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Learning in Local Government through Discovery

Martyn Evans, Jan. 11, 2016

There’s a lot of content available online about doing agile with local councils - talks, conferences, case studies, white papers, etc. A lot of content guiding us to knowing what this should look like. But what does this really look like in practice...?

We’ve recently partnered with Buckinghamshire County Council in the Discovery phase to digitally transform their current services. This short blog series aims to uncover and explore what it looks like when one of our cross-functional agile teams partners and co-locates with a local council. What are the daily challenges faced? How does the team overcome these? What are the highs and lows of partnering on a public sector project? Here’s the first look through the keyhole…

At a recent Unboxed event we invited speakers to talk about how to use the first £50k of a budget to make the case for spending the next £500k. My own contribution was to invite people to concentrate on three principles to help demonstrate value quickly and take your stakeholders on a ride they don’t want to get off.

I predominantly illustrated my talk with examples of work we’ve done with Pearson, Reed Learning, The Ministry of Justice and SH:24 but whilst preparing the talk, I was also working with a small team at Buckinghamshire County Council to run a Discovery phase around two digital services.

Now we’ve reached the end of Discovery, I thought it might be worth revisiting these three principles to address the challenges faced trying to kick-start digital transformation projects in local government.

Set out to prove yourself wrong

The first principle represents the importance of working directly with customers and applying rigour to your research, looking for genuine insights as opposed to evidence that you are right. It alludes to the Lean Startup principle of fail fast. It’s essential to start somewhere and it doesn’t matter that much where you start but you must be prepared to find out quickly whether you are going in the right direction.

One of the services we started to look at in Bucks was a better method for members of the public to report “defects” in the road - potholes to you and I. The council had already taken a couple of cracks at this including a discontinued mobile app and a section of their website that collects info from the public and squirts it straight into the council’s asset management system.

The Unboxed team testing early prototypes with the public The Unboxed team testing early prototypes with the public

Within a few days of talking to customers we found out that most people didn’t care so much about a “better way to report defects”. What they wanted was a sense that the council would actually repair the potholes (or street lights, damaged grass verges, uneven pavements, etc.) that were reported. Now we happened to know that the council repairs a lot of potholes but somehow the public just don’t think they care. The challenge we actually face is how to get the data out of those internal management systems to give back to the public in a meaningful way. Matthew Cain has written about this learning on his blog.

Create a team that gets stuff done

If you want to make maximum progress with a limited budget, you need to put together a small team of really smart agile people. You need to get them aligned around a common goal and give them what they need - permission, access, environment - to do what they do best.

Council offices around the company look pretty much the same in my experience and they are not the most inspiring places to work. At Bucks we found a room, a small training room in an annex to the main council building. It lacked natural light, was a little too small and made us feel a little isolated but it did give us a chance to get to know each other. We took it as our base and started to think out loud and capture those thoughts on the walls. From Unboxed we had a designer (Leon), a developer (Crystal) and me and we were joined by four game members of the council’s HQ Digital team. During the six weeks of Discovery, people came to see us and some of them cheered us on. Some of them even joined the team. We quickly started prototyping solutions and the gloomy room encouraged us to “get out of the building” and learn from the public.

We need to find a better space with more visibility to the rest of the organisation (and please more natural light) but in that bunker the team has amassed a load of shared learning which will only increase as the team grows and moves into Alpha.

The war room at Buckinghamshire CC with personas and hypotheses on the wall The war room at Buckinghamshire CC with personas and hypotheses on the wall

Communicate openly and frequently

In order to get buy-in, you have to gain peoples’ trust, especially those key stakeholders who can make or break your project. And the best way to do this in my experience is to bare your soul. Be open and transparent in everything you do. Show your working. Show your progress, even when you haven’t made any.

Our little room was the visible representation of the work we were doing. Anyone that visited for a collaborative design studio session or workshop could see our thoughts on the wall and go and tell others about it. Every couple of weeks we put together a presentation that anyone from the team could run through with anyone who would listen.

Metrics slide from show and tell Metrics slide from the Show & Tell

But the challenge is great in large organisations, especially in the current climate of budget cuts and spending freezes. People equate digital transformation with cost savings and reduced headcount and are suspicious of a team formed to accelerate change. For every person we found that wanted to engage, we found another who didn’t want to play. And some of the latter were the gate-keepers to people we needed on our side. The lack of access to key stakeholders has meant we haven’t found out as much about the existing services as we would have liked but by remaining open, we have begun to win them over. The scope of alpha is still less clear than we’d like but we do have a way forward and we’ll continue to share our learnings with anyone who’ll listen.

You can read more about the project on the team blog.