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Agile Delivery in a Waterfall procurement world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for gds lifecycle
The GDS lifecycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agile at scale

What do we even mean when we talk about agile at scale and what are the most important elements to consider when trying to run agile at scale?

This is definitely one of those topics of conversation that goes around and around and never seems to get resolved or go away. What do we even mean when we talk about agile at scale? Do we mean scaling agile within a programme setting across multiple teams? Do we mean scaling it across multiple programmes? Or do we mean scaling it using it at scale within a whole organisation?

When ever I’m asked about what I believe to be the most important elements in enabling successful delivery using agile, or using agile at scale, the number one thing I will always talk about isn’t the technology; It isn’t digital capability; or experience with the latest agile ways of working (although all those things are important and do obviously help) it’s the culture.

I’ve blogged before on how to change a culture and why it’s important to remember cultural change alongside business transformation; but more and more, especially when we’re talking about agile at scale I’ve come to the conclusion that the culture of an organisation; and most especially the buy in and support for agile ways of working at a leadership level within an organisation, is the must fundamental element of being able to successfully scale agile.

Agile its self is sadly still one of those terms that is actually very marmite for some, especially in the senior leadership layers. They’ve seen agile projects fail; it seems like too much change for too little return, or its just something their digital/tech teams ‘do’ that they don’t feel the need to really engage with. GDS tells them they have to use it, so they do.

Which is where I think many of the agile at scale conversations stumble; it’s seen as a digital/tech problem, not an organisational one. This means that time and again, Service Owners, Programme Directors and agile delivery teams get stuck when trying to develop and get support for business cases that are trying to deliver holistic and meaningful change. We see it again and again. Agile delivery runs into waterfall funding and governance and gets stuck.

As a Service Owner or Programme Director trying to deliver a holistic service, how do you quantify in your business case the value this service and this approach to delivery will add? The obvious answer, hopefully, is using data and evidence to show the potential areas for investment and value it would add to both users and the business. But how do you get that data? Where from? How do you get senior leaders to understand it?

In organisations where agile at scale is a new concept, supporting senior leaders to understand why this matters isn’t easy. I often try and recommend new CDO’s, CEO’s or Chief Execs ‘buddy up’ or shadow some other senior folks who have been through this journey; folks like Darren Curry, Janet Hughes, Tom Read and Neil Couling; who understand why it matters, and have been through (or are going through) this journey themselves in their organisations and are able to share their experiences for both good and bad.

I will always give full praise to Alan Eccles CBE who was previously The Public Guardian, and chief exec of the Office of the Public Guardian, with out whom the first Digital Exemplar, the LPA online, would never have gone live. Alan was always very honest that he wasn’t experienced or knowledgeable about agile or digital, but he was fully committed to making the OPG the first true Digital exemplar Agency; and utilising everything digital, and agile ways of working, had to offer to transform the culture of the OPG and the services they delivered. If you want an example of what a true Digital culture looks like, and how vocal and committed Alan was to making the OPG digital, just take a look at their blog which goes all the way back to 2015 and maps the OPG’s digital journey.

Obviously, culture isn’t the only important factor when wanting to scale agile; the technology we use, the infrastructure and architecture we design and have in place, the skills of our people, the size of our teams and their capacity to deliver are also all important. But without the culture that encompasses and supports the teams, the ability to deliver at scale will always be a struggle.

The commitment to change, to embracing the possibilities and options that a digital culture and using agile at scale brings at the senior leadership level permeates through the rest of the organisation. It encourages teams to work in the open, fostering collaboration, identifying common components and dependancies. It acknowledges that failure is ok, as long as we’re sharing the lessons we’ve learned and are constantly improving. It supports true multidisciplinary working and enables holistic service design by encouraging policy, operations and finance colleagues etc to be part of the delivery teams. All of this in turn improves decision making and increases the speed and success of transformation programmes. Ultimately it empowers teams to work together to deliver; and that is how we scale agile.

Is the Liberal media bias a myth created by the conservative media?

Slight change to my normal blog topics today. This is an essay I wrote in 2005 while studying American politics. I thought of it the other day when discussing the recent events in America. Reading through the essay I was amazed at how much of it was still relevant to the world today; and thought it was worth sharing for those with an interest in such things. The one obvious change I spotted when rereading my essay is the changing and evolving role Social Media has had in the world of news coverage, and political (or ideological) bias; and impact this has had on the so called ‘informed democracy’.

(When reading, please remember I was much younger when I wrote this, I’ve resisted the urge to tamper with it, and instead shared it as I wrote it over 15 years ago – the only thing I’ve added is the pictures!)

“Independent, aggressive and critical media are essential to an informed democracy.”

A picture of The New York Times

Today the debate over bias in the media is a hot topic, with many surveys and poll’s being carried out to establish if there is a bias in the media, and if so what this bias is. The definition of bias “is a prejudice in a general or specific sense, usually in the sense for having a predilection to one particular point of view or ideology”. Many websites have been founded by different organisations to ‘watchdog’ the media for any signs of bias, one way or another. One of the main topics of this debate on the nature of bias in the media is whether the media is more biased towards liberals than conservatives. Over the last thirty years the growth of the internet and cable television not only on a national but a global scale has led to an eruption of media networks. Newspapers are distributed across the world, cable news channels are available in the majority of countries and the internet can be used to keep track of the news at a click of the button. These media outlets have led to a change in how the news is delivered.

While accusations of bias in the media may have grown over the last fifteen years, in fact bias has always been present in the media. Newspapers in the late 1700s and early 1800s reflected the views of one of the political parties. James Fallow noted that “The Philadelphia Aurora was the voice of Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans (forbears of today’s Democrats). The Gazette of The United States was a steadfast supporter of Alexander Hamilton- Jefferson’s greatest rival- and his federalist party.” But this partisanship meant that the newspapers circulation was limited to those of its political affiliation. Thus by the 1800s newspapers began to realise that by becoming more bi-partisan they could increase their circulation and their popularity by having politicians court them for favour. Thus they began to move away from their image of a mouthpiece for a political party towards a more bi-partisan image. This did not mean that all newspapers were now ‘un-biased’, but as tabloid newspapers grew in popularity these openly biased papers were faded out. 

In the early 1940s the Federal Communications Committee established the ‘Mayflower Doctrine’ which prohibited editorializing by stations. This was then changed in 1949 when the Federal Communications Committee introduced the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in the hopes that all coverage of controversial issues would be balanced and fair. They believed that all media outlets had an obligation to provide reasonable opportunity for discussion of different points of view on controversial issues that were of public importance.  The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937, which was a federal law that required stations to offer “equal opportunity” to all political candidates running for any office if they had allowed any other persons running for that same office the use the station. 

Yet the Fairness Doctrine disturbed many journalists, who considered it a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and free press. They believed this should allow reporters to make their own decisions concerning the fairness and balance of stories. Fairness, in their view, should not be forced on them by the Federal Communications Committee. There for in order to avoid this requirement to go out and find opposing viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists began to simply avoided covering any controversial issues at all. This effect was exactly the opposite of what the Federal Communications Committee intended. 

But by the late 1980s the FCCs argument about finite resources was decreed by the Supreme Court as null and void. This was due to the increase in the number of Cable Channels available. Thus in 1985 the FCC issued its ‘Fairness Report’, stating that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, and that it might in fact have a “chilling effect” and may also be in violation of the First Amendment. 

It has always been argues that the media promotes liberal views above those of conservatives. This argument has been used against journalists and editors for decades. Many reasons for this have been suggested; because of the nature of their work, journalists are very likely to meet many types of people from all walks of life. Reporters, especially when they are just beginning their careers, cover human interest stories, often meeting those people who have had some kind of tragedy in their life. This can be especially true in city’s, where critics argue that reporters are likely to form a liberal outlook by welcoming diversity and developing a miss trust of authority through their day to day dealings with politicians, policemen and big business’. 

Many reporters argue that while their views may be more liberal than those of the average population of America, these views do not affect their reporting. They argue that they are capable of reporting in a largely un-biased manner when covering critical stories. While many critics argue that most reporters can not separate their private political views from their work. Studies carried out by organisations like the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism have found evidence that suggests that, as James Fallow suggests, “the reportorial elite- those based in large cities and working for large news organisations- have an outlook different from that of average Americans.” But by stating that Journalists have generally more liberal views than the public, does it not follow that if the majority of press was liberal, the public’s opinions would lean more naturally to that of the press? Unless as many reporters claim, they can separate their private political views and those they express. 

 % Journalists.% Public.
Liberal5523
Conservative1729
   
Pro-Choice8249
Pro-Death Penalty4775
Pro-Gun Control7850
Pro School Prayer2574
pro Affirmative Action8156
Pro-High Defence Spending1538
Pro Gay Employment rights.8955

This view can be backed up by a further poll carried out in the year 2000 by ‘Pew’ this poll found that the bias of media coverage for the Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W Bush was in largely in favour of the Republican candidate George W Bush. 

 Al GoreGeorge W Bush
Positive Press13%24%
Neutral Press31%27%
Negative Press56%49%
Total:100%100%

Some liberal reporters have stated that they are just as likely to give negative press to their own party as they are to the conservatives. When looking at the treatment of President Clinton by the press it can be noted that Clinton received just as much negative press from liberal reporters in comparison to conservative reporters. James Fallows notes that the treatment of Clinton by the supposedly ‘liberal press’ illustrates the problems of such a theory. He notes that Clinton should have been the ideal candidate to a liberal press, Clinton “advanced the ‘New Democrat’ positions that many liberal columnists had been advocating”…”Nonetheless, coverage of Clinton was both more hostile and more volatile than that of any president since Harry Truman.” One previous white house staffer has stated that peer pressure encourages reporters to not get to close to any Democratic White House, if they do so they are very likely to lose respect from other reporters. Fallows also noted the different treatment of presidents by their own party’s publications. “The semi-liberal magazine the New Republic had beaten the drum for the Clinton campaign. But even before Clinton took office the magazine inaugurated a ‘Clinton Suck-Up Watch’ feature, in which reporters were ridiculed for cozying up to Clinton too much. It is inconceivable that a comparable conservative publication- the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the National Review, or the American Spectator- would have published a ‘Regan Suck-Up Watch’ in the 1980s”.

It is also interesting to note that while the majority of reporters may class themselves as liberal, the majority of editors, senior writers and publishers hold more conservative views. This can be contributed to many things; for example many editors and senior staff are older then the average reporter, this may in tern have led to them having developed a more conservative attitude as they have increased in social and career status, and therefore have more to lose socially and financially. James Fallow believes that “concentrating on this cultural politics gap conceals a larger source of bias in the press… The supposed ‘liberalism’ of the elite press is more limited than many people believe. On economic issues- taxes, welfare, deficit control, trade policy, attitudes toward labour unions- elite reporters’ views have become far more conservative over the last generation, as their income has gone up.“ This conservatism can be noted in the fact that 80% of editorials favoured President Nixon, yet Nixon himself claimed that the media was highly biased towards liberals. 

When trying to discern the bias in the media it is interesting to note the opinions of the American public. Another poll carried out by ‘Pew’ concerning the thoughts of the public concerning the media found that 64% of the public wanted fair and un-biased media coverage, and a further 73% wanted Anti-American view points to be included in the news as well as Pro-American views.  When trying to discern whether the public believed their was any bias in the media in general, the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ suggested that in general the public does not always believe there is a bias present in the media coverage. Yet ‘The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ published a report in which 78% of adults in the United States believe there was bias in the news media.  But the ‘ASNE’ also stated that there was no consensus definition of what “bias” meant. “Almost 30% see bias as ‘not being open-minded and neutral about the facts’; 29% believe bias is ‘having an agenda and shaping the news to report it’; another 29% define bias as ‘favouritism to a particular social or political group.’ and 8% said that bias is ‘all of these”’.  ‘ASNE’ also stated that the public was also split on the issue of liberal vs. conservative, with 47% saying their local paper tends to be more politically liberal than themselves, and 34% saying it tends to be more politically conservative than they are.

Brent Cunningham, writing for The Columbian Journalism review, stated that “Over the last dozen years a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up to exploit this fissure in the journalistic psyche, with talk radio leading the way followed by Shout TV and books like Ann Coulter’s Slander and Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. Now the left has begun firing back, with Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media? And a group of wealthy Democrat’s planning a liberal radio network.He believes that one result of this is hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias. 

When looking at whether there is any bias in the media it is important to study the media networks themselves. Republicans often argue that channels like CNN, NBC and ABC are heavily biased towards Liberals. Bernard Goldberg, an ex CBS reporter, states that channels like CBS use tactics like “pointedly identifying conservatives as conservatives, but don’t bother to identify liberals as liberals.” He states that this was done in order to make the liberals appear to be objective moderates, and thus by implying that liberals are the middle of the road this further implies that conservatives are more right-wing than perhaps they are. Goldberg suggests that it is for this reason that liberals can not recognise their own bias. 

Democrats argue that FOX, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is the mouthpiece of Pro- Conservative and Pro-Republican views. FOX’s tagline is its “Fair and Balanced reporting”. A documentary released in 2004 called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on Journalism is devoted to questioning FOX’s biased reporting. The documentary featured many interviews by ex-employees of FOX and other leading persons claiming to be for fair journalism. 

Frank O’Donnell, an ex-feature writer for FOX, stated that they were “ordered to carry right-wing Republican propaganda’. Clara Frank, a highly respected writer and broadcaster and also ex- broadcaster for FOX, stated that while working for FOX she had “Recognised all the Conservative experts who were on contract to FOX, who varied from talk-show hosts to Radio- show hosts and key political commentators”. But the liberal roster had only one person whose name she recognised, and all the others were unknown names. 

Several studies conducted by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have found that FOX highly favours right-wing conservative news. When looking at one and one interviews featured on FOX’s flagship news show ‘Special Report’, there is a large inconsistency between the political affiliations of its guests. Over 25 weeks of one and one interviews republican guests out weighed Democrats by 83% to 17% respectively. When looking at the affiliation of the Democratic guests who were interviewed, 5:1 were conservative Democrats rather than Liberal Democrats. 

12/02/2020 – BOSTON, MA. – Fox News stock on Dec. 2, 2020. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

While Democrats claim that channels like FOX, and radio shock jockeys like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy make no pretence to be un- biased, Republicans often argue that it is channels like CNN, NBC and ABC that are heavily biased towards Liberals. FOX itself argues that liberals are unable to hear pro-liberal bias, because they are used to so much of it being on every other channel, and as FOX is ‘fair and unbiased’ their liberal bias is equal to their conservative bias, and thus smaller than the bias featuring on other channels. 

There are several organisations that have been set up to monitor the bias in the media. Groups like ‘Accuracy in Media’, ‘Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ all claim to ‘watchdog’ the media for examples of media bias. Each of these organisations blames different factors for the amount of bias in the media. FAIR states that “Mergers in the news industry have accelerated, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media. With U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates and supported by corporate advertisers, independent journalism is compromised”.  Both ‘AIM’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ state their mission to set the record straight on important issues that have been ‘botched’ due to bias, ‘AIM’ believes that this bias is liberal, while ‘Media Matters for America’ believes the bias to be conservative.

 As these organisations themselves are often set up by one of the political party’s, they are likely to them selves be prone to bias. Only a small number of these organisations offer a reasonable way to get rid of bias in the media. ‘FAIR’ is one of the few organisations to offer what it believes could help the media rid itself of bias. It believes that “structural reform is needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting, and promote strong, non-profit alternative sources of information” 

Another survey carried out by PIPA (The Programme on International Policy Attitudes) shows that there is large discrepancies between the views of FOX’s audience and other news networks audiences regarding key issues.  When asked questions regarding the war in Iraq, for example “Has the US found links between Iraq and Al-Queda?” 67% of FOX viewers said yes, compared to 16% of PBS or NPR viewers. 

But it is unlikely that the media will ever be able to rid itself of any bias. In today’s media environment bias is as inevitable as conflict, and as long as there are so many avenues for expression in the media through newspapers, radio, television and the internet, everyone is able to voice their opinion.  No organisation in the world is likely to ever be able to police them all, and thus an environment does not exist in which any legislation or code of practice like the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ can be enforced. And while it can be complained that bias is present in any given column or news channel, as long as there is a medium that is accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion it must be asked if it matters whether this bias is conservative or liberal, so long as both may have their say somewhere.  

Bibliography:

Books:

  • Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the news, University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media undermine Americas democracy, Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them, Penguin, 2004
  • Bernard Goldberg, Bias, Regnery Publisher Inc, 2002.

Websites:

New thoughts for the new year

As 2021 starts I’m sat in my home office, trying to support my 10 year old’s home learning whilst also ensuring contracts and commercial agreements are in place and ready for my new teams due to begin new projects tomorrow.

This time last year I was looking at a busy calendar with meetings on clients sites, sorting my travel to Newcastle and London etc. My main concern was making sure I could balance train times with school pick ups etc.

This year most of us are coming back after the festive break to home working full time, many of us in Tier 4, so not only can we not hope on a train, or go into the office, we can’t even go work in a coffee shop to get out of the house.

Last year was incredibly stressful and challenging for us all, and it’s easy to want to write off the year completely. But I achieved a lot I can be proud of, and learned a lot that I think will help me going forward.

What I have achieved:

  • I got engaged (Hooray!)
  • I got a formal ADHD diagnosis.
  • I stood up and embedded new teams within 48 hours to support the COVID-19 response, and help deliver critical services.
  • I developed the new Design function and grew the Delivery function within Difrent.
  • I helped win multiple large contracts (this was new for me last year)
  • My team delivered the Social Care Jobs Discovery and I helped move it forward to Alpha.
  • We began work with a new client and helped them prepare for their Live Assessment (happening this month, keep your fingers crossed for us).
  • We began work with another new client and helping them get their service ready for launch.
  • I supported another service approaching it’s national large scale roll out.
  • I built multiple new partnerships with other suppliers which have improved ways of working not just for us but also for our clients and partners.
  • I continued to be asked to speak at events on delivery, diversity and digital topics.

What I’ve observed/learnt:

How we recruit and hire has also changed radically over the last year; there’s still a lot of uncertainty on ‘where’ people could be working long term. Previously I’ve been focusing on hiring people in specific locations, currently we’re instead hiring people to work remotely, but no on is sure how long that will last; for some clients they’ve accepted this is the new normal, for others it’s a stop gap. This makes planning and managing recruitment campaigns much harder; and makes open, transparent, communication much more important. I’ve been working really hard in interviews to be as open as I can to candidates with the types of contracts/ projects/ teams they could be working on; and owning up to the unknowns and knowns, so that they have as much information as I can give them to help them make their own decisions.

Another thing I’ve noticed over the last year is a move to more public sector departments using Digital Capability contracts rather than pure outcome based contracts. This seems to be in response to the fast pace of change that has been needed to support the COVID-19 response; and again means a change in how we plan and manage recruitment. Lots of people, especially in the User Centric Design community, often want information about the project they will be working on, the problem they will be working to solve, the team they will be working with; which is much harder to give on these kind of contracts. Conversely many client side Delivery Managers still want to see CV’s before they will accept people into their teams; but with three projects starting at the same time for the same client, knowing exactly who is going where three weeks in advance is hard to manage. Get it wrong and you effectively become a soulless body shop, but get it right and you can offer your people an exciting range of work and your clients a flexible/ experienced team to work with them and meet their needs. This is definitely something going to be pondering on at the start of the year and ensuring I can iterate and perfect my approach as much as possible; and I’m sure I won’t be the only one!

My aims going forward:

As mentioned, one thing I kick started in the last quarter of last year was a Partnership forum across all our clients and partners, given how critical this year looks to be already, I really think that forum will prove itself vital this year; if for no other reason then allowing us to sanity check our approaches and keep things moving at pace.

More and more people seem to be struggling with their mental health, and over the last 6 months especially I’ve had a lot more people approach me to ask about my ADHD, the diagnosis process/ medication/ how I manage it etc. This has helped reaffirm to myself that being open and visible about my neurodiversity is important and the right thing to do; so I’m going to try and keep doing that, and possibly set up a specific section in my blog where I write about coping strategies and answer questions on the topic.

As we remain working from home for now, time management will remain key for me, which obviously somewhat links to the above; so making sure I give myself time away from my desk, and ideally time outside my house (weather permitting) is really important, and something I want to get better at!

Sadly we’ve had to delay our wedding until next year, but I’m still trying to approach the new year with new hope. We have vaccines. There will shortly be a new President in America. I have a holiday abroad booked (not sure I’ll be able to go, but I shall remain hopefully for now). There are reasons to be positive, and I shall be doing all I can to hold on to that hope even as the months ahead continue to challenge us all.

Speaking confidently

Last month I got asked to speak to some University of Salford’s Business students about how to present well. Every year the University apparently holds a conference for their Business students to attend and hear form industry experts on a range of topics, all with the aim of building the students understanding of how to speak confidently to an audience.

Because of COVID-19 they couldn’t hold the conference as they normally did, nor could they have external speakers come in to talk to the students, as such they were really struggling to help the students build their own confidence in presenting; and I got asked whether I could run a session for them via Teams.

I speak a fair bit nowadays, generally on Product Management, Diversity and Inclusion, Career development, Agile Delivery or User centric design, so doing a talk on talking was a new one for me, and something I wasn’t quite sure how to approach, especially virtually; as such I reached out on Twitter to gather some thoughts on who people thought ‘presented well’ and why.

Interestingly, when gathering my thoughts for the talk, I had a number of people I know reach out and ask whether the session would be available to a wider audience; it turns out lots of people really struggle with their confidence when it comes to speaking publicly; and while I got share the video of the session, I can share my notes, so I thought it was worth turning into a blog for people to read!

But I think the fundamental points are:

  1. Know what your brand is. What are you good at? What do people know you for?
  2. Know who your audience is. What are you wanting them to take away from your talk? How can you best engage them?
  3. Find your own style. Some people need to do several run throughs before they do a presentation, some people need detailed notes, some people talk better to stats or words, some to images.
  4. Keep it simple.
  5. Be yourself.

Presenting or talking in public is one of the most common things that causes people imposter syndrome or anxiety. Most people assume that others are just ‘better at it’ than they are, but the truth is most people find this hard.

I spent years avoiding speaking in public myself as I thought everyone had better things to say than me, and that there was no way I could present without messing up; but I realised the issue was that I was trying to make myself look and talk like everyone else, and because it didn’t feel authentically me, I had no confidence in myself, and my audience struggled to connect with me.

Yes, snazzy images and stats will help a presentation go well; but if you can believe in yourself, even a little, others will find it easier to believe in you.

And this is why we test with users…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A screenshot of the national careers service skills assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy out, or buying in.

Welcome To The Party Richter GIFs | Tenor

So, we’re ten days into Difrent being ‘bought’ by The Panoply group; people keeping saying ‘congratulations’, ‘how’s it working for a new boss/ company?’, ‘how do you feel about the buy out?’ So I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on my thoughts about the acquisition.

And the answer is, I’m feeling pretty good actually. Honestly, so far there hasn’t really been much difference, other than the feeling that we’re part of a larger group of likeminded people.

Difrent is still Difrent, my boss is still my boss, my teams are still my teams and my peers are still my peers. What it does mean is that I now have more peers to talk to, share lessons learned with and bounce ideas off of. It means there are potentially more opportunities for our people to get involved in, bigger communities of practice to be part of and more slack channels to share pictures of my dog on.

A picture of a black dog
The Dog.

Chatting to some of my team yesterday, and the best analogy I could think of about the Panoply group and my understanding of how it works is actually the Civil Service.

Within the Civil Service you ‘belong’ to a certain Government Department, I was at DWP for ten years, and even years after leaving there’s still a part of my brain that think of myself as a DWP person, even though I worked in 5 different departments in my tenure in the public sector. But as a Civil Servant, although I was in DWP, I had opportunities within and across the Civil Service that others outside the Civil Service didn’t. If you were at threat of redundancy in the CS, you got first dibs on other job opportunities, not just in your in department but across the Civil Service and secondments and training opportunities across government departments were possible to further your career development etc.

Within the Group we have the opportunity for our people to go on loan to another company in the group, to further their career development, or because the project they have been working on has ended and we don’t have something else for them to immediately move onto, but someone else in the group does. This is a massive bonus for our people. It gives them so many more opportunities, and takes aware some of the fear you get in agencies about ‘what happens when this contact ends?’ We’re already sorting out access to the communities of practice within the group and discussing opportunities for our people to do secondments in the future/ and vice versa for others in the group to come work with us.

These options to be part of something bigger, to open up and share more opportunities for our people, to work together with likeminded folks was one of the reasons I voted for joining the group when I was asked my opinion. And it certainly doesn’t hurt on a selfish level that so many people I know, have worked with before and respect are also in the group; Within the first 10 days I’ve already had fantastic welcome meetings with so many folks across the whole of the group.

My first ‘catch up/welcome to the party’ call with Ben Holliday was like we were picking up where we were last time we worked together, and Carolyn Manuel-Barkin and I have already put the world to rights and discussed all things Health related; all definitely good signs for me. And being part of the group is already paying off for us, with some joint opportunities with Not Binary and the fantastic folks there already looking very positive (honestly David Carboni has not only the most relaxing voice, but is also really interesting and if you get the chance to hear him talk tech and good team dynamics you should definitely take it). [EDIT: since posting this blog this morning, we have now won our first piece of work with Not Binary!]

Difrent is all about delivering outcomes that matter about adding value and making a difference; and we’ve always been vocal about working better in partnership, both with or clients and other suppliers. Panoply will help us do that.

Do Civil Servants dream of woolly sheep?

The frustration of job descriptions and their lack of clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much is enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woolly enough for you?

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

Taking time to breathe

While I’m not one to complain about being busy; and given the effect the current pandemic has had on the economy I’m absolutely not going to complain about being busy and having a job.

However, after 6 months of working from home full time, it was pointed out to me politely last week by my other half; how much more work I have been doing recently (I haven’t had time to blog recently!) and that perhaps I needed to take a break.

Doing late nights and the occasional weekend of work is not new for me, that very much goes with the job once you reach senior leadership levels. But over the last few months I’ve been doing that far more often.

My normal way to relax and switch off, LARPing (google it) hasn’t existed this year because of COVID, my family holiday in May was cancelled, and with my partner getting made unexpectedly redundant in June because of the Pandemic, taking time off I didn’t need felt frivolous. So I haven’t taken any time off from work for months.

I haven’t minded, because work takes my mind off the current world events somewhat, and it’s been good to have something to focus on. But with it now being the summer holidays; the fact I’ve not been able to take even a few hours off to go to the beach or a museum (which are still closed because of local lockdowns!) with my family has really hit me; and made me feel somewhat of a failure on the parenting front, and personally just very stressed and like I was trying to do everything.

So, this weekend my partner dragged me out camping, just to get me out of the house and away from my laptop for a few hours; and I honestly hadn’t realised how much I needed to not be looking at a screen for a few hours.

The spot we went to had barely any signal; we deliberately had no way to charge our various devices; and there was nothing around us but the views.

A tent overlooking the skyline.

It was bliss.

So, while I normally blog about work; I thought I might not be the only one who could do with a reminder right now that it’s important to take a breath sometimes.

It’s ok to need a break. Yes your work is important, but it doesn’t all sit solely with you; and you need to be able to share that burden and look after yourself too.

So please, even for a few minutes, move away from the computer, and take a deep breath. There is a world out there away from your screen. Make time to go find it.

Sunset over the hills

Notes from some Digital Service Standard Assessors on the Beta Assessment

The Beta Assessment is probably the one I get the most questions about; Primarily, “when do we actually go for our Beta Assessment and what does it involve?” 

Firstly what is an Assessment? Why do we assess products and services?

If you’ve never been to a Digital Service Standard Assessment it can be daunting; so I thought it might be useful to pull together some notes from a group of assessors, to show what we are looking for when we assess a service. 

Claire Harrison (Chief Architect at Homes England and leading Tech Assessor) and Gavin Elliot (Head of Design at DWP and a leading Design Assessor, you can find his blog here) helped me pull together some thoughts about what a good assessment looks like, and what we are specifically looking for when it comes to a Beta Assessment. 

I always describe a good assessment as the team telling the assessment panel a story. So, what we want to hear is:

  • What was the problem you were trying to solve?
  • Who are you solving this problem for? (who are your users?)
  • Why do you think this is a problem that needs solving? (What research have you done? Tell us about the users journey)
  • How did you decide to solve it and what options did you consider? (What analysis have you done?) 
  • How did you prove the option you chose was the right one? (How did you test this?)

One of the great things about the Service Manual is that it explains what each delivery phase should look like, and what the assessment team are considering at each assessment.

So what are we looking for at a Beta Assessment?

By the time it comes to your Beta Assessment, you should have been running your service for a little while now with a restricted number of users in a Private Beta. You should have real data you’ve gathered from real users who were invited to use your service, and your service should have iterated several times by now given all the things you have learnt. 

Before you are ready to move into Public Beta and roll your service out Nationally there are several things we want to check during an assessment. 

You need to prove you have considered the whole service for your users and have provided a joined up experience across all channels.

  • We don’t want to just hear about the ‘digital’ experience; we want to understand how you have/will provide a consistent and joined up experience across all channels.
  • Are there any paper or telephony elements to your service? How have you ensured that those users have received a consistent experience?
  • What changes have you made to the back end processes and how has this changed the user experience for any staff using the service?
  • Were there any policy or legislative constraints you had to deal with to ensure a joined up experience?
  • Has the scope of your MVP changed at all so far in Beta given the feedback you have received from users? 
  • Are there any changes you plan to implement in Public Beta?

As a Lead Assessor this is where I always find that teams who have suffered with empowerment or organisational silos may struggle.

If the team are only empowered to look at the Digital service, and have struggled to make any changes to the paper/ telephony or face to face channels due to siloed working in their Department between Digital and Ops (as an example) the Digital product will offer a very different experience to the rest of the service. 

As part of that discussion we will also want to understand how you have supported users who need help getting online; and what assisted digital support you are providing.

At previous assessments you should have had a plan for the support you intended to provide, you should now be able to talk though how you are putting that into action. This could be telephony support or a web chat function; but we want to ensure the service being offered is/will be consistent to the wider service experience, and meeting your users needs. We also want to understand how it’s being funded and how you plan to publish your accessibility info on your service. 

We also expect by this point that you have run an accessibility audit and have carried out regular accessibility testing. It’s worth noting, if you don’t have anyone in house who is trained in running Accessibility audits (We’re lucky in Difrent as we have a DAC assessor in house), then you will need to have factored in the time it takes to get an audit booked in and run well before you think about your Beta Assessment).

Similarly, by the time you go for your Beta Assessment we would generally expect a Welsh language version of your service available; again, this needs to be planned well in advance as this can take time to get, and is not (or shouldn’t be) a last minute job! Something in my experience a lot of teams forget to prioritise and plan for.

And finally assuming you are planning to put your service on GOV.UK, you’ll need to have agreed the following things with the GOV.UK team at GDS before going into public beta:

Again, while it shouldn’t take long to get these things sorted with the GOV.UK team, they can sometimes have backlogs and as such it’s worth making sure you’ve planned in enough time to get this sorted. 

The other things we will want to hear about are how you’ve ensured your service is scalable and secure. How have you dealt with any technical constraints? 

The architecture and technology – Claire

From an architecture perspective, at the Beta phases I’m still interested in the design of the service but I also have a focus on it’s implementation, and the provisions in place to support sustainability of the service. My mantra is ‘end-to-end, top-to-bottom service architecture’!

 An obvious consideration in both the design and deployment of a service is that of security – how the solution conforms to industry, Government and legal standards, and how security is baked into a good technical design. With data, I want to understand the characteristics and lifecycle of data, are data identifiable, how is it collected, where is it stored, hosted, who has access to it, is it encrypted, if so when, where and how? I find it encouraging that in recent years there has been a shift in thinking not only about how to prevent security breaches but also how to recover from them.

Security is sometimes cited as a reason not to code in the open but in actual fact this is hardly ever the case. As services are assessed on this there needs to be a very good reason why code can’t be open. After all a key principle of GDS is reuse – in both directions – for example making use of common government platforms, and also publishing code for it to be used by others.

Government services such as Pay and Notify can help with some of a Technologist’s decisions and should be used as the default, as should open standards and open source technologies. When  this isn’t the case I’m really interested in the selection and evaluation of the tools, systems, products and technologies that form part of the service design. This might include integration and interoperability, constraints in the technology space, vendor lock-in, route to procurement, total cost of ownership, alignment with internal and external skills etc etc.

Some useful advice would be to think about the technology choices as a collective – rather than piecemeal, as and when a particular tool or technology is needed. Yesterday I gave a peer review of a solution under development where one tool had been deployed but in isolation, and not as part of an evaluation of the full technology stack. This meant that there were integration problems as new technologies were added to the stack. 

The way that a service evolves is really important too along with the measures in place to support its growth. Cloud based solutions help take care of some of the more traditional scalability and capacity issues and I’m interested in understanding the designs around these, as well as any other mitigations in place to help assure availability of a service. As part of the Beta assessment, the team will need to show the plan to deal with the event of the service being taken temporarily offline – detail such as strategies for dealing with incidents that impact availability, and the strategy to recover from downtime and how these have been tested.

Although a GDS Beta assessment focuses on a specific service, it goes without saying that a good Technologist will be mindful of how the service they’ve architected impacts the enterprise architecture and vice-versa. For example if a new service built with microservices and also introduces an increased volume and velocity of data, does the network need to be strengthened to meet the increase in communications traversing the network?

Legacy technology (as well as legacy ‘Commercials’ and ways of working) is always on my mind. Obviously during an assessment a team can show how they address legacy in the scope of that particular service, be it some form of integration with legacy or applying the strangler pattern, but organisations really need to put the effort into dealing with legacy as much as they focus on new digital services. Furthermore they need to think about how to avoid creating ‘legacy systems of the future’ by ensuring sustainability of their service – be it from a technical, financial and resource perspective. I appreciate this isn’t always easy! However I do believe that GDS should and will put much more scrutiny on organisations’ plans to address legacy issues.

One final point from me is that teams should embrace an assessment. Clearly the focus is on passing an assessment but regardless of the outcome there’s lots of value in gaining that feedback. It’s far better to get constructive feedback during the assessment stages rather than having to deal with disappointed stakeholders further down the line, and probably having to spend more time and money to strengthen or redesign the technical architecture.

How do you decide when to go for your Beta Assessment?

Many services (for both good and bad reasons) have struggled with the MVP concept; and as such the journey to get their MVP rolled out nationally has taken a long time, and contained more features and functionality then teams might have initially imagined.  

This can make it very hard to decide when you should go for an Assessment to move from Private to Public Beta. If your service is going to be rolled out to millions of people; or has a large number of user groups with very different needs; it can be hard to decide what functionality is needed in Private Beta vs. Public Beta or what can be saved until Live and rolled out as additional functionality. 

The other things to consider is, what does your rollout plan actually look like? Are you able to go national with the service once you’ve tested with a few hundred people from each user group? Or, as is more common with large services like NHS Jobs, where you are replacing an older service, does the service need to be rolled out in a very set way? If so, you might need to keep inviting users in until full rollout is almost complete; making it hard to judge when the right time for your Beta assessment is. 

There is no right or wrong answer here, the main thing to consider is that you will need to understand all of the above before you can roll your service out nationally, and be able to tell that story to the panel successfully. 

This is because theoretically most of the heavy lifting is done in Private Beta, and once you have rolled out your service into Public Beta, the main things left to test are whether your service scaled and worked as you anticipated. Admittedly this (combined with a confusion about the scope of an MVP) is why most Services never actually bother with their Live Assessment. For most Services, once you’re in Public Beta the hard work has been done; there’s nothing more to do, so why bother with a Live Assessment? But that’s an entirely different blog! 

Reviewing the service together.