Interview: DWP's Kit Collingwood-Richardson on One Team Government and bridging Whitehall's digital divide

Written by Sam Trendall on 29 August 2017 in Features
Features

The One Team Government movement has big ambitions to reform how Whitehall works by getting different professions and departments to work better together. PublicTechnology meets its co-founder Kit Collingwood-Richardson to find out more

There is, it seems, a new disease sweeping across the civil service. 

A virulent and highly contagious strain, the virus infects sufferers with the misguided belief that they can influence the lives of others from afar. Symptoms include Westminster wonks – who rarely, if ever, stray from their Whitehall desk – confidently assuming that the policy they create is having the intended effect out in the wider world.

This affliction, says Kit Collingwood-Richardson – deputy director, data for the Universal Credit programme – is commonly known as “deliveryitis”.

“It is about the illusion of control over impact,” she explains. “But, in actual fact, we do not know whether any of the things that are measurable are having any impact on the end user.” 

This illusion is maintained by a way of working that means policy-in-progress can rarely be shared with civil service colleagues in service-design or delivery roles.

“You cannot show work early, because you need ministerial authorisation,” Collingwood-Richardson says. “But I would say that the way we make policy – where we wrap it up and then chuck it over to delivery – that is even riskier, because you do not know whether an idea is a good one.”

What is more, she adds, when designing government initiatives and legislation, “policy makers typically do not talk to the end users” who are the subject of the policy in question. When asked why, Collingwood-Richardson says: “Part of the answer – the really, really terrible or brilliant answer – is that it would just never occur to someone to do that”.


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She adds: “I think there is also fear – it is very safe to stay in Whitehall. As well as the machinery of government [acting as] a disincentive – it is efficient not to ask.”

Collingwood-Richardson knows of what she speaks, having worked in policy-making for the Ministry of Justice for three years after joining the civil service in 2009. 

Nowadays she works on the delivery side of government, having been part of the Universal Credit team at the Department for Work and Pensions for the past 18 months. Before that, she held senior digital roles at, first, the Office of the Public Guardian and, latterly, back at the MoJ. The move to digital was prompted by a growing disillusionment with how policy got made.

“Frankly, I had lost faith in policy making in Whitehall – I did not think it was close enough to citizen experience,” she says. “There was a gulf between how policy got made and the recognition that we are in an internet-enabled state.

"We need all the major disciplines within Whitehall – we cannot do this in siloes"

“Digital was about being closer to the user experience. And there were cultural elements that I really believed in, like showing your work early. That is why I got into digital.”

But while Collingwood-Richardson has worked across both policy and digital, she says that the disciplines are, typically, seen by civil servants “as two sides of a divide”. 

Team meeting
In March of this year she shared a conference stage with James Reeve, a senior policy advisor at the Department for Education talking about his vision of making policy and delivery the same thing. Shortly afterwards, the duo created One Team Government.

Their aim is bold, but simple: to reform government for the benefit of citizens. This can be achieved, Collingwood-Richardson believes, by fostering closer working relationships between differing job functions and departments in the civil service, and more communication between government and the people it serves.

One Team Government began life as an event, which took place on 29 June and gathered 186 representatives of government and civil service in London. The gathering was billed as an ‘unconference’, meaning that, other than the opening keynote address, the agenda was decided on the day by attendees. 

Colingwood-Richardson explains that tickets to the event were distributed as evenly as possible between the worlds of policy, service design, and delivery.  But, she adds, the success of the event was just a starting point.

“Over and above being an event, I wanted it to be a community, and a movement,” she says.

That movement has been founded upon seven clearly defined principles: work in the open and positively; take practical action; experiment and iterate; be diverse and inclusive; care deeply about citizens; work across borders; and embrace technology.

Meanwhile, the community has now been joined by about 400 people across the civil service which, Collingwood-Richardson notes happily, makes it “about the same size as a small government department”. Within this are a core of 30 who, alongside the two founders, help shape the organisation’s strategy.


 

Encouraging diversity
One of the founding principles of One Team Government is “be diverse and inclusive”, and Collingwood-Richardson expresses a commitment to making sure the movement is representative of society, and inclusive of everyone – regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, or gender identity.

She is also determined to encourage “cognitive diversity”, ensuring that the movement – and, hopefully, the wider civil service – makes optimum use of people’s talents, in a way that best fits with their personality type, and any mental health conditions and autistic spectrum disorders they may have.

Collingwood-Richardson notes, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, “the conversation often goes towards how do we make sure people are in the room”. The next step is to go beyond simply ensuring people’s presence, and focus on getting the most out of what they bring to the table – particularly in terms of their cognitive set-up and personality type.

The One Team Government founder says that the civil service – and society at large – has a habit of promoting extroverts to positions of power, while often not making best use of the differing and discrete skills of more introverted people.

Or, as Collingwood-Richardson – a self-confessed extrovert – puts it: “They are better at a lot of stuff than I am.” 


Rather than grand, sweeping plans, the focus is on “micro-actions” that are easily enacted by individuals for or small groups, and have swift and tangible results, she says.

The desire is to move away from the civil service’s more typical “programmatic style, where a senior person backs something and people are encouraged to do things in support of that”.

“It is less hierarchical,” she adds.

But One Team Government is determined to “strike a grown-up balance” between shifting away from a narrow, top-down mode of operation while still – not to put too fine a point on it – ensuring anything gets done. The key to the success of the movement is openness throughout the process of defining and implementing strategy, Collingwood-Richardson says: “We will work together to try and expose our plans early and often.”

A key challenge facing One Team Government is encouraging civil servants to see themselves as reformers first and foremost. The question, Collingwood- Richardson says is “how do we stop people tagging to the idea of a department as their primary tribe, and tag themselves to the idea of reform as their tribe”. 

“We need all the major disciplines within Whitehall – we cannot do it in siloes,” she says. But civil servants – including those from her own profession – sometimes tend towards insularity within their own discipline.

“It is across a lot of departments, but the digital community is a clique. The next big challenge is to get it to be less so,” she adds.

Collingwood-Richardson tells current or potential members that being involved with One Team Government can help them in their day job. Many senior leadership figures in the civil service are supportive of the movement and its objectives, she notes, a point emphasised by the fact that the June event was sponsored by six central government entities: DWP; the Cabinet Office; the Government Digital Service; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for Transport; and HM Revenue and Customs.

“We are starting to integrate with normal civil service ways of working,” Collingwood-Richardson says. “We are encouraging people to put One Team Government in their corporate objectives – [our employers] get extra value from us by allowing us to be part of One Team Government. If you are in the senior civil service, you should have a cross-government perspective anyway.”

Leading lights
There are a number of departments and programmes that are already exemplars of the benefits of working in the way espoused by One Team Government, the movement’s founder says. Chief among these are her current employer.

“When I came into DWP, I saw it had absolutely bags of integrity,” Collingwood-Richardson says, explaining that every idea formulated by policy makers is subject to feedback on how it will work in practice from operational experts. 

“They can tell you how people will feel as a result of it. That is why we do not make bad policy,” she says. “Universal Credit is the strongest example of that. Every design decision is made with a policy-maker in the room and vice versa.”

Frankly, I had lost faith in policy-making in Whitehall – I did not think it was close enough to citizen experience... that is why I got into digital

Other policy to have been designed in such a collaborative way includes the apprenticeship service from the DfE’s Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the reform of the prison and probation service rolled out by the MoJ earlier this year, Collingwood-Richardson says.

Although it is still its infancy, the One Team Government movement has plans to expand beyond central government, and has already hosted an event for schools. Other likely areas of focus for the future are local government and healthcare, she adds. 

“The experience we had with [the schools event] was the beginning of the conversation about how public sector bodies can engage with one another,” Collingwood-Richardson says. “We know that local government has a policy and operational divide as well – just as we know that they are trying to do good service delivery.” 

The organisation has also just started a research strand to provide data to help its members shape policy. But ultimately, its founder believes that the ways in which – she hopes – the contagion of One Team Government will take hold across Whitehall and the wider public sector are difficult to anticipate.

“The spread of this movement is unpredictable.”

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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