An end-of-secondment reflection

Written by Eric Lui – secondee from the Civil Service Fast Stream

I’ve come to the end of my 6 month secondment here at Delib. It’s been an eye-opening opportunity, working outside of central government – and certainly a good learning experience. Here are just a few things I’ll take away with me:

Digital democracy is less about the tools and more about the people.

Delib work really hard to make digital engagement tools of the highest quality and they’re constantly looking to refine and improve them. Their mission is focused on building digital tools to improve the dialogue between government and citizens, all under the banner of digital democracy. This has been encouraging to witness, not least because Delib is a for-profit social venture sitting outside of government.

Looking forward as I step back into government, I am well aware of government’s mantra that ‘open policy-making is better policy-making’. What has been interesting to see first-hand, and which has brought the challenge of ‘open policy-making’ into the cold light of day, is that the challenge is not in the tools available but rather the people. More specifically, the real change needs to occur in the culture and mindset of policy and decision-making that permeates in central and local government.

I’ve seen some truly excellent consultations being run on Citizen Space, most notably on the future of the BBC and the devolution of Sunday trading hours. However, I’ve also seen a number of online consultations which are rather less impressive – not because of the technical delivery, but because the exercise as a whole has set off on the wrong foot. If a consultation is treated as just an ‘afterthought’ in the policy cycle, if citizens are ‘consulted’ on decisions which have effectively already been made, or if communication and promotion plans are poor, it’s going to be a disappointing consultation, whichever platforms are used in its delivery.

Digital tools can offer a fast and cost-effective way to not only run consultations but also to feedback to citizens the impact of their input. However, they need to be embedded in the process of policy and service delivery. Only then is the power of digital democracy truly grasped.

Furthermore, with devolution of powers and resources to local councils high on the agenda of this government, I think it is imperative that local councils galvanise around improving the way they converse with their citizens. I believe strongly that public services which have been designed with the public’s input are stronger and better.

There is still some way to go for ‘digital by default’

Rowena, one of the account managers here in Delib, wrote some thoughts on this subject a few weeks ago. She noted that although there has been real progress with GDS, the lack of basic digital skills in some parts of government can be quite stark. To a certain degree, I agree with her assessment.

Firstly, in relation to skill level, I do think more can be done to train civil servants in basic digital skills and more to encourage their them to adopt the digital tools and habits they have in daily life in the workplace. My own experience within the civil service has echoed this and I do believe an attitude change needs to occur. People must be encouraged and given more confidence to use digital tools and in particular the attitude that ‘digital is just for the millennials’ needs to be shed. Only then can the civil service hope to push forward with the digital agenda without leaving the majority behind.

Secondly, perhaps even more broadly, ‘digital’ needs to be conceptualised differently. It is no longer acceptable for digital to  only be done by ‘digital experts over there’. In the 21st century, digital must permeate throughout the way we work, communicate and design public services. It is not a thing to be done, but rather a way of thinking.

Working in an agile fashion – can it be applied to policy making?

One of the main takeaways from the last 6 months will undoubtedly be living, breathing and working in an ‘agile’ environment. I’d be foolish to say that it wasn’t alien to begin with; the myriad fluorescent post-it notes was a bit daunting at first! However, I’ve learned to appreciate this way of working and there are two core principles which I’ll be looking to take back into my next policy role.

The first is to always start with user needs and the second is to ‘iterate wildly’ (fail small and fail quickly).

These are not new principles and they’ve been preached time and time again. Even within government, the GDS lives by these principles. The former head of the GDS Mike Bracken had some inspired things to say on the topic of policy and its interaction with ‘agile’ principles. There’s a lot to be grappled with in his speech but broadly I agree with him. Working in a small agile business which relies on a niche market has definitely reinforced this. What the user needs is core to delivering a useful product, and iteration in software development is a given. I can’t say for sure that agile can be applied wholesale to policy-making but I’ll definitely be trying to formulate my thinking and that of my colleagues around those two principles.

Challenges of a small business

The opportunity to come to Delib on secondment came about from the development programme I am currently on with the civil service, the Fast Stream. The scheme is focused on developing the future leaders of the Civil Service and secondments have only recently been added to the scheme. From my own personal experience here, I think secondments are a huge benefit to the scheme. Being able to observe how a small business attempts to lead the market, navigate the (sometimes unnecessary and frustrating) levels of government bureaucracy, all whilst holding onto its principles has been enlightening.

Leadership coupled with a strong vision is definitely prevalent here, even in such a small company. I have been grateful for the opportunity to see a successful small business from the frontline and I’ll definitely be taking many personal development points away. I do wonder though, on a more hypothetical note, whether it’ll be possible to expose current civil service leaders to the risks and challenges faced by a small business. I am certain it would be beneficial and hugely rewarding for the organisation.

I am thankful to all the wonderful people here at Delib for accommodating me in their digital democracy journey. Hopefully I’ve also contributed something to the cause!

From next week I’ll be back in government, working on assessment policy at the Department of Education. I have Twitter and Linkedin, so feel free to connect with me.