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Last updated: 22 Feb 2024

Manage dependencies with Dependabot

We’re obliged to keep our software current. To help with this, we use a service called Dependabot (by GitHub) to open automated dependency upgrade PRs, and we use an in-house tool called the Seal to notify us of Dependabot PRs that have not yet been merged. We also have an in-house tool, govuk-dependabot-merger, for automatically merging certain Dependabot PRs.

Reviewing Dependabot PRs

Dependabot updates occur relatively soon after a new version is published, which means there’s a risk of updating to a rogue version. Some updates also contain breaking changes, irrespective of when they are published.

When reviewing a Dependabot PR you should do the following as a minimum:

  • Expand the “Release notes” or “Changelog” details.
    • Click on the link to the CHANGELOG file (if there is one).
    • Read the additions to the file to find out about any breaking changes or upgrade instructions.
    • Take extra care when this is a ‘major’ upgrade, e.g. 2.1.0 => 3.0.0.

If this is the first update the dependency has had in a while, or if this is an unfamiliar dependency that perhaps has a solo maintainer, you’ll want to take extra due diligence in your review:

  • Expand the “Commits” details
    • Click on the “compare view” link.
    • Verify that the version bump in the repo matches the one for the PR.
    • Review the code, not necessarily in a huge amount of depth, but looking for anything odd or potentially risky (e.g. use of eval, encoded strings, HTTP requests to non-GOV.UK domains, etc).
  • Find the package in the equivalent package hosting website, e.g. Rubygems
    • Verify that the ‘Homepage’ or ‘Source Code’ links refer back to the git repository you’ve been reviewing the diff on.
    • Verify that the version in the PR also exists in the package hosting website.
  • You may want to verify the author of the version bump commit is a regular contributor to the repo.
  • If in doubt, get a second opinion from Senior Tech.

For these reasons we’re not planning to enable auto-merge for Dependabot PRs for external dependencies.

Managing Dependabot

Add Dependabot to a repo

Any GOV.UK developer with production access can enable GitHub for a repo.

  1. Navigate to the repo on GitHub, click “Insights”.
  2. Choose the “Dependency graph” menu item.
  3. Select the “Dependabot” tab.
  4. Click “Enable Dependabot”.

To configure Dependabot, a PR will need to be created that adds a configuration file (.github/dependabot.yml). In RFC #126 it was decided that a custom configuration would be used for GOV.UK applications, but this inadvertently disabled some security updates, so was reversed in RFC-153, and configuration is now largely limited to specifying the package ecosystem and schedule (example).

Ask Dependabot to bump dependencies

By default Dependabot will bump dependencies at the frequency specified in the configuration file, but you can ask it to bump manually:

Go to your project in GitHub and click on “Insights”, then “Dependency graph”, then “Dependabot”, then “Last checked X minutes ago” next to the package manager of choice (e.g. Gemfile). Then you can click “Check for updates”.

Auto merging Dependabot PRs

We have a govuk-dependabot-merger service that can auto-merge certain Dependabot PRs, outlined in RFC-156.

Repos that wish to opt in to this service must have a .govuk_dependabot_merger.yml file at the root of the repository, configured as per the govuk-dependabot-merger README instructions. They must then be added to the repos_opted_in.yml list in govuk-dependabot-merger.


We’ve set up branch protection for all repos with the govuk label. This prevents Dependabot from writing directly to main.