The Rise of the Government Digital Service

| By: Stuart Smith, Chief, Service Innovation & Design, NUS-ISS


Over the past few years a revolution has been slowly developing in Governments across the world that threatens to transform how Government services are delivered.

Based upon practices derived from the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook this movement is shaping how e-Government will be delivered in the coming the years. Singapore is part of this movement and no one involved in delivering ICT or public services in 2015 government can afford to ignore it.

The beginning……

In 2010, Martha Lane Fox, founder of, was recruited as the UK Government’s Digital Champion and tasked with developing a vision for digital service delivery. In her report, ‘DirectGov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution’, Ms Fox outlined the core principles of this vision:

     There has been a reinvention of the Internet and the behaviour of users in the last few years. Digital services are now more agile, open and cheaper. To take advantage of these changes, government needs to move to a 'service culture', putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments.

In response, the UK Government formulated the UK Government Digital Strategy, which included a commitment to ‘Digital by Default’. In this context, ‘Digital by Default’ means transactional and informational digital services that:

  • Are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use digital services will choose to do so
  • Allow straightforward access to information and services in times and in ways that are convenient to the users rather than the providers
  • Are more efficient and cost-effective to develop and run

The UK Government Digital was established to enable UK Departments and Agencies to meet the resulting ‘Digital by Default Service Standard’ through support, advice, and technical expertise. Since its inception since received global recognition for pioneering the next generation of ‘Digital by Default’ Government services, a remit spanning 700 services, operated by 24 government agencies, 331 agencies, and used by 62 million citizens.

In the UK, the GDS is credited with disrupting a costly and unsustainable ICT culture within Government, and bringing a new dawn in the efficient and effective delivery of public services.

Reflecting on the achievements of the GDS, Tim Brown of IDEO has said, ‘The UK is leading the way in using design to create a singular digital service for its citizens’.

Echoing this viewpoint, Tim O’Reilly views the GDS’s ‘Digital by Default Service Standard’ to be the ‘most significant design document in software since the Macintosh human interface guidelines back in the 1980s…the new bible for anyone working in open government’

GDS Adoption Across The World

The GDS ‘model” has been adopted as a model of best practice in digital service and e-Government  delivery and drives a new crop of Digital Service initiatives across the world including Singapore.

The United States Digital Service was launched in 2014 with the following ambition:

     The U.S. Digital Service is using the best of product design and engineering practices to transform the way government works for the American people. In every corner of government, we join forces with the many passionate and talented tech professionals within agencies who are dedicated to public service. Together, teams of America’s most capable problem solvers are striving to make critical services — like healthcare, student loans, and Veterans' benefits — as simple as buying a book online.

In addition, in 2015 we have seen the launch of the Australian Digital Transformation Office (DTO), about which the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said:

     People need to be able to transact services and access information anytime, anywhere. Like any other service industry, government should design its services in the most user friendly way. Interacting with government should be as easy as Internet banking or ordering a taxi through an app.

     The DTO will use technology to make services simpler, clearer and faster for Australian families and businesses.

Similar moves are underway in the ‘D5’ a group of digitally advanced governments that includes Israel, Estonia, South Korea and New Zealand. Here in Singapore, the IDA has established a Government Digital Team, and the influence of GDS “thinking” is beginning to be felt.

Approach & Frameworks

Despite differences reflecting their distinct operating contexts, emerging Government Digital Service initiatives across the world have key similarities.

An analysis of each reveals a common set of core operating principles that include:

  • The use of iterative, collaborative, Agile development methodologies
  • The application of analytics to inform design and manage service performance
  • A preference for open source technology and data to aid collaboration and cut costs
  • Focus on user-centric methods (eg design thinking) when designing services and technology

This approach is supported by various design manuals and resources provided by Government Digital Services around the world , such as the US Digital Service Playbook and UK Government Service Design Manual.

Significantly all of these manuals don’t just see the IT and Digital as a CIO issue and all departments of Government need to begin to understand the impact digital service delivery is having on their world.


It is clear the ‘Digital by Default’ is the shape of things to come in many Governments around the world. Despite an initial hostile reaction from vendors and some criticisms, the GDS movement appears to be gaining strong traction with policy makers, vendors and citizens.

As we move more to fast moving, mobile enabled, service transactions then those tasked with the design, development, or delivery of e-enabled public services must develop their capabilities, specifically:

  • Enhancing user centricity through design thinking and strong UXD
  • Developing Agile Development capability
  • Prioritising Analytics & Service Metrics
  • Developing digital capability in both IT and Non-IT leaders.

Note: This is an extract from a larger paper prepared by NUS ISS. If you wish to receive a copy of the paper please email a request to

For information on NUS-ISS courses in Service Innovation & Design, please click here

For more information on  NUS-ISS courses in Agile Development, please click here

For more information on NUS-ISS courses on Digital Leadership, please click here