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Pete Herlihy, GDS

Pete Herlihy

Lead Product Manager, Government Digital Service

Pete Herlihy has been with the UK Government Digital Service since it was established in 2011. During that time he’s delivered many of its biggest and most challenging successes including the GOV.UK website (winner of Design of the Year 2013), moving voter registration online, introducing online petitioning of government and parliament, and is currently working on GOV.UK Notify — a common service for all of government to use to communicate with users via text and email.

Why No-One Should Ever See Your Best Work

Making something complex feel simple is hard work. We spend a lot of our time as product teams trying to do just that. But we’re missing a trick - more often than not the best user experience is actually no interaction at all.

Pete Herlihy, lead product manager at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), shares his biggest successes and failures delivering high profile online services like voter registration and petitions. Exploring just how far ‘doing the hard work to make things simple’ really can get you.





Lovely being back in Edinburgh. It’s about my eighth time up here; first time at Turing. Who’s from Edinburgh, quick show? Okay, let’s do this the other way, who’s not from Edinburgh? That’s the same number, okay. Who’s come the furthest? Who’s come from Glasgow? Who’s come from south of the border? All right, who’s come from another country? Which countries? Spain? Nice, I was there two weeks ago. Dress for the weather you want, not the weather you have. Anywhere else, who’s further from Spain? Nice, nice, okay… I’ve been there love it.

So, it’s a great time to be in Edinburgh because there’s touring festivals on obviously, and there’s a nice warm-up festival going on around town as well. It’s really nice, they’re quite canny to manage the time so well to lead up the Turing this year. So, my name is Pete and I’m here to share some thoughts around why I think no one should ever see your best work. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. Before I do, a little bit about me.

So, I’m from the government, so is he, you might recognize him. His name is Bond, James Bond. Always wanted to say that. It’s clearly not his real name, everyone knows that is Daniel Craig. But I’m from a different part of the government to this guy. I’m from this part of the government, Government Digital Service. Now the Government Digital Service is relatively young in terms of government anyway; it’s five years old and it was formed to help the government fix web publishing and help the government fix its services and transactions. But it’s also formed to build up expertise back in government because we’d spent many many years outsourcing all of our expertise to often large companies and we left with nothing more than quite strong procurement knowledge but not a lot of digital expertise.

And we started as most startups do start: small, awful offices, terrible offices, chairs that didn’t really work, some of the rollers didn’t really work. There weren’t enough desks, there was no air conditioning, awful stuff, but brilliant people, very passionate people and they were about 12, 15 of us to start with. And we’ve grown over those five years, of course, we have with lots of us. Now there’s around about 400, 500 people that work for GDS. And we work on stuff that matters and what I mean by that is that we get paid slightly less than the private sector but we do work on stuff that matters, everyone works on stuff that matters, but that’s generally what they mean when they advertise a job is working on stuff that matters.

And so we started on GOV.UK website, which is a website, the single domain for British Government and it closed down something like 800 different websites. They all look different, they all felt differently, they generally had the same information or conflicting information, and they all had different publishing systems beneath them. It was a very sensefull and obvious thing for us to have done. And I’m not gonna talk too much about that other than just said that’s where we started. And we moved from web publishing into online services, okay, important online services like vote…or registries what I should say, so you can’t vote online just to be clear. Although you can in Estonian but we’re not talking about that.

So online voting — sorry, not voting, we’re definitely still not talking about online voting. Registering to vote, online. That’s fundamental; it’s at the heart of our democracy, and there’s been a lot of voting recently, as you know — particularly in Scotland, actually. And it almost always never leads to decisions you don’t agree with. I’m not gonna talk about Brexit. Today, my views on that will remain my own and I will stay that way because as a civil servant I clearly can’t express political views. However, elections are really important, local authorities are obliged by law to maintain an electoral register at the expense of everything else they do. It’s the last thing that they can stop doing, so they can stop doing schools, they can stop doing libraries, they can stop doing social work, they can stop doing parking. I mean they should stop doing parking anyway, but they can stuff all of those things that they cannot stop administering the election, so it’s fundamental and to our constitution.

And before online registration, you had to register on a bit of paper or if you were really fancy you could go online and fill in a PDF and then download it and print it, AKA 90s digitization. Now I’ll come back to online registration in a moment because there’s some interesting stuff there, but before I do, I’ll talk about a few other services that we are responsible for.

A lasting power of attorney, anyone heard of lasting power of attorney? Okay, a few. So, this is what if you set one of these up in the event that you one day are unable to take decisions for yourself due to mental or physical incapacity and you choose somebody you trust, some people you trust to make decisions for you in that event. So it’s obviously a very important thing, it’s not a fun thing to go through. It can often be quite a stressful thing to go through. And it’s important that we as the government offer this kind of service to people, we make it as quick and as simple and as easy to use as we possibly can.

Student finance, who’s got a student loan? Okay, sucks to be you. I did have a student loan. It’s a really important service, it’s a really important thing if you want to know if you’re gonna have money to further education to attend university or higher education. It’s really important you’ve got access, that you know where you’re at, you know how much money you owe, but, you know if you’ve been approved, a very important service that we need to offer.

I’m not listing all of the services but I wanna talk a little bit about how some of the services we offer are not pleasant to have to go through, obviously this one here. I’m looking forward to touch, okay? Touch would none of us need to use this service but it shows that there are a bunch of things that we go through where we’re not, there are not fun transactions. They’re not about making money, they’re not about booking holidays, but we have to offer them because we’re government. And we need to offer them, we need to, therefore, make them as simple to use as quick as painless so you’re in and out you’ve done what you need to.

Another one doesn’t need much explaining calculating stats redundancy. The most interesting thing about this slide I think is the fact that this photo is of a colleague of mine pressing a Dell monitor that’s not remotely touch screen but, you know, let’s pretend it’s a kiosk somewhere.

And finally the last service I’m gonna talk about there are literally hundreds of services or 800 government services, so I’m not gonna talk about all 800, I’m only gonna do the first 700 or so.

Carer’s allowance this is a tiny amount of money that the government gives you to allow you to take care of someone who needs it. So, it’s a really trivial amount of money, really it’s not significant at all, but it can be the difference between whether or not you can afford to care for that person to take time off work or not work at all. Again another example of a stressful, not a brilliant service…well, it’s a brilliant service, it’s not one that everyone looks forward to using.

And interestingly again about the slide, we’ve got some great stock photography in government, like amazing really. And this one reminds me of a late 90s Pokemon Go sort of set up with the BlackBerry. I’ve never used Pokemon Go but I’m told it’s very similar. I’m lying a little bit there.

Okay, so GDS is here to help and we want to make it easy for government to be digital. GDS didn’t build or deliver all of those services, we did deliver some of them but more importantly, we work with all of the rest of government and to ensure that they’ve got the skills and capabilities to deliver those kinds of services. So, I’m from the government and I’m here to help. I’m just getting a drink of water.

Okay, let me take you back to 2011 and this we’re working on the alpha of what was to become GOV.UK. I don’t know who did this but I printed this out and put it on the wall of the office, the dream. And it was obviously done, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but maybe not and I’ll come back to that in a moment. But what that led to or that became part of any way was a set of design principles that we developed within GDS. We provide these across government now. There are 10 principles, if you haven’t seen these already…you may have. If you haven’t seen these already you can find them on Google, GDS design principles — or even other search engines exist obviously.

But I’m gonna have a quick look at the fourth of these principles and that’s this one here, “Do the hard work to make it simple.” Now, I’m not gonna read that out to you. I think it’s large enough. If you wanna read it later read it later. But I’ll give you 20 seconds now to read it, just wait for the stop, don’t read it yet. Okay, so waiting for the second hand to get to the top. Okay, you can read now. I’m just gonna check Facebook while you do that. Okay, that’s time, stop reading.

So as product people, I think too often we’re starting from the wrong place. We accept constraints that exist and we then try and find the best way to navigate someone through that world of constraints. So these constraints have pretty much always been removed, not always but quite often can be removed. Laws can be changed, regulations can be changed, systems, equipment, whatever it is can be changed. Now, I’m not saying that we should be ignoring constraints. I think that’s quite the opposite actually. Ignoring constraints is incredibly naive and I’m sure we’ve all been given pictures from people with product design ideas where they just completely ignore the constraints, blue sky thinking here’s something that could be amazing if we could land it. But the reality is those things never, ever land because those constraints can’t just be ignored.

And likewise, I think accepting all the constraints is incredibly lazy as well, what you end up with is a half-baked product that don’t really meet your user’s needs. I’m talking about something that’s a bit different from both of those things and that’s really understanding the constraints, it’s doing the hard work to understand what those constraints are. It can be very dull, it can be very unexciting, unsexy stuff. But understanding the legislation that’s blocking or causing a constraint to you can help you remove it or at least find ways to get through it or around it or over it. Understanding how the regulations are put together and that means reading boring legal text, reading boring regulation guides. But it can be worth it because then you can have a proper informed conversation with the regulators, with the lawyers, with whoever you need to speak with to try and remove some of those constraints.

And you might also occasionally find your way to the ultimate, and that’s to say giving somebody something they want without them having to do anything at all. Because I think often, particularly in service delivery, the best user experience is no interaction at all. If I can get what I need and I don’t have to do anything, that for me is a good thing. And I don’t think we aim for this often enough. I don’t think we even ask ourselves this question often enough, “Is that something we could do?”

Let me give you an example of that, individual electoral registration. So this is a service that I was involved in 2013, 2014 and it’s when the government introduced a policy to try and increase trust in the accuracy of the electoral register. There have been a few of our cases, but a few cases, where there has been some electoral fraud and they’re massively reported, so it feels probably a bigger problem than it is in reality, but it’s still important that people trust the integrity of the register. So, an initiative was put down by the government where we would rather than doing something called household registration we would move to individual registration. And that came law on the 10th of June 2014, sneak peek. And it’s good having deadlines on your service delivery. I’m not sure having a law where you’ll be breaking the law if you don’t meet your deadline is the ideal way, but it’s a very effective motivator to deliver your stuff on time, particularly when you can’t also be early.

But as the name suggests moving to a system where everyone will be individually registered and there’s 46 million people on the electoral register. And I say the electoral register, there’s not actually one. There is about 400 of them because they’re all held at local authority level. And so before that, the head of the household would be required…the paperwork would come through the door, head of the household be required to fill in all the various bits and pieces, and they would be the person who decided who should be registered to vote within their house. And actually, head of the household is the actual name of the legislation, which gives you probably some idea about how old that legislation is. And head of the household in my house is about four years old, and I’m pretty certain she’s not got my democratic rights in mind.

But we had the problem, we went 46 million people who are registered to vote or felt they were registered to vote, and we didn’t want to have to get 46 million people to go and have to re-register individually. That was the challenge, so we did some thinking. The result of that thinking and doing, obviously, was that 40 million people were automatically registered to vote and they didn’t have to do anything. Now, we did that and then I’ll give you the whistle-stop tour of how we did that technically.

So we built a hub, a digital hub at the centre, we got APIs, we then integrated with 400 local authorities who held with each of these local registers. We got some legislation changed to allow us to transfer data because all sorts of data sharing legislation involved. We then got each of the authorities to load the data into the central hub. We took it, we passed it again over to Department of Work and Pensions to hold a big set of information about individuals and where they live, dates of birth, etc. And we got some confidence ratings as to likelihood for that, the information held on the local electoral register was accurate. It was the same as what was held on the Department of Work and Pensions’ systems. We then got those kinds of confidence ratings back into the hub and then passed that information back out to each of the local authorities, technically to the electoral registration offices. They then made a decision based on that information as to whether or not to move the people across. And 87% of people as I said were moved across which is where the 40 million comes from.

So the experience for those people was no interaction at all. They got what they needed, didn’t necessarily want to be registered, but they needed to, and they got to be on the new electoral register without lifting a finger. For the remaining six million, and indeed for anyone who subsequently wanted to register or update their details, we needed a new system as well. And this is the online registration that you saw on a smart iPhone 6 before. This now takes about 3 minutes, 2 minutes 47 for the average user on a mobile phone from anywhere in the world anytime to date.

But getting to that, oh sneak peek again, getting to that took about 12 months of wrangling with policy teams, with lawyers about removing questions that really didn’t serve a great purpose in an online world. That removing of the need for a wet signature and that was very difficult thing to deal with online obviously. And it allowed us to really focus on a very quick, very simple online transaction that is hugely used in popular, particularly with the younger members of the electorate who, as we know, we struggle to get them out and voting.

So we didn’t get everything we wanted and it’s certainly a case of picking your battles. But it’s a testament that learning and understanding, doing that hard work to understand the constraints, to understand the regulations, the legislation, lets you have a proper conversation with the lawyers and the regulators. Because the lawyer’s job isn’t to tell you what you can and can’t do. The lawyer’s job is to tell you about the risks of what you can, want to do and don’t want to do. And so you can always have a conversation with them particularly if you’re speaking the same language.

Last picture on this is a little sneak peak of an Easter egg that I snuck into online voting registration. If you register to vote online and it’s your birthday, and we know that because you tell us your date of birth, at the end some bunting, which is nice. And it didn’t make the national media, this one, which is to say there have been other Easter eggs that have done that, but I’m not gonna talk about that for HR reasons.

Okay, another example. This guy Matt Hancock, minister — as well as minister for the Cabinet Office — now minister for Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. Last summer he was saying “Listen that we were gonna build a status tracking platform for all of government, so that anybody could log into this thing and could see where all this stuff was at in a few clicks whether, you know, as he says, there with your purchasing, repaying, applying for something.” And so that was handed to me to make that a thing.

So I did a tour of the country, small team, and we went around the country, a lot of train stations, a lot of pasties, and we quickly came to the conclusion that status tracking platform was good but actually much better than the status tracking platform would be if we just told people stuff. So, rather than waiting ’til they came to us to ask us where their stuff was at, why don’t we just tell them where this stuff was at. Because that’s really what they wanted to know, they didn’t want a website to go to, they didn’t want to have to remain anxious enough to get to the point where they went to a website. They wanted to know immediately when we took a decision, when we received something from them, when we’re sending something out to them, where their things are at.

And a status tracking platform is a very obvious thing where it meets the government need to reduce costs, to reduce calls into contact centers that says, “Go and self-serve,” channel shift, right? But it didn’t meet the needs of the end-users at all. I mean it’s not bad, a status tracking platform, it’s slightly better than calling up, but it’s not as good as just being told immediately. And the conclusion of that discovery work was we’re doing the wrong thing if we build the status tracking platform because it is channel shift but only a channel shift for your anxiety. You’re moving it from a phone call, an anxious phone call to an anxious website visit, and that’s pretty unacceptable. Which meant saying no to the minister, no to what he’d been promising everyone through the summer, also a bit awkward but it’s the right thing to do.

And instead, the thing I’m currently working on is GOV.UK Notify. So this sends text messages, emails, and even physical posts to people. It’s for all of government, different service things across government will integrate with it, and they will use that to automatically send notifications to people who are using the service. So that means the second that somebody clicks a button to say, “Yes that’s approved for you,” boom, text message on your phone, it’s been approved. Less fun if it’s been declined, obviously, but you’ll know within seconds. And the day you send your passport and you’re worried about your passport and when you’re gonna get your passport back because you wanna go to Spain or Estonia, then the second it turns up at a post room and it’s scanned, an email is pinged off to you to let you know that’s being received and that, you know, when it’s gonna come back. So we’re not waiting for you to phone us to tell you something that we already know, waiting for you to phone up during your lunch hour probably, sit on hold. I’m sure we’ve all done this before, I know I do. And listening to awful music; sort of largely Justin Bieber-related music. And which is awful. No one should have to suffer from that. And that’s another example where the best experience for someone is no interaction at all. If they don’t have to do anything and yet we deliver to them the information they need, that’s a much better experience than them having to go and do a thing.

Okay, last service I’m gonna talk about is renewing your driving license. And those eagle-eyed and see that’s actually my driving license and passport photo, I took myself and added to the government’s stock photography library for all time use. If you pan back a bit is all the other shit that stuff, that’s on my kitchen table, but luckily I could zoom in on my smart mobile phone. Now when you renew your driving license, you have an option to use the photo from your passport. So rather than you going out, taking another photo, going down to snappy snaps or whoever other photo booths exist, getting that photo, uploading it, being told that it’s wrong because you’re happy or whatever other reasons that photos are not allowed to be taken, fake mustaches, there’s all sorts of reasons.

You don’t even need to do that, we’ll take some information that we hold in another part of government that was clearly provided for pretty much exactly the same purpose, and we’ll let you nominate that as your photo on your driving license. Now it’s a pretty obvious thing in hindsight to do, the government holds a photo of you, we need another photo of you, let’s use the other photo. But it’s actually a lot harder to make happen in reality, and that’s because a lot of people see government like this. One front door, I’m not sure they all see a number 10 being the front door to government. But one front door, one big computer system with all the information the government knows all this stuff, and everyone’s quite astounded when they’re told you have to update your address over here and here and here and here and here, and even within an organization here, here, and here.

Because the reality of government is actually more like this. We’ve got better clickers in government I should say, just a thought. And the reality of government is this: every different bit of government is a different legal entity. They’ve all got different front doors, they’ve all got different systems, they’ve all sadly got different standards that have evolved for data for information sharing. And so what seems like a relatively straightforward thing to do is actually incredibly hard. Now, we are working on this problem, we are aware of this problem, we are working on this problem.

In the meantime, something like that example of the driving license and the passport requires a hell of a lot of hard work. A lot of wrangling, a lot of work with lawyers and legal teams, with policies. If there’s anyone a policy person, who wouldn’t like to admit to that? Okay. Policy people are the gatekeepers for the lawyers so you wanna go past them, don’t write that one down. So, it’s difficult but it is difficult and I say difficult, not impossible, clearly, it’s not impossible. The example that I’ve just given you where it is worth doing their hard work understanding in depth the regulation so that you can find a way, you can have a frank conversation, and try and find a way through, and that’s the challenge, doing hard work to make it simple.

Now this is a poster and it’s something I think that we’ve done not very well, or not well enough in government, and certainly even in GDS and even in myself, is that we’ve spent too long focusing on fixing transactions and trying to make the transaction better or make the transaction quicker or make the transaction easier. And not step back a bit and thought about the whole experience that somebody has of that service because following on from a transaction is a whole bunch of case working that goes on, often there’s a bunch of stuff, there’s a decision that’s taken, there’s a bit…a passport that’s issued, there’s a driving license issued, and then you get the thing at the end.

So your experience of a service starts from the moment you decide I need this thing and maybe you start on Google or Bing whatever, Alta Vista, probably not there. And it ends when you get that thing, you get that driving license in your hand, but we focus so much in the early days on getting that transaction, getting that bit where you apply, so that was really slick and nice and easy and simple. And then it was carnage after that and you didn’t know when it was coming, you know, you had no idea we’d be late, you weren’t getting any of these notifications, all this sort of stuff.

And so I’ve had to step back and say, “Let’s stop thinking about transactions and let’s start thinking about services as a whole. And that’s gonna be I think the difference between making something fairly easy, which is where the transaction bit comes in, to make you actually be easy, or ultimately if you can get all of the constraints lined up and all the constraints removed, then we get to the situation where we can achieve something with somebody not having to do anything at all.

And I think that’s the challenge, I think that’s where we need to start. If we don’t start a new product, piece of work by asking ourselves, “How can I achieve what this person needs to without them doing anything?” then we’re asking the wrong question. The answer is not always gonna be yes, but every now and again it will be, and that’s the challenge for us all. That’s that. It’s hard with this thing and he’s only got three, so I’m not gonna do that. Anyway, thank you for your time.

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