Moving countries, moving governments
Progressing from the UK’s to the German government’s Digital Service
In a few weeks, I will be leaving my position as Head of Service Design at the UK Cabinet Office’s digital units. In May, I will be joining Germany’s Digital Service, a division of the Federal Chancellery, as their first Head of Design.
It’s been 6 years at the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Cabinet Office, and it’s been an extraordinary time of learning, growing and co-creating. The work remains relevant and meaningful, the people around me are among the finest I’ve ever worked with, and I very much enjoy living in London.
Over the years, I’ve been offered several roles, but nothing ever made me want to leave. This role is different. My new position will be the first-ever Head of Design role in the German government. And back in December 2015, when interviewing at GDS, I told the panel that this would be the reason to leave: to bring what I’ve learned back to my home country.
What I leave behind
After working in fintech startups, design consultancies, and tech corporations over the last 20 years, GDS has one of the strongest design cultures I’ve seen. It has the most mature implementation of communities of practice, the most open culture, and the most evolved setup for career progression. However, it hasn’t always been that way, and, collectively, we have done a lot over the years to get here. Have a look at the posts on the Design in government blog to get an idea of what we have done.
In the UK government, I had unimaginable freedom and tremendous space to shape my role and the focus of my work as I deemed suitable. Over the years, I was able to raise the profile of service design through novel training formats, knowledge-sharing platforms, and cross-government event series. I helped quadruple the number of service designers at GDS, supported recruitment in various other government departments and worked closely with Heads of Design in many other parts of the UK government on common challenges.
Now, I hope to bring much of what’s worked well, what I have seen, learnt and some of the things I’ve done to Germany’s Digital Service.
Work with Germany’s government and public sector over the years
Over the past 6 years, I have worked with and supported the German public sector as much as I could from afar.
I helped the senior leadership team in the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Nuremberg to adopt agile ways of working. I trained civil servants at the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden in user-centred design. I ran service design workshops with German local government in Cologne and around Lake Constance. I presented multiple times at the Federal government’s annual conference of the IT planning council. And I worked for 1 year with the city-state of Hamburg on their digital service transformation as part of my MBA thesis.
In 2015, together with Dr Katrin Dribbisch and Simone Carrier, we established our non-profit initiative Public Service Lab. We have used it to organise conferences in all parts of the country, run workshops, and publish articles to inform public servants in Germany what user-centred design is and demonstrate how they can use it in their daily work. We published 5 German editions, printed 1000s of copies of our Service Gazette newspaper and made sure they found their way to Federal ministries, state governments, local authorities and digital outcome providers.
Since Germany’s Digital Service and its capability-building programmes emerged, we connected and stayed in touch. I welcomed a Tech4Germany cohort at GDS when they visited London in 2019, helped them later pick the most suitable projects from Federal departments, and created a training unit for last year’s Work4Germany programme.
There is only so much you can do from the outside and when living over a thousand kilometres away. I feel I have done as much as I possibly could. The next step requires me to be there in person, back in Berlin.
Shaping design in German government and administration
Over the last 1.5 years, the Digital Service has hired designers and grown a substantial team that will grow further. Some people I’ve met already, some people I’ve worked with in the past. I won’t be the only GDS design alumni there, as Tine, one of our former summer interns, joined the Digital Service in Berlin.
The Digital Service’s strategy is as clear, pragmatic and straightforward as you want a strategy to be. It avoids the innovation buzzwords and far-fetched promises that you see in strategies all too often. The Digital Service has a meaningful vision, has established a culture of organisational learning, and subscribes to working in the open. These are the things that matter the most to me.
I am tasked with leading and developing a diverse and inclusive design team, growing a design culture and defining career paths. I will be taking a long-term view of design and research practices and working closely with my counterparts in product and engineering, shaping the products, services, and platforms the Digital Service creates. And I have the remit to pave the way for more and better user-centred design in other parts of the Federal government.
A new coalition government came into power in December 2021. It has refreshing views on policy, and its coalition agreement commits to ”user-centred, cross-channel and comprehensive digital public services that are easy-to-use and modern”. Germany’s public services are digitally behind the UK and many other European countries. The country ranks comparably low in international digital government rankings, digital take-up is low, and still, only a very limited number of services have been digitally transformed.
User-centred design maturity is quite low for most parts of the German government. So operationalising the ambitions of the country’s new leadership will be an enormous effort that requires many minds and hands.
Things will be similar, and things will be different
Both GDS in the UK and Germany’s Digital Service work for and with national government organisations. Both organisations have multidisciplinary teams that develop digital products, services, and platforms in agile ways with user needs at the centre. The Digital Service in Germany is still finding its role and has a different remit and setup. There is much to shape, lots for me to understand and learn.
There’s going to be a lot to do. But there’s also one piece of work I’ll be taking with me. I will continue to co-lead the 2,500-people strong International Design in Government community with my GDS colleague Paloma Jain. We recently blogged about what’s next for the community and ran a timely call on maturing and scaling up design with our French and Italian colleagues earlier this month.
Stay in touch, say hello
I am sad about leaving GDS’s unique design community and culture, and I will miss the many remarkable people in the UK cross-government community. Catch me for coffee or tea in person or via video call in the coming weeks and stay in touch via the international Slack.
I am thrilled and feel ignited when thinking about what’s to come. There’s an enormous amount of contextual knowledge I will have to build, or so at least it feels. I’ll need to rewire my mind a bit, and I will need to talk to many people to help me understand the new environment. Reach out if you’re interested in talking to me. I will be in Berlin shortly.
I will be using #Verwaltungsgestaltung, the German equivalent to #GovDesign, as a hashtag, and I started preparing a website for documenting work and progress.
See and read you soon!