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Category: Digital Government

Service Owner vs. Programme Manager vs. Product Lead

What’s the difference? Does the name matter?

Over a year ago, following an interesting chat with David Roberts at NHSBSA, I got to thinking about the role of the Service Owner; and why the role wasn’t working in the way we intended back in the dawn of the Service Manual. This in turn (as most things do for me) led to a blog in order to try and capture my thoughts in the vague hope they might be useful/interesting for anyone reading them.

Ironically, for what was a random think-piece, it has consistently been my most popular blog; getting a least a dozen reads everyday since I wrote it. Which got me thinking again; what is it about that blog that resonates with people? And the fact is, the role of the Service Owner is no better or consistently understood today than it was then. The confusion over the role of the Service Owner; their role and responsibilities, is still one of the most common things I get asked about. What’s the difference between a Service Owner or Manager (is there one)? How/why is the role different to that of the Product Lead? What is the difference between a Service Manager and a Programme Manager? Is the Service Owner different to the SRO? What do all these different role titles mean?

What's In a Name? A lot. – AE2S Communications
What’s in a name?

Every department/Agency within the Public Sector seems to have implemented the role of the Service Owner differently; which makes it very hard for those in the role (or considering applying for the role) to understand what they should be doing or what their responsibilities are etc. This is probably why, as a community of practice within DDaT, it certainly used to be the one hardest communities to bring together, as everyone in it was doing such different roles to each other.

Some clients I’ve been working with use the role of Service Owner and Lead Product Manager interchangeably; some have Service Owners who sit in Ops and Service Managers who sit in Digital (or vice versa); some have Service Managers sitting alongside Programme Managers; or Service Owners alongside Programme Directors, all desperately trying to not stand on each others toes.

So what is the difference?

The obvious place to look for clarity surely is the Service Manual, or the DDaT capability framework. The Service manual specifies it is the responsibility of the Service Owner is to be: “the decision-making authority to deliver on all aspects of a project. Who also:

  • has overall responsibility for developing, operating and continually improving your service
  • represents the service during service assessments
  • makes sure the necessary project and approval processes are followed
  • identifies and mitigates risks to your project
  • encourages the maximum possible take-up of your digital service
  • has responsibility for your service’s assisted digital support”

When the DDaT capability framework was first written, the Service Manager was more akin to a Product person; and originally sat as a senior role within that capability framework; yet they were also responsibility for the end to end service (which was a very big ask for anyone below the SCS working as an SRO). But the role often got confused with that of the IT Service manager, and (as perviously discussed in last years blog) the responsibilities and titles got changed to create the role of Service Owner instead.

Interesting in the Service Manual the reference to the Service Owner being the person who has responsibility for the end to end service; has now been removed; instead focusing on them being the person responsible for being the person responsible for delivering the project. While I imagine this is because it’s very hard for any one person (below SCS level) to have responsibility for an end to end service in the Public Sector due to the size of the Products and Services the Public Sector delivers; it does however mean the new role as description in the Service Manual seems to bring the role of Service Owner closer to that of the Programme Manager.

However, in contrast to the description in the Service manual, the DDaT capability framework does still specify that the role of the Service Owner is “accountable for the quality of their service, and you will be expected to adopt a portfolio view, managing end-to-end services that include multiple products and channels.” Obviously the onus here has changed from being responsible for the end to end service to managing the end to end service. But even that is a clear difference to being responsible for delivering a project as the manual describes it.

Some elements of the new Service Owner role description in the Manual do still align to the traditional responsibilities of Product people (mainly considering things like assisted digital support and ensuring you can maximise take up of your service); but the Service Manual has now removed those responsibilities within a team from the Product Manager. Now the Product Manager seems too intended to be much more focused solely on user needs and user stories; rather than the longer term uptake and running of the service. But again, confusingly, in the Capability framework for Product Management there is still the expectation that Product people will be responsible for ensuring maximum take-up of the service etc.

It seems in trying to clarify the role of the Service Owner, the Service Manual and the Capability framework disagree on exactly what the responsibilities of the role are; and rather than clarify the difference between the Product people and the Service Owners, the waters have instead been muddied even more. Nor have they made it any clearer if/what the difference is between the role of the Service Owner or Programme manager is.

The Project Delivery Capability framework states that “there are many other roles that are needed to successfully deliver projects. These roles are not included in our framework but you will find information on them within the frameworks of other professions, such as, Digital, Data & Technology framework” frustratingly it doesn’t give any clarity on how and when roles like SRO or Programme Manager might overlap with roles within the DDaT framework; nor how these roles could work best with the roles within the DDaT framework. Both the Service Owner role and the Programme manager role state responsibility for things like stakeholder management; business case development/alignment; risk management and governance adherence. Admittedly the language is slightly different; but the core themes are the same.

So is the assumption that you don’t need both a Programme Manager and a Service Owner? Is it an either or that has never been clearly specified? If you’re using PRINCE2 you get a Programme Manager, if Agile its a Service Owner? I would hope not, mainly because we all know that in reality, most Public Sector digital programmes are a blend of methodologies and never that clear cut. So are we not being clear enough about what the role of the Service Owner is? Does it really matter if we don’t have that clarity?

Evidence has shown that when teams aren’t clear on the roles and responsibilities of there team mates, and especially those people responsible for making key decisions; then bottlenecks being to occur. Teams struggle to know who should be signing of what. Hierarchy and governance become essential to achieving any progress; but inevitabley delays occur while approvals are sought, which simply slows down delivery.

So can we get some clarity?

At the start of the year DEFRA advertised a role for a Service Owner which (I thought) clearly articulated the responsibilities of the role, and made it clear how that role would sit alongside and support Product team and work with Programme professionals to ensure effective delivery of services that met user needs. Sadly this clarity of role seems few and far between.

I would love, when travel etc. allows, to see a workshop happen mapping out the roles of Service Owner; SRO; Programme manager; Product Lead etc. Looking at what their responsibilities are; providing clarity on where there is any overlap and how this could be managed better so that we can get to the point where we have consistency in these roles; and better understanding of how they can work together without duplication or confusion over the value they all add.

For now, at least, it’s each organisations responsibility to ensure that they are being clear on what the responsibilities for the roles and those people working in them are. We need to stop pretending the confusion doesn’t exist and do are best to provide clarity to our teams and our people; otherwise we’re only muddying the waters and it’s that kind of confusion that inevitably impacts teams and their ability to deliver.

Let’s be clear, say what do you mean

How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

Since joining Kainos a few weeks ago, I’ve had a number of conversations internally and with clients about the relationship between Delivery and Product; and why I as a Product Person moved over to Delivery.

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

My answer to that question was that, having spent over 10 years as a Product Person, and seeing the growth of Product as a ‘thing’ within the Public Sector; helping Product grow and mature, developing the community, ways of working, career pathway etc; I realised that what was missing was Product thinking at a senior level. Most Senior leaders within the Programme delivery or Transformation space come from a traditional delivery background (if not an operational one) and while many of them do now understand the value of user centric design and user needs etc; they don’t understand the benefit of a product centric approach or what value Product thinking brings.

The expansion of Product people in the Public sector has predominantly been driven by GDS and the Digital Service standards; with most organisations now knowing they need a ‘Product Manger‘ in order to pass their Service Standard Assessment. However, almost 10 years later, most organisations are still not prioritising the hiring and capability development of their Product people. In May I worked with four different teams each working to the Digital Standards and needing to pass an assessment; and in none of those teams was the role of the Product manger working in the way we intended when we creating the DDaT Product Management capability framework.

Most organisations (understandably) feel the role of the Product Manager should be an internal one, rather than one provided by a Supplier; but 9 times out of 10 the person they have allocated to the role has no experience in the role, have never worked on a product or service that was developed to the digital standards never mind having been through an assessment; and they are regularly not budgeted or allocated the project full time; often being split across too many teams or split between the Product Manager role whilst still working in Ops or Policy or whoever they have come from previously; more often than not their actually a Subject Matter Expert, not a Product Manager (which I’ve blogged about before).

As a supplier; this makes delivery so much harder. When the right Product person isn’t allocated to a project, we can quickly see a whole crop of issues emerge.

So what are the signs that Product isn’t being properly represented within a team:

  • Overall vision and strategy are unclear or not shared widely; teams aren’t clear on what they’re trying to achieve or why; this can be because the Product person is not able to clearly articulate the problem the team are there to solve or the outcomes that team are their to deliver aren’t clearly defined.
  • Roadmap doesn’t exist, is unstable or does not go beyond immediate future/ or the Scope of the project keeps expanding; often a sign that prioritisation isn’t being looked at regularly or is happening behind closed doors making planning hard to do.
  • Success measures are unclear or undefined; because the team doesn’t understand what they’re trying to achieve and often leads to the wrong work getting prioritised or outcomes not getting delivered or user needs not met.
  • Work regularly comes in over budget or doesn’t meet the business case; or the team keeps completing Discoveries and then going back to the start or struggling to get funding to progress. This can be a sign the team aren’t clear what problem they are trying to solve or that the value that the work delivers cannot be/ isn’t clearly articulated by the Product person.
  • Delivery is late/ velocity is slow. This can be a sign the team aren’t getting access to their Product person in a timely manner causing bottlenecks in stories being agreed or signed off; or that the Product person is not empowered to make decisions and is constantly waiting for sign off from more senior stakeholders.
  • Role out is delayed or messy, with operational teams frustrated or unclear on project progress; a sign that the team doesn’t have someone owning the roadmap who understands what functionality will be available when and ensuring any dependancies are clearly understand and being monitored, or a sign that there isn’t someone engaging with or communicating progress to wider stakeholders.

More often than not as a Supplier I’ve had to argue that we need to provide a Product person to work alongside/ with teams to coach/support their internal Product people in the skills and responsibilities a Product person needs to have to enable successful delivery. Where clients have been adamant they don’t want Product people from a Supplier (often for budgetary reasons), we’ve then had to look at how we sneak someone in the door; usually by adding a Business Analyst or delivery manager to the team who also has Product skills, because otherwise are ability to deliver will be negatively impacted.

When budgets are tight, the role of Product person is often the first thing project managers try to cut or reduce; prioritising the technical or project delivery skills over Product ones. As such, teams (and organisations) need to understand the skills a good product person brings; and the cost of not having someone within a team who has those skills.

  • Their role is to focus on and clarify to the team (and business) the problem the team are trying to fix.
  • Ensure a balance between user needs; business requirements and technical constraints/options.
  • Quantifying and understanding the ROI/ value a project will deliver; and ensuring that can be tracked and measured through clear success measures and metrics.
  • Being able to translate complex problems into roadmaps for delivery. Prioritising work and controlling the scope of a product or service to ensure it can be delivered in a timely and cost effective manner, with a proper role out plan that can be clearly communicated to the wider organisation.

As an assessor, I have seen more projects fail their assessments at Alpha (or even occasionally Beta) because they lack that clear understanding of the problem there trying to solve or their success measures etc; than I have because they’ve used the wrong technical stack etc. This can be very costly; and often means undress of thousands (if not millions) of pounds being written off or wasted due to delays and rework. Much more costly than investing in having a properly qualified or experienced Product people working within teams.

While Product and Delivery are often seen as very different skill sets; I recognised a few years ago the value in having more people who understand and can advocate for both the value Product thinking brings to delivery; but also how delivery can work better with Product. People who can not only understand but also champion both in order to ensure we’re delivering the right things in the right ways to meet our clients and their users needs.

Which is why I made the active decision to hop the fence and try and bring the professions closer together and build understanding in both teams and senior leaders in the need for Product and Delivery skills to be invested in and present within teams in order to support and enable good delivery, and I as really glad to see when I joined Kainos that we’re already talking about how to bring our Product and Delivery communities closer together and act for advocates to support each other; and it was in fact a chat with the Kainos Head of Product Charlene McDonald that inspired this blog.

Having someone with the title of Product Manager or Owner isn’t enough; we need people who are experienced in Product thinking and skilled in Product Management; but that isn’t all we need. We need to stop seeing the role of Product person as an important label needed you can give to anyone in the team in order to pass an assessment and understand why the role and the skills it brings are important. We need senior leaders, project managers and delivery teams who understand what value Product brings; who understand why product is important and what it could cost the team and their organisation if those product skills are not included and budgeted for properly right from the start. We need Senior Leaders to understand why it’s important to invest in their product people; giving them the time and support they need to do their job properly; rather than spreading them thin across teams with minimal training or empowerment.

We need more Product advocates.

Partnership

The good and the bad.

At Difrent we always talk about our desire to deliver in partnership with out clients. To move beyond the pure supplier and client relationship to enable proper collaboration.

One of my main frustrations when I was ‘client side’ was the amount of suppliers we’d work with who said they would partner with us, but then when the contract started, after the first few weeks had passed and the new relationship glow had faded; the teams and the account managers reverted to type. I can’t recall how many times I had to have conversations at the supplier governance meetings where I was practically begging them to challenge us; to be a critical friend and push for the right thing; to feedback to us about any issues and suggest improvements. It always felt like we were reaching across a gap and never quite making full contact.

As such, that’s one of the areas in Difrent I (and others) are very keen to embody. We try to be true partners; feeding back proactively where there are issues or concerns or where we have suggestions. Trying to foster collaborative ‘one team’ working.

We’ve obviously had more success with this on some contracts vs others. There’s always more we can learn about how to better partner with our clients; however; given we see a lot of complaining about strained partnerships between clients and suppliers; I thought I’d do a bit of a case study/ reflection and praise of one partnership we’ve been working on recently.

Difrent won a contract with the Planning Inspectorate last year, and it was the first completely remote pitch and award we’d been involved with on a multi million pound contract.

From the start of the procurement it became really clear that the Planning Inspectorate wanted a partner; that this wasn’t just lip service, but something they truly believed it. As part of the procurement process they opened up their github so we could see their code; they opened up their Miro so we could see their service roadmap, they proactively shared their assessment reports with suppliers etc.

For us this made not only a good impression, but enabled us to develop a more informed and valuable pitch.

Since we put virtual feet in the virtual door that dedication to partnership has remained as true 6 months later as it was then. Outside of our weekly governance calls we’ve had multiple workshops to discuss collaboration and ways of working. We’ve had multiple discussions on knowledge transfer and reflecting on progress and ways to iterate and improve.

Where there have been challenges we’ve all worked hard to be proactive and open and honest in talking things through. They’ve welcome our suggestions and feedback (and proactively encouraged them) and been equally proactive on giving us feedback and suggestions.

This has helped us adapt and really think about how we do things like knowledge transfer, always challenging (especially remotely), but something we’re passionate about getting right. We’ve all worked so hard on this, so much so that it’s become on of the core bits of our balanced scorecard; ensuring they as a client can measure the value they’re getting from our partnership not just through our outputs on the projects we’re working on, but our contributions to the organisation as a whole; which is also really helpful for us to be able to help us analyse and iterate our ‘value add’ to our partners; and ensure we’re delivering on our promises.

I think there is a lot of learning for other Departments/ ALB’s out there looking to procure digital services or capability on how a good partnership with a supplier needs to start before the contract is signed.

Thanks to Paul Moffat and Stephen Read at the Planning Inspectorate for helping with this blog – demonstrating that partnership in action!

Digital Transformation is still new

We’re punishing those who are less experienced, and we need to stop.

The timeline of Digital Transformation. Courtesy of Rachelle @ https://www.strangedigital.org/

In the last few weeks I’ve had multiple conversations with clients (both existing and new) who are preparing for or have recently not passed their Digital Service standard assessments who are really struggling to understand what is needed from them in order to pass their assessment.

These teams have tried to engage with the service standards teams, but given those teams are extremely busy; most teams cant get any time with their ‘link’ person until 6 weeks before their assessment; by which time most teams are quite far down their track and potentially leaves them a lot of (re)work to try and do before their assessment.

Having sat in on a few of those calls recently I’ve been surprised how little time is set aside to help the teams prep; and to give them advice on guidance on what to expect at an assessment if they haven’t been through one before. Thos no time or support for mock assessments for new teams. There may be the offer of one or two of the team getting to observe someone else’s assessment if the stars align to allow this; but it’s not proactively planned in; and instead viewed as a nice to have. There seems to be an assumption the project teams should know all of this already; and no recognition that a large number of teams don’t; this is still all new to them.

“In the old days” we as assessors and transformation leads used to set aside time regularly to meet with teams; talk through the problems they were trying to fix, understand any issues they may be facing, provide clarity and guidance before the assessment; so that teams could be confident they were ready to move onto the next phase before their assessment. But when I talk to teams now, so few of them are getting this support. Many teams reach out because the rare bits of guidance they have received hasn’t been clear, and in some cases it’s been contradictory and they don’t know who to talk too to get that clarity.

Instead, more and more of my time at the moment, as a supplier, is being set aside to support teams through their assessment. To provide advice and guidance on what to expect, how to prepare and what approach the team needs to take. Actually what an MVP is; how to decide when you need an assessment, and what elements of the service do you need to have ready to ‘show’ at each stage. What the difference is between Alpha/ Beta and Live assessments and why it matters. For so many teams this is still almost like a foreign language and new.

So, how can we better support teams through this journey?

Stop treating it like this is all old hat and that everyone should know everything about it already.

Digital Transformation has been ‘a thing’ for one generation (if you count from the invention of the internet as a tool for the masses in 1995); Within the public sector, GDS, the Digital Service Standards and the Digital Academy have existed for less than one generation; less than 10 years in-fact.

By treating it as a thing everyone should know, we make it exclusionary. We make people feel less than us for the simple act of not having the same experience we do.

We talk about working in the open, and many team do still strive to do that; but digital transformation is still almost seen as a magical art by many; and how to pass what should be a simple thing like a service standard assessment is still almost viewed as Arcane knowledge held by the few. As a community we need to get better at supporting each other, and especially those new to this experience, along this path.

This isn’t just a nice thing to do, its the fiscally responsible thing to do; by assuming teams already have all this knowledge we’re just increasing the likelihood they will fail, and that comes with a cost.

We need to set aside more time to help and guide each other on this journey; so that we can all succeed; that is how we truly add value, and ensure that Digital Transformation delivers and is around to stay for generations to come.

Agile Delivery in a Waterfall procurement world

One of the things that has really become apparent when moving ‘supplier side’ is how much the procurement processes used by the public sector to tender work doesn’t facilitate agile delivery.

The process of bidding for work, certainly as an SME is an industry in itself.

This month alone we’ve seen multiple Invitations to Tender’s on the Digital Marketplace for Discoveries etc, as many departments are trying to spend their budget before the end of the financial year.

The ITT’s will mention user research and ask how suppliers will work to understand user needs or hire proper user researchers. But they will then state they only have 4 weeks or £60K to carry out the Discovery. While they will specify the need for user research, no user recruitment has been carried out to let the supplier hit the ground running; it’s not possible for it to be carried out before the project starts (unless as a supplier you’re willing to do that for free; and even if you are, you’ve got less than a week to onboard your team, do any reading you need to do and complete user recruitment, which just isn’t feasible); and we regular see requests for prototypes within that time as well.

This isn’t to say that short Discoveries etc. are impossible, if anything COVID-19 has proved it is possible, however there the outcomes we were trying to deliver were understood by all; the problems we were trying to solve were very clear,; and there was a fairly clear understanding of the user groups we’d need to be working with to carry out any research; all of this enabled the teams to move at pace.

But we all know the normal commercial rules were relaxed to support delivery of the urgent COVID-19 related services. Generally it’s rare for an ITT to clarify the problem the organisation is trying to solve, or the outcomes they are looking to achieve. Instead they tend to solely focus on delivering a Discovery or Alpha etc. The outcome is stated as completing the work in the timeframe in order to move to the next stage; not as a problem to solve with clear goals and scope.

We spend a lot of time submitting questions trying to get clarity on what outcomes the organisations are looking for, and sometimes it certainly feels like organisations are looking for someone to deliver them a Discovery solely because the GDS/Digital Service Standard says they need to do one. This means, if we’re not careful, halfway through the Discovery phase we’re still struggling to get stakeholders to agree the scope of the work and why we really do need to talk to that group of users over there that they’ve never spoken too before.

Image result for gds lifecycle
The GDS lifecycle

The GDS lifecycle and how it currently ties into procurement and funding (badly) means that organisations are reluctant to go back into Discovery or Alpha when they need too, because of how they have procured suppliers. If as a supplier you deliver a Discovery that finds that there is no need to move into Alpha (because there are no user needs etc) or midway through an Alpha you find the option you prioritised for your MVP no longer meets the needs as anticipated, clients still tend to view that money as ‘lost’ or ‘wasted’ rather than accepting the value in failing fast and stopping or changing to do something that can add value. Even when the clients do accept that, sometimes the procurement rules that brought you on to deliver a specific outcome mean your team now can’t pivot onto another piece of work, as that needs to be a new contract; either scenario could mean as a supplier you loose that contract you spent so much time getting, because you did ‘the right thing’.

We regularly pick up work midway through the lifecycle; sometimes that’s because the previous supplier didn’t work out; sometimes its because they were only brought in to complete the Discovery or Alpha etc. and when it comes to re-tender, another supplier is now cheaper etc. That’s part and parcel of being a supplier; but I know from being ‘client side’ for so long how that can make it hard to manage corporate knowledge.

Equally, as a supplier, we rarely see things come out for procurement in Live, because there is the assumption by Live most of the work is done, and yet if you follow the intent of the GDS lifecycle rather than how it’s often interpreted, there should still be plenty of feature development, research etc happening in Live.

This is turn is part of the reason we see so many services stuck in Public Beta. Services have been developed by or with suppliers who were only contracted to provide support until Beta. There is rarely funding available for further development in Live, but the knowledge and experience the suppliers provided has exited stage left so it’s tricky for internal teams to pick up the work to move it into Live and continue development.

Most contracts specify ‘knowledge transfer’ (although sometimes it’s classed as a value add; when it really should be a fundamental requirement) but few are clear on what they are looking for. When we talk to clients about how they would like to manage that, or how we can ensure we can get the balance right between delivery of tangible outcomes and transferring knowledge, knowledge transfer is regularly de-scoped or de-prioritised. It ends up being seen as not as important as getting a product or service ‘out there’; but once the service is out there, the funding for the supplier stops and the time to do any proper knowledge transfer is minimal at best; and if not carefully managed suppliers can end up handing over a load of documentation and code without completing the peer working/ lunch and learns/ co-working workshops we’d wanted to happen.

Some departments and organisations have got much better at getting their commercial teams working hand and hand with their delivery teams; and we can always see those ITT’s a mile off; and it’s a pleasure to see them; as it makes it much easier for us as suppliers to provide a good response.

None of this is insurmountable, but we (both suppliers and commercial/procuring managers and delivery leads) need to get better at working together to look at how we procure/bid for work; ensuring we are clear on what the outcomes we’re trying to achieve are, and properly valuing ‘the value add’.

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 out 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, as 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. Re-adding in the confusion we tried to remove a few years ago.

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!