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The GDS ambition for personalised, proactive services


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Tom Read
Tom Read
Image source: Mark Say

Interview: Tom Read, CEO of the Government Digital Service, talks of its priorities and how they can contribute to trust in government

Tom Read is ready to talk of a momentous time for public services.

“We think we are on the cusp of the biggest transformation of how public services work since GDS was launched,” says the CEO of the Government Digital Service.

He cites the development of the data infrastructure enabled by the One Login programme – the single user name and password for accessing government services – and work on developing a new GOV.UK app for UK government, and says these are laying the ground for a range of “personalised and proactive services”.

Read talks with UKAuthority as GDS is set to go into the beta phase of its project with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for the latter to begin using One Login. It will add to the 30 services already using the mechanism, but will be the biggest commitment so far, with plans for a major migration away from the Government Gateway later in the year.

He says this will provide the main focus for the programme – led by director of digital identity Natalie Jones – over the next six months and should ensure there are tens of millions of users of One Login by the end of the year. It will also be part of a roadmap to having 145 services onboard by the end of 2024-25, with a further 160 identified.

But these will be steps towards something bigger.

Integration with permission

“What’s next is how you can use the fact that you can have a single account that it is integrated, with the user’s permission, to all of the different databases across government,” Read says.

He makes the point that it combines with the data infrastructure to bring all of the user’s data together in a way that saves them having to provide it afresh every time whenever they go to a service for the first time.

“Personalising proactive services mean you will eventually be able to apply for new things from the government with just one or two clicks, because your data will be collected already, we already know who you are.

“We will also be able to have proactive nudge services. We think that policy needs to encourage people to take certain action, so we will be able to send you a notification on your phone to say that based on a certain experience you are eligible for a benefit, and for things such as your passport expiring in the next few months.”

Consent model

The model involves the user effectively providing consent for their personal data to be used across government once they sign up for One Login. Read emphasises that, as with the planned government app, it will not be compulsory for anyone, and there is no intent to connect people’s data to back end without their consent.

It might be questioned by some privacy activists, but he points to the widespread use of the NHS App, driven by people appreciating its benefits, and says the user research suggests the vast majority are happy with the model as long as they can see what is done with their data and that they get a significantly better service.

“People we’ve shown prototypes of the government app we’re building are just thrilled because it really matches what they have in their private life. 25 million people have the NHS App now and it does basically the same thing, allowing you to personalise your experience with the NHS, showing and renewing prescriptions.

“People are happy as long as there’s a benefit and we’re not misusing their data. There will be a proportion of the population who don’t want to use this and that’s fine, it’s absolutely built in to what we are doing.”

Inter-generational relevance

Read dispels any suggestion that this could be more relevant to how younger people interact with public services in the future, pointing to the large portion of NHS App users who are over 60.

“I don’t think it will be just generational. I think it will be how useful it is to you. And if you think there are other life events – like if you’ve been made redundant, or you’re looking to retire, or you’ve just had a baby – these are moments when people will find that having all their government services in one place will be a radical shift in usability. Those are the pockets I think will have most take-up.”

He has examples of potential services to hand, such as renewing a driving licence without filling in forms afresh, checking personal entitlement to state benefits, and checking eligibility for legal aid.

Much will rely on the widespread availability of application programme interfaces (APIs) in the digital systems of government organisations, for which Read says the picture is “pretty good”.

“Our colleagues in the Central Digital and Data Office are doing a lot of work on this to catalogue and make clear what APIs we have and who can use what. The picture is varied but more positive than you probably think.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has a big published list of APIs that can be used by other parts of government to simplify things. A lot of departments have the same; a lot of good work has gone on under the radar over the past five years or so.”

Data exchange

Also important is the development of the Government Data Exchange – a set of tools and infrastructure for sharing data between government organisations – on which progress is now being made within the One Login programme.

Read describes this as a great opportunity, citing a couple of big potential use cases.

“One is that we really want to copy the Estonian ‘Only once’ model. They have a law where you can’t ask citizens for information they have already provided to government. I don’t think we’ll have a law, it’s not how our structures work, but it is a fantastic principle.

“The data infrastructure that underpins One Login will enable that, enable us to query APIs and confidently say the person using One Login is the same one using HMRC’s database

“The second one is building on the Tell Us Once service that DWP has been running for years, which is for those big life events, to coordinate all those interfaces, certainly across central government and eventually local government, for when somebody dies or other major life events.

“We are still building this and it needs to follow the One Login programme. You need to be able to confidently connect an identity with the record in a government database.”

Identity proof

Other initiatives are ongoing at GDS. One is on a system for proving identity without a photo ID – an issue that affects a large chunk of the population – with possible approaches including knowledge based verification questions and social vouching, under which somebody with a verified identity can vouch for another person.

“I think we are at the position where we properly understand the problem and how to solve it, but haven’t got there yet,” Read says.

Another is to add new features to GOV.UK Pay, the service for public sector organisations to take and process payments online.

“Pay is one of our less celebrated success stories. We’ve increased the number of services on Pay by 20% during 2023, which is pretty extraordinary. We’ve got 970 services, about a third in central government and the rest in local government and the NHS.

“There are three features we’re looking at at the moment. We’ve implemented repeat payments and Apple Pay, and the thing we’re looking at next is ‘pay by bank’, which cuts out the middle man and uses  the open banking protocol. It’s something we’re exploring at the moment to see if we can add that in.”

GenAI chatbot

There is also an experiment on a generative AI chat interface to make it easier for people to interact with government through the GOV.UK website.

“GOV.UK has about 700,000 pages – and we work hard to make sure each one is accessible and well written – but that’s a lot of information. The experiment, which is not ready to go live, is about could a chat interface make it easier for people to understand what the policies are and what they are eligible for?

“We’ve built a model and tested it with about 200 businesses that have tried to use it as if it is live. We’ve got some interesting data back, the headline from which is it is something we will want to go live with, but it’s not quite ready yet. It still needs elucidating a little.”

Read sees a further possibility for generative AI in helping people who find long form text confusing. This could be especially for those for whom English is not their first language, with a low literacy level, who could ask the interface to simplify an issue for them, and the system providing a simple interpretation of a policy.

App features

GDS is also thinking about features that could be added to the GOV.UK app. Read talks about a government digital wallet that would allow users to store all their credentials – such as a driving licence, disclosure and barring check or lasting power of attorney – in one place, along with entitlements, such as for free school meals or a blue badge.

“A lot of countries have digitised these already,” he says. “It has a secondary benefit that those people who interact with government a lot often struggle to find the drawer of paper proofs from government, and one of the big benefits of Digilocker in India is that it allows you to store all those in one place.”

The other main workstream, lead by GOV.UK director Christine Bellamy, is to make more use of social media and other channels.

“She has brought in a really ambitious strategy that tries to address the problem of changing demographics,” Read says.

“A large proportion of the country still likes to have a website with all the policy explained in long form text, but we’re finding younger demographics don’t like this and that their trust in GOV.UK is lower than people over the age of 50, and they are seeking out other sources of information like YouTube or TikTok, shortform video sites.

“We have to pivot, to maintain GOV.UK as the single source of truth but to reach people where they are as well. So we’re looking at how we build out our social and short form video strategy, so we can clearly explain to people how things work that they need to do in a format and location that works for them, rather than assuming they will have to come to GOV.UK.

“It’s a really big shift and quite a complex challenge for our content teams.”

Trust in government

The efforts reflect a focus on keeping up on what digital solutions the market has to offer, accompanied by increasing the adoption of those developed by GDS. But Read also emphasises another element to its work that relates back to the ambition for personalised and proactive services – the potential to strengthen public trust in government.

“We think this is exciting because I’m really worried about the gradual erosion of trust in government.,” he says. “Digital services won’t fix that by themselves, but if we can make it feel like government is really working for you rather than being something you have to overcome to get what you want, we can start building back trust.”


Article amended on 7.3.24 to remove an incorrect reference to GOV.UK Pay being used in schools.

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