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Guest post: Learning in Local Government – Part 2

Following on from part one in our ‘Learning in Local Government through Discovery’ series, part two is a guest post by Helen Gracie, a Business Improvement Advisor for Buckinghamshire County Council. We’re currently working alongside Buckinghamshire County Council to digitalise their public services.

Helen Gracie

As a public sector organisation, we have felt the pressures of government budget cuts. Local government has been encouraged to think more commercially and as such we have been reviewing how we deliver many of our services. It was immediately evident to us that there is a big opportunity to improve the customer journey with the Council through Digital Services.

We started working with Unboxed to research and investigate how best to introduce Digital Services to some of our busiest services.

While have led the way with agile and encouraged Local Government to follow, the reality for BCC is that agile remains a training session some of us went to at some point a while ago. People remain nervous about changing the way they have comfortably worked with each other to deliver successful projects in the past. Unboxed have helped us to flex our agile muscles and put it into practice in a way we can share with our colleagues to improve projects in the future.

We have of course faced some challenges along the way.

Finding our customers

An infamous Council habit is to presume that we know exactly what the customer wants and project that presumption across our services. During Discovery with Unboxed we challenged this and went back to the drawing board (literally) to investigate who our customers are. This was not received well by everyone as some people claimed they already knew who our customer is and this has been done before. Needless to say our findings were different to what had been pushed on us as truth.

Agile working

Another hurdle has been the speed at which we have worked through Discovery and are now working through Alpha. In the public sector it is comfortable to organise meetings far in advance, send emails rather than phone or talk face to face and take a lot of time to make each and every decision. The timeframes we have been working to have not allowed us to work in this way. We have been forced to move away from our comfort zone, leave our desks and find the people within the organisation with the authority to make a decision quickly. Some might call it being more agile. It has worked. We have achieved a lot in a short frame of time and impressed our colleagues sat in their meetings along the way.

Bucks CC team

Thinking creatively

As well as working within quick timeframes, working with Unboxed has taken us outside the realms of project management towards a more creative way of thinking and working. This has not come easily to many of us who have felt restricted by our lack of artistic talent. The first workshop where we were asked to draw was downright terrifying. However, once we realised that we weren’t being graded on our portraiture and had a few chances to practice it became fun. We have even started inflicting this exercise on other colleagues in the Council.

Thinking creatively still doesn’t come naturally to us but working with people who do in Unboxed is beginning to rub off and even carry over to our other work in the organisation.

Sharing our progress

The final obstacle we have yet to solve. While we are working at a very fast pace in a creative and agile manner, it has been difficult to share with the rest of the organisation what we are working on and how much we are achieving. We have started writing a blog about the projects and have made an effort to exhibit our work in busy areas of the office. However, our colleagues still do not really understand what we are doing or why. We will continue to take every opportunity to tell people about what we are doing but we are a big organisation and people working in it are busy with their day jobs managing their own projects. I hope that once we have a finished product to show off our colleagues will be more receptive to our new ways of working and we can start driving change across the organisation.

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Learning in Local Government through Discovery

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 publicThe 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 wallThe 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 tellMetrics 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.