Inspiration and surprises – our day at GOV.UK

We’ve already told you some of the broader things we learnt at GOV.UK, visiting their Government Digital Service (GDS) office in London, but I wanted to pick out some of the smaller, more personal details that I saw, so here’s a little bit more.

Bunting and post-its

Bunting and Post its
One colourful corner of the GOV.UK office

The first thing you notice walking into the office is just how colourful it is. I suspect it was the football (England and Wales were playing that afternoon) that made it feel a little emptier than expected, but the space was lit up with a mixture of post-its, bunting, live analytics displays, pictures and quotes. The window rainbows were particularly delightful.

This made a very busy, flexible space feel incredible welcoming and positive. It also made it really clear just how deep the ways of working were embedded. User needs were literally everywhere. Everything looked set up so that it could be taken apart and rebuilt the instant something needed to change. Everything was agile, basically.

Such process

One of the first things we did was watch a team ‘stand up‘, a daily ceremony where the team catches up on what they’re doing that day, and highlight any problems they have in their way.

Multiple teams do this in the same place, so there’s a strict schedule, with just seven minutes for each team. This meant that information was exchanged really quickly and concisely. Everyone looked really practiced, and so it went really smoothly.

This was just one element of an impressively elaborate (but sensible) system for funneling work through the people doing it.

Incoming work was ‘triaged’: some jobs would go to a team that just dealt with the things that take less than ten minutes, longer things went into the bigger work plan (and would eventually show up in those team stand ups). This meant it was spotted really quickly if the team wouldn’t have enough information to work on it, and responsibility was put back to the team requesting the work.

Technically, this is the same stuff we do when we’re prioritising work, but we’re normally doing it as one person or one small team, so it was fascinating seeing the process in running in an almost industrialised way. The scale of it was impressive, the smoothness even more so.

They’re the best around

The truth is, GOV.UK and the GDS are held as the gold standard of digital delivery in government. I’ve not met someone who works in local government digital who isn’t inspired by the work they do. I think I may have had a slightly dazed, glazed hero worship look on my face all day.

So it was amazing speaking to the people actually doing that work.

They split their job roles quite distinctly, and we spoke to a content designer, a delivery manager, a user researcher and an analytics expert (among others). Each of them knew their work inside out. It was really impressive.

Notes from our team catch up the next day

But two things made it even more inspiring.

Firstly, we knew exactly what they were talking about. They were saying all the right things, but little of it was surprising. They’re the best, because they practice it day in, day out. But we can do that too. We face the same challenges, and are pushing for the same things.

Secondly, we do all of those jobs at once. I think of my role as content designer (and now want it in my job title), but actually I’ve done user research, analytics and managed delivery of projects.

We’re only working with one council (with a lot less money), and they’re doing the whole government, so obviously they have a bigger team, and they split the roles up. We have less to do (though it never feels that way) but do exactly the same work. We just have to be all-rounders.

Honestly, I’ve never felt more confident in myself and my team, than nodding along and understanding some of the best in our field, and recognising it was how we work, and how we try to work.

Thanks GOV.UK

There’s so much more, but this is already getting too long. We were making notes furiously about the tools they used, what they call things (calling the search, navigation and information architecture team simply ‘finding things’ is genuinely brilliant; user needs, right in the team name), how they champion their work, and the difficulties they have. We know we’re going in the right direction, we just need to keep on moving. My confidence was boosted, but I still think we’ve got a long way to go.

Thanks so much to everyone we talked to (John, Jessica, Lucy, Natalie, Ray, Vin and Joe) for being so open and honest and helpful. Thanks to everyone else for letting us wander around and generally stand in their way! Thanks for an inspiring, surprising and educational day.

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