‘So what’s this Service Owner role Scott?’
I’ve been asked this question a lot. I was Head of Product for a large Government department in the UK from 2016-2022 so got a chance to speak with and support a lot of product managers across many Departments and Agencies. A common question during this time was the definition and purpose of the Service Owner role? I’ve worked with lots of Service Owners too and its fair to say the role’s not always 100% clear to people doing it either. The question’s come up again so I’m pulling together what I’ve found out over the years in case it’s of use for current Service Owners trying to figure out a challenging role, and those working with Service Owners and figuring out their relationship with the role.
The reason I’m publishing this post is that Service Owners don’t seem to exist in Local Government (where I’m now working). It’s an area of my time in Central Government that I’m unlikely to use in my new gig. But Service Ownership was a big part of my professional life for a long time so I figured I’d shared my notes before they become so out of date they’re useless. What I’m sharing isn’t presented as the final word on Service Owners. I assume it’s wrong. But I assume it has some value, none the less.
If I were a Civil Servant right now I might feel underappreciated so I’d like to be clear. I support the Service Owner role and the folks who do it - past, present and future.
What did the Service Owner role look like 2020-21?
2020 saw me on shared parental leave for most of the year. I worked for a total of 4 months and, rather than dipping in and out of being Head of Product, my boss supported me to lead short projects instead. One of these was supporting a Service Owner community of practice. As part of that I did what I always do: spoke with colleagues across Government to see what people smarter than me had already figured out. I spoke with 7 organisations (6 Departments and 1 Agency) in 2020 and early 2021. Here’s a summary of my notes.
- Firstly, Service Owner is not pervasive across all Government organisations. Two of the organisations had decided not to use the role. Looking at my notes now, what stands-out is that both organisations had invested heavily in their value proposition, positioning in the organisation, relationship management and commissioning processes. And both organisations had empowered Lead Product Manager and Head of Product roles at Grade 6 or Senior Civil Servant (SCS)
- Now let’s look at the remaining 5 organisations. 1 of them had Service Owners but the role sat outside the Digital function. Service Owners sat in ‘the business’ with responsibility across policy, operations and technology. Digital supported the definition fo the role and recruitment. Digital skills were important for these Service Owners, as was the ability to work closely with Digital. My notes are unclear of the seniority of the role, I’d guess at least Grade 6 but might have been SCS
- Of the remaining 4 organisations, 1 of them had a Service Owner role within Digital that was responsible across policy, operations and technology. They were officially within the Digital function. The role was SCS
- Of the remaining 3 organisations, all had Service Owner representing a particular perspective and pitched at Grade 7 or Grade 6. In one case the role described someone from Policy, representing the policy-intent behind the work. In the other two cases the role described someone from an IT perspective, often representing a large programme, large contract or corporate function.
I can’t see clear themes that provide a unifying definition of the Service Owner role. The main theme I see is the variability of the role (even sometimes within the same organisation). So the main conclusion I can draw is the simultaneous challenge and opportunity of having a specialist, Digital role in the leadership space with a great deal of flexibility relative to many of the other specialist, Digital roles.
2016: the intent behind the role
The role of ‘Service Owner’ was designed and defined in 2016 as part of the Digital, Data and Technology Profession Capability Framework. I was in the room during the session’s where it was created (even contributing to it, to a limited extent) so can share my take on the intent behind the role. I prefer pragmatism over purism so don’t propose that the role in 2022 be judged by how well it fulfils the original intent behind it. But I do propose that it’s useful to know the original intent behind the role. Zoe Gould has already shared her perspective on the original intent behind the role, I’ll add my perspective.
My understanding of the context
2016 and the Cabinet Office was looking to define digital specialist roles in Government in order to bolster a case to the Treasury for market-competitive pay for these digital specialist roles. A management consultancy (EY?) led the overall project with Cabinet Office staff from GDS supporting/leading working groups for each of the job families. Delivery management, product management and service ownership were grouped as a job family and a bunch of us ended up in 5-10 all-day workshops in the latter half of 2016 where the roles were drafted. Grade 7 and Grade 6 specialist, digital roles were within scope. SCS roles were outside of scope.
My understanding of the intent behind the role
Key things that’ve stuck with me:
- Someone with responsibility for the overall impact of an end-to-end public service
- . . . and so needed to be an SCS role capable of providing influence and constructive challenge up to and including Ministerial-level
- Responsible for policy, operations, and technology across a public service
- To help differentiate from the IT Service Manager role.
A reflection I can make with the benefit of hindsight: back in 2016, Service Owner was an aspirational role. It didn’t exist in ‘the market place’, so you couldn’t go and see how others were describing it (unlike something like product management). And it didn’t really exist in Government either, not in the way it was described. Even the role title of ‘Service Owner’ was created from scratch as part of our workshops, with the official title changing several times during this time. This was introducing a new role intended to be responsible for an entire, end-to-end service. And this intent was maybe at odds with the official scope of only Grade 7 and Grade 6 professions, mainly describing specialist, Digital roles that already existed in the market place? Once again, we see the challenge and opportunity of a role that’s looser and more at the boundary of Digital than some of the other roles.
Service Owner pre-history
The DDaT Capability Framework, including the Service Owner role, began implementation in 2017. Prior to this the Service Owner role did not exist. The label of ‘Service Owner’ was created during the DDaT development process in 2016. My insights from this pre-history of the role are limited so I’ll share what I’ve got, acknowledge my limits, and suggest there are others with way more valuable perspective.
My own, limited experience of the role runs from 2015-2017. The Department I worked at had 4-5 ‘Service Managers’, SCS roles responsible for a unit of the overall Digital work. I guess a label that might better describe the responsibilities of their role might be ‘Head of In-House Software for [name of an Agency or the main Dept.]’. Each was doing pioneering work to introduce in-house software development, user-centred design and long-lived, multidisciplinary teams to an area of Government. And Service Manager was a fine-enough label to describe this. However, what mergers between ‘Digital’ and ‘IT’ started to demonstrate was that ‘Service Manager’ (specifically IT Service Manager) was a role that already existed within IT, and had existed for quite some time. Digital using the same title to describe something different enough to warrant its own title cause enough confusion to warrant it forming part of the intent behind the Service Owner role.
Notes to this point are fairly ‘factual’. They’re notes on events or personal experiences with little conjecture. If that’s all you’re looking for then stop here before I get a little more chin-stroking and offer some personal-takes.
So my overall experience of the Service Owner role involves:
- Working with the role (and early version of the role) from 2015-2022
- Hearing the intent behind the role (and limited contribution to the role) in 2016
- Sporadic contact with Service Owners cross government via Service assessments (I was a prolific Lead Assessor for GDS 2016-2019, assessments often include a Service Owner)
- Supported a Service Owner community of practice in 2020.
The most consistent thing that strikes me about the role of Service Owner is it sometimes operates at the boundaries of ‘Digital’ and acts as a metaphor for these boundaries.
Digital units in Government have different scopes from one Department to the next. My take is that some are based in IT, offering core IT services alongside user-centred, in-house software and a limited line in service design consultancy. Some are mainly around broad service design, with some in-house software and limited remit in core IT. There’s loads of shades in between and I’m certain loads I’ve missed out. The point is that, whatever the intent behind the Service Owner role, we all work in the space we’ve got to play with.
One aspect of this is language. Or speaking different languages, to be more specific. Digital is increasingly a space where user-centred design and core IT works together. And they use different languages to describe the way they work. In UCD, we commonly expect ‘service’ to describe and end-to-end public service and everything needed to run it. In IT, we commonly expect ‘service’ to describe an IT system. Merging the two ways of working makes sense but it’s fair to say that there’s not yet a common terminology. Service Owner is one of the roles that might find itself in the middle of this.
There’s something interesting about the DDaT framework too. I think I’ve seen an issue where we treat it as though it captures all the roles needed to successfully improve outcomes of users of public services. It doesn’t. There are lots of roles it doesn’t cover. It’s intent was just to cover specialist, digital roles that exist in the market place already. My take is that it’s skewed towards the roles needed at the beginning of the lifecycle, roles needed for development and doesn’t cover the roles needed later on in the lifecycle to increase the use of a thing (communication, engagement, training, supporting, user community management, etc). It also doesn’t cover the breadth of leadership and management roles needed to run Digital units. I think we over-use the DDaT framework and forget that we can use roles outside it that’re equally valuable and essential to our success. And, as a result of this, some roles end-up being used to describe lots of skills at the boundaries of Digital that are essential but sometimes overlooked or underrepresented. Of these, I think the most underrepresented but most valuable thing missing can be relationship management (between Digital units and their internal clients, collaborators and supporters). My hunch is that this invisible but critical work can often be a large part of the Service Owner role.
My final, personal take, is to share my hunch about the closest examples of fulfilling the original intent behind the role. I saw a job-ad for a Service Owner in Defra Digital back in early 2021 and, from the outside looking in, it seemed to be an SCS role based in Digital with responsibility across policy, operations and technology. I have no insights beyond the job ad and don’t wish to speak on behalf of the Department itself for how the role is used in mid-2022. But back at the beginning of last year the role description peaked my interest and that of colleagues in the Service Owner space in Government. More generally, my last take is that CEOs of Government agencies may fulfil the intent behind the Service Owner role without necessarily having explicit links with the role?
A conclusion of sorts
If I have something like a conclusion, it’s that Service Owner isn’t a role I’ve seen outside Central Government. But I recognise and respect that Central Government has characteristics that make it complex, including but not limited to the need to serve everyone and the scale of work that goes along with this. Digital is one small part of the large, complex thing that is Government and the closer we get to the boundaries of Digital the messier things become. Digital isn’t a fixed thing, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing from one Dept to another. But Digital always has internal and external boundaries that can always be navigated by the more clearly defined roles in the DDaT framework. My take is that Service Owner might be a role that works on these boundaries, filling gaps in the messiest spaces. Their skills and work is valuable and essential. There’s the possibility that there may be better, more accurate ways to described this valuable work - in some cases, other roles in the DDaT framework like Programme Delivery Manager, or IT Service Manager in other cases roles not on the DDaT framework like ‘Head of Digital’ or ‘Relationship Manager’? I guess the thing for the current and next generation of folks to figure out is the value of a flexible role that can mean different things and operate on boundaries versus the value of a consistent role and a shared profession?
I’m at least 6-months out of date in my experiences of the Service Owner role and figured this is the last time I had to share them before they’re so old as to be useless. I think the a limit to this post is I’m talking about Service Ownership across government rather than what it looks like in a single Department. I’d love to read this deep-dive into a the role in a single organisation. The genesis of this post was a Tweet asking if any Depts had shared their approach to Service Ownership, and I’d love to see a deep-dive into what it looks like in a single space. My sense is that it could bring the role to life in a way that my post (covering multiple Depts and multiple years) can’t really do.