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Category: Leadership

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.

Doing your best vs. achieving the goal

The Agile Prime Directive states “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

This is a wonderful principle to have during Retrospectives, in order to avoid getting stuck in the blame game, and to instead focus on results.

However, lets be very clear, the Agile Prime Directive isn’t an excuse for not delivering. If every sprint you miss your sprint goals, or you’re team constantly suffers from scope creep etc. Then you need to look a bit deeper to understand what is going wrong.

Even if you agree every individual did the best job they could, as a team are you working best together? Are you understanding your teams velocity as best you can? Do you all understand and agree the scope of the project or your sprint goals? Have you got the right mix of individuals and roles in the team to deliver? Is your team and the individuals in it empowered to make decisions?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, this could be impacting your ability to deliver.

The Agile Prime Directive is a good mindset to start conversations in, as we want to create safe and supportive environments for our teams in order to help them achieve their full potential, and recognising that everyone has room to improve is an important part of that. Nowhere in the Agile Prime Directive does it state everyone is perfect, just that they did their best given the skills/ ability and knowledge they had at the time.

However, while it is a good mindset to start with, unfortunately we all know it’s not 100% true. the Agile Prime Directive itself has issues, while it’s a lovely philosophy, and its intent is good; as a manager, and as a human I have to admit even to myself I haven’t ‘done my best’ every single day.

While most of the time we do all try our best and do our best; everyone has bad days. Occasionally on a team there will be someone who isn’t (for whatever reason) doing their best, their focus is elsewhere etc. External life will sometimes effect peoples work, the kids are ill, they have money worries, their relationship has just ended; these things happen. There will be people who don’t work well together, they can be cordial to each other, but don’t deliver their best when working together, personality clash happens. We need to be able to spot and call all out these things, but we obviously need to be able to do so in a positive and supportive way as much as possible.

Open and honest communication is the key to delivery; and having a culture of trust and empowerment is a critical part of that. We need to create environments where people feel supported and able to discuss issues and concerns, and we need to acknowledge that sometimes, for whatever reason, those issues do come down to an individual; and while I’m not suggesting we should ever name and shame in a retrospective, we need to be able to deal with that in an appropriate way.

We need to not only know and understand that even if everyone ‘is doing their best’, they can still do better; but that sometimes we need to be able to recognise and support those individuals and those teams who for whatever reason are not doing or achieving their best.

These issues can’t always just be ‘left to the retro’, while the retro is a great space to start to air and uncover issues, and learn from what has gone well, and what needs to improve; part of leading and managing teams is understanding which conversations need to come out from the retro and be dealt with alongside it.

If we are constantly missing sprint goals or suffering scope creep, we can not simple say ‘but we are all doing our best’, that isn’t good enough. In this instance the participant award is not enough. We are here to deliver outcomes, not just do the best we can.

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’



What ever happened to “there are no stupid questions?”

This week I had a great conversation with @ClareSudbery of MadeTech and @RachelleHunt of StrangeDigital about the importance of using plain english and creating an inclusive environment where people feel able to speak up and ask questions.

Back when I started working in Digital as a Product Owner in 2011, and I did my agile training course, one of the first ‘principles’ that was discussed was ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Which as a newbie in the agile/digital world was great to hear, because I felt like I knew literally nothing.

A neon sign with a ‘?’

This concept has always been something I’ve repeated to the teams and people I’ve been working with. There will always be something you don’t know, it is impossible to know everything. Therefor we have to be able to ask questions and find out information without fear of being made to feel stupid.

However, as digital transformation and agile begins to roll out and spread, that acceptance of ‘not knowing’ seems to have become less common. I hear a lot from colleagues outside of digital that ‘agile is a cult, or digital is a clique’ with it’s own language that doesn’t welcome in those who don’t know the ‘lingo’.

A friend of mine had a scrum coach in to speak to their team and deliver some training to their organisation (if you don’t know what scrum is, that’s ok, here’s a link), and she said the way that he spoke to them was as if they were all idiots who knew nothing, and that he made scrum sound like a religion for zealots. There was no opportunity to question, only to agree. This isn’t what should be happening. There’s no better way to foster feelings of exclusion and frustration than be treating people who don’t know something as ‘lesser’.

The public sector has always struggled with acronyms, and while we regularly hear about the drive to reduce the use of them with the greatest will in the world, everyone will find themselves slipping up and using them sometimes, because they are everywhere and we assume that everyone knows them. But we have to remember that they don’t.

At a global digital conference last year in The Hague I was happily chatting away to someone working for the Dutch Pensions service and kept referencing several Government Departments by their acronyms without thinking, leaving the poor person I was speaking to rather lost.

Similarly in my interview for my current role, I was too embarrassed to check an acronym (PnL) and just assumed I knew exactly what I was being asked about. It was only after 10 minutes of waffle I was politely corrected that I was not been asked about Procurement frameworks and instead about my experience of managing Profit and Loss. Obvious in retrospective, but never an acronym I’d heard before and who want’s to look ignorant in an interview?

Graffiti asking ‘what do you mean?’

Clare made a point that often we’re not actually saving time by using acronyms, but we are gatekeeping and increasing that siloed attitude, which is counterproductive to the work we’re doing. This is especially important, as Rachelle pointed out, given how inaccessible acronyms often are, and that they are actually not unique. One random set of letters to me may mean something completely different to someone else working in a different organisation or sector or with completely different experiences. We are actually increasing the chance for confession and misunderstandings while not saving time or effort.

There is a lot of great work happening in the Public sector, using the Digital Service Standards (primarily standard 4 – make the service simple to use, and 5 – make sure everyone can use the service) and the principles of the Plain English Campaign, to simply the content we provide to users, to make it clear, concise and easy to comprehend. However when it comes to how we talk to each other, we are forgetting those same standards.

My conversation this week has reminded me how important it is, as a Senior Leader to:

  • firstly try and not use acronyms or digital/agile jargon, or to not make assumptions about other peoples knowledge without checking first their experience and understanding.
  • Secondly, speak up and ask more questions when I don’t know things. To show by doing, that it is ok to not know everything.

After-all, there are no stupid questions, just opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Image asking what are your questions?” taken from the universe awareness blog

What even is agile anyway?

So you’re a leader in your organisation and Agile is ‘the thing’ that everyone is talking about. Your organisation has possible trialed one or two Agile projects within the Digital or Tech department, but they haven’t really delivered like you thought they would, and you think you can ‘do more’ with it, but honestly, what even is it in the first place?

It’s a question that comes up fairly regularly, and if you are asking it, you are not alone! This blog actually started from such a conversation last week.

Tweet https://twitter.com/NeilTamplin/status/1220608708452999170

First and foremost there is Agile with a capital A, this is the project methodology, predominantly designed for software development, as defined here. It “denotes a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.”

However nowadays, especially in the public sector, agile doesn’t only apply to software. More and more of the conversations happening in communities like #OneTeamGov are about the culture of agility. How you create the environment for Agile to succeed, and this is where many people, especially leaders, are getting lost.

So how do you ‘be agile?’

Being agile is borrowing the concepts used in agile development, to develop that culture. As Tom Loosemore says when talking about Digital, it’s about “applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

But it’s more than what you transform, it’s how you do it.

The Agile manifesto says that Agile is about:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

When you consider individuals and interactions over processes and tools, then you remove unnecessary hierarchy and empower people to make decisions. You don’t enforce rigid processes for the sake of it, but iterate your governance based on feedback of users (in this instance your staff!). By being agile you focus on communicating directly with human beings, looking to how you can accommodate more actual conversations, and time together, rather than relaying on emails and papers as your only way to communicate.

By prioritising working software over comprehensive documentation you are constantly testing and iterating what works based on what is meeting your user needs, rather than deciding upfront what the answer is before knowing if it will actually work. You involve user research in your policy and strategy discussions. You analyse and test your new processes before you implement them. You change your funding and governance models to allow more innovation and exploration, and base your decisions on data and evidence, not theory. By being agile you are able to demonstrate working product or tangible services to stakeholders and customers, rather than just talking about what will be done.

Customer collaboration rather than contract negotiation is about bringing people along with you and working in partnership, achieving results together. Embracing and managing change to be innovative and deliver value whilst still being competitive and minimising unproductive churn and waste.

When thinking about responding to change over following a plan, it’s about being able to innovate and iterate. Prioritising and working on the most important work first. Building in short feedback loops and taking on board feedback.

Post it notes on a wall

Why is ‘being agile’ important?

Because as the market changes, and users expectations change, companies that can not take onboard feedback and iterate their products and services loose out. This is also true when it comes to companies themselves in terms of what they offer their staff, less people now go to work just for the money, people want more job satisfaction, empowering staff to make decisions and cutting bureaucracy are not only ways to cut costs, but also increase the value to both your users, your stakeholders and your staff.

Resources to help:

  • Scrum.org have a decent blog on Agile Leaders which can be found here
  • For Leaders in the Public Sector, the Digital Academy has an Agile for Leaders course, details of which can be found here
  • The Centre for Agile Leadership has a blog on business agility here (and for those in the US they run courses)
  • And the Agile Business Consortium have a white-paper describing the role of culture and leadership within Agile which can be found here

#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?’

We’re all a little weird down here

Yesterday Dominic Cummings, the PM’s senior aid, wrote in his blog about the need for number 10 to hire assorted super talented weirdos, unusual software developers, fantastic communicators and great project mangers (amongst other things).

This clarion call for change in the public sector followed up from his previous statements about the need for change in the civil service. Whether you agree with his politics or not, or even agree 100% with his message about the civil service; many of his points do ring true; and the need for a radical reform in the culture, methods and leadership of the civil service has been the focus behind #OneTeamGov for years now.

A sign reading ‘Change’

Having worked in the public sector for 15 years I can recognise that Mr Cummings is right when he says that the civil service is full of “people that care, they try hard” and that, at least in the start of my career it very much felt like “The people who are promoted tend to be the people who protect the system and don’t rock the boat.”

However, I don’t think that is 100% true anymore, certainly not in some areas. The growth of Digital within government departments has certainly led to more of the ‘weirdos’ Mr Cummings mentions finding homes (at least temporarily) within Digital, and more of the radical thinkers and champions for change getting promoted and having successful careers.

However, in the last 18 months, many of my peers have, like myself, left the civil service and moved agency side into the private sector; so why is that? Is it because, as Mr Cummings states The Public sector “ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view.”

There certainly seems to be a ‘ceiling’, at which point all the change agitators and ‘new wave’ of civil service leaders leave. These people tend to reach Deputy Director and then, as I did, decided that it’s time to look outside the civil service for their next role.

However when you look around, none of us have gone very far, few have been lost to the likes of Apple; Vodaphone or HSBC. Instead we’ve all moved to the likes of Difrent, FutureGov or ThoughtWorks. For me this shows that these people still care passionately about the public sector and what it is trying to deliver, but that the red tape and restraints that bound us in the civil service were becoming too much.

For myself, Difrent gives me the chance to work somewhere that still allows me to make a valuable different, to work on the problems that effect society and to deliver change at scale and pace (which was hard to do within the public sector). Everyone I’ve spoken to, who has made similar moves, says similar; but we all agree we would return to the Civil Service, and indeed many like myself are planning to, but for now they needed a change and a change to truly deliver.

A neon sign reading ‘this must be the place’

I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, gaining experience outside of the civil service can help us all grow, open us up to new ideas and ways of working, help us to become better leaders. However, the number of people who have made this move this year is interesting; especially on the back of the #OneTeamGov conversations.

While Mr Cummings states that “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’.” Personally, I believe that it is different life experiences that bring different perspectives; however I do whole heartedly agree with Mr Cummings when he calls for “genuine cognitive diversity” within the public sector.

I think this is especially needed within the Senior Civil Service. As Kit Collingwood wrote a few years ago regarding the need for Civil Servants to become experts on empathy “we must be able to understand and accurately predict how policy will affect people’s behaviour. We must be able to understand other humans’ motivation to change, to walk in their shoes.”

Making decisions on homelessness and poverty is very hard when no one in the team or the leadership has ever had to make their limited food supply feed a family for over a week. We also need to be able to understand the links between poverty, health and crime. There are so many different factors at play when trying to write a policy on reducing knife prevention, that if you have a policy team who all look and sound alike, you will never be able to understand or deliver the changes society needs.

A group of white men sat round talking

The Civil Service has recognised for years that it has struggled with recruiting a diverse workforce, and looking at how it recruits and the messages it is putting out there, as well as the culture that potentially puts candidates with some back grounds off is definitely key. Even within Digital, recruitment could still feel siloed and closed off to some people. I’ve blogged before about problems with role names and job descriptions putting off people who could very likely do the job just because they didn’t 100% match with the job description or found the process to apply off putting. The problem is we often make assumptions about the kind of people we are looking to hire that put off people we may never have considered.

Mr Cummings states that “I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around No10 to be on the lookout for such people.” For me this open approach (wether you agree with the actual method or not) seems like a good way to try and reach the ‘cognitive diversity’ we need within the Public Sector to deliver the radical change we need.

I believe a lot of the people Mr Cummings is looking for are around; either already within the public sector, working alongside it, or trying to get inside but struggling to find their way in.

I think we do need to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment, however it’s not just about recruiting the right people. We need to change the culture within the Public Sector to take on the lessons we have learned within Digital about User Centric design and the positive impact of multidisciplinary teams and reflect on how we can bring ‘cognitive diversity’ into the whole of the public sector. It requires a culture that invests in those people, their development and that allows them to successfully deliver. To change the system, you have to build a culture that enables the system to change.

What I’ve learnt this year

This year has been a year of big change for me; I started a new job, left the public sector, moved cities, moved in with my partner, bought a new house, and most importantly, we got a dog.

As a Pagan, I celebrate Yule and the Winter Solstice; At the Winter Solstice we reach the longest night of the year. Darkness has reached its peak; and with the end of the longest night we celebrate the return of the Sun, the return of light, hope and promise. 

Sunrise over a snow covered village

As the year comes to an end I thought it would be worth reflecting on the year that is coming to a close, what I have learnt from it, things I’m still working on and taking forward into the year to come.

This year has been an interesting one, full of frustration and challenge; but also opportunities and excitement. I’ve always talked about the importance of finding your tribe, of being true to be yourself and being able to bring your whole self to work. For most of this year , if I’m honest, I was in a role that was not a good fit for me and I had never felt more cut off from my tribe. It taught me a lot.

What I have learnt:

What good leadership looks like

Reflecting on my time at the CQC, the fantastic opportunities that made me want to join the organisation when I was first offered the role, and the disappointment and frustration I felt in the last 6 months of the role after a change of line management left me being excluded and ignored. While CQC was a good fit for me at the start, a OneTeamGov event earlier this year on Leadership made me realise the impact a good (or bad) leader can have on an organisations culture.

The opportunities the organisation were facing were (and still are) real, but some of the recent hires brought in more recently made me realise that perhaps its readiness to embrace change at pace was not as real.

The difference within Difrent has been almost breath taking. From day one I’ve been empowered to get on and do things, with full support from my manager (the wonderful Rach) who has reminded me that there are good leaders out there fully capable of caring about their people.

Change is a movement not an individual

Whilst at CQC I got to speak to the Scottish Government Product Management community; I volunteered at OneTeamGovGlobal and attended my first international conference (the Delivering Digital Government event) in the Hague, where I got to catch up with Andrew Greenway and Tom Loosemore about the fantastic work Public Digital is doing around the world.

By the time I left CQC’s culture, and its ways of working, were no longer right for me, it felt more insular and less a part of the Digital movement. I felt more cut off from my tribe than ever before, it was a lonely feeling. I think something I have learned in the last year, you can not change everything on your own; nor will you always fit in everywhere; someplace’s are just not right for you (which doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but bad for you), sometimes you need to make a change. But note, even when you can’t see it, change is happening. You are not alone.

A person holding loose coins with a note saying ‘make a change’

Why the right culture matters

My frustrations with the culture in CQC, along with some advice from my mentor made me make a move outside of the public sector for the first time in my career. It’s something I thought long and hard about, as frustrated as I was at the CQC I didn’t want to just leave for any old role. The CQC made me realise I needed to find the right role, at the right organisation, with the right culture.

The senior leadership within Difrent talk constantly about our values, but it’s not just talk, it’s obvious everyone truly want to improve things together. Two months into the role, the suggestion we run a retro for the leadership team was met with open arms not disdain; everyone bought into the session and it felt very positive.

That’s not to say everything is perfect, it’s obvious that moving from ‘start up’ to ‘scale up’ means the culture has to adapt and change as well. But one thing I have learnt in the last year is good leaders don’t shy away from that challenge, they welcome it and talk about it in the open. That good leaders don’t just see ‘culture’ as a token word or a by product, but as a thing to invest in.

A row of different coloured leaves

You need to believe in yourself

I am an optimist, which made me ignore the initial doubts and worries I felt at the CQC; made me assume the problems I was facing were unintentional, that things would improve, and my desire to make things better things and to protect my team meant I pushed aside my doubts and tried hard to work things out. It took me a long time to realise the cumulative effect that was having on my own confidence.

Two months into my role at Difrent and I think it was absolutely the right move for me. After months of being disempowered and isolated by a manager who did not welcome challenge and for whom Digital was only about the technology, not the people; my role in Difrent has been a reminder that people matter, that I matter, and I am good at what I do.

I was absolutely delighted this year to be featured in Audree Fletcher’s book A Day is Not Enough, which featured 365 women influencing design for social good.

Within days of starting at Difrent I dived straight into contract negotiations and client engagement; talked to teams about what support they might need to enable them to deliver and within my first 60 days I lead on delivering my first (successful) pitch for business. I felt like I’ve achieved and delivered more in my last 2 months than the previous six months.

The importance of finding your own voice

My year has been a good one blog wise, many of my blogs were born from the frustrations I was feeling at the CQC, but also it felt like I finally hit my stride and found my tone of voice. While this blog has never been about ‘getting hits’ and more about sharing information, it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see how well they’ve done, the blogs about Thomas Cook and the Parliamentary Petitions site in particular seemed to strike a cord with people.

My goals for the year ahead:

My aim for next year is to keep building on the blog, but too also to try and get back into the swing of speaking at events. A year ago I was speaking at events fairly regularly, but the CQC hit my confidence more than I would like to admit. It’s hard to stand up in front of a crowd and feel like you have things to say when your manager regularly ‘accidentally’ leaves you out of the conversations your male colleagues seem to be invited to.

Since moving to Difrent I’ve already thrown my hat in the ring to speak at two conferences, and my aim is to try and have done 6 speaking events by the end of 2020. We shall see how that goes!

While politics at the moment is worrying, and has led some to question whether there is still empathy in the world, I’m approaching the next year full of hope. News like that of Twitter users recently joined together to develop a free Food Bank app highlight why the #TechForGood movement is so important and why I’m so proud to work for somewhere that is doing what it can to make a difference.

By this time next year I want to be able to stand up and talk about the things I have personally delivered. Up until now, while I’ve worked on amazing projects, very few of them I’ve been able to see through to delivery (either because of funding cuts, reprioritisation of projects, or promotions meaning I’ve move on before I got to see things through) the main reason for me taking the role at Difrent was to change that, to truly be able to deliver things that matter.

Both personally and professionally I’m doing what I can to add value, and learn from mistakes in the past to ensure the future is better.