Visiting Code for America and 18F

In San Francisco last month I visited Code for America and 18F. Thank you to Lana for the introductions.

Code for America very generously fed me and let me do a talk to them, and I got to hang out with Brie when a few of them were in London a couple of weeks ago. I talked about the UK Government Digital Strategy, working with people who have lower digital capability, and how working in a department rather than at GDS has shifted my perspective. 18F people very generously talked to me while we drank coffee, which was also excellent.

Code for America's beautiful office. People do work here, they're just hiding in the back left.
Code for America’s beautiful office. People do work here, they’re just hiding in the back left.

These are my brief reflections a few weeks on, about the similarities and differences I found compared to my experiences doing digital government work in the UK. They are based on about 240 minutes of data, so take them with a pinch of salt.

These things are similar

  • people are really keen to talk about their work and learn from each other
  • there is a sense of excitement that these organisations exist and what they can do
  • members of staff have been happy to make substantial changes to their careers to be part of it
  • people are really ambitious about the impact digital can make on service delivery but…
  • there is just too much to do and it can be overwhelming!
  • there’s a strong awareness that digital government/civil tech are about changing culture and organisations as much as they are building digital services

These things are different

  • I found less of an interest in being seen as global leaders in digital government/civic digital
  • people talked very openly about the need for a diverse workforce, with sophisticated rationale for why this mattered, and what they were doing to overcome it – this is unlike anywhere I’ve done digital or digital government work in the UK
  • the offices are much nicer

I’m pleased and proud to be part of an international digital government community. We are very fortunate to be able to turn up in each other’s offices, be welcomed, and get to know each other. Thank you to everyone I met, I found our conversations really inspiring and returned to London full of energy and enthusiasm. Onwards!

Monthnote October 2014

October has been an excellent month, and not only because I spent the first half of it on holiday. I went to New York and San Francisco. It was wonderful.

The view from our apartment in New York
The view from our apartment in New York

In San Francisco I gave a talk at Code for America, and met some people from 18F, both of which were brilliant experiences. I’ll write more about this separately.

When I got back, it transpired that the members of Sleater-Kinney, creators of the Official Rebecca Industries Corporate Song, have reunited. This is the best thing that’s happened since 2006, when they went on indefinite hiatus.

Back at work, I’m carrying on at the un-named big IT company. My work there has focused on central government until this point, so this month my colleagues and I started work on what they are doing, and what they can do, in health and local government.

I’m going to be doing some coaching on Healthbox‘s Health Social Innovators accelerator programme for social health ventures, which launched last week. I’m going to be helping the companies that want to work with the public sector. I’m not exactly sure what this will involve yet, because it’s going to be driven by the needs of the ventures on the programme, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’m also on the hunt for more work. This is the first time it’s happened and I’m finding that it makes me less stressed than I thought it would. The aforementioned holiday is probably helping with this. It makes me feel motivated and enthusiastic for the future. A good way to feel.

It’s also give me time to catch up on Rebecca Industries admin, of which there is a lot. But the less said about that, the better.

Monthnote September 2014

I’m writing this quite a while after the end of September. Ooops. My memories are vague, but through the four-week fog I remember spending many hours behind this door.

PHE door

At Public Health England (PHE), home of the door, September was a month in which lots of things came to fruition. We wrapped up the consultation period for changes to the team structure and roles. I reviewed the work Scott Turton, Nathan Flowers and Victoria O’Callaghan of SapientNitro had done with us on a digital strategy, and found it very good. The team worked on the ‘tail’ content from our transition of health protection content to GOV.UK, and diligently dealt with queries and suggestions from users.

September was my last month at PHE. I’ve handed the role over to Diarmaid Crean, who is now fully installed as their permanent Deputy Director for Digital. They are in very safe hands, and I can’t wait to see where Diarmaid and the team take it next!

At the anonymous IT company, my colleagues and I switched from making the case for being more digital, to figuring out how to get going. We’re basically setting up a start-up within the larger company, building on work some pioneering colleagues have been doing over the past few months. Fun!

My thoughts on the Department of Health Digital Passport

Dave Briggs wrote about the Department of Health (DH) Digital Team’s work on a digital passport and asked for feedback. It’s part of their work to increase the digital capability of all staff in the department. The aim is to: “equip [DH’s] people with the confidence they need to be able to do great work, using the best tools and approaches available to them”. This is my feedback.

I really like the idea of having a clear set of digital things everyone is expected to know and do. I like that it is a simple list. I think it covers a sensible range of topics and I like that it focuses on useful things people would need to know to deliver their objectives, rather than learning about digital for its own sake. One of my bugbears is the attitude that digital isn’t something you need to plan, monitor or involve yourself in the delivery of, it’s just something that you don’t give much thought to and chuck over to an agency. The passport shows that this isn’t the case.

There are three things I’d change, though.

1. Put users first

This one might sound semantic but is really important to me. The line about users should come before agile. If you understand your users, you have a chance of doing a good project without using agile (though I’d recommend you do work in an agile way). If you don’t understand your users, you might as well go home, whatever way of working you choose.

2. Shift the focus from understanding digital, to being able to think and talk about how it can be used

Lots of the parts of the passport are about ‘understanding’ digital. I think it needs to go further, from understanding digital to thinking and talking about it. In my experience, many people are easily able to understand digital in principle, but don’t know how to talk about it or how it can be used. This limits their confidence. I’ve had many conversations where colleagues eagerly agree that they “need to be more digital”, but it all gets a bit uncomfortable and fizzles out when the digital people start talking about it in more detail, or suggesting ideas, and the colleagues can’t take the conversation, and so the project, further.

3. Emphasise being able to make digital delivery happen

The list talks about getting support and guidance inside and outside DH. I think this could go further to equip people with a bit more understanding of how they can make digital delivery happen e.g. in-house digital team, suppliers, what you might be able to start doing within your team. This might help shift the idea that digital is something you automatically put out to tender, or that it’s something only a few people within the department can do.

My second and third suggestions make the passport much harder to achieve and teach. But I think they would make it more impactful.

Good luck to Dave and the team in refining and using the digital passport. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Collaborating and persuading to do digital transformation

I wrote a couple of posts for the Department of Health Digital Health blog about some of the work we are doing at Public Health England as part of our move to GOV.UK and NHS Choices.

One is about how we chose which of our 150 websites to transition first, based on user need and organisational priority. The other is about some of the things we do to get the rest of the organisation working with us to make this change. They sit nicely with Sarah Richard’s great post about convincing your organisation about usability.

These posts are about the collaboration and persuasion that is part of doing digital transformation. This work requires energy, tenacity and determination. It requires willingness to understand the organisation you are working in, its priorities, how it works, and the perspectives of people you are working with who might question what you’re doing.

In my experience this is often the hardest work of digital transformation, and often the most important to making lasting change.

Monthnote July 2014

July was all about the work of the Public Health England content team, who have been working their socks off to get our priority health protection content from the Health Protection Agency website to GOV.UK. I’ve been doing my usual stuff, which you can extrapolate from my previous monthnotes, but for this month let’s focus on the content.

There’s one place for all health protection content. Much of the content is there already and we will be adding the less-used, tail content over the next few months.

Health protection

You can browse infectious disease information.

Infectious diseases


And you can see all the information about individual diseases, for example ebola, together in collection pages.



Rebecca Industries Monthnote June 2014

It’s not even the end of June but I’m in the mood for a monthnote tonight.

This month at Public Health England (PHE), the team and I have:

  • Produced new content for GOV.UK to meet our health protection users’ needs (that one was definitely the team, not me)
  • Done the first half of our short, sharp digital strategy development, with SapientNitro (that one was mainly them too)
  • Welcomed new content designers and started recruiting a digital policy person to keep us in line
  • Taken feedback on a proposed new structure and expansion of the digital team
  • Written a long business case, proper Treasury style
  • Told about 1000 people to start with the user need
  • Said fond farewells to Alison Hill, deputy Chief Knowledge Officer of PHE and my boss, and Rachel Neaman, Digital Leader at the Department of Health. We will miss you!

I’m now going to be working at PHE until the end of November, which is brilliant news.


The picture is a portrait of my by two members of the team at PHE, in which I am waiting for all our 150 websites to transition. She’s got great hair but in real life, I look less patient.

In other Rebecca Industries activity, this month I took a week off to say goodbye to my Grandma and ‘happy 30th birthday’ to the fabulous Kat Kennedy. I also carried on with my work helping a big IT company figure out how to approach the digital government market, about which I will remain secretive.

Making good Digital Services Store proposals

I’ve worked on calls off for the Digital Services Store from both sides – as a client procuring a couple of projects, and as an advisor to a supplier putting in bids. In this post I wanted to write up what I’ve learned about making good proposals. It’s based on things that I’ve seen and done that have worked, and things that I’ve seen and done that haven’t worked.

My view is that it is a shared responsibility of both parties to make it a good procurement. You need good proposals. And to get them, you need good requests for proposals.

In summary, if you’re writing a proposal, you need to pay attention to what you’re being asked, and be good at writing. If you’re a client, you need to explain very, very clearly what you’re looking for. Both these things sound simple but are hard to do. Whatever side you’re on, use opportunities to communicate in ways that aren’t writing.

I hope this is helpful. I would love to know other people’s views of what is good or bad. You can talk to me @rebeccakemp

For potential suppliers, my advice is:

1. Really tailor your proposal to what the client wants. This sounds very obvious and I imagine that all the people who wrote bids I’ve reviewed would say they had done it. But out of 5 proposals for a digital strategy I received, only 2 had done this satisfactorily, and none of them had done it to what I consider a high standard. At the very least, your proposal needs to include the phrases and words used in the call off (not just the client and project name). 3 out of 5 of the proposals I read in that procurement didn’t make much effort to do this. Frankly, I was a little insulted. To be a suitable standard, you need to show that you have thought about the requirement and built it into your proposal.

2. Make it easy for the reviewers to read. It’s likely that the person marking your proposal is doing a batch of them, without time to luxuriate over your individual proposal. So make it easy for them by doing the hard work to make it simple. Use headings and topic sentences. Keep appendices to a minimum so the marker doesn’t have to keep flicking between documents. If you are using appendices, make it easy for the marker to get to the relevant information, rather than them having to wade through your standard proposal slides. Write clearly. Get it edited.

3. Make it easy for the reviewers to give you marks. As much as possible, structure your response point by point against the requirements and criteria in the procurement documents request for proposal and marking scheme. Think of it like a job application. It matters if you get awarded 2 points or 3 points for each question, so make sure you’ve hit every point. The difference between and 2 and a 3 is frequently how much the proposal is tailored to the client’s project, which takes us back to point 1.

For people buying services, my advice is:

1. Be really clear about what you’re doing and what you want to buy. I thought I was clear in my digital strategy request for proposals. But the responses showed me that I hadn’t been. When I reviewed the documents again I noticed that the title of the project was misleading. Cringe. Filling in all the documents for the proposal is challenging, at least for me, especially when you’re not procuring digital development services. When I do the next one, I’m going to get more people to review it to pick up on my mistakes and make sure it’s really clear.

I'm better by slide

2. Do a webinar. You’ll probably be offered the opportunity to do a webinar for potential suppliers to ask questions. Do it. It will make you put your requirements into another format, like in my slide above. For me, having to explain it in a presentation made me communicate it more clearly. It will help people who prefer to listen rather than read. It also gives suppliers an opportunity to raise questions, which is important if, like me, you’re not perfectly clear about what you’re looking for.

3. Meet the supplier if you can. I was advised against this. In hindsight, it didn’t matter for one where the requirement was very simple, but I wish I had met the supplier for the other one. At the very least, I could have probed the suppliers more on their understanding of the project – which for the weaker proposals, was probably higher than their documents suggested.

Rebecca Industries Monthnote May 2014

This month at Public Health England we have

  • finished the content allocation stage of transitioning the Health Protection Agency website to GOV.UK
  • chosen an agency to work with us on our digital strategy, who we procured through the Digital Services Store (I can say who it is next month when we’ve signed the paperwork)
  • started the formal consultation about how we expand and restructure the digital team
  • done a lot of work with finance to make sure we have the budget we need, as always

We have had great feedback and input from colleagues. The Government Digital Service and the Department of Health are really pleased with the approach we are taking on website transition and the progress we are making. I presented the work we are doing to the meeting of Digital Leaders from all the Department of Health arms length bodies. It was fascinating to learn about what the other organisations are up to and learn from them about what we can do. In particular, NHS Blood and Transplant have similar challenges to us, and it was great to spent some time with Ceri Rose, my counterpart there.

In Rebecca Industries I have settled into my second project. I am working with a big IT company on how they can approach the digital government market in the UK. I have been struck by how similar it is to the Civil Service in some ways. People are motivated by giving the best service to the public. The organisation is dispersed and personal networks are very important. And there are some people who have got digital projects going using their skills and entrepreneurial spirit, but some people who aren’t sure how to start. That’s where I come in!