So, six months in then to my current gig as HMRC Digital’s interim head of design. That it’s taken this long to commit words to screen tells you how intense, how full-on those six months have felt.
And to look at me on a typical day, hunched over a laptop screen all furrowed brow, deep sighs and foul-mouthed muttering you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that I’m enjoying it, but you’d be dead wrong.
I’ve never been more proud of a job, fortunate in the designers I inherited from Denise Wilton’s time in the same role and proud of those I’ve been able to bring in since. I don’t need hindsight to see that I’m in the best moment of my career as a designer.
With close to forty designers, HMRC has nearly one in five of the designers working in government. It’s by far the biggest team I’ve been responsible for, stretched over 300 miles between Newcastle and London.
HMRC is hard. We’re dealing with hard design problems, complex interactions and a lot of cultural and infrastructural legacy. There are 30 agile delivery teams across HMRC, building a complex inter-related set of digital services. What we’re building affects the the lives of millions of people - not just the money that HMRC brings in to pay for public services, but the money it gives back out in tax credits to people whose everyday lives rely on HMRC getting it right.
To work for HMRC is to imagine what it’s like to be a doctor. Mention it and you’ll find strangers telling you their life stories. Hours spend on hold, lost logins and unfathomable interfaces. Sorry, everyone.
Design is meetings
The hardest design work at HMRC often isn’t about what we commit to screen, it’s the work that precedes it. Like other government departments, design at HMRC is as much about showing by doing what good design process can and should look like to a department culturally attuned to Gantt charts, functional specifications, fixed requirements and bad outcomes.
Overturning that legacy means facilitating design in a way that lets others in - tax specialists, policy and legal advisers and more. To help them see for themselves, through participation, how to turn their intent, through design, into a digital service that truly meets user need. That’s attritional, worthwhile, rewarding stuff and it takes a special group of designers to make it work.
Us vs them
HMRC Digital is connected to something far bigger, with its neighbouring digital teams in the Home Office, DVLA, Ministry of Justice and more, and in Government Digital Service itself. Part of the next phase of design in government, I think, is about continuing strengthening the links between departments and the embedding of a culture, gifted to it by GDS. I think design has a big role to play in that and it starts with the Digital Service Standard.
There’s been an understandable tendency for all departments, including HMRC, to see the Digital Service Standard as GDS’s, rather than something that is of the government, our own.
‘What we need to do for GDS’ rather than ‘what we need to deliver a quality digital service’ is still a thing I hear far too often.
By externalising the service standard - and GDS - in this way, it becomes easy for other parts of government to see GDS as a digital Ofsted, with all the echoes of compliance, perceived injustice and adversarial resentment that can sometimes come with it. But worse, it’s outsourcing responsibility for quality.
As design in government matures, it’s important for designers wherever they are to play their part by thinking and working as designers in government beyond departmental silos. It’s what Mike Bracken described as looking sideways.
We need everyone involved in making digital services in government to take the service standard and service design manual as their own, to talk less about them, more about us. Our digital service standard, our service design manual.
The last few months have seen huge changes in GDS, and in design teams across government. But we retain in government, more design talent than anywhere I’ve ever worked. And there’s much to be done. As Louise Downe, GDS’s new director of design, succintly put it government services aren’t done yet, so neither am I. Not by a long way.