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Digital means learning and iterating as you go

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Digital transformation

Joanne Gillies and Clare Sherwood at work

The more steps Defra takes towards becoming a user-centric, service design-focused organisation, the more we learn about changing the way we work and collaborate.

That’s made more difficult in an organisation like Defra, which despite our best efforts over many years is still a network of many smaller, siloed organisations doing their best to work together.

As practitioners of agile and digital ways of working, we’ve both encountered situations where “digital” is seen as just another separate team, in the same way that “policy” and “operations” and “delivery” are seen as separate teams.

In a post from last year, Clare wrote about our need for “agility at the service level”. She said:

We should be empowering and allowing everyone in Defra to work in agile ways and enable whole teams to work on whole services.

In those whole teams, everyone gets to work in agile ways. It’s not something confined to a narrow “digital” silo.

Bringing policy and delivery closer together

About 3 years ago, Defra introduced something it called the “Policy Delivery Challenge”  (known as PDC for short). We both worked on it.

The idea was to address siloed working practices, especially the traditional separation between policy and delivery. The PDC team was given a mandate to break the mould. The goal was to “bring policy and delivery closer together”.

The first piece of work run under PDC rules related to international trade - in particular, making sure that companies can continue to conduct trade abroad after the UK has left the European Union.

The PDC was a testbed. It was testing the hypothesis that Defra can bring policy and delivery closer together, and that doing so will produce positive results.

Did it? Yes and no.

While the team working on international trade started working in agile ways, the governance and funding structures surrounding them were still done in traditional waterfall-style. While still preparing for a discovery, the team were asked to provide comprehensive advance plans for what was yet to come - which, as an agile team trying to understand user needs before building something to meet them, they were unable to do.

Ultimately, it became clear that the PDC was seen as a separate thing - a silo of “digital”.

The PDC did enjoy some success mind you, including:

  • setting up new multidisciplinary teams
  • appointing a service owner
  • shaping policy outcomes and operational processes through user research

But it didn’t bring about real, lasting, deep-rooted organisational change. It failed to apply digital thinking elsewhere, beyond its own organisational borders.

Learning from past mistakes

The PDC taught us that:

  • Defra already has some highly skilled digital experts
  • People who are not experts are usually keen to learn new ways of working, and willing to adapt to them
  • “Digital” shouldn’t be seen as yet another silo on the org chart, but it often is anyway

Overcoming that last problem feels like the biggest problem we face right now.

We believe the best result of the PDC work would be for digital thinking to be more widely dispersed across the organisation. Our leaders have an important role to play in making that happen.

The results could include:

  • a wider and better understanding of agile ways of working (something we’ve already explored for teams in HR)
  • a renewed focus on teams rather than projects
  • more decision-making by service designers, product owners and business architects, within multidisciplinary teams focused on user-centered design
  • more trust placed in specialists
  • policy and delivery people working closer together, more often (which was the goal of the PDC work in the first place)

Sound like a good plan? It does to us.

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  1. Comment by Robin Poole posted on

    Do we need to embed agile ways of working into team leader objectives? There is a lot of agile working on projects / services at the policy level but if you mention agile ways of working to most people who lead tradition silo bound teams it seems like a extra burden rather than a change in how we work. It also comes down to what questions get asked by higher policy makers on an adhoc basis - are they framed to fit agile ways of working? Are we asking and answering the right questions? Are we designing to ask and answer these questions? If we frame things as "we are creating this service to replace this way of working to save you time and answer these questions" then we might get somewhere with culture change. We still have massive focus on waterfall projects to achieve a very specific result - ie construction projects and to those who use waterfall, agile is a foreign concept rather than iterating and improving a service.

    • Replies to Robin Poole>

      Comment by Joanne posted on

      Thanks Robin and Ian, I'm hoping to set up an event similar to oneteamgov in Defra to start the conversation around these things and how we might work differently in the future. I'll keep you posted!

  2. Comment by Ian McLoughlin posted on

    Joanne, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with everything you say.

    Digital is seen as a separate team as we have separated them from others who are working in the same space. For example, Flood Information Service sits in DDTS when it would be best positioned in FCRM Directorate. Another example is I Want To Fish which would best positioned in Environment & Business Directorate.

    “Digital” is also a misnomer which may be putting people off. Could we think of a better word?

    It would be great if any digital, technology, software, hardware, initiative, project or programme consulted the Continuous Improvement Team. We can provide advice on strategic direction, organisational intelligence, improvement methodologies and change implementation / management. How do we make this happen?

    My final, and probably most controversial point. We (the organisation) are tweaking around the edges and we need a wholesale transformation of how we operate. If it was up to me (and it isn’t sadly), I would adopt a systems approach to our structure, roles and responsibilities. It could start with aligning all those who work in a system (Marine, Flood and Water etc) to all report to the same Director General (DG), or at least give the DG accountability for performance. And, a systems approach would remove the need for separate teams and projects (digital, PDC etc) as this would be a business as usual task to constantly review performance and outcomes.

    Let me know if you want to know more 🙂