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Leaders will:

  • deliver programmes and priorities responsibly
  • live the civil service values
  • serve the public

We will all:

  • show pride and passion for public service
  • communicate with clarity and enthusiasm
  • value professional excellence and expertise
  • reward innovation and initiative
  • learn from failure and success

When engaging we will:

  • be straightforward, truthful and candid
  • surface tensions and resolve ambiguities
  • give clear, honest feedback to grow people
  • be collaborative in our behaviour and actions

We will empower our teams:

  • with authority to deliver clear objectives
  • to be visible, approachable and welcoming
  • to champion diversity and recognise its value
  • to invest in each other’s capabilities, always


  • be bold
  • be human
  • be yourself

Publishing #opendata in Portable Document Format (PDF) files

Seriously don’t do it. Open data users don’t want it. Believe me I’ve asked:


I received a lot of responses. They kept me occupied for most of the weekend. The 1st and most graphic was from the founder of OpenSensors.io:


Parsing (automatically analysing the contents) of a PDF file is challenging. Without the correct knowledge and tools, any data in a PDF file is rendered inert:


Several replies accused publishers of ignorance and obstruction:


I’ve barely scratched the surface of the responses I received. This blog post doesn’t do them justice. But it does start to highlight the issue with PDFs.

Please stop publishing them. Please start using other formats.

Need a hand? Email me.

Planning a data literacy programme in government

This is a stream of consciousness (ie a ramble) on some work I’m doing. Its for my own benefit, but might be of interest to others (don’t be afraid to TL;DR) Reason: I collapsed on the tube this morning, my head wasn’t together and I had a meeting to discuss this plan. Blogging helps me hone my words, because I don’t know who is reading and it makes me think about content issues.

To aid me, I listened to punk band Many Monika (who I saw last night).

At the end of 2015 the Cabinet Office Transparency Team merged with the Government Digital Service (GDS) Registers team to form the GDS Data Team (“the team”) led by Paul Maltby.

Part of the new team’s new work is around data literacy and I’ve been tasked with building a plan for a data literacy programme. So in December 2015 I held a workshop attended by members of the team. I started with 5 questions:

  • what do we mean by data literacy?
  • what is our aim with this programme?
  • who are our potential users?
  • what user research is needed?
  • what learning resources are there?

In true GDS style many, many sticky notes where stuck on whiteboards. After the workshop I grouped them and typed them up. Since then I’ve spent some limited time (I’m doing 2.5 jobs) trying how to figure out how to turn it into a plan.

Fortunately I was in HM Treasury on Whitehall yesterday and bumped into Pauline Ferris and Sheila Bennett. They were instrumental in planning and building the original Government Digital Strategy + the ongoing progress reports.

Pauline suggested building a Benefits Realisation Plan and pointed me to the NHS Institute. After reading their simple, clear guidance I printed out the workshop outputs, cut them up and had a crack:


A Benefits Realisation Plan is basically a table with the columns headings:

  • Desired benefit
  • Stakeholders impacted
  • Enablers required to realise benefit
  • Outcomes displayed if benefit realised
  • Current baseline measure
  • Who is responsible
  • Target date

Initially I found it challenging to crowbar the outputs into the table. So I printed out the NHS Institute’s guidance and re-read. This helped and a 2nd iteration of the Benefits Realisation Plan started to make sense.


Overnight I became concerned about the narrow selection of people in the original workshop. They’re brilliant, but probably not the actually users.

This reminded me of an incident in 2014 whilst worked on the Service Manager Induction Programme. I used to run the “Make, Test, Learn” part of the training, where trainee service managers would apply their learning. They would pick something to build (usually something GDS was already working on) and start with a discovery phase. The core part of this phase is user research which requires talking to actually users. I would pick “users” who knew about the thing they wanted to build from inside GDS (where the training was held).

One day I was pulled up by Leisa Reichelt (head of user research) and given a bollocking. Picking users who build and work on a thing was wrong. They are not true users. They are proxy users, eg if you work on a product, rather than use a product, your view of the product is biased.

From that point on, whenever the “Make, Test, Learn” session was run, the course attendees had to go find real users themselves. This meant doing guerrilla research and testing, ie going out into the wild and finding them.

The reason for that proxy user ramble is because the workshop I held in December was full of proxy users, not actually users. Yes the workshop had been useful to get ideas to test, but they’re just ideas and may not result in an effective delivery plan. More user research is required.

I tweeted Matt Edgar and Sharon Dale who worked on the original Service Manager Induction Programme and asked them how they planned it. As expected, Matt replied saying discovery, listening to existing service managers, then iterating it thru alpha & beta cohorts (successive groups of course attendees). Sharon replied that with every cohort, she tried to add something to the training based on their needs. This helps make the point to the cohort about how important users needs are.

One of the questions I asked in the workshop last year was, “who are our potential users?”. Among the answers were:

  • coders
  • data holders
  • comms people
  • operations people
  • top 100 policy professionals (define “top”?)
  • non-policy people (rather nebulous)
  • non-statisticians (very nebulous)

GDS has plenty of the top 4 and the team knows how to access the policy professionals. So no shortage of users for discovery.

Bearing in mind Pauline’s advice to build a Benefits Realisation Plan, its more important right now to list the desired benefits of a data literacy programme. The workshop suggested they are:

  • increase departmental capability to solve their own problems (this has a GDS are “holier than thou” feel to it – needs reworking)
  • more civil servants are able to ask the right questions (with data)
  • more civil servants are able to spot misleading uses of data
  • government data is more accessible to its users
  • more government data is “dogfooded” (ie we use our own data)
  • the baseline of capability in government rise

Head hurts. Time for a break, some fresh air and a wander….

We need to talk about @UKGovCamp ticketing…

UKGovCamp is an unconference for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff. I’ve helped organise it for the last few years.

It is a popular event. Very popular. So popular that tickets go unavailable in seconds and are sold out in minutes.

Unavailable means all the tickets are in the process of being applied for. Sold out means all the applications are complete.

To try and make it fairer for everyone we release tickets in batches. We publicise these batches in advance.

But many people still don’t get tickets because they’re:

  • physically or mentally challenged
  • not at computer when tickets go live
  • not sure when the tickets are available
  • not aware of UKGovCamp until its too late

The only advantage to the whole situation above is the buzz of actually getting a ticket. I’ve seem many jubilant tweets in the moments after tickets are released.

But I really worry about anyone without the dexterity to bag a ticket. It feels like we’re potentially excluding a bunch of people.

Theres also a large number of people who are used to this. They know the rigmarole and technique to acquire a ticket. Some people call them the “govcamp clique”.

So I propose we make a change for future events – a ticket lottery. This would mean:

  • anyone who wants to come could apply for a ticket
  • we could open ticket applications much sooner
  • it would hopefully be less stressful
  • attendees would be picked at random

That last point is worth clarifying. By random I mean we would:

  • close the ticket applications
  • download details of everyone who applied
  • randomly sort them in a spreadsheet application
  • Give the lucky 200 people at the top a ticket

To be totally transparent, the randomisation process could be live streamed.

Hope that makes sense. Please let me know if not.

#LocalGovCamp session about Service Birmingham

LocalGovCamp is an unconference about local government. The 2015 event was held at The Studio, Leeds on 12 September. It was organised by LocalGov Digital.

I pitched a session about Service Birmingham (SB), which is a partnership between Birmingham City Council (BCC) and Capita UK.

In the 5 years I spent at BCC I was rarely impressed by the digital, data and technology offerings from SB, for example:

  • it would 15 minutes from switching my machine on to it being ready to use
  • the main browser was Internet Explorer 6 which stifled innovation
  • internet access required a business case and managerial sign-off
  • social media access required another business case and sign-off

The day after I left BCC I started at the Government Digital Service where:

  • my laptop took less then a minute from switching on to be ready to use
  • the latest versions of both Google Chrome and Apple Safari were installed
  • internet and social media access were enabled by default

Hopefully things in BCC have moved on since I left in September 2012.

So I split my LocalGovCamp session into 2 halves – issues and solutions.



I opened the 1st part of the session by briefly describing my experiences in BCC. Then I asked the people present to describe experiences in their local authorities (LA). British Telecom (BT) was mentioned several times, with people saying partnerships were either defunct (Liverpool), didn’t get off the ground (Lancashire) or elected members had “kicked off” (Cornwall) about the outputs.

Someone from Cornwall said, “All my skilled staff are gone”. Skills drain and gaps being mentioned several times. “Part of the problem is the strategy teams have been lost to the partnership”, was stated by one person. “Staff had transferred to the partnership and knowledge was lost from the LA”, was another comment. To me this isn’t a partnership. Whether you work in, for or with a LA you should still be empowered to speak up and be taken seriously. “Its an abusive relationship”, was a sad comment.

Money figured highly in the discussion. “We procured these [partnerships] because we didn’t have any money left”, stated someone. “These deals are always about money”, said another. Someone else said their partnership felt like a payday loan, ie it was the only option they had and was now costing them. “The savings didn’t materialise”, was said of the West Berks / AMEY partnership. One person said their LA had forgotten why their got into partnership with a big supplier. “It needs to be a real partnership”, said another.

“Everyone knows about the reputation of these organisations, yet they continue to use them”, was a telling comment.

Towards the end of the “issues” part of the session, some rays of hope started to materialise. “I work in a public / public partnership”, said someone whose organisation was working with a neighbouring organisation. They continued, “[It] works because both parts of the partnership have a vested interest in making money”.



The 2nd part of the discussion was about solutions.

Becoming “Smart clients” and “…smarter organisations”, were the opening comments. “It comes down to smart procurement. Know what you want”, was a useful comment. One person asked, “Who is managing the contract? It needs to be a cross-organisation, multidisciplinary team”. “We need people with digital skills in organisations”, said Vicky Sargent.

“Smaller contracts”, were mentioned several times. Only buying stuff that can be re-used, buying smaller chunks and short term contacts was mentioned by Ben Cheetham. He continued, “It is gonna work? Is it the right product? Does it meet a user need?”.

Total cost of ownership (TCO) was mentioned with one person stating, “Its [all about] TCO”. One telling comment was, “We need to work out the total cost, ie people’s time using shit products”.

Setting the right targets and monitoring performance was mentioned. Several people thought this required better consultation with the public and an open, honest conversation. Basically “Be transparent”, as one person put it. Having good governance seemed to chime with most people, which required keeping skills and people inside LAs, which again made we think that these partnerships aren’t really partnerships.

The session felt cathartic. People aired concerns about their LAs. One great comment was, “I find [unconferences] a useful way to find solutions”.

After the session I had a chat with Catherine Howe and Jonathan Flowers, both of whom work at Capita. I apologised for pitching a negative session against their organisation. This is because I’d realised that LAs are mostly to blame for getting into partnerships they didn’t understand. Catherine mentioned she was setting up innovation labs in several cities, which really interested me. I left thinking that one way to change my home City of Birmingham is to fight from within, ie go work for Capita.

I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you think thats the right idea. Please tweet me at @jaCattell with your comments.

Why I’m #OfTheGovernment

“So this is our phoenix moment. GDS doesn’t just need to sit inside one building. We have the responsibility to work not on the Government, but of the Government.” – Jason Caplin, Digital Director of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) [Saturday 15 August 2015]

I joined the Government Digital Service (GDS) on Tuesday 18 September 2012, a date I know off by heart. Back then there were a couple hundred of us.

We were preparing to switch off DirectGov and Business Link. In other words make GOV.UK live.

It was a frenetic time. People were busy, stressed and loving it.

The only other work experience I’ve had that comes close was at Lehman Brothers, a now defunct investment firm. I did trading floor technical support in 4 different countries for them back in 1997.

In government I know I’m making my country a little bit better everyday.

I never felt that way in Lehman Brothers.

This is why I’m #OfTheGovernment – because I know I make a difference.

I left GDS in January 2015 to work in the Cabinet Office Transparency and Open Data team.

But I’m still a GDS’er – that spirit will live in me forever.

User research, user needs, agile, sprints – all this I learnt at GDS.

In Jason’s blog post he askes us to:

  • make a commitment to remember why we got into this in the first place
  • announce when we, as a government revolutionaries, are ready to move on to out next in-government contract

I went to work for GDS because I:

  1. saw alpha.gov.uk and thought, “wow” – I remember that moment with crystal clear clarity
  2. was frustrated with Birmingham City Council’s (BCC) internal and external digital services
  3. wanted to learn from GDS and return to BCC to digitally detonate it

I’ll make good on #3 one day, but not yet. There are still many roles I need to learn.

Then I will move back to Birmingham and blow it up.

Jason – thank you for reminding me why I got into this 😊

What I learnt from user research training

On 13 and 14 August 2015 I attended an introduction to user research. It was held at the offices of the Government Digital Service in London and run by John Waterworth.

I learnt that user research is:

  • not a dark art practised by a few magicians
  • a way to replay and capture user’s memories
  • crucial to (re)developing government services

At some point I’ll try and turn the following into a proper blog post, but for now, here are some quotes I noted down during the training:

  • Theres never anything you need to do before you start listening to people
  • We need to know what people think about things and where they’ll get stuck
  • Go and look in more detail where things are wrong
  • In government, we must care about [people who struggle with digital services]
  • Research is pointless if you don’t share it, eg “Heres what we learnt from users”
  • Blog a lot about what you find – talk openly
  • “Create insights that travel thru an organisation” – James Nel
  • User research doesn’t have to be expensive
    • Doing it will save your project time and money
  • If user research is difficult to watch, imagine what its like for your user
  • User’s ability changes over time, eg when they get older
  • Doing assisted digital research makes services as simple as possible
  • User research can change policy
  • Its not an I.T. system, its a service
  • The more people you speak to, the more you learn
  • The most important thing is to be human – start gently, start friendly
  • It can get emotional sometimes, as often you’re the 1st person thats ever listened to a user
  • Avoid talking about yourself
  • Avoid complex questions
  • When writing up your findings, do it from the user’s point of view

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye

There’s a sad sort of clanging
From the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple, too

I’m one of the Government Digital Service (GDS) children.
I look up to the calm, collected leader that is Mike Bracken.
And today, Monday 3 August 2015, I’m sad to hear our leader is leaving.
Note: I type “our leader” even though I no longer directly work for GDS.

Not many leaders would:
* tweet you on a Saturday morning asking if theres anything they could do to help
* entertain you in several 1-2-1 meetings whilst listening to crazy notions
* greet you with a handshake and smile at every event they see you at

Dunno what else to type, except that I wish our leader all the best.

I flit, I float
I fleetly flee, I fly

Civil service values

I’m typing this on a Sunday evening.

2 days ago I had an interesting exchange on Twitter.

It revolved around freedom of information (FoI) requests made to the Cabinet Office.

I don’t regret much in my life. But some of my tweets were a little close to the bone.

So I thought I’d review my understanding of the civil service values.

They require me to be:

  • honest
  • objective
  • impartial

and to do everything with integrity.

I am honest, maybe too much so sometimes. Often I say/type what I know to be true, before checking I should. This might be an unconscious attempt to gain favour.

I am mostly objective. I avoid subject statements. Where there is data to back me up, I use it.

Being impartial I find easy. I don’t discuss my political views in public. I avoid saying/typing things that might go against government policy.

Now. Integrity. Hmmmm. To me this means means being selfless. I put the interests of the public above my own.

Well, thats all I’ve got for now.

I’m off to read the civil service code and see if I’m right.