These notes cover a few weeks, rather than one week like usual. Writing weeknotes in the pandemic just didn’t feel necessary over the last few weeks, getting my head out of work was a higher priority. Having said that, there’s a few things worth noting from the last five weeks of lockdown.

Things I learned working on end-to-end services

I’ve spent 6 weeks working on the extremely vulnerable people service, a cross-government effort to get food and support to people with a specific medical condition or who have been told to ‘shield’ by their GP. When the service is successful, pockets of the country will stay at home, therefore reducing the number of people who are likely to be infected, are likely to need hospital attention, and are likely to spread the virus.

The extremely vulnerable people service is an end-to-end service delivered by multiple departments and a few third-party organisations. For those that don’t know, end-to-end services begin from the point where the user starts trying to achieve a goal to the point when they’re finished. This includes website content, the transactional part of the service, the phone, post and face-to-face channels, as well as the digital elements. And it includes the internal processes that government needs to deliver an outcome.

Here’s a few things we noticed would be helpful in building and iterating those kinds of services.

  • Progress – even if it’s not perfect – is better than stasis
  • Build consensus for solutions with evidence, and reduce risk together
  • Define success criteria early: how you’ll know if you’re meeting users’ needs or not
  • Outcomes are the glue that hold departments together
  • A shared understanding of the problem is ideal, but shared sympathy for the impact is better
  • A shared backlog makes interoperability possible for teams from different organisations
  • Test the service, end-to-end, with a small group and iterate as it grows
  • Operations and logistics processes are harder to change than websites
  • Users sometimes don’t read things, so you can’t fix failure demand with a content change
  • Speak up if you’re having a hard time, because someone else probably is too

Other work stuff

After two-and-a-bit years working on GOV.UK, I’m moving over to work on GOV.UK Pay and I’m super excited. After picking out a few skills to work on in my end-of-year conversation about professional development, it seems like GOV.UK Pay will be a really good place to double-down on user focus, strategic ownership and financial ownership.

The GOV.UK product managers gave me a lovely send-off and Martin put together a Jamboard where people could share memories of working with me. It was really thoughtful and touching, I’m going to miss them lots. Being remote means there’s less chance of catching people in the hallway, so I must remember to drop in on them occasionally.

Alex and I met with the Head of Comms to chat about weeknotes. They’re supportive of people writing about work provided they follow the Civil Service Code and don’t use personal channels as government outlets. That’s fair enough really. Anyway, they gave both our blogs the thumbs-up and said we neutered things well, so I’ll share the principles I follow.

When we wound-down the personalisation work, we wanted to focus on design principles for privacy, transparency and re-use of data. It would help make the personalisation proposition understandable, accountable and trustable for users. We were going to use primary and secondary research as a method for finding the edges. No one across government is looking at this (as far as we know) and as GOV.UK is the platform in the centre, we’re best-placed to represent users across the board. I’m looking forward to seeing someone pick up the baton and run with that.

The last 8 years of transforming public services digitally has been about the interaction between citizen and state, but ‘personalising’ that means we need to invest in the conversation between citizen and state too. That’s how you make it feel personalised. That’s where the innovation lies. Create boring magic, not shiny things.

‘Public services, funded by public money, must be open to public scrutiny – especially in times of great upheaval when lots of decisions are being made very quickly.’ Rachel Coldicutt1

Not-work stuff

Being quarantined for long periods of time hasn’t bothered me much. I was hyper-online as a teenager, spending most evenings and weekends cooped-up in my bedroom on the computer. Coding websites, surfing the web, hacking, playing Counter-Strike. Sedentary and isolated. And now it’s mandated by the government! (Shout-out to all the parents merging home life with work life, though.)

I wrote a secret post and, as far as I know, no one read it. 👋 to the three people who read my second secret post.

Zoom pub quizzes are quite good, aren’t they? Highlights included bonus points when Danny Dyer popped up randomly, a sound clash, and imitating famous paintings. Actually, Zoom pub quizzes might be better than pub quizzes…though I do miss the pub.

Read Microserfs by Doug Coupland, which Matt recommended to me. First thought: wow, working in tech hasn’t changed much, has it?! It’s an enjoyable postmodern read, focusing on the growth of the characters as they transition from introverted code-monkeys to fully featured personalities. The comparison between Apple and Microsoft cultures was funny too, you could write that book now and make it about GDS and NHS X.

Carried on playing old PlayStation games. Tomb Raider is really quite good.

In other gaming news, I’m starting a Fate Core RPG with my best mates. I’ve never played a tabletop RPG before, I figured they all involved fantasy in some shape or form, but Fate allows you to design the world and characters any way you want. As two of the crew are in Montreal and Vancouver, the rest of us in Britain, we’re using Discord for text and voice chat. I might start writing notes on our games like Michael does.

We’ve spent the last five weeks living in North Wales, helping my partner’s brother deliver food and supplies to elderly and infirm relatives. We’ve spent the entire time physically distancing from family, making sure that if any of us became infected we wouldn’t transmit it to each other.

It has given us a chance to road-test living here, as I don’t want to be in London for ever and it’s closer to my parents than Bristol or Cardiff. I’ve always wanted to live in Wales, ever since I was a boy, as we holidayed in Llandudno most years. I think we could make it work, as long as remote working will become part of the new normal.

We’ve been supporting to local economy wherever possible, buying excess beer from Cwrw Llŷn, coffee from Poblado, vegetables and eggs from Treddafydd, pizza from Crust, cakes from Two Islands, fish from Pysgod Llŷn and meat from the cigyddion. It’s been a delicious two weeks, the produce here is excellent. Though I do miss hauling seasonal produce back home from Brockley Market each week.

Worth saying though: we’re really privileged to be here and others don’t have this opportunity. So I’m taking nothing for granted. I hope you and your loved ones pull through this weird time.

Reading

The New York Times’s coverage of coronavirus has been so good, and their writing about the food industry is fantastic. Definitely worth the 50p per week subscription.