Content design for – part 4

It’s my final instalment of my series about creating content for the GOV.UK beta.

By now, the departments understood we really were doing this.

We were near to publishing the beta to live and we said we would publish with or without departmental fact checking.

We weren’t looking for approval.

We just needed to know if it was wrong.

We wanted to work with the departments, but we’d find another way if necessary (we were looking at using experts in a subject area, but outside of government. For example, tax lawyers for tax content and benefits experts for benefits content).

And by “if necessary”, I mean “to stop 3 months’ of conversations”.

In one particular meeting, near the end, one of the people who was refusing to be involved leant over the table and said:

“We’ll just wait Sarah. *dramatic pause* It will go back to the way we want it. It always does. Just wait and see”. 


Whitehall can be like that.

It’s easier to keep everything the same. That way, everyone knows what they are doing.

We can prove, over and over again, that good, concise, well-written content is worth more to users.

But it’s not worth much to some managers though: the ‘frozen middle’. And it’s the frozen middle that’s usually the problem.

Frozen middle and the fight for change

The term ‘frozen middle’ came from my convergence/Directgov days. Some of the top people wanted change (it’s cheaper to have good content); the project people wanted change (they knew how to do their jobs), it was the managers in the middle who were the problem.

I’ll give you an example of frozen middle.

In convergence, we worked with departmental editors to go through an induction process to help them write for Directgov. One departmental editor was failing massively. I travelled to see the editor and their manager. The manager talked the whole time. I could barely get a word out of the editor. 

That manager eventually had to take a call and left me and the editor alone. The editor looked at me and passed a piece of paper under the desk.

Under the desk.

I am not even joking.

The editor said ‘is this what you are after?’.

It was perfect. Perfect copy. The editor explained that’s how they wrote. The manager who just left rewrote everything that went out of that team.

It was the manager that was failing, not the team.

I see this sort of thing all the time and I don’t understand it. Why do these managers even hire people if they do most of the work themselves?

I personally think you should either trust your team or fire them.

Anyway, I digress.

The fact is, the frozen middle were all over GOV.UK. But this usual behaviour wasn’t working. We were going to skate over them, around them or through them if we really had to. No-one wanted to. But we would if we had to.

Luckily, we didn’t have to.

Just the thought that we would – and let’s face it, we were ignoring all the other rules so why not this one? – helped the departments move us closer and closer to live.

By this point in my story, I was shifting my focus to the Whitehall side ( This was to take up until April, 2013 and in the meantime, GOV.UK went live on 17th October, 2012. Mike Bracken’s post on this is here:

Remember the Whitehall side was where departments could publish directly to the internet. All their quality checks were internal to their departments. Thing is, they didn’t have enough people to do all this work. We (GDS) decided to bring people in, train them and then send them out into the departments to help.


We interviewed content people and bought them in (46 applications ended up with 10 tests, which usually resulted in 1 interview).

We decided to have 10 content people start at one time, have them all in the same room and run the training a bit like a bootcamp. We would take them through the style, run crits (first time I introduced the team to this style of working) and get them up to speed as fast as we could.

This is actually a pretty quick way of getting to know who is good at content design and who is good at getting through the test and interview.

We ended up with 4 people out of the 10 that started.

Collaborative working has a flaw

This was the first time I saw a flaw in collaborative working.

We always used pair writing and peer review in our work (although we didn’t call it that at the time).

The thing was, by the time some of the people in that induction programme got to me and the other leads assessing their work, others had done a lot of what they presented.

Because everyone is a professional and not a snitch, no-one mentioned it.

Agile is a very open way of working. It’s a lot harder to hide if you are not working or not up to the task. 

But not impossible.

Obviously, we did spot it and those people left. But it was a learning point for me.

Whitehall was to launch: 24 departments in 6 months. Neil Williams (product owner of Whitehall) has blogged extensively about it, so best you hear it from him:

The original vision:


24 departments later:

GOV.UK was an amazing experience. No site is ever perfect. No person is ever flawless. But if you get enough good people in the room, you can do amazing things. I’d like to thank the team that let me be a part of it.


Just wanted to say a couple of things.

  1. I have skipped over a lot of time and some amazing things some really amazing people achieved. Needs to be a book someone else can write, really. Some of it is in the GDS blog posts. A lot isn’t. I hope those people tell their own stories really soon.
  2. Content in government has changed and although there is fear right now that certain shenanigans mean standards will slip, I can’t see how they can slip all the way back to the way it was. There are too many people across the whole of government who care too much.
  3. I’d like to say thank you to the content team. Without you, GOV.UK would be a wonderfully designed, perfectly coded, empty shell. You are usually the last to be thanked and the first to be frowned at. Thank you.

Originally published at the Content Design Centre on 23 August 2016.


21st October 2016

Leif Kendall

Love this: “I’d like to say thank you to the content team. Without you, GOV.UK would be a wonderfully designed, perfectly coded, empty shell.”

This is true of most websites. Designers and developers can create the canvas – but copywriters complete the picture.

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