or any kind of technical failures, just the way that this team scrambles, and the expertise that we’ve got, just means that I'm always confident that it’s going to be okay. People are here in GDS because they really care,and they’re also incredibly capable. The best of the best.
I'm not saying that’s an organisation design or a process that I would advocate, that people have to scramble when things fail, but in those early days, when GOV.UK was relatively newly launched, and we were going through that transition of from being built to run, those were the days where maybe the operations weren’t in place yet for dealing with everything that might come at us.
There was a lot of all hands to the pump scrambling in those days, but it always came right and was poetry to watch. (Laughter) Those moments would actually be the moments where you would be most proud of the team and to be part of it. When it comes down to it these people are really amazing.
Angus Montgomery: Finally, what’s the thing you are going to miss the most?
Neil Williams: Well, it’s the people, isn’t it? That’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s genuinely true. I've made some amazing friends here. Some people who I hope I can call lifelong friends. Many people who have already left GDS, who I'm still in touch with and see all the time.
It’s incredible coming into work and working with people who are so likeminded, and so capable, and so trusting of each other, and so funny. I laugh all the time. I come into work and it’s fun. It’s so much fun.
And we’re doing something so important, and we’re supporting each other. The culture is just so good, and the people are what makes that. Cheesy as it may be, it’s you Angus. I'm going to miss you.
Angus Montgomery: It’s all about the people. Oh, thank you. That was a leading question. (Laughter)
Neil Williams, thank you so much for doing that and best of luck in the future. We will miss you lots.
Neil Williams: Thanks very much. Thank you.
Angus Montgomery: So that wraps up the very first Government Digital Service podcast. I hope you enjoyed it - we’re aiming to do lots more episodes of this, we’re aiming to do around 1 episode a month and we’re going to be talking to lots of exciting and interesting people both inside GDS and outside GDS and we’re going to be talking about things like innovation and digital transformation and user-centred design and all sorts of interesting things like that, so if you’d like to listen to future episodes please go to wherever it is you get your podcasts and subscribe to listen to us in the future. And I hope you enjoyed that episode and I hope you listen to more. Thankyou very much.
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