Rebecca Industries weeknote #4

I didn’t do a weeknote last weekend, that was bad. But last week I was on annual leave from work for 3 days so I did lots of behind the scenes stuff like apply for a bank account, register for VAT and sort out the URL for this blog, email, etc. When I do that kind of digital stuff I am glad that I learned to do some web stuff earlier in the year, it made me feel confident that I can fix it myself.

I also had my GDS leaving drinks which was fun. Thank you to everyone who came to see me off. I’m going to miss you guys!

Rebecca Industries weeknote #3

My evenings this week have mainly been spent considering the building blocks of Rebecca Industries (getting recommendations for an accountant, figuring out how to set up a company, thinking about my *ahem* web estate). I know how to party, right?

I’ve settled on Rebecca Industries as the actual name for the company, because

  • This is personal for me – it’s a new way of articulating work and life
  • People will hire me personally, not a team or company
  • I absolutely don’t want to do that thing where consultants give themselves a crap brand name, pretend it’s not just them, and write on their website in the plural about ‘our 20 years of strategic experience’. That’s just nasty
  • It’s kind of funny
  • But when I say it as a joke, people say, ‘you should totally call it that!’
  • Jesamy get away with a cute name, so why can’t I?
  • I don’t have ambitions to take on employees, and this will provide the discipline to make sure I don’t do that (or, it will make sure I only hire people called Rebecca, and there aren’t THAT many of us)

In my real job at GDS, a couple of great non-profit organisations visited my team to learn about how we work. I’ve really enjoyed talking with them about what we do and why, discuss it, and find out afterwards that they are going to try some agile stuff and see what works for them. And it has been brilliant for me to talk about how they operate and learn from cool people at a similar level to me about their working lives and management styles. I really want to keep doing things like this in Rebecca Industries.

In other news, the magnificent Jenny Wilson (currently without her own website, she clearly needs the services of Rebecca Industries), has put out a new song. Her music has been the soundtrack to my working life, so feels portentous that a new album is being unleashed at the same time as Rebecca Industries.

Rebecca Industries weeknote #2

Less to report this week but still good progress. Not a day goes by without an exciting potential project or collaboration coming up.  I can’t wait until one of these is formalised and I can tell you about it here.

I’ve been thinking about things I will miss and things I won’t miss from Civil Service life, because I’ve been doing parts of my job for what will be the last time. I will miss meetings with Ministers. l think I had my last one in my current role this week, though there may be surprise meetings in the next few weeks. I like them because they prompt you to consider progress on your work, what the right next steps are, and explain this clearly and succinctly to a person who does not have their head buried in the detail.

I won’t miss formatting the submissions (briefing documents) though. Bane of my life. Or writing last minute briefing. All I can say here on that is, when you’ve been asked to explain something quite complicated in bullets with a 5 minute deadline, it’s really handy to have a blog post that already does it. Perhaps another example of how digital tools and ways of working can help with core policy/governmenty stuff.

Lastly, I’ve been amazed by how many civil servants are coming to me to talk about the practicalities of going solo, and how they have wanted to for years but never quite taken the plunge. Perhaps public servants are a more entrepreneurial bunch that you would believe (or perhaps not, as the ones I’ve been talking to are still dutifully employed by the Crown!).

Digital, full stop

Earlier this week Policy Exchange published their report Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age. The report argues that the government of 2015-20 – whatever its colour – should do all service delivery online, and that Whitehall needs much better data and digital skills to make this happen. I had the pleasure of working with Policy Exchange on the report, debating ideas and making sure they got what they needed from GDS to understand what we’ve been up to.

Here I will say more about an idea that the report glances at but doesn’t quite land upon. It’s the idea that digital gives us tools and ways of working that are applicable outside building digital products and services. I will start by pulling out that points at which the report’s authors Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink do glance at this idea. I will then look at some of the recommendations, and explore how digital tools and ways of working have been helpful in work I’ve done that isn’t about digital products and services.

[Warning: this post was banned from the GDS blog for being too long and waffle-y. I’ve tidied it up but it is still too long and waffle-y. I wanted it to see the light of day though, so here it is].

Following the breadcrumbs

The report makes it clear that digital is about people not technologies: ‘this is really a story about people, leadership and organisational change’. I couldn’t agree more.

The report goes further than Baroness Lane Fox and GDS’s words ‘digital by default’ to say that government should be ‘digital, full stop’. To take this to its logical conclusion, government won’t even need to say ‘digital by default’ anymore, because government is just digital. There wouldn’t be a Government Digital Strategy, there would just be a Government Strategy.

The report also says that digital will allow us to open up the operations of government, through open data but, more relevant for my work, through open policymaking.

When these three points are put together like this, there is only one conclusion for me – that digital tools and ways of working can reach deep into the operations of government, beyond work that might seem to be digital.

Now I’d like to say something about my experiences of using digital tools and ways of working to do work that isn’t primarily about digital. This is work that is about people who aren’t online, and work that is core policy/governmenty stuff.

Digital -> open

One recommendation of the report is for a civil service directory, so that people can find and talk to policymakers about policy they are interested in. It’s really important to me that my team and I are visible for people to talk to us about our work. But we are using existing channels to do this rather than building a new one. We do this by blogging on the GDS blog, by being on Twitter, by being at relevant events/debates, and by proactively talking to people and organisations who work in our area (getting digital services to people who aren’t online). My view is that the more conversations we have, the better the work gets. The Government Approach to Assisted Digital and the assisted digital market engagement are better for involving people who aren’t in government. We are working on being more present in discussions with people that are offline.

The report argues that government should do more with open data and open policy making. I interpret open policy making as involving the people who are experts in a particular area as much as possible in making policy, or outsourcing policy making to them. The Policy Exchange report itself is a great example of this. The team there are thinking, talking and writing about what could be next for digital government. As a result they prompt us at GDS to think about what could be next, so people like me working in government don’t bury our heads entirely in pressing matters like the digital service transformations.

Digital -> non-digital

In these two examples digital has prompted government to think about openness in digital stuff, or being open in digital ways. To take this a stage further, thinking about openness should then make us think about being open for things that are not digital.

We are starting to do this at GDS. My team and I are doing open policy making on assisted digital by commissioning the Helen Hamlyn Centre to develop and test prototype assisted digital services. Digital has prompted us to think about openness, and we have reflected this back on the subject matter of people who are not digital.

Iterating in digital -> iterating in everything

Reaching deeper into the ways we work, the report argues that government should apply ‘lean start-up methodology’, using data to iteratively refine services and products. I think we should also apply it to the everyday working we do in the Civil Service, whether we are working on services or products or other things.

For example, in the assisted digital team we do alphas and betas of things that you might not think of as products, like departmental requirements for market for assisted digital services. We developed a prototype within our team, worked on it with colleagues in other departments, discussed it with our departmental programme board, and now we are refining it further. Last week I wrote a minimum viable product submission to our Ministers, took views on the main points, structure and evidence, then refined it.

This may sound just like silly new words for drafts or outlines but is different is that we make a fully working – though early stage – product, then refine it. When I do a draft, I just end up with a meticulously structured introduction and a lot of gaps on the hard topics, though maybe that’s just me… This way I have to have the discipline of tackling the hard stuff first. The result is a better product, or at least getting to the end product more efficiently.

It also demands a better quality of attention from the people who you share things with. They aren’t getting a draft, they are getting a first-cut product. A subtle but I think important difference.

Ramble -> summary

At this point I should have a rousing conclusion but hey, I did warn you that this was long and waffle-y. The best I can do is to say that in summary, I think we should try using digital tools and ways of working in activities that aren’t about digital products and services. Doing this has made my working life better, and I think it has made the work I do better too.

Rebecca Industries weeknote #1

I have started setting up the endeavour currently known as Rebecca Industries during my weekends. I am going to run Rebecca Industries in an agile style, so I have set up my wall in The Penthouse (Rebecca Industries HQ) and on Trello. I was inspired by Emily Webber on the wall-at-home.

Standing deskI have assembled a standing desk by placing a plank of wood on top of a stack of boxes which I euphemistically call My Archive. I hope one day to have done something significant enough that I can donate it to an international institution, but for now it’s just boxes full of essays I wrote for my masters and posters for club nights I used to run. Yes, my computer is very old. No, my Take That mug is not ironic.

I am collating the advice that people who have made the transition to working for themselves have given me.  This is going to be a very valuable resource and I look forward to passing on my experiences to others in future.

And most importantly I have handed in my notice at GDS. It has been wonderful to hear from people they value my contribution to GDS and have enjoyed working with me. It is also wonderful that I will continue be part of the GDS family and involved in digital government in future.