The government reform movement has snowballed to include both counterparts in other countries and the wider public sector. PublicTechnology went along to its first global event to find out more
Credit for all pictures used in this article: David Pearson/One Team Gov/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
“Don’t bring policy and delivery closer together – make them the same thing.”
These words – spoken during a March 2017 presentation by James Reeve, then a policymaker at the Department of Education – helped kickstart the One Team Government movement.
In the audience that day was Kit Collingwood, deputy director, data for the Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit programme. After three months of conversations and planning, Collingwood, alongside Reeve and others, effectively launched the movement at an event in London in June 2017, which gathered 186 civil servants to discuss how Whitehall’s different disciplines – principally policy, digital, and operations – could better work together to the benefit of citizens. Having begun life as simply this one-off gathering, One Team Gov quickly coalesced into a pan-government collective of several hundred people and, in the months since, has grown beyond the confines of both central government and the UK.
These days, it exists as “a global community of innovators focused on radical public sector reform through practical action”, according to its website.
Its reach has expanded to the extent that this summer it hosted its first-ever global event – which was attended by more than 700 delegates, representing 43 countries. This included representatives of central government, the wider public sector, and social enterprises and charities.
Using an ‘unconference’ format, the discussion areas for the day-long event were crowdsourced (pictured below left) on the day using a 25-point scoring system, in which the highest-rated topics were assigned a place in one of five 40-minute slots across multiple rooms – with the very highest scheduled for the venue’s biggest spaces. Attendees were able to pick and choose from a total of more than 60 sessions (pictured below right) throughout the day.
PublicTechnology went along to London’s QEII Centre to hear from a range of representatives from governments and public sector entities across the world, who discussed an array of the biggest issues and challenges they currently face in designing and delivering citizen services, and the policy that informs them.
A year into its reform mission, we also caught up with several of One Team Gov’s figureheads about where it intends to go from here.
AI and data science
The session dedicated to exploring issues related to data science and artificial intelligence began with the question – posed by a data scientist employed in the armed forces – of whether there are tools built by data-science teams that have proven to be useable by their colleagues in operations.
Several delegates said that they were yet to come across a data science or AI offering that been successfully scaled across their organisation. One central government data scientist said that there is “no way to ‘productionise’ tools and solutions” built by their team. This blockage is typically caused by a lack of integrated teams containing policymakers, developers, and operational decision makers, they added.
Others reported greater success in building AI and data science tools that their wider organisation could put to practical use. A delegate from the Department for Transport cited the example of the DfT Lab, which was established earlier this year. The lab invites the department’s employees to submit problems or challenges, which developers and data professionals then create a tool to address. Each of these is developed over the course of a sprint lasting no more than four weeks. Focusing on quickly developing solutions to address small, specific challenges has enabled data-science and AI tools to go from conception to implementation with much greater speed and ease than they might otherwise, the DfT delegate said.
Another challenge facing data professionals is that, while some senior-management figures may have grand plans for the use of data and AI, the public sector as a whole is “lacking middle managers that understand data”.
“Either we train up [the ones we have] – or wait for junior managers to come of age,” said one attendee.
Collaboration between departments
The ethos on which One Team Gov was founded was enabling the civil service to work better across departmental and disciplinary boundaries. So, it is no surprise that all participants in a discussion about how to enable departments to collaborate more easily were strong exponents of such collaboration, and keen to find ways to make it happen.
However, most seemed to agree with the view, espoused by a delegate from the Cabinet Office, that there remain “fundamental blockers” to collaboration.
According to another attendee, a simple but effective way to help remove such obstacles would be to dedicate between 10% and 20% of civil servants’ corporate objectives to working with other departments. Something which already routinely happens at the Government Digital Service, according to one of the organisation’s employees.
“They get that it is a soft thing – but it is often the hardest thing [to achieve],” they said.
Some of the issues that attendees want to see addressed include better systems for assessing whether “civil servants are in the best departments to flourish”, and geographic tools to help people find like-minded souls located nearby.
One idea that received widespread support from delegates was more programmes or other mechanisms to enable civil servants to “usefully spend time in each other’s spheres”.
But one attendee pointed out that there were only a couple of permanent secretary-level senior managers in attendance at the event. This, they said, spoke to the fact that collaboration across central government remains stymied by a lack of top-level support – however strong the will to collaborate is among rank-and-file civil servants.
Shortly after One Team Gov Global, PublicTechnology spoke to two of the movement’s core members – David Buck and James Cattell (pictured below left, with Buck on the right), who are both members of Defra’s digital team – about the event’s objectives and outcomes.
PublicTechnology: From your perspective, how did the event go – did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to get out of it, and did you achieve those things?
David Buck: I had personal success criteria for the event. The first event [last summer] was a commitment to an event, whereas this was a commitment to going global. I can see that in action now – which was one of my criteria. The other was to get a set number of hugs – which I got!
James Cattell: In terms of the wider ‘what do we want to get out of it’, for me it is the international network, and helping more people trying to understand the principles of what One Team Gov are, and then living those principles and sharing them [to help create] a bigger international network so we can learn from each other and share – particularly sharing failure. We have started to expand that because of the event.
PublicTechnology: I guess a lot of the success of the event – the ideas that people were able to exchange, and the connections forged – lies in things that are intangible?
David Buck: We could go out and measure them, but we don’t do that because that’s not where we want to put our effort. There were 700 people, who will all have changed in some small way as a result of the event. Some of those people are blogging about that now – but that will only be a small proportion of people that went. For me, when I do these type of events, I like to see people just having those little chats in a corner who maybe would never have had that opportunity to have that chat, or maybe would not have had the opportunity to collate people’s diaries to have the time for it. You know change is happening there and then – although we might not recognise it.
PublicTechnology: In one session someone noted the lack of permanent secretaries in attendance. Is that something that matters to you?
James Cattell: Look at the metrics – how many permanent secretaries are there in total, and how many came – versus how many people are there in the wider public sector or civil service and how many came to the event? As a percentage… if anything, we are over-represented with permanent secretaries! I’m not worried the different percentages of grades that come… we are not gradeist in One Team Gov – it is about what you are passionate about, and what you want to do. That said, it is nice to have senior buy-in and Kit (Collingwood) has done an exceptional job of going to senior civil service meetings and talking about it, and David has done a great job of writing to senior people.
Design thinking has, for some time, been something of a buzz phrase for advocates of digital government and service reform more widely.
And, like all buzz phrases, it is widely used and little understood – something swiftly acknowledged by attendees of a discussion on how design thinking can be embedded in government’s operations.
While there were several subtly different definitions offered during the debate, there were some ideas that attendees seemed to agree on.
You can fund something for a long time and suspect it will never be right – or you can adopt design thinking, and know it’s not going to be right first time
Chiefly that design thinking – whatever it is – needs to be applied more broadly. One delegate said that, in the digital sphere, this means applying its principles across product design, service design, and system design.
Another attendee called for the basic principles of design thinking to be brought into policymaking, where a focus on user needs is equally important – if not far more so.
The methods used might look a little different than they do in the digital world but, they said, the ethos is simple and universal: “You just need to ask questions.”
Several delegates said that the public sector’s poor track record of expensive long-term IT transformation programmes has created a more fertile environment for design thinking to flourish.
“Iterative approaches could offer an attractive alternative to costly national failures,” said one public sector attendee. “You can fund something for a long time and suspect it will never be right – or you can adopt design thinking, and know it’s not going to be right first time.”
Another concept to have become something of digital transformation mantra in the last few years is the idea that we should all be aiming to ‘fail faster’.
The supposition behind which is that failure is not only inevitable but, if harnessed the right way, beneficial. However, One Team Gov attendees agreed that a philosophy that embraces failure fits more neatly into the culture of a Silicon Roundabout start-up than into a public sector entity delivering frontline services – often to those in society who most need the state’s support.
But failure – or at least something other than unqualified success – is as inescapable for a government as it is for a business. So, the issue addressed in this session was how to create a culture and an operational infrastructure where failure is utilised, rather than feared, and learned from, rather than punished.
One attendee who had formerly worked for GDS said that, right up until the point that a project had incontrovertibly failed, government employees often felt a pressure to “convince ourselves it’s a success” – rather than publicly admit to challenges and difficulties.
A tendency to make reactionary personnel changes can also perpetuate failure.
“If you fail, you will get moved on… then the next person makes the same mistakes as you,” they added.
A number of delegates pointed to the way in which projects are set up as an instrumental factor in their ultimate lack of success. One said that many programmes of work are built on “a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset”.
Another said they had seen a number of digital development projects being given a go-live date before they had even entered their discovery phase.
Indeed, the whole agile and iterative development model pioneered by GDS is in danger of becoming as restrictive and inflexible as the systems it replaced, according to one attendee who claimed that many projects begin with a rigid plan of 12 months or longer that has – even before getting underway – scoped out the intended progression through discovery, alpha, beta, and live phases.
“Agile is turning into waterfall,” they said. “Only the labels are left hanging.”
The two key takeaways identified at the close of the session were that ‘failure’ often needs not be considered failure at all – but rather ‘learning’ – and that government ought to become “less afraid to stop” a project that is not working out, rather than continuing to commit good resources after bad.
One delegate said: “Most projects are set up to fail – and most do. The more we can normalise that, the better.”
Having cultivated a growing band of supporters around the world during its first year in existence – as well a handful of influential champions in Whitehall – One Team Gov’s core team got together not long after the global gathering to discuss where it ought to go from here, and what it should aim to achieve.
What emerged was a list of five priorities for the coming year. Nour Sidawi (pictured below, on the left, with Collingwood on the right), who combines One Team Gov activities with a day job as a commercial manager at the Ministry of Defence, talked us through the movement’s objectives for the coming months.
1. Explore bringing the Free Agents model to the UK
One Team wants to explore and how the UK civil service could implement something similar to the Canada’s Free Agents scheme. The programme, launched in 2016 by the Government of Canada, allows public servants to move more freely between projects and departments than they have previously been able to.
Its aim is to allow government employees to make the best use of their skills and knowledge, while increasing the ease and speed with which managers can hire people.
Sidawi believes that it could work well in this country.
“The model is about deploying people quickly to where they need to be – or where they want to be,” she said.
2. Championing diversity
‘Be diverse and inclusive’ is among One Team Gov’s seven core principles. During its second year, the movement wants to do more to help embed this principle across the wider government landscape.
This will include providing guidance and practical support to help organisations or teams become more inclusive. This work will be guided by feedback on existing schemes, and where and how they could be improved or added to.
Sidawi says that One Team Gov will also focus on differing kinds of diversity – including cognitive factors, as well as social ones.
“It is not just diversity in terms of the make-up of people, but diversity in terms in thought. We want to change our way of thinking,” she says.
The existing civil service Future Leaders Scheme is available only to civil servants at grades six and seven – which sit just below the four grades of the senior civil service.
In the coming months, One Team Gov intends to explore the possibility of developing and implementing an alternative training programme that could build leadership skills for all civil servants – not just those above a certain level. Such a scheme could also focus on areas not covered by existing programmes – such as the importance of empathy in leadership.
4. One Team Gov in a box
Having already begun to take root in Canada and Sweden, while generating interest in a number of other countries, One Team Gov wants to help like-minded government workers across the world establish their own movement.
Sidawi says that the plan is to develop a “One Team Gov in a box” offering that would effectively serve as a starter pack for setting up a new franchise.
“We want to create a step-by-step guide to allow people around the world to set up One Team Gov in their own country, with a set of materials to help them start things themselves,” she said.
5. Sustainable funding
As it becomes a permanent fixture of Whitehall and far beyond, One Team Gov is looking to identify the best way of ensuring it has the necessary long-term funding to support its activities, including its website, podcasts and blogs, and future events.
Six central government departments supported the movement’s founding event last summer. Seven were on board for the recent global event – as well as the Greater London Authority, which Sidawi said is significant.
“That is brilliant, because it shows that it extends beyond central government,” she says. “Next time, we would like to get the NHS on board – as well as a greater number of departments.”
One Team Gov is currently constructing an overarching business case and, in the coming months, will be looking to engage with more permanent secretaries and other senior directors with the aim of drumming up their support.
Which, for Sidawi, will mean “a lot of meetings!” the months and weeks ahead.
Policy vs digital
One Team Gov was founded on the idea that policy and delivery ought to become inseparable. And, while a number of attendees of this discussion told stories of policy and digital professionals in their departments finding new and mutually beneficial ways to work together, a divide between the two disciplines still clearly exists.
One attendee pointed to the existence of two very different systems of governance – with differing or sometimes even contradictory corporate objectives – as something that continues to reinforce this divide.
One digital professional said that they would like relations between the two areas to feel less adversarial.
“It feels too much like a commercial supplier engagement,” they said. “We need to remember we are on the same side of the table, not opposite.”
Another said that, outside of the big delivery departments, such as HMRC or the DWP, many policy professionals have no imperative to foster a closer relationship with digital colleagues.
We need to remember we are on the same side of the table, not opposite
“It varies from department to department,” said one delegate. “In BEIS, [for example], 80% of policy people might be working on something with no digital side. In many cases, policymakers can get away with doing their thing in isolation.”
The consensus was that the best prompt for cooperation was connections between individuals or small teams. Little changes such as occasionally sitting with colleagues from other disciplines can make a big difference, attendees agreed.
The increased use across government of policy labs – which aim to design policy in an iterative way, with increased focus on testing out ideas in development with users – will also help policymakers become accustomed to the ways of working that are common in the digital sphere, delegates said.
All the pictures in this article were taken by David Pearson, who died on 10 August. One Team Gov believe that David’s photography portrayed the spirit, kindness and empathy in our community and shared it with the world. David is part of our #OneTeamGov family and history and we will miss his kindness, generosity and sense of fun.