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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/digital-skills-in-the-civil-service/internet-tools-for-civil-servants-an-introduction
This document is out of date and won’t be updated.
Use internet tools to develop your digital skills and productivity
There is a growing collection of internet tools which can help make work tasks easier or more efficient for civil servants, whatever your role in government.
In 2013 Sir Bob Kerslake, then Head of the Civil Service, encouraged you to develop your digital skills, so that you:
- understand how digital can improve the way you work
- know how to build, maintain and run digital services
Mike Bracken, then Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, introduced open internet tools in 2013.
Many people in departments across government are already using such tools and services to aid or extend their daily work activities. But it isn’t always easy to know where to start or which are the right tools for the job you need to do.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) leads on digital development across government, and works closely with departments to build digital capability. We’ve been talking to colleagues in all departments to identify what works for different tasks.
All of these tools are available on the internet, usually free and designed to be easy to use. The best way to decide what works for you is to try a tool and learn by doing. Check with your departments about any local usage guidance and restrictions.
The tools listed are examples. Other tools and services may be available.
Meet and work with others remotely
If you want to communicate or meet with people in different locations, it can be difficult and expensive to coordinate so that everyone can be physically present in the same room. Online communication services make it possible to:
- have public or private video chats between 2 or more people
- show and share documents or what’s happening on your screen
- record interactions for publication or archiving
- have direct typed conversations with colleagues via instant messaging services
Google Hangouts requires a Google account and integrates well with other Google products and services. It can be used for real-time text or video interactions, and can include multiple participants.
Perhaps best known for video conferencing, Skype can also be used for text and voice-only communication - ie instead of a phone.
Facetime is limited to Apple products, but can be a good way of interacting between phones and computers.
Surveys can be a useful part of any research programme. In the government’s Service Design Manual, exploring and understanding user needs through user research is an important part of planning and delivering a digital service.
You can also use surveys to get feedback (either from colleagues or users). Here’s an example of a survey to gather feedback about the government’s Service Design Manual.
Free tools may have limitations such as:
- number of surveys
- number of respondents
- ability to customise the design or content of the survey
Smartsurvey is one of the growing number of services and tools being provided by UK-based small and medium size enterprises. In government, it is used by departments including the Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for Transport.
SurveyMonkey is a free service which lets you quickly create and design an online survey, then share it with a large group of people and monitor responses. The paid-for version lets you customise your own templates and conduct more in-depth surveys. The Department of Health and the Department for International Development regularly use this service to conduct surveys.
Typeform is used by the Government Digital Service to create and manage simple surveys.
Create and share a presentation
Sharing presentations online can:
- bring ideas or issues to life
- involve a wider audience
- publicise existing material or messages
There are a number of online services which let you create or share presentations. Some tools contain similar functionality to desktop presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote.
Slideshare allows you to upload and share existing files, to be viewed on Slideshare itself or embedded on blogs or other sites. You can restrict access if required, though presentations are public by default. Search and browse other people’s presentations on Slideshare to get inspiration, as well as research topics and presentations.
You need a Google account to use Google Presentations. You can create new presentations as well as uploading existing files to be edited or shared. Presentations can be private, shared with specific individuals or public. You can also invite individuals to view or edit the presentation, which can be useful for team working.
Slid.es allows you to create online presentations which look equally good on mobile devices, and can be edited much more like web pages. Presentations are public by default and no metrics are available. You can create and share presentations privately if you pay for membership.
Plan and track a project
Several online tools help you manage tasks and work together effectively with your team and others. As with desktop project management software (like MS Project), the basic principles are:
- there are items of work to be done
- a team or individual is allocated to complete these items
- the items flow through various stages to completion
Most project-tracking tools allow you to:
- share information with team members
- assign tasks and due dates
Trello helps you manage ‘to do’ lists and projects. Each project you’re working on is represented by what Trello calls a board. A board is simply a collection of work activities (‘cards’) that are organised into a set of different stages (‘lists’). The Department for Education uses Trello to coordinate uploads to GOV.UK.
Basecamp is a popular low-cost project management tool with a variety of payment scales. It offers project management and social features. You can use it to organise information, activities and people which don’t fit into traditional project shapes. This tour of features and example of how one company managed a project may help you to understand what it offers.
Webplanner offers a more traditional view of project management, including Gantt charts and dependencies, though with the benefit of multiple users and task owners. There are free and paid-for versions, with slightly different functionality.
Organise an event or meeting
There are a number of online tools which exist to make event organisation easier.
Availability checkers allow you to suggest a range of dates and have invitees confirm their availability, so that you can schedule for the time that best suits the majority.
Other conference or event tools
- handle the logistics of ticketing and badges
- send updates and reminders to attendees
- provide a useful single web page containing all the relevant information about eg location or agenda
Eventbrite can handle participant registration, ticket allocation, event badges, and upload your agenda and venue details. Participants can generate paper or mobile tickets. Eventbrite is free to use for organisers of free events and is regularly used by organisers of government events, including GDS. See an example of a 2013 Government Digital Service event.
Doodle is an easy way to schedule meetings and invite colleagues, without having to deal with lots of email negotiation about availability. This is done by creating a poll, from which people select preferred dates, so you can discover the best date for everyone.
Meetup allows you to find and join interest groups to meet offline at a location of your choice for free. You can also pay to set up your own group, where you can plan regular events and formal or informal meet ups on a topic area or theme.
Collaborate on documents
Sometimes it can be useful to write a document collaboratively with colleagues, rather than emailing versions back and forth. This could include:
- drafting a piece of work together
- pooling resources
- taking group notes during an event
Online collaborative editing tools tend to have similar functionality to other desktop-based document tools, but also allow you to invite other people to view, edit and share the document.
Google Apps lets you create documents of various kinds (text, presentations, spreadsheets) which you can work on with colleagues in real time. All document changes are saved as you work and you can revert to earlier versions if needed. You can download documents to work on or share offline.
Hackpad allows collaborative note-taking and sharing of information in a wiki-like format.
Connect to social networks
Online social networks help you to find and interact with others around topics of mutual interest.
They can be useful for providing information, support or peer learning opportunities, though you should always ensure sensitive information or data isn’t exchanged in a non-secure environment.
Twitter is a free online tool for people to exchange messages, share information, ideas and interests. Twitter users send and receive short messages of up to 140 characters, known as tweets, which can include links, photos and videos.
This guide explains how to set up an account and different ways of interacting with other users.
This short guide from Twitter explains some of the things you can do after signing up, as well as more advanced features you might want to explore later.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office uses Twitter to provide travel and emergency alerts to British travellers. The Ministry of Defence is using Twitter and LinkedIn to engage with both MoD and civilian users of MoD land, piloting the work around Salisbury Plain.
You should always be aware of the civil service code and your department’s policy on Twitter use.
LinkedIn is a social networking website for professionals to develop an online profile, describing their career, skills and interests. You can connect to colleagues, both past and present and seek or provide recommendations. Organisations can set up their own page and individuals can follow organisational pages for updates. Several government departments have a presence on LinkedIn, including the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Google+ lets you have discussions and share photos and other content. It can be tricky to find people within it, but if you already use other Google products like email, it integrates well with those.
Knowledge Hub is a free to join social collaboration platform where members connect, exchange knowledge and develop initiatives to improve public services. Communities and groups are largely free to set up with some paid-for services available.
Collate and store notes and ideas
If you regularly find yourself jotting down ideas, notes and bookmarks from the web, it can be useful to keep those notes in a single place online so that they can be accessed wherever you are.
Many of the document creation and collaboration tools have that capability, but there are a number of dedicated services which aim to help users to be more productive on the go.
Evernote allows you to store and manage content including notes, web links, pictures, articles and more. You can share items if needed.
Zoho has a range of web-based productivity tools including spreadsheets, text documents and notebooks, all of which can be private or shared, and accessed remotely. The free version comes with limited storage and functionality, but this may be enough for most uses.
Share large files and documents
Sometimes, files are too big to send to others via email so you need to find a different way. There are a number of online tools which allow you to share large files, such as documents, videos or photos, with colleagues and industry partners.
Dropbox works by securely synchronising files and folders on your computer and remotely on their site. It can be useful where confidentiality is not a priority.
E-PIMS Collaboration tool
E-PIMS Collaboration tool is a secure online environment which enables those in government and their private sector clients to share documents, free of charge. It removes the need to use e-mail to send protectively-marked documents outside of government as attachments. Access to e-PIMS™ Collaboration is controlled by the government.
Collate and share topical information
It can be useful to curate information or objects relating to a particular topic or event, and organise them in a way that helps them make sense as a collection.
For example, gathering tweets, blog posts, photos and videos together could be particularly helpful following an event, to provide an online record of what went on.
Storify creates an appealing online storyboard from multiple formats - articles, video, social media. You can search for relevant content within the tool. Here is an example of the Government Digital Service storyboard.
Scoop.it allows you to edit and share your own newspaper-like collections of information or resources.
Pinterest lets you create visual collections of bookmarks. It’s more widely used for personal activity than professional curation, but can be a good way of collecting images together around a theme. Here’s a board containing a number of curation tools and here’s a board of images from around the Government Digital Service office.
Send out newsletters
Newsletters are a useful alternative to sending out lots of individual emails, and allow users to subscribe to receive periodic updates, usually about a particular service or organisation. You may alternatively want to think about publishing a blog.
Although some organisations and departments prefer to design newsletters for print, then distribute a PDF document via email, there are several dedicated email newsletter services which allow for greater flexibility with content layout in the body of an email.
Newsletters can be any length, though it’s usually best to keep information sent by email relatively short, providing links to where recipients can get more information.
Most newsletter service providers offer:
- templates to make it easy to customise the visual appearance of your email
- member management so you can see who’s subscribed and what their email preferences are
Some providers set a limit on the number of recipients. To send your newsletter to more people, you may need to upgrade to a paid account. It’s generally fairly straightforward to switch between service providers.
Mailchimp allows you to send and track e-newsletters and email marketing campaigns. There are a number of templates you can choose from and you can send emails to 2000 people at once for free.
TinyLetter offers a simple text-only interface for creating and sending newsletters.
Newzapp isn’t free, but you can choose to pay as you go or via a contract.
Access and security
If you’re struggling to use a digital tool, send an email to let us know:
- your department
- the tool you’re using
- what the access problem is
The following guidance may also help with unblocking access to some of these tools:
- CESG’s Cloud Security Guidance on the secure use of cloud services for handling official information
- the Government Security Classification Policy determines what information you can collect, store, process, generate and share, and details the approach to government security
You should always apply common sense when deciding whether to use such services, as they may not be suitable for all government information.
Further links and resources
The Government Digital Strategy explains how all departments will become digital by default.
Departments also have their own digital strategy, which includes how to build the digital capabilities needed to redesign services and become digital by default.
Civil Service Learning have a digital skills page where you can find out about courses and resources on digital topics.
Many departments and agencies are actively encouraging staff to use online tools which improve productivity or enhance digital skills. You may find more information about what’s relevant to your work on your departmental intranet or website. For example, the Department of Health has published guidance for staff on using third-party tools such as those featured in this guide.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has also published useful guidance to help staff use web tools as part of their everyday work. In an accompanying blog post, the digital team explains how it went about improving access to digital tools within MOJ.