Keeping notes through 5 weeks of Purdah
I work for the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government. There have recently been local elections, which means that as a Civil Servant I’ve had to observe a period of purdah. That means that I haven’t been able to write about the work I’ve been doing, and that’s also why this post is so long — it covers a period of 5 weeks!
The past few weeks have been really busy for me and the team, so I’ve been keeping some “Purdah notes” to publish once the period is lifted. The past few weeks have been really important for our mission, and it’s been a time when work and thoughts have really been coming together.
Key themes have been:
- Collaboration Leads working more closely together.
- Building our understanding across all of the discovery projects.
- I’m increasingly seeing how much visual storytelling, mapping and creating structures influences my work.
- I also keep coming back to Matt Edgar’s comment at SDinGov “How good are our craft skills?” and feeling increasingly like I need to do something in this area.
- Work has been ramping up, we’re busy, and what we have to think about is multi-faceted.
- We are increasingly aware of our responsibilities to do this thing right.
Week 1: Mon 1 April
- I received the outputs (user research findings, benefits case and recommendations) from the Children’s Statutory Returns discovery project and read through everything. It was surprisingly brain whirring, which may have been the theme of the week actually…
- I had a chat with Linda about the outputs and we talked about the various ways that projects might go forward. Linda drew this post-it which I was pleased about because it made sense to and how I was visualising project pathways.
- In the afternoon I had a quick catch up with Nour to talk One Team Gov. It was good to chat and to hear everything that’s going on. We talked about all of the events that OTG are currently working on and its lovely to see how this is spinning out of the Westminster bubble and into things people are really passionate about.
Tues 2 April
- Adam presented an overview of the projects he is working with which was really interesting and there were a lot of good conversations that came out of it.
- Adam presented each of the projects with a rudimentary emoji indicator system against each of the themes we outlined in our blog post (below) which I thought was a useful overview to how he was feeling about each of them and where things were going well.
- Adam, Egle and I had a workshop to discuss the process for receiving outcomes from our funded projects, it was long and a bit like bashing our heads against a wall for a while, not because we couldn’t work out what to do, but because we all work differently and all have different projects and concerns. It meant that reaching a consensus took time but we got there in the end.
- We came out with a process and I used Google Draw (for the first time) to create a process map, and did some work on other outputs.
- Linda mentioned the doodle she had drawn the day before. As digital/agile, projects rarely run in a linear way, there’s value to looking at the various options that the ones we are funding could proceed with. It gives a bigger picture of the area of work and could help us to understand more about the potential value and impact. Some of the funded projects are providing this overview of the varying pathways they could take.
- I had originally looked at this as a visual thing but Linda envisaged that this could potentially form a useful data set later, especially when we’re thinking about the monetary benefits of different approaches, so in the afternoon I set this up as a spreadsheet. I’m not sure if we will end up using this because it’s very subjective, but I enjoyed the process of thinking about other avenues because it’s part ideation, part synthesis.
- In that workshop I also had an idea that we could take Adam’s emojis a step further and came up with an idea of showing projects as a set of radar graphs. While they would also be very subjective they would give us an at-a-glance view of projects and enable us to compare them. I said I would go away and think about a rudimentary for discussion.
I think I was thinking about this tweet by Policy Lab at the time…
Wed 3 April
- I started “working” by editing Nour’s One Team Gov Wellbeing Camp blog (below) on the train at 7.30am.
- We had a meeting with the Housing Repairs project that Egle has been working with about their user research and gave some feedback. It was good to see and learn about another project outside the ones I’m directly working with.
- Afterwards I walked over to Social Finance for a meeting with Children’s Statutory Returns to discuss their outputs. It was really good to have our economist Rushi there as well as representatives from Manchester. I think we were able to provide some really useful feedback, constructive challenge and support. I felt like it was a really positive use of time. These kinds of meetings are my absolute favourite.
- I walked back and had lunch with Hattie which was excellent.
- In the afternoon I did some more reading and thinking. I had a couple of good chats with Rushi and Adam. At some point I drew this picture:
- I think it was during a conversation with Rushi after our meeting with the Children’s Statutory Returns project. During that discussion we talked about how they came to decide their next step, and it became clearer that with the projects we are looking at, in many cases they make up just a small part of a much larger picture.
- That should be obvious, but sometimes when you’re talking about a limited scope it’s difficult to see how this fits into that bigger picture. I had previously been thinking about our funded projects as being like a jigsaw where the next step is a corner or edge piece that gives you reference for the rest of the puzzle. But actually, that diagram above shows that it’s more like a kind of map. It shows how things interlock, and how, by doing one thing other things might become unlocked.
- This relates to the monetary benefits and value and explains why many of our teams are having a hard time thinking about this. The overall wins could be big – but they might be significantly larger if they unlock possibilities in that bigger picture.
- The drawing below it (the line of circles) was an attempt to pull this into an agile model and suggest moving forward, which isn’t actually dissimilar to what sanjaypoyzer describes here:
- Zoe Gould has also written about this.
- When Sanjay wrote that, Jonathan asked people for their thoughts on Twitter. At that time I’d been picturing a spring going into and out of a “cloud” of discovery; being obscured from view and then coming back into focus. Thinking about it more, its a notion that discovery activity actually overlays project progress and through that double diamond overlay things go in and out of focus.
- As Matt Edgar said at SDinGov “how are our craft skills?” mine are bad because I’m not a designer, but I quickly knocked up something that I think represents what I mean. In reality the feedback loops are much bigger and closer together than I’ve drawn here (that’s just a craft skill issue) and I know exactly what I want this to look like but don’t know how to create it. Still I’m glad I got that out of my brain. If anyone wants to help me make it prettier then please let me know!
Thursday 4 April
- I spent some time thinking about the radar graphs that I described above. I set up a spreadsheet and created a completely subjective and not at all scientific scale to see if I could create an overview of my projects.
- What I wanted to create was a useful framing for each of our funded projects that would enable us to have discussions about each of them in more detail, not to replace conversations about the work but to provoke them. I also thought it might help us to tell the story of what we’ve been doing.
- I also thought it would be interesting to plot an average across the projects and see if there is a particular shape appearing. I think the next steps are for Adam, Egle and I to look at it and see if we think I’ve thought enough about the scale or if the outcome is useful enough to carry on with.
Week 2: Mon 8 April
- I worked from home. I couldn’t remember what I had been up to but that’s because most of the day was taken up with handover activities as it was Linda’s last week. Then I had a few days of holiday to look after my little boy.
Week 3: Mon 15 April
- I worked from home again and in the morning I had to wade through all of the emails that had built up while I’d been on leave.
- In the afternoon I decided to run through some training that we had been given to try out. It was called Collaboration Foundations and was by an organisation called Let’s Go. It took much less time than I had been told and I got through it in just a couple of hours in the afternoon, including noting and working on my feedbacks.
- It provided an interesting model for collaborative working, but I feel like there are probably other useful models out there for this too. Also, I found it a tiny bit basic and I could probably have learned as much through a well-worded blog post, though perhaps I’m not the key audience for this — it might be more useful for others.
Tuesday 16 April
- On Tuesday I was back in the office, where we have moved desks again we are now sat with the rest of the digital directorate which is great. Linda has now gone off on maternity leave but is still very much with us in spirit (and the occasional email) it’s going to be tough without her but the change is also exciting.
- In the morning Egle and I chatted about our funded projects and it was good to talk things through. During the course of the day I read through some of the discovery outputs from one of her funded projects for Housing Repairs and provided some feedback.
- I had a call with Susan from Social Finance about our funded project with Stockport, they were live testing their prototype in real cases with real social workers in Leeds and were also going to be doing the same in Stockport on the Thursday. It’s really exciting to see this kind of work happening and the teams learning so much. I’m really really looking forward to hearing more about the findings.
- On Wednesday I had another day of holiday to look after my little one so we enjoyed the sunshine.
Thurs 18 April
- I arrived in on Thursday to find that I’d received draft outputs from my funded project from the Worcester Office for Data Analytics, so I spent a couple of hours with my head down going through that ahead of a call with them at midday. You can find out more about this project below:
- Its always a bit strange when you’re giving feedback on other peoples work in this way and I really work hard to make sure I’m being fair, pragmatic and considering the constraints that teams are working within. Being considerate of other people’s time is a huge thing, it’s such a de-motivator to slog over something only to feel like someone’s trashed it and you have no time left, so I really try to take my time to explain and to be considerate about my suggestions and their impact.
- I really hope that people think I’m being useful rather than critical, I’m always open to teams coming back and simply saying “we won’t change that because…”. So I’m hopeful that the suggestions I’ve made add up to making the doc more understandable and useful to a wider audience.
- Caveat: There are, however, a few proofreading things that make me feel like an absolute pedant. Ampersand use is one of them. Yes, I am willing to die on this hill.
- In the afternoon I headed over to Social Finance for a meeting with the team there and with our economist Rushi to talk about benefits cases. I rolled out my terrible diagram again, for about the third time in a week…
- I find that the team at Social Finance always push me to think more deeply about what we’re doing. So I really appreciate spending time there.
- Then it was a very sunny and very lovely bank holiday weekend!
Week 4: Tues 23 April
- This was the deadline day for our Discovery projects to provide us with their project outputs which was really exciting and I spent the day checking my email waiting for things to land in my inbox!
- I did some reading, and had some conversations internally about our Local Leaders Digital Accelerator Course. In the afternoon we had a retro.
Weds 24 April
- I worked from home and started reading the updated project outputs from my two discovery projects Children’s Statutory Returns and Registrations Services Data.
- In the afternoon we had a small show and tell and I spoke about how I had been working with teams, the feedback I’d given and how it had been reflected in the new outputs. At that stage the finished documents had only just come in so it was an overview but it was a good start to our thinking.
- In the afternoon we had a meeting to discuss the timelines for the next round of funding and anything we needed to consider. Even though I wasn’t in the room I felt I was well included, and it was useful to hear where we think we are (and consider the impacts of what we are planning on our already funded projects and those who may want to apply at the next round).
Thurs 25 April
- On Thursday I spend the day reading and reading and reading and writing notes.
- In the afternoon I went over to Social Finance to speak with Susan and Dan about the Family Context in Children’s Services Alpha project. The meeting was good for a number of reasons, not least of all that we got to sit on their lovely roof terrace in the sunshine.
- The team had done live testing of their prototype within Leeds and Stockport the week before and were ploughing through their synthesis, so it was so good to hear more about what they were finding out and what they thought they needed to do next. It’s really good to see how people are uncovering findings that cause them to consider whether the question they are asking is the right one, to be considering how and when to decide to pivot, to see them turn over stones that bring up more questions and avenues for investigation.
- It’s also a really good story in just describing the working, the team had to make changes to one of their live days because they weren’t getting cases that they could measure, so there was upheaval, rescheduling, moving around on one day to make sure they could gather useful information. That’s a great piece of learning that they would not have found had they not been working the real world and testing with real users.
Fri 26 April
- Over the past few weeks I had also been thinking a lot about One Team Gov and about how much work is currently going on. I’ve been speaking with Nour lots, who is quietly powering away behind the scenes to move things forward for people. I was trying to work out what was going on and what might need my support on Twitter and Medium, and I realised just how much people are doing, so I wrote this thread:
- Over the course of the day it blew up my Twitter in a way that was exciting but also slightly exhausting and I eventually had to turn everything off and step away from Twitter.
- I also edited and published this blog by Nour about #Wellbeing Camp and tweeted it in time for gin o’clock.
- On the Friday evening James and DavidBuck pointed out this challenge from Nesta and asked if we should submit something
- All of the central One Team Gov crew agreed that we should, so quickly Morgan set up a collaborative document, and a number of us started making comments about the theme.
Sun 28 April
- By Sunday (less than 48 hours later), with work from the glorious Jenny, Morgan, James, David, and many more we had pulled together a pitch and had a document with over 2,000 words on the subject. I wrote up our pitch and added a link to the document here so that we could gather more thoughts, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these conversations play out and whether we are successfully picked.
- I also did some more work for One Team Gov on Sunday night, creating three bloggrolls
For the Global event happening in Canada on 21 May:
For the #BureaucracyHack on 3 July:
For the #WellbeingCamp on 6 June:
So if you want to keep up to date with what’s going on with any of those events you can check in there and have a look.
Week 5: Mon 29 April
- I worked from home again and did more reading of my project outputs. My diary was clear so that provided a good amount of space to think about what we needed to do next. I started thinking about how we formalise feedback so that we have some commentary on the projects that we can publish alongside the outputs.
- When we provided funding, the teams signed up to letting us publish all of their results on our website — this is crucial because it helps to enable other local authorities to see what the teams have done, there’s value that’s realised only by publishing the work.
- The aspiration is that this work will enable others to reuse elements, or to take them and build on them in their own work. But we have a responsibility too, simply publishing isn’t enough. For one, it wont guarantee that anyone looks at it (though I think we have a good enough following that people are very interested in what we are doing) and secondly, we have a responsibility to point out what is good, and what might be missing from each of the outputs.
- We provided funding without stipulation, we have been helping to unblock issues and provide direction, but not to product manage. That means that Egle, Adam and I are in an interesting position of being close to, but not responsible for the work. That means that we have to really carefully examine the outputs (hence all of the reading I’ve outlined up to this point) look at the evidence, and then distill this down into a few key areas that will help the project team and anyone else who might be reading about their work.
- I’ve been thinking about it similarly to how I’ve approached being an assessor for GDS Service Assessments, and I keep coming back to what Kit says in this post:
“The time leading up to an assessment is like a multi-week retrospective — you look back and scrutinise every aspect of what you’ve done, finding potential gaps and making sure your service is everything it can be to your users at a particular stage. As an assessor you’ve got 4 hours to do justice and respect to that preparation, and get the best out of the team in front of you.”
- We have to now do justice and respect the work of those funded teams, but we also have to keep in our heads the spirit of the Local Digital Declaration, and have a responsibility to help others understand how to achieve great quality outputs. It’s a tough gig, but I’m really enjoying it.
Tuesday 30 April
- More reading and a really good chat with Egle about funded projects. It’s good to see where our thoughts are converging and we are talking about quality, expectations and what we can do to make the process easier for people applying to the fund in the future.
- In the afternoon we had a meeting with Matt, who has joined us from Bloomberg and is thinking about how we can tell the story of what we are finding. The meeting was supposed to be a focus on creating case studies and what should go into one, and I felt really bad when I derailed the conversation really early on.
- I was keen not to talk about structures, but to talk about stories more generally. My concern is that case studies are overdone, people can sense bluster and bravado in them, and they can sometimes be met with scepticism.
- We also have lots of examples of work which could be used to show any number of things, so I wondered aloud if there was a way of creating some “lenses” for case studies that show the various facets of one story.
- I also wondered whether there is value in simply telling a story, without judgement, without making conclusions, taking people through the process and enabling them to make up their own minds about the work and the possibilities.
- This goes against what people might expect; giving people something that will be useful to read or that will teach them something is what we are taught to do, but that is a problem when you think about how we assign value to being told something over evaluating, interpreting and learning it for ourselves.
- I’m keen to push the boundaries of what we can achieve. We are in a unique position and it feels right (and that there is space to) try something out rather than replicate what is already understood and expected. I’m also keen to make sure that the whole team think aspirationally (is that a word?!) about what we do. That might be why I railed against the notion of putting monetary benefits into case studies… I think it’s slightly too leading.
- I felt like I did a lot of talking in that meeting, and that my thoughts weren’t fully formed yet, and I don’t know if I always articulate myself as I would like to. So I had a bit of post meeting vulnerability hangover.
Wed 1 May
- I managed to get to One Team Gov Westminster breakfast for the first time in ages. It was really good to speak to Rebecca properly, and to see Hattie and others. It was good for my soul and interesting conversation.
- Then I met legendary hero Dan for a coffee which was more soul food for me, and I felt a little like I was starting to come out of my little phase of hiding.
- The afternoon was dedicated to talking about our project outputs with Adam and Egle so we spent several hours working out everything we had to do, and planning when things needed to be done. It was a really good session and we covered overviews of each of our projects, defined a structure for publishing feedback and worked out next steps.
- Our feedback structure is a really useful way to make sure we are all approaching things in the same way. I had originally suggested that these be split into what the team did well, pragmatic next steps and notes on the benefits case, but Egle much preferred to do an overview by document. In the end we agreed that those things weren’t mutually exclusive, and created this matrix:
- Hopefully this will be granular enough to describe the work, direct people to where within the docs they will find useful information, and also enable us to show how the work fits with the spirit of the declaration. Please note: in the above picture there’s a post-it that says “gaps” but none of us were really happy with this wording and wanted this section to be about pragmatic advice.
Thurs 2 May
- Was spent with more reading and pulling together feedback, it required a lot of concentration and a lot of looking back over documents, my canvasses and more, but it’s feeling really exciting to see this coming together.
Fri 3 May
- Today I’ve edited another blog for One Team Gov #WellbeingCamp and it’s really great to see that the team are publishing so much. It’s also a first post from Gail and I hope there are more! (No it’s not my working day, yes I know)
- Then I’ve written this! An epic post covering 5 weeks of work and 5 weeks of learning. I’m sorry it’s so long — but I hope you enjoy it. (Yeah I know, it’s not my working day, I get it, I’m sorry, I’m a bad role model for work life balance).