Winging it

‘Welcome to the team - now you’ll realise we’re all winging it!’

I joined the Ministry of Justice’s Digital team in August 2015 and was greeted with that message by Tom Dolan. Tom was on my interview panel and a few months later when I finally joined he spotted me on my first day. It was a comforting message. We were all there because of the pioneering, world-leading work going on. And - everyone was winging it. Based on huge and varied collective experience. But winging it. I think that was true right across Digital Government. And I think it’s as true today as it was then.

Digital Government is the home of pioneering, world leading work. And if it sometimes feels a little constrictive or a little prescriptive? That’s because it’s the result of people just like you who were winging it. There’s an unwritten folk history to the Digital work in Government. There’s power in knowing some of the intent and messy reality behind stuff that has become ‘big’ and ‘official’. So here’s an anthology of Digital folk tales from my experience of some of that big and official stuff. These are personal stories. Don’t trust the teller, trust the tale. Let’s assume that I’ve got things wrong and am writing from my own subjective and limited perspective. But the sentiment is true in each case: great work was done, it was valuable, people were winging it and you can improve it.

Tweaking the Service Standard

The Service Standard is a big reason why I joined Digital Government. I actually worked in ‘the normal’ Civil Service from 2006-2010 and partly left because I was excited about this agile, customer-centred way of working thing and couldn’t find a way to make it stick in my Civil Service roles.

I moved over to non-profit and social enterprise world where I could use this approach. ‘The Lean Startup’ was published a year later in 2011 and it pulled together this way of working in a smart, useable way. Me and my CEO were excited by it - it’s the subject of my first ever blog post back in 2012. We successfully pitched for funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to adapt if for the charity/non-profit/social enterprise space. But someone had beat us to it. We started to realise that the folks at the Government Digital Service were already doing something that largely fulfilled our intent. So we decided to pivot. Use the emergent Service Standard, Design Principles and Service Manual coming from them. And instead use our funding for a pot of discoveries to find the most valuable problems we could feasibly solve. We used The Lean Startup and the Service Standard and the influences on both of them, taking the bits from each that worked and leaving the bits that didn’t.

I re-joined the Civil Service in 2015 as part of the new Digital tribe. Working on the MOJ’s first platform (the Cloud Platform) I wanted to take a user-centred approach. It’s easy to think of components and platforms as ‘technical products’ but I don’t agree with this. They’re staff-facing products. The root of the word ‘technical’ is ‘technique’. What people mean when they say ‘technical product’ is ‘a product with techniques I don’t understand’. So, long story short: it’s a staff-facing product, built by WebOps engineers for Developers, who are users and deserve a user-centred approach. Me and the team elect to use the Service Standard in order to help with this. But the Service Standard doesn’t work ‘as is’ so we tweak each point. We never lower the bar. But we totally allow ourselves to make it work for the real world that we’re working in. We allow ourselves to adapt each point by returning to the original intent and figuring out what that means for a staff-facing product consisting of mainly open-source tooling operating on top of cloud hosting. This approach works.

If The Lean Startup is behind the Service Standard, what’s behind The Lean Startup? Eric Ries, the author, is explicit on this. tates that it is based on:

  • Lean manufacturing - how to build things efficiently, based on decades of good practice in the manufacturing sector (particularly identified with Toyota)
  • Design thinking - a set of tools and methods to help organisations design products based on the needs of users (this had particular influence on our phases of agile delivery; many people first engaged with this via the Institute of Design at Stanford University, particularly their famous Design Thinking Bootleg
  • Customer development - builds on the premise that when we start something new we have a lot of untested assumptions. Therefore we need to avoid doing anything based on these assumptions. Rather, we must do relevant and focused research before going ahead and building anything (this had particular influence on our discovery phase); the book ‘The Four Steps to Epiphany’ by Steven Blank helped shape customer development
  • Agile development - an adaptive approach to software development that recognises that user needs and software itself evolves over time through the collaborative efforts of multidisciplinary teams working with (and based on insights from) their users; the Agile Manifesto for Software Development is the driving force behind this.

We can adapt the Service Standard to our context as long as we remain true to its influences and intent. The Service Standard represents pioneering, world-leading work. It’s valuable, people were winging it and you can improve it.

The Five-Year Itch

It feels a bit like everyone’s leaving Digital Government right now doesn’t it? Some wag on Twitter suggested we started Digital Transfer News to share completed signings, deals and gossip :) Don’t worry, I think this happens every five years and everything will be OK.

Monday 15th August was my first day in Digital Government. I’d been attracted by the pioneering work of the Government Digital Service. And the leadership of folks like Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore who I’d heard talking on the digital meetup circuit.

Friday 12th August was when I read an article in The Guardian which asked ‘Why are senior staff fleeing the Government Digital Service?’. A lot of people left Digital Government at the tail-end of 2015 and into 2016. This had an impact on the mood. On a personal level I was thinking “oh no, have I joined too late just as it’s all coming to an end?’.

The answer was ‘no’. People change. Digital moves on. That last big change was around the five-year mark (ish) in the official history of Digital Government. We’ve hit the ten-year mark and I see something similar happening now, with lots of people leaving. But what I recognise is this also means that lots of people are moving up. And lots of people are moving in. Digital Government represents pioneering, world-leading work. It’s valuable, people are winging it and you can improve it.

A Digital-rose by any other name would smell as sweet

The official history of UK’s Digital Government movement is pretty well documented. There’s things like ‘A GDS Story’ that stretch back to Martha Lane Fox’s pioneering and now famous report on the future of Directgov in 2010.

But an organisation as big as the Civil Service takes a while to change. There’s a prehistory to Digital in Government. And I glimpsed bits of it whilst working in ‘the normal’ Civil Service from 2006-2010. I periodically heard Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary at the time, talk about two things: managing risk (instead of trying to avoid it) and customer insights. In 2006 I found a Cabinet Office working paper called ‘Customer insight in public services - “A Primer”’. I still have a copy. The front page is a quote from Gus O’Donnell:

“We must be relentlessly customer-focused. Many people want a single point of contact for a range of services. The public are not interested in whether their needs are met by Department X or Agency Y, they just want a good, joined-up service where X and Y talk to each other and share information the public have provided. We should strive to meet this demand.”

It included guidance on using tools like customer journey mapping to improve services. This was exciting for me. I wrote a briefing paper for my senior leadership team and used it to make space for customer-journey maps to improve my service (provision of skills tests for trainee-teachers).

I wasn’t alone in this. I connected with lots of people in a similar headspace who were doing similar things, trying to improve what they were working on in whatever way they could. They were often successful despite odds stacked against them. But were usually so modest that you’d never know about it.

I share this because the Civil Service is massive and our Digital is a little bit of it. There’s some stuff that we’ve packaged-up and called Digital and it’s officially ‘ours’. But in reality it can’t happen without our colleagues and it’s unofficially happening all over the place. Digital Government has done and continues to do pioneering, world-leading work. It’s valuable, people are winging it and it can be improved by our awesome colleagues around the Civil Service.

‘I never had a roadmap’

Digital Government has a good reputation. It’s a space that people want to work. And it can be intimidating. I remember seeing blog posts talking about these seemingly huge teams. Every team has a dedicated researcher! Back in early 2010s, this wasn’t true for me. Or for a lot of my peers outside Government Digital. I’m unsure if it’s true for lots of people in the 2020s to be honest. This was one thing among many that made me think I didn’t have the experience needed to apply for jobs here.

Product management is my particular specialism. I’d see a post about the roadmap for GOV.UK and think ‘eesh, I’ve never done a roadmap that massive, maybe I’m not what these people need?’. I spoke to some folks who helped me gain the confidence to apply for a role and I ended up the other side of the fence. And do you know what I learned from those first product managers I spoke with? Say it with me now: ‘we were winging it’. Based on huge, collecting experience. But winging it. Two people, independent of each other, said something like ‘I never had a roadmap in the early days’. Delivery was the strategy. The initial 25 exemplars represent clear product visions. The problem, the solution, and the goals were agreed at a very high-level and shared very widely. Collectively there was a wealth of experience. The folks I spoke with said that, at least in the early days, they cracked-on. Lots of the things we agonise over today, like roadmapping, were not a priority in the early years. I bet this is true of most of the professions. Those early folks were pioneers. They did amazing work. Many of them are disarmingly honest about the fact that they were winging it. There was an enormous amount of reflection and improvement.

Now we have the Digital, Data and Technology Capability Framework. The product manager role description is the one I know the best. Sat on it looks official, like it’s always been there. The truth is that it’s the result of 5-10 of us working together sporadically in the second-half of 2016. The Heads of Product of the time worked with Cabinet Office in several all-day workshops. We worked through things like wether to call the role ‘product owner’ or ‘product manager’. We agreed that ‘product owner’ is a specific member of a team within a single methodology. It’s a good way of describing product management tactics. But isn’t the whole role of product manager as it doesn’t cover strategy or vision. So ‘product manager’ became the role and product ownership became one of the skills for the role. Blog posts from 2017 show Ross Ferguson (Head of Product at GDS at the time) and Zoe Gould (Head of Product at DWP at the time) talking about the thinking behind this and some of the impact it had. Looking at the role description in 2022 it’s hard to get a sense of why this decision - and many like it - were made.

Context is important too. Zooming back in time to 2016: having specialist digital roles officially within the Civil Service was a big deal. Particularly in a way that allowed for specialist pay. Positioning these specialist roles within leadership teams or within the Senior Civil Service would have been an even bigger deal . . . and was not our priority. Senior Civil Service roles were out of scope. Simply having ‘Lead’ and ‘Head of’ role descriptions was a big deal and we were conservative with the detail of those roles by today’s standards. It didn’t take long for them to feel constraining. ‘Lead’ and ‘Head of’ roles increasingly stepped out of roles framed as ‘people managers’. And increasingly stepped into active membership of senior management teams. The Lead Product Manager role description written by the Royal Borough of Greenwich Borough in 2021 looks to me like a more confident description of the Lead Product Manager role than we created in Government back in 2016.

The thinking done by a load of us back in 2016 to create the Digital, Data and Technology Capability Framework was pioneering work. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. It helped create the clearest sense of the role I’ve experienced in any prior organisation or sector. Several folks who’ve left for other sectors have said things like ‘I didn’t realise how good we had it, my new organisation doesn’t understand the role’. The framework is valuable. And the authors were all winging it. Based on huge collective experience. But winging it.

If you’re an existing Civil Servant working in a ‘DDaT role’ it’s totally OK for you to tweak the detail to make it work for your. If something doesn’t fit there’s a good chance it’s down to a quirk of a working group back in 2016. Or simply a case that the world has moved on. I’ve never known GDS (now CDDO) be anything other than supportive of localised tweaks (in this and in all things). If I remain true to the original intent and don’t lower the bar, I’ve always received support from GDS/CDDO.

If you want to work in Digital Government but think you’ve not got what it takes after reading the blog posts or looking at the role descriptions then please remember: we’re all making it up as we go along :) I’ll steal something from Culture Amp to share here: “Research shows that while men apply for jobs when they meet an average of 60% of the criteria, women and other marginalised folks tend to only apply when they check every box”. The Digital Government blog posts and the role description imply a lot of boxes to tick. If you think you have what it takes, but don’t necessarily tick everyone of these boxes, please still give it a try. Digital Government has done and continues to do pioneering, world-leading work. It’s valuable. People are winging it. And you can improve it.

Your turn

I would love to hear Digital folks tales from others. Have you got your own Digital folk tale that puts a human-face on our work? Or have you read a Digital folk take that’s already out there? I’m not looking for iconoclastic exposés. But would love to find descriptions of amazing work that are honest about how messy reality is.