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How to organise to publish successfully on GOV.UK

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice, Working with us

In the 2 years since GOV.UK launched, we’ve learned a lot about the government users of GOV.UK. This includes both specialists who produce information, and the digital publishing teams that work with them to make sure their information is in the right format and in the right place on GOV.UK.

There are many different publishing models used by the departments and agencies who publish to GOV.UK so we’re starting to look at how these different models affect the quality of the content produced in order to meet user needs.


GDS carries out post-publication editorial spot checks on content produced by departments and agencies. A spot check reviews content against our style guidance, which is based on research into how users best understand online content.

We recently looked at the last spot check results of 2 departments which have skilled central digital teams: Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health (DH).

We found that both departments:

  • were the only departments to publish content items with no errors
  • had far fewer mistakes and errors than average
  • had significantly fewer than average content items not reviewed before publication
Percentage of content items with no errors Average number of errors per content item Percentage of content items checked that weren’t reviewed before publication
Department for Education 16.7% 2.0 4.9%
Department of Health 10% 1.6 0%
Departmental average 1.6% 5.8 19.1%

Thoroughly checked content is less likely to have errors in it. Moreover, users understand content with fewer errors in it more easily and don’t need to ask questions. That means fewer calls to customer support centres, saving valuable resources.

We also measure quality by how much feedback users leave by clicking 'report a problem' at the bottom of each GOV.UK page.

For June 2014, the departmental average was 1.2 comments for every 10,000 pageviews.  DH’s average was 0.7, while DfE had the lowest comments per pageviews of any department with only 0.3 comments for every 10,000 pageviews.

Benefits of a central team

We looked at what the teams at DH and DfE were doing in order to achieve these positive results and found that they:

  • develop a consistent approach to common content challenges that occur across the organisation (for example, DfE has asked for many education-specific words to be included in the GDS style guide)
  • maintain a consistent tone of voice and style
  • have an overview of the organisation’s content, understand how it relates to other content across the site and avoid duplicating content
  • act as advocates across their organisation for shaping content to users' real needs rather than pushing content out
  • keep up to date with best practice on use of content formats, style changes and technical improvements to GOV.UK publishing tools
  • co-ordinate retiring outdated content

Having a skilled, centralised digital team has other benefits. It means developing a centre of excellence within an organisation where digital experts can focus on what’s needed to improve user experience.

For example, the DfE web team need management information reports to allow them to curate their content more efficiently - especially important in the run-up to the election. They presented a proposal to 8 other departments, refined it, and then lobbied GDS to build this feature into publisher. This functionality went live on GOV.UK yesterday.

At DH, digital strategy and user needs are represented at the highest levels. DH’s Digital Leader Will Cavendish is also DH’s Director General for Innovation, Growth and Technology.

The Civil Service reform plan says the Civil Service “needs to become Digital by Default, in its skills, its style, how it communicates and how it enables service users to interact with it.”   DH and DfE’s digital teams are specialists with the skills and experience to promote best practice and mentor their colleagues as they increase their digital skills across the whole organisation.

For GOV.UK publishing specialists, we consider it fundamental that their professional success criteria align with GOV.UK’s founding values - helping users get the information they need in the simplest, clearest, fastest way possible.

DH and DfE’s digital publishing teams are organised differently, but they’re both confident and empowered - and it shows in their high quality content. We encourage all organisations to keep and strengthen their authoritative, skilled digital teams to help transform government and meet the public's needs.

Starting in 2015, we plan to spend a lot more time looking into how publishing works and should work across government.  GOV.UK is one of the UK’s top 30 most visited websites and while creating the single domain was the start of our revolution, there’s still much more to do. Learning from the success of the first two years is a great place to start.

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  1. Comment by John Ploughman (DVSA) posted on

    Hi James

    It's great to see the benefits of a central team set out for everyone to see.

    I think another really important point is to make sure that the team has the 'teeth' to do what's it there to do. Having backing at senior levels to be able to design content in a way that meets the user's need rather than the subject matter expert's need/opinion is vital.

    The use of anon feedback is good too. Are there any plans to update the Performance Platform more regularly than the end of each month with the most commented on pages? This would be incredibly useful to identify content that needs urgent attention.


  2. Comment by Annelise Jespersen (DH) posted on

    This is very encouraging for the DH content team!

    It will also help us to reinforce our messages to colleagues about the need to meet GDS standards. I would echo what John Ploughman says about the importance of having backing at senior level - we are fortunate to have strong support at senior level across Communications, and the importance of plain English is recognised at senior level across DH.

  3. Comment by Kevin Anderson posted on

    Hi James,

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I do have a question: what do you mean with 'skilled central digital teams'? What sets the two departments you mention (DfE and DH), apart from all the others?


  4. Comment by Padma Gillen posted on

    Hi James

    I'm totally behind the idea of having a skilled-up dedicated content design team in departments and agencies.

    After being at GDS for 3 years I'm now back in a department (Defra this time) running the content team on Defra's Smarter Guidance project. The team is reviewing and re-writing all the guidance content for Defra and its agencies - based on user needs and to GOV.UK style. The goal is to reduce the number of words by 80% and still meet all user needs.

    The team is set up on agile principles with the same structure as the mainstream team at GDS. We have a 2i and fact check process similar to the GDS model. We have product managers acting kind of like GDS's transition managers to make sure the project happens and any blockers get unblocked quickly. And I now know lots more about farming, great-crested newts and environmental waste than I ever thought I would.

    As a model, I think a central content team (both at GDS and within departments and agencies) works well. In fact I think you can't do it successfully any other way. It allows people with content design skills to do what they do best and people with subject matter expertise to do what they do best. When we work together, the benefits for the user are clear.

    In 6 months time I guarantee you we'll be up there with DH and DfE!

    Btw, I totally agree about the need for teeth and buy-in at the highest levels in the department. Without that, nothing changes and it's not possible to bring about the level of change required. You also need effective communication within the department so that everyone knows what's happening. We'll shortly be launching a 'Defra digital' blog on GOV.UK to help get the message across.