Skip to main content

Design in the Senior Civil Service

Alt: Portrait of Jen. She is standing outside of an office with Westminster in the background.

If you’re a designer that’s looked at the job listings for Senior Civil Service (SCS) roles (that’s Deputy Director, Director, Director General and Permanent Secretary), you’ve probably noticed there aren’t very many out there – particularly when it comes to user-centred design (UCD). And that’s not ideal – the Civil Service needs user-centred design to work alongside other professions more than ever. 

However, there are some roles out there, and I’ve been in one of them for the last year as Deputy Director for Design in Making Tax Digital at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). There’s another at HMRC, as well as at the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), the UK Health Security Agency, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office that I’m aware of, and perhaps even more than that.

I’m often asked what my career path was to SCS. There are many pathways, and I’ll share mine – as well as a few of the challenges and opportunities of working in design at this level, and my top tips if you’re interested in a role like this.

My career journey

I joined the Civil Service as a Content Designer at Grade 7 level at what was then the Department for International Trade (now DBT). 

Before that, my career was ‘outside’ working on websites, digital products and services. My last role before joining the Civil Service was as Digital Content Manager at Wellcome Collection; a huge part of this role was moving from a web publishing model to a content design-led model. I remember actively using the Service Manual to inform our approach to content (which luckily our Product Manager was fully in support of).

At DBT, I earned my Civil Service content design chops by working on content design for products and services in the lead-up to Brexit. It was not easy at all – with changing policy direction, designing content that helps users ‘do’ things was very challenging. And at first, I struggled to connect with where I could add value to users because we were supporting businesses. Working on helped me make that connection – many of these businesses were small to medium sized businesses who wanted to export their products but didn’t know how to navigate them. But if we could increase their confidence – and help them build their capability – we could not only help them with their business, but bring more revenue into the UK, which in turn funds more public services. This was a lightbulb moment for me. I would find later my experience gained here designing in an ambiguous policy environment was very valuable to other departments – and not something I’d previously done outside government.

I moved to the Department for Education as a Lead Content Designer at Grade 6 Level, before moving into a Head of Profession role as Head of Content Design. Part of my role as a Head of Profession was to build capability for design. I remember looking at the progression frameworks for design and being struck that to move up beyond Grade 6, the most options seemed to be in Product or Delivery – with Content Design it was up and then out to the world of contracting. 

Although I absolutely loved my Head of Profession role (and my fellow Heads of Profession), in the Civil Service, with the focus on delivery, I needed to show how I could lead delivery in a design context too. I decided to look for opportunities at the Head level to show how I could deliver UCD at scale. When a secondment to the HM Courts & Tribunals Service as Head of User Centred Design came up, with accountability for two delivery streams and supplier management, I jumped at the chance. This role also gave me the stretch of having accountability across all design disciplines.

When the Deputy Director role for Design for Making Tax Digital came up, I was interested. There was potential, though it wasn’t exactly what I imagined SCS design leadership looking like – a heavier focus on design through the lens of business analysis and process design rather than UCD. It made me realise that at SCS level, the word ‘design’ is often used in its more traditional dictionary definition – for example, ‘a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made’. 

So how could I show how I could operate at this level while making space and creating the right environment for UCD to work well? In my interview I had honest conversations around the direction that I would want to take the role. 

I was (and am) lucky to have a supportive Director and Director General that can see the value that UCD can pay to delivering outcomes, but it’s not all plain sailing. 


  • I often feel I do no ‘design’ at all anymore, I do not even get to do the assurance of great design that often happens at Grade 6 level. But that’s not what I’m here to do – I need to focus on the conditions for great UCD and protect the talented designers and researchers in my team. The leadership and guidance skills you develop as a designer will continue to be useful.
  • A lot of my day-to-day is filled with commissions and briefing, and the pressure to deliver is even greater. User-centred content design comes into its own here because I focus on my senior stakeholders’ needs and how best to meet them.
  • I must be patient (not one of my greatest virtues) to influence the change I want to see. There are no quick fixes – I need to invest time making relationships with people I didn’t normally work closely with as a designer. Understanding how best to influence in finance and commercial spaces has been a real area of learning for me – so I’d say that’s where communicating between the technical and non-technical helps.


  • Giving time and support to people doing UCD is one of my absolute favourite things. People feel empowered to know someone at SCS level is truly championing their work. I love the notes I get from them telling me how I help them – and inspire them to see themselves in an SCS role one day too. Guiding them to make decisions is a skill that isn’t just for designers, but also for architects too.
  • Very senior civil servants are just as keen to deliver outcomes – at this level I have a foot in the door to do great work. Using your managing decisions and risk and strategic thinking skills here allows you to stand out.
  • The ability to make organisational design choices that support UCD is exciting (for example, Making Tax Digital recruited permanent service designers this year and the function is truly embedded.) Your evidence and context-based design skills will stay sharp.

Top tips if you’re interested in leading UCD at SCS level

  • Sign up for job alerts on Civil Service Jobs for SCS1 and SCS2 jobs with the word ‘design’ in them – you’ll get a weekly update and see the types of roles available and what they’re asking for.
  • Think about what you have and don’t have from those essential criteria – is a short secondment worth considering to give you that for your portfolio?
  • Understand that you will (almost never) walk into a perfect SCS role – you may need to mould it over time. Decide whether you want an imperfect role with the opportunity to change. Be honest with yourself.
  • Spend time in both UCD delivery and Head of Profession roles. You’ll need to show you can deliver design, but you’ll also want to show you understand an organisation’s big picture.  
  • Practice pragmatism – there will be times that you cannot implement the ideal solution from a user-centred perspective. But what can you do? Focus on the direction of travel.


If you would like write a blog post for the Design in government blog please get in touch. We can help you to develop any ideas you have, big or small.


Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Angela Moore posted on

    Brilliant to hear about designers (especially content designers) in these sorts of leadership roles. Thanks for sharing, Jen.


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.