Weeknotes. Just the one, ok?

I’ve been admiring the growing community of government weeknoters on Medium for a while; I’ve pondered doing weeknotes myself but haven’t up to now — I’m pretty overcommitted and don’t want to get into a rhythm I can’t sustain.

However, after Debbie asked what mine might look like, I thought a little experiment might not go amiss. So here goes — just the one:

Firstly, a brief word on me. My day job is leading the data team for Universal Credit, meaning my purpose is to underpin and improve that service through data. My team is a mix of product people in the ‘usual’ sense and data engineers, analysts and scientists as well as visualisation experts. I also get the chance to talk about making the whole of DWP and government better with data, which is a brilliant part of my job. I am also trying to reform government via the One Team Government movement.

Here’s what this week looked like:

Monday — Team Time

I love Mondays because I try not to have many meetings and I get to sit with my team a lot. We’re at our most creative and productive when we sit together with no objective in mind. We made coffee (we’re Aeropress fans) and talked about: the pros and cons of universal basic income; how we were going to celebrate Jacob’s birthday on Wednesday; grooming the backlog of our operational data team so we can have fewer goals; and the potential role of algorithms to help decision making in government services.

Mid-morning I had our Digital Working Age senior leadership meeting, where we talk about what our goals are for the week. I always have 3 because I’m obsessed with prime numbers. They were: sift for a few roles I’m recruiting and get interviews set up; decide which embedded analytics project we’re going to take forward as a team; and push One Team Gov a little further forward in DWP.

Then emails emails emails. I hate emails, but no amount of trying to deflect them seems to do any good. Ho hum. Monday afternoon I went to our data strategy board, where we talked about the role of data in making DWP more effective. It’s a subject I’m passionate about and I look forward to writing about it soon (see below….) as well as making some of the good ideas we already have come true.

Then more desk time, recruitment and admin, and more great chats with great people.

Tuesday — All The Meetings Day

I picked up my new tablet device early in the morning, then chatted to Paul Lodge, our chief data officer, about the previous day’s data board and how we wanted the work to move forward.

On Tuesday lunchtime I chaired Universal Credit’s data group, which brings together all the data makers and users across the programme (my team, wider analysts, product teams, policy, ops, finance, business intelligence and others) to talk about what they need and how we can get it to them. We provide everything from data products and visualisations to APIs giving better access to raw data, so there’s a lot to talk about; we run it as a show and tell to make it practical.

I managed to get outside and turn my face to the sun for a little while at lunchtime, which was a beautiful thing.

Then we ran prioritisation round the wall for my research and development team. It lasted about half an hour and, as usual, I found the team had all the answers and all I could do was unblock them and help senior people understand what they’re up to. I love meetings like that.

In the afternoon I was in our transformation group, which brings together all the heads of team in Universal Credit every other week to check in with each other and make decisions. It’s one of my favourite meetings because everyone genuinely wants everyone else to succeed and is willing to do what they can to help. It’s a great model for good governance (shame how seldom wishing each other success is part of the remit of a governance group, in favour of throwing rocks or obsessing about lines on a gantt chart. How else are we going to get stuff done other than trying to make it happen, not trying to stop it?)

After the meeting I sat by myself for an hour to finish sifting the roles I needed to and giving feedback. Felt good to have done it. Also gratified to be using one of the only recruitment systems ever which hasn’t made me homicidal (see below).

Wednesday — running around

Spent the morning at the Quaker Meeting House in Euston (missing One Team Gov breakfast club — gutted). Had a short call going through costs with my finance business partner; my team is growing so we wanted to make sure we could fund that. Caught up with Dan about data strategy, technology, contracts and rescue dogs.

Emails emails emails.

Then I had a coaching session with Rachel. I’ve been working with her on and off for 2 years and I love our sessions — Rachel is sparky and challenging, and doesn’t let me get away with woolliness. This was our last session for a while, so we set some goals for me to get done over the summer (for full openness they were: push the data agenda in DWP and beyond; say no to more things and focus on importance not urgency; make One Team Gov a sustainable reform movement for the public sector). I left with pages of notes and a reading/TED list.

Then I ran to DEFRA, where I met (five minutes late, eek, see below) Clare Moriarty and some Cabinet Office people to talk about an event we’re going to run in the autumn. Clare is my absolute hero and it was a pleasure to be working with her, as ever.

Then desk time back at DWP, time chatting to and sorting stuff out with my team. Talked to Ryan about his job. At the end of the day Kat came over to talk about user research methodologies. Kat is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met, and I have to work to keep up with her mind and her speed of thought every time I speak to her. She was talking about ‘thick’ descriptions of users, appreciating their cultural and physical context; I came away from our chat feeling inspired and asked her to talk to some other people I know about her ideas, particularly One Team Gov people who are looking at barriers to reform.

Evening: drinks with my friends and ex-colleagues Emma and Emma. I don’t drink a great deal, but in a couple of drinks managed to fit in rum, dry ice, a teapot, some gold leaf and a tiny vial of Prosecco, which was gratifying.

Thursday — full on

Creativity morning. We’re offsite talking about how we could use different data science techniques and analytics embedded in services to improve the internal (work coaches and case managers) and external (citizen) user experience. Embedding analytics rather than having standalone insights/products is a natural next step for us, and one we really believe in. We’re really early in our thinking and the chat was wide-ranging, but at the end we set a single hypothesis that we could test over the next few weeks, which felt good.

Met an amazing woman called Priscilla whom I then bought coffee and talked to about the potential for artificial intelligence in government services, whether jazz piano is harder to learn than classical, and why Philip Larkin was probably right.

Leave in pensive mood, walking hunched over in the rain thinking a million things.

Then Jacob’s birthday lunch. We bought him clothes and gin, and ate burgers and salad.

Then straight to a Department for Education event called #OneTeamGov Schools, where I talked about what user-centred working means to me (and admire their spinoff lanyards). I talked about:

  • The culture of user-centricity (open, learning, humble, you’re not done until you’ve made someone’s life easier)
  • The benefits (reduced cost to serve, better services, more engaged teams, better advice to ministers, better policymaking)
  • The methodology (talk to real users early and often, go to where they are, be prepared to flex your thinking, work across boundaries, work in the open, loads more, ran out of time)

Then there were loads of very good questions: my favourite was ‘how do you balance thoroughness of research with speed of delivery, without falling into archetypes of who your users are?’ I had a happily tough time answering that one.

Email email email. Press go on a job ad. Sort out an unhappy person in my team and reassure them they’re not crazy. Write up my notes on DWP’s data strategy; do some slides for a meeting; try to persuade someone to join my team; make a to do list so stuff doesn’t start to slip.

Home. Brain fried. Lots of avocado for dinner.

Friday — One Team Gov, relax and absorb

Working from home, feeling quiet and reflective. 5 phone calls in the morning to talk about, respectively — operational data, recruitment, a terrible idea that we shouldn’t do, a great idea that we’re definitely going to do, failure demand in contact centres.

Emails emails emails. Eat chips.

Then the weekly One Team Gov meetup, small but perfectly formed this week. We talked about:

  • opportunities to put One Team Gov approaches into action on a particular societal problem
  • how to build the One Team Gov community
  • microactions we can take at our desk to make government better

Finish my weeknotes. Drink peppermint tea. Wonder where another week went, how to empty my brain a bit, and how I managed to land myself in such a brilliant job and sector. Look forward to gin o’clock.

Small thoughts I’m having at the moment:

  • I don’t have to do everything. What can I push away from myself?
  • Government should focus more on the internal user experience. We still have crappy systems for basic tasks like paying, rewarding and recruiting but we (rightly) obsess on the external user experience. Why?
  • I am getting better at not being late for things. Still haven’t nailed it but big improvements.

Things I read, listened to and looked at this week:

  • Kazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of Hills
  • London Grammar, The Jezebels, The Staves, Faith No More, Rachmaninov
  • The view right from the top of Westminster tube right down to the bottom.

Blogposts I failed to write this week:

  • What is a data-driven government department like?
  • My One Team Government microactions
  • The real risk register for government
  • Reform is mundane (bear with me on that one)

Reading list: