I wrote the following at the start of may in response to the mySociety review of the UK Parliament IT Services. I’m posting it here so I can refer to it when continuing to follow up on that discussion.


Dear Sir / Madam,

My day-job is as a business analyst for the Government Digital Service but here I am writing purely in a personal capacity.
I thank Parliament for the opportunity to offer a response to the mySociety Strategic Review of Online Services. I am in strong broad agreement with the overall outcome and wish to offer some suggestions for ‘how to get there from here’.
As you may know, all the departments that make up the civil service are undergoing a similar broad digital transformation as part of the government’s Digital Strategy (reports and updates here). This work is being supported by the Transformation team of the Government Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Office.
The Transformation team is working with 8 departments on 25 exemplar projects but, in conjunction with the Office of the Government Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is also helping organisations with their overall transformation to new ways of working. This support covers everything from aiding in recruitment, to organisation design, introduction of Agile methodology and a number of other areas.
I strongly encourage Parliament to put together a similarly empowered digital transformation team headed by a senior manager to drive the required change in a timely manner. If the senior management of GDS are approached for consultation on how to arrange this I am sure they will be very willing to help.
For many, if not most, of the specific issues raised in the mySociety review a good place to start would be for Parliament to instigate its own version of the GDS 26 Digital by Default criteria. This standard is being used to guide the creation of the previously mentioned 25 exemplar services.
Key to this way of working is introducing empowered and accountable service managers who have the budget, resources and delegated authority to create world-class services. Only by having service managers be able to say “no”, as specifically indicated in the mySociety report, will projects be fully able to prioritise work by majority user need.
Laser focus on users needs is the other major ingredient for excellent services. I strongly suggest recruiting professional user needs researchers or retraining business analysts to move into this function.
Start-up and ongoing governance of projects is something else that GDS is working with departments to ensure is well integrated with Agile development. If Parliament is interested in this work GDS may be able to make their findings available.
Once a project’s business case has been given a green light by the appropriate Project Board it is highly recommended that it should move through the four GDS proposed phases – Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live. During Discovery work is done gathering user needs and investigating methods of delivery that would be cheaper than 100% bespoke development – for example using cloud services or open source technology. For procurement the Digital Services Framework is a very valuable option for finding appropriate SMEs to work with if required.
Releasing a project as alpha, private and public beta before going live to all users has many advantages. The most visible of these is increasing the amount of user feedback to direct the development of the system while the project is still in-flight. It should be noted that many major, highly visible, web projects for companies in the private sector have used this method for many years.
There are a number of significant advantages to moving to a way of working based on the Agile methodology. Not the least of these is a development team that is protected from outside interference so is fully able to focus on rapid development. Again, delegated authority for decision making is key.
A bonus from working in a Agile manner is the ability to open up the backlogs of work to people outside the development team who are interested in tracking how work is progressing. Additionally regular, often fortnightly, show and tells allow people – ideally including those outside of Parliament – to see the ongoing incremental improvements to the system.
It is vital that such incremental improvements for a service do not cease when project development is complete. It is no longer good enough to say that “support” is equivalent to “keeping the lights on”. A state of continuous improvement must be maintained for every service including ongoing low-level user research and the ability to update the system rapidly on a very frequent basis. Thought should be given to how this will be achieved – perhaps by a dedicated set of developers how focus on updating non-in-flight services.
There may be a significant advantage to Parliament stating, like government, that from now on they will be treating digital as the primary method of information delivery and exchange – a move to “digital by default”. However, if this is done it is vital to undergo extensive work to show that those that cannot, or will not, use digital technology are not left behind. The GDS-style services government departments are currently implementing are doing this by investing significant research in Assisted Digital. Each service has an AD plan which not only looks as to how to address the needs of those no online but also recommends a channel shift strategy and set of objectives for moving users to that medium. This work is done in conjunction with the governments Digital Inclusion Strategy which is highlighted in its recent report.
Finally, as part of its transparency policy one last thing government does via GOV.UK is have a public Performance Platform which enables anyone to see a set of key KPIs for the services GDS and the other organisations have delivered. I suggest that a similar system, combined with a robust strategy on open data, will lead to even more ways to be able to provide feedback on services to the various service managers who will, via the highly adaptable Agile teams, be able to quickly respond.
At this time OCTO is looking into building cross-government communities for service managers, technologists and others – all of who are on a sharp learning curve towards the digital future. It is possible that, following the appointment of the new Head of Digital and any reconfiguration of WIS/PICT, appropriate Parliamentary staff could join those conversations.
Many of the organisation mentioned above have blogs and / or twitter feeds that detail the day-to-day ways they are approaching common issues in the digital area. I can provide a list on request.
I would be happy to further elaborate on any of these points in a personal capacity. For any involvement with GDS please address via official channels.