I’ve done a few contracts for our dear government and an idea for a business is starting to form. Here is the first draft of these ideas as a starting point for discussion and improvement.
The problem as I see it
From my somewhat limited perspective as someone who has worked on a few software projects for government, including having the privilege of a brief stint with GDS (wikipedia page on GDS), I can see a looming problem of capacity that I wonder if I can help with.
A change is happening to the way government runs digital projects (or entire services with a digital aspect I should say). This change was kicked off with the formation of GDS back in 2011, and has been rippling out across the many departments of government ever since.
The skills to run such projects are in ever increasing demand as more politicians and senior civil servants realise the effectiveness of the approach and are pushed into the approach by the controls made available to GDS through the Cabinet Office.
Some of the projects going on in government a resourced with existing internal people (many of whom are contractors) who have been moving around departments executing brilliantly in the true spirit of who GDS started, but there are only so many of these people to go around.
There are consultancies who “do agile”, but that is only part of the picture of spinning up a new digital-focussed project and having it succeed.
And then there’s the big old outsourcers who have for decades been the go-to for large government IT. It strikes me that the old-world outsources struggle to meet the needs of the new world, as it’s a fundamental shift away from outsource-all-the-knowledge / lowest-bidder-wins / change-requests-for-profit model that to be fair they have been incentivised to operate within.
All of this leaves ministers and civil servants who have seen how well it can be done wondering where on earth they can find the people they need to make a project a success. It’s all very well having a service standard that advocates a modern user-centred service but if you can’t rustle up a team or outsourcer who can make that happen then you are stuck in the old world with broken, overpriced and inflexible IT systems that we are so used to.
Note that the GDS way is not a refusal to use outsourcers at all, rather it is a call to not be held to ransom by outsourcers by passing all skills and knowledge over to them wholesale and them being unable to control them.
A new breed of outsourcer
Here I’m going to set out a rough design for a business that could help senior people in government deliver these services. Your feedback and ideas would be greatly appreciated as I cannot create this alone.
The business would take leadership in researching, designing, iterating and building services where a department currently lacks the capacity to do so but has the desire to build a modern service for some perceived user need. It would do this by supplying one or more people who truly understand the GDS-way, and will guide the service through the cycles of discovery and delivery.
The business would explicitly not try to capture ownership, insider knowledge or advantage over the department in order to gain control over the service. Instead the business would ensure that the department receives the benefit of learning that happens during the project, producing outputs that can be referred to in the long run, and ensuring that relevant people within the department are (with the assistance of the department) deeply involved in the process.
The business would attain speed of delivery by recruiting and training a team to be able to assist the department in conducting research and delivering services. This team would consist of mixture of senior people who can make sure the GDS way is followed as much in spirit as in letter, and a deeper pool of more mixed experience who can be guided by the senior team members in delivering effectively in a way that works for the department, GDS, and the users. The business shall build processes around this team that assist them in repeatably recruiting, training and scaling while retaining the core principles that work in the favour of government and our users.
The department will be encouraged (maybe even required?) to build internal capability (i.e. have enough smart skilled people) to retain the knowledge gained during the process of building a service (or perhaps learning that it doesn’t make sense to build a particular service). The department will also be encouraged to actively recruit team members to bolster their ability to run the services in the long term and retain the knowledge gained as a service is created and evolved (perhaps for an appropriate fee to compensate for the investment in the people who pass through the business’s doors).
The business needs to be a profitable enterprise in order to be a sustainable entity that can help our government in the long run. Suggestions for funding models most welcome!
The business will not retain any assets / intellectual property etc. would allow the government to be held to ransom by the business. The government will always have the option to take the whole service in-house, or choose another outsourcer. Support for transition will gladly be provided (for a reasonable fee). The government is encouraged to own its own services.
How are you different from public digital?
Public Digital https://public.digital/ are a business founded by the founding members of GDS, and are off transforming other governments and organisations from scratch. That’s a lofty goal and I wish them well! My goals are more modest, simply to provide the capacity, processes and skills pool for government deliver on the vision and habit of delivery left in the wake of these powerhouses of change. I hope I can make even a thousandth the impact they have made.
How to get there from here
Currently I’m contracting, I like the idea of slowly growing a team from here to there. I’m not in a position to just drop everything and gamble everything on success, but perhaps there can be a smoother transition. For now I just want to have as many conversations as possible, so get in touch and let me know how you feel about the whole idea. Love it? Hate it? I want to know.
Drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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