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).

Maps and Apps in the news

My parting shot for the Department of Health (DH) was to help organise a showcase event bringing together the most popular entries to Maps and Apps.

I’ve blogged about Maps and Apps before, but in essence we (the DH digital team) asked people to suggest and vote for their favourite health apps and maps. As a piece of digital engagement it worked well, generating lots of conversations on our blog, on the crowdsourcing platform and elsewhere. Most importantly the entries that people submitted have been fed in to a policy making process at DH.

The showcase event was primarily a thank you for those who had taken the time to suggest popular ideas and get involved with the project. Secretary of State Andrew Lansley attended, as did some of the judges who supported the project.

However, the project has also generated lots of high profile media coverage. This isn’t always familiar terrain for digital engagement projects in Government, but very welcome nonetheless. I woke up last week to see coverage on Sky News, and in The Times and Guardian.

Significantly, it helped us to produce something meaningful with the press office, rather than occupying the monitoring/rebuttal/publishing space, which is the norm for most teams.

Thanks to Phil O’Connell (an enthusiastic and very helpful advocate for the project) I am able to share this footage from Sky News on the day.


[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/37422335 w=400&h=225]

Sky News LIVE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/37423190 w=400&h=225]

Sky News PACKAGE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

Moving on…but sticking with the Civil Service

I’m leaving the Department of Health in a few weeks time, to join the digital team at Business, Innovation and Skills. I am very excited to be joining BIS, but at the same time sad to leave Health.

I joined the Civil Service in 2009, and this was my first foray into the public sector. I didn’t know what to expect other than a massive change in working culture and practice.

I came from a background of journalism, small publishing businesses and creative agencies, where I’d be tasked with everything from writing interviews, to managing cashflow, human resources and making tea. Sometimes successfully, often by the skin of my teeth, and with some notable failures too (an upside down magazine and the web project from hell among them).

But I was wrong about the ‘massive change’.

In actual fact, the challenges of communicating information, of publishing, of embracing new technology, are pretty much the same. Sometimes I miss not having a profit margin to focus on, but I don’t miss the roller coaster of small business.

Sure, I still get frustrated by some of the bureaucracy I encounter. However, it strikes me that these same mechanisms ensure staff and suppliers are, for the most part, paid on time, and contribute to a professional atmosphere. These are some of the things that create tremendous pressure when running a small business.

Bowler hat on a bench
I've seen very few of these around Whitehall

And the Civil Service isn’t the old fashioned institution that my friends would have had me believe, back in 2009 when I told them where I was going. I realise I am lucky, because digital is interesting, evolving and Government has a reputation for innovation. But I also spent a short time in private office and never once saw a bowler hat or anything produced in triplicate.

Call me naive or challenge me on any of this. I’m keen to hear your experiences.

I hope I can bring a bit of my first-hand experience of the front line of business to my new role in the Civil Service, and build on the good work that’s already happening. If you’ve got ideas about business, Government and the web, then drop me a line.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg/

Blurring the lines between IT and digital communications

One of my pet hates is when family or unwitting friends refer to my work as being IT or ‘something to do with computers’.

For the most part, it’s an innocent enough mistake. All the while people associate smartphones, social media and digital content with the wires and levers behind the scenes it seems inevitable that the two are interlinked.

In fact, as budgets shrink, and the requirements of organisations change, IT teams and communications teams really are going to be working more closely together. It’s already happening at the Department of Health.

I think bringing teams of people with different types of skills and experience together is a good thing. IT and communications really can complement each other.

My previous experience of this was in publishing. I worked for a successful company that had been built around advertising sales. Editorial and design was just a means to an end, and in a way I could understand that. We go to work to earn money; the business needs to make a profit, and in this case advertising created that profit.

Hands joining together
Bringing a team together is necessary and rewarding

However, it became apparent that for the business to continue growing and develop, the content of the publications and the way we marketed ourselves would have to improve. Central to this was ensuring that the editorial and advertising teams stopped working in silos, and understood each other’s needs and challenges.

Bringing the two teams together was a huge culture shock to all involved: think Gordon Gekko sharing a desk with Richard Whiteley.

Broadly, there were three successful ways to bring the teams together:

1) Building personal/professional relationships: this meant me knowing my Sales Director was to become a father, and taking an interest. And it meant him coming for a drink with me and the other editors after work.

2) Working alongside each other: me going to sales meetings, him working in the editorial office.

3) Sharing a common goal: in this case, increasing the revenue of the titles we worked on.

These three routes to success are easy to write about in hindsight. At the time it was very hard work: arguments, compromise and a constant need to be honest with each other about concerns and frustration. It took almost 18 months to make it work, but in the end we were successful.

For IT and communications teams across the public sector this journey is starting. Perhaps there are some out there who have already done it. I’d love to know.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/jiheffe/

Normal service will be resumed shortly

I start back in my regular role tomorrow, as part of the digital comms team at the Department of Health. I’ve been on a secondment for the past three months.

It’s been hard work, but I’m glad that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and into a totally different area.

What did I learn?

1. Managing someone else’s time is very different to managing your own, even if you consider yourself to be fairly organised
2. A Government department is a big place. Working in a private office is a great way to explore it, and build contacts
3. Presentation is just as important as content
4. Digital has a lot to offer senior colleagues in their day-to-day work, but it will take time to become the norm
5. The true meaning of information overload. Like any large organisation, there’s just too much email, too much news and commentary, and not enough time to absorb it all and make it useful
6. The importance of a strong coffee in the morning

On a more positive note, I have had my eyes opened to lots more of the work that the Department does, and have a much better understanding of competing priorities, and where digital fits in this context.

It may be a while before I volunteer for something similar again, but in the meantime the experience has given me a lot to think about.