At the end of July, I will be deployed from the Government Digital Service. Like much of the government digital estate that has come through GDS, I am being shipped as a much improved product.
Formula for leaving
I’m leaving, I had a great time working here, I am proud of what I achieved, the team are wonderful, but it’s time to go in search of new challenges.
This post doesn’t stray far from that leaving post formula, so maybe you are done here. Or if you read on maybe you’ll gain an insight or two into the GDS ‘secret sauce’ from someone who has had a hand in its concoction.
Meet the makers
I’m writing this during ‘show and tell’, where designers and developers from my product team are demoing the work they have delivered in our recent sprint (I did the acceptance testing on much of it, so I can afford to zone out a little).
Each one of the team’s current crop (and our alumni) are exceptionally committed, productive and talented. GDS has guarded against becoming top heavy with management in favour of maximising the number of makers it has on its staff. And haven’t they recruited well ladies and gentlemen; some of the top digital analyst, delivery, designer, developer, editorial, product and researcher talent are here and it’s been an honour to call them colleagues.
The people we’ve hired don’t often look at the Civil Service as a job for life. Yet, they are amongst the most committed people I’ve worked with in the Civil Service; people who are passionate about public service and national infrastructure. And, they are in a great hurry to deliver change and value. These are folks who want to get very big things done and they think about their delivery in terms of days rather than years.
The Inside Government team – the team I am part of here – embody that approach. I describe them as swashbuckling. No disrespect to the other teams but there is no GDS team I’d rather have been in. I give them problems, they solve them. I talk of visions and they make them real. They’ve knocked me into a half decent product manager and, most importantly of all, they’ve had me in fits of laughter. I couldn’t have asked for more. They make me proud everyday and I will miss them rather a lot.
Digital by default
In my 19 months at GDS, I genuinely feel that I have been rewired by the people I have worked alongside. They’ve given me cause to review everything I thought I knew about digital and have gotten me more excited about its creative and transformative potential than I thought was possible.
It’s partly because of what the ‘makers and crayons’ (as we call our devs and designers) have shown can be done with the tools of our trade, but it’s more because of what we’ve been able to do (in next to no time at all) to change the institution of government here in the UK. Change both in terms of what we feel capable of and what citizens and businesses can expect of us.
It doesn’t stop at digital and public services. My understanding of project and programme management, customer support, team working and managing people are all aspects of my game that have had a big kick up the backside. It’s been nothing short of energising and I badly needed it.
Working without fear
19 months is not long and yet I have achieved more at GDS than my previous 5 years in the Civil Service combined. GDS is an organisation that places a premium on delivery and compels and empowers its employees to make and ship stuff all day, every day.
When I think of the difference to how we did [government digital] things before, I point to our user-centred, data driven methods. We are digital and government experts here, but we harness our interaction with users – through support tickets, labs, surveys, guerrilla testing – to provide counsel to that expertise and keep us [brutally] honest. And whenever there are opinions – we have and receive a lot of these – we deliberate with data.
Data and user input were something I struggled to get on the table in government departments I worked with in the past. Now it comes up every step of the way. Their constant presence allows us work in an agile manner with the confidence that our successes are genuine and our failures will be remedied fast.
Out in the open
Working transparently has also been exhilarating. I’ve never experienced so much scrutiny of how I and my team are producing something, as well as what we produce. It’s not something we are required to do by law, it’s something that GDS actively seeks out.
Whether it’s through our online public backlogs, blogs, code repository or Flickr group, I would struggle to point to a part of government that has invited so much sunlight in on its inner workings. Internally, we are all about peer review of code, designs and decisions, be it through regular ‘show and tell’ sessions, story writing, pull requests or sprint retrospectives.
You’ve got to have thick skin and you have to work at being constructive. But working without having to worry about what’s in the shadows has been fantastic.
Not so secret sauce
Beginning this post, I teased you with the prospect of a big reveal of the ingredients that go into our success at GDS. As I’m sure you’ve worked out by now a lot of the ‘secret sauce’ is actually just common sense. It’s simplicity without simplification.
We’ve always known what makes a good organisation and we’ve always been plain about what we expect of our crew. TRUST, USERS, DELIVERY are not just some words on a wall when you walk into reception, they course through every thought we have and action that we take. If GDS sticks with that, it can’t go wrong. The digital tail can continue to happily wag the government dog.
I’m moving to the University of Bath to head up its digital team. Everything I’ve been learning about higher education, the university and the team there makes me feel confident that this is the right next move for me and I can’t wait to get started.
So it’s time to say ‘see ya’ and thanks for the most amazing experience of my career so far.