DfE Digital and Technology podcast
Neurodiversity is a superpower

Neurodiversity is a superpower

February 11, 2022

Here is our seventh episode of the ‘Think digital, act human’ podcast. It’s the last one in our pilot series.

We asked the question can neurodiversity be a super power on a product delivery team? Content Designer Laura Croft and Lead User Researcher Simon Hurst, give us some fascinating insight about how the wiring in their brains helps them to flourish in their digital and technology roles.
But it’s not always plain sailing – listen to them tell it like it is.

They explain what ADHD, autism and dyslexia feel like in the workplace, and how their openness is making a big difference to others.

 

Transcription

[music plays] 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Hello. Welcome to think digital act human, a podcast from the Department for Education, where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. And today we have two guests joining us in the pod. We’re going to be talking to senior content designer Laura Croft and lead user researcher Simon Hurst. Hello, welcome to you both.

 

Simon Hurst

Hi, how's it going?

 

Laura Croft

Hi, nice to be here.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

I'm so excited about this topic because people for a long time now have, like employers, companies have been hearing about the importance of having different voices on their teams, like hiring in a diverse way. So having people of different genders, different races, different ages. If you need an example of what I’m talking about just Google racist soap dispensers and you will understand there's a whole struggle for black people, the struggle is real people. But today we're going to be talking about neurodiversity and how that can actually be a bit of a superpower. And the reason why I'm so kind of excited to talk about the subject is because, you know, cards on the table, I myself am neurodiverse. But we're going to go over to you, let's start with you first Simon. What is neurodiversity?

 

Simon Hurst

So neurodiversity a concept that rather than seeing sort of things like autism or ADHD as a disability, it's more that just our brains are slightly different than what would be classed as, you know, everyone else's brain. So the term for that would be neurotypical. So I think it's just this concept that we're wired slightly differently. It does feel a bit odd to refer to yourself as disabled and I would be covered by the equality act, I would be recognised as disabled. But it's just a different way of viewing it, I think, than saying, Oh, you're disabled.  

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So for people who are not neurodiverse and maybe they don't, really, it's kind of outside their experience. What are some of the conditions that would fall under that label? Because you mentioned, I think you mentioned autism. Laura, do you know some of the kind of conditions that if an employer like heard them, they’d go, Oh, OK, now I know what we're talking about.

 

Laura Croft

Yeah. Simon mentioned autism and ADHD, but it's things like dyslexia. There can be other physical conditions that people can develop within their brains that can then mean that they become neurodiverse. I did a podcast with a colleague who had a particular sort of trigger in his brain that meant that he thought differently. It was a physical condition rather than one of these sort of terms that we see around ADHD and Asperger's, and those types of conditions that would perhaps be more common. With this was actually a sort of physical condition that meant that he fell under the neurodiverse category of sort of being disabled or needing some extra support.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So you see, I'm neurodiverse. I didn't even know that that last category was even a thing. So this is why these kinds of conversations are so important. For me, I am dyslexic or I have dyslexia, and I've recently discovered and when I say recently, I mean, this year, people, I'm in my 30s. I discovered that I have autism too. So the reason this conversation is so important. Some people might kind of hear this off the top and think, Oh, neurodiversity, I don't have anybody on my team who’s neurodiverse. But here's the thing, the people on your team who are neurodiverse might not even know that their neurodiverse. So that's why it's kind of super important to kind  hear some of the things that are being talked about today and think, Okay, if my work place kind of like empowers people who have neurodiversity, that works for everybody, that kind of like raises the standards for everybody in a way. But let's get back to this idea of neurodiversity as a superpower, because I can just imagine some people hearing this and saying, Well, oh, dyslexia, is that a superpower? Like, you know, how is that a superpower?

 

Laura Croft

I'm like you, I was diagnosed as being dyslexic when when I came towards the end of primary school and was sitting exams to go into secondary school. That's when it got picked up for me that I was not neurotypical and it was only later in life in my 30s when I was having quite significant sort of mental health problems and trying to do CBT ( Cognitive behavioural therapy) that I discovered that autistic spectrum disorder is the thing that's on my paperwork. So with me, t he way that sort of plays into a superpower and it did take a while for me to really be able to harness it. It is around words. I'm a content designer and I can very easily digest a lot of words and I can spot quite easily when things aren't correct within words. I can't do it with numbers. I very, very much can't do with numbers. But when it comes to words, and being able to do, particularly what we do in the department, putting things into plain English, making things concise and clear I can digest a lot of information and relay that very simply back because the way my brain works. I have to go into the minutia of the detail of something to really understand it. And having that sort of drive in that need to get into the detail really makes me a very good content designer and able to write about subject matters and bring people together to write on certain topics. So I've (over a sort of 10 year career) really managed to harness it.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Simon, is there anything you want to add to that?

 

Simon Hurst

Yeah, I think I was diagnosed with ADHD at 39, having had, you know, depression anxiety throughout my life and everything fitted into place when I was diagnosed. And I've had a screening recently for autism, through work, and that flagged me, as, you know, very possibly autistic, which was a surprise. But it's so hard to get past all the stuff that you've struggled with throughout your life that you maybe didn't you, you just thought you certainly people with ADHD have been told all you're lazy pull you, you know, you just need to focus that sort of thing. So it's quite hard to shift into this mindset of a superpower, and I've struggled with it for a long time, and I would still consider myself to, you know have many, many weaknesses. I think if you look back on why ADHD is even a thing, for example, you know, the theory is that, you know, back when we were cave cave people, ADHD people were great in an emergency. So we were constantly sort of switched on and, you know, focus on our surroundings. So any sign of danger is when ADHD people really kicked in. So to the tribe, we were super powerful. So if you think about the meerkat that sits on top of rock and keeps watch all day, that's like an ADHD meerkat. 

Apart from coming into play in emergencies, which is why you see, you know, firefighters a lot of firefighters have ADHD, people who work in like emergency services. But, the sort of more day-to-day stuff - I'm very good at sort of just spotting either patterns or problems and problem solving. I'm a very intuitive person, so I just can very easily see what I think is an obvious solution to a problem. It's weird. It's almost. And I found this, you know, with partners, ex-partners, things like that. Sometimes looking at people who are neurotypical is like the brains work in slow motion and I can come to a conclusion and it can take people quite a long time to get there. I'm thinking that that was obvious. I think that's a big strength of mine, and people with ADHD do tend to be very honest and sometimes a bit uninhibited. So you have to be careful to manage. So I think now broadly, people value my honesty at times. But I think, you know, sometimes what I think is being sort of just, you know, jokingly honest, maybe I'm not always aware of how it lands. So it is a difficult balancing act. But I think problem-solving and  a willingness to, you know, just do stuff and get stuck in at times is one of my strengths.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yeah. And Laura, what would you say? Like, how do you find that your brain works differently in the day to day when you're at work? Like how is your brain sort of like doing different things than, say, someone who's neurotypical?

 

Laura Croft

I definitely, I'm sort of echoing some of what Simon said in terms of the feedback that I get is you’re rushing too forward, you need to take the team with you, and I've got better at that because I've had some really great coaching. So being able to slow down. But I certainly particularly early on in my career, like Simon said, I'd see a very obvious solution and would be quite blunt at delivering that we just need to do this. And you know, you can't tell people what to do. You have to be able to sort of show them and lead them and show that skills have kind of developed. For me, some of the challenges I face are around verbal communication. That's where I kind of struggle a little bit. So I will get involved when we're doing community things or when we've got show and tells, or we're doing those feedback sessions, I'll be typing. It's actually easier for me to type out my thoughts than it is for me to speak them and so for example, when I've recently got promoted and I'd had a couple of interviews where I’d struggled a little bit with the interview and my manager and I sat down and we came up with some adjustments. The adjustment that we managed to make that we agreed that I could sort of put forward and ask for was to get the questions just a little bit before time in the interview. So I could have them in the font and size wanted on the screen. I could read through and digest it. Where there were two or three part questions I could separate those out. And then I was able to sort of get through that kind of interview process because I'd really struggled. Even if they put them in the team's chat it's quite small, it's difficult to read, you know? So just having those kind of adjustments of being able to have those kind of adjustments here has made a massive difference.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

That is so interesting. I guess I hadn't really thought about it like that. It's like if you have dyslexia and you're a student in exams, you know you're entitled to 25 percent extra time just because your brain's kind of like picking apart the question differently. OK, so if you're in an interview, like one good suggestion you've kind of mentioned is like, can they give you questions a little bit ahead of time? How much ahead of time are we talking about, like in the hour before you go in or what?

 

Laura Croft 

I think I got that, I think I got them about half an hour before I went into the interview, so not in time to be going and stressing at there, but enough time to receive the email opened it up, put it where I want it an be able to read it. And the other thing is they did the same for all the other candidates. So it wasn't that I was advantaged more than the others. They did the same for everybody. Everybody got the same format half an hour before and obviously I've had more experience things, but three interviews over six month period and in the third one the adjustment got it right! 

  

Adaobi Ifeachor

So you know? I'm loving that. That's the difference, isn't it? And that also helps get like buy in from other like members of staff who might be going through an interview and might think, Oh, is it kind of unfair if someone else has an adjustment? If you're making sure that everybody is working from a level playing field? Everybody gets the adjustment, then that kind of makes a difference. Simon, do you agree?

 

Simon Hurst

I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether because, I'm really curious about that, I didn't anticipate that that's how it would work. I don't know if that is standard or if that was done in that particular case. But the adjustment is because we have I mean, the definition of disability is you know, the environment or the social model of disabilities, it's the environment that disables us or it’s society that disables us. So society is designed around neurotypical people, it's not designed for us sorts of people on the fringe. So it's almost like you've made an adjustment to level the playing field, but then you've expanded it to everyone else as well. So I'm not 100% sure how I feel about that.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Ooh, bit of a debate going on here.

 

Simon Hurst

Yeah, I'm just curious more than anything else.

 

Laura Croft

Well, I think, the thing is it needs to be down to individual circumstances. And so for me, the adjustment I needed was that I needed the questions in writing in a format I could easily read them at the point I was doing the interview. It wasn't to give me early sign of the questions, particularly and so therefore, if they were giving me early sight of the questions, that could potentially be perceived as disadvantaging because it's not that I needed it. It was analysed that I needed them early so I could prepare them so I could read them. So I think that's possibly where that balance came. And to be fair, I was I was quite happy with that adjustment and it was something that was discussed. And then it was discussed with me on an individual basis, and I felt part of the process in making the decisions. And I think it's the process that you need to go through. And I think I've been asked so many times before, what adjustments do you need? And it's like, I don't know. If I knew I'd be able to tell you. And so for me, it was being able to have those conversations to have that support, to then be able to identify, well, what? What can we do? And that for me, that arrangement that we agreed worked.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So what I'm hearing is if you realise that, yes, you you want to create like a recruitment process that is, you know, there's equity for people who are neurodiverse because you want to increase the amount of neurodiverse people in your teams Then when it comes to interviews, it's not this is what we think is going to be best for neurodiverse candidates, but it's a let's have a conversation. And actually internally, we're what we're kind of arriving at with this discussion is, have a discussion internally too about at what point do you kind of roll out those sort of changes to other candidates beyond like, you need to have a discussion so that everybody kind of agrees that, yeah, we're comfortable with this for these reasons and and we've spoken to these these particular candidates who might need adjustments. That's interesting to me. I want to kind of just say like, I want to bring it back to this idea of a superpower, though, because for me, I had known for many, many years that I had dyslexia. And for me, that kind of meant that I had a really, really - when I say I've got a poor short term memory I've already forgotten the question - Do you know what I mean? It's already gone out of my head so that that's like a real thing, and that doesn't necessarily, maybe it's because I need to make a complete, reframe everything and make a mental sweat here. But for me, that doesn't feel like a superpower. What I can say is that I get bored very easily. I really enjoy structure. Maybe that's the autism side of my brain. But when it comes to meetings, I am a very, very good facilitator. So I come to the point quickly. We move, you know, meetings aren't just for meetings sake, but we moved on on a piece of work. Everybody has their actions. We know when they’re due and that kind of thing. And if I'm in a meeting where it doesn't feel like that, it feels more kind of amorphous and you kind of wonder, well, what was the point in that then? Yeah that doesn't really work for me. So maybe that's kind of like a little bit of a superpower? But U guess my question to both of you is, why is it important to think of neurodiverse staff as having a superpower, why not just say we welcome all diversity, you know, because it brings in lots of different perspectives?  Why do I need to think of dyslexia as being one of my superpowers somehow?

 

Simon Hurst

I think there's. Somebody talked to me about a concept recently called Clifton Strengths, and I think this is quite a good example of it. And so Clifton strengths it sort of views that whenever anyone does any training or self-development, you're always you're always trying to develop the thing that you're rubbish at. So for me with ADHD, somebody would keep sending me on a planning and time management course because are ‘oh you're not very good at that you need to get better at it.’ And what Clifton, I think the psychologist was called Don Clifton in like the 50s, he said ‘Why do we always develop the stuff that we're no good at? What makes us great is our strengths. So why wouldn't you just apply those more?’ So, you know, if your strengths are, you know, leading and you know, in the bigger picture, why does  somebody then force you to try and do the things that you know, you’re no good at. You don't force Usain Bolt to be very, very good at weightlifting or something. He's great at running. So you focus on that. And I think it's almost an extension of LA that you know that there's some things I'm no good. I can't estimate time to save my life. I'll think something will take me an hour and it could take me two weeks. And you know, at the age of 42, people will still think that I can estimate my own time because it's so obvious that, you know, everyone could estimate time and I just can't, and I'm useless at it. But there's people who are brilliant, but are terrible at my strengths so why not make best use of those strengths? 

And I think coming back to the question, neurodiversity it’s so hard to put a finger on, you know, all these conditions are just ways that we've categorised behaviours that you can't really do a blood sample or a brain scan for any of these. I mean, brain scans is a bit of a red herring, brain scans will look different to someone with ADHD than somebody who's neurotypical. But you can't test it. We've decided that if people exhibit that, that and that behaviour, they are autistic or ADHD, and it's really difficult to then decide. So I think it's maybe a way of sort of brushing over that fact and recognising that actually, you know, people are different and neurotypical people and neurodiverse people do have different strengths. I mean, people who are neurotypical, I see so dependable and ploddy and reliable, but they sometimes feel a little bit like a workhorse at times, like my ex-partner, it was really, really, you know, dependable, but it felt so slow moving talking to her and sometimes the way her brain worked, that my brain was firing off in all different directions that it was just I couldn't imagine being in her shoes. I can't imagine how her brain would work. And I think probably the flip of that is true. And it is. It's quite an uncomfortable feeling, my brain. It is sometimes hard to keep track, so it  does make life a lot harder in many ways. And it takes extra effort, I think, to get through a work day where you're using your strengths because, you know, ADHD has this concept of hyper focus and where you can, you know, shut out everything and just focus on what you need to get done. But that is an incredibly draining mode to switch myself into.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Before I knew that I had autism in my London days, I was living in a shared house with like a shared entrance. So I was the flat downstairs and there was like a Brazilian couple who were just lovely couple who lived upstairs. And one day we got a knock on the door. I open the door and it's the guy from the couple and he's like, Hi, I wanted to let you know that we're having a party today. And I was like, Oh, that's so nice of you, but I've like, I just got back from work like I'm kind of tired, I’ve taken my shoes off and stuff and he just like stared at me blank faced and like my housemate started laughing. And it was only that I realised he wasn't inviting me, he was just saying, I'm having the party, so I just want to warn you there's going to be a lot of foot traffic and stuff like that. That one story is like the story of my life. There are so many points in my life where there's like another level of meaning happening in a conversation, and I haven't quite got it. But I can tell that I'm missing something but like, there's either subtext or I've taken something too directly or something like that. So there's that side of life where things are, you know, I just tell people on my team, listen, just be direct with me. I don't need the subtext. I just need the text. Whereas like, there's other parts of me, that are super creative in a way that I think are quite unique. So let's let's bring it back to the digital world now. Laura, how can, how can our neurodiverse kind of pluses and even even the things where you know you're taking things a little bit too directly? How can those be a benefit, particularly in a digital career?

 

Laura Croft

I think for us, we work in a very user centred design way, we are very about users and like you just kind of pointed out there, one to one kind of face to face I miss stuff too, stuff just kind of goes over my head. But on the flip side, what I can do and what I seem to be, I'm a very empathetic person it's why I get upset about stuff quite easily. I can find that I can put myself in users shoes very, very easily. I can put myself in people's positions very easily and understand other people's perspectives in the wider world. I struggle in a meeting understanding like I can see somebody objecting to something I don't understand why, I might not even understand that they're objecting to something. But I can look at something and look at where we’ve perhaps got a policy that is affecting children and families. I can see where the barriers are. I can imagine what that family is practically going through, where they're having to physically go, what it’s going to be like on the devices they're using, are they using a library's Wi-Fi system to try and do something that's really important that means that they're going to get the funding. And I can convey that when we're doing research, particularly when I was working on user experience teams. Being able to really be the voice of our users and making things as best as they can be for the end users and ensuring that that is seen as being important across everywhere where we're working, whether it's sort of delivery or whether it's in the policy side or whether it's comms side, you know, at the end of the day what does this feel like when it gets on the ground for that person that we're looking to make a difference for?

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yeah, I think that that makes you, I can see how that would make you an incredibly strong content designer if you understand, if you can kind of look at something and see where the kind of pitfalls might be for different types of users. And like as a product manager, I'm starting to just see in this conversation, realise that there were times when I need to have conversations with stakeholders in the business and my, you know, ability to get to the heart of something or speak truth to power or, you know, speak kind of, frankly, has actually really helped avoid a lot of delays and helped win respect in places where, you know, sometimes people might be more political operations, like maybe I should be a political operator maybe I'd be like, you know, kind of Director-General of the BBC or something as if I operated a bit more smoothly. But I'm kind of where I want to be and I can see how some of my quirks have helped me. Simon, you are not just a lead researcher, but you’re also accessibility lead for digital. How does that play into your day to day life in your work?

 

Simon Hurst

My life has been a happy accident, just, you know, stumbling through, a typical ADHD person, no real direction, no real effort at school. I was bright. I was classic, you know, super bright if he only applied himself, kind of thing. So I stumbled through a career in the civil service for, you know, a decade and a half and then found, sort of fell into use of research. Was very, very lucky. And it just was a natural fit for how I think and how my brain works. And I think in digital we do heavily specialise broadly. And I think that then plays to my strengths, you know, problem-solving, hyper empathetic. And I think it's that compassion for users. So you can't help you. There's not many user researchers who are completely, you know, not bothered by what they see. And, you know, I'd worked on a disability benefit,as a user researcher and you know that that was and it was well before in the early days of GDS and it was on an exemplar and it was before, you know, we had a lot of the sort of care and looking after each other stuff in place. It was just, you know, you go out and do the research and it was very, very traumatic for me. And you know, we’d go out for team meals afterwards, and I just suddenly burst into tears because it was so intense. But that really made me realise the difference that making accessibility work for people can have and how easy it is for people say, Oh, it doesn't matter, we'll move that person to another role or, you know, they can get the friend to fill it in for them, which is nonsense because it's, I know what it's like to have to have someone else do stuff for me because I can't do it. And it's really, you know, as a relatively capable adult it's really quite demeaning. And I think it gives me I think ADHD has given me quite a strong sense of injustice as well. So I am quite principled and I do see things very strongly, as there’s a right and wrong, which is why agile and user centred ways of working is such a good fit for me because I genuinely believe that that is the best way of doing things right by people. So I think it's that seeing that it's unfair that, you know, it's almost like it's not like a hero complex of fighting injustice, but it's just, you know, this isn't right. And you know, the way we go, we'll fix it later is not right and not acceptable and is nonsense for us to even try and ever argue that. So I will. I enjoy the sort of honesty and the principled-ness of it as well. And also, it's a thing I can do. So it's playing to my strengths and my interests, so I feel like I'm useful, which I quite often haven't done over the past couple of years with COVID and, you know, being less hands on. As a lead, I am far less hands on than I used to be. So I think, being able to see, I'm making a difference, getting something done has been something that's really driven me as well.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

We've talked about how you, you mentioned briefly, that you were tested recently at work and discovered that you had another kind of neuro diverse condition and I spoke at the top of the post about how in my 30s I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. And FYI people listening, Autism presents differently in men and women. So when you read the conditions that are very typical, you know, online, if you do a google search, those are usually based on men and and so that's why some people won't realise that they have autism until, you know, there were women until a bit later in life. But say you're an employer and you're really kind of like, you're really woke, you really care about these things and you've listened to what we've had to say and you're thinking, this is you know, it's shaky, shaky ground here, but you're thinking, well, you know, I do have a staff member who's, you know, sometimes doesn't really have much of a filter, and maybe sometimes are not quite aware of some of the kind of social cues and that sort of thing. Is it their place to kind of suggest that you, you know, might need to be tested through work, like I can imagine that being a complete minefield?

 

Simon Hurst

I think this is why I talk about my mental health and my ADHD so much. I started doing it a good few years ago, I was getting older. I'd been, you know, experienced depression. I was working certainly in digital a lot of younger people coming into the teams and just seeing someone who has been around. And, you know, I've made a good, a good career out of this. I'm a relatively senior in the organisation, to see people who are openly talking about this and sharing experiences is so, so important for other people to either recognise it, Oh, it's fine for me to speak out because I struggle. Or actually a lot of what Simon or Laura or anyone else who feels comfortable talking about it mentions and might want to just either look into it themselves or come and ask me or anyone else, or just start to look into it a little bit. Because that's what happened with me, somebody mentioned it to me, a therapist, and said, did you ever thought you might have ADHD? And as I read it, it was like, it explains my whole life and why it has led to where I am. And so I think somebody's not imposing that on someone, but I think if there's obvious, I look at some people who don't seem to be diagnosed and I spot traits of myself in them and things like that, but I wouldn't think to presume to approach them about it. But I think if they are experiencing difficulties at work, all this, I think, it’s part of a discussion of either in an ABLE meeting of like performance or, you know, areas where they might be struggling. I think it would depend on the individual and the relationship I had. I'm not sure. I wouldn't want to just say, well, you're clearly terrible at planning and time keeping. I've sent you on training and you're still really bad at this, so you're getting demoted or you're on a warning or anything like that. I think it's complicated.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

I'm feeling like, I'm feeling like this may not be the place for like just your regular one to one discussions with someone who's terrible at planning - do you  think you might have dyslexia? But if there is like a sort of performance issue, it's worth being aware that there may be like an underlying condition that the employee isn't even aware of. And I will say this from personal experience, from listening to you, Simon, from even listening to Laura, sometimes the first clue might be that your employee just has depression. Like sometimes you can have depression, and maybe it's been on and off in your life and you never really kind of nail down why this is happening. And low and behold, you know, if you were tested, you find out that you have autism and you didn't know that but all the kind of effects that you've been living with and having to kind of control subconsciously have just been really driving down your kind of like your mood or your mental health. So so many of these things are linked. But I would always say that if you're an employer, if you're like line managing someone like to have a bit of compassion and also just as soon as you kind of hear that someone might be experiencing depression to kind of let that trigger your antenna to kind of think, Okay, well, there may be things below this that are even beyond what my my employer is thinking about. So that might be a start of a process. But I loved what you said also, Simon, about this idea of it's a safer space when it's like your peers who have that condition and they're talking about those things. So how do you? So what exactly happens at DfE around like neurodiversity community?

 

Laura Croft

Yes, there is a neurodivergent, I think it's called, network within the DfE and they do quite a few things really, one they sort of get on the agendas of the different kind of directorate senior meetings in terms of making sure that it's something that people are aware of with recruitment and stuff like that. But it's a really good kind of support network as well. And so as you've heard from both of us, there is quite a link between mental health problems and neurodiversity. And I think my personal opinion is because the workplace is kind of set up for neurotypical people. And so we need those adjustments so that we can be just as happy at work as as the colleagues where things are more kind of set up for them. Certainly looking at those support groups rather than just, you know, somebody struggling, it's not just perhaps a sort of sickness issue it might not be a sort of skills level issue, it could be all things and signposting to the wellbeing support research that we've got. Both Simon and I went down the diagnosis route from a support therapy, mental health route and a wellbeing type route. And so I'd just be encouraging that, you know, if you can see that somebody is struggling signposting down a route where they can go and investigate and find out more will be really, really helpful. And yeah, I just advise it, we've got so many resources available to us, we've got great links as civil servants and things that are free to watch as part of the civil service, support lines and things like that that we can make use of counselling and therapy services we can make use of. So it’s encouraging people that like that is the right thing to do, don't sit and struggle, we've got all of these things and if you follow these routes what you might find is that you've got a member of staff who really feels part of the team. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yeah, I definitely had, and I know what I'm going to be bringing it to a close in the moment because I know where, like, we've really talked about this, I could talk about this for another couple of hours. But when I look back on some of the struggles I've kind of had in my work life, it's all been around organisation. So like I, you know, time management and and just kind of like poor short term memories. I've had to kind of really rely on technology like I use like a voice assistant to kind of remind me of things I need to do. Like, I have a notebook so I find handwriting really helps force things into my brain. And I've come up with all these kind of like bullet journal hacks and things like that. But if I had known years ago that these were just the result of, you know, being neurodiverse, I could have (I got a real research brain on me) so I kind of researched about it. I would have thought a lot more comfortable with myself, and I could have started talking about it with my colleagues a lot more so they understand what's going on with me. And so, yeah, I loved what we talked about today. Is there anything else that you wanted to say before we sign off?

 

Simon Hurst

I think I wanted to build on Laura’s signposting to the various, I think as well, certainly, and, you know, going going on and on about digital ways of working, but I genuinely do believe that it has helped me and we do take I mean, things like retors and things have really helped me talk about what I find difficult. And the more I've done, the more other people come forward. And, you know, I've responded to the manual of me thing that came out on Emma’s weeknote. And I wrote back to everyone and just said, you know, we should all do this. This is really useful, and I expose a lot of some of the struggles I have through that and what works for me. And you know, I got quite a lot of emails of people I didn't know or slack messages saying, I've read yours and you know, it's so nice to say that I'm not the only person who thinks like this or who has this and it’s things like that that I think we do quite well in digital and technology. And, you know, we've got Slack Channel, which is, neurodiverse people and it's locked so that, you know, if you're not comfortable telling people that you’re neurodiverse but it's just a place that you can chat about stuff and it's trying to do a different job, the neurodiverse network is very much about, you know, making the DfE be better. Whereas this was very much a, I just want to be able to express how I feel and the same with the mental health channel, there are other networks that are more formalised. These are more about just like minded people, so I think it is, keep talking about it and finding other people like yourself and, you know, making them feel that if they want to talk about it, they’re comfortable too, or if they can see all the people who are talking about it, that they don't feel like they're the only one, or that the only one struggling as well, I think, is why I’m so almost overly out about how my mental health affects me, because it's empowering to all this.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Thank you so much, Simon and Laura. I want to plug that manual of me that you mentioned because it's excellent, particularly if you're, if you've got a new staff member joining your team or you, you're on a project even if people already know each other to say hello to, manual of me helps everybody say, look, these are the things about me you need to be aware of, and here's how I best work with other people. So it's a really good way of refreshing relationships and working relationships. So, oh, thank you so much to Simon Hurst and Laura Croft. Both work here at DfE Digital and Technology. I hope this has been interesting to your listeners because I appreciate this is a bit of a different one, and not everybody who's listening will be neurodiverse themselves. But I hope that it’s given you some ideas of how you can help make, bring out the best in your team members and realise that you're not just making adjustments for disabilities, but you're acknowledging that team members who have neurodiverse conditions also are experts at particular things. And you can harness that and really bring that out to kind of create the best digital and tech products that you can.So if you want to hear more from our guests, you can find them on the social webs, Laura is Laura Croft on LinkedIn and Simon I think this is your Twitter handle, Simon Hurst UX, right?

 

Simon Hurst

That's me. Mm-Hmm

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yeah. Great. So if you dear listener have something you'd like us to cover in a future pod please do let us know, our Twitter is DfE underscore digital tech and our blog is DfE Digital and Technology Blog, which you can just Google and you'll find us. This pod was brought to you by the Department for Education. The producers are Rosie Roff, Nettie Williams and Louise Mullan. I am of course your host, Adaobi Ifeachor thanks for listening. Goodbye.

 

 

Think digital, act human: a spotlight on Shafiqa Gunton

Think digital, act human: a spotlight on Shafiqa Gunton

December 22, 2021

Here is our sixth, holiday bonus, episode of the ‘Think digital, act human’ podcast series.  

In this podcast our host, Adaobi Ifeachor, speaks to Shafiqa Gunton, Programme delivery manager. This is a continuation of Shaf’s conversation from our previous Get help with technology episode.

 

Shaf gives us an overview of what a programme delivery manager is, her career progression in government, and what made her set up an engineering academy for young people in Scarborough.

 

Transcription 

 

[music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Hello. Welcome to Think digital act human. This is a podcast from the Department for Education. It's where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. What you're about to hear is a bonus episode just in time for Christmas. This is an extended version of a chat that I had with Shafiqa Gunton about the Get help with technology programme. You're about to hear an insight into Shaf’s journey to becoming a programme delivery manager.  So that's a delivery manager that sits across a whole range of different projects and looks after a whole portfolio of things. She gave some advice for anyone who's looking to work in product particularly useful if you went to work in product in the civil service. And she also talks about what's next for the Get help with technology brand. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Hello, Shaf! 

 

Shafiqa Gunton

Hello, thank you. Thank you for having me. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So full disclosure, Shaf is my manager, so you know, but don't you worry, it's not going to affect how I treat Shaf in this podcast, Shaf, you're one of the most amazing people I know. I'm joking, I'm joking. OK, so Shaf, tell us what your job title is and what your kind of area of responsibility is at the DfE. 

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

Sure. So I'm a programme delivery manager, so that's a bit of a fancy title for somebody who manages programmes of digital delivery. At the minute, I have a couple of clusters of policy areas, the early years sector, schools and FE, which is further education. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So you're kind of looking at programmes that help or create like services from people who were like real kids like toddlers, almost to, you know, adults in further education. So it spans the whole gamut. Right. So when it comes to Get help with tech as I understand it, and I'm frankly, my understanding may be wrong, that’s absolutely fine. Let me know. But as I understand it, Get help with tech, that kind of programme rolling out like laptops and other kind of digital infrastructure to help kids with remote education. The need for that was kind of tailing off a bit annd then you spotted an opportunity for the brand to live again. Is that right? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

I did. And that's kind of like what a programme delivery manager does. Where teams are doing the really good digital delivery, programme delivery managers are looking up and across and around and actually seeing where we can join up our services, where we can reuse common components, basically not reinventing the wheel, not duplicating effort and again spotting opportunities, as you've said. So we've got this incredible brand from this amazing service that teams have built in the pandemic and they built it quickly and they're doing great stuff and their meeting user needs and making sure that young people can still have access to an education. So really, really valuable, really important. I've been working on something called the digital standards for technology. So these are core standards that schools will need to look to when buying and procuring technology. Now producing that content on its own isn’t going to solve the whole problem. And actually, as you know, Adobe, you've worked on these things yourself, we need to be looking at solving the whole problem, not just the piece of it. So very much thinking about how we can create a family of services that help users when they're trying to buy or procure technology because it's such a broad problem space. There's lots of problems within this problem. And, you know, by utilising a brand that's successful and is trusted, we could look at bringing all of these initiatives and new ones under one umbrella. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So this is about, and correct me if I'm wrong, this is about literally doing what it says on the tin. If a school or an FE (further education) college wants to get help with tech, then you're creating something that will help them with that. Is that right? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton  

Exactly.  So you’ve hit the nail on the head. We just want to we want to make sure that it does what it says on the tin and that's get help with technology. And as I mentioned, that's such a broad space, you could get help with laptops, you could get help with broadband, you could get help with moving to the cloud, you could get help with buying cable, the list is endless. And our challenge is actually, you know, where do we start and where is the most valuable thing that we can do first? And what is the minimum we could learn before moving on to the next thing building the next thing? But essentially, what we want to do first is bring it all together. So kind of create a bit more of a streamlined, seamless user journey rather than having just pockets of services here, there and everywhere. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So if I'm a school leader hearing this, that sounds very exciting. A brave new world. When is this all going to happen? When can I get my hands on whatever the service is going to be?

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

Oh you're going to tie me now to deadlines. I think we're aiming to have something from the next financial year, so it might just be something, you know we’re working in an agile way. So it will be, you know, the minimum viable thing that we can launch. And in my mind, it looks very much like a home page that brings all this together on GOV.UK. And we're working with some amazing content designers and service designers to help us solve that design challenge, how do we present all of this? Because the risk is if you try and put everything together without understanding the user journeys and user needs and mapping that out correctly, you're at risk of advertising everything but reaching no one. So there's a few things that we're working through some knotty, knotty design challenges that will, that will help us unlock some of that over the next few months.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

OK, so that's really interesting to me is that you have this idea of a problem in your head as the kind of programme lead and then you have also an idea of what this could look like, some sort of thing that brings together lots of different kind of like services that help schools and educators get help with tech. But you must know as a programme lead that if you're putting a product manager on that, they may turn around and say: Well, you know Shaf, that idea of a website that's that's not what people want, they want an all singing, all dancing mobile app thing. Are you prepared to have that, you know, that kind of recommendation come back and be something completely different from what you had asked for? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton

I'm not only prepared Adaobi, I welcome it. I love it when people come back and say: you know, we've done the research, we've gathered some data and this is what the data is telling us. This is what our users are telling us. I think certainly when you start kind of an early strategic thinking, you have to have some idea of what this thing could be. But ultimately, we need to start with the problem statements and actually start with what are the problems we're trying to solve. And I love giving those problems to people like yourself who are, you know, incredible at going away and trying to solve them. So, yeah, I welcome that feedback. Absolutely. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

OK, so a couple more questions for you. One, we like to always dig into the background of the guests that we have on this show just to find out how did you get here? I happen to know used to be a product manager at one stage, you told me that. So what are the kind of steps that took you to get to this level where you will oversee so many different product managers and projects? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

I don't know how far back you want it to go, I think we could go back to 13 years ago when I built my first website using Dreamweaver, and it was just a drag and drop horrible thing. But yeah, I think that's where my interest in building digital things and helping people, you know, solving people's problems through digital, that's kind of when it started. Think I've always been really busy in terms of managing or looking after a family of services or websites is what you would call it in the private sector. So I've always had that experience, I guess, it’s a bit of, you know, enjoying and loving what I do, a bit of fate, you know, the right thing at the right time coming along. But the reason why I'm at DfE is probably down to the fact that in my hometown of Scarborough, I help set up an engineering academy for young people and actually help them have a chance at something else other than the kind of, you know, usual regular jobs, which is great but actually expose them to a whole world of STEM careers. And I think that's where I started to get really interested in wanting to become a civil servant and going above and beyond just creating websites, you know, that help people buy things. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  

So then you moved from that to a product management role inside the Department for Education?

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

DfE, yeah in DfE. And yeah, I was kind of again looking after a suite of services. And yeah, it just kind of, you know, the programme delivery manager role came up. I went for the EOI (expression of interest)l I was successful and then applied for the job permanently. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

EOI you said? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

EOI, expression of interest. So yeah, I think you have to juggle things, multiple things at the same time. And that's that's fine. I think I've always worked that way. And I think that's where I thrive. The key thing is I get to work with so many different people. My programme is really rich and diverse in people and thought and I get to work people like yourself, Adaobi, who you know, I give, I give you this, these challenging problems to solve and with a team of digital specialists, you go and solve them. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Thank you, your check is in the post later Shaf [laugh]. So the final thing really is just, is there anything that you, like any piece of advice for other people doing product in the public sector or in the private sector who where maybe there, maybe they have the programme delivery role or they're trying to kind of build that function where they are? Is there any sort of thing you want to tell them or any further piece of advice? 

 

Shafiqa Gunton 

Yeah, I think the advice if I was you know, looking at myself 10 years ago, talking to myself 10 years ago, I'd say be brave. Do you know what, if things don't go the way they should, if you make a mistake, if you break something it’s fine, you know, you learn from it and that's OK, don't be put off by, I guess, the size or scope of the job at hand. Just try it. You know, you can always change it. You can always do something else, and that's OK. But just be bold. And be a bit brave. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Perfect. What a great note to end on. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Thanks to everyone who's listening, we really hope that you enjoyed it, and we hope you have a relaxing Christmas break. A big thank you to our guest, Shafiqa Gunton, Programme delivery manager here at DfE Digital and Technology. This pod (podcast) was brought to you by the Department for Education. Our producers are Rosie Roff, Louise Mullan, Nettie Williams and Leila Haffar. 

And I'm your host, Adaobi Ifeachor. Join us next time in the New Year. Goodbye! 

Think digital, act human: the Get help with technology service

Think digital, act human: the Get help with technology service

December 7, 2021

Here is our fifth episode of the 'Think digital, act human' podcast series, which shines a light on the stories of the people behind our digital and technology projects.

In this episode our host, Adaobi Ifeachor, gets to know Rachel Hope. Rachel led the team that sourced, bought and distributed over 1.35 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged children and young people during covid.

 

Our podcast host Adaobi also speaks to Shafiqa Gunton, Programme Delivery Manager, about her role and what’s next for the GHwT service.

 

Transcription 

 

[music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Hello, welcome to Think Digital Act Human, a podcast from the Department for Education where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. And today's project, when I use that label extraordinary, you know, I'm not using that lightly. This is, this is a pretty juicy one today. We're going to be talking about the Get help with technology programme that helped ensure that remote learning during the COVID lockdowns was something that could continue as best as we we could under the circumstances. We're going to be talking all about it with today's guest, Rachel Hope, who is the deputy director of teacher services here at DfE. Hey Rachel, how are you doing? 

 

Rachel Hope 

I'm good. Thank you for having me along today. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So dear listeners, cast your mind back to the before times when we were kind of entering our first COVID lockdown and parents were kind of panicking. Perhaps you had a career that you could work from home. Perhaps you had a child, maybe more than one child of different ages who both needed access to the family laptop, and that wasn't possible. What on earth are you going to do? It was Rachel's job to come up with a way to make that possible. Rachel, can you tell us a bit more about Get help with tech? Like what was it designed to do and what was the kind of brief that you were given? 

 

Rachel Hope 

Let me start at the beginning, so I think it's fair to say that in any time in recent history, many of us haven't been in this place where our own destiny wasn't really of our own choosing, and we didn't really expect any of these changes to come upon us at speed and that was definitely the case for us here in the Department for Education. So it was a week before schools were closing and there was a team that were working on looking at how the curriculum could be delivered remotely if the final decision was made to, in fact, send children home. And I went across to help the team look at that, and it was a really, really, really knotty, big challenge. And so what we did was we set up a number of teams who went out and really rapidly spoke to schools and spoke to headteachers and teachers in the classroom and parents and some children about what they saw would be the challenges if we had to teach people remotely. What they do already for children who may be often, for example, long term sickness, absence and things like that, and we started to quickly formulate a set of priorities that we'd need to address, including things like safeguarding and policies on how much the curriculum should apply if we were in this world. But for my part, I was looking very much at those who wouldn't be able to interact remotely online. So there's a huge swathes of the population who wouldn't have enough or any access via a computer or laptop or tablet or the internet. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Sorry to interrupt Rachel to hold on a second, just to be completely clear here. This wasn't called Get help with tech at that point, you were just told what happens if you know, sometime in the future, schools close. What are kind of immediate problems to look at? And so I'm hearing like a massive list that like safeguarding. We we kind of had in the news how, you know, people in domestic violence situations, for example, were kind of in their worst nightmare being kind of on lockdown with potentially their abusers. And maybe there were similar safeguarding issues with kids. Or maybe, you know, going to school and knowing that you're going to have lunch that day, it was like a really big thing for them at that time. Getting back to the Get help with tech programme, how did you kind of prioritise like this is the low hanging fruit that we can immediately do something about. I mean, my mind is kind of blown at the moment. 

 

Rachel Hope

Yeah, I mean, and you're completely right actually, that's one thing I should say. While I went across to help the curriculum team, it soon became something much bigger because here at the Department for Education, we're not just about the education that are happening in our schools and colleges. We also look after social workers and we think about vulnerable children and what on earth do we do to make sure these children are protected in a world where social worker visits may stop? So it soon became a much bigger question about how do we connect people to our services that were previously face to face? And it was one of those areas where I mean, there was a lot of new initiatives spin up so I wasn't the only one who was working on all the different things that needed to happen, but it was quite clear there was a gap that the department would need to step into at speed to try and connect these people. And so that's where the Get help with technology programme was born was born out of that that week of looking at where we had our gaps and we went in and basically made the case. And I've got there's so much we could talk about because this is not just the case that we need to be doing something within the Department for Education to close that gap but making that case across government because all of a sudden everyone across government was thinking about how do they offer their services that were previously face to face? 

 

So how does the NHS get all the technology to their workforces who may need to now deliver services online, for example? And there was a vast array of different departments who were thinking about the technology they needed to buy and deploy. I know laptops are delivered in prisons, for example. So there was actually a huge conversation that needed to happen across government around OK, well, the supply is finite. There is a finite supply that will grow over time. How do we make the case that some of this supply really does need to go and support our disadvantaged and vulnerable children here at the Department for Education? 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So your wow. OK, so there's all these kinds of people at your level of deputy director, and they're all kind of, was it a case. The problems were being identified and then particular deputy director is saying, well, that fits really well with the portfolio that I've got, so I'll take that problem on. And then you were thinking, well, Get help with tech, whether it was named at that point or not, that's something that I know I can kind of quickly address. Is that how it happened, but everyone stepping forward and taking ownership of a particular meaty problem? 

 

Rachel Hope 

Yeah, that was exactly it. So. So what happened in that first week was we gathered that insight. We carved up what we thought the biggest challenges would be into four or five different areas and I took leadership of the area, which at the time was actually called digital infrastructure I think we were calling it before it became a much more common sense name and I then took that forward. And then that's when actually the governance systems really kicked in and provided a really effective support. So there was a ministerial group chaired across the whole of government, which came together that week that looked at the needs, these type of needs, the digital infrastructure needs for the different departments and agreed a set of priorities of which departments were going to be initially given a chunk of money from the Treasury to help do this, and we were one of the top three departments. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Did you have to kind of like use your elbows to like push people out the way? Use those sharp elbows? 

 

Rachel Hope 

There was a lot of gathering the evidence really quickly of what we thought the gap was and being really clear what we thought the impacts would be without addressing it and making that case really clearly to our peers and really allowing our ministers to merely make that case clear. And I think it was within two weeks we'd gone through that process of identifying the biggest problems. Identifying this was one, getting it agreed across government that we were going to run with this and start in the process of trying to make it happen, which is a whole another big story. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Oh, well, we're going to dive into that deep story, Rachel, don't you worry. My observation before we do is that, okay I know I say this every single podcast episode, but it's relevant people. I haven't been at the DfE for very long, I haven't been in the civil service very long. What I'm noticing is whilst there are some projects that outside circumstances mean that you have like this immovable deadline, you just have to kind of like find new ways to do stuff. Mostly, I've found that, you know, there's a lot of red tape, and rightly so because, you know, we're spending the public's money on stuff that should, you know, ultimately aid the public. But this wasn't really one of those situations in a way, because, yes, money had to be spent responsibly but the crisis was here now like the fire was already burning, you know? So did that mean that you had to completely change the way that you would normally go about a project this massive? 

 

Rachel Hope 

I think in in a way actually having all of the having agreed methodologies or approaches to getting something done was helpful, and we didn't necessarily go about it in whole new ways, but we did go into about a whole new speed and the ability to convene people. So, for example, we did produce a business case and we did put that business case, which went into all the aspects in front of our investment committee. But that business case was draughted within that first week, bringing in lots of experts who were willing to give up their time immediately to help us. And we had a extraordinary committee convened where we pulled in experts from across government who could offer us real good challenge and quick challenge. So it wasn't necessarily about not going through those processes, but really making those processes work. It was almost that the stakes were even higher to get it right at speed. And because of the crisis, everyone was willing to make the priority call that this is the thing they needed to go and do and support. And that was just brilliant. We saw a real meeting of expertise on this. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So from that business case, if you can cast your mind back, what was some of the top objectives here then? I've talked a little bit about the laptops. That's kind of like the big thing that people might remember from the news is that there were lots of kids who weren't able to kind of be educated remotely in the way that the rest of the class were because for whatever reason, that family couldn't afford it, they couldn't get access to a computer. So I know that that was part of it, like making sure they had access to it. But like, what are the other headline things here? Did any kids have to? Did any families have to put in money to reserve one of these things, like how did the system work and what were the other things beyond laptops that you were trying to do? 

 

Rachel Hope 

And there's quite a lot in here. So there were four key parts to what we were doing under our part to Get help with technology. So the 1.3 million laptops and that number is growing now. But the 1.3 million laptops we delivered. We also tried to make sure people were connected to the internet. So we did that through a few different ways. So we gave out 4G wireless routers with associated data on it. But we also worked with the mobile phone companies to get them to offer free mobile data to people that we identified who needed it. Then we worked with schools to get schools who didn't have things like Microsoft Teams or Google for education, those sort of digital education platforms. We got those installed in the schools who didn't already have those, and then we provided training for schools. So we set up what we call the Edtech demonstrators. But that was essentially schools who were almost best in class ar using digital products to educate children, and they went round and supported. We paid for them to go around and support the other schools who were further behind in their digital journey. So they were the sort of the four big things laptops, internet, schools platforms and then the training that we rolled out together. And then you said at the start, what are the objectives? So we were sort of focussed on a few things, but crucially, we were trying to make sure that disadvantage gap between children wasn't going to grow over this period. We wanted to make sure people still had an equal ability to access education. But we also wanted to support those who are vulnerable. So we gave out support to children who had social workers as well as care leavers, for example, where remaining connected is so important to that person's well-being and health. So this was quite a wide ranging programme. That was trying to meet multiple objectives that we would otherwise be meeting through or face to face services. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Okay, so you've had your kind of crisis triaging the problems, everyone's carved out an area of responsibility. You now know you got Get help with tech. I'm assuming at some point the name change so it was Get help with tech instead of Digital infrastructure. Now, now what do you do? And by the way, I just want to know what your mindset was. Did you feel an incredible amount of pressure and you just had to be like the cool, calm, collected lady at the top? Or were you just too busy to even worry about that stuff? So, you know, how are you feeling? And what did you do next? 

 

Rachel Hope 

How am I feeling? Back then it was a wonderful world where I still look after my existing work, which was supporting teacher recruitment and retention, so it's making sure I was able to I had a deep feeling of trying to support my existing team through this because what we have to remember was this wasn't just having to deliver all new work in a crisis, it was also all of us individually and the people in all teams were going through that personally as well. So everyone was thinking about what did it mean for me? How am I going to educate my own children? How am I going to make this work? So there was a high degree of looking at the problem and trying to get that done, as well as just that deep sense of trying to make sure all of the people I care about deeply and my teams are supported and able to do what they need to do. So there was a real degree of spinning lots of plates. I just so thankful looking back to having some fantastic people to work with and being able to tap people on the shoulder and say, Hi, I'm doing this. Can you come and help? And everyone sort of putting down what they're doing and coming alongside each other to make this happen was really, like heartening. And that's what kept me going. But it's also what made the programme deliver as well. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So what did delivering the programme actually entail? Like, I'm coming from a very digital had space as a product manager, and I kind of know if I'm having a conversation with my deputy director that you know, Oh, this is kind of one of my stakeholders, and I'm going to try and work out what the other needs might be. But how did this work in this case? Because it wasn't just purely digital like you, you spoke about physical hardware needing to get to students and stuff like that. And I assume perhaps you also had to think about things like fraud. People taking this is like an opportunity to perhaps get a laptop they wouldn't necessarily have gotten to that school. Maybe, I don't know. Or maybe that wasn't a concern. Maybe it was just. We've just got to trust everybody at this moment, it's too fast to think about. You know what, what were the first steps of getting this programme realised? 

 

Rachel Hope 

probably at its core was making sure that we had an integrated policy and delivery team and delivery in the broadest sense. So I'll describe what we delivered in a second, but it meant that we had digital teams building digital services. We had commercial teams who are putting in place these really big contracts at speed, and we had policy people thinking through probably your question of, who does get a laptop? There's not an infinite supply, who does get a laptop, how's that prioritised and where does it go? So all of those people were working and they had to work completely together at all times to make sure that the feedback loops were happening in minutes rather than days. And so what we actually created, let's bring it to life. Let's take the laptops to begin with. We built a digital platform on which we interacted with eventually all schools or those who are responsible for schools, so multi-academy trusts or local authorities. And we basically invited people in to order their laptops through that. The schools and local authorities for vulnerable children were allocated a certain number of laptops based on the number of children who were eligible for free school meals. So that's how we divvy it up. But it is a whole other layer of complication in all of this, in that not every school uses the same technology. So some people might operate with Google and Chromebooks or Microsoft or Apple, and you wouldn't want to start introducing a different type of technology and overheads of that into the school sector because we want these laptops to be used for years and years to come and not just in the crisis. So we needed to make sure we could service the different needs and that those laptops also had the appropriate safeguarding software on them so they could be given out, but also with the ability for schools to add  their own. So there was all of this nuance. So that all had to be mediated through our digital service. And then that went through once they were ordered to a company who we contracted with, who would pick and then courier the laptops out to schools and then schools would give those to the children who were in need. And because we couldn't service everyone immediately, and I'll come to this, there was a set of priorities of which year groups first off and then and then onwards as we gradually got more laptops in. 

 

So that was a huge part of it, the number of laptops, which I probably should touch on. So there just simply wasn't the volume of laptops in the country to service all of our needs at once. So we were in bidding wars because at this time, you might remember at the time, like New York were put in in massive bids for laptops. Whole countries like we were were putting in massive demands for laptops so that the demand went off the scale. So we really needed to leverage, you know, the UK's buying power. So we went into the market and secured these laptops, but a lot of them had to be built to order, so they had to get built. They had to get transported to us and then they had to get out to schools. And again, this was in a pandemic. So for example, I learnt a lot about the supply chain, but a lot of these companies won’tjust use commercial flights, they will use passenger flights to transport things like laptops, and obviously they all stopped. So the huge demand just for space on planes that we needed to negotiate. So our Secretary of State wrote to leaders of different airlines to try and get our shipments prioritised. We worked with the border borders and Customs to make sure as our laptops arrive, we were fast tracked through that and we were able to get it through as fast as we possibly could. 

 

But it was a constant need to make sure that as things were being built and shipped into the country, we were able to ship them straight out to schools and then schools onwards to pupils. So it wasn't a matter of, for example, going down to PC World and grabbing the latest laptop because there just wasn't that many. And I used to know the stats off the top of my head. But it was we worked out at one point when we were trying to do this of how many Wembley stadiums full of people we'd given laptops out to. And it was it was eye watering when you actually think about what 1.3 million laptops means. And when they started getting delivered, we were getting great photos back of lorry loads, turning up at local authorities and multi-academy trusts with these laptops because they were just simply so many. And I have to say there's a huge thanks to teachers and school staff and social workers, people in local authorities who came up with all sorts of fantastic ways of then getting these laptops onto children. So we again had photos come back of fire engines being used to drive them round. And we we had videos of local authorities packaging up all of the laptops to go to the different areas. And it was really a national effort to get these out and across the country. And you know, the sad thing is that we just wanted to do more and more quickly at every point, but we were working within this sort of global supply chain. I think it was sort of  for me, hit home when I got an email sent to us from a social worker where a child had written up a thank you letter to us on their laptop and had drawn a picture on there using their computer to say how much it had made a difference to them. And it was those moments when you're you're tired and you're doing everything you can to to make this work that it really hits home the sort of impact you were having for these individuals. But yes, it was all the way from thinking of planes, customs, warehouses, fleets of couriers out to schools, one local authority I think even hired a night club because they were close to hold all the laptops so they could up to act as a mini distribution centre and then teachers on their bikes and in cars and fire engines going out and dropping the laptops off to the children. 

 

And I think the BBC did some great coverage of a mum getting handed the laptop for the first time and the floods of tears she was in and I have to admit at that point I was also in floods of tears as well watching it. It really was that sort of coming together of everything. And you know, you always can do things better. But I think the crucial thing was having coming back to your world as a product manager and some of the things that you'll do all the time. It was having teams that were, you know, we had user researchers in the teams at all times. We had like real time data coming through. Every time we saw a problem, we were fixing it, we were fixing it, we were fixing it. We couldn't do absolutely everything perfectly upfront, but we were learning every step of the way which just made more and more of it possible. And that was just brilliant. 

Adaobi Ifeatchor

That's amazing. You know, I've got so many questions I could talk to you for like another couple of hours without even a break but I'm conscious of time and I do want to just kind of ask about how your teams were made up. Because obviously you're working with it's not just you doing all this like you talked about the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson at the time, negotiating with airlines and beneath you I'm assuming you have product managers or were you also working with supply chain experts? Like what was the makeup of your team? What did it look like? 

 

Rachel Hope 

So we had two core multi-disciplinary teams who each own in a different part of the digital services we were providing. Initially, we were focussed around one building the work we needed to do for laptops and one working around what we need to do with all the mobile phone data companies and the work we're doing on the internet and then sub teams off that.

 

But essentially, we were made up of policy advisers who could think and respond to the huge amount of demand for what we were doing in progress reporting and also all the policy questions that were emerging as we were learning as we went through. We had fantastic digital teams, which sort of what you'd picture if you're running a beta service that we we went I think we went to Discovery to beta in about four weeks. 

 

So you had your product managers, your delivery managers, your user researchers your BAs (Business analysts) and all of your technical development teams. 

 

And then we had sitting alongside them, your commercial experts. But I have to say one of the key things I probably should say in all of this actually was the wonderful working with the people who were delivering the laptops themselves. So we created a contract where we could have a partnership between them and that meant that we created one, for example, user  support helpdesk and we shared who was picking up tickets on that between us and our suppliers. They were completely integrated in the team. We met three times a day at a senior level to check how things were going between us and the people doing the supplying.

 

And so the big message in all of this was, rather than all the different component parts is we operated as a single unit at all times rather than trying to do - this is the point where my responsibility ends and your responsibility starts. We all collectively looked at the data and collectively tried to grapple with the same problems, and I think that was the key to making this happen at such speed. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

OK, that is an extremely important point. I'm going to come back to in just a second. Firstly, I'm curious, though, when you talked about having product managers, did they only have sort of like digital responsibilities or did you have like a product manager whose job it was just to do like supply chain stuff? So like getting the built laptop into the hands of the Multi Academy Trust or something along those lines? Were they involved in like the off-line stuff as well as the kind of stuff that was happening digitally? 

 

Rachel Hope

Yeah, it's like the end to end journey almost. Yes, I mean, the different parts of the process. So obviously, when we're working with a contracted organisation, you had all of the laptops in the careers they would they do the ins and outs of assigning it to each carrier. But we had to be in a world especially when we had allocations of how much people could order and they might not order all of their laptops at once because I physically couldn't store them all at once. They had to order them in parts. You'd have to make sure that was flowing. So you'd have a product manager who'd be able to see everything from the point of try and raise an awareness of what a school (let’s take a school) may need to do all the way through to. When has that school actually received their laptop and how are they flowing through? So yes, they'd have that whole end to end oversight, even if they weren't necessarily responsible for the team picking up the laptop and putting it on the van that night.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Perfect. So going back to your point about how it wasn't about just doing your bit, them throwing it over the wall to the next person. This is part of basically like service ownership or service ownership model in a way like it's not about, you’re not an island basically. And I'm told that you were one of the trailblazers of the DfE service ownership model. Is that fair to say? 

 

Rachel Hope

So I'm a huge, huge. I mean, yes, I'm a huge champion of this. I could talk for hours. It's probably a whole other conversation and coffee about service ownership, but I fully believe that the best way to focus on the problem, experiment to make change is integrating policy and delivery and integrating all parts into single teams. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So service ownership model on one side, Get help with tech owner on the other side, you've just been nominated as one of the world's 50 most influential people navigating disruption. Can you tell us about that? Because this work that we've just been talking about today is what has presumably led up to that nomination. How does it feel? Do you feel like you are one of the world's top 50 most influential people in the disruption space? Yeah. Let us know how you feel. 

 

Rachel Hope

Yeah, what a question. I mean, I think it's recognition of lots of things that are happening and recognition of the teams themselves in what they're doing in terms of bringing a lot to bear what a lot of what you can learn from software development to policy making. So it’s injecting that agility into policymaking, which allows us therefore to navigate things like disruption or sometimes be disruptors in and of all selves in terms of making change. And I think I'm just really excited, really excited that people are recognising it and recognising what the benefits can be because it's not just about the outcomes that we're seeing and what we're delivering, either through the Get help with technology programme or the work we're doing on teacher recruitment. What it means for me is there is probably a change that's happening and this is recognition of the change that's happening within government and outside of government, which is a desire to be able to make change happen much more quickly in response to much more real time and better data of of of how things are panning out. And I what I'm really excited about in terms of this recognition is our ability to to sort of show how it works, showcase it and then allow people to work in these ways elsewhere because I'm nearly certain everyone, when they get into these types of teams, absolutely love and thrive in them. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

And so this nomination comes from apolitical doc and it's their agile 50 list. Have you taken a sneak peek at that agile 50 letter to see who else you're up against and what other projects might be interesting because we can all learn from each other, right? 

 

Rachel Hope 

Oh yeah, absolutely. And I'm quite excited, hopefully going to be talking to each other. But I think the one thing that stands out to me, which I'm really interested in for the future, is those who are really making this now data rich world work for them. So there's I think there's a huge change we have on our hands with all this real time data that's flowing around that we start to become a lot more intelligent in terms of how we target policy and interventions. And I think we're still just at the thin end of the wedge at the moment of what can be done. So I was looking across at some of the people on the agile 50 list thinking, Wow, look at the change your leading, that’s absolutely fascinating and brilliant. So there's definitely a lot we can learn from them 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Now before we kind of close this off I think of this, of Get help with tech as like the purest example of why so many of us get into public service, why we join the civil service, and that's to make a difference to members of the public. It sounds so cheesy when I say this, I'm not going to burst into song or anything, but I just wanted to get like a really brief snapshot of like, how did you get to where you are now, Rachel? I'm assuming you went through secondary school, maybe university. What did your career trajectory look like after you finished your formal education? 

 

Rachel Hope

Yeah. Well, I grew up on a sheep farm in South Wales so ending up working in Whitehall does feel quite a jump, but that was a long journey in between the sheep farming and working in Whitehall. But in terms of my career, it has been, you probably won't be surprised here based on what I've said, a blend. So I've worked across policy teams, including working in some central departments like the Cabinet Office and H.M. Treasury, which has given me a real insight into how some really quite big decisions are made. But I've also spent some of my career working in big delivery programmes, for example in H.M. Revenue and Customs, which is a huge and quite impressive operational organisation. And it's been just brilliant, being able to come to the Department for Education and work in a space where I can bring all of that together, when I could bring the skills and experiences I've harvested through my policy roles, together with the experiences I've had leading digital teams and big delivery programmes and just not have to be one side or the other. And I can start to say, Hey, it's the same coin and we're all, we can now lead all these two teams together. So that's been my career in an absolute snapshot. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So for people who might be outside in the private sector, I'm thinking, Well, you know, I think, you know, my skills and experience could have been really useful at a time like, you know, the the beginning of the COVID lockdown. Perhaps I could have brought something to the table and they’re thinking about government. What can they kind of do like? Why do you even start like so many people reach out to me and say, like, well, basically they have questions about which department do you even go into because they're not. The cultures are very different in each of the different government departments. If you're on the outside looking in, where do you even start to kind of like work out whether the civil service might be right for you? 

 

Rachel Hope 

It's definitely worth having a look around if you spot jobs you like, even if you might not think of applying them yet. Go and email that vacancy holder, as we call it, and ask for a coffee. The one thing I can say that's universal about the civil service is people are so open and friendly and willing to share what it's like. The second thing to say is a lot of what we do, you're able to shape a lot of the roles you go into yourself. So what I often say to people is, take the first step, come see what it's like and once you're in and you understand it's grown, you can start to carve out a role which really allows you to use your skills to make change, like you said, for the public good. And I think the only final thing to say is there is nothing quite like it knowing that you're getting up every day and no matter how hard it is, you are trying to make things better. And I think that ability to do that in your job is just brilliant. The one other thing I'd also say is the civil service is great at supporting people to grow and train and learn new things so you can come and you can can sort off in your area where you've got the real deep expertise, but then you can also pick up new skills as you go along and you can really become developed in a way where you can run some of these really big areas, which cut across so many different ranges of skills. Civil service just supports and supports you to do that. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

 So Rachel, where can people find you on the social website? You're on Twitter. 

 

Rachel Hope 

Yes, Rachel hope 3 other people go in there first on Twitter and you'll find me on LinkedIn as well. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Well three is the magic number. 

 

Rachel Hope

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. More than happy for anyone to reach out and ask for a coffee and or come and see what we do in the teams. It's sometimes brilliant just to come and watch what the teams are doing  and talk to them about how they work. 

 

Rachel Hope 

So what you've heard dear listener, is not the end of the story.  We have a little bit of an insight for you about what's coming up next for Get help with tech and to help us tell that story is our next guest Shafika Gunton or Shaf as I call her. Hello Shaf. 

 

Shaf Gunton 

Hello, thank you. Thank you for having me. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Tell us what your job title is and what your kind of area of responsibility is at the DfE. 

 

Shaf Gunton 

Sure. And so I'm a programme delivery manager, so that's a bit of a fancy title for somebody who manages programmes of digital delivery. So at the minute, I have a couple of clusters of policy areas. The Early years user group and then we've got Schools and we also have FE, which is further education. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So when it comes to Get help with tech as I understand it, and frankly my understanding may be wrong, that's absolutely fine. Let me know. But as I understand it with Get help with tech, that kind of programme rolling out like laptops and other kind of digital infrastructure to help kids with remote education, that was the need for that was kind of tailing off a bit. And then you spotted an opportunity for the brand to live again. Is that right? 

 

 

Shaf Gunton 

I did. I did. And that's kind of like what programme delivery manager does. I've been working on something called the digital standards for technology. So these are core standards that schools will need to look to when buying and procuring technology. So very much thinking about how we can create a family of services that help users when they're trying to buy or procure technology. How can we make sure that we're, because it's such a broad problem space, there's lots of problems within this problem. And, you know, by utilising a brand that's successful and is trusted, we could look at bringing all of these initiatives and new ones under one umbrella. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

 

So this is about. And correct me, if I'm wrong, this is about literally doing what it says on the tin, in the school or FE college, which is further education, wants to get help with tech. Then you're creating something that will help them with that. Is that right?

 

Shaf Gunton 

Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head. We just want to make sure that it does what it says on the tin and that’s gets help with technology. That's such a broad space. You could get help with laptops, you could get help with broadband, you could get help with moving to the cloud. You could get help with buying cable in. The list is endless. And our challenge is actually, you know, where do we start and where is the most valuable thing that we can do first? And what is the minimum we could learn before moving on to the next thing building the next thing? But essentially, what we want to do first is bring it all together. So kind of create a bit more of a streamlined, seamless user journey rather than having just pockets of services here, there and everywhere. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So if I'm a school leader hearing this, that sounds very exciting. A brave new world. When is this all going to happen? When can I get my hands on whatever the service is going to be?  

 

Shaf Gunton 

Oh, you're going to tie me now to deadlines. I think we're aiming to have something from the next financial year. We're working in an agile and agile way, so it will be the minimum viable thing that we can launch. And in my mind, it looks very much like a homepage that brings all this together on GOV.UK and we're working with some amazing content designers and service designers to help us solve that design challenge - is how do we present all of this? Because the risk is if you try and put everything together without understanding the user journeys and user needs and mapping the app correctly, you're at risk of advertising everything but reaching no one. So there's a few things that we’re working through some knotty knotty design challenges that will that will help us unlock some of that over the next few months. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

OK, so that's really interesting to me is that you have this idea of a problem in your head as the kind of like programme lead. And then you have also an idea of what this could look like, some sort of site, some sort of thing that brings together lots of different kind of like services that help schools and educators get help with technology. But you must know, as I programme lead, if you will put in a product manager on that, they may turn around and say, Well, you know Shaf, I like that idea of a website that's that's not what people want. They want an all singing, all dancing mobile app thing. Are you prepared to have that kind of recommendation, come back and be something completely different from what you had asked for? 

 

Shaf Gunton 

I'm not only prepared Adaobi, I welcome it. I love it when people come back and say, you know, we've done, we've done the research, we've gathered some data and this is what the data is telling us. This is what our users are telling us. 

I think certainly when you start, kind of like early strategic thinking you have to have some idea of what this thing could be. But ultimately, we need to start with the problem statements and actually start with what are the problems we’re trying to solve. And I love giving thoes problems to people like yourself who are, you know, incredible at going away and trying to solve them. So, yeah, I welcome that feedback, absolutely. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So I just want to say thanks to everyone who has been listening. We hope that you've had a good time. Big thanks to our guests today, Rachel Hope and Shafiqa Gunton. If you're interested in getting in touch with either of our guests, Rachel is on Twitter at Rachel, it's h-e-l, Rachel Hope 3 and Shaf is on Twitter at ShaffyDG. So that's s-h-a-f-f-y-DG. 

 

And if you, dear listener, have something that you'd like us to cover in a future pod. You can always let us know on Twitter as well, @DfE_DigitalTech. Or you can reach us by just Googling for our blog, which is DfE digital and technology Blog. 

We're also, we're also moving on to like Spotify and other different platforms, so hopefully you'll be able to find us just on your mobile device or however you usually like to listen to these things. This pod was brought to you by the Department for Education. The producers are Rosie Roff, Louise Mullan and Nattie Williams, and I'm your host, Adaobi Ifeachor. Join us next time. Goodbye. 

 

 

Think digital, act human: future ways of working

Think digital, act human: future ways of working

November 1, 2021

 

Here is the fourth episode of our 'Think digital, act human' podcast series.

In this episode our host, Adaobi Ifeachor, gets to know Jack Collier, Head of Digital for School Services in Manchester.

Jack Collier talks to Adaobi Ifeachor about designing office spaces now that we return to work, and how this impacts culture as well as diversity and inclusion.

 

Transcription

Adaobi Ifeachor  

Hello. Welcome to Think Digital Act Human, a podcast from the Department for Education. Where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. I’m Adaobi Ifeachor. Now in our previous episodes, if you’ve listened to any of our previous episodes, we've had guests from the content design world. We've had service designers, we’ve had an associate product manager, so all these kinds of digital experts talking about how they do their work. But this episode we have something very special for you. We're going to talk about where that work gets done and why that's important to even consider. So with our guest today, I have my, well I usually have a cup of coffee, but today I have a cup of soup. So it's a very special pod. We've got our guest Jack Collier. Welcome, Jack.

 

Jack Collier  Hello. Thank you for having me here.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  Do you want to tell us what it is that you actually do? What's your official title?

 

Jack Collier Yeah, sure. So I look after service design and digital delivery for our services that we deliver to schools and school business professionals. So those are the people behind the scenes that make a school run perfectly. And obviously we want our services that we deliver to those people to run as easily and as quickly as possible.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So when I first started, you were my deputy director. Is that still your official title? Or have you moved to something else?

 

Jack Collier I'm still a deputy director. That's me. DD, JC (laughs)

 

Adaobi Ifeachor That sounds great. Except I'm getting DD Jesus Christ.

 

Jack Collier Oh God. (Laughs) definitely not that.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Never mind, let’s move on. Right so what was really nice, what I I kind of liked about you, Jack, was that when I first started, it feels like every episode I'm say when I first started less than a year ago, but seriously, when I first started less than a year ago you were one of the first people to contact me and you said that you know you were deputy director and you set up a meeting to meet with me and I'm thinking, wow. The deputy director of the Department for Education wants to have a meeting with me and then I find out that there are actually quite a few deputy directors.

 

Jack Collier There are tons of us.  

 

Adaobi Ifeachor What is it that you're all doing? How come there are so many deputy directors?

 

Jack Collier So it's a good question. There are a few of us. Basically, we look after different parts of our operations within the DfE that we deliver to users. So I'm looking after, as I said, the services that we deliver to school business professionals. I've got deputy directors that are looking after services that we deliver to teachers or services that we deliver to vulnerable families. So it's a huge set of things that we're delivering, which is why there's so many of us.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so something that you have been working on relatively recently is the future ways of working for digital and technology, which is like the part of the department that we work for, what does future ways of working mean exactly? What is its remit?

 

Jack Collier I mean, future ways of working is very much present ways of working now, to be honest with you. But really, what we mean by that phrase, future ways of working, is how the ways in which we're working are changing in this new context. So I think we in the workplace across every sector are kind of standing on a bit of a precipice, a doorway into a whole different future in terms of how offices function, how we use physical space, how we use virtual space. And there are two paths I think you can go down. You can design that consciously how you use that space or you can kind of stumble forward and work it out as you go, maybe unconsciously and not necessarily think about the decisions that you're making. The reason that we consciously set up a piece of work called future ways of working is because we wanted to think about the way in which we work in a design thinking kind of way. So, a user centered design approach, an agile approach, and really consciously step forward into that new world and think about how we approach this, this new context.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  Now this was not a top down approach that you took. We’re both saying the word approach quite a lot we’re going to notice this now as we keep speaking. But you did decide to really involve the staff who are going to be working in that space. Can you talk about why you decided to do that, how you decided to do that and what you found out?

 

Jack Collier Yes, we are a user centered design organisation it runs right through our DNA. That I think means that it’s got to carry through everything that we do. And what better way to do that than to take the user centered design approach and apply that to how we want to work, because the way in which we design, the way we want to work is all about our staff and it's all about our people and their potential and unleashing that. So what better way to understand how to do that than actually go and talk to our staff, and understand what their pain points are, what their problems are, how they perceive the world, the things they're worried about. And so what we did was we went and spoke to people. We had a brilliant little team that really, really poured their heart and soul into trying to understand that perspective and that helped to shape what we want to do going forward. I should say as well that, you know, we're not we're not just designing around what staff want. Instead, we're trying to think about that within the context of our organisation and where we're trying to be. DfE is on a change journey. It's been a very, very policy focused organisation, and we in digital and technology within DfE are trying to push ourselves more towards a service oriented organisation and you can imagine space and environment is very different in those two different kinds of organisations. So yes, we went bottom-up. We went to try and understand what staff wanted and what they felt and what their pain points were. But we also had this view in our mind of where do we want to get to in the future and how can space and environment, virtual or physical ways of working, that wrap around that really help us together?

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So what were some of the things that you heard that were surprising? Like, what were some of the things that stood out for you whilst you did these surveys and these kind of like town halls and those sorts of things like what did you learn?

 

Jack Collier Yeah, I think two things that really stood out to me. One was that there is no consensus. There is no way to please everyone. Everyone wants something slightly different, which I felt was quite surprising, actually. And it really does show the power of  user centered design because I thought everyone would share my point of view of what, you know, what do we want in terms of ways of working? Actually, everyone has almost a completely unique set of things that they wanted out of the future.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Well hang on a second, what is your point of view? What did you think?

 

Jack Collier I wanted a very radical change in the way in which we work. I wanted to think about the office as a base for community collaboration, play even, maybe even that we don't need a permanent office footprint. Maybe we could think about hiring the space that we need when we need it. I think that's future thinking stuff. Maybe that's too radical for where we are now. But, you know, everyone's got different contexts and so you might be, for example, fairly vulnerable, and so, you’re just not up for traveling. And so working from home and making sure that virtual first is embedded in everything we do is really, really important for some people. Other people we know within the team, for example, moved city in order to join the DfE. They don't know very many people here, and they really felt like work was going to be a social place where they could get to know new people and so, coming into the office was really important for them and working in a collaborative way in a physical environment was really important to them. So you can see there's just a huge spectrum of different views, and there was no consensus to kind of work through that and work out what we do in that situation? I think the other thing that I found surprising from the survey was actually one of the questions we asked was do you trust leadership within DfE to deliver on this? And I found it surprising that the majority of people said, Yes, we do. And I think that's quite unique within a large organisation that you have a fair degree of trust in leaders.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  OK, so from what you said, I'm hearing kind of like two sides of this coin, right? We’ve got this world where people spent, you know, 18 months, almost two years working not from the office and then it’s a question of, are we going back into the office? Are we going back to the before times and using the office space regularly through the week? But then the other side of the coin is what exactly does that office look like and how does it work when we do go in? So like, I’ve been following what some other big tech companies are doing. I mean, like, it's October 2021 as we record this. And you know, we've heard Microsoft say, we’re basically not going to put a timeframe on when people are going to come back in. And then you've got like people in the tech side of banking saying, we want people in as soon as possible. They’re coming back into the office pretty much full time is where we want things to go. Whereas the Department for Education's official advice is we do want you in, two to three days a week. That's kind of right, isn't it?

 

Jack Collier Yes, certainly there is, I guess, an official line around how many days in the office we would like people to come in. But beyond that, you know, it is an empty vessel around how we design the office to be useful and productive for people when they do come in and how we create the environment, virtual and physical, for people to work, whether they're in the office, at home or anywhere else. I think it's really important to kind of pause on a little point, which is that over the course of the pandemic, the make-up of our team has changed quite significantly. In that beforehand we had a base in London and we had a base that was growing in Manchester. We had two very clear kinds of areas where we were growing our workforce. Over the course of the pandemic, that changed quite dramatically whereby actually we are recruiting across lots of different locations, including Sheffield and Coventry, for example. And most of our teams are now based across different locations, so it's very easy to get hung up on how many days people are in the office. And actually the design challenge for us is how do we design an environment that allows people to work from different offices together or different locations together because teams could be based in multiple different locations. And there were massive benefits for us to do that during the pandemic and continuing it now. Which is that by doing that, we can offer people better learning experiences because they can join different kinds of teams that match their learning needs. So, for example, I was able to send an apprentice to go spend time with the apprenticeship service, which is based in Coventry, and he was based in Manchester. He got loads from that experience because it's such a mature digital service. He got to work on loads of AI for example, and with mature software teams, we wouldn't have been able to do that in the physical environment in the before times. The other thing is that we were able to assemble the right skills to solve the problems that were in front of us. So rather than just kind of say, we've got this problem and this team needs to solve it, even though it might not have the right skills, we were able to say, actually, we need this person, this person, this person, because they've got the right skills, to solve this problem. And that was actually vitally important, I think during particularly our pandemic response when everyone was at home and we were able to assemble teams with exactly the right skills that we needed to solve a problem without having any physical divides between people. So I think it's easy to get hung up on this, this idea of how many days people are in the office when actually the design challenge for us isn't about that. The design challenge is how do we create the environment, whether you were in the office or not? Because actually our teams are across all different kinds of locations. The other thing I was going to say was that you started off this pod by asking me what's my job? And it's a really hard question to answer actually, I've got a job title, I just mean, I think I've got a set of things which probably doesn't mean much to people outside of the DfE. Really, my job, as I see it as a kind of senior manager within the Civil Service, is to unlock the potential of our teams and to support our teams. They're the people that are doing real work, right? People that are actually delivering for our users, whether I like it or not, I'm not sat writing code, which is going to be released to our users. That's the role of our teams. So my job is to unlock our potential and get rid of barriers to them flourishing as teams. And one of the big barriers that you see in any organisation, but you know particularly now with this kind of confusing environment that we’re in, is the physical and virtual environments which teams have to work in. And if we can remove that, which is why I was so interested in this piece of work, I think you can get teams performing even better by building the right, physical and right virtual environments for them to be able to collaborate and work effectively.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so let's dig into that a bit more. So we've got you trying to kind of like make lemonade from lemons and say, right, this is actually a chance for us to completely, from the ground up, reimagine what we want our work environments to be. If staff are already coming in two or three days a week or maybe one or zero days a week. What are they coming into? How are we going to use this space differently? And I happen to know, we have been given some money and some leeway to remake our work space in Manchester. I don't know if this is happening beyond Manchester. Maybe that's something you're aware of. What is the plan there? What is the vision? What are you trying to do? I know you just said you’re radical, you're thinking about collaboration spaces. So tell me, tell me the dirt.

 

Jack Collier Yeah. So I think the first thing to say is that I don't have the answers, and I don't think anyone has the answers for this kind of new world that we're stepping into. But that's fine because most of the things that we're working on, we don’t have the answers and we’re working on really complex problems, right, and that's why we've got this user centered design approach and design thinking approaches, and we're working in an agile way. That's exactly what we're doing with how we create environments both physical and virtual. So what is the vision, where are we going? Well, we've got a brilliant alliance. We've got a brilliant relationship with our estate colleagues, which I think is quite unusual in large organisations, actually. And I'm very, very kind of happy that we've managed to forge that. What we're doing is we're looking at space in Manchester and in Sheffield actually too and thinking about what experiments we can run in that space in order to understand how people work in those spaces. What attracts people to work in the office and how space supports that and what actually turns them off? What makes them say, you know, the office doesn't support the way in which I need to work. So again, it's about removing those barriers, but also creating the space that supports the kind of work that we want to do. So we want to launch a load of experiments with estates. And the thing that I always think about, and I don’t know if you've ever seen the film about the McDonald's founder?

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I haven’t but everybody talks about this 

 

Jack Collier right? I don't think it's a brilliant film, by the way, but there’s a great scene where they essentially prototype up the restaurant space and they do it in chalk, in a car park. And we're not I mean, we're not in that world, we're not exactly doing that. But what we are going to do is we're going to look at bringing in things like modular furniture so we can try different setups, we’re going to try different technology in the space so we can see how that works when working across sites in bringing physical and virtual environments together. And we're going to be seeking feedback throughout this to understand how that works for staff and to measure it as well. Does it bring people into the office? Does it drive people away? And really just take that experimental approach to how we design that space. And that's what I mean about consciously stepping into this question of how do we work in this new world.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So would a Manchester colleague walk into the office and suddenly see that there are no desks. There's bean bags and like virtual reality goggles. I mean, I'm being a bit facetious, but like, how regularly are you going to be doing these experiments and then analyzing the results? What are your measures for success?

 

Jack Collier So I think you've got to go back to that thing I said before, which is space right? And virtual environments, physical environments, the whole thing, how we work, culture is very, very emotive and people naturally jump to, Hey, I really want this. I want virtual reality goggles, for example, and everyone's got ideas. And that's fine. But you're completely right Adaobi, you’ve got your product manager hat on to say this is about what we're trying to achieve. It's not about the things themselves. And if we go back to that statement we made before around, we in the DfE are trying to become more of a service organisation, then the space has really got to support that. So how do we measure our team's ability to collaborate in order to deliver to users? 

A really good example of the kind of things I'm talking about is if you were to go to Citizens Advice head office in London, you wait in the waiting room, you sit there and you look at a screen and on that screen you can see all of the digital interactions that are going on with Citizens Advice there and then. So you can see what are the top search things on Citizens Advice website? What are the top queries, for example. And immediately you enter this headspace where you understand what Citizens Advice does and what it really cares about, right? Because you can see it cares about the users and what advice they're trying to find. So that's the kind of outcome that we're trying to achieve in the DfE, right? We want to see that stuff on walls. So we want to see  TV screens sharing data about our services. Are they up? Are they down? Is there a problem? How many transactions have we served? What are users saying? We want to physically see that right. We want spaces that support the ways of working that enable us to understand the users better. So things like empathy labs, GDS have got a brilliant empathy lab in their London office because, you know, it's open, you wander past it and you are naturally drawn to it and you kind of step in there and you go.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor and what is an empathy lab? For people that don’t know.

 

Jack Collier it's a space basically where you can build empathy with different kinds of users who might be different to you. So they might have visual impairments, for example, and you can try on goggles that might stimulate that kind of experience that they might have. Just having that in the space that you can wander into and experiment and explore with, I think sends a great message about the culture and environment that this organisation has and therefore the kind of services that we're trying to deliver. So when we're talking about this stuff, that's the kind of North Star that we're trying to achieve, how can we curate space? And I keep saying virtual physical because it's not just about the office, but how do you work between different spaces that supports that culture, that way of working, which really puts the user right at the centre. And the thing that I’ll add to it is that it's not just about how we use the space, it is about how other people can use the space as well. So that could be other teams that aren’t digital teams coming into that space and understanding immediately what this team is doing and what it's achieving. Is it achieving success or not? You know, that would be a fantastic outcome. At the moment, we can't do that. We can't do that sat on our laptops, right? We can't do that at home. It's very, very difficult. The other thing is actual users. I would love to have users coming into our space and for us to feel connected to the people that we're serving and users for us in DfE is really, really expansive. But it's things like, you know, how can we support people to come into the office to get work experience? How can we support the mums that might have taken time out of work, who have children, for example, to gain new skills and go into different kinds of employment. So, for example learning to code something, we've got coders on site while we're running coding camps for people that want to retrain. So there's masses of stuff that we could do, which actually brings our users to us as well. And I think kind of creates a more permeable barrier between government and the people we’re serving. And again, when I think about ways of working in space and environment. You can start to achieve some of those things and I think that really drives the culture and ways of working then that teams inhabit.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor so many interesting things that you said there. I'm still struggling to understand how we might measure the success of that objectively. Have you thought about that?

 

Jack Collier Yeah. So it's things like, do people enjoy coming into the office? Do people actually come into the office to collaborate and do the things that we expect them to do physically together, right? Do they spend time together? But I think there are other measures as well that probably aren't as direct, which are kind of these indirect measures. Things like do we retain people better than we did before because people enjoy working together? People enjoy being part of an environment. So those kinds of measures that I think we can start to build out from these experiments, I should say we haven't started these experiments yet. So they're due to kick off around November time or towards the end of the year with the actual physical space.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor The reason why I guess I'm asking about these kinds of key performance indicators is because I'm imagining listeners who perhaps they work outside government and think, “Wow, OK experiments in how we use work space, that sounds great. How am I going to kind of measure whether this is working for us?” And there's some really good stuff you talked about in terms of retention. Because it's so expensive to kind of recruit and train new staff members and you know how many people are choosing to come into office now that you've made these changes. What is the perception of the staff themselves about how much they're enjoying the space? I think you do have to be careful about sort of like surveying people out. If they're like several weekly surveys, everyone's gonna be like, Oh, I don't want to go in just because I have to do another survey.

 

Jack Collier I think just to build on that measurement point Adaobi, obviously it's a massive experiment in and of itself. That massive experiment is made up of individual kinds of experiments, right? So one experiment might be that we want to create a dedicated user research space that we want to soundproof a room and make it private and be able to bring users in or be able to do virtual research from that room. So we then want to build those measures out from that specific experiment. And that would be use of the space, whether more people participate in research as a result. So they get to understand users' perspectives better as a team. You kind of want to break this big experiment ways of working down into smaller bits and kind of be specific about what you are trying to achieve with each one of those specific things? The other thing I'd just add as well around this is that I think it's a massive opportunity to improve an organisation's inclusivity and diversity by thinking about space and environment in this way. So one of the really exciting things that our estates colleagues are thinking about is designing inclusive spaces. So, for example, spaces that work for neurodivergent people or people with neurodivergent needs. For example, lower lighting, quiet spaces where it's harder to be disrupted. And I think that's brilliant and fantastic. That we’re starting to bring that inclusive design thinking into the way in which we design the space. And again, whether that be virtual or physical, you know, the virtual environment, it might be around making sure that everyone understands how to run a brilliant virtual meeting or if you're running a hybrid meeting, making sure that everyone in a hybrid meeting that is physically in a space together still has their laptop on and is logged into the meeting so that anyone who isn’t in that physical space can still see them. And if you want to, you know, participate in that meeting, you still put your hand up on the Team's meeting, for example, right? So there's all kinds of bits and pieces that make this up, but putting inclusivity right at the heart of this is really important too I think.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Brilliant, in one of our previous pods we had head of design, content design; Jen staves. And she talked about the importance of communities of practice, building up this sort of shared culture within particular disciplines. So you know there might be a community for product managers, community for designers, and that's sort of like this intra-culture. But then there's also like this department culture, like there's like a digital technology culture that's been built up. And I felt that as somebody who is very new to work and DfE Digital and Technology is surprisingly quite innovative and people are kind of willing to just take an idea and run with it, which I really like, you talk about experiments and things like that. I'm just wondering how easy or difficult it will be to maintain that culture. Will it have to necessarily change? And before you get started on your answer, I can see the gears moving in your head already. Before you get started on your answer, I want to say this, a few weeks back, I went to perhaps my second social DfE, and it was like a Northern sports day. And we traveled out to like this particular site, Bamford or something like that. And there were just all sorts of events: football, ultimate frisbee, rounders. I was looking forward to rounders so much I can't even tell you, and then I was immediately bowled out. It was terrible. But anyway, how do you keep a culture and sense of rapport and camaraderie when people are really only going into an office two days a week if they feel like it?

 

Jack Collier Yeah, culture is an interesting one. And you mentioned different teams, with different cultures and different communities. And with different cultures, you’ve got cultures layered on top of cultures, right? So, we've got a D&T culture, we've got communities of practice, which I feel is the beating heart of DfE digital and technology, you’ve got team culture, you've got program cultures. It's a complex world and a complex environment. How do you keep a culture? I think for me, it goes back to what I said at the start, it's about being conscious about it. First of all, cultures never stood still. It's always changing and always evolving. And I think every action that we take, everything we say adds to, builds or changes that culture. I think that's particularly true at a senior level as well. Where I guess you've got more influence, more reach across an organisation. But within that context, I know that, thinking about how you maintain or build the culture that you want, you've got to consciously design it and things like rituals are really, really important in culture. If you think about any culture in a more kind of broad sense, a national culture or what have you. Rituals are often the keystone pillars on which that culture kind of rests or kind of goes back to. And I think that's one of the key things that we’ve got to design. We've already got some great rituals, things like Show the Thing where we invite teams to come and show something, ideally something that's not finished. It might be a problem that they don't know how to solve it or a fun project that they want to share with people because they learn something from it. That encourages a culture of sharing and not having to polish things up in order to share them and actually getting that feedback early. It's a great ritual to kind of encourage that kind of behavior. So these kinds of rituals that we've got to think about designing and then putting in place that supports the culture that we want to achieve.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Do those rituals always have to be work related? Do activities like Northern sports day become more important then because you don't necessarily spend as much time in each other's physical presence?

 

Jack Collier No, they do not have to be work related. I mean, people enjoy coming to work. Definitely because the work is exciting it's interesting and you make a difference. But for the people, right, people say you come for the work you stay for the people. And so those rituals could be things like regular lunch time socials, for example. So I think where I used to work, we used to have falafel Friday where we used to go out to get falafel from the market. It's great. It's like a nice little thing to do. But equally, before the pandemic or physically in office together, we used to have a Thursday wellbeing time, which was about two hours set aside to just get together as a team, do some fun things together. I would personally encourage play at work because a load of research shows that that supports us to work better and supports us to bond as teams better. And so actually, I think there’s loads of brilliant rituals that we already are doing and which will continue to build and support that. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Perfect that was such a good note to end on. I'm just going to say thank you to everyone who's listened to this. Really hope that you've enjoyed it as much as I have. Thanks to our wonderful deputy director, our DD JC, Jack Collier.

 

Jack Collier Thanks for having me.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor If people want to connect with you on social, do you have a Twitter or is LinkedIn best?

 

Jack Collier Yeah, maybe Twitter is the best place. Unfortunately, it’s not at DD JC. It’s at Jack Colls. So yeah, hit me up on Twitter.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So if you, dear listener, have something you'd like us to cover in a future pod, please do let us know. Our Twitter is DfE_digitaltech and our blog is the digital and technology blog. Honestly, just Google it, because if we gave you the URL, we'd be here all day. It is really quite long. This pod was brought to you by the Department for Education, the producers are Rosie Roff, Louise Mullan and Nettie Williams, and I'm your host Adaobi Ifeachor. Join us next time. Bye, bye.

 

Think digital, act human: why are communities of practice good for an organisation

Think digital, act human: why are communities of practice good for an organisation

October 1, 2021

Here is the third episode of our – 'Think digital, act human' – podcast series which shines a light on the stories of the people behind our digital and technology projects.

Host, Adaobi Ifeachor, gets to know Jen Staves, Head of Content design.

You’ll learn about content design, co-design and why communities of practice are important for delivery teams, and the part Jen plays in this space. 

 

Transcription 

[Music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Hello, welcome to Think Digital act Human, a podcast where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. 

So every day millions of pupils, teachers, frontline workers and educational  professionals are affected by the work we're doing in the background here at DfE, that's the Department for Education, specifically DfE Digital and technology. That's where we work. And our work is centred around these users. But who are the people making it all happen and what drives them to do it? What are the stories behind the user stories? Well, this series will shine a light on the human stories behind our digital projects and stories behind transformational work and the skills and attitudes our people bring to and take from their work. So I am so excited to introduce our guest today. I have my cup of coffee. I hope you do, too. 

So our guest today is Jen Staves.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Jen, welcome.

 

Jen Staves Hi.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Do you want to introduce your job title, what it is that you do at DfE?

 

Jen Staves Absolutely. So I am head of content design in the Digital and Technology Directorate at DfE Department for Education. That's a head of professions role. 

So that's kind of a strange thing. People might not have heard about it as such, but it means I look after the content design profession across all of DfE and EFA, which is the educational skills and funding agency, which is an arm's length body of DfE and we work really closely. It means I need to look across all of the different teams and portfolios to make sure that content design is being its best.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Now, some of our listeners who have followed our blog will have like a general understanding of what content design is for people who are complete newbies. What is content design?

 

Jen Staves Content design is so much Adaobi. So I think some times people think content design is just words. And I suppose that's the first thing I have to say is it is not just words. It is so much more than words.

 

It is about structure. It's about information architecture. It's about designing how your content is there so that it best meets user needs. And so it's first and foremost, you know, it's part of user centred design, along with interaction design, along with user research, along with service design. And so it's there to make sure that the user has the easiest, best path to achieving whatever they want to achieve.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, good description. So, as head of content design, I've been looking into your kind of background a little bit, seeing what sort of stuff you've been up to Jen.  

And what I've noticed is a bit of a pattern here. Almost everybody that I speak to is relatively new to DfE. What is going on with this recruitment wave? Is it true to say that you would consider yourself relatively new as well? I mean I mean, I certainly do. I came in November 2020 and I think that was about the same sort of time as you.

 

Jen Staves It is. It is. We are both November 20, 20ers. I've been here less than a year. In some ways it feels like I've always been here, but it takes a little bit of time to feel like that. So, yeah, I'm relatively new. It's not my first civil service job, though. Before this, I was at the Department of International Trade, but then before that I was outside the civil service.

 Adaobi Ifeachor And I think I'm right in saying that it's not a British accent. I'm hearing where's that coming from.

 

Jen Staves Well, if you asked an American, they'd probably think it sounded a bit British, but it absolutely isn’t. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, in the southeast of the US, until I was about 18. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Catching that midnight train to Georgia.

 

Jen Staves exactly 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Right. That is a deep cut reference. If you’re over 30, you will know what I'm talking about. So let's dig it in a bit more into the content design space. So you've got like a team of people underneath you who are all working on different projects, designing content. I'm assuming. But you as head of profession.

 

You kind of like come in to what is like quite a new sort of area for the Department for Education. And you've got to kind of design or reimagine what exactly is content design going to be for DfE? Like, how on earth do you, you come in day one? What's your plan?

 

Jen Staves I think that's a really good question. And it's almost like you have to design the organisational design of how you want content design to work. So sorry, that was a bit of a mouthful, a bit of a tongue teaser. So I came in and for me. It's like any other job you need to come in and you need to see what's going on. You need to see what is the digital estate like here? Where are the content designers? You know, where is everybody? What is going on? And that has been tricky because there wasn't a head of profession before me. I was starting fresh, which in some ways is really exciting and in other ways is absolutely petrifying. But I knew that there were other professions that were maybe 18 months ahead of me and I could see where where you could be if you had a good head of profession and if you had people. So one thing I really noticed is that content designers were kind of often contractors, but sometimes civil servants, and they were on their own and teams. So it can be a bit of a lonely business when you're on your own and you think that this is the best way to do content design, but you're on a team that thinks something a little bit different. 

 

So my first job really was just to get in there and talk to people and find out what their desires, needs wants, you know, concerns were. And then also just get a picture of how that map of services all connect and then did something a little bit more formal. I think it was in January so two months after I joined where we sort of benchmarked the capabilities of the community. So personal capabilities, individual capabilities,but also what they felt about their team's capabilities, what they felt about the community's capabilities, what they felt about the organisation's capabilities, because really I needed to see what I needed to be able to unblock for them.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So for people who maybe they've been in the space where they've only ever had a UX team light user experience team, and they want to split that apart and kind of bring, develop the sort of constituent disciplines up. They want an interaction designer. They want a service designer. They want a content designer. That's really interesting to kind of like say, the first thing you gotta do is just work out what on earth you actually have in the building, first of all. And if you don't have the skills, do you then look to contractors to fill the gap while you're building that up? What do you do in the meantime?

 

Jen Staves It's a really good question. So I think it's a combination. So sometimes you will need to bring in contractors right away, right? Because delivery pressures are delivery pressures and we have an obligation to taxpayers and to teachers and to students and everybody to deliver what they need. And we can't say, oops, you know, well, we just want to grow our in-house capability. We'll deliver this service in nine months time. So we do that. But I think there were two kind of big in tandem things. One is, okay, that benchmarking told me where we needed to work. And so, for example, I realised our content designers need to improve their prototyping skills so we could do some work on our own to do that, you know, within the community. But we could also make sure that it's built into the statements of all of our contractors to help us, because in our benchmarking, we included contractors and so we could see where contractors felt more confident than civil servants. So we always, always making sure, of course, that we're within all our contracting guidelines. We make sure that contractor share their expertise.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So we’ve talked about how you have like some content designers. And you're kind of making sure they have what they need to do their jobs? Well, I actually I did a bit of sneakin in the background, found somebody you line manage. And I was like, tell me, tell me the dirt on Jen. Like, what's

Jen Staves Oh no.

Adaobi Ifeachor What is it that you, what is it that you feel you've gotten out of working with Jen. Here are some of the quotes. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  With Jen I'm always learning. She’s taught me that content design is more than just the words on a page. And I've gotten that you're really big on getting people to reach out beyond just their team. So I hear that there was a service design conference, like a two day conference where people were talking about co-design.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor And that fascinated me because I was like co-design. What is this co-design business or these new kind of sexy times in the design space? Can you tell us a bit about that?

 

Jen Staves Yeah, absolutely. So the service design in government conference was last week and it was brilliant and it was really nice to bring people together and set people off and say, OK, learn something new and bring it back to the community. So, for example, four of our content designers are presenting at community this week about four different things they learnt so that the whole community can benefit and learn from that.

 And co-design was one of them. And co design is really cool. But it's a step beyond, I think, what we've traditionally thought of as user centred design. And so user centred design is where we talk to users and we design for users. You know, we asked them what they think of things, but we traditionally kind of design it based off of what they've told us and then we test that they can use it, whereas code design is really exciting and it's kind of setting out from the beginning and saying, no, you are part of this team, you are helping design this service and, you know, you have an equal say in what is going to be designed. It's a big deal for government departments to be able to do that.

 And to be honest, I'm not sure that all government departments are ready for that yet. It'd be awesome if they were. I think I've heard that there's some really cool co-design going on at DEFRA (department for environmental, food and rural affairs) where they've been working with farmers.

 

And that makes sense, right? No one is going to tell farmers how farms work. For the future of farming you need them helping to design it. I think it'd be awesome to think about how we could bring in teachers, schools, pupils into how we design things. But it is very much about starting as equal partners. And that's scary for some people.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Well, I'm a West Country girl, so I know all about farmers. No need to tell me about that. This idea of, like, co-creating with your users, if it makes sense anywhere I think it makes sense in the public sector because you are there to serve the public. Right. And especially if you kind of like taking public money in like taxes or donations or whatever it is I kind of love this idea of co-design. That sounds really fascinating. But there is something else I kind of want to dig into a little bit more. You have mentioned the word community a couple of times, and I guess we spoke about it in terms of like reaching beyond your team. But what does that mean specifically in DfE digital and technology? Do you want people not to feel lonely, to feel isolated on their teams I'm imagining. But what is it beyond that?

 

Jen Staves It's a really, really good question. So community is kind of, I think, everything for our professions that DfE. And for these communities of practise it's really important because we think so much as being the member of a team member of a delivery team, we need to remember that, you know, that might be our our vertical, for example. But what's our horizontal? And I'm not necessarily keen on all these different, like words like squads and clans and all those things. I just like community because it just you always think the people. Right. And so that brings together that layer of everybody in content design. And we all come together every week, Thursday one to four. And we have that chance for sharing and for learning. So there's a lot of things we do. So there's one thing is just we're friends, if you're having a hard week because something you think you really need to do for your users has been shot down, well, you have people who are there to talk to about it and maybe think, oh, that's not great, sorry. Or have you tried this idea? Maybe you could go back and get a little bit more data, you know, so there's that sense of like how how do you sell in your content design ideas? Because content design is user centred, but it's also very data centred as well, very performance centred.

So there's also this sense of standard. So at DfE the community is supposed to own and build its standards. Right. And so I might, I might own the community standards, but they're making them. I think that's the key thing. Right. So we're a collective and we're coming together and we're building that together. So that's really, really important is that standard aspect. And then finally, I think it's about us going back out to the rest of the organisation to raise the profile. So based of that benchmarking that we did, we realised that there were a bunch of key areas where content design was lacking or where content design could improve and not just improve itself, but improve DfE. 

So one of them was called, like we called it, programme capability. And that was how do we help teams to be successful and to make the most of content design? So that might be me going out and talking to different delivery managers, might be talking to the contracts team. It might be, you know, all  sorts of things. The next one was about skills and standards. So I mentioned to you prototyping. Well, how do we make sure that we build that in? Standards, we talked about that. Recruitment, we need more brilliant junior content designers. So that's my job, to go back out there and talk to people to help them make the business case for more juniors so that we have that brilliant pipeline of people sort of coming through. And then innovation, so that's one of my really exciting working groups like how do we not just standstill in terms of like what best practise is, how do we learn more? How do we bring in something from a complete other, you know, maybe non-public sector? Maybe we learn something from book publishing that we could bring in. Maybe we learn something from, you know, something completely different. And also we need to learn from schools themselves. So how do we continue to innovate? So that's really exciting.

And so my goal is that we get all of our kind of senior content designers running those working groups. So it's not me like this needs to be able to kind of work with and without me. They run those working groups, they bring it back together. 

Adaobi Ifeachor So bottom up. Yeah.

Jen Staves Yeah, exactly. 

Adaobi Ifeachor So all of these different aspects you talked about recruitment, innovation, advocacy, all this different stuff, this all forms part of your is it the content design profession roadmap? 

Jen Staves It is.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor You can see I've done my homework. I told you, I wasn’t lying.  So, so that's pretty cool. So you've got say somebody else who's coming in to a different government department or maybe an external organisation and they want to do this content design thing. They’re like, you know, sounds exciting, first thing, find out what you've got at the moment. Next thing, maybe set up a community and then use that community to help you put together this content design roadmap, perhaps. 

 

So I really like the idea of this because one thing, it's saying, well, what are people doing out there at the moment? Like what kind of new things are happening in the content design world that we could kind of use? But then it also sets people's expectations when they're coming into this content design world right. Because they’re saying, OK, this is what is expected of me, this is what people want. I really like how your mind works, like fitting in what we're doing now, but also what we're doing later. 

So I've got to kind of ask you then I'm assuming that you're not just sort of managing everything from a strategic point. Are there times when you're still getting your hand in there, and still working on a few projects, does that still happen?

 

Jen Staves It does. It it kind of ebbs and flows. So, I mean, we worked together, didn't we, a little bit in the in the early stages where I got kind of my hands more into the delivery space. And and that was that was really interesting. That was working on teacher continuing professional development, which is called teacher CPD. 

Luckily, we've got a brilliant lead content designer in there now so I could step back. So I kind of think the way that I like to work is if I see that there's an area that is bereft of content design experience, I might try and go in there and make friends with one of the deputy directors and try and say, can I get in there and get my hands messy and maybe help to diagnose what's going on, but then help you also bring in that capability, help get that person going. And then I can step back out because I think I can't I can't get I can't stay there too long.

Adaobi Ifeachor Do you think that's an important part of building a healthy community as well, like having everybody see that you kind of are willing to lead from the front?

Jen Staves I think so. So right now, where I'm trying to dip my toe in a bit more, stick my finger in a pie a bit more, I suppose, is the service manual team. So we've got a brilliant content designer in there called Amber, but like a service manual is full of content we need to think really, really strongly about this right? And there's so many different standards owners all over the place.

  

Adaobi Ifeachor And what's a service manual for people who don't know what service manual is? I know it's a manual for service, but what does that mean?

 

Jen Staved It's a lot of the documentation on how, how you do a good job at building a service.Right. And so there's a really good open source one that the government digital service has, the GDS service manual. If you Google that, you can open it up and just dig in. 

It's great stuff. You know, some of it's about like how do you get the right team for a different phase of your service? And some of it's like, what do you do and not do when it comes to certain technical solutions? And what is the service standard? There's a service standard that has twelve things that services must meet in order to kind of meet the standard for user centred services. So there's a DfE service manual that's being built, which is is really not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it's about how does the service standard work in the context of DfE. So if you know this, then what does that mean here? How do you navigate that? But it can be murky, right? Because there's lots of different standards all over the place. And I think the main thing that we want to do is we want to make sure that we give our internal services the same due care that we would expect of our external services.

So the service manual needs to be done properly because that's the place that tells the other teams how to do it. And so it needs to be just as user centred.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So do you think, it feels like there might be a bit of a tension between if you're a new person come into content design Never worked in the civil service before, and you have this kind of freedom and your soul to just kind of do your own thing. But then there also seems to be service manuals, service manuals within service manuals, guidance communities of best practise, do you think, like sometimes in a bid to build a healthy culture and improve people, their development, is there too much going on?

 

Jen Staves It's quite possible. I mean, it's funny, but like as a content designer, it's often more about what you remove than what you add. So I take it as a major, major win when a page is decided to remove or a step is removed from the process because it's superfluous. And so I think there's a big challenge to think about with standards or with anything else. You give people too much and they just turn off completely and then they just wing it right.

So I think I've got to get in there. I've got to see. And then we can start to think, how do we refine? How do we shrink? How do we make it proportionate to what you're doing? Because otherwise, if you're expected to check thirty different places then it's not going to happen, but I think it's less about like check this, check that. It's more about making sure that we all have a shared principles for how we work. And so you kind of know in your gut, but that, that's just by talking to people and being a part of it and. I think if you are new to civil service, it can be tricky.

 It's almost like you should spend the first six months learning the civil service before you do your job.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I definitely felt that. With all the acronyms you should just be tested with, like pop quizzes each week.

 

Jen Staves Exactly, exactly. But you have to learn on the go. That is the fastest way to learn. So a lot of people join the content design. And we hear this at interviews like, oh, I love writing.

And it's like you're going to have to find a different route to fulfil your love of writing, because that's not what content design is here for. You know, if you want to be a novelist, do that, do that at the weekend and then work on your day job about just making things slimline and streamlined for users. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor as easy as possible for those users.

 

Jen Staves  Exactly.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So we've talked, gosh we've talked about so many different things. But I wanted to understand this power coming from the community. It used to be everybody was talking about, what's the best practise here? How can we learn best practise?

But now all of a sudden, people are talking about communities of practise, have you noticed that switch? And what's the difference? Isn't communities of practise basically like learning best practise, but not having it given to you, sort of like figuring it out together or something? Is that the difference? Is that the shift?

 

Jen Staves Maybe. Yeah maybe. I think it's about, I’ll confess I hate the phrase best practise.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  Yes. Thank you.        

 

Jen Staves just like I hate the phrase world class. Like it doesn't mean anything. And it's that there's one best way to do thing which isn't true. Right. And even if it is the best thing now, it might not be the best thing in three months time. We just don't know. So I guess what I like about communities of practise is that there's a plurality of good practise. And as long as we are taking into account our user needs and our business needs and we're taking into account that we cannot reinvent the wheel every time because that builds a mountain of technical and content and experience debt, then there's a community of practise. Right. There are many ways to do the job right. That don't, you know, create more problems for us down the line. So I think that I think that's a nice way of looking at it.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I like that definition, definitely. I was going to ask next, you talked about some of the components that kind of go into this Thursday meetup, although I have to say one to four. It's a really long time for a meeting. How is that broken up? Like what? What are people doing?

 

Jen Staves Sure. So the community of practise meeting is just one to two. So that's one hour every Thursday. But something that we're trialling in digital and technology is profession Thursdays. So that's one o'clock to four o'clock every afternoon. That is time that's kind of semi ring-fence for you to develop yourself. It doesn't mean that if there isn't a huge delivery pressure that you just ignore that because you're like Lalalala. I'm learning.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah, sorry, I'm reading this afternoon,

 

Jen Staves but there's a lot of different things that we're doing in that space beyond content design. Lots of all the professions are jumping in. So there's masterclasses. So I ran a master class that anyone could come to on pair writing. My colleague Lewis, he's a head of a profession for a software, is running one on GitHub

 

Adaobi Ifeachor GitHub for content designers? 

 

Jen Staves GitHub for anybody. Right. So which is awesome. Right. Because content designers do use GitHub. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Because usually it's something that you just think of like software developers. Oh, this is a place for me to store my code. But you're saying like this could be useful in the content design space as well? 

 

Jen Staves Exactly. I mean, in some of our services, the content designers are making changes in Git so, yeah, it's really cool.

 So there's masterclasses. We bring in people for talks every quarter our user centred design community gets together. So user researchers content designers, service designers and interaction designers for like a quarterly meetup where we do really cool things and we bring in really cool talks. 

And so the next one is the head of inclusive design at NHS (I think) Track and Trace who’s going to talk to us. And then also I think it's a real sense that learning needs to be self driven. You can't always be like Jen, what should I learn this week?

It's like, what do you want to learn? Right. So you need to set aside some time for yourself. Do you want to read a new book about your practise or do you want to watch some YouTube tutorials about using the prototype kit? You know, make something yourself, do it. You have to invest in yourself as well.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah. Can I make a suggestion? 

I know this is actually is a little bit counter to everything you just said a moment ago, but I like when you were talking about all these kind of designers getting together, my thought was like, that's so cool. As a product manager, I'd love to know how to work better with all these different design disciplines. Like I would love some sort of thing when you're planning your next one in the future. If you think about us product managers, too, because I want to get the best out of my my digital delivery team. There must be frustrations as a designer, when you think like I come in as a content designer and my product manager doesn't know what I do, so doesn't know how to get the best out of my skills. So that's something to think about maybe when you're planning you like another future session. 

But at the time of recording this, I hear that you are about to start recruiting maybe for some more content designers. If someone is interested in coming into government or specifically DfE as a content designer,  what should they be lining up in terms of their experience? That will mean they are more attractive as a candidate?

 

Jen Staves That's a good question. So we just closed a couple of campaigns, but we are really growing, which is super exciting compared to where we were in November. I'm just really excited that we have so many content designers and that we're convincing people on the value. So a big thing that I think we don't talk about enough are outcomes.

So what I don't want to hear is that you created a cool video or that you, you know, where the content designer of the service I want to know what you did in that service that made it deliver better. Like, how did you improve the user's lives or how did you unblock them getting through that form or what did you deliver back for the organisation? Right. I want to know what your content did. So I'm really big on results. And it doesn't mean that your results had to be smashing every single time. I'm OK to hear whether you did something and it didn't work and you learnt something from it because that just shows that you're really, that you're really doing that. And then the other thing that I'm really big on is evidence and not just one type of evidence, but that, you know how to get different types of evidence and bring them together to inform a content design decision. So user research, yes, we love it. But there  are times where people do use their research when they don't need to.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Oh, yes, yes, yes.

 

Jen Staves But then also performance. How is the content that's already out there performing? What is it doing? Bringing that all that data together, that is the way to convince people is through evidence. And when people are ready to, you know, push content onto the side, when you bring evidence in, that's when you've got your best chance. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so before we end then, is there anything that you want to add to this idea of community, particularly for people who might have given it a go and it’s just not as healthy as they want it to be?

 

Jen Staves Yeah, OK. So I think, first of all, like, I'm here as one head of profession, but we have loads of head of professions who are all doing a great job trying to work with their communities. But if you don't talk to them about what's not working for you, they can't necessarily help. Right. So if maybe you try being in my community and the content design community and we're like, this is too much for me, reach out to the head of profession and talk to them and be like, these are my needs, you know? And then they might be able to signpost you or they might be able to say, you know what, that's actually come up somewhere else. Let's think about how we how we make this better. So that's one thing. 

And then the other thing is, I think we all have different styles and personalities and that's OK. Right. So I would say do your best to participate in the community in some way. But it's not always that you have to be camera on, always smiling and laughing. It's like if you want to participate once a month or once a quarter, but you're actively sharing something, cool. The point is, is that it's a give and take. It's not a car. And just like, listen, it's how can you share your expertise or what you've learnt from being in your service and how can you learn something from somebody else? So it's that kind of like virtuous circle that keeps giving, but it only keeps giving if people are involved.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Really great note to end on. I just want to thank everyone who's been listening. I hope you've enjoyed it. Thank you so much for guest, Jen Staves, who is head of content here at DfE Digital and Technology. We have so many more things that we want to share with you in future pods.

 If you have suggestions, please do let us know. Our Twitter is at DfE_DigitalTech and our blog is www.dfedigital.blog.gov.uk. But of course that is a complete mouthful, so you're probably better off just Googling it. Just Google DfE, Digital and technology blog and it will make your day so much easier.

 

So thanks again, I’m Adaobi Ifeachor, join us next time. Bye bye. 

 

Think digital, act human: Black voices in digital and technology

Think digital, act human: Black voices in digital and technology

August 24, 2021

The second episode of our 'Think digital, act human' podcast which shines a light on the stories of the people behind our digital and technology projects.

Hosted by Product Manager, Adaobi Ifeachor, in this episode we’re celebrating the work of 3 Black digital and technology experts in DfE.

Keisha Herbert, Virginia Brown and Courtney Allen explain the critical part they play in designing, building and running services.

 

 

Transcription 

[Music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Hello, welcome to Think Digital Act Human, a podcast where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. 

I’m Adaobi Ifeachor, a product manager here at the Department for Education. OK, so today is a particularly special episode because we have not one, not two, but three digital and tech experts from DfE. So in a second, I'm going to introduce you to them. But for now, just grab yourself a cup of coffee. We'll wait for you. We're excited, but we will wait. And now I'm going to introduce you. So we've got Keisha Herbert, a senior user researcher from Teachers Services. Courtney Allen, an associate product manager from Get Help Buying for Schools, and Virginia Brown, a content design lead from the apprenticeship service.

Adaobi Ifeachor Welcome, everybody. 

 

Virginia Brown Hello 

 

Courtney Allen Hello 

 

 Keisha Herbert Hi 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So this is a special episode for another reason, if you’re someone just listening to our dulcet tones, you probably wouldn't have noticed anything. But I'm going to tell you, we're all black, digital and tech specialists. I wanted to put something positive out into the universe, I guess.

I think, this is really to all my guests as well, like the last 18 months, say, has been pretty kind of miserable for everybody on the planet.

 

We've had a pandemic. We've had lockdowns. We've had missed occasions with family and friends and things like that. But recently, if you are a member of the black diaspora, we've had some extra things happening as well. So everybody knows about George Floyd's murder.

And recently with the Euros, we've had abuse happening towards players who really did nothing wrong at all except play whilst black, I guess. So I just thought, you know what?

You had all that kind of negativity. Let's have a space where it's just positivity. We're hearing about the great things that black people are doing in their careers, how they moved into this world of digital and tech. I want to know your stories. I'm going to kind of come to you one by one and just find out a little bit about what you actually do. So if I come to you, Keisha first, so senior user researcher Teacher Services. There are people who will be listening who have no idea what a senior researcher is. When your mum asks you, what do you say?

 

Keisha Herbert She does still ask me quite a lot. So I still have to keep telling her what I do. Senior user researcher is basically understanding the user needs. So if you're designing a service, developing a service, you have to understand what the user needs to ensure that that service is built for them and built to really meet those needs. So that's what I do. I go out and speak to people within Teacher Services I'm speaking to potential teachers because I work on the Get into Teaching website. So that's all about inspiring, informing and reassuring people that want to get into teaching. So I go out and speak to them and understand what can we do better? How can we improve the website to ensure that they have all the information they need and they understand what to expect when they're going along their journey to becoming a teacher. That's ultimately what I do.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Awesome, thanks Keisha. Let’s come to you next Courtney. And this is a bit awkward. Like when I was first looking for who I might invite to be on this panel of guests, I was like, Courtney Allen, Courtney Allen, that name seems so familiar. And then, of course, I remembered I was one of the people who interviewed you for your job. 

 

Courtney Allen Yes. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Don’t feel like you have to be super polite to me, it’s fine. Say whatever you want to say. Courtney, what does an associate product manager do?

 

Courtney Allen Associate product manager is a trainee role. Product management is kind of sitting at the heart between user experience, tech, and a business team to kind of systematically figure out what is the best thing to build next and why.

 

Courtney Allen So you'd work regularly with your user researchers and your content designers to work through what they've discovered and decide what's the best thing to build next and the most important thing for both the business and the user. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So, Virginia, Courtney just said that he works closely with people like you, with content designers. Is that true? Do you work closely with product managers? And if so, what are you doing?  

 

Virginia Brown Yes, we do. Content design is, I’d say at the heart of things. We are problem solvers and without content you don't have a product. There's nothing there. It doesn't exist. It's empty space. So you kind of need content designers to help you solve that problem or solve the ask, as I like to think.

And it's not all just about writing the words, it's about creating the right content at the right time, in the right space as well. And when you serve up to people or our users, like, what is that content and what is the expectation? What are they supposed to do with that information? Because everything we do, especially within government, must have a purpose. There must be an ask to it. Nobody comes to us to browse. As much as people like to think, they come to complete a task, so by creating this content, what do they need to do next? What is the next call to action? And working with our product owners and product managers, it's really important to understand. Have we done that? Have we solved the ask? And is it what everyone expects, look, we don't want to all be in one one meeting and come out with several different ideas. And the results are really different to what you expect. So it’s having those open conversations and really getting into the the detail of always asking those questions. Have we solved what we intend to at the beginning of a project?   

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So before I worked for the civil service, I actually worked over at the BBC and I thought I knew what agile was, I knew like the different roles that would be like on a digital delivery team, for example. But we had UX designers (user experience designers) and that was kind of like the only designers that I knew really existed. And then I came to DfE and all of a sudden I've got content designers, I’ve got interaction designers, I’ve got service designers. So are you able to say Virginia, like, how are you different from those other types of designers and how do you kind of work with them?

 

Virginia Brown Yes, so content design. It's fairly, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a fairly new profession, like it's, I think 10 years old, perhaps. Don't quote me on that. But the work of a content designer is more than just writing the words or filling in the boxes. We work really closely in what I call the UCD triangle. So that's user centred design with a user researcher or interaction designer or UX designer (user experience designer). It depends where you are, because before I came to DfE, I'd never heard of interaction designer. I'd always worked with UX designers, user experience designers. But those three, we work in tandem. So with the user researchers, they speak to the people who’ll be using our services and we can't create content out of thin air. 

Well, if we do, it will fail. So we were really close to our user researchers. So what are they saying? What do they need? What are their actual needs rather than their wants? Or the business wants? It’s a balancing act - I'm sure Keisha can attest to that. And also with our interaction designer, we don't just fill in boxes so we don't wait for them to create something and then we kind of fill in the content boxes. Content designers look at the whole package from end to end.

So bringing in the user researcher, what they actually said, leaning on our interaction design colleagues, what can we design to make that work? How does it work? Because often words won't help.  It's very easy, I think, to create a glorious long document, sixty pages long, because it's really tangible. And you can show someone what you've done. But if your users are time poor or they don't have the reading ability or they don't frankly want to read a sixty page document, then you're going to fail at the very beginning. So as a content designer, we look at what do our users want, what are they actually trying to do or complete and what's the best way to serve that? You know, it could be these people might prefer a video that works better for them because content isn't just words. It's not just the written word.It's video. 

It's a podcast that we're on today. It could be a webinar. It could be a series of blogs, all manner of things. And as content designers, we have to think in that way. And we bring along our other colleagues who are not in the content space. So when we work with policy, we're trying to find out what's your policy intent and how do you know it's been successful. Always thinking about the KPIs because it has to be measurable. Like, I can't tell you if something's worked if we don't set the key performance indicators at the beginning and say that this will be success when someone does X, that's really important. So as content designers, that's what we're thinking of. So then we can go to our product managers and say, hey, I’ve got a great idea, we're going to do a webinar

 

Virginia Brown instead, because actually our users are not going to sit and read this document. They're going to listen to it or they’re going to learn. They want to learn something and want something tangible. And that's what content design is, that’s what it is working with our two other professions. It's really important that we work closely together, because if we have our user researcher go out and do lovely research, they speak to like twenty people, they come back with some really key and important information to say actually the assumptions we made at the start are  completely wrong. We need to go in a different direction.

If a content person doesn't know that, they'll keep going with the assumption they had the beginning of a project. And it will still fail. So it's really important we have those user research conversations and work close together. So the content we're creating aligns with the user needs that have been found at the beginning and then we’re bringing the interaction designer who can help us design. And this is when you think of design, you know, what the person's going to see, what they're going to look at on the screen and how it will work. And then we can work together to ensure it's accessible for our users. Is it something they're actually going to do, for example? Is that a form they're going to fill out? How many pages we need to go through, it’s things like that. It’s hand in hand. You can't have one without the other, in my opinion. So when there's a project that's whipped up, a delivery team, when one of the triangle is missing, so there's no content design, no user research, I get very nervous because who's doing what in this profession? Because as much as I love user research, because I’m quite a nosy person, I can't go out and start doing research for people. It's not my profession. I need those expertise within my team.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  So you're hearing that Keisha, Virginia needs your expertise in her team. 

 

Keisha Herbert I like to hear it.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor [laughs] So, yeah, you know what Keisha, let’s stick with you for a second. Can you give me, like, an example of, like someth ing you're working on at the moment? How did it start and how do you start breaking the problem down to to know what to do with it?

 

Keisha Herbert Yeah, I can give you an example. So at the moment I'm actually working with different people in my team, so the interaction designer, content designer. And they've come to us, the researchers in the team and they've said, OK, we want to develop this page, which is a page around events. They want to develop that, they've got their assumptions, but they want to make sure that when they actually change that design, that that design is based on the user's perspective. So everything that they change is user centred. So they want us to go out and speak to users to understand what they think of the current page so that they can then go off and then develop new designs based off the back of that research. 

So that's how it tends to work within the team. And it's really nice because there's value you've seen in understanding user needs, but also the research that we do. So it tends to be that other people in the team come to us, ask us whether we've got an understanding from previous research or actually that we need to go out and speak to our users and then they bake that into their, I guess, designs and developing the service. So, yeah, I think being user centred is key. I'm just making sure that the users are at the heart of everything that is created within the service. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I know what I do as a product manager if I'm asked to kind of look at a problem and see if it really is a problem, like, you know, how to lead a discovery, move something that's worth looking at into alpha or beta or whatever. Courtney, how is this for you as an associate? I have to say I haven't really thought about that very much, because what I've noticed so far is that there tends to be a product manager and an associate product manager on a lot of DfE digital delivery teams. So I've always kind of seen my role as trying to mentor my associate product manager and make sure that if they go for the next step up, they're ready to go, or if there's like a project that suddenly comes up, they feel confident leading that project. For you, like, do you hope you'll be given a meaty piece of something to own or do you have to kind of like, fight for it and let people know that, yeah, I can do this or here's my idea? Like, what's your approach as someone coming in as an associate product manager?

 

Courtney Allen  It's a bit of both, if I’m honest. I think, well, the good thing about being an associate is you're working with people that want to see you succeed so they're going to give you opportunities. The product manager that I work with, gives me, you know, some meaty pieces of work but there are also opportunities to help out the team with other areas. Let's say we don't have enough user research resource. You can jump on and fill in and do some diary studies or you can jump in and help out with synthesising some user research stuff that's already been done.

So it's both, it’s both. You have opportunities that are given to you and there's kind of a plan for helping you to succeed and progress. So it kind of it’s looking at your capabilities and where are your strengths and help you build on your strengths, as well as kind of ironing out your weaknesses. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah, I’ve always thought of being a product manager as you've got the traditional sort of strategic long term view of a product as a product manager. Then you got like this sort of daily tactical, I'm working with the engineers and the BAs (business associates), product owner space. 

And on top of that, there’s this is kind of if, it's no one's role, you can't let that fall because it's not officially in your job title. If it’s not officially in anyone's job title I always see it as being like being in my job title to either do it or delegate it. It's when people say servant leader I never really used to get that, but I guess you are doing things for the team to make sure that team is as healthy as it can be. 

But anyway, listen, we've talked about your jobs today, and that has been very interesting. But I want to know, how did you all get into your roles and particularly how did you get into sort of digital tech roles in the civil service? I'm fascinated by this because I just don't think it's the first thing you think of when you're starting to think about a job in digital tech. Civil service might not come to everyone's mind straight away. So how did you get here?

 

Keisha Herbert Yeah, I can talk about my trajectory and just how I got into the civil service. I guess my route might be quite different to other people. So I worked in boutique qualitative research agencies for the past 10 years. So I've done a lot of traditional market research, quite different to what I'm doing right now. And I worked across lots of different sectors from energy, charity, cookie brands like very, very varied and also lots of different projects from advertising to sort of international. And I think what made me take the plunge into civil service in DfE, which is only a few months ago (I'm very new to the civil service), was that I've always found UX and Digital just very fast paced and exciting. I've also really enjoyed to see the focus on accessibility, diversity and inclusion. You don't see that sort of emphasis when you're working in more traditional market research. 

And then in terms of being in civil service in DfE, I think I really wanted to work on more meaningful projects. So working on services across education was just very motivating for me. But also to be involved in those end to end projects rather than just going off doing a bit of research, delivering it to your client and then not hearing about it again. I'm now involved in the full lifecycle of that project but also in the strategy as well. So that's how I got into it and so far really enjoying being in that digital space within Teacher services.

 

Adaobi And what about you, Virginia? Any advice for people who have heard you talk about content design, are fired up and they want to know more about it? How do you even walk towards that journey?

 

Virginia Brown Yeah, I got into it in my last role, I was a web editor and I focussed on web copy and copywriting and then my head of department at the time was like we do more than that. She had heard of content design and we went on this content design training course and learnt more about what that was and what it encompassed and realised that actually, we do more than just edit. We are having those conversations with our colleagues about what content they want, the types of content they do, and what's the ask. 

And so content design is, I think of it as like solving a puzzle. You're trying to solve a problem with either, you know, with research at hand, which is quite nice, or often you don't, and you have to make your best guess. And you’re having to balance the needs of a business with the needs of your user. 

And so as a content designer, anyone wanting to get into it, it’s really exciting because I think you see that end-to-end journey and you can see if what you've produced actually helps people. Does it solve their problem or do you need to do a little bit more work because people have to use your content. And it's not all guns and glory. You know you’ve done well when people don't realise they've been pushed along a journey, essentially, it kind of happens in the background it's very subtle. And, you know you’ve done well when people just complete things and they’re like that was really easy. And that's just music to my ears when people say that - that was really easy - because I know I've done my job. The role of a content designer is to make complex things very simple for the user. Because something is complex within your department or within your company, your user doesn't need to know that, that's not their business. They just need to complete the thing they’ve come to complete. They don't need all the stress and hassle that you've gone through. You need to shield them from that. And to show them it’s actually very simple. You take them on a journey and they can complete the thing quite easily. And people want to get into content design. It's, you know, if you're curious, like to solve problems and can work really well with different people, that's kind of what you need, I think, because often writing is like the last thing you do that might shock some people, but it really is the last thing you do. Often you're bringing people along the journey with you, you're explaining things. You're trying to really get to the  problem, because often the problem you're presented with initially isn’t the problem. It’s easy, I think sometimes to jump to the solution and it’s actually well what we're trying to fix. What is the issue - is it that they're not filling in the form or they're filling it in incorrectly? And what is incorrect about it? What do you need them to do? And often, when you ask people what they need to do, they tell you very succinctly but then what they produce is all of their internal struggle, to then serve it to users, it’s like we cut that out and make it very, very simple for them.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor Courtney, you have like, the perfect job for someone who is aspiring to be a product manager. How did you get into that? How did that happen?

 

Courtney Allen Yeah, so my recent experiences as a digital officer and that's kind of a jack of all trades digital role, so I did a bit of web management, social media, content design and a bit of project management. And I was kind of never getting very deep into any of those disciplines, and I'm kind of looking to get deep into one. For full context, my previous role was in a local government. SO I worked at an organisation called London Councils, and we’d recently signed a local government digital declaration, which kind of meant that we needed to start designing services that best met the needs of citizens. And this kind of led me down the rabbit path into doing less project management and more product management, working more in more agile ways, building prototypes and testing them with users. And then, you know, finding out how to improve things and then building again and kind of got to the end of that process and thought, I think product management is something I wanted to do. I explored a course in it. And I started seeing, you know, associate product manager roles and programmes start popping up all over the place. And I wanted to stay within the government area. I wanted to do work that had an impact on people's lives.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor  Yeah, I think the money is pretty good for the market. But let's face it, most people who come into the civil service are here because we want something that's very meaningful. We want to help other people. So, yeah, it's kind of hard. I heard all of you say something like that that really resonates with me, too. 

I think in the spirit of adding something positive into the conversation about black professionals, black working professionals, what I wanted to kind of do it’s a little bit of a tongue in cheek exercise, actually, because I asked my white colleagues if there were any questions that they have always wanted to ask a black person, but felt a little bit too shy to ask and so I’ve a list of things here and we'll see what we can do for time. 

But one of them and the reason why this idea came to mind is because I started off by talking about George Floyd. And I remember I was actually at the BBC at the time and a friend of mine there phoned me up the day after and just was like, you OK? I just saw the news. Just want to see if you were OK. And I was like, super surprised by that. I was not expecting that. But I was also incredibly touched that he had thought to do that. And then at the same time, there were people who I thought I was quite close to as work colleagues who didn't say anything because I think they were like, it's kind of like when someone dies, right? You're like, do I mention this? Or  would they prefer that I don't speak about this at all? So I kind of wanted to say, like, if you have any questions, this is the time to ask because we're a friendly bunch and we'll see what we can do. So here are some of the questions that came through, some are a bit funnier than others. So let's see.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor One of them has said, how do you feel when asked about your ethnic background? I'm often asked where I'm from because of my accent. And I'm always happy to say Romania, but I wonder how black colleagues feel when asked something similar.

 

Virginia Brown I would say to that, accept the first answer they give you. There's nothing worse than if you say, Oh, I'm from, for example, London and they go oh, but where are you really from? Don't say that. That's rude. 

 

Courtney Allen I couldn't have put it any better. 

 

Virginia Brown Just accept the first answer. 

 

Courtney Allen Yeah.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor And I think, like picking up off the back of that, I think the reason why people ask you where you're from is because they can kind of hear something that lets them know like, oh, that doesn't sound like anywhere in the UK, they must not be from here. If you're kind of saying, but where are you really from to a black person that says, well, this black person couldn't possibly be from here. And the only reason why is because they're black. Right? So that's kind of like the step that so many people make without meaning to be rude. 

And I totally get that because I grew up in Devon. So I literally was the black population for a significant part of the nineties. So um yeah, I totally get it, as Virginia says, accept the first answer that people give you gracefully, and we'll all be happy. That's pretty cool. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so someone said, how does it make you feel when white people get it wrong? Is there anything that would help you in that situation? Could acknowledgement that they've got it wrong be useful? 

Well, firstly, I'm going to say to that question, thank you for making yourself vulnerable and sending in a question we really appreciate it! I’d say that it’s 2021 at the time that we’re recording this and I imagine for people of a certain generation, yes, it's a very awkward time because there are men and women and people who are non binary and there are black people and then mixed race people and how do you refer to people? And I feel like for some people it can be a bit kind of like daunting, like hoping you don’t offend people and I will tell you right now, at some point, you're going to get it wrong and that's OK.

If you accidentally refer to someone as a man and they correct you and say, well, actually, I prefer you said they or them, it's kind of similar to the thing that Virginia said. However someone self identifies, that's what you go with. If you get it wrong that first time, they may correct you, then just go with the correction that they've given you. If you get it wrong and they're immediately super angry with you and there's no conversation, it's just kind of anger that's coming at you. In a way, I would say that's almost not your fault, just try not to take it personally. Like, all you can do when people correct you is just try to do better next time, just try to kind of live and learn. Is there anything I'm missing from the answer, guys?

 

Keisha Herbert Yeah, I think it's just important to be open to learning. I think that's the main thing. So if you've got it wrong, rather than being precious about getting it wrong, that you're open to building your understanding, so then the next time when that situation arises, you don't get it wrong again and another person isn't affected. So I think it just openness and that's in all areas of life. But I think in those situations, just put your hands up say, OK, I'm sorry, that was wrong, and now I know what to do next.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor So another person has asked, have you felt uplifted by any of the actions people have taken in response to incidents of racism?

 

Courtney Allen Yeah, I'd say definitely after the Euros when in the immediate aftermath, there was a lot of hatred for Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka and it was quite you know, it was very hard to watch. I was uplifted by seeing the outpouring of love that lots of fans gave to Bukayo Saka. He missed the last penalty but he was like, you know, the 19 year old that you know, was given all the pressure in the world. And the mural that went up up north for Marcus Rashford as well. Like, I think there was definitely lots of hate at the time like in the immediate aftermath and then a huge outpouring of love that came after that.

 

Virginia Brown That’s a great answer. I'd say for myself, I'm someone who lives in the north of the country. And I was on a tram a couple of years ago and it was quite a busy tram. And this white man who identified himself at the time as a police officer told me to get off the tram. And I didn't really know. I mean, I didn't know if he was a police officer or not. And secondly, I didn't really know what my rights were in that situation. Do I have to immediately do what someone says if they say they're a police officer? So I just kind of stood there but I also was like, I really need to be on this tram because I'm actually kind of late getting somewhere so this is the last chance for me to get there on time. And as I was thinking that there were other people getting on the tram who were white and he didn't say anything to them. And I realised, oh, that's what this is. And he started getting louder and more kind of obnoxious, shouting at me to get off.

And this voice in the crowd, like somewhere buried deep in the crowd. This one woman said, just leave her alone. And it was like, it broke the spell for him. And he immediately backed down and kind of grumbled to himself a bit. But then the tram moved off. And when he eventually got off the tram, like all these people came up to me afterwards and they were like, oh, my gosh, that was such blatant racism and it was so disgusting the way he was talking to you. 

And I was kind of like, where were you five minutes ago when I felt extremely alone? But I will always remember that one woman I didn't even see her face just saying something. And I think it feel intimidated if you’re like a bystander. But just that one thing you can do, it can really uplift people, it can really give them the strength that they need in that moment to kind of carry on with something that is humiliating or kind of upsetting. So please, I would say, like be that voice, be that bodiless voice and not necessarily the people after the fact, you know. But that was something that was extremely uplifting for me. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so we're coming to the end of this. And I will say, as positive as I want to be in this whole case, my digital experts like there is going to be something else we know, that's just kind of the fact of being a black person in Britain. Right? There's got to be something else that happens. And in my case, like how would you like your kind of colleagues to approach you or not approach you? Like what would be cool behaviour for you?

 

Keisha Herbert  Well, a really great example for me was after the Euros 2020 and after what Courtney mentioned happened to the three footballers. And I felt that the response from Teacher Services was great and not something I’ve ever experienced before in the workplace. So they put up a statement on slack and they were just acknowledging that it had happened. Because sometimes I find that these things happen, they go viral and they're quite difficult situations for us to be in at the time, but then you get to work the next day and it's not mentioned at all and everyone talks about everything that happened around the awful situation. So I think actually having your team, your colleagues actually acknowledge what happened is really important to let you know that they understand and they appreciate that actually it might be a difficult thing that you went through the night before. And so that's what happened in Slack. But in addition to that and following on from what you were saying, Adaobi, about action, they also put in place a safe space. So there was actually a space for people of colour to go if they wanted to talk about this issue in more depth. So there's an understanding that maybe people don't want to talk about it with white colleagues, but they might appreciate talking about it with people who can empathise or have experienced similar things. So to me, I think that's a really good way of a) acknowledging and b) sort of putting in some action. And I think that's a really good starting point.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor and a really good, positive note to end on as well. Thank you so, so, so much to my guests, Keisha Herbert, Courtney Allen and Virginia Brown. I really enjoyed this discussion today. 

And I hope that it has done for you listeners what I hope it would do, which is to put some positivity out into the universe. I want to say thank you to the show producers as well, Rosie Roff, Lou Mullan and Nettie Williams. So that's it. Thank you very much for joining us. 

In the meantime, if you want to hear anything more from us specifically, why not tell us? You can always get in touch with us on our Twitter, which is @DfE_DigitalTech. And if you're not really on Twitter, you can always leave a comment on our blog post, which is dfedigital.blog.gov.uk.  

Thank you so much for joining us for this cup of tea. Speak to you next time. Bye! 

 

 

Think digital, act human #1

Think digital, act human #1

May 18, 2021

Think digital, act human is our pilot podcast series. We'll be shining a light on the human stories behind our digital and technology projects. 

In this episode product manager, Adaobi Ifeachor, meets our chief digital technology officer Emma Stace to reflect on quite a year, discuss topical issues and look forward to what’s next for DfE Digital and Technology

 

Transcription 

[Music plays]

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Hello, welcome to Think Digital act Human, a podcast where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. I'm Adaobi Ifeachor a product manager here at the Department for Education. In a moment, I'm going to introduce you to our first guest. But let's dig in a little bit more into why we're doing this podcast, what the concept is. Every day, millions of pupils, teachers, frontline workers and educational professionals are affected by the work we're doing in the background here at DfE (Department for Education) digital and technology. And our work is centred around these users. But who are the people making it all happen and what drives them to do it? What are the stories behind the user stories? Well, this series will shine a light on the human stories behind our digital projects, the stories behind transformational work and the skills and attitudes our people bring to and take from their work. So absolutely no pressure then to our first guest, Emma Stace, Chief digital and technology officer. Welcome Emma. 

 

Emma Stace] Hi. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Can you tell us a bit more about what exactly does a chief digital technology officer do? 

 

Emma Stace 

Okay that's a big question. I think I'm still trying to work out. What do I do? I would say that most of my work is about people and very little of it is actually about technology. And so as the leader of digital and technology, my role is focussed on making sure that our work impacts the people we're here to serve - children and learners and also create the environment in which all of our people working across digital and technology can do excellent work to deliver value to those children and learners. So, you know, most of my day is focussed on people. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

So full disclosure to listeners, I am actually pretty brand new at the department and the civil service completely. So as I understand it, this group we're talking about today didn't even really exist five years ago. We're going to dig into that, and we're going to find out what it is you've been up to over the last four years or so. And we're also going to talk about the DfE (Department for Education) digital and technology merger and what your plans are for the future. But first, I have to know, what was your journey? How did you get here? Who is Emma stace? 

 

Emma Stace 

There are no simple questions on this podcast.

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

I'm going to need to know the meaning of life at the end as well.  

 

Emma Stace 

[laughs] I'll try and figure that out as we go along. So who am I? In terms of the real basics I have three children, one beautiful child from my first marriage, Kiran, two children from my second marriage. I am the daughter of a civil servant. I travelled the world with my father growing up. I went to American schools. I went to boarding school at 13 while my parents were living in India. And then I married an Indian and lived in South Africa for a while. So my lifestyle and my background have been very nomadic and I arrived back in the UK about 10 years ago and I'm determined now never to leave. I like being settled finally in my life and in my work. I think those experiences are pretty formative in terms of how I got to where I am today. My father instilled in me the values of public service and thinking about others and dedicating your life toward others. He always tells the story of leaving LSC with a doctorate when he was 24 and he went to Unilever and they were offering him lots of money and big bucks. And the one question he posed to them is, can you tell me why I would dedicate the rest of my life to selling soap? And that was the story he used to tell at the kitchen table, which totally shaped who I am and what I value. And then probably the other informative part is, is all of that travelling. So I've had the great gift of experiencing many different people, many different cultures, and also working across many different industries. I came to the civil service eight years ago. Before that, I was in television production. I worked for a multimedia agency. I've ran my own business. I've been a consultant. And I just I love diversity of thought, diversity of talent, and I love the power of what you can achieve when you can bring all of that to the workplace. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

A lot of people, when they think government, when they think civil service, technology and digital they're not necessarily the first things you think of, if that's a career that you're looking to go into. How did you end up in this particular role? I'm assuming you didn't start off in a digital and technology role in government or did you? 

 

Emma Stace

No, I did. So, I was living in Australia with my young family and had ran an organisation in Australia which was aimed at supporting young people in their mental health, an organisation called Reach Out. And in that organisation, I was what was called a chief operating officer and was responsible for transforming the whole organisation to be more service focused and more user focussed in terms of how we reached young people and delivered to them and I got the real bug there for digital and transformation and business change and cultural change. And when I came back to the UK, I was shopping around for what are the most interesting and important things happening in the UK that bring all of those passions together. And at the time, the government digital service led by Mike Bracken, was this force of change within the civil service. I met a giant of digital and technology, a gentleman called Tom Loosemore for a coffee. We had a chat and then I found my way into the Government digital service, leading transformation across multiple agencies for what was then the Department for Business. So my way into the civil service was through the Government digital service. And then as my time there matured, I really wanted to not just be in the centre of government, but actually have the privilege of working within a major government department to do the do but from the inside. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I have to say, a bit of advice for listeners who are considering making a career change, asking someone for a cup of coffee, asking them for their time, asking them for a remote cup of tea is really powerful because not only are you forming those relationships, but you find out stuff that you wouldn't necessarily find out if you just emailed them. Would you agree with that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, it's interesting. I was on a forum yesterday evening. We were talking about the values of the civil service and how is it different from the private sector. Because money isn't the motivator, profit isn't a motivator in the civil service I think it brings a culture and attracts people who are very generous with their time. And I have been gifted a lot of time from some very brilliant people and, you know, in the position that I am in now I want to give that back. So someone reaching out and saying, let's just have a coffee and a chat, I think is incredibly powerful. That can take a bit of bravery, I guess, on the end of the person reaching out, because that's an assumption, isn't there, that everyone's really busy and these are important in inverted commas, people that I try to make myself as available as I possibly can be to anybody who just fancies a chat. Because as you and I are experiencing now, there's power in conversation, and there's power in connection. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Well, I've got my cup of coffee right here, so let's have a look at some of the work that you've been doing over the last four years or so. I hear that things started in a basement somewhere. Like this digital tech team. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how it's developed? 

 

Emma Stace 

The legendary basement in Sanctuary buildings in DfE. So I think the most important thing to say is technology has existed in the DfE (Department for education) for many, many years. But digital in terms of digital first service delivery and the skills of user centred design, software development was new to the DfE approximately four years ago. The apprenticeship service is our most mature service within DfE and as part of machinery of government changes, that service arrived at DfE four years ago. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

And by service you mean anything that helps members of the public achieve a specific goal? We're helping them to do that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yes. So the apprenticeship service helps young people find employees in which they can undertake apprenticeships effectively. So going back to the basement, a few individuals from the apprenticeship service arrived in DfE and actually seeded the beginning of where we are now, which is a single digital and technology function. And it's interesting, isn't it, that it has literally started from the bottom up digital, and the basement is a good analogy of where we began and where we are now. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

So where are we now? What are some of the things that we're doing now that we weren't doing four plus years ago? 

 

Emma Stace 

Gosh, these are good questions. And what I'm struck by as we're talking is the past year working in Covid or through covid, we have just gone at a hundred miles an hour for a year. And so actually even pausing with you this morning and having to cast my mind back four years ago feels like an opportunity I haven't had for a really long time is what I'm reflecting on. So where have we come in four years? I mean, firstly, it's often really hard to articulate that because change has happened quite organically and incrementally. And it's really hard sometimes to celebrate those successes and see how far you've come because you're so caught up in the present. What, I would say is we are constantly maturing. So I think we've gone from digital being seen as something that the organisation was relatively wary of to now, something that is front and centre in our strategic approach, about how we're thinking about the future. And clearly Covid demonstrated the absolute necessity of having a good digital and technology capability within the organisation that can pivot really fast to the demanding and ever changing needs of our users. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

One moment kids were in schools, the next moment, you're expected to work from home and you might not have a computer, for example.

 

Emma Stace

Right? Yes, our technology teams and our technology infrastructure kept us going and working throughout Covid, I mean on a dime we went from being in the office, didn't we, to working from home and is now just become new normal, hasn't it? I think covid for every organisation, not just for the DfE, has put digital and technology front and centre. It no longer feels like we're having a 'we need to become more digital' conversation. The question is now, what do we need to achieve and how do we need to achieve it? And that's a mindset shift more than anything else. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I mean, you're right to point out that everybody had to suddenly shift to working from home. But I'm specifically pointing out with that question, there were kids as well, kids who maybe had the use of a family laptop, but then all of a sudden maybe even children with quite different ages are having to fight over the family laptop and still get learning and and DfE had to help support that. It's a challenge. 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, it was huge. I mean, we spun up what is the biggest delivery of laptops. I don't know if it's in the world, but certainly it's a massive undertaking, one point four million laptops shipped to young and vulnerable people so that they continue education. And I think that whole experience has brought us as an organisation and digital and technology in particular, much closer to the front line of what's actually happening across the country and the importance of schooling, not just in terms of supporting education for our children, but also in supporting their mental health and their well-being and their connection to their community. So, you know, and it sort of reaffirms why you work in the public service when you receive a message from a young person who's just received their laptop and feels connected to their school and their community. That's why you get up in the morning isn't it really. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

A couple of things we've briefly touched on for the briefest of moments. I'd like to hear a bit more about, you mentioned user centred design and I know there's this user central design lab, unfortunately, because I started working here during the pandemic, I've not even been into the office. I'm not even sure I would be able to find the office without Google Maps. So tell me, what is this user centred design lab? 

 

Emma Stace 

Well, the user centered design lab is a group of very talented user researchers and user centred designers who are tasked with ensuring that what we are trying to achieve in the Department for Education, we're doing it with a lens on our users. And when I say users, we should probably start talking more specifically about teachers, school administrators, people working in early year centres, in some instances, social workers, people who are working in FE (further education) colleges, they use our services. And the end goal of that is improvement to young people and learners. So the user centred design lab is working with policy colleagues to ensure that whatever policy, design or policy outcomes we're looking to achieve as the Department for Education, we're doing it as much as possible with a view on how that policy impacts people in the real world and the options to deliver it effectively. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Policy seems to run through the veins of everything in the DfE. That's understandable, I suppose, but the other thing is service ownership. I wasn't familiar with the service ownership model before I started here and I'm assuming there will be quite a few listeners who aren't either. So what is it exactly? 

 

Emma Stace 

So I think what we're trying to achieve with it is introduce this notion of end to end service. So end to end service is, in my very simple terms, a series of transactions that a user will go through in order to achieve an outcome or a goal. And very often in government, we have been guilty in the past of throwing things incoherently towards a user, and the user has to figure out all the steps that they need to do. So service is about trying to make it really clear and simple for our user about how they achieve their outcome. One of the best examples in government, in my view, is the passport office. It takes you right from, 'How do you apply' through to the physical act of going into the building and picking up your passport and so on. So that is for me, an example of service. Service ownership is about establishing within government a culture of an individual and a team being responsible for the end to end experience for the user around the service. And in DfE we try and blend it as much as possible into a role that combines policy design with the delivery of the service. Because so often the quality, the efficacy and the experience of the service is dictated by policy. So what are we trying to achieve? What are the rules that someone has to go through in order to get a passport or a visa, for example? Service ownership is about trying to blend within our culture an individual and team that is responsible for policy and delivery, combining all the skills, commercial, digital, technology and policy design and user centred experience into a team responsible for that overall outcome. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think there are some organisations and charities, NGOs like people who work very much from a policy basis as well where it almost feels like the rules, the policy comes first and then it's like, OK, what can you do to make this happen in the digital and real world? Just before recording this a new strategy was launched for digital and technology. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What are you hoping to achieve? What's the vision? 

 

Emma Stace 

So it's worth saying that this strategy or plan or whatever we want to call it really marks the beginning of the first year in which digital and technology are working together as a single team. And I think you said in your intro, digital and technology came together last summer and we can definitely cover that off in terms of what that's been like and what we've been overcoming and the opportunities that we're now set to take advantage of. I think the purpose of the strategy is to provide a really clear, joined up view for our teams around what we hope to achieve in twenty twenty one, twenty twenty two. And it has kind of four key themes. The first one is we've got to run the business. I mean, technology and our credibility rests on our ability to keep the whole organisation running. So that's number one. Number two is continue to respond to the needs of our users and children and learners as we move from what effectively has been a year of crisis response into educational recovery. So what are we learning and what does it mean for the, you know, vast numbers of young people who are coming back into full time physical education and lost learning, as well as impact on mental health? How do we make sure that we support young people moving forward out of crisis? The third one is around what we call raising the bar around our own operational maturity. So we're still maturing. Digital and technology is never a fixed state. We can't stand still ever, because if we do, we're falling behind. So we've got to continuously be investing in our people and our skills and our practises and our ways of working. And then finally, we we need to work really hard on what we call reducing burdens. So I think it's common language within the DfE to say, what we do clearly impacts the sector. And it's our duty to make sure that the way that we're trying to deliver to the sector is as simple and easy for teachers and school administrators and frontline staff as possible. And then equally within our own organisation to make sure that we can move at speed and take out some of the friction of bureaucracy that can stop us achieving value quickly. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

It feels like there's an ambition to be a thought leader in terms of digital and technology there if I might interpret it a little bit like that. So what would you want other organisations in the public sector to know about the service ownership model, if they were considering doing something along those lines, what would you say to them? 

 

Emma Stace 

Well, the service only model requires collaboration at its heart. It's about bringing a melting pot of different teams, perspectives and skills together to deliver that outcome for a teacher. So if I think in the example of one of our key services is helping teachers find jobs. We got a team who are dedicated towards that, who are a mix of skills from right across the department. And I think this is the big challenge for digital and technology is how do you blend yourself into the organisation? Digital shouldn't be something that is other to the organisation. It should be embedded at its heart. And so getting to the service ownership model is a collaboration between myself and policy directors and policy colleagues, as well as commercial and finance colleagues. So it's about bringing people to the table. I don't have full ownership end to end of that service. My job is to bring the digital and technology expertise to it. But I think what I would say is it's organisational change, not just digital and technology. It's how we think about what we deliver and how we deliver and how we measure our performance. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

As a side note to that, I have to say, as a product manager, I would love to be in the room at the very start, the inception of things when you're talking about those policies. With digital, we can reimagine this, this could be something drastically different. So it would be quite exciting to kind of see people collaborating from the very beginning of a process. 

 

Emma Stace

There's that great quote from Hamilton, that song I love, 'you got to be in the room where it happens' do you know that one?

 

Adaobi Ifeachor

Yes, I saw Hamilton. Actually, all my friends are like Adaobi, can you stop talking about Hamilton? I'm like never. 

 

Emma Stace 

I love that song and I think that's a real challenge. If I speak to my fellow CDTOs (Chief Digital and Technology officers) across government, it's a real challenge getting into the room where it happens. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

CDTOs? Another thing I've noticed being in the Civil Service, people speak in a different language here. 

 

Right There is something that I have been wanting to ask you about. It goes back to one of the first things we were talking about, which was changing from four people in a basement to, you know, over 100 people and building this reputation amongst the rest of the department that, hey, we're not trying to restrict you, in fact we want to enable all your dreams to come true. But this is like a culture shift, isn't it? Have you come up against, I imagine you must have done, have you come up against a more traditional view of how services should be created and implemented? And how have you tried to negotiate your way around that? 

 

Emma Stace 

Yeah, well, I think it's a tightrope walk is the way I describe it. Because you've got to be both a challenger within the organisation, prepared to take risks and show what is possible. But you also need to bring the organisation with you. I mean, I think I've definitely been guilty in the past in some instances of sort of say berattling. And I don't know that that's the right word, say rattling. But what I mean is advocating too strongly and losing people as a result. I'm really trying hard not to talk about the word digital. I'm really trying hard to talk about what is it we're trying to achieve? What is the best way to go about trying to achieve that and sort of deconstruct, if you like, some of the mythology around digital. And at times, I think we're really bad at helping ourselves. I think we speak in a different language. Digital can seem like a dark art or a mysterious art. And I think we are also guilty within the digital community of putting some of that language around us as well. So a lot of it is about just trying to get people to the table to talk about what is the solution to this problem and bring user centred design and expertise and product ownership to that question. But to try and neutralise it, because otherwise, I think certainly at the very beginning of digital in government, there was a perceived notion of us and them. Digital being new and fantastic and actually, I'm not sure if that helps, specifically when it comes to taking a whole organisation with you. It requires a degree of impatience to get going and patience to accept that it takes a while for the organisation to come around. So I would say that most of the days I get quite confused. Are we doing enough? Are we going too fast or are we not going slow enough? But it takes time, it takes a lot of time. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think also just talking to people on a human level and building relationships, I mean, that's harder to do, now that we’re at home. And it's all video chats and things like that. 

 

On that subject, how have you coped in terms of managing your mental health at home? I mean, there's two aspects to this. I guess there's what you're personally doing and then how exactly do you encourage that in your senior leaders? 

 

Emma Stace 

If I think about this last year of leading through covid, it has definitely been the most challenging personal journey in terms of professional working life, and also helping to lead others through that. I suffered from anxiety and I found the crisis at the beginning sent my anxiety through the roof. I just remember being very triggered and very anxious. So I'm fortunate enough that I can recognise that in myself now. And I have a number of strategies that I put in place to support me. So I gave up drinking. I made sure that I did yoga in the morning, in the evening, and spent as much time as I could off screens when it was available to me. And I think that's really important for me because I think the job of the leader is to bring positive energy to work. And so if I'm not taking care of myself, how on earth am I able to take care of others? In terms of looking after others, I think I try and lead by example. Part of me sharing what I just shared with you now is to encourage other people to talk about their mental health and put in strategies to look after themselves and to know that it's okay to say I'm not feeling great today. Being able to share your vulnerability is for me, a mechanism that I use to help others share theirs so that we can create a workplace in which we're looking after each other, in which it's okay to say I'm having a bit of a crap day, maybe even having a crap week, and for team mates to support and encourage each other. And like you said, we're meeting each other across an electronic screen this morning. And yet you can still have human connection, can't you? I mean, I'm looking at you and I can feel your energy in this conversation. So I think the job of a leader is to look after their own energy and then to help others manage that. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

You're not just a CDTO, chief digital and technology officer. You're also a mother. How has this last year been on your kids? How has it been being a mother and suddenly a schoolteacher and trying to do PE lessons in the front room or something? 

 

Emma Stace

I am very fortunate. I mean, the one thing about covid is it’s affected all of us, hasn't it? No one has gotten away without being impacted. I'm really lucky. I've got three healthy children who have managed their own mental health really well throughout. The biggest challenge being my gorgeous 17-year-old son. Frankly, I think it's been really tough on teenagers. I'm lucky because I know that it's impacted friends and family and I'm a governor of my local primary schools. I know and experience the impact that it's had on other families. So I would say overall we're in pretty good shape. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

I think you've mentioned before that your son is mixed race, is that right?

 

Emma Stace Yeah. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor I didn't want to end our discussion without mentioning everything that's happening in the world in terms of George Floyd. As a black woman myself, it feels there was a world before George Floyd’s murder and there was a world after it. I know how it's been like for me and all of my black friends and family, but what is it like as the mother of someone who is mixed race? Did you have to have certain conversations? I mean, what was your experience like? I don't want to assume anything.

 

Emma Stace 

I will share with you 2 experiences. So, one on the personal front: I have a brown skinned boy who was electrified by George Floyd's murder and brought a new level of discussion around race to the family dinner table, no question! And then at work, George Floyd opened up a conversation around race, which we were having in terms of inclusion and diversity. But I don't think we’d really, truly scratched below the surface of. What started off as very difficult ended up in a really open, enquiring place around race within the civil service. And what I learnt through that experience as a leader is it's my responsibility to make sure that black and brown voices are at the centre of all the conversations we're having around race and inclusion and diversity. And that actually I have a role to make sure that I enable those who may not feel naturally confident to voice their experience, to give them the space and the safety to do so. And so this is a long journey we’re on right, there are no easy answers, but I'm committed to making a difference and to using whatever small influence and power I have to ensure that our work place is one that is fair and open for everybody. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Thank you very much for sharing that. That means a lot to me. I know it would mean a lot to our listeners too. 

 

Emma Stace 

Across digital and technology, we have the Race working group, which is a brilliant bunch of individuals who are really committed to ensuring that we stay vigilant and we take action. I have a race mentor, an individual who I speak with every fortnight. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

You have a race mentor? What’s that about then? 

 

Emma Stace 

I've got the lovely - I hope she doesn't mind if I say her name - Lindsey Williams. We sit and chat every fortnight around what's going on and how’s it feeling. And I think one of the things that I've learnt is, you know, we can talk about inclusion and diversity in the metrics, but really it comes down to how are people feeling in the workplace? Do they feel seen, recognised, supported? Does it feel fair? So I really work with her on what more I can do. But she also sort of plugs me into and  grounds me in what people think. And we're going to launch together a new initiative where we're going to have people come and spend time with me and follow me around and we'll have a conversation at the end. There is no secret sauce when it comes to being a leader. And hopefully by opening up what it means to be in a senior position, it makes it more accessible to people to aspire to that position themselves. 

 

Adaobi Ifeachor 

Thank you so much, Emma. It's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you, listeners too for joining us on this journey. We hope you got a lot out today. And we've got so many topics that we want to talk about and delve into. Next time on ‘Think digital, act human’, we'll be speaking to a black colleague about their experience of DfE digital and technology. You heard from Emma some of the things that the department has put in place to start talking about race and start sharing black experiences. But we also want to hear some black voices and hear what they’ve got to say about the matter. So that's going to be on our next pod. We hope you join us. You'll bring your own cup of coffee and we'll have a good time. Many thanks to Emma Stace once again, and thanks to the producers of the podcast, Rosie Roff and Louise Mullan and the show creator, Nettie Williams. Thanks a lot. Bye.

 

 

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App