Out with the old, in with the new: GDS head Tom Read looks to the future

Government Digital Service's chief exec salutes new talent and tells us about the need to protect crucial teams 
Photo: gdsteam/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Civil Service World

13 Dec 2022


What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?  

While much of 2021 was about reshaping and refocusing GDS, 2022 has been all about delivery. Our flagship programme is called GOV.UK One Login for Government, which will provide citizens with a single way to prove their identity to government online, and a single username and password to access any government service. We’re working in close partnership with HM Revenue and Customs, the Disclosure and Barring Service, and several other departments and watching Natalie Jones and the whole team imagine, design and deliver this new service at pace is a real and ongoing highlight.  

On a more personal level, getting to work with the brilliant and passionate new senior leaders who have joined GDS this year is a highlight. Our new director of GOV.UK, Christine Bellamy, joined in August from the BBC, and our new chief product and technology officer, Abísọ́lá Fátókun, joined us from consultancy. Leadership can be a lonely business so being surrounded by smart, capable people makes things so much easier.    

  What was your most difficult decision in 2022?  

There are plenty of exciting transformation opportunities on the table in digital, but we’ve had to make difficult decisions this year about where to focus our efforts, and which opportunities we can viably go after with the resources we have to hand right now.  

One of those decisions was to close down one of our well-loved technology platforms – GOV.UK PaaS. It was tough but meant we’ve been able to focus our people on solving other problems like building GOV.UK Forms, a tool that will allow anyone in government to easily create online forms and make digital services easier to use for citizens.     

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how are you preparing to meet it as an organisation?  

Over the past decade, digital teams in departments have made great progress in digitising the most used citizen-facing services right across government, from applying for a passport to filing your tax return. However, in the past few years many leading nations have leapfrogged us and are starting to provide government services online in a whole new way. 

“Many leading nations have leapfrogged us and are starting to provide government services online in a whole new way. The challenge for 2023 is to explore how we can build towards this" 

Instead of expecting the end user to always have to take the first step and fill in a form, some services are fully automated using connected data from several departments. For example, in Singapore parents register the birth of their child on an app on their phone while in the hospital, and their child benefit payments are automatically recalculated and paid into their account without them having to do anything further.  

The challenge for 2023 is to work with departments right across government to explore how we can start to build towards this next generation of digital services, without derailing any of the important work already going on.  

And personally, as a leader?  

The last few years have been a tough time for civil servants, and the next 12 months are likely to be equally challenging. Part of my role as a leader is to try to put a protective bubble around the designers, developers, researchers and many others who work in GDS so they feel valued and respected. We have always said that the unit of delivery is the team, and the challenge is to look after our amazing people and protect the teams.   

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?  

I spent several years working night shifts at the HQ of a well known high street bank. My role was as a systems administrator for this new thing called “internet banking”, and through the night I had to monitor the servers and jump in to fix things if they stopped working. I remember working the 8pm to 8am shift on Christmas Eve and then driving home through a completely deserted central London before trying, and failing, to stay awake until turkey time.

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