A busy two months

I started the new chapter of my life going full-time (permanent) again roughly 8 weeks ago. I’ve not had much time to process but I’ve done a lot of traveling, meeting people and importantly, I’ve learnt a lot in a short space of time.

Below are the highlights of my first two months. Its quite lengthy so thanks for reading, I intend for future blog posts to be more concise.

A quiet start

Due to the time of year and some other circumstances, my start in Government was very quiet (compared to what I was used to). I arrived in Stockport for the usual first day stuff such as finding my way, meeting my new ‘line manager’ and some of the other nice people that will also be based in DWP’s temporary home before (hopefully) a move to the Manchester 'Hub’.

Like any work place, the first few days were getting set-up and access to things. Not so easy in civil service but thankfully Ben had done a lot of prep to help me navigate the plethora of gateways, intranets and excel spreadsheets required to get access to the things I needed.

Beyond getting set-up there wasn’t initially much for me to do. This was an advantage because I could take a little time to acquaint myself with important standards and principles. I also cloned the publicly accessible code repositories for things like the gov.uk prototyping kit and tried contribute to it where I could.

XGov Design Meeting

One of my first trips in my new role was to the “Cross Government Design Meeting” (XGov Meeting) in London. A meeting of designers, writers, coders, etc from various department such as The Home Office, The Land Registry, Department for Work & Pensions and so on… Each department gives an update to the wider community with what they’re doing (and learning) then typically there will be invited speakers to inspire and share knowledge.

Photo credit: Mark Hurrell

The meeting moves around the country but my first was in the rather grand and historic ’1 Horse Guards Road’ building. Home to The Treasury but steeped in history such as being used for WWII cabinet meetings.

My first experience of a talk from an invited speaker was the excellent Wayne Daly a graphic designer, working primarily in the cultural field on publishing, editorial and visual identity projects at AA Print Studio.

I have to admit to feeling a little uneasy at the time because until very recently, spending an hour 'on the clock’, listening to a renowned designer talk would have been out of the question for me. I see attending that talk as a huge perk of the job. You might need to have worked for yourself to see that it is such a perk so clearly.

However these meetings are not an indulgence, they are to keep each department sighted on what the others are doing. People can ask questions as well as catch-up with colleagues in similar roles across Government before or after the main meeting.

Digital Academy

A few weeks in and I started on DWP’s “Digital Academy” course (Cohort 29). A two week program designed to up-skill staff with key techniques such agile, Scrum, Kanban and some specific internal subjects as security, data protection and analytics.

Photograph of Paul Smith presenting to his academy class Photo Credit: Phil Broadhurst

Plenty of the modules I knew and had experience of but plenty I didn’t. I met civil servants from around the country, people that deal with real citizens on a day-to-day basis. In my opinion the academy is an excellent initiative and hopefully as more DWP staff attend, culture change the department is hoping to inspire will come to fruition. I liked that they were eating their own dog food, doing regular retrospectives with us participants to see how they could improve the course.

Doing some work

After completing the academy course I was ready to do some actual work. Given that I was hired as a reasonably well known front-end developer you’d be forgiven for thinking I was quickly knee deep in code, developing some new design system or perhaps building the UI for some app? No. I was assigned to a 'Service team’ to take over from a contractor that was due to leave.

I’m still establishing what exactly a front-end developer does in Government. I’m not being critical, I think industry wide, one company’s front-end developer is another’s UX Developer and so on. Each expecting slightly different skills.

In GOV and DWP it seems to me that a front-end developer straddles Interaction Design and Back-end development. An interaction designer is expected to know how to design in the browser, which is where things like the GDS’s prototyping kit enters in but at the same time, they won’t be expected to know how to write performant, accessible, maintainable, scalable front-end code which is where I see myself fitting in. My understanding so far is that I take all the effort from the product owners, user researchers, service team, content designers and interaction Designers and finally 'build’ what they have 'made’. Hopefully that doesn’t sound derogatory because what’s produced is very good indeed.

So far I’ve contributed to the 'Repay a benefit debt service’ already in Beta and mostly to 'Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit’ (IIDB). Service manager Zoe Gould explains in a DWP blog post treating online forms as services with user needs we might start looking at 'forms’ but we can potentially transform the service and not just produce a digital version of a paper form.

A 'Mission Patch’ I created as a bit of fun for IIDB.

I love how collaborative the experience of these teams has been so far. Working in such multidisciplinary teams means I get to learn a lot more and particularly for IIDB it has felt like “Right people, same room!” (See creating a delivery culture).

You can see a full list of what the department is working on in the DWP Digital By Default Services Portfolio.

Please comment below if you disagree. It’s probably worth pointing out that for various reasons there is no central platform for building services just yet. There are tools, recommendations and a level of standards but nothing is enforced or particularly prescribed by The Government Digital Service. Anything that get’s developed is assessed by GDS, the choices the team and myself make about the delivery of our service has to be justified and will be examined quite carefully before it is allowed to progress to a Beta or Live service.

Another thing that I think is rather brilliant is that such service assessments are publicly accessible.

I'm designing this blog "live". I believe that coding in the open promotes sharing, feedback and learning. Occasionally things will change and possibly break but that's ok. You can let me know.

Feel free to browse the source code and commit history