Interview: Natalie Jones, director for digital identity at the Government Digital Service (GDS)

We ask Natalie Jones about the challenges of developing a single sign-on digital identity solution, the opportunities it presents and how she believes it will transform the way people interact with government in the future.

Posted 16 November 2021 by Christine Horton

Tell us a bit about your experience working on major projects before joining GDS?

I have been in the Civil Service for about 15 years, most latterly in the Home Office where I worked across a range of technology enabled programmes within the immigration and Border Technology area. Recently I led the technical delivery for the EU Settlement Scheme which included the first government app and a new digital end-to-end service that was the first of its kind for the Home Office as it had no essential face-to-face or paper steps. I have also worked on Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) programmes including one to upgrade the technology in use at all ports around the UK.

The combination of developing and then running the Home Office’s suite of ‘person products’ alongside my CNI engineering work provide me with helpful experience for two of the key aspects of GDS’s work building a single sign-on solution.

What made you want to work in public service?

When I first graduated, making lots of money was my primary driver for work. I’m not sure whether this was motivated by my student loans or a desire for nice holidays! But after I had my first child (I have three) my focus shifted and I wanted what I did with my working hours to have a greater purpose than just making me (or someone else) money. That’s when I found public service.

I genuinely think that government has some of the most critical and interesting problems and programmes of any sector to deliver. I love being part of a bigger thing that touches everyone one way or another and I’m a passionate advocate for change and for bringing our best selves to work. I do this type of work because I think it really matters and that’s what gets me out of bed each morning.

What excites you most about your role as Director of Digital Identity at GDS?

GDS’s work building a single sign-on and identity checking solution will transform the way citizens interact with government. GOV.UK has done a phenomenal job of pulling the jumping-off point for all government services into one place and now we need to go further. Our focus is to help users not only access joined-up services that resolve their problem in one go, but to do this in a way that removes the need to repeatedly enter the same information.

It’s so interesting that our research indicates that users think government services are more joined-up than they actually are, so when people are asked for similar details many times they’re confused as to why. I’m sure everyone reading this has interacted with the government at one time or another and my new role will provide me with the chance to improve things for everyone – and create opportunities for passionate and talented people to join me and the team in achieving this. Now that’s exciting!

What is your priority for developing the programme?

I want to deliver a joined-up, genuinely helpful service that ‘just works’ for everyone. No fuss, no fanfare. We have significant financial and political support, and we’re building on this to really get under the skin of what departments and users are looking for from the next evolution of government services and their interactions with them. Privacy, security and ‘ease of use’ is really important to me. I want our service to be simple and intuitive enough for anyone to be able to use.

I also want to be able to build on the good work and innovative solutions that are already in place or under development within government. In an ideal world, GDS won’t have to build the entire service from scratch, we’ll be able to reuse things that already exist, either wholesale or with a few mods. I want this to be a genuinely cross-government service, built collaboratively to meet a collective need.

Are there any challenges have you encountered, and how are you overcoming them?

Getting to grips with the sheer scale of the work done to date and the breadth of engagement with departments. But I’m getting there, as I start my third month the number of ‘intro sessions’ I’m having is gradually decreasing.

Where is your focus moving forward?

I currently have a really sharp focus on understanding the totality of things we’re going to need to build so we can work out the best order to approach this very large list. As we build out our roadmap we need to balance a number of lenses in order to be successful, including departmental adoption, user inclusion and unlocking benefits early. So we’re currently creating easy ways for departments to feed in their requirements in a joined-up way.

We’re building one fast, simple and secure way for the public to access all government services, so we need to get out there and get to know services and teams. Whether it’s through official governance channels or our cross-government show and tells, I want to get us talking and building relationships at all levels within our partnering organisations.

GDS is inviting government service teams to register their interest in being part of ongoing research and becoming early adopters of the new single sign-on solution. Find out more and register your interest via the product page.

Natalie will also be giving the keynote speech at the Think Digital Identity for Government conference on November 25.