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Interview: Till Wirth, product manager, Pay at GDS

Agile development, cross-department collaboration and a true ‘startup culture’ are all benefits of working for the Government Digital Service, according to Pay product manager Till Wirth

Till Wirth, product manager for the new Government Digital Service (GDS) payments platform, aptly named Pay, is working on providing a standardised way for public services to receive electronic payments - which is easier said than done.

The payments platform is part of GDS’s government-as-a-platform (GaaP) strategy, aiming to develop standard digital platforms for common functions used across government, avoiding duplication and unnecessary costs. By 2020, the government’s ambition is for citizens to be able to pay for every central government service online.

In the beta stage of the project, right now, the team is working on developing a platform that takes credit and debit card payments, but it will soon evolve beyond that.

“The next thing after card payment is direct debit,” Wirth says, adding that it makes it much easier for repeat payments and more convenient for users.

“We’re obviously also looking at costs. Direct debit transactions are very cheap compared to card transactions,” he says.

By summer, the aim is to take real payments, but Wirth says they need to be sure it’s “ready, safe and secure” by the time the service launches for real.

Getting departments on board

GDS aims to create common standards across government departments and agencies, which involves a fair amount of cross-government collaboration, making sure everyone is on the same page.

It sounds difficult, but Wirth says it’s “quite enjoyable” and that departments are very “receptive towards the platform” as “usually payments are a bit of a pain for them and they can’t be experts on everything”.

If you work in a team that processes passport applications for instance, there will be things you do that are unique to the service you run, that you will be an expert in, and that’s where the focus should be, he explains

“They shouldn’t have to focus on how to process the payment, how to host the website or how to send a notification, because that's something that’s replicated in hundreds of services,” says Wirth.

“Why would a team that works on handling passport applications have to become an expert in payments?”

Till Wirth, GDS

"We’re developing a platform that will eventually process billions of pounds. I don’t think you’d be able to find  a project quite like that anywhere in the UK"

Till Wirth, Government Digital Service

To make sure departments are fully involved, GDS recently had a hack day, where developers from different agencies and departments came in looking at how to do API (application programming interface) integration with the Pay platform.

“That's really interesting for them because they get exposed to what we're doing, but also it's really interesting for us because based on the work they're doing, we get really good feedback on how we can iterate the product,” Wirth says, and adds that it also builds a community for the developers.

Committed to GDS

Created by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2011, GDS has grown to become a pioneer of digital transformation of public services, with huge support from central government.

In the spending review in November last year, GDS, perhaps surprisingly, was handed £450m to spend over the course of this parliament, a significant increase in its budget.

Wirth says that one of the biggest surprises he’s had while working for GDS was “the extreme commitment we got through the spending review”. But he said that if he was being “a little less humble”, perhaps it wasn’t such a shock as GDS has delivered plenty in previous years. “It was definitely a pleasant surprise,” he adds.

More details on how the budget will be spent is likely to be announced at Sprint 16 on 11 February, as GDS plans to share future plans at the conference. What is known however, is that GDS aims for £3.5bn in savings from its new budget, focusing on GaaP, its online verification scheme Verify, and Common Technology Services.

The pace at GDS is something Wirth didn’t expect, and he certainly didn’t plan on working for government.

In fact, he ended up in this job purely by chance. Having relocated to the UK from New York, where he worked for publisher Random House, Wirth completed an MBA at the University of Oxford and heard from a few friends that “GDS was an exciting place”.

Having very little exposure to GDS, but a clear idea of what it was like working in government, he wasn’t sure when he started his job two and a half years ago: “I was a bit sceptical in the beginning, but walking through the office it wasn’t what I expected”.

In fact, he says, GDS has a true “startup culture”. The offices are filled with colourful Post-it notes, chatter and enthusiasm.

“Lots of people think, ‘is that really where innovation is happening?’ Turns out it is,” he says.

“The ironic thing is that in pretty much all the places I've worked before, we've probably used more old school ways of doing IT projects than we do in government.”

Advanced at agile

He says he knew a bit about agile working from previous jobs, but had “never seen it in such an advanced way as it is in GDS”.

Every morning, the team has a “stand up” where every team member gets together and knowledge share, giving people in your team an update on what you’ve done.

“It’s really about going over the work that’s in progress and giving everyone an update. It’s really helpful as people realise what the dependencies are, how they can help someone else and you get a feeling for the progress you’re making,” he says.

Read more about the Government Digital Service

GDS launches beta version of Pay payment system that aims to provide standardised electronic payments for public services

The Government Digital Service is looking for digital training services suppliers to take part in a framework agreement worth £35m

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has announced plans for a GDS mentoring scheme, partnering with local schools and colleges

Working at GDS, he says “very much feels like a startup culture”, something both former GDS boss Mike Bracken, and current boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain have done an "amazing" job of keeping intact, he adds.

“It’s non-hierarchical; you get lots of responsibility and lots of support. You could almost say it’s a startup with a very well-funded investor,” he says.

“Right now we’re developing a platform that will eventually process billions of pounds. I don’t think you’d be able to find  a project quite like that anywhere in the UK.”

However, the startup culture can also be a challenge. In a startup, decision making tends to be “quite informal”, which is fine, but when you have, in Wirth’s words “a massive operational entity” you need to have a bit more “stricter processes”. Finding the right balance can be tricky, but Wirth says it seems to work for GDS.

 A people business

One of the reasons he enjoys his job is the people. Working in an agile environment means there are multidisciplinary teams from different backgrounds. On Wirth’s team there are people who have worked in finance, media and startups, just to mention a few.

He says the passion people have for their jobs reminds him of the publishing industry where everyone was very passionate about literacy and books.

“Here people are really passionate about making it easier for citizens and businesses and people from abroad to interact with British government and I think that's quite inspiring.” he says.

“If you give people the freedom to make decisions they really take on the responsibility and that’s what I think is the most exciting part about the culture at GDS."

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