Moving on

In February it will be six years since a small group of us gathered in a scruffy room in Lambeth to work on what we called alpha.gov.uk. Matt had introduced me to Tom Loosemore who, over coffee at the Book Club, had persuaded me to put the company and products James and I were developing on hold and take a leap into government.

Over three months, the various forces that had been pushing for a new approach to digital government began to coalesce into what we now call GDS, and a public prototype of how government could be presented online. I was the first developer in and had the privilege of laying the groundwork for much of what was to come.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be celebrating the fifth birthday of that thing really coming to life as a team in the Cabinet Office with a broad remit to lead the digital transformation of the UK government.

I’ll be around for those fifth birthday celebrations, but not for the informal sixth. I’ve decided it’s time for me to leave GDS and figure out what comes next. I’m not leaving immediately, but will step away at the end of January.

I don’t know what will come next, but I’m excited to see.

These six years have been an incredible experience. My role has evolved rapidly from being a very hands-on technology lead; through hiring, building and guiding an incredible team of technologists as GDS’ community lead and Chief Architect; to working widely across government, most recently as deputy to Andy Beale in his role as Government CTO.

What do you want to do? Image from the alpha.gov.uk days

It’s really hard to pick out highlights from the past few years. I’m expecting to be reflecting on what I’ve learned and done for a long time to come, but a few things that really stand out:

  • The deeply collaborative work conceiving, designing, building and launching GOV.UK will always be lodged deeply in my mind. From sitting with our first content designers making hourly improvements to the initial publishing tools, through iterating our work in public, the long night when we switched off DirectGov and BusinessLink and all the change that has come beyond. On one level GOV.UK is “just a website” but it was and is also the starting point for everything else, a way to shape and communicate government that is of the internet.

  • I’ve written and spoken recently about our journey with open source and “Coding in the Open“. Open source was already present in government in quiet ways before we started, but by deciding to do our work in public we were able to bring it to the fore and make the use and creation of open code the norm. That’s reverberated around the globe with initiatives like code.gov, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

  • Listening to a Public Accounts Committee hearing from last week, it was great to hear positive words about the way that digital service delivery and security have come together and the way that we’re now able to help international partners with that. Those partnerships across security, design, technology and delivery are absolutely vital for building trust. I will always be very proud of the way I’ve been able to support and develop that. That’s been particularly evident this year as I’ve spent a lot of time helping shape the new National Cyber Security Centre.

  • Spending countless hours in interviews can quickly get tiring, but the opportunity to help recruit and build teams right across government was a real pleasure. The time I’ve been able to spend with the team in Ministry of Justice over the years, particularly early on as we kicked off the exemplars, is particularly satisfying. They’re now a really strong team developing fantastic services and thinking with a genuine enthusiasm to work across (and challenge) boundaries.

  • It’s also been a real pleasure to work with other governments, sharing what we’ve learned and learning from them. Most recently that was an exhausting yet fascinating trip to India, but it’s probably the work with the US that will stick in my memory the most. Sitting in the White House several years ago plotting with Haley for what would become the United States Digital Service, numerous phone calls and emails, detailed conversations to help inform what would become the Federal Open Source policy, and seeing the many impacts that the teams then are making. I hope to find opportunities to continue to support the growing international movement for digital government.

  • Spend controls are always going to be a controversial topic, but they’re absolutely vital. I’m proud to have been deeply involved in them for several years. They’ve done a huge amount to save money and reduce self-harm, but more than that, time and again, we’ve seen the challenge (with teeth) they bring unlocking far better approaches to problems. They’ve created opportunities for individuals and teams in many departments to try something different. It’s great to see so much praise in the industry for the team that rolled out the new MOT system. Through spend controls, we had spotted a problem there, we were able to support new leadership and a shift in direction, lived through a tense few days of close monitoring and ministerial briefing as they migrated hosting, but a really successful service resulted.

  • My last few months have been mainly about work with tech leaders across government building and refreshing the Technology Leaders Network. We’ve been doing that as openly as possible, with quite a few blog posts resulting. I’ve spent the past few years building informal networks and joining the dots between people and tools, making sure expertise is shared and that systems like spend controls support people pioneering new approaches. It’s been good to start bringing that together more formally.

  • Through all of those things it’s been the recurring reality that “the unit of delivery is the team” that’s kept me going. Nothing’s given me more pleasure than creating space for truly multi-disciplinary teams for whom the overall outcome is far more important than any specific skill set, but who can dig deep into their specialisms to get that outcome right. GDS is full of them, and our leadership has supported many more right across the system.

The challenges and opportunities that the culture, practices and technologies of the internet bring for society are starker than ever, and GDS’ role leading transformation of the whole of government has never been more vital.

GDS is entering a new phase. It’s time for me to move on and try something new.

I don’t want to jump into anything full-time and long-term straight away but after six years doing this I’m very open to new ideas. I’m available at james@jystewart.net if you want to talk.

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