Local Digital
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Local Digital

Meet the Local Digital team: Rachel Downs, Senior Product Manager

In our latest blog series, we’re shining a spotlight on different members of the Local Digital team to showcase just some of the incredible expertise and hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

In our first issue, Senior Product Manager Rachel Downs tells us about her role in driving forward Local Digital’s work to improve the cyber health and resilience of councils.

I’ve been working as a Senior Product Manager on our cyber security workstream for over a year now, having joined the Local Digital team in 2021. As a product manager with experience working in cyber resilience, when the opportunity came to combine those things it seemed like too perfect an opportunity to miss!

My journey to becoming a product manager

I’ve been a civil servant for five years and before that worked for Apple in various roles including sales, training and technical support. My first civil service role was at the Ministry of Defence as a business manager, and I later joined DLUHC’s Resilience and Emergencies Division (RED) during the planning period for exiting the European Union.

I did a brief stint as a cyber resilience advisor before COVID-19 hit, and took on various roles in the department’s COVID-19 operations centre during the height of the pandemic.

The operations centre underwent a digital transformation programme during this time to meet the needs of the pandemic response. This included swapping out email-based communication with a digital ticketing system to better cope with thousands of emails every day. This was the start of my product management journey, as I took on the challenge of making sure the new system met user needs and continued to be improved over time.

Applying my experience to local government cyber security

Working closely with councils during emergencies has helped me understand the importance of coordination and good working relationships between central and local government, particularly when it comes to solving challenging problems under pressure.

In my current role, I’m the product owner for the Local Digital Cyber Support programme, which provides urgent technical support and funding to councils to help them remediate their highest priority cyber risks. The programme has so far provided over £13m in grant funding and personalised cyber technical advice to around 120 councils, and we’re about to onboard a final cohort of councils to receive this support.

Rachel workshopping solutions to cyber challenges at our Local Digital Roadshow

Supporting councils to improve their cyber health

I’m also working on a longer-term project to improve the cyber health of councils through a cyber assessment framework (CAF) for local government, which is currently entering a pilot phase.

The biggest challenge is creating long-term, sustainable change. It’s easy to spend lots of money sticking plasters on cyber security issues, but a real transformation in the way we think about cyber security and digital change together is needed to make sure councils are ready to deliver the secure and resilient public services of the future.

There’s no standing still in cyber — the threat and methods of attack are constantly adapting so we have to as well!

Putting users at the heart of product management

As a product manager you quite often start out not knowing a lot about the problem you’re working on, and I really enjoy conducting research with users to understand the challenges they face and how we might be able to conquer them together.

Getting to know your users really well helps you build something of value, and I love getting feedback when we’ve solved a tricky problem or delivered an excellent service.

I’ve recently been working to upskill myself in some of the more practical elements of cyber security in order to better understand the users of Local Digital products and services. I also wanted to be able to communicate better with cyber security professionals in councils and across government, as well as the external suppliers we use to deliver this work. This has led me to discovering an unexpected interest in the technical side of cyber and a slight obsession with collecting certificates and badges as I work through various courses!

Rachel gathering feedback from cyber experts in local government

My advice for anyone interested in a government cyber career

Cyber security is a rapidly growing field and there are loads of opportunities out there for people from non-technical and IT backgrounds alike. There’s a shortage of skills, and lots of work is being done across the industry to address this, which means there are tons of free resources and training opportunities available to get started or retrain for a role in cyber security.

Roles in both central and local government can be really rewarding, as you are involved in protecting key systems that keep the country running and keep citizens safe. And you don’t need to be technical at all — roles in digital (like product management), data, governance, risk, compliance, project management, legal and communications are all needed to keep essential services online.

Useful resources:

Follow our work

The Local Digital team works in the open, and you can read more about the work we do and follow our progress on Twitter, LinkedIn, Sprint Notes, the DLUHC Digital Blog or our fortnightly newsletter. You can also connect with Rachel on LinkedIn.

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Local Digital

Local Digital

The Local Digital team is part of the UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. Read more about our work: https://www.localdigital.gov.uk.