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Category: Digital Government

And this is why we test with users…

A blog on the new National Careers ‘Discover your skills and careers’ Service

As I sit here are ten past ten on a Wednesday night watching social media have a field day with the new National Careers service, I’m yet again reminded about the importance of the Digital Service Standard, especially Standard Number One – Understand users and their needs. And why we need to get Ministers and senior leaders to understand their importance.

The first role of any good User Centric designer or Product Manager within the public sector is understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.

In this case, the problem we’re facing is not a small one. Because of COVID-19 we currently have approximately 1.4M people unemployed with many more still facing redundancy due to the ongoing pandemic. ONS data states that between March and August, the number of people claiming benefits rose 120% to 2.7 million.

The Entertainment, Leisure and Hospitality sectors have been decimated, amongst many others. Just this week we’ve had Cineworld announce 45,000 job loses and Odeon may soon be following suit. Theatres and live event venues across the country are reporting they are on the brink of collapse.

So, when the Chancellor announced as part of the summer statement, a whole host of support for people too retrain; it included advice for people to use the new Careers and Skills advice service to get ideas on new career options.

A service to help people understand new career options right now is a great idea, it absolutely should meet user need.

A screenshot of the national careers service skills assessment

Unfortunately, you only have to look at the headlines to see how well the new service has been received. The service is currently such a laughing stock that no-one is taking it seriously; which is a massive shame, because it’s trying to solve a very real problem.

A number of my friends and acquaintances have now taken the quiz (as has half of twitter apparently) and it was suggested I have a look. So I did. (As an aside, it recommended I retrain in the hospitality industry, all who know me know how terrible this would be for all involved, last week I managed to forget to cook 50% of our dinner, and I am clinically unable to make a good cup of coffee, never mind clean or tidy anything!)

It has good intentions, and in a number of cases, it may not be too far off the mark; the team behind the service have done a write up here* of how they have developed it, and what they set out to achieve. Unfortunately, while the service seems to be simple to understand and accessible to use; what it seems to be missing is any level of context or practicality that would help it meet the problem it’s being used for.

*EDIT: Which has sadly now been taken down, which is a massive shame, because they did good work, but sadly I suspect under political pressure to get something out there quickly. We’ve all been there, it’s a horrid position to be in.

While they have tested with users with accessibility needs, the focus seems to have been on whether they can use the digital service; not does the service actually meet their needs?

My friend with severe mobility and hearing issues was advised to retrain as a builder. Another friend with physical impairments (and a profound phobia of blood) was advised they were best suited to a role as a paramedic. A friend with ASD who also has severe anxiety and an aversion to people they don’t know, was advised to become a beautician. Another friend who is a single parent was given three career options that all required evening and weekend work. At no point does this service ask whether you have any medical conditions or caring needs that would limit the work you could do. While you can argue that that level of detail falls under the remit of a jobs coach; it can understandable be seen as insensitive and demoralising to be recommending careers to people they are physically unable to do.

Equally, unhelpful is the fact the service which has been especially recommended to people who have been made redundant from the worst hit industries; is recommending those same decimated industries to work in, with no recognition of the current jobs market.

My partner, who was actually made redundant from her creative role due to COVID-19, (and the target audience for this service according to the Chancellor) was advised to seek a role in the creative industries; an industry that doesn’t currently exist; and a quick look on social media proves she isn’t alone.

The service doesn’t actually collect enough (well, any) data about the career someone is in, nor does it seem to have any interface to the current jobs market to understand whether the careers its recommending are actually viable.

Unfortunately, the service is too generic, and while it would possibly help school/ college students who are trying to choose their future career paths in a ‘normal’ job market, (And I honestly suspect that’s who it was actually developed for!) it’s not meetings the fundamental problem we are facing at the moment; ie. help people understand their career options in the current market.

If you’ve worked within Digital in the Public Sector you’ve had to deal with Ministers and Directors who don’t really understand the value of user research or why we need to test things properly before we role them out nationally. The current debacle with the careers website is possible a perfect example of why you need to make sure you actually test your service with a wide range of users regularly; not just rely on assumptions and user personas; and why its important to test and iterate the service with real users multiple times before it gets launched. It highlights the need for us to get Ministers to understand that rushing a service out there quickly isn’t always the right answer.

We all need to understand users and their needs. Just because a service is accessible doesn’t mean it solves the problem users are facing.

Do Civil Servants dream of woolly sheep?

The frustration of job descriptions and their lack of clarity.

One of the biggest and most regularly occurring complaints about the Civil Service (and public sector as a whole) is their miss-management of commercial contracts.

There are regularly headlines in the papers accusing Government Departments & the Civil Servants working in them of wasting public money, and there has been a drive over the last few years especially to improve commercial experience especially within the Senior Civil Service.

When a few years ago my mentor at the time suggested leaving the public sector for a short while to gain some more commercial experience before going for any Director level roles, this seemed like a very smart idea. I would obviously need to provide evidence of my commercial experience to get any further promotions, and surely managing a couple of 500K, 1M contracts would not be enough, right?

Recently I’ve been working with my new mentor, focusing specially on gaining more commercial knowledge etc. and last month he set me an exercise to look at some Director and above roles within the Digital and Transformation arena to see what level of commercial experience they were asking for, so that I can measure my current levels of experience against what is being asked for.

You can therefor imagine my surprise when this month we got together to compare 4 senior level roles (2 at Director level and 2 Director General) and found that the amount of commercial experience requested in the job descriptions was decidedly woolly.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, the Civil Service is famous for its woolly language, policy and strategy documents are rarely written in simple English after all.

But rather than job specifications with specific language asking for “experience of managing multiple multi million pound contracts successfully etc”. What is instead called for (if mentioned specially at all) is “commercial acumen” or “a commercial mindset” but no real definition of what level of acumen or experience is needed.

The Digital Infrastructure Director role at DCMS does mention commercial knowledge as part of the person specification, which it defines as “a commercial mindset, with experience in complex programmes and market facing delivery.

And this one from MoD, for an Executive Director Service Delivery and Operations, calls for “Excellent commercial acumen with the ability to navigate complex governance arrangements in a highly scrutinised and regulated environment”

Finally we have the recently published Government CDO role, which clearly mentions commercial responsibilities in the role description, but doesn’t actually demand any commercial experience in the person specification.

At which point, my question is, what level of Commercial acumen or experience do you actually want? What is a commercial mindset and how do you know if you have it? Why are we being so woolly at defining what is a fundamentally critical part of these roles?

How much is enough?

Recent DoS framework opportunities we have bid for or considered at Difrent have required suppliers to have have experience of things like “a minimum of 2 two million pound plus level contracts” (as an example) to be able to bid for them.

That’s helpful, as Delivery Director I know exactly how many multimillion pound contracts we’ve delivered successfully and can immediately decide whether as a company it’s worth us putting time or effort into the bid submissions. But as a person, I don’t have the same level of information needed to make a similar decision on a personal level.

The flip side of the argument is that data suggests that women especially won’t apply for roles that are “too specific” or have a long shopping list of demands, because women feel like they need to meet 75% of the person specification to apply. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but there’s a big difference between being far too specific and listing 12+ essential criteria for a role, and being soo unspecific you’ve become decidedly generic.

Especially when, as multiple studies have shown, in the public digital sector Job titles are often meaningless. Very rarely in the public sector does a job actually do what it says on the tin. What a Service Manager is in one Department can be very different in another one.

If I’m applying for an Infrastructure role I would expect the person specification to ask for Infrastructure experience. If I’m applying for a comms role, I expect to be asked for some level of comms experience; and I would expect some hint as too how much experience is enough.

So why when we are looking at Senior/ Director level roles in the Civil Service are we not helping candidates understand what level of commercial experience is ‘enough’? The private sector job adverts for similar level roles tend to be much more specific in terms of the amount of contract level experience/ knowledge needed, so why is the public sector being so woolly in our language?

Woolly enough for you?

*If you don’t get the blog title, I’m sorry, it is very geeky. and a terrible Philip K. Dick reference. But it amused me.

So, what is a Service Owner?

Before I discuss what (in my view) a Service Owner is, a brief history lesson into the role might be useful.

The role of the ‘Service Manager‘ was seen as critically important to the success of a product, and they were defined as a G6 (Manager) who had responsibility for the end to end service AND the person who led the team through their Service Standard assessments.

Now let’s think about this a bit; Back when the GDS Service Standard and the Service Manual first came into creation, they were specifically created for/with GOV.UK in mind. As such, this definition of the role makes some sense. GOV.UK was (relatively) small and simple; and one person could ‘own’ the end to end service.

The problem came about when the Service Standards were rolled our wider than in GDS itself. DWP is a good example of where this role didn’t work.

The Service Manual describes a service as the holistic experience for a user; so it’s not just a Digital Product, it’s the telephony Service that sits alongside it, the back end systems that support it, the Operational processes that staff use to deliver the service daily, along with the budget that pays for it all. Universal Credit is a service, State Pension is a service; and both of these services are, to put it bluntly, HUGE.

Neil Couling is a lovely bloke, who works really hard, and has the unenviable task of having overarching responsibility for Universal Credit. He’s also, a Director General. While he knows A LOT about the service, it is very unlikely that he would know the full history of every design iteration and user research session the Service went through, or be able to talk in detail about the tech stack and it’s resilience etc; and even if he did, he certainly would be very unlikely to have the 4 hours spare to sit in the various GDS assessments UC went through.

This led to us (in DWP) phasing out the role; and splitting the responsibilities into two, the (newly created role of ) Product Lead and the Service Owner. The Product Lead did most of the work of the Service Manager (in terms of GDS assessments etc), but they didn’t have the responsibility of the end to end service; this sat with the Service Owner. The Service Owner was generally a Director General (and also the SRO), who we clarified the responsibilities of when it came to Digital Services.

A few years ago, Ross (the then Head of Product and Service Management at GDS) and I, along with a few others, had a lot of conversations about the role of the Service Manager; and why in departments like DWP, the role did not work, and what we were doing instead.

At the time there was the agreement in many of the Departments outside of GDS that the Service Manager role wasn’t working how it had been intended, and was instead causing confusion and in some cases, creating additional unnecessary hierarchy. The main problem was, is it was in DWP, the breadth of the role was too big for anyone below SCS, which mean instead we were ending up with Service Managers who were only responsible for the digital elements of the service (and often reported to a Digital Director), with all non digital elements of the service sitting under a Director outside of Digital, which was creating more division and confusion.

As such, the Service Manual and the newly created DDaT framework were changed to incorporate the role of the Service Owner instead of the Service Manager; with the suggestion this role should be an SCS level role. However, because the SCS was outside of the DDaT framework, the amount the role could be defined/ specified was rather limited, and instead became more of a suggestion rather than a clearly defined requirement.

The latest version of the DDaT framework has interestingly removed the suggestions that the role should be an SCS role, and any reference of the cross over with the responsibilities of SRO, and now makes the role sound much more ‘middle management’ again, although it does still specify ownership of the end to end service.

Ok, so what should a Service Owner be?

When we talked about the role a few years ago, the intention was very much to define how the traditional role of the SRO joined up closer to the agile/digital/user centred design world; in order to create holistic joined up services.

Below is (at least my understanding of) what we intended the role to be:

  • They should have end to end responsibility for the holistic service.
  • They should understand and have overall responsibility for the scope of all products within the service.
  • They should have responsibility for agreeing the overall metrics for their service and ensuring they are met.
  • They should have responsibility for the overall budget for their service (and the products within it).
  • They should understand the high level needs of their users, and what teams are doing to meet their needs.
  • They should have an understanding (and have agreed) the high level priorities within the service. ((Which Product needs to be delivered first? Which has the most urgent resource needs etc.))
  • They should be working with the Product/Delivery/Design leads within their Products as much as the Operational leads etc. to empower them to make decisions, and understanding the decisions that have been made.
  • They should be encouraging and supporting cross functional working to ensure all elements of a service work together holistically.
  • They should be fully aware of any political/strategy decisions or issues that may impact their users and the service, and be working with their teams to ensure those are understand to minimise risks.
  • They should understand how Agile/Waterfall and any other change methodologies work to deliver change. And how to best support their teams no matter which methodology is being used.

In this way the role of the Service Owner would add clear value to the Product teams, without adding in unnecessary hierarchy. They would support and enable the development of a holistic service, bringing together all the functions a service would need to be able to deliver and meet user needs.

Whether they are an SCS person or not is irrelevant, the important thing is that they have the knowledge and ability to make decisions that affect the whole service, that they have overall responsibility for ensuring users needs are met, that they can ensure that all the products within the service work together, and that their teams are empowered, to deliver the right outcomes.

Why SME’s are important, but shouldn’t be the Product Manager

Along time ago in a land far away; well four years ago and sat in a very cold office in trafalgar square; Ross Ferguson , Alex Kean , Scot Colfer and I plus a few others sat discussing the DDaT capability framework for Product Management.

The discussions we had at the time focused on “how do we actually define the role? And what makes a good product manager?” And there have been plenty of blogs written on those questions over the years. It definitely feels like the role has matured and progressed over the last few years, and now is generally pretty well recognised.

However yesterday chatting to Si Wilson about SME’s and Product Managers, and why they were different roles, I realised this may be one area not touched on much, and actually a pretty key difference it’s important to understand.

In the private sector, the Product Manager is often “the voice of the business”, they are equally seen as the “voice of the customer” but when developing products to take to market and make a profit, it’s less about what the users need, and what the business can sell to them.

In the Public Sector, the role of the Product Manager is a bit different. The Product Manager is NOT the voice of the business, instead they are the voice of the vision. The Product Manager is responsible for ‘what could be’ they ensure the team are delivering quality and value, weighing up the evidence from everyone else in the team and making the decisions on where to focus next in order to meet the desired outcomes.

This slight change in focus is where the role of the Subject Matter Expert (SME) comes in. The Scrum Dictionary states the SME is the person with specialised knowledge; in my experience the SME provide’s the voice of the business; and what ‘is’ rather than what will be. They understand the in’s and out’s of an existing product, service or any sacred cows that need to be avoided (or understood) within an organisation. They usually work closely with the Business Analyst to map out business processes and User Researchers to understand staff experiences.

Back when we merry band of Head’s of Product were trying to understand the role, the decision to not have Product Managers ‘be the voice of the business’ was a very deliberate move as we felt it hampered the move to User Centred design, as it felt it was hard to step back and be agnostic about the solution if you’ve had years in the business and know every pain point and workaround going etc.

Some of the dangers of having a Product Manager who is also an SME are:

  • They feel they know everything already because of their experience, so feel that user research or testing is a waste of time.
  • They become a single point of failure for both knowledge and decision making, with too many people needing their attention at the same time
  • They can get lost in the weeds of details, which can lead to micromanaging or a lack of pace

That is not at all to say that Product Managers can’t ‘come from the business’ because obviously having some knowledge about the organisation and the service is helpful. But equally, having a clear delineation between the roles of the Product Manager and the SME is important; so if you do have someone covering both roles, it’s important to understand which hat is being worn when decisions are made; and for that individual to be able to draw a line between when they are acting as the PM and when they are the SME.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team

As a Product person, a good SME is worth their weight in gold. good ones bring loads of speed and stretching thinking — and even packaging thinking. They can help identify pain points, and help user researchers and business analysts find the right people to talk to when asking questions about processes’ etc. They give the Product Manager room to manoeuvre, and make sure things are moving on. Equally the best SME’s can be pragmatic, they understand that what the business wants doesn’t always match what users want, and work with the team to find the best way forward.

Where the role of the SME hasn’t worked well, in my experience, it tends to be because the individual hasn’t been properly empowered to make decisions by their organisation or line manager; or don’t actually have the knowledge required, and are instead their to capture questions or decisions and feed them back to their team/manager. Another common issues is that the SME can’t be pragmatic or understand the difference between user needs and business needs; and won’t get involved in user research or understand its importance. Rather than helping the team move work forward, they slow things down; wanting every decision justified to their satisfaction; wanting to make decisions themselves rather than working with the Product Manager.

Rarely have I found SME”s that could be dedicated full time to one project, they tend to be Policy or Ops experts etc. and so there are a lot of demands on their time. I suspect this is one of the reasons the role of the SME and Product Manager if sometimes blended together. However, while they ‘can’ be filled by the same person, in my experience having those roles filled by separate people does work much better, and allow the team to deliver value quicker.

The people getting left behind

Why ‘in the era of remote working we need to stop thinking about ‘digital services’ as a separate thing, and just think about ‘services’.

Last night when chatting to @RachelleMoose about whether digital is a privilege, which she’s blogged about here, it made me remember a conversation from a few weeks ago with @JanetHughes about the work DEFRA were doing, and their remit as part of the response to the current pandemic (which it turns out is not just the obvious things like food and water supplies, but also what do we do about Zoo’s and Aquariums during a lockdown?!)

A giraffe

This in turn got me thinking about the consequences of lockdown that we might never have really have considered before the COVID 19 pandemic hit; and the impact a lack of digital access has on peoples ability to access public services.

There are many critical services we offer everyday that are vital to peoples lives that we never imagined previously as ‘digital’ services which are now being forced to rely on digital as a means of delivery, and not only are those services themselves struggling to adapt but we are also at risk of forgetting those people for whom digital isn’t an easy option.

All ‘digital’ services have to prove they have considered Digital Inclusion, back in 2014 it was found approx. 20% of Britains had basic digital literacy skills, and the Digital Literacy Strategy aimed to have everyone who could be digital literate, digitally able by 2020. However it was believed that 10% of the population would never be able to get online, and the Assisted Digital paper published in 2013 set out how government would enable equal access to users to ensure digital excluded people were still able to access services. A report by the ONS last year backs this assumption up, showing that in 2019 10% of the population were still digital excluded.

However, as the effects of lockdown begin to be considered, we need to think about whether our assisted digital support goes far enough; and whether we are really approaching how we develop public services holistically, how we ensure they are future proof and whether we are truly including everyone.

There have been lots of really interesting articles and blogs about the impact of digital (or the lack of access to digital) on children’s education. With bodies like Ofsted expressing concerns that the lockdown will widen the gap education between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children from more affluent homes; with only 5% of the children classified as ‘in need’ who were expected to still be attending school turning up.

An empty school room

According to the IPPR, around a million children do not have access to a device suitable for online lessons; the DfE came out last month to say there were offering free laptops and routers to families in need; however a recent survey showed that while over a quarter of teachers in private schools were having daily interaction with their pupils online less than 5% of those in state schools were interacting with their pupils daily online. One Academy chain in the North West is still having to print home learning packs and arrange for families to physically pick up and drop off school work.

The Good Things Foundation has shared its concerns similarly about the isolating effects of lockdown, and the digital divide that is being created, not just for families with children, but for people with disabilities, elderly or vulnerable people or households in poverty. Almost 2 million homes have no internet access, and 26 million rely on pay as you go data to get online. There has been a lot of concern raised about people in homes with domestic violence who have no access to phones or the internet to get help. Many companies are doing what they can to try and help vulnerable people stay connected or receive support but it has highlighted that our current approach to designing services is possibly not as fit for the future as we thought.

The current pandemic has highlighted the vital importance for those of us working in or with the public sector to understand users and their needs, but to also ensure everyone can access services. The Digital Service Standards were designed with ‘digital’ services in mind, and it was never considered 6 months ago, that children’s education, or people’s health care needed to be considered and assessed against those same standards.

The standards themselves say that the criteria for assessing products or services is applicable if either of the following apply:

  • getting assessed is a condition of your Cabinet Office spend approval
  • it’s a transactional service that’s new or being rebuilt – your spend approval will say whether what you’re doing counts as a rebuild

The key phrase here for me is ‘transactional service’ ie. the service allows:

  • an exchange of information, money, permission, goods or services
  • submitting of personal information that results in a change to a government record

While we may never have considered education as a transactional service before now, as we consider ‘the new normal’ we as service designers and leaders in the transformation space need to consider which of our key services are transactional, how we are providing a joined up experience across all channels; and what holistic service design really means. We need to move away from thinking about ‘digital and non digital services’ and can no longer ‘wait’ to assess new services, instead we need to step back and consider how we can offer ANY critical service remotely going forward should we need to do so.

A child using a tablet

Digital can no longer be the thing that defines those with privilege, COVID 19 has proved that now more than ever it is an everyday essential, and we must adapt our policies and approach to service design to reflect that. As such, I think it’s time that we reassess whether the Digital Service Standards should be applied to more services than they currently are; which services we consider to be ‘digital’ and whether that should even be a differentiator anymore. In a world where all services need to be able to operate remotely, we need to approach how we offer our services differently if we don’t want to keep leaving people behind.

Matt Knight has also recently blogged on the same subject, so linking to his blog here as it is spot on!

How to change a culture

When delivering digital or business transformation, one of the things that often gets overlooked is the cultural changes that are needed to embed the transformation succesfully.

There can be many reasons why this happens, either because it’s not been considered, because it’s not been considered a priority, or simply because the people leading the transformation work don’t know how to do this.

In my experience the culture of an organisation can be the thing that makes or breaks a successful transformation programme or change initiative; if the culture doesn’t match or support the changes you are trying to make, then it’s unlikely that those changes will stick.

Below are some common causes of failure in my experience:

  • The scope of transformation programmes have been considered and set in silos without considering how they fit within the wider strategy.
  • Decisions have been made at ‘the top’ and time hasn’t been spent getting staff engagement, feelings and feedback to ensure they understand why changes are being made.
  • Decisions have been made to change processes without validating why the existing processes exist or how the changes will impact people or processes.
  • Changes have been introduced without ensuring the organisation has the capability or capacity to cope.
  • Lack of empowerment to the transformation teams to make decisions.
  • When introducing agile or digital ways of working, corresponding changes to finance/ governance/ commercials haven’t been considered; increasing siloed working and inconsistencies.

Walk the talk:

Within Difrent we use tools like the Rich Picture and Wardley mapping to help Senior Leaders to understand their strategic priorities and clearly define the vision and strategy in a transparent and visual way. These help them be able to agree the strategy and be able to ‘sell it’ to the wider organisation and teams in order to get engagement and understanding from everyone.

The Rich picture Difrent developed for the NHSBSA
The NHSBSA rich picture

In my experience this works especially well when the assumptions made by the SLT in the strategy and vision are tested with staff and teams before final version are agreed; helping people understand why changes are being made and how they and their role fit into the picture.

This is especially important when it comes to the next step, which is developing things like your transformation roadmap and target operating model. These things can not be developed in isolation if you want your transformation to succeed.

People always have different views when it comes to priorities, and ways to solve problems. It is vitally important to engage people when setting priorities for work, so they understand why changes to a data warehouse or telephony service are being prioritised before the new email service or website they feel they have been waiting months for. Feedback is key to getting buy in.

A whiteboard with the word 'feedback' written in the middle with written notes around it
‘Feedback’

Equally assumptions are often made at the top level about something being a priority based on process issues etc. Without understanding why those processes existed in the first place, which can miss the complexity or impact of any potential changes. This then means that after changes have been delivered, people find the transformation hasn’t delivered what they needed, and workarounds and old ways of working return.

One thing I hear often within organisations is they want ‘an open and transparent culture’ but they don’t embody those principles when setting strategic or transformation priorities; as such people struggle to buy into the new culture as they don’t understand or agree with how decisions have been made.

Think wider:

While people are the most important thing when thinking about transformation and business change, and changing a culture; they are not the only thing we have to consider. The next step is processes.

Whatever has inspired an organisation to transform, transformation can not be delivered within a silo; it is important to consider what changes may need to be made to things like finances; commercials and governance.

While these aren’t always obvious things to consider when delivered digital transformation as an example, they are vitally important in ensuring its success. One thing many organisations have found when changing their culture and introducing things like agile ways of working, is that traditional governance and funding processes don’t easily support empowered teams or iterative working.

As such, it’s vitally important if you want transformation to succeed to not get trapped in siloed thinking, but instead take a holistic service approach to change; ensuring you understand the end to end implications to the changes you are looking to make.

Taking a leap:

Equally, when making changes to governance or culture, one thing I have found in my experience is that senior leaders; while they want to empower teams and bring in new ways of working, they then struggle with how to ‘trust’ teams. Often as Senior Responsible Owners etc. they don’t want to be seen to be wasting money. As such they can enter a loop of needing changes ‘proving’ before they can fully embrace them, but by not being able to fully embrace the changes they aren’t demonstrating the culture they want and teams then struggle themselves to embrace the changes, meaning the real value of the transformation is never realised.

A woman standing in front of a project wall
A project board full of post it notes

There is no easy answer to this, sometimes you just have to take that leap and trust your teams. If you have invested in building capability (be that through training or recruitment of external experts) then you have to trust them to know what they are doing. Not easy when talking about multi-million pound delivery programmes, but this is where having an iterative approach really can help. By introducing small changes to begin with, this can help build the ‘proof’ needed to be able to invest in bigger changes.

There is no one ‘thing’

When delivering transformation, and especially when trying to change culture, there is no quick answer, or no one single thing you can do to guarantee success. But by considering the changes you will be making holistically, getting input and feedback from staff and stakeholders, engaging them in the process and challenging yourselves to demonstrate the cultural changes you want to see, it is much more likely the transformation you are trying to deliver will succeed.

The word 'change'
Change.

Delivering in a crisis

One of the key personal aims I had when I joined Difrent, just over six months ago, was to work somewhere that would let me deliver stuff that matters. Because I am passionate about people, and about Delivery;

After 15 years, right in the thick of some pioneering public sector work, combining high profile product delivery with developing digital capability working for organisations like the Government Digital Services (GDS), Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), The Care Quality Commission (CQC), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD); I was chaffing at the speed (or lack thereof) of delivery in the Public sector.

Parcel delivery

I hoped going agency side would remove some of that red tape, and let me get on and actually deliver; my aim when I started was to get a project delivered (to public beta at the very least) within my first year. Might seem like a simple ask, but in the 10 years I spent working in Digital, I’d only seen half a dozen services get into Live.

This is not because the projects failed, they are all still out there being used by people; but because once projects got into Beta, and real people could start using them, the impetus to go-live got lost somewhat.

Six months into the job and things looked to be on track, with one service in Private beta, another we are working on in Public Beta; plus a few Discoveries etc. underway; things were definitely moving quickly and I my decision to move agency side felt justified. Delivery was happening.

And then Covid-19 hit.

Gov.uk COVID-19 website
A tablet displaying the Gov.uk COVID-19 guidance

With COVID-19, the old normal, and ways of working have had to change rapidly. If for no other reason than we couldn’t all be co-located anymore. We all had to turn too fully remote working quickly, not just as a company but as an industry.

Thankfully within Difrent we’ve always had the ability to work remotely, so things like laptops and collaborative software were already in place internally; but the move to being fully remote has still been a big challenge. Things like setting up regular online collaboration and communication sessions throughout our week, our twice-daily coffee catchups and weekly Difrent Talks are something created for people to drop in on with no pressure attached and has helped people stay connected.

The main challenge has been how we work with out clients to ensure we are still delivering. Reviewing our ways of working to ensure we are still working inclusively; or aren’t accidentally excluding someone from a conversation when everyone is working from their own home. Maintaining velocity and ensuring everyone is engaged and able to contribute.

This is trickier to navigate when you’re all working virtually, and needs a bit more planning and forethought, but it’s not impossible. One of the positives (for me at least) about the current crisis is how well people have come together to get things delivered.

Some of the work that we have been involved in, which would generally have taken months to develop; has been done in weeks. User research, analysis and development happening in a fraction of the time it took before.

Graffiti saying ‘Made in Crisis’

So how are we now able to move at such a fast pace? Are standards being dropped or ignored? Are corners being cut? Or have we iterated and adapted our approach?

Once this is all over I think those will be the questions a lot pf people are asking; but my observation is that, if nothing else, this current crisis has made us really embrace what agility means.

We seem to have the right people ‘in the room’ signing off decisions when they are needed; with proper multidisciplinary teams, made up of people from both digital but also policy and operations etc, that are empowered to get on and do things. Research is still happening; but possibly at a much smaller scale, as and when it is needed; We’re truly embracing the Minimum Viable Product, getting things out there that aren’t perfect, but that real people can use; testing and improving the service as we go.

Once this is all over I certainly don’t want to have to continue the trend of on-boarding and embedding teams with 24 hours notice; and while getting things live in under 2 weeks is an amazing accomplishment; to achieve it comes at a high price – Not just in terms of resources but in terms of people, because that is where burnout will occur for all involved. But I believe a happy medium can be found.

My hope, once this is all over, is that we can find the time to consider what we in digital have learnt, and focus on what elements we can iterate and take forward to help us keep delivering faster and better, but in the right way, with less delays; so we can get services out there for people to use; because really, that is what we are all here to do.

Stay home, stay safe, save lives
Sign saying ‘stay home, stay safe, save lives’



How do we determine value?

And how do we make sure we are delivering it?

In a previous blog I discussed the importance of understanding the value you are trying to add, and how you measure cost vs vale. How we measure value and ensure we are delivering a valuable return on investment is one of the ‘big’ questions at the moment, that never seems to go away.

Scott Colfer has equally blogged before on the complexity of measuring value when there is no profit to measure against. When working in the public sector it’s not an easy problem to solve. There is a lot of conversations about making sure we don’t waste public money, but how do we actually make sure public money is being spent in a valuable way?

A jar of coins
A jar of coins being spilt

The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” But what is valuable?

At a kick off session this week, for a new project we’re shortly going to begin, a client said one of their hopes was that all code deployed would work first time; and someone else stated that they ‘didn’t want rework’. When we broke these thoughts down to understand where these fears were coming from, it was the need to add value and not waste money; which itself was coming from previous issues caused by a long time to deploy, and the cost to make changes.

There was equally the fear that by swapping out suppliers mid project we (as the new supplier) would want to redesign and rework everything to make it our own; which would slow down delivery and drive up cost even more.

There is obviously no value for anyone in doing that. The value comes by having a short feedback loop, co-designing and constantly testing, learning and iterating, working together in short weekly or fortnightly sprints, to get things delivered. Making sure there is little time as possible between designing something, to getting it tested and used by real users; ensuring it meets their needs as quickly as possible.

Through examining what has been delivered already against the user needs and the outcomes the organisation is looking to achieve; by identifying gaps and pain-points we reduce waste; and by prioritising the areas where improvements can be made we ensure that reworking only happens when there is actual value in doing so.

A parcel being delivered
Parcel delivery

At a talk this week I was asked how we prioritise the work that needs doing and ensure that we do deliver. The important thing is to deliver something, but ideally not just any old thing, we want to ideally be delivering the right thing. Sometimes we won’t know what that is, and it’s only by doing something that we can establish whether that was the right thing or not. But that’s why short feedback loops are important. Checking back regularly, iterating and testing frequently, allows you too recognise when there is value in carrying on vs. value in stoping and doing something different.

When I’m trying to decide where the value is, and where is the best place to start, I consider things like:

  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. Why are we doing it now?
  3. What happens if we don’t do this now?
  4. Who will this affect?
  5. How many people will it impact?
  6. How long could this take?
  7. Any indicative costs?
  8. Any key milestones/ deadlines?
  9. Any critical dependancies that could affect our ability to deliver?
  10. Will this help us deliver our strategy? Or is it a tactical fix?

Once we have started work, it’s important to agree measure of success (be they financial, reducing time, staffing numbers; or things like improved uptake or a better customer experience) and keep measuring what is being delivered against those targets.

At Difrent a key part of the value we add is about the people, not just the technology or processes; there is value in us working in the open, by being transparent; running lunch and learn sessions or talks; blogging or speaking at events etc. we can add wider value outside of a specific project or service.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team
People listening to someone speaking/ sharing

When we are considering what adds value, the other thing it’s important to consider is the culture we are delivering in. Are there communities of practice in place already, any design patterns we should be adhering too? There is value in building in consistency, as this helps us ensure we are delivering quality.

There are many different ways to determine what adds value, and many different kinds of value, but the importance is by focusing on making positive improvements, and by constantly learning from mistakes and ensuring they don’t get repeated so no time is wasted and real value can be delivered.

#OneGreenGov

One of the key reasons I joined @Difrent was their commitment to #TechForGood. In my experience #TechForGood is one of those phrases that gets batted around, as such I was very keen when I started to understand what that phrase meant to Difrent and if it really meant anything at all!

Much to my delight, I found that it was not just a meaningless motto for the company, but a value we as a company use every day. Be that the hoodies all staff are given (made from sustainably used cotton) to the work we do and the clients we will work with.

As such, when the opportunity to volunteer and or attend the #OneTeamGov #OneGreenGov appeared, it was obvious that at least one person from Difrent would be headed there. 

OneGreenGov was a one-day event held in multiple locations around the world for those working in and with the public sector to discuss ways to combat climate change. With events happening in London, Wolverhampton, Helsinki in Finland and Canada. 

Icebergs

On the day itself, there were a lot of fascinating conversations, ranging from some more scientific presentations on the effects of climate change on both geography and people’s health to sessions on how people can make a personal difference to climate change and even how Wikipedia can help the climate change battle. 

You can see some of the conversations that happened on the day here. Throughout the day there was chat about the Trees for Life page set up at #UKGovCamp a week earlier and a discussion of what other initiatives could be set up to help the climate. 

Placard with a climate change slogan

One of the things I learned from the event was the importance of reviewing your data regularly and removing out of date data, this is because the transmission of data via the internet can be very polluting, contributing to between 2-4% of our greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a Defra blog here about ways to try and reduce your digital carbon footprint. 

Climate change and heat stress slide from OneGreenGov

Some of the conversations were happening in the room, some happened with the help of technology to cut down on the carbon footprint! As well as there being great conversations happening in the physical (and virtual) room, the sharing of ideas didn’t stop once the event was over. 

Apolitical are asking people to share their ideas on how to combat climate change here; WholeGrain Digital shared their Sustainable Web Manifesto and #designandclimate shared their draft Master Remote Workshop (to cut carbon) guide.

In terms of the event itself, all the plates and cups used were biodegradable and all the food leftover was donated, so that nothing went to waste, which was lovely to see. 

The whole day was full of energy and passion and it was fantastic to see so many people committed to making a difference and let’s just hope that we will see that difference continue in the days and weeks going forward.

Thoughts from the other side

No, don’t worry, I’ve not passed on and started speaking from beyond the grave; but given I’m now 3 months into my role at Difrent I thought it might be worth reflecting on how I’ve found things on the other side of the commercial table so to speak.

In the first 3 months I’ve worked with our teams, been in multiple contract meetings, client meetings, negotiations, done my first ever bid presentation and helped win my first piece of work for the organisation.

@Rachel0404 and I looking at a rich pic for NHS Jobs

In the 15 years I spent in the public sector I have done my fair share of time working alongside procurement, drafting Pre-Qualification Questionnaires and Invitation to Tenders as part of a commercial team, or assessing bid responses and pitch’s as a programme lead. But if I’m honest in all that time I never considered the work that suppliers put into their Tender responses; the effort different commercial frameworks might require nor how companies pick and choose which work to bid for.

It’s been fascinating within the Difrent SLT talking about the kind of work we want to be bidding for, assessing what work aligned with our #TechForGood goals and values. It’s also really been reassuring to be involved in conversations where we have decided not to bid on work that doesn’t align with the company values.

‘Do something great’

One of the things I’ve quickly had to get my head around is the complexities of the Digital Marketplace and the ins and outs of the different commercial frameworks, be that G-Cloud, DoS or PSR. If I’m honest I’d never really got my head around the pros and cons of the different frameworks before taking this role, it was always one of those things I simply had to approve before.

While I have previously managed projects and programmes, and managed the suppliers working with us to deliver the work; it was equally never a thing I massively had to dwell on, beyond the question of ‘are they delivering what we need or not?’

In the last three months I’ve really gotten to understand the amount of work that has to be put in to make sure they answer to that question is ‘yes’.

Graphiti saying ‘yes’!

One of the trickiest aspects to that relationship is making sure as a partner we are providing the right amount of rigour, challenge and reassurance so that our clients feel assured that we are doing the right things in the right way to deliver the outcomes they are looking for. Balancing the need to challenge and ask why to ensure the work we are doing is right, with the need to keep the client happy, engaged and onside. Not the easiest thing to do, but definitely vitally important in order to ensure value is actually delivered.

As a supplier I now realise how tricky it is to walk the tightrope of helping the client deliver the right thing, when this might mean a scope change that means more time or people (ie. more money) vs. wanting to ensure you deliver on time and within budget.

As a Product Person, I have always spoken about the importance of prioritisation and focusing on the problem the organisation was trying to solve. I used to find it incredibly frustration trying to get suppliers to understand and deliver what we needed, not just doing the work, but helping us do the work right. I was involved in multiple conversations across government about good suppliers vs. bad. Those that actually challenged us to do the right thing, and those that just delivered ‘what it said on the tin’ without helping check the label on the tin was right.

Now working on the other side of the table, I am doubly as determined to make sure we are delivering both the challenge and the outcomes our clients are looking for, to help deliver truly meaningful products and services and add real value to our clients and their users.

A mug bearing the message ‘What good shall I do this day?’