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Tag: Delivery

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.

 

So, what is a Service Owner?

Before I discuss what (in my view) a Service Owner is, a brief history lesson into the role might be useful.

The role of the ‘Service Manager‘ was seen as critically important to the success of a product, and they were defined as a G6 (Manager) who had responsibility for the end to end service AND the person who led the team through their Service Standard assessments.

Now let’s think about this a bit; Back when the GDS Service Standard and the Service Manual first came into creation, they were specifically created for/with GOV.UK in mind. As such, this definition of the role makes some sense. GOV.UK was (relatively) small and simple; and one person could ‘own’ the end to end service.

The problem came about when the Service Standards were rolled our wider than in GDS itself. DWP is a good example of where this role didn’t work.

The Service Manual describes a service as the holistic experience for a user; so it’s not just a Digital Product, it’s the telephony Service that sits alongside it, the back end systems that support it, the Operational processes that staff use to deliver the service daily, along with the budget that pays for it all. Universal Credit is a service, State Pension is a service; and both of these services are, to put it bluntly, HUGE.

Neil Couling is a lovely bloke, who works really hard, and has the unenviable task of having overarching responsibility for Universal Credit. He’s also, a Director General. While he knows A LOT about the service, it is very unlikely that he would know the full history of every design iteration and user research session the Service went through, or be able to talk in detail about the tech stack and it’s resilience etc; and even if he did, he certainly would be very unlikely to have the 4 hours spare to sit in the various GDS assessments UC went through.

This led to us (in DWP) phasing out the role; and splitting the responsibilities into two, the (newly created role of ) Product Lead and the Service Owner. The Product Lead did most of the work of the Service Manager (in terms of GDS assessments etc), but they didn’t have the responsibility of the end to end service; this sat with the Service Owner. The Service Owner was generally a Director General (and also the SRO), who we clarified the responsibilities of when it came to Digital Services.

A few years ago, Ross (the then Head of Product and Service Management at GDS) and I, along with a few others, had a lot of conversations about the role of the Service Manager; and why in departments like DWP, the role did not work, and what we were doing instead.

At the time there was the agreement in many of the Departments outside of GDS that the Service Manager role wasn’t working how it had been intended, and was instead causing confusion and in some cases, creating additional unnecessary hierarchy. The main problem was, is it was in DWP, the breadth of the role was too big for anyone below SCS, which mean instead we were ending up with Service Managers who were only responsible for the digital elements of the service (and often reported to a Digital Director), with all non digital elements of the service sitting under a Director outside of Digital, which was creating more division and confusion.

As such, the Service Manual and the newly created DDaT framework were changed to incorporate the role of the Service Owner instead of the Service Manager; with the suggestion this role should be an SCS level role. However, because the SCS was outside of the DDaT framework, the amount the role could be defined/ specified was rather limited, and instead became more of a suggestion rather than a clearly defined requirement.

The latest version of the DDaT framework has interestingly removed the suggestions that the role should be an SCS role, and any reference of the cross over with the responsibilities of SRO, and now makes the role sound much more ‘middle management’ again, although it does still specify ownership of the end to end service.

Ok, so what should a Service Owner be?

When we talked about the role a few years ago, the intention was very much to define how the traditional role of the SRO joined up closer to the agile/digital/user centred design world; in order to create holistic joined up services.

Below is (at least my understanding of) what we intended the role to be:

  • They should have end to end responsibility for the holistic service.
  • They should understand and have overall responsibility for the scope of all products within the service.
  • They should have responsibility for agreeing the overall metrics for their service and ensuring they are met.
  • They should have responsibility for the overall budget for their service (and the products within it).
  • They should understand the high level needs of their users, and what teams are doing to meet their needs.
  • They should have an understanding (and have agreed) the high level priorities within the service. ((Which Product needs to be delivered first? Which has the most urgent resource needs etc.))
  • They should be working with the Product/Delivery/Design leads within their Products as much as the Operational leads etc. to empower them to make decisions, and understanding the decisions that have been made.
  • They should be encouraging and supporting cross functional working to ensure all elements of a service work together holistically.
  • They should be fully aware of any political/strategy decisions or issues that may impact their users and the service, and be working with their teams to ensure those are understand to minimise risks.
  • They should understand how Agile/Waterfall and any other change methodologies work to deliver change. And how to best support their teams no matter which methodology is being used.

In this way the role of the Service Owner would add clear value to the Product teams, without adding in unnecessary hierarchy. They would support and enable the development of a holistic service, bringing together all the functions a service would need to be able to deliver and meet user needs.

Whether they are an SCS person or not is irrelevant, the important thing is that they have the knowledge and ability to make decisions that affect the whole service, that they have overall responsibility for ensuring users needs are met, that they can ensure that all the products within the service work together, and that their teams are empowered, to deliver the right outcomes.

The art of Transferring Knowledge

One of the most common questions that comes up in Bid opportunities is usually some variant of “how do you transfer your knowledge to us before you leave?”

This is completely valid question, and really important to both ask, and to understand, but also hard to answer well in 100 words without risking looking like knowledge transfer is only a nice to have!

Having been on the other side of the commercial table, making sure you get a supplier who will want to work with you and up-skill your own people so you are not reliant on the supplier forever is generally vital to both making sure the project is successful, and cost effective.

Developers comparing code together

I’ve written Invitations to Tender that ask for examples of how suppliers would go about transferring knowledge and up-skilling my teams. I’ve sat through bid tender presentations as the buyer and listened to suppliers try to persuade me that they know best, and that they have the expertise my organisation needs to deliver a project or programme.

I was generally able to spot very quickly those organisations that took this more seriously than others, those that would work collaboratively with us vs. those more likely to just come in and do a sales job and leave us none the wiser reliant on their services.

But, if I’m honest, I never really judged that feel on the words they said, but more through the words they didn’t say, and more importantly HOW they said or didn’t say it.

Everyone can say the words ‘show and tell’, but how are you doing them? How are you getting stakeholders engaged? How are you making sure you have the right people turning up to engage with the project?

A person standing in front of a whiteboard moving a post it note in a team meeting

You can say you use Trello, JIRA, or Confluence etc. to create shared digital spaces to run your backlogs or share information; but how do you make sure the right people have access to them and know how to use them? How do you agree what information is going on there and when? How do you determine what information the team can see vs. your stakeholders, and make sure the information is understandable to everyone who needs it?

As long as suppliers are putting in key buzzwords, that nuance is hard to judge within 100 words, but so key to understand. And it’s not only important for the buying organisation to understand how the supplier would transfer knowledge, but it’s actually really important for the supplier to understand how receptive an organisation is as well.

I always assumed ‘knowledge transfer’ was something that was easy for suppliers to do as long as they put in some effort.

Now I sit on the other side of the table, its something i’ve realised there is a real art too. Not just writing a bid response that gets the message across, but doing it once you hit the ground. I’d always assumed that, as long as the team/ buying organisation was keen and engaged, knowledge transfer would be easy to do.

Two people talking in front of a white board that shows flow charts and prototypes.

Eight months later I’ve realised it’s not as easy as it looks, as a supplier there’s a very fine line to walk between supporting an organisation, and looking patronising. Just as every organisation is somewhere different on their agile/digital journey, so is every individual.

A one size fits all approach to transferring knowledge will never work. You can’t assume because an organisation is new to agile or digital, every individual within the organisation is. Some organisations/people want more in the way of ‘coaching and mentoring’ others want less. Some organisations/people will say they are open to changing their ways of working, but will resist anything new; others are champing off your hand for every new tool or technique. Some want walking through everything you are doing so they can learn from it, others want you to just get on and deliver and tell them at the end how you did it.

And as suppliers, there is often as much we have to learn from the organisation as there is to ‘teach’, while we might be the experts in agile or digital or delivering transformation; we need to learn about and understand how their organisation works and why.

Two people having a conversation

There is no ‘one answer’ on how to do knowledge transfer, and it’s not a one way street. It’s how you approach the question that is important. Are you open to working with an organisation (either as the buyer or the supplier) to understand how you can work together and learn from each other? As long as you are open to having those conversations and learning from each other, then the knowledge transfer will happen.

From Colocation to Remote First

Changing how we work, to ensure we can still deliver.

One of the big tenants of agile working has always been about the importance of colocation, and there are a million blogs out there on why colocation makes a big difference.

The first value of the Agile Manifesto states: Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools; and one of the 12 principles is to Enable face-to-face interactions; this is because it is generally understood that colocation allows a better ‘osmosis’ of knowledge between the team, allowing better and faster sharing of information and discussions.

A busy desk full of laptops, phones, drinks and pens etc.

But colocation has always had its downsides, the main ones being that constant colocation doesn’t’ allow people time to process information and work without interruption/ distraction. There’s also a large time and cost implication; with team members and especially Subject Matter Experts often having to travel a lot to remain engaged. The most common excuse I have heard from Senior Leaders in organisations on why they can’t attend user research sessions or show and tells etc. is the time and effort it takes not only to attend the event, but to travel to it as well.

As we get better at recognising that not everyone works in the same way; recognising the limits of colocation is also important.

For the last few years, most of the teams I’ve worked on or managed have used a mix of colocation and remote working; usually a minimum of 3 days (ideally 4) in the office working together and only one or two days working from home.

This allows the colocated days to be utilised best for design workshops, user research, sprint ceremonies etc. Days where we can make the most out of being face to face.

That means the ‘remote working’ days could be used to reflect, to review notes, ‘do work’. They were also the days that could be best used for meetings etc.

A laptop on a table at home, with a phone and notebook next to it
Working from home.

Obviously COVID-19 threw all of those ways of working on their head; with everything that could be done remotely, moving to be fully remote. Within Difrent in that time we have on-boarded new staff, stood up brand new teams, completed Discoveries, delivered critical services to help with the nations response to the pandemic etc. Now as we consider how we move to a world post pandemic is the time to pause and consider whether we need to (or even want to) return to old ways of working.

A conversation at the virtual #OneTeamGov breakfast meet last week highlighted that Lockdown has meant we have all had to find more inclusive ways of working. It used to be the case that people ‘in the office’ would often make most of the decisions, and then replay those decisions to us few remote workers. Nowadays, with no one in the office, it forces us all to think about who needs to be involved in conversations and decisions. It might take a bit more planning, but it allows us to be more considerate of people’s time and involvement.

An image of a zoom screen with lots of people in the meeting waving
#OneTeamGov Breakfast meet attendees

Within Difrent we have recognised that a return back to full colocation is actually not necessary in order for us to keep delivering services that matter. Working remotely has not impacted our ability to deliver at all. Rather than having remote working be the exception, we are now planning how we can make that the norm.

Thinking about how we put people before processes; we are ensuring we use the days where we will all get together face to face to their best advantage, making sure we get value from peoples time and the effort they have put in to travel and that we are adding value to them (and the project) in return.

How to change a culture

When delivering digital or business transformation, one of the things that often gets overlooked is the cultural changes that are needed to embed the transformation succesfully.

There can be many reasons why this happens, either because it’s not been considered, because it’s not been considered a priority, or simply because the people leading the transformation work don’t know how to do this.

In my experience the culture of an organisation can be the thing that makes or breaks a successful transformation programme or change initiative; if the culture doesn’t match or support the changes you are trying to make, then it’s unlikely that those changes will stick.

Below are some common causes of failure in my experience:

  • The scope of transformation programmes have been considered and set in silos without considering how they fit within the wider strategy.
  • Decisions have been made at ‘the top’ and time hasn’t been spent getting staff engagement, feelings and feedback to ensure they understand why changes are being made.
  • Decisions have been made to change processes without validating why the existing processes exist or how the changes will impact people or processes.
  • Changes have been introduced without ensuring the organisation has the capability or capacity to cope.
  • Lack of empowerment to the transformation teams to make decisions.
  • When introducing agile or digital ways of working, corresponding changes to finance/ governance/ commercials haven’t been considered; increasing siloed working and inconsistencies.

Walk the talk:

Within Difrent we use tools like the Rich Picture and Wardley mapping to help Senior Leaders to understand their strategic priorities and clearly define the vision and strategy in a transparent and visual way. These help them be able to agree the strategy and be able to ‘sell it’ to the wider organisation and teams in order to get engagement and understanding from everyone.

The Rich picture Difrent developed for the NHSBSA
The NHSBSA rich picture

In my experience this works especially well when the assumptions made by the SLT in the strategy and vision are tested with staff and teams before final version are agreed; helping people understand why changes are being made and how they and their role fit into the picture.

This is especially important when it comes to the next step, which is developing things like your transformation roadmap and target operating model. These things can not be developed in isolation if you want your transformation to succeed.

People always have different views when it comes to priorities, and ways to solve problems. It is vitally important to engage people when setting priorities for work, so they understand why changes to a data warehouse or telephony service are being prioritised before the new email service or website they feel they have been waiting months for. Feedback is key to getting buy in.

A whiteboard with the word 'feedback' written in the middle with written notes around it
‘Feedback’

Equally assumptions are often made at the top level about something being a priority based on process issues etc. Without understanding why those processes existed in the first place, which can miss the complexity or impact of any potential changes. This then means that after changes have been delivered, people find the transformation hasn’t delivered what they needed, and workarounds and old ways of working return.

One thing I hear often within organisations is they want ‘an open and transparent culture’ but they don’t embody those principles when setting strategic or transformation priorities; as such people struggle to buy into the new culture as they don’t understand or agree with how decisions have been made.

Think wider:

While people are the most important thing when thinking about transformation and business change, and changing a culture; they are not the only thing we have to consider. The next step is processes.

Whatever has inspired an organisation to transform, transformation can not be delivered within a silo; it is important to consider what changes may need to be made to things like finances; commercials and governance.

While these aren’t always obvious things to consider when delivered digital transformation as an example, they are vitally important in ensuring its success. One thing many organisations have found when changing their culture and introducing things like agile ways of working, is that traditional governance and funding processes don’t easily support empowered teams or iterative working.

As such, it’s vitally important if you want transformation to succeed to not get trapped in siloed thinking, but instead take a holistic service approach to change; ensuring you understand the end to end implications to the changes you are looking to make.

Taking a leap:

Equally, when making changes to governance or culture, one thing I have found in my experience is that senior leaders; while they want to empower teams and bring in new ways of working, they then struggle with how to ‘trust’ teams. Often as Senior Responsible Owners etc. they don’t want to be seen to be wasting money. As such they can enter a loop of needing changes ‘proving’ before they can fully embrace them, but by not being able to fully embrace the changes they aren’t demonstrating the culture they want and teams then struggle themselves to embrace the changes, meaning the real value of the transformation is never realised.

A woman standing in front of a project wall
A project board full of post it notes

There is no easy answer to this, sometimes you just have to take that leap and trust your teams. If you have invested in building capability (be that through training or recruitment of external experts) then you have to trust them to know what they are doing. Not easy when talking about multi-million pound delivery programmes, but this is where having an iterative approach really can help. By introducing small changes to begin with, this can help build the ‘proof’ needed to be able to invest in bigger changes.

There is no one ‘thing’

When delivering transformation, and especially when trying to change culture, there is no quick answer, or no one single thing you can do to guarantee success. But by considering the changes you will be making holistically, getting input and feedback from staff and stakeholders, engaging them in the process and challenging yourselves to demonstrate the cultural changes you want to see, it is much more likely the transformation you are trying to deliver will succeed.

The word 'change'
Change.

Delivering in a crisis

One of the key personal aims I had when I joined Difrent, just over six months ago, was to work somewhere that would let me deliver stuff that matters. Because I am passionate about people, and about Delivery;

After 15 years, right in the thick of some pioneering public sector work, combining high profile product delivery with developing digital capability working for organisations like the Government Digital Services (GDS), Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), The Care Quality Commission (CQC), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD); I was chaffing at the speed (or lack thereof) of delivery in the Public sector.

Parcel delivery

I hoped going agency side would remove some of that red tape, and let me get on and actually deliver; my aim when I started was to get a project delivered (to public beta at the very least) within my first year. Might seem like a simple ask, but in the 10 years I spent working in Digital, I’d only seen half a dozen services get into Live.

This is not because the projects failed, they are all still out there being used by people; but because once projects got into Beta, and real people could start using them, the impetus to go-live got lost somewhat.

Six months into the job and things looked to be on track, with one service in Private beta, another we are working on in Public Beta; plus a few Discoveries etc. underway; things were definitely moving quickly and I my decision to move agency side felt justified. Delivery was happening.

And then Covid-19 hit.

Gov.uk COVID-19 website
A tablet displaying the Gov.uk COVID-19 guidance

With COVID-19, the old normal, and ways of working have had to change rapidly. If for no other reason than we couldn’t all be co-located anymore. We all had to turn too fully remote working quickly, not just as a company but as an industry.

Thankfully within Difrent we’ve always had the ability to work remotely, so things like laptops and collaborative software were already in place internally; but the move to being fully remote has still been a big challenge. Things like setting up regular online collaboration and communication sessions throughout our week, our twice-daily coffee catchups and weekly Difrent Talks are something created for people to drop in on with no pressure attached and has helped people stay connected.

The main challenge has been how we work with out clients to ensure we are still delivering. Reviewing our ways of working to ensure we are still working inclusively; or aren’t accidentally excluding someone from a conversation when everyone is working from their own home. Maintaining velocity and ensuring everyone is engaged and able to contribute.

This is trickier to navigate when you’re all working virtually, and needs a bit more planning and forethought, but it’s not impossible. One of the positives (for me at least) about the current crisis is how well people have come together to get things delivered.

Some of the work that we have been involved in, which would generally have taken months to develop; has been done in weeks. User research, analysis and development happening in a fraction of the time it took before.

Graffiti saying ‘Made in Crisis’

So how are we now able to move at such a fast pace? Are standards being dropped or ignored? Are corners being cut? Or have we iterated and adapted our approach?

Once this is all over I think those will be the questions a lot pf people are asking; but my observation is that, if nothing else, this current crisis has made us really embrace what agility means.

We seem to have the right people ‘in the room’ signing off decisions when they are needed; with proper multidisciplinary teams, made up of people from both digital but also policy and operations etc, that are empowered to get on and do things. Research is still happening; but possibly at a much smaller scale, as and when it is needed; We’re truly embracing the Minimum Viable Product, getting things out there that aren’t perfect, but that real people can use; testing and improving the service as we go.

Once this is all over I certainly don’t want to have to continue the trend of on-boarding and embedding teams with 24 hours notice; and while getting things live in under 2 weeks is an amazing accomplishment; to achieve it comes at a high price – Not just in terms of resources but in terms of people, because that is where burnout will occur for all involved. But I believe a happy medium can be found.

My hope, once this is all over, is that we can find the time to consider what we in digital have learnt, and focus on what elements we can iterate and take forward to help us keep delivering faster and better, but in the right way, with less delays; so we can get services out there for people to use; because really, that is what we are all here to do.

Stay home, stay safe, save lives
Sign saying ‘stay home, stay safe, save lives’



How do we determine value?

And how do we make sure we are delivering it?

In a previous blog I discussed the importance of understanding the value you are trying to add, and how you measure cost vs vale. How we measure value and ensure we are delivering a valuable return on investment is one of the ‘big’ questions at the moment, that never seems to go away.

Scott Colfer has equally blogged before on the complexity of measuring value when there is no profit to measure against. When working in the public sector it’s not an easy problem to solve. There is a lot of conversations about making sure we don’t waste public money, but how do we actually make sure public money is being spent in a valuable way?

A jar of coins
A jar of coins being spilt

The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” But what is valuable?

At a kick off session this week, for a new project we’re shortly going to begin, a client said one of their hopes was that all code deployed would work first time; and someone else stated that they ‘didn’t want rework’. When we broke these thoughts down to understand where these fears were coming from, it was the need to add value and not waste money; which itself was coming from previous issues caused by a long time to deploy, and the cost to make changes.

There was equally the fear that by swapping out suppliers mid project we (as the new supplier) would want to redesign and rework everything to make it our own; which would slow down delivery and drive up cost even more.

There is obviously no value for anyone in doing that. The value comes by having a short feedback loop, co-designing and constantly testing, learning and iterating, working together in short weekly or fortnightly sprints, to get things delivered. Making sure there is little time as possible between designing something, to getting it tested and used by real users; ensuring it meets their needs as quickly as possible.

Through examining what has been delivered already against the user needs and the outcomes the organisation is looking to achieve; by identifying gaps and pain-points we reduce waste; and by prioritising the areas where improvements can be made we ensure that reworking only happens when there is actual value in doing so.

A parcel being delivered
Parcel delivery

At a talk this week I was asked how we prioritise the work that needs doing and ensure that we do deliver. The important thing is to deliver something, but ideally not just any old thing, we want to ideally be delivering the right thing. Sometimes we won’t know what that is, and it’s only by doing something that we can establish whether that was the right thing or not. But that’s why short feedback loops are important. Checking back regularly, iterating and testing frequently, allows you too recognise when there is value in carrying on vs. value in stoping and doing something different.

When I’m trying to decide where the value is, and where is the best place to start, I consider things like:

  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. Why are we doing it now?
  3. What happens if we don’t do this now?
  4. Who will this affect?
  5. How many people will it impact?
  6. How long could this take?
  7. Any indicative costs?
  8. Any key milestones/ deadlines?
  9. Any critical dependancies that could affect our ability to deliver?
  10. Will this help us deliver our strategy? Or is it a tactical fix?

Once we have started work, it’s important to agree measure of success (be they financial, reducing time, staffing numbers; or things like improved uptake or a better customer experience) and keep measuring what is being delivered against those targets.

At Difrent a key part of the value we add is about the people, not just the technology or processes; there is value in us working in the open, by being transparent; running lunch and learn sessions or talks; blogging or speaking at events etc. we can add wider value outside of a specific project or service.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team
People listening to someone speaking/ sharing

When we are considering what adds value, the other thing it’s important to consider is the culture we are delivering in. Are there communities of practice in place already, any design patterns we should be adhering too? There is value in building in consistency, as this helps us ensure we are delivering quality.

There are many different ways to determine what adds value, and many different kinds of value, but the importance is by focusing on making positive improvements, and by constantly learning from mistakes and ensuring they don’t get repeated so no time is wasted and real value can be delivered.

Thoughts from the other side

No, don’t worry, I’ve not passed on and started speaking from beyond the grave; but given I’m now 3 months into my role at Difrent I thought it might be worth reflecting on how I’ve found things on the other side of the commercial table so to speak.

In the first 3 months I’ve worked with our teams, been in multiple contract meetings, client meetings, negotiations, done my first ever bid presentation and helped win my first piece of work for the organisation.

@Rachel0404 and I looking at a rich pic for NHS Jobs

In the 15 years I spent in the public sector I have done my fair share of time working alongside procurement, drafting Pre-Qualification Questionnaires and Invitation to Tenders as part of a commercial team, or assessing bid responses and pitch’s as a programme lead. But if I’m honest in all that time I never considered the work that suppliers put into their Tender responses; the effort different commercial frameworks might require nor how companies pick and choose which work to bid for.

It’s been fascinating within the Difrent SLT talking about the kind of work we want to be bidding for, assessing what work aligned with our #TechForGood goals and values. It’s also really been reassuring to be involved in conversations where we have decided not to bid on work that doesn’t align with the company values.

‘Do something great’

One of the things I’ve quickly had to get my head around is the complexities of the Digital Marketplace and the ins and outs of the different commercial frameworks, be that G-Cloud, DoS or PSR. If I’m honest I’d never really got my head around the pros and cons of the different frameworks before taking this role, it was always one of those things I simply had to approve before.

While I have previously managed projects and programmes, and managed the suppliers working with us to deliver the work; it was equally never a thing I massively had to dwell on, beyond the question of ‘are they delivering what we need or not?’

In the last three months I’ve really gotten to understand the amount of work that has to be put in to make sure they answer to that question is ‘yes’.

Graphiti saying ‘yes’!

One of the trickiest aspects to that relationship is making sure as a partner we are providing the right amount of rigour, challenge and reassurance so that our clients feel assured that we are doing the right things in the right way to deliver the outcomes they are looking for. Balancing the need to challenge and ask why to ensure the work we are doing is right, with the need to keep the client happy, engaged and onside. Not the easiest thing to do, but definitely vitally important in order to ensure value is actually delivered.

As a supplier I now realise how tricky it is to walk the tightrope of helping the client deliver the right thing, when this might mean a scope change that means more time or people (ie. more money) vs. wanting to ensure you deliver on time and within budget.

As a Product Person, I have always spoken about the importance of prioritisation and focusing on the problem the organisation was trying to solve. I used to find it incredibly frustration trying to get suppliers to understand and deliver what we needed, not just doing the work, but helping us do the work right. I was involved in multiple conversations across government about good suppliers vs. bad. Those that actually challenged us to do the right thing, and those that just delivered ‘what it said on the tin’ without helping check the label on the tin was right.

Now working on the other side of the table, I am doubly as determined to make sure we are delivering both the challenge and the outcomes our clients are looking for, to help deliver truly meaningful products and services and add real value to our clients and their users.

A mug bearing the message ‘What good shall I do this day?’

We’re all a little weird down here

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

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

A sign reading ‘Change’

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

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

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

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

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

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

A neon sign reading ‘this must be the place’

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

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

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

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

A group of white men sat round talking

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

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

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

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

One month in…

Last month I started with Difrent, my first job in the Private sector after 15 years in the public sector, which felt very much like a change of scenery and a new start, whilst also being a familiar continuation of what I know.

Road with graffiti saying ‘start here’

So at the end of my first month I thought it would be worth reflecting on what I’ve learnt and done so far.

First things first, still lots of meetings! In the last month I’ve been in lots of conversations and meetings about our contracts (which is one of the reasons I took this job, to get that experience, so I’m not complaining!) but what I hadn’t realised, from the public sector client side point of view, is the amount of effort and time that is put into contract bids etc. It’s been fascinating to see and experience the hustle and bustle of getting a bid together, ensuring you have the team you’ll need, getting your evidence together, to then just wait and hear whether you have got the work. It’s like constantly doing job applications!

Secondly, the people, lots of the folks at Difrent I had come across (generally on Twitter) before, so I knew of them but hadn’t had the chance to work with them. Part of my role at Difrent is to ensure that we have the agreed standards and principles for our ways of working to ensure we can deliver the right things in the right way for our clients. I’ve spent the last few weeks getting to know the people within Difrent, and the clients we are working with.

What’s been interesting for me has been the culture that comes with a company moving from start up to scale up. Within the Public Sector I’ve only ever worked in organisations that are 4.5K plus. Working somewhere with under 100 people is very different. The infrastructure and organisational governance that comes with working for a huge well established organisation isn’t necessarily there, but nor is that necessarily a bad thing!

In the old work, conversations like office locations, or what our Target Operating model should be would take months if not years; with unions consulted, multiple consultations with staff forums and people groups etc. Within Difrent it’s much easier to have conversations with all our staff, be that in TownHalls or just on our Slack channel. The conversations themselves are similar, but how we have them, who gets to be involved, and how quickly we can get things done is definitely different.

The work, so far most of the team’s I’ve been working with have been working on projects within the Public sector, so the environment for me has been very familiar. The other thing that’s familiar is the conversations we are having, about KPI’s and measures. The need to understand what we are trying to deliver and ensure that we can measure our success in delivering it, not just be ticking off story points, but ensuring we are delivering value for both our customers and their users is key.

For the next few months my focus will be on working with our clients helping them shape and deliver the vision’s they have set. Measuring the value we are adding to them, and the value the products and services we are delivering are adding value to their users. Ensuring we have the right resources for our teams based on what the needs of our clients are, and that we as an organisation are supporting our people the best way we can.

These things have always been important to me, and always been key parts of my roles. So it seems whether it’s the public sector or private sector, French Critic Alphonse Karr was right in some ways….

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And you know what, I am glad about that. If everything were radically different I might be worried that either the public or private sector was doing it wrong. But the fact is the common problems are very similar, it’s just how we approach solving them that might be different; and having a different perspective to how you solve problems is important, as it means you’re considering all the options there are and hopefully avoiding making the same mistakes over and over.

Lots of different people holding umbrellas crossing a main road.