When I’m ‘doing’ digital with teams who want to learn new skills, it’s tempting to bundle everything in at once. I convince myself that they’re clutching a buzzword bingo scorecard, and their assessment of my knowledge will be determined by how many times I refer to big data, agile, APIs, twitter, hyper local and so on.

Perhaps that’s what they think they should be hearing. But I think the majority of people I meet on training courses want some solid, practical advice and guidance, because often we are leading people through a huge change to their working lives.

It’s helpful to get a bit of a jolt from people now and again and be reminded of just how much change someone has typically seen in their working life, so far. I’ve had that jolt twice in the past six months.

The first occasion, when the subject of access to social media came up led to once colleague saying:

this is just the same as when the internet first arrived in our office – managers weren’t sure then whether people would waste their time online, or not

On the second occasion, a colleague told me how how cloud-based digital tools were only the third wave of technology change he had ever experienced in the workplace:

this digital training is all new to me, just as it was when I received my first desktop PC. Prior to that, I had a course on how to use the typing pool

I’ll be keeping the typing pool in mind, next time I am tempted to burden people with too much information and too many buzzwords.

Rusty typewriters outside

Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilwill/ under Creative Commons

I’ve been reading about non violent communication.

Non violent communication (NVC) is about empathising, removing your own judgements and pre-conceived ideas, listening to what is actually being said and trying to understand the needs behind it.

I am not your typical NVC customer. None of these guys would have endorsed it. Ten years ago I would not have given this the time of day. Even six months ago I would have been cynical.

Then I got to thinking about the sheer amount of energy that’s required for working in a disruptive field like digital. It can be really hard, month in, month out, to help colleagues and clients build confidence, skills and an understanding of how users consume information online.

On any typical day, I will receive at least one email like this example:

I need to establish a presence on [channel] for the [content] that I am writing.

Because of the importance and impact of this work, affecting as it will all our work internally and across [audience], I think we should have a link on the homepage.

I will also need you to set up publisher rights for myself and X and possibly Y [Z - do you have an opinion on this?].

Can you let me know your thoughts soonest?

Read this in the wrong frame of mind, and you’d be forgiven for assuming the sender is self-important, demanding and has little knowledge about how interested or otherwise their audience is in this content. Who are they to tell me they will have publishing rights, and that their work is the most important thing on my to do list? The urgent final line only grates further.

Apply a bit of NVC, and it’s possible to demonstrate to this person that you are listening and trying to identify the real needs that are driving this request.

For example, ‘I need to establish a presence on this channel…’ is not a need. Nor would it be a need if, when asked, this person said ‘my boss has asked for…’. However, gently reflecting this request back to the originator, and asking questions about their work, should reveal who the intended audience is, and what it is that we are trying to say. Crucially, in terms of productivity, we can also learn when this piece of communication will deliver most impact, and prioritise accordingly.

This example is fairly specific, but I think NVC works really well across all types of channels and audience needs.

Marshall Rosenburg has written a really easy to read book about NVC – I recommend it, if you’re needing some clarity about dealing with competing demands and opinion.


I’m leaving Business, Innovation and Skills in July, to join Helpful Technology. I’m sad to be leaving government, but excited about my new job working alongside Steph Gray and his very clever colleagues.

The past five years working in the Civil Service have been amazing. I have learnt an awful lot about digital, management and getting things done in the public sector. But I have also missed the imperatives that came with working for a small business.

I am hoping to capture the best of both worlds, by delivering exciting things like the Social Simulator, Digital Gym and brilliant intranets, to public and private organisations.

The world of digital in Government was very different, even as recently as 2009. The arrival of GDS and gov.uk soon after I started was a relief for someone like me, who doesn’t know their HTML from their Linux (just don’t tell my new team). Government digital was a really welcoming community back then, and continues to be so today. I’ll miss not being on the inside of that community, but I suspect there’s plenty of room for people who are a tiny bit more patient than I.

Personal highlights from my time in the Civil Service include:

And what wasn’t so good?

  • I learnt the hard way that I was definitely not cut out for private office.
  • My web chat for Andy Burnham on Mumsnet was a baptism of fire.
  • I only wrote five papers in my whole time in the civil service. The rest of my work is on this blog or this one. I probably should have written more papers.
  • Pushing through things like hot desking, new skills and spending less time worrying about hashtags, was, I think, the right thing to do in the long run. But in hindsight I probably made a lot of people’s lives quite difficult for a while, and I don’t feel great about it.

So, plenty of experience to take with me to my next adventure and lots of new friends made.

My current role is being advertised, and the deadline is 11 June. Let me know if you have any questions about it (and sorry about the hot desking).


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