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Learning from ONS Digital

Towards the end of May we went to see Matt Jukes at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in Newport to learn from his experience as Product Lead building the new ONS website.

This was part of learning for our own new website build, and also for our work on data. It was a fascinating day, highly relevant and timely. Since the visit, I’ve seen us bringing some of what we learned into our planning for new services. The format of the day was just right, helped by Matt’s open approach and the fact that ONS Digital have a great story to tell. I look forward to doing more visits in the coming months.

On our way to the ONS
On our way to the ONS

5 of us from the Digital Service travelled to Wales: me (Head of Data & Search), Ganesh (Product Manager on the Website Alpha team), Nara (Portfolio Manager, responsible for a wide range of web- and data products), Trung (Solutions Architect), and Samu (Tech Lead working on data services).

The mix worked well, and was representative of the broad interests and specialisms that go into making a website (let’s say technical, practical, research, content, strategy, and culture).

I wrote a brief, collective first impression at the end of the day.

Writing a ‘proper’ blog post now after a couple of weeks, it’s interesting to reflect on how this kind of learning can inform our work. In my experience, there’s a risk that you’ll have an interesting day out but then fail to implement anything that you’ve learned once you’re back at the office.

Happily this hasn’t been the case, because direct learning from the ONS has already informed our planning since the visit. We’re also doing at the moment as a group, which gives opportunity to put things into practice quickly.

In the past couple of weeks I can trace back to the ONS visit small decisions we’ve taken around the approach to security; developing our cloud infrastructure; and building capability in the team.

I’ve heard “what did we learn from the ONS?”, and said it myself.

Other highly relevant learning from the visit that we’ll be bearing in mind included:

  • Focusing on the user, who is not interested in the technical implementation behind the scenes
  • Content policy, governance, approach and migration
  • The ONS’s particular, considered journey that led to them building their own content management system from scratch
  • Several points about the importance of security and having it as a fundamental part of the work
  • Being as public as possible
  • Having ‘business’ champions and support
  • Gathering user feedback and quickly incorporating it into the work
  • Being ‘agile about agile’
  • That some of the outcomes from the work were more valuable than the website itself (e.g. continuous delivery pipeline and approach to open sourcing code)
Learning from Matt Jukes
Learning from Matt Jukes

The format of the day helped the information to sink in, and I’d repeat it in future. It was informal, conversational, guided by Matt (who did most of the talking, in addition to Ian the ONS Tech Lead) and very open. It was especially helpful to hear Matt’s views on what they would have done differently if starting again – when there’s so much similarity in public sector digital work, we don’t have to repeat mistakes that other people have already made.

The success of the visit was helped by the fact that the story of the ONS website is genuinely compelling. In just over 4 hours we covered a wide range of interrelated topics naturally. Many of the challenges their team overcame are ones that we face now for our new website and for our data services.

Overall I was struck by the thought that the pressure and constraints on the ONS were perhaps more severe than our own situation. I think this is important perspective, and as Matt said of the website Alpha we all need to “enjoy it while it lasts”!

Who to visit next?

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