Leaving the Civil Service

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).

Digital packs for policy teams: one week on

The packs that I wrote about last week have all been delivered to recipients.

I’ve had to keep reminding myself that this is only an experiment. At the very least, there will be five copies of Euan Semple’s book floating around BIS, for others to pick up and think about.

Some of the flaws that I have already identified with this approach:

  • Including a tablet may be misleading. I’ve received a few emails from recipients telling me that they are looking forward to road testing the device. I am grateful for the loan of the device as much as they are, I’m not particularly looking for five hardware reviews at the end.
  • One pack was passed on to a colleague of one of the intended recipients, because the original recipient told me she did not have time. That’s fine, because at least it tells me that we are still starting at an extremely low level of understanding regarding digital and civil service reform. And it may well be that in the letter I enclosed there wasn’t enough ‘take it or leave it’ and therefore people feel like it is a major commitment, rather than a gift.
  • The t-bomb was dropped by one recipient earlier this week. Again this is fine, because to a certain extent this person’s audience can be found and engaged with usefully on Twitter. A subsequent exchange of emails reminded me that it’s too easy to skip the basics with networks like Twitter. I was able to remind my colleague that Twitter is about conversations: look for some and join in. Don’t feel compelled to come up with original status updates all the time.

Finally, I have received loads of great feedback following my original blog post, and a few cautious responses too.

  • It’s worth reiterating that this is a very simple, low key experiment and just one of lots of different activities that the team are running.
  • I am definitely not looking for five new faces on Twitter as a result. This is not a drive to get people on social media, but listening to their audience online and thinking about how they and their colleagues can contribute.

I have made the letter template open access, so you can see how this was pitched and re-use, if you think it is useful.

I don’t expect to hear much more from my colleagues now, until after Christmas. I will be providing a gentle nudge in the first week of January, to see how they are getting on.

Happy Birthday gov.uk

Can it really be a year since gov.uk was officially launched? Yes it can.

October 17 2012 feels like a very long time ago. Goodness knows what it must feel like for the Government Digital Service.

I am grateful every day that I do not have to run a big corporate website anymore. We obviously have to take responsibility for content on gov.uk, but aside from a couple of cheeky campaign sites, there’s no more worries about hosting, security and contracts. None of which makes me want to leap out of bed in the morning.

Instead, digital teams like ours are free to use the rest of the web to better effect: for communicating policy, listening to our audiences and sharing content in different ways.

This, along with a revolution in editorial content, huge consolidation of costs and, most importantly, a much improved user experience, is what gov.uk has delivered in the past 12 months.

There’s also much greater transparency around content. Gone are the days when departments could publish content in odd places. And we have a whole raft of very clever and talented new people to work with and learn from.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. For me, the real story behind GDS’s achievements will be the cultural shift inflicted on the civil service by gov.uk. Unfortunately that story isn’t complete yet, which means that the past 12 months have been spent trying to quickly help colleagues less focussed on user need to understand – and accept – how people use the web. We definitely haven’t got there yet.

In an effort to help people understand and love gov.uk, it feels like there has been the odd compromise along the way, which is understandable but also a bit of a shame. The original vision was so pure, but the home page, certain landing pages, use of video content and so on, have diluted this.

Sometimes I also have a sense of unease about the volume of work gov.uk has created outside of GDS. I guess this is inevitable when an organisation and its product grows, but I feel that as the numbers of gov.uk-related emails, meetings and paperwork goes up, the passion with which I can speak about the site is slightly diminished.

All of which is pretty irrelevant in the context of what has been achieved for the British public. I will be putting my own user needs first on 17 October, and visiting the pub. But I’ll be sure to raise a glass to gov.uk and GDS.

If you have a WordPress problem, and no-one else can help, maybe you should hire…

We’re going to lose a much-valued member of the team soon, and its a real shame. Anthony O’Malley has been with us for 12 months, helping to run our bit of web estate that hasn’t yet made it to gov.uk.

He’s done a brilliant job of managing the BIS digital estate: archiving, converging and pruning a plethora of websites, updating campaign pages and setting up some clean-looking blogs for our policy teams.

The best bit is that he has done most of this on his own, calling on Helpful and dxw if needed. When I’ve thrown my arms up and fled into Victoria Street, Anthony has calmly sat down with people, filtered their requests and ideas, and come up with stuff that works.

It won’t feel at all comfortable without Anthony around. But he’s leaving us a neat platform to get on with, and gov.uk continues to offer us more of what we need.

Unlike the A-Team, Anthony doesn’t reside in the Los Angeles underground. You can hire him here. And I recommend that you do.

Does less equal more, at home and work?

About a year ago I started renting a garage near home. This was for various complicated reasons involving a dinghy, some classic car speculation, and various mountain bikes in states of disrepair.

As it happened the boat never materialised and the car was sold to fund something rather boring.

So, logically, I should have let the garage go. Instead, I've been working out ways to fill it with other things, none of which I really need.

We expand to fill the space that is available.

And it gets worse. The bikes that now luxuriate in their own dry space, carefully stacked and surrounded by just-in-case tools, are sometimes treated to new bits: special tyres for tackling mud, or better brake pads.

This is because I am a sucker for a good bike shop, and surely the way to improve my PB for ascending the North Downs, or tackling that awkward berm on the common is by buying better equipment? Nothing whatsoever to do with my own ability, naturally.

We focus on products to solve problems, rather than behaviour change.

In the office we are going through a Ways of Working review: identifying the things that might better contribute to efficiency, productivity and well being in the workplace. Having recently worked my way through Culture Shock and Peopleware, I am more interested in these ideas than ever.

However, I've noticed that unlike the values from these books, people tend to get a bit hung up on the visible changes and 'design' of these new ideas. Open plan meeting spaces, bring-your-own-device and mobile phones instead of desk phones are seen as the catalyst for improvement.

My worry is that, like my surplus garage and the shiny bits on my bike, none of the changes above really get to the crux of typical workplace problems like prioritisation, inefficient meetings or general workloads. In fact, if my use of cloud tools is anything to go by, it's all too easy to get suckered into handling even more information and losing focus.

What most workplaces need to do is get to the heart of what causes inefficiency and resulting unhappiness or stress. And it's not about hardware or the way in which space is designed. It's how this stuff is used or abused in the first place.

So, instead of testing and deploying new furniture and equipment I'd like to see:

1. Email accounts restricted by memory size. Let's say 5MB tops.

2. The ability to send emails restricted to just two 30-minute windows every 24 hours

3. Much less closed meeting spaces, to get people out of the habit of holding meetings, that don't really need to be so formal in the first place

4. Knock down the surplus meeting rooms and use left over furniture – the less of it the better. That way we stand and focus on what needs solving, not the colour of the fabric

5. Cut out messaging around the building that doesn't specifically and directly link with the organisation's priorities

6. Give managers the freedom to structure teams and projects in a way that audiences will understand, and that delivers results, not just replicating historical structures

Some of these are quite basic, and others more fundamental, but it would be a start. Know anywhere that has done this already? Do tell me.

In the meantime I'm off to clear the garage and get fit.