Leaving DWP Digital

Paul Smith
Aug 14, 2017 · 8 min read

At the end of August I will be leaving The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) having been there almost two years.

It is not a decision I took lightly, I’ve been asked quite a few questions as to why I’m leaving and what I’m doing next so I thought it was worth sharing some of the detail.

Too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)

The DWP Digital User-centred design team is great. I really enjoyed working there and love the people. They do great work, put up with a lot and are on the road to benefitting citizens with the work they’re doing. I’m proud to have been part of it and would go back in the future.

I’m joining Well Digital as their Senior Digital Designer. I’ll be part of the founding team of Well Digital. I’m looking forward to playing a role in shaping their principles, priorities and design approach. I’ll be helping to make user centred design part of the way they do things.

My time at DWP Digital

Why I joined DWP

Firstly to be hired by Ben Holliday as a Front-end Developer to join the design community he was striving to build was an opportunity not to be missed.

I was a ‘freelancer’ when the chance to talk to Ben came along. Having worked at the BBC and for various prominent digital agencies I managed to carve out a good reputation and a consistent flow of work. I was happy, the work was challenging, pressured but financially and emotionally rewarding.

I remember commenting to my family, the only thing that would make me consider going ‘full time’ again would be the type of work I’d been admiring from afar, that was the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Reading the blog posts of people like Tom Loosemore, Ben Terrett and friends. It felt like government had awoken from it’s slumber and not only that, they had started doing the kind of thinking that my part of the digital industry wasn’t (at the time).

GDS were focussing on users and really understanding their needs, failing fast by prototyping, working agile and making decisions that were based on evidence (both data and research with users).

Those ways of working, combined with the scale of the challenge felt like ‘work that matters’ and worth taking a drop in salary for.

The chance to do work that helps everybody, even family members that depend on (or have to use) government services is what I wanted.

I kept an eye on what was happening in government and #govdesign in general. Eventually I spoke to Ben, I was interviewed and Ben took a chance on hiring me.

Being a civil servant

One of the first things I learned about being a civil servant is that although the majority of things take time, occasionally change happens very fast and with little or no warning. I naively thought DWP and government would be the picture of a stable working environment but it has actually been quite turbulent.

The section of DWP I joined (the Business Transformation Group) was disbanded after my first six months, senior leaders left (or changed roles), teams of contractors were let go and whole services, live or in development were ‘paused’ or retired.

When Ben hired me, it was to be based in a Manchester office that he was told would be opening very soon (end of 2015). This turned out to be a complicated saga, with slated offices falling through and the move being off and then on again multiple times. This made getting a design team established in the North West rather difficult and affected the work I had the opportunity to do.

A lot of these things are normal in large enterprise organisations but perhaps not in such a compressed time frame, if you factor the EU referendum (‘Brexit’) and general elections into the mix, they all go towards demonstrating that civil servants need to be very resilient and resourceful people.

I learnt quickly that I needed to be the same. I wanted to do as much as I could to help Ben and the design team, as well as the DWP service teams I was working with.

Highlights

20 months working in government has given me the opportunity to work with some truly brilliant people. It would be unfair to name individuals (and a rather long list) so I’ll just say a huge thank you to everybody I’ve worked with.

The following is a list of things I’ve done and achieved whilst in gov:

There were many more great things I feel very fortunate to have been a part of in my short but busy time in Gov.

You will note from the list that I’ve also had the opportunity to work with wider government and the Government Digital Service. This was brilliant, I loved that I could look sideways and not to be confined to the landscape of DWP. We’re all One Team Government after all.

Why am I leaving?

As a friend of mine put it, when an opportunity arises most people will take it if there is a bit of push away from their current role and a decent amount of pull towards the new role.

The push

In all honesty there is very little, the senior design leaders Ben has put in place are picking up the baton to continue getting things changed and I’m confident they will. (Ben is leaving as well). Briefly here are the things that were push factors for me.

‘Front-end Developer’ is not officially recognised as a specialist role
The government is currently undergoing ‘digital transformation’, as part of that a ‘Digital, Data & Technology’ skills framework (known as DDAT or ‘Dee-Dat’) is being developed for the ‘civil service functional model’.

The DDAT doesn’t specifically recognise the role of front-end developer in their list of published distinct specialist roles.

This to me, meant an uncertain path of career progression and personal development. It affects the ability to move off a ‘digital allowance’ scheme and onto a ‘specialist pay’ scale. I’ve never been comfortable with the digital allowance scheme, it meant somebody had to put together a business case for part of my salary every year and I didn’t like that.

However even more importantly, it limits the chance to form a real cross government community of practice in the same way that content designers, user researchers and so-on have started to do.

I’ve spoken to people in government about it and it’s quite a thorny issue. Front-end Development as a practice is often misunderstood, partly because as the digital industry has matured it’s been known under several aliases such as web designer, client-side developer, UI engineer, user experience developer and many others.

It’s further complicated because the practice of front-end development sits between both design and software engineering, which means it needs a combination of both digital design and software development skills. Some people are closer to design and others feel closer to software engineering.

I’ve written this up in more detail, in ‘Building for everyone’, I make the case for specialist user-centred front-end developers in government.

I joined DWP because it was great to see front-end development’s place in design being taken seriously by Ben Holliday, there are many great front-end developers in Gov and I hope this get’s resolved soon but the uncertainty was a push factor for me.

Being on the slow train
I could detail other push factors that many people across gov would probably recognise when trying to do their jobs, things like getting access to the right equipment & assistive technologies, the choice about technology we use and how locked down it is, etc.

However I feel positive those issues will get resolved, it’s important to remember that it’s still early days in the DWP ‘transformation’ journey and that things move very slow when dealing with such scale but if the people still there #keepgoing with collective small practical actions then I’m confident these things will change.

However for myself, a great opportunity came along in the meantime which leads me on to the pull and what’s next.

I’m joining Well Digital

‘Well’ is the UK’s largest independent pharmacy chain, and the third largest overall, employing over 7,000 people with over 750 pharmacies across the country.

What will I be doing?

I’ll be working with Dan Sheldon and Chris Ellett, as part of what is effectively the founding team of a digital start-up within Well.

I will be helping to shape their principles, priorities and design approach, I’m excited that my day-to-day will include things like:

Chris, Dan and the team have already got started and have been working in the open by blogging their work. Please follow along and get in touch if you want to know more.

Thank you,
- Paul

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