User needs: don’t go to Chino

The concept ‘don’t go to Chino’ may be my most significant intellectual contribution to GDS and digital transformation, though I cannot account for any practical impact. Or at least it might have been, had I published this when I wrote it in 2014. At the time I was leading work on how to get ‘digital by default’ services to digitally excluded users. It matters equally to me now as Director of Customer Journey at Citizens Advice.


If you are involved in making public services more digital, don’t represent users of public services in a less flattering light than you represent yourselves.


This concept is derived from The O.C., an American teen drama. It is a very good programme. Ryan Atwood, one of the main characters, is from the wrong side of the tracks, specifically a place called Chino. The scenes set in Chino or associated with Ryan’s working class roots are shot in a sad, grey light. The look very bleak in comparison to the shiny, bright, upper middle class new life the Cohen family offer to Ryan in posh Newport Beach. The first season in particular is anchored by the ever-present narrative risk that Ryan will return to Chino – don’t go to Chino! I feel that the line ‘don’t go to Chino’ is used in the dialogue but I’ll confirm that next time I do an OC re-watch.

The opening credits give a sense of this, when at the start Ryan is in a car going away from Chino, looking sad and grey.

This concept was coined by yours truly when I got cross at a difference I perceived between the representation of GDS employees and services users in GDS’s photographs. The pictures of users were a bit sad and grey, like they were in Chino. A bad place. The pictures of GDS staff were bright and cheerful, like they were in a nice office in central London, or Newport Beach, bathed in the warm glow of their (our) privilege.

My irritation at this became an imperative: don’t go to Chino [when representing your users]! Which makes no grammatical sense, but you get the point.


The concept is important to me as a reminder to consider how we represent the parties involved in public service provision and use. We should be as respectful to the people who use our services as we are to the people who make them, if not more, and this should show in our visual and other communications.

More broadly, the concept acts as a prompt for me to remember the power relations in digital transformation work, especially when working on services for the whole public, or more disadvantaged or vulnerable people. These power relations are, in my view, very present but mainly unacknowledged. When you work in the public sector and your work is making decisions about the provision of public services to citizens (be that policy decisions about whether services will be provided at all and to what level, or delivery decisions about how they are provided), you are in a position of power over the people who use you services. This is a privileged position. We should inhabit it respectfully and interrogate ourselves to make our actions and our work the best they can be.

January to April 2017

In January I had a bit more of a rest. No work. It was brilliant.

In February I started working with a management consultancy to develop a digital proposition and business plan. This has been a really fun project, good to do something more commercial.

In March I ran a tutorial called “The essentials of leadership for service design” at Service Design in Government 2017, with Ade Adewunmi. We’ll write more about that anon. I also started working for the Department for Education to help them develop their digital capability.

In April I continued those two projects. I worked with a software company who wanted to get on GCloud to sell more services to government. And I worked on a training course for charities that will start in June (excited for that!).

May to October 2016

I spent lots of time at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy working on 3 programmes. Not all at once, thankfully. I’m not sure I can say too much about them here.  I led a service design review of the Student Loans Company.  As part of this, I did Wardley mapping for the first time. I was underwhelmed. I ran a discovery project to figure out how to get user-focused finance and HR services to 15,000 staff. I was overwhelmed. And when the portfolio team found itself without a manager, I stepped in to help oversee the department’s digital transformation programmes. Phew.

February, March and April 2016

I wrapped up my 6 month contract at UKTI in the first week of February. Lord Maude left the week after.

I’m working part-time at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I’m lucky to be part of a brilliant team led by Chief Digital Officer Emma Stace. I’m acting as a roving programme director. I’ve been leading 3 discovery projects – one about digital transformation of corporate services, one piece of service design and one piece of Wardley mapping.

I’ve been doing some speaking too. I took a delightful excursion into the world of live art to speak at The Pacitti Company with the amazing artist Gemma Marmalade. We talked about how punk and feminist principles inform the (very different) work we do. Or ‘our practice’, as they say in the art world. I did my talk about feminism, punk rock and public services at People Before Pixels. I loved this meet up and it’s going to become a regular date in my diary. I spoke about digital transformation at Think Cloud for Digital Government in London and took a trip up to Manchester to talk about local government digital and procurement at Think Cloud For Local Government.

To do all that stuff, I spend a lot of time looking at screens. To balance this out in my spare time, I’ve unsubscribed from Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s made me so happy. I read books again! Next up is the new Nicola Barker novel, The Cauliflower. A new novel by my favourite writer, at the exact moment I’ve started reading again. It doesn’t get better than that.

December 2015 and January 2016

I’ve been doing the final third of my contract at UK Trade and Investment. My team’s recent blog posts explain what we’ve been doing better than I can.

Digital service for UK businesses that want to export – Talking to Businesses and Researching Export

Services for staff – Finding People in UKTI

UKTI proof of concept market overview

Source: UKTI Digital Trade Blog

We ended 2015 by briefing Lord Maude, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, on the digital service for exporters project. He said it was ‘exactly what [he] was looking for’. But more importantly, the users we’ve been testing with say the same.

An ‘eek I haven’t written anything for 3 months’ update

In my last monthnote I mentioned I had a new project, working at UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). Things have been busy since then, hence the radio silence.

I’ve been setting up a team to work on a new service for UK businesses that want to export, which you can read about on the UKTI digital blog. I’ve been very fortunate to hire a talented and determined team who are doing excellent work in sometimes challenging circumstances. I’ve also been working with UKTI colleagues on our internal tools, and doing regular skills-sharing sessions how you can use agile outside digital teams. It makes me very happy when people in finance teams tell me they’re doing stand ups.


(Photo by @mskatiebenjamin)

I’ve been doing a bit of talking too. I spoke about doing digital transformation in departments to government officials from Australia, New Zealand and Canada at Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Digital Government Symposium. I spoke to cool design types at UCD2015 about feminism, punk rock and public services. This was the first time I’ve talked about my work in a personal way. I loved it and other people seemed to like it too. Girls to the front!

Monthnote July and August 2015

In June, I was approached by a new client: UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). In July, I filled in lots of forms for them and waited. I’m not very good at waiting. In August, I started work there as Head of Digital Services. My role is to set up a digital delivery team. We’ll build excellent services for UK companies that want to export and brilliant tools for UKTI staff. Over the 6 months I’m at UKTI we’ll take the first services through discovery, alpha and, if we go fast enough, beta. I’ve learnt loads from existing members of the UKTI digital team, who’ve been doing really valuable research and discovery work. There’s a big opportunity to improve the UK government’s trade services and I’m very happy to be involved.

I wrote about what I learned from working at GDS, what I learned from working at departments, and why we should keep getting better at digital government. People seemed to like it.

I went to San Francisco. It was lovely. I saw some big trees.

Big trees

Concept: executive realness

This is a post about a concept that helps me make sense of the world I work in. Part of my reason to write it is because I find that when feminist ideas are used in the digital, government and digital government communities work in, they are frequently used to explore and understand matters of gender only. For me, feminist, queer and anti-racist ideas can help us explore and understand much more. I would also like to modify the citational practices of digital government, which as an intellectual project rests almost exclusively on a canon written by white men.


When a person who is not a business executive dresses and acts so much like an executive, that people think they are an executive, and in some sense they become an executive.


To the best of my knowledge, ‘realness’ and the related concept ‘executive realness’ come from ball culture in the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Some drag performers explain what ‘realness’ means to them in the documentary Paris is Burning:

‘to be able to blend, that’s what realness is’

‘it’s not a take-off or a satire, no, it’s actually being able to be this’

The concept of ‘executive realness’ thus means being able to be an executive through your actions and presentation, even if you are not employed as an executive. Note that is means ‘being’, not just ‘pretending to be’. You can see a tiny bit of an example at 0:12 in the video. There are examples of executive realness elsewhere in Paris is Burning, but I can’t find clips of those sections online.

Note that the term is probably not fixed in definition, rather becoming fixed through the documentary (see bell hooks’ critique below).

The term has also been used in RuPaul’s Drag Race, which brings styles and language of drag balls to the genre of the TV talent show.

Paris is Burning has been analysed by feminist scholars including bell hooks in her essay ‘Is Paris Burning?’ and Judith Butler in ‘Stories that Matter’. In my mis-remembering, it is a text used in Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’ in relation to the theory of gender performativity but this is not the case. I note that here because Gender Trouble and Paris is Burning, and so executive realness, are things I always think of together. I make a Butlerian interpretation of the concept because I stress the idea of someone ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ executive through their actions, not just the idea of pretending so well you pass. If the idea of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’ something rather than ‘pretending to be’ something through your actions is unfamiliar, Butler is a good place to start.


At the most superficial level, the concept points out that in the workplace, we are all acting within certain modes of behaviour. Or deliberately acting outside them, but probably not too much outside, else we are likely to have to leave the workplace.

The concept points out that executive-ness is unevenly distributed across bodies. In the context in which I live and work it is most frequently found on/in white, heterosexual, middle class, cis male bodies. It is naturalised in these bodies, so it doesn’t seem like acting or adopting and performing a set of behaviours, it just seems ‘real’.

Or, some people get to act in ways that accrue socio-economic privilege, in large part because of their existing socio-economic privilege, while others don’t.

The concept also shows, though, that these behaviours can easily be adopted by people who don’t usual exhibit them. If you can pass as an executive in a drag ball, then you could pass in an office. To stretch this again, there is no intrinsic greater value or talent in a person who gets to be an executive every day, than one who gets to pass as an executive in a drag ball. The only difference is that one owns the body on which executive-ness is most often found and moves in the socio-economic circles that make doing executive-ness everyday possible.

Or, don’t think you’re in your position just because of your talent and hard work. 

To use the concept in a more cheeky and personal way, when I dress smartly at work or perform boss-like tasks, I sometimes conceptualise myself as doing executive realness. As a white, middle class cis woman, I can pass as an executive pretty easily. There are small penalties for adopting these behaviours, for example receiving negative comments about being overly confident in my abilities, being called blunt, or being called masculine, or excessively careerist, which to the best of my understanding are not negative comments that men who are broadly equivalent to me receive. These are minor penalties, however, because I occupy a body which can pass as executive relatively easily, from which I accrue substantial socio-economic privileges.

Finally, and most importantly, the concept reminds me to value and respect the perspectives of people who do not adopt or fulfil the expectations of executive realness, either because their bodies are not those on which executive behaviours are naturalised, or because they do not choose to or cannot adopt these styles. It reminds me that there are people who do not appear at all in the work I do, where I frequently work entirely with people exhibiting executive behaviours. These ideas are often discussed in the workplace and in the technology sector in the language of ‘diversity’. I’m going to write more about ‘diversity’ and what it means to me separately.


I’m using the concept of executive realness a long way from its home. I am taking it from US to UK context and across boundaries of gender, race, class and sexuality, in which I am the more privileged party. bell hooks criticised the film Paris is Burning and its critical reception for presenting the particular culture of drag balls through the lens of a middle class, educated, white woman, as if it was an unmediated truth and ‘as though [Jennie Livingstone, the director] somehow did this marginalized black gay subculture a favor by bringing their experiences to a wider public’ (hooks cited in Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge, 1993, p92). I don’t think I’m doing them a favour by writing this post. I think the subjects of Paris is Burning did me a favour by creating a concept that illuminates how executive authority is created. (Edit: the language of ‘favours’ suggests that the creators of the concept did it to benefit me, which they didn’t – they did it for themselves and I pinched it). I hope I am using their concept respectfully, but do so expecting to be critiqued if I am not, in which case I will change or discontinue my use of it.

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.