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Product decisions for GOV.UK

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice, How we work, Product changes

At the recent Content Conference we ran a session with editors in government to help them better understand how product decisions are made in GOV.UK. We received a lot of positive feedback from content designers saying that they found the insights and discussion really useful, so we thought we’d share the principles more widely.

Two different types of work

In GOV.UK we identify two broad categories of work - things we have planned to do and things we haven’t planned to do. Earlier this year, Neil Williams blogged about GOV.UK's goals for 2015 to 2016 which set out the work we have planned to do this year.

Identifying planned work

As Neil said in that post, planning is guessing and we would never want to - or be able to - plan for all of GOV.UK’s work at the start of the year. Doing that would leave us unable to respond to change. Instead, throughout the year we continuously try to find the right balance between prioritising planned and unplanned work.

When we planned work at the start of the year, we started with the GOV.UK vision of ‘simpler, clearer, faster’. The GOV.UK programme team combined user insights, stakeholder feedback and input from product teams to identify the goals to achieve that vision.

Product teams in GOV.UK then identified how they would deliver these goals by setting out milestones (also called missions). It’s important that product teams are responsible for setting their own missions because they understand their own capability and their users, products and departments or agencies involved.

The milestones set by each product team form the GOV.UK high level roadmap, which is publicly available. This is work that product teams are committed to delivering to help achieve the GOV.UK vision. It needs to be given a high priority when planning work.

Prioritising unplanned work

During the year we still get a lot of requests for work that isn’t planned. In the last 3 months the product teams in GOV.UK received around 70 requests for unplanned work, like fixing bugs, building new functionality or improving products. We get these requests from a number of different places, like GOV.UK users, other GDS teams, government departments/agencies or direct from product team members.

When we receive a request for something we haven’t planned to do we ask a series of questions to better understand the piece of work:

  • what is the user need?
  • what is the impact of not meeting the user need?
  • is there a deadline for meeting the user need?
  • is it possible to find a solution or would it break GOV.UK’s technical or proposition rules?
  • what is the simplest but most effective way to meet the user need?
  • is there planned work that will meet the user need - or make it easier for us to meet it?
  • is there an underlying problem to the user need that should be prioritised?

It’s important to support the answers to these questions with evidence. When a product team commits to delivering unplanned work it takes away focus from planned work. That can be the right decision to make, but it has to be supported by evidence. The more evidence a product team has about a request for unplanned work, the better informed they are to consider options and understand why it should be prioritised.

Balancing planned and unplanned work

So far this year there has been roughly a 50:50 balance across product teams between planned and unplanned work. To achieve that balance, product teams need to say ‘not now’ to requests for unplanned work where there isn’t the evidence to support immediate action. The person making the request should always be given a reason why - and the opportunity to provide more evidence.

Product teams keep a record of the requests we receive, and this informs the GOV.UK planning process. We’re already starting to think about what the planned work for next year should be, and as Neil explains in his 3rd birthday blog post, there are opportunities to suggest what you think we should be working on.

Rosalyn Vaughan is the GOV.UK Core Formats Delivery Manager. Keep in touch: follow Rosalyn on Twitter and subscribe to email alerts from this blog.

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  1. Comment by Hai posted on

    What is the difference between a Guidance (publication)
    and a Guidance (part of collection or topic)
    How come they do not share the same format/layout, both are a guidance?

  2. Comment by Hai posted on

    ...and then there is the guide belonging to mainstream, like

    So actually three different formats for "guidance", spread out in three different structures of the site?

    • Replies to Hai>

      Comment by Rosalyn Vaughan posted on


      Thanks for your comment. The 'mainstream' section of the site is written for citizen users and does not cover as much detail as other content on the site, which is why it has a fairly distinctive format. We publicly publish our guidance for content designers across government, it provides a helpful description of when and how to use each format:


      • Replies to Rosalyn Vaughan>

        Comment by Hai posted on

        Yep, i've read the content types, still don't fully get the difference between Mainstream Guide, Detailed Guidance and Publication: Guidance. Well the publication guidance has to be produced as a 'standalone hard-copy' first, right? (But why do they even exist in a digital by default world, if the content meet user needs for a mainstream or specialist audience - i bet there are lots of old manuals and handbooks which ended up in better versions as mainstream guides or smart answers...?
        It's all "How to"-content, and it's all "guides" in some form, i'm just curious why it's not just the same format in the same mainstream browse structure of the site.

        • Replies to Hai>

          Comment by Rosalyn Vaughan posted on

          Thanks for your feedback that the guidance structuring can be confusing - I'll pass it along to the team responsible for the guidance formats, as I'm not the best person to answer that question. For general enquiries like this you can also use the contact GOV.UK form: