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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last month I started with Difrent, my first job in the Private sector after 15 years in the public sector, which felt very much like a change of scenery and a new start, whilst also being a familiar continuation of what I know.
So at the end of my first month I thought it would be worth reflecting on what I’ve learnt and done so far.
First things first, still lots of meetings! In the last month I’ve been in lots of conversations and meetings about our contracts (which is one of the reasons I took this job, to get that experience, so I’m not complaining!) but what I hadn’t realised, from the public sector client side point of view, is the amount of effort and time that is put into contract bids etc. It’s been fascinating to see and experience the hustle and bustle of getting a bid together, ensuring you have the team you’ll need, getting your evidence together, to then just wait and hear whether you have got the work. It’s like constantly doing job applications!
Secondly, the people, lots of the folks at Difrent I had come across (generally on Twitter) before, so I knew of them but hadn’t had the chance to work with them. Part of my role at Difrent is to ensure that we have the agreed standards and principles for our ways of working to ensure we can deliver the right things in the right way for our clients. I’ve spent the last few weeks getting to know the people within Difrent, and the clients we are working with.
What’s been interesting for me has been the culture that comes with a company moving from start up to scale up. Within the Public Sector I’ve only ever worked in organisations that are 4.5K plus. Working somewhere with under 100 people is very different. The infrastructure and organisational governance that comes with working for a huge well established organisation isn’t necessarily there, but nor is that necessarily a bad thing!
In the old work, conversations like office locations, or what our Target Operating model should be would take months if not years; with unions consulted, multiple consultations with staff forums and people groups etc. Within Difrent it’s much easier to have conversations with all our staff, be that in TownHalls or just on our Slack channel. The conversations themselves are similar, but how we have them, who gets to be involved, and how quickly we can get things done is definitely different.
The work, so far most of the team’s I’ve been working with have been working on projects within the Public sector, so the environment for me has been very familiar. The other thing that’s familiar is the conversations we are having, about KPI’s and measures. The need to understand what we are trying to deliver and ensure that we can measure our success in delivering it, not just be ticking off story points, but ensuring we are delivering value for both our customers and their users is key.
For the next few months my focus will be on working with our clients helping them shape and deliver the vision’s they have set. Measuring the value we are adding to them, and the value the products and services we are delivering are adding value to their users. Ensuring we have the right resources for our teams based on what the needs of our clients are, and that we as an organisation are supporting our people the best way we can.
These things have always been important to me, and always been key parts of my roles. So it seems whether it’s the public sector or private sector, French Critic Alphonse Karr was right in some ways….
And you know what, I am glad about that. If everything were radically different I might be worried that either the public or private sector was doing it wrong. But the fact is the common problems are very similar, it’s just how we approach solving them that might be different; and having a different perspective to how you solve problems is important, as it means you’re considering all the options there are and hopefully avoiding making the same mistakes over and over.
Last week I started working for @BeDifrent, a business transformation agency working with both Public and Private sector clients to help them deliver #TechForGood.
This is a massive change for me, I spent almost 15 years in the Public Sector, I always said I was a public servant for life, and in my heart I am, when people have asked me this week what I do it’s been very odd to not reply “I work in the public sector”.
But the thing is, I still am, Difrent’s clients are predominantly public sector at the moment (at least the ones I’ve been dealing with in my first two weeks). The challenges our clients are facing are so similar to those I’m used to facing, but the opportunities are so much bigger.
At my interview I got asked why I was interested in this role, and my answer was very honest and in two parts.
One, for my career development. I’ve spent three years working at Deputy Director level as a Head of Product in the Public Sector, and I loved my role. Product and Service design are things that I am passionate about, and designing and delivering services to users that really matter, that improve things for them, is the thing that drives me.
But I’d also realised what I did was wider than the label “Head of Product” really allowed for. So much of my effort and time was on the cultural and organisational changes organisations needed to make to enable them to deliver and change into a Product and User led organisation.
Which is what led me to consider Difrent. When I saw the job advertised I did my homework on the company and the people. Who were they? What made Difrent different? Why did they care?
My mentor for years had been recommending I consider doing a stint outside of the public sector to gain experience from the other-side of the table, but the thought had always made me twitch, but what I saw from Difrent’s information, from reading up on the amazing Rachel Murphy and from talking to colleagues who had made the jump into the dark side to both Difrent and other like minded agencies recently made me feel that maybe this was the time to take that leap into the dark.
My focus will be on working with our clients to ensure we can deliver. Supporting our teams and building our capability to ensure we keep doing the right things in the right ways.
So yes, not only will this give me experience on the other side of the contracting table, and the opportunity to see how the other side live. But the public sector still need us suppliers, there will always be short term projects and pieces of work that it makes sense to use suppliers to help with rather than massively increase their headcount’s, and more importantly (for me) we have more flexibility sometimes, the chance to quickly bring in different perspectives and points of view.
Difrent describe themselves as being activists for change and doing the right thing. They are passionate about delivering things that matter, and only working with clients who meet their #TechForGood ethos.
And for me that is Difrent’s main attraction, they want to help bring about that change, to ensure we are delivering the right things in the right way for the right reasons. Advocating and agitating for that change and real transformation.
As someone who talks a lot about finding their tribe, I look around the company and see a lot of great people passionate about delivering real change. It was especially great to see and hear the diversity and inclusion stats for the company being proudly discussed at events. One of the things that attracted me to Difrent is how much they talk about their people, and how important their people are to them, it feels like a real community of people who care. As stated by Dan Leakey, what ever our makeup, Difrent are 100% awesome.
And while it’s only midway through week two, what I’ve seen so far has already made me feel like the dark side is full of bright lights. I’ve spent time in both Newcastle and Blackpool with some of our delivery teams, getting to understand the outcomes we are trying to deliver and why, and how we can best support our clients to meet their user’s needs.
So while I do intend to return to the public sector in the future with lots of new great experience under my belt, for now I feel like the message is “welcome to the dark side, we’re not all bad.”
I regularly talk to organisations about why having vision and mission statements are important. Over the years I’ve seen many good examples and some bad ones too, both inside and outside the public sector.
They often seems to be overlooked when deciding to transform an organisation, instead companies tend to focus on their Target Operating Model or individual delivery of products. While delivery of the Products is important, because as Tom Loosemore says the ‘Strategy is delivery’ after all; and a Target Operating Model ads value; without a clear Vision and Mission statement the teams involved in delivery can find it hard to focus on what they are aiming for (the vision), and how they are aiming to achieve that goal (the mission statement).
There’s been a few good blogs written about Mission statements, these blogs by Mel Cannon, Ben Holliday and Rachel Woods highlight how a good mission statement can help a company deliver, by helping them focus on ‘how’ they will achieve their aims. But there is little value in understanding ‘how’ you will seek to deliver a goal, without understanding ‘what’ you want to deliver. As such, today I want to focus on Vision’s, what makes a good one and why they are important.
So why is having a Vision important?
As Ben Holliday said in his blog a good Vision sets out “What we want to achieve. Setting out an ideal future state eg. what will the council of the future and local services look like?” It is the future state we are striving for. It is what our staff know to aim for, the thing that gives us focus; especially in the public sector it is where we will end up if we’ve managed to deliver our strategy. The reason a Vision is important s that it helps us plan our future. It sets the agenda, the goal.
As good summary from lifehack.com states the question you should be asking when developing your vision is “If you were to take a photo of your future business now, what would it look like? What do you want your business to be recognized for one day?” This could be as simple as being the best, fastest, most well known or trusted provider of your product and service.
What makes a good Vision?
There are different theories on this, this blog from Projectmanager.com states that the best vision statements are concise, clear and future orientated (amongst other things).
Whilst changefactor.com states here that a good vision statement should be unique and evoke emotion, it should say “something about us, our organisation, our operating environment, our dream. When we read it, it should tell us where we are going. We should not be able to substitute our vision statement for other organisations inside and outside our industry.”
I agree with all of that, but the thing missing for me is that they need to be based on your user’s needs, to evoke emotion, you are making assumptions about the needs of your customers and how your organisations will be meeting those needs.
If you look at some of the big name vision statement’s out there you can see how they have tried to follow the above guidelines.
Disney: “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.”
Oxfam: “Our vision is a just world without poverty. We want a world where people are valued and treated equally, enjoy their rights as full citizens, and can influence decisions affecting their lives.”
Ikea: to create a better everyday life for the many people – for customers, but also for our co-workers and the people who work at our suppliers.
Personally, Disney’s vision seems to lack emotion to me, but it is definitely clear and concise. Both Oxfam and Ikea’s vision’s evoke more emotion, but I think it could be argued that Ikea’s vision is not unique to them. It would be easy to mistake Ikea’s vision for that of other companies. Of the three Vision’s above, I personally find Oxfam’s the best in that it is unique to them, evokes emotion and sets out their clear intent.
The thing that interests me is that for many companies, their vision is words. But I actually really like visual vision’s, I’ve always found them easier to get people to buy into, and for organisations staff to understand their place and the value they are adding.
The above vision developed by @DWPDigtial showed how the Department would be organised in the future, with their guiding principles clearly stated. It was developed back in 2017 and showed how the different elements of the organisation would work together to deliver it’s services. While the vision was definitely unique to DWP; it was not concise, or even very clear and easy to understand. You could argue that this was actually their Target Operating Model rather than a Vision, given it doesn’t meet the criteria above of being clear and concise, but it does show clearly where the Department was going.
Another great example is this one by @CCS, which is both clear and simple in it’s statement, and in how it is visualised.
As the Crown Commercial Service is responsible for:
managing the procurement of common goods and services, so public sector organisations with similar needs achieve value by buying as a single customer;
increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;
leading on procurement policy on behalf of the UK government increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;
It’s Vision to be the “Go – To provider form Common Goods and services” makes sense. It is concise and clear, and specific to their organisation.
The benefit of both of these vision’s is that they help the viewer to ‘see’ how the organisations intend to transform and develop themselves.
Knowing where you are going is important:
No matter what format you go for, when developing a Vision it’s important to remember that it should be unique to your organisation, clear, concise and easy to understand, and that it helps your users, staff and stakeholders understand what the organisations aims are, where the organisation is heading and why.
But the most important thing to remember is that your Vison is not a static thing. You should constantly be revisiting it and checking that it is still valid and innovative. That it still drives your organisation forward and represents your users needs and where you want your company to be in the future.
When it’s not about user needs or human centric design, but instead about fixing technological infrastructure.
When it’s not about transforming the service but keeping the lights on systems.
When it’s not about asking “why?”, because you already know the solution you want.
As Tom Loosemore said, Digital is applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.
There are lots of conversations online about being digital, not doing digital. Digital is not a process, it is a cultural mind-set.
It is a way of asking questions and prioritising needs. It’s about delivering value and designing services that meet user needs and expectations.
Now and then you can still see organisations that use Digital as a label when they mean technology or IT.
However, those things are not interchangeable. The culture and mindset of of the teams of the teams, and the organisations itself, is very different.
In organisations that use digital as a label but are not embracing what it means to be digital you will still see a separation between change or transformation and digital. They will still have siloed ways of working.
The business will still separate the programme funding, governance and strategy from the digital teams tasked with delivery.
Organisations where digital is a way of working, not just a label, you will see properly empowered teams made up of people from across the business. You will have teams who ‘own’ the holistic service they are delivering from strategy to delivery.
These are organisations where the multidisciplinary team isn’t just something that digital ‘do’ but the whole organisations embraces.
This comparison between Digital and Technology is equally relevant when considering the role of the Chief Digital Officer vs. a Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer. There’s a good discussion of the various roles here. As with the other roles the Chief Digital Officer looks after an organisations data and technology assets. However, they go one step further and have a wider eye, considering the strategy and the possibilities for innovation and wider transformation. Their focus is not on keeping the lights on, but understanding why the lights are needed and are there any other options?
For me this sums up why digital is wider ands more far reaching than Technology, and why the Digital mind-set and culture is so important to get right for organisations trying to deliver transformation. And why, if you don’t have these things right, if you are digital in name but not culture, you are going to struggle to deliver real transformation.
I’ve been working within Digital transformation for almost ten years now, working on some of the largest projects and programmes within the public sector. From front line services to backend systems, from simple forms to complex benefit processing applications.
One thing that has been a feature of every product or service I’ve been a part of has been the business case. Over the years I’ve worked to challenge and transform the business case itself, making it more agile and less cumbersome, in multiple organisations.
Traditionally business cases have been built on the preconception that you know exactly what solution you want, with the costs and timings estimated accordingly. These behemoth business cases usually clock in over 25 pages long, with very little room of flexibly or change. The millstones in them are clearly laid out and everyone sits around clapping themselves on the back for delivering the business case, and then wondering why the Product itself never gets delivered.
In the last decade as the more agile methodologies and user centric ways of working have spread the traditional business case, and the role of those individuals who are focused on their development, has struggled to keep pace with the changes happening within the projects and programmes themselves.
The traditional method of drafting business cases that map out your road map and spend in full are now antiquated, and holding back teams from delivering. New business cases need to instead focus on agreeing design principles and the problem the business is trying to fix rather than bottoming out the minutiae of the roadmap. On explaining the assumptions that have helped define the scope of the Product or programme, which can be backed up by evidence , this is worth more than a cost estimate hammered down to the pounds and pence.
Before doing Product evaluations it is vitally important to ensure all senior stakeholders agree on the assumptions the team is working too (regarding the scope, business needs, user needs etc.) And these are the things new business cases should be focused on, not jumping straight to a solution based on product comparisons that have been carried out before everyone has agreed what is in scope.
One anecdote in particular has always stuck with me, in terms of why it’s important to agree your scope, before you start comparing products.
A few years ago, back when I was working with the Office of the Public Guardian on their CRM replacement, the team at the time did some research and analysis into the best options for the business and whether they should be looking to build, buy or configure a new system.
As the business wanted to be a digital be default exemplar, there was an early assumption that the new system would only need to ingest data received via digital channels, or call data for the minimal cases that couldn’t be dealt with digitally. This led to some early product comparisons being done, into Products that would meet the business’ requirements.
However, some research and conversations with legal SMEs during the Discover period highlighted that, as the OPG had responsibilities as a safeguarding body, they needed to be able to accept and analyse data received via any source. Which meant they actually needed a system that could ingest and understand faxed data, call data, digital data and handwritten data. The ability to ingest and assign meta data to handwritten data meant some products that had actually been in consideration now had to be ruled out.
Thankfully the business case for the CRM system had been developed with enough flexibility and empowerment and trust within the programme team, that this did not dramatically slow down or derail the team in terms of delivery as they were still working within the agreed scope and cost envelope, but the Product Comparisons had to be reconsidered and the scope and cost estimates changed accordingly.
While this was a relatively small example, it highlights the importance of validating scope assumptions before pinning down your business case.
Many organisations embracing Digital and agile ways of working have struggled with how they can fit the need for traditional governance structures, and especially the business case, into the culture and ways of working that Digital brings with it. My honest opinion is that you can’t.
Instead, there has been a movement in some areas, led by the likes of GDS and MoJ which I have been apart of and leading conversations along with others on for some years, to change the role and format of the Business case. To encourage the business case itself to be developed and iterated alongside the Product and Programme it supports. This approach to iterate the business case alongside the agile Project lifecycle was first laid out by GDS back in 2014 for digital transformation programmes. The Institute for Government did a report back in October 2018 on how business cases were used, and what could be improved to enable better delivery.
Rather than a business case written almost in isolation by a Programme Manager before going round and round for comments, there is value in treating your business case like any other output from the a multidisciplinary team.
Instead of a 25+ page tome that aims to spell everything out upfront, before the project even commences properly, there is much more value in simply having a couple of pages explaining the problem the project is seeking to fix and why, along with estimated timing and costs for some exploratory work to define key assumptions and answer key questions (like what happens if we don’t fix this? How many people will it effect? Are there any legal requirements we need to be aware of?) that will help your project start on the right foot.
Once you can answer those questions, then you can iterate the business case; taking a stab at estimating how you think you might going about fixing the problem(s), how long it will take to fix the important key problem(s) you identified need fixing first, are there any products out there in the market that could do this for you? How much might this roughly cost?
You can then iterate the business case again once you’ve started developing the Product or implementing the identified solution. Once you have validated the assumptions you’ve made previously about the solution to the problem you’re fixing.
This means the business case is a living document, kept up to date with the costs and timetable you’re working to. It means your board are able to much more accurately assuage their accountabilities, ensuring costs are being spent in line with the scope of the programme or project.
Whatever methodology you are using, the importance of being able to explain why you are doing something, and what the problem you are trying to fix is, before leaping into what software product is the solution to buy and how much it’ll cost you. If it’s done right, the business case helps you evidence you are doing the right thing and spending money in the right way.
Hi, I’m Zoe and I’m a NeuroDiverse Senior Civil Servant.
Last week I attended Civil Service Live, it was an interesting day, with sessions on everything from AI and keeping abreast of new technologies, to Transformation to resilience and personal wellbeing. The session that stood out most for me was the “Making Government an event greater place to work” which was an interesting session featuring several people talking about their own mental health, and colleagues from DWP’s Diversity and Inclusion Team talking about the work they have been doing to make invisible disabilities more visible.
The team has been working with neurodiverse colleagues to make short videos to help neurotypical colleagues understand their disabilities. This included a video on sensory processing disorder, and how many colleagues with ASD can find what some people might call normal background noise overwhelming; and another video on how some people with Dyslexia can struggle with reading, with text moving around the page.
I thought these were really useful tools for colleagues to help increase understanding, and to normalise invisible disabilities.
After the session I got talking to one of the speakers and a few other attendees about some of the mentoring and leadership schemes that exist for Disabled people, and that unfortunately these are not widely visible with a lot of people not knowing they exist or how to join them. We also discussed the need for more visible representation of neurodiverse people within senior leadership.
I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia when I was 14, and nowadays I’ve recognised (through parenting my child through the intricate diagnosis process for ASD and ADHD) that I probably have ADHD as well and am now in conversations with my GP to get a referral for an assessment.
When I first joined the Civil Service (technically as a temp back in 2002 before I went to university) I was doing a data entry job, and when I admitted to a senior manager that I had Dypraxia he told me to keep it quiet or everyone would wonder why he’d hired me. Having a learning disability was definitely seen as a barrier to progression.
I remember when I joined the Ministry of Defence as a Fast Streamer back in 2006, I looked at the data for the Senior Civil Service at the time and realised that less than 3% of colleagues in the SCS had a disability, and of those, the number who were declaring a non-physical disability was in single figures (in the MoD at least). At that time, I made the decision that I would do everything I could to reach the SCS, so I could help change those stats.
Until a few years ago I’d never met an SCS person who I knew was neurodiverse. I was talking to a senior leader asking for advice on speaking at conferences as it was something I’ve always struggled with in terms of confidence, and he admitted that he was Dyslexic and couldn’t read of prompts, so would always have to learn his presentations by heart. This was someone I had known for over a year, and it felt like I was being told a secret that they were ashamed of, but it made me feel hope. Here was this person 2 grades above me, who also had a learning disability. It was possible.
Several years ago at a leadership development session designed to help G6 colleagues pass the SCS application tests, one of the senior colleagues stated that “anyone can just learn to do maths with a little bit practice”. I ended up speaking up and saying that “as someone with a learning disability I found that kind of sweeping statement very unhelpful”. After the session I had another colleague approach me and ask if I could provide some mentoring to one of their members of staff who had Dyslexia and wanted to progress in their career but they weren’t sure if that was possible given their disability, and my colleague believed that talking to another neurodiverse person might help their confidence.
Over the years I’ve mentored perhaps a dozen people, some through official schemes, but just as many have approached me and asked whether I would mentor them as they themselves are neurodiverse and there aren’t that many senior leaders out there who own up publicly to having a learning disability or being neurodiverse. As such people feel that there aren’t people in senior leadership positions who have learning disabilities or are not neurotypical.
Within the Civil Service and wider public sector we are doing more now to normalise Disability, there are great leadership and development schemes like the Possetive Action Pathway out there now to help build capability for Disabled colleagues or recruit more neurodiverse people. DWP and HMRC have been running Autism work placement programmes, GCHQ has it’s “Positive About Disabled People” scheme and there’s the Summer Diversity Internship programme; Diversity and Inclusion networks across the Civil Service are working to help support Disabled colleagues, and schemes like the ‘Workplace Adjustment passport’ are a great tool for disabled colleagues and their managers.
But I still believe we need more visible neurodiverse senior leaders, and leaders with both visible and invisible disabilities. Figures from 2018 show that still only 5.4% of SCS colleagues have a disability. I couldn’t find any data on the percentage of those colleagues whose disability was visible, invisible or both, but it’s safe to say we need to normalise neurodiversity at all levels.
For those of us who are neurodiverse in the Senior Civil Service, we need to speak up and say to our colleagues that we are here. It is possible. We bring something to the table, and so do you.
The event was focused on how digital has transformed governments across the world, sharing best practices and lessons learned. With speakers from the founding of GDS, like Lord Maude, as well as speakers from the Netherlands, and it was a great opportunity to meet others working on solving problems for users in the Government space wider than the UK.
A lot of the talks, especially by the GDS alum were things I had heard before, but I actually found that reassuring, that over 5 years later I am still doing the right things, and approaching problems in the right way.
It was especially interesting to hear from both Lord Maude, and others, about the work they have been doing with foreign governments, for example in Canada, Peru and Hawaii. The map Andrew Greenway, previous of GDS now from Public Digital, shared of the digital government movement was fantastic to see, and really made me realise how big what we are trying to achieve around the world really is.
The talks from some of the Dutch speakers were really interesting. I loved hearing about the approach the council in The Hague are taking to digital innovations, and their soon to be published digital strategy. One of the pilots the city are running in particular intrigued me; in an effort to reduce traffic, they put sensors onto parking spaces in key shopping streets and all disabled parking bays in the city. This gave them real time information on the use of the parking spaces, and where available spaces were and successfully decreased traffic from people driving around searching for spaces. They were now looking at how to scale the pilot an manage the infrastructure and senor data for a ‘smart’ city, working with local business to enable new services to be offered.
We also heard about the work the Netherlands has been doing to pilot other innovative digital services, like a new service that allows residents in an area to submit planning ideas to improve their neighbourhoods, with the first trial receiving over 50 suggestions, of those 4 have been chosen to take forward. We heard about the support that was given to enable everyone to take part, and it was nice to hear about the 78 year old resident who’s suggestion came 5th.
It was also great to hear from the speaker from Matthij from Novum, a digital innovation lab in the Netherlands, who talked about his own personal journey into Digital transformation, learning from failures and ensuring that you prepare for failure from the start. He also told us about some fascinating research they have been doing into the use of smart speakers, especially with the elderly, to enable better engagement and use of government services to those that need assistive technologies.
Realising that 30% of eligible claimants for the Dutch state pension supplement were not claiming it, they believed that this was potentially down to the complexity of the form. They hypothesised that smart speakers might be one way to solve this problem. However recognising that it was no good to make assumptions and design a solution for users without ensuring they had understood the problem their users were facing properly they did a small sample test with elderly users to see whether they could use smart speakers to check the date of their next pension payment (one of the largest contributors to inbound calls to the Sociale Verzekeringsbank), they found that not only could elderly users use the smart speakers, but that the introduction of smart speakers into their homes decreased loneliness dramatically.
There were other good sessions with James Stewart from GDS & Public Digtial on technology within digital, and an interesting panel session at the end. Every session was good, and I learnt something I heard something new at each one. My only grumble from the day was the lack of diversity in the speakers. Which the organises themselves put their hands up and admitted before they were called out on it. A quick call on twitter and the ever amazing Joanne Rewcaslte from DWP shared a list of amazing female speakers, so hopefully that will help with the next event.
One key thing I took away from the day is that the challenges are the same everyone, but the message is also the same, involve users from the start. In the practical steps everyone could start tomorrow, Matthij talked about ensuring you interview 5 end users, and some steps to simple prototypes you could develop to engage your users.
Lord Maude talked about the importance of a strong mandate, Novum talked about having a good understanding of the problem you are trying to fix at the start. The digital strategy from the Hague highlights the fact they want everyone to be able to participate and deliver a personal service to their citizens. As Andrew Greenaway said, they key thing is to “start with user needs”.
The other second key message from the day was that, as Lord Maude put it… “Just Do it!” A digital strategy delivers nothing, the strategy should be delivery, instead of spending months on developing a digital strategy, “you just have to start” by doing something, this in turn will help you develop your strategy once you understand the problems you are trying to solve, the people you will need, and the set up and way of doing things that works best in your organisation. This was a message reinforced by every speaker throughout the day.
The third key message was the importance of good leadership, good teams and good people. Talk in the open about the failures you’ve made and what you have learned. Build strong multidisciplinary and diverse teams. As Andrew Greenway said, Start with teams, not apps or documents. In the round table discussion on building capability we spent a lot of time discussing the best ways to build capability, and the fact that in order to get good people and be able to keep them, and to go on to develop good things, you need strong leadership that is bought in to the culture you need to deliver.
I left the day with a number of good contacts, had some great conversations, and felt reinvigorated and reassured. Speaking to Worth I know they are aiming to run another event next year, with both an even more diverse international cohort and an equal number of female speakers, and I for one will definitely be signing up again for the next event.