Ben Holliday

How to work in the open in government

The gates of UK Parliament
The gates of UK Parliament (Creative Commons License)

I recently commented on this Guardian article:Benefits system automation could plunge claimants deeper into poverty.

[It’s e]asy to read this and blame the technology, without thinking through the way the current political culture and welfare policy is influencing the way tech is being developed [and] used. Internet-era tech and automation could help design and build a brilliant welfare system that works for everyone (inc. front line staff/rather than replacing them). It needs a human-centred design approach from the very top if that’s going to happen …Part of the problem here is lack of working in the open. Semi-working on the open like this becomes open to interpretation. Why not just open this work up properly? – Twitter Thread

Semi-working in the open

As people reading this blog may know, I worked with the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) between 2013–2017, and spent a year at the start of that time working with the Government Digital Service (GDS). In the current era of digital government, probably from around 2010, one of the things that emerged was working in the open. The idea of working in the open is an important UK government design principle. As a result of this we saw teams at GDS and in UK government departments setting up blogs to talk openly about what they were working on and why.

This was great progress. But if you look carefully, the number, frequency and focus of blog posts and other social media has shifted in the past couple of years. To me, this feels like we’re talking much less about the detail of the work and services that are actually being delivered now. This is a real shame, because it limits the potential for cross-government collaboration, and also for others to benefit from the work happening in government (which is of course tax payer funded, so why not build on that knowledge or open source code if you’re starting your own business, or designing services somewhere like the charity sector).

What I think has happened is that some organisations have drifted into ‘semi-working in the open’. This means that they talk about teams, culture and being inclusive, progressive employers. They share how they’re developing new communities of practice to deliver services and technology in new ‘innovative’ ways. But this has gradually replaced the output and emphasis on sharing what their teams are actually working on.

There’s nothing wrong with talking about inclusivity and diversity in the workplace (these things are important), but this then starts to neglect one the main reason for working in the open, to share work, and to own the story about that work.

It has got harder to read about real service delivery in government. It’s not that this isn’t happening, it’s that government department digital programmes and communications teams, like DWP Digital, seem from the outside to be focusing more on their people and team values, rather than the work that they do and why.

Owning your story

The important point here is this: owning the story of your work is important, or someone else will write and share that story for you. Especially if you work on services that impact millions of people. When semi-working in the open happens there’s a missed opportunity to show people your real values and intent through the approaches you take in your work.

As the Guardian story I linked to shows, not owning your own narrative around how you’re using and investing in technology leaves this open to interpretation. There will always be the possibility of a bad headline because of a blog post, but this is even more likely if reporting is an interpretation of freedom of information (FOI) requests and undercover research.

In this automation example, and with the underlying technology, this is a set of tools thatcould be used to build a better welfare system. A welfare system that works better for everyone. It should mean front line staff can spend more time and energy supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society. But you have to explain this in the context of the technology and service patterns you’re designing with, as well as the values and design principles that are shaping each of the individual design decisions that the teams in your organisation are making.

A deliberate strategy

In my mind there are three options that you can use to shape how you approach this:

1. Working in the open: This means fully owning and sharing your story. It includes your successes and your failures (drawing from design-led or agile approaches to delivery). It’s not about positioning or political spin. It means transparency in what you’re working on and why, and ideally includes sharing what you learn from user research and how this is shaping the decisions you make.*

2. Semi-working in the open: You can try to open up parts of your organisation but without fully owning or telling the story of what you’re doing, leaving it to others to tell that story. You risk being an organisation that isn’t seen to be delivering much. Open communications become focused on events, people values, transformation roadmaps and future vision, but at the risk of not impacting what people really experience from your front line services.

3. Not working in the open: You can choose to share nothing externally instead of talking openly and often about what you’re doing and why. You might try to replace this output with increased internal communications or with more focus on how staff work across teams, like investing more in internal collaborative tools and technology.

The big problem here is that trust in government is lost when we don’t work in the open. A key part of the progress that early digital government made in the UK was the idea of building trust with users. Without trust, why shouldn’t people have expectations and start to make assumptions that the use of technology in the welfare system in being designed and developed to work against them?

There are lots of reasons why organisations choose these different options (sometimes unknowingly). Political pressure, and the lack of permission or autonomy given to Civil Servants is a problem. I have no doubt that individuals, and the communications teams in government departments are working hard within different sets of constraints, including the surrounding bigger political picture, and sensitive policy areas like welfare reform.

If you’re part of a government digital programme, press office, or communication team then I would encourage you to think more about which strategy you’re following and why.

To finish, the encouraging thing is that parts of local government seem to have found the original digital government version of working in the open – especially some of the emerging digital and design teams. For examples, see the User Research library at Hackney Council, or the blogs at Essex, North East Lincolnshire, or Stockport Councils. Weeknotes have also helped many individuals talk more openly about their work in government in a place that doesn’t invite the same scrutiny as official government blogs or from department press offices.

*This is where service assessments should be working (if they get published, which they all used to be). It’s also where public portfolios of work and lists of services are important like this blog post and example from the Home Office.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.