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Category: Social Media

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.

The strategy is content delivery.

One of the most universal truths is that if you don’t talk about what you are doing, how will people know? 

Everyone leads busy lives, we live in our own bubbles, and while we do generally try and be good humans and notice and recognise other people doing good things, it’s not always that easy to do.

That’s why I personally find things like twitter, reading Blogs and attending networking events or conferences useful, they give me a change to see what else is happening out there, who is doing what good things; they are opportunities to connect and share. 

However that is predicated on the basic foundation of having things to share. One of the things I’ve found, upon joining Difrent, is that we are not that great on sharing the great stuff we are doing. Which is a shame, as we are doing some really great stuff!

Neon sign with a heart and a zero next to it

Thankfully Rach and I are on the same page (perhaps unsurprisingly given we are both rather massive extraverts) so we’ve been having some good conversations within the SLT on what more we can do to develop better content and support our teams and people to be more confident in sharing what they are doing. 

Last week we have @RachelleMoose from Strange Digital come in and deliver a two day workshop for us on content strategy, focusing on how we could use video better to tell Difrent’s story. 

While I’ve always found the projects and culture video’s we developed at DWP Digital to be great, I’d never actually researched or seen any of the stats on why video is a good medium for sharing content from a business point of view. I knew I liked them, but I didn’t understand why there were useful! But the workshop taught me things like: videos generate 135% more traffic to a site than static content alone; and that 92% of people who watch a video on mobile devices, go on to share that video with others.

Phone showing the YouTube logo

It was especially interesting from an accessibility angle, to consider how we make sure our content as accessible to everyone, not simply in terms of sticking subtitles on all our videos, but things like understanding that audio needs to be understood and edited to ensure it doesn’t clash with anyone speaking and how different formats work etc.  For example, more than 85% of social videos are watched without sound, which helps explain why Closed Captions and Titles on videos are important.

Slide from Rachelle’s presentation on content strategy

I found the workshop a really good session to do as a Senior Leadership team, it really made us think about what messages we wanted to put out there, what we felt was the right way to tell our story and who we are as a company. 

We also did some competitor analysis to see what other content is out there; what messages resonated with us, and what didn’t; as well as discussing the formats we liked as a group etc. I got to put post it notes on a wall, which is always the sign of a good day for me.

@Rachel0404 sat in front of a wall of post it notes from one of Rachelle’s session

What I found especially beneficial, being new to the company, was asking some of our staff their thoughts on our culture and what they would like to see in the videos. Within Difrent we pride ourselves on encouraging and enabling everyone to be themselves and able to bring their whole selves to work; hearing from people how they felt Difrent embodies that was really encouraging. 

I’m really looking forward to seeing the output of the videos once they are made, and really think they will help us within Difrent work in the open better, talk about our amazing people and show the great work we are delivering.   

Sign saying ‘open’

Welcome to the Dark Side.

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.

With credit to @RachelleMoose for the inforgraphic

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.

Darth Vader with wings and a halo

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.”

Having a vision

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.

A view finder looking at the horizon

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.

@DWPDigital’s 2020 vision

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.

Emilia Cedeno showing off @CCS’s vision

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.

A compass

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.

Thomas Cook and how not to go digital.

Sat by a pool in the sunshine waiting to hear about how I’ll get home now Thomas Cook have gone bust, I am reading the news and scrolling through Twitter hashtags thinking about how many companies have stumbled and fallen with the rise of the internet of now. 

One of the main causes being attributed to Thomas Cooks’ demise is there inability to adapt to the digital era. With more and more people choosing to book their holidays online from the comfort of their sofa, Thomas Cook kept investing in their travel agencies made of bricks and mortar. 

Thomas Cook website as of 25th September 2019

My personal experience of the app and website were clunky and unwieldy on mobiles, an instant off putter for me. We have reached a point in time where website need to be mobile and tablet focused more than they need to be working on laptops and traditional computer screens. In fact 2015 is when Thomas Cook themselves acknowledged that they had more traffic from mobile devices than traditional computers.  It only takes a quick look at the App Store ratings for the app against its competitors to see it had issues.

In my local, struggling, shopping centre, amongst the Poundland’s and charity shops, there was still a large Thomas Cook travel agency, but very rarely did you see anyone in there. The people inside were always lovely but sadly that can’t compete against people’s 21st century lives where finding time (during standard retail hours) to spend sat in a store to book their holiday was depleting. In the modern world of comparison sites, last minute deal websites and apps; Thomas Cooks high street store model just didn’t fit. 

When Thomas Cook online was launched in 2010 it was one of the first travel companies to do so. So why did it go so wrong? What did they miss?Having been involved in a lot of business and digital transformation programmes over the last decade, there are answers there if you dig.

This article  by @iankingsky, business correspondent at Sky News, describes the decisions made by one of the CEOs a few years ago to keep investing in their physical architecture over their digital one as part of the companies end. Citing particularly the take over of MyTravel (air tours) in 2007 and the Coop travel merger in 2010 which added to their physical portfolio while consumers were turning towards digital outlets.

It was only in 2015 that Thomas Cook gained a CDO, and by that point the company was already beginning to show signs of struggling. A struggle that they sadly could never overcome.

To me, and I’m sure many others, this is a clear example of a lack of vision from the top, and of a strategy and vision that has failed to iterate and been left to stagnate rather than adapt with the times. 

The sides of the roads on the way to the On demand era are littered with the remains of business who have failed to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before. 

Blockbusters is often used as one of the first casualties of the new digital era, many people lay that blame at its CEO’s feet, but that is a very simple summation of a more complex problem. As Greg Satell in Forbes says, for Blockbusters to have survived it would have had to change it’s very business model, and that was where it struggled. It’s not that its CEO simply didn’t have a vision that included digital, it’s that the company didn’t know how to transform its very foundations. 

Blockbuster website November 29th 2010

In my experience this is where most companies struggle, they want to adapt to the digital era, and so they build a digital front end, as Thomas Cook did, but they don’t realise that digital is more than just a shiny front end. To ‘be Digital’ you have to change from the inside out, your commercials, your finances, your governance structures. Changes to the very culture of the business.

This holistic understanding is key at all levels of the organisation, from the people delivering customer services to the Chief Excs and Directors. To be digital requires breaking down organisational silos and for all the different departments in an organisation to work together to deliver a vision of what is possible. 

This is where the CEO is responsible, for ensuring that vision is agreed, and that they have the right team in place, at all levels through the organisation, to deliver it. 

A good Chief Digital Officer (or someone with similar skills and experience if not the title) is a critical appointment in this time, because they understand the art of the possible and how to deliver it. It took 5 years for Thomas Cook to appoint that person after it began Thomas Cook online. In any business that 5 years can be an eternity, especially one that relies on consumers in a competitive market. In that time their competitors has outstripped them, changed their business models, transformed their offering to meet user expectations. 

The lesson here is that digital is not something you can pay lip service to, you have to understand it and how to ‘be’ it. Without that vision and willingness to iterate and change, you will find your users will move on to somewhere else that can meet their needs better. 

The ripples of Thomas Cooks fall will be felt for a long time yet, not only in the thousands of holiday makers like myself who are inconvenienced by this, but also the staff who are now out of work and for whom this is a time of heart break and uncertainties. Many other companies around the world relied on Thomas Cook for business, and their futures too are now uncertain.

There is a lot we can learn from this, to ensure this is not a bit of history doomed to repeat itself. Again.

#GovermentIsOpen

Why we need to bring user centric design into our Communications in the public Sector.

Having been involved in the hiring of many Content and Interaction Designers in the last few years, we’ve always preferred candidates from within the Public Sector, because they tend to have the same specialisms as we in the Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) Profession have, looking down our nose a little at applicants from the private sector who seem to be a bit of a ‘jack of all trades of design’ doing some social media, some UX and some content design.

A Neon sign showing 0 likes.

We want people who understand user centric design, who design services based on user needs. We want content designers used to working in multidisciplinary teams designing and developing services. We want Content Designers who are used to designing what ‘we’ class as Content, which having spoken to people interested in applying for our roles seems to be quite often different, or at least a narrower definition, to what the wider industry classes as Content. A search for content design jobs online shows the breadth of jobs that can fall under that category.

But in the last year or so I’ve begun to look at those we have left behind with this approach, those we have excluded and where this has left us, especially in terms of both recruitement, and our engagement with our users.

The Government Design community is constantly growing and expanding. With the salaries being offered quickly outsripping the number of candidates we have available. We are all constantly stealing candidates from each other, and those departments and agencies that can’t afford to pay that much, are left relaying on contractors because we can’t hire people.

Digital is seen as a channel for contact, and within the public sector we are moving our products and services online. However, social media is generally not considered as part of that transformation. It is not a transactional service, and therefor generally not considered within the remit of the Digital design teams. The content we put out on social media is seen as the same as we put out to the press, it is a tool for giving out information, as such the people on our social media teams tend to be comms professionals, or people with a background in journalism or marketting.

People looking at their phones

Interestingly Social Media teams are not generally included within the Government design community, and until a conversation 18 months ago with Joanne Rewcastle at DWP Digital I’d never really thought about that. The DDaT roles are based around the roles first needed by Gov.uk and expanded on from there as part of the work by GDS. As such these are the roles needed to design and develop transactional services. Which makes sense.

However, it means we are not thinking about what our users need from our social media. We are not designing the content we put on social media in the same way as the content we put on our digital services, or even our websites.

Also, it means when it comes to recruitment, we are not looking preferably on those people who have a social media or wider comms background as they are not, by the DDaT definition, Content Designers, and unfortunately it is currently quite hard for people working in Social media or wider comms to move over into the Content Design space as they tend to not have the experience of working in multidisciplinary teams or on transactional user needs driven services we are looking for.

With our digital services we have to ensure they are accessible. Our content designers and interaction designers are experts in making sure our content is accessible and understandable by everyone. But in my experience we haven’t been making sure our social media teams are experts in that as well.

A keyboard with an accessibility symbol

It was from Content Design and Accessibility expert colleagues I learned the rule of #CapatalisingYourHashTags so that they can be better understood by accessibility software. The same goes for images and emojis, are we all making sure we’re using them in such a way that screen readers and accessibility software can understand them? If our users are using social media, if that is a service we offer, then do we not have the same responsibility to make sure that service is as usable and accessible as any other service we offer? Even if it isn’t ‘transactional’.

Our Social media colleagues are generally great in helping us think about how to design messages in ways to engage the audiences on different channels, they understand the demographics of the users on the different platforms and what messages work best with which users where. They often have a wealth of data and evidence regarding our users that could benefit Product Development teams. When we’re considering as Product teams how to engage our users it seems to me that is a great time to engage with our social media colleagues. Equally, Product teams, through user research sessions and user needs analysis collect a lot of evidence and data teams that could benefit our Social Media colleagues. Unfortunately I’ve seen very few places pulling those skills together well.

Full credit to DWP Digital’s social media team here, where the team reached out and joined up with the content design community even though they were not officially part of it according to the DDaT professions, to ensure they were considering user needs in how they used social media. That team worked incredibly hard to build people’s awareness of how to use social media, to ensure content was accessible and usable.

A mix of laptops and smartphones on a desk

A few other Departments have done simillar, and I think that is a good thing. But I also think we need to look again at social media across the public sector. It’s not just a marketing tool anymore, In the age of the internet a good social media presence can make or break a company. Nothing is ever really gone from the internet, and that tweet or Facebook post from 5 years ago can come back to bite you on the bum.

So why are more places not using the principles of user design in our social media, or recognising the hard work of those people who are pushing for accessibility and user design in social media as much as those who are designing good content for a website or transactional service?

We need to recognise that the people within our Social Media teams and our Content Design teams have more in common than not, and that when we are recruiting we can gain a lot from people who come form both sides of that bridge.

Being a visible leader with an invisible disability.

Hi, I’m Zoe and I’m a NeuroDiverse Senior Civil Servant.

This is me! (Photo curtesy of @RachelleMoose)

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.

Exmaple of how someone with Dyslexia can perceive text

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.

Writing ADHD on a blackboard.

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.

A picture of a ‘noise -o-meter sometimes used to help people with Sensory Processing Disorder indicate how they are perceiving the sound around them.

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.

Delivering Digital Government 2019

This week Claire Harrison (Head of Architecture from CQC) and I had the opportunity to attend the Delivering Digital Goverment event run by Worth Systems in The Hague.

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.

@ad_greenway sharing a map of the Digtial Government transformations happening around the world

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.

The draft digital strategy for the city of The Hague

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.

An image of an older lady talking to an AI robot, courtesy of Novum

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.

This slide from Lord Maude summed up three of the main things any organisations needs to succeed in delivering Digital Transformation

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.

@jystewart sharing a statement from Ivana Osores from Interbank… “You have to just start”

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.

Lord Maude, myself and Claire Harrison at the social gathering after the event

Reaching out.

A blog for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2019

It’s mental health awareness week, and I’ve seen lots of things about “I’m always here, reach out to me if you need help”, or “show you care, support those around you by reaching out to them and seeing how they are doing”.

And I wholeheartedly love both these sentiments. We should be talking about mental health more and more. As a society we’re having more conversation about what we can do to support each other and be kind to ourselves, and it’s great.

My problem is the thought of reaching out to anyone, to say I need help, or to offer support, fills me with dread.

I’ve talked before on social media about my Imposter Syndrome and social anxiety, and Gavin Elliot does one of the best blogs out there about what Imposter syndrome is. It makes you feel like you add no worth. So reaching out to ask for help, or offering help to others, is very very hard to do, because it is imposing on others time. Butting into their life uninvited. Interrupting them. Giving them the opportunity to see you.

I’ve been told in the past people don’t assume I ever need help because I seem confident. That I can seem imposing to approach. Yet I always try to help other when I am approached, I will share what’s going on in my life and the things that are bothering me if I am asked about them.

But the ability to reach out first? To drop someone a message out of the blue? On a bad day I can find that simple act almost impossible.

That fear is something over the years I’ve worked hard to overcome, and I will now try and force myself to reach out, both to ask for help, and to ask if I can help without waiting to be given a direct opening. But even on the best day, it still takes effort for me to do so, it is not natural for me.

It’s something I oddly find a little easier in a professional setting, as I know what my role is and my responsibilities within that, but outside of that scope then it becomes much harder for me to reach out first.

And the thing is, even when you’re doing well, and have been doing well for a while, it’s easy for your confidence to take a hit, and for you to take a backwards step. For things you thought you had overcome to rear their head. 

And that is ok.

There will be times when you’re doing well and can do the things you find hard. And times when your can’t.

However you manage your mental health, the first step is knowing yourself, knowing what you find hard and what things can set you back, owning that knowledge. But its also important to recognise the things that can help you do the things you find hard. That good days and bad days exist.

And I just want to say I hear you. I’m here should you ever want to talk. Whether you can reach or to me or not, I want you to know you are not alone.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, Mind can be a good place to start if you need some help.