What do public services have in common with NASA’s space programme? For Margaret Hamilton, the pioneering computer scientist who developed the software guiding the successful NASA Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, it was the sheer ambition and scale of working on something that had never been done before that motivated her to work on the project.
In addition, everyone on the Software Engineering Division she led — from administrators and engineers, to human computers and scientists — had to play their specific role, thus proving that the right team of people with the right expertise and mindset can solve any complex problem.
Good delivery is about removing uncertainty through experimentation, and as our expectations and ways of working changed during the pandemic, we also saw how quickly and effectively urgent needs were met. Now, the opportunity remains to build on what we have learned. Our challenge is to find new approaches to delivery that continue to question what is possible.
In this article, we take a closer look at the ways we can apply new thinking and expand those possibilities in a sustainable way.
1) Working with modular thinking
One innovative way that delivery teams can optimise their work is by taking a modular approach. This entails reconfiguring and breaking things down into individual components which can be reused, reassembled or reconfigured. Local government is a great opportunity area here as similar service patterns exist across councils.
When we worked with Essex County Council, for example, our team identified and mapped around 150 user interactions and transactions with similar user flows and operational dependencies. By connecting these shared capabilities, we were able to create user experiences that could be built and maintained more easily and cost effectively.
2) Building autonomous teams
The lean and agile delivery specialist Jamie Arnold wrote in a blog article that “the team is the unit of delivery.” He would know a thing or two about teams, given that he was one of the early members of the Government Digital Service team that led the delivery of GOV.UK.
As we saw through successful digital delivery responses during the pandemic, great things happen when we empower high-performing, multidisciplinary teams to make decisions. By removing barriers and helping these teams to get stuff done, we’ll be better placed to respond to large and complex future challenges.
3) Investment in continuous design and learning
In order to build successful services, we need to consider how we put people and their needs at the heart of decision making. Being prepared to question key assumptions, and the evidence we have that informs our understanding of these needs is key. By regularly revisiting this information we can make sure solutions genuinely meet user needs. We might find, for example, that we need to stop doing things, or that we need investment in new ideas or technologies.
Done well, continuous optimisation represents the opportunity to reinvent entire operating models and ways of working in an organisation or service area. An important part of this is seeing the design and delivery of services as a continuous process that is never fully done.
4) Delivering faster without breaking things
The mantra of “move fast and break things”, as popularised in Silicon Valley, gained a great degree of prominence amongst entrepreneurs and software developers — but in the public sector, this risks bad outcomes to people’s health, livelihoods and security.
To navigate this, organisations need to support the live piloting of solutions in live service situations, but in a controlled way. This enables teams to test and learn safely through a series of smaller experiments, while delivering and managing change in increments.
A great example of this was our Covid-19 home testing kit service, which our team progressed to a live pilot service quickly, enabling them to work with live service data and feedback from Ambulance staff.
By questioning how quickly ideas and solutions can be deployed to live, we can prevent new solutions from spending years in slow development cycles or being stuck in specification phases that don’t deliver value to end users quickly enough.
5) Inspiring a new generation of leaders
Leadership approaches and organisational structure are key to setting up teams for success in digital transformation and delivery. Good service leadership has to be about more than just “owning” a project; there needs to be a stronger emphasis on influence and orchestration between the leader and their team.
As service teams move towards building, maintaining and optimising whole, end-to-end services, another important quality for leaders is accountability for the vision, direction and quality of their entire policy and service areas.
Find out more about how the public sector can increase the value and impact of its services in our new book Multiplied, available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones. Multiplied explores the new and creative ways in which we can unlock the technology, data and design potential of the public sector, to do more for Britain’s communities.
All profits from the book are being donated to the Association of NHS Charities.
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