GOV.UK Pay project reflections

Photo of a notebook and pen by David Travis on Unsplash

We have now completed the Discovery project, funded by MHCLG Local Digital Fund. It’s been a really interesting thing to work on and there have been some highs and lows along the way. We thought we should finish things off with a blog post about how it went, what we learned and what happens next.

The final report has been submitted to MHCLG, detailing the methods, findings and recommendations so I won’t go into a lot of detail here about the Discovery findings. This post is more about the ins and outs of a collaborative project in local government.

Collaboration

One of the aims of the Local Digital Fund is to encourage council’s to work together to fix common problems. It’s quite difficult for this to happen naturally. Although most councils provide the same functions, there can be big differences in the way each one approaches service delivery and what is the current priority. Another problem for councils is that collaboration often means travelling, which can cost a lot of money in travel expenses and time spent.

The funding provided by MHCLG has helped overcome some of these issues and gave us a chance to experiment with ways to work together. This incentivised collaboration gives us valuable experience in:

  • engaging with stakeholders across large geographical areas
  • creating new relationships with other councils and central government teams
  • using new tools
  • producing shareable outputs

We’ve benefited from all of the above as part of our project. As lead council we’ve seen first-hand how we’ve benefited from the experience. However, we’ve also seen that some difficulties still remain. The funded projects are not our only work and this is true for our partners too. For example, it wasn’t always possible to get everyone together for catch-up calls or show and tells. One of our partner councils had to drop out at an early stage due to other pressures.

It’s been a real privilege to work with the GOV.UK Pay team on this Discovery. They are all lovely people and relentlessly positive! They are so passionate about their product and really user centred in their approach to improving it. Their contribution to the discovery and outputs has been massive and we could not have done it without them.

What we learned

I think it’s fair to say that the agile methodology is ideal for co-located teams, working on a single product or service. Where it became more difficult, for us at least, was that our collaboration was mostly done remotely using technology.

Our first Show and Tell

Some of the traditional Agile ceremonies fell by the wayside to an extent. There was no way we could manage a daily stand-up, given our other commitments and day-to-day work outside of the discovery. As the person acting in a Delivery Manager type role for the project, I feel a bit guilty that we couldn’t maintain weekly stand-ups every week, or have a proper retrospective after each sprint. Sprint planning could have been more structured too. Having said that, we did achieve what we set out to do, in the time we had available, so I won’t beat myself up too much!

Research visit to Barnsley Council

It was so much more enjoyable, and productive those few times we were co-located, e.g. at the kick-off meeting, doing a research visit to Barnsley and meeting up at GDS HQ to discuss outputs.

We used Slack to communicate, Trello to organise, Google Docs to document findings and run presentations, Google Hangouts to have meetings and run show and tells, Google Forms for surveys and YouTube to broadcast. That we got so much done using the remote tools is testament to the quality of (free) collaboration tools, but also the commitment of all the people involved.

You can find our Show and Tells here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLt7xGIZo8hn0w3wMgHuN7HoIeSkAAQbGw. We wrote a blog post about how we did it too, to share the learning!

There were 8 people involved in writing the final report in Google Docs, plus others reviewing and commenting, sometimes all at once. It was a sight to behold and if I’m honest, a little bit stressful at times, but I dread to think how much longer it would have taken to produce as a word document in an email chain!

The key takeaways from our first experience of collaborating with other local and central government organisations are:

  • There is a lot we can learn from each other, given the opportunity
  • We have the tools we need to collaborate remotely, but there is a lot of added value in being in the same room at the same time
  • It can be difficult to maintain momentum without regular contact with all partners, but progress can be rapid when we get it right
  • The Local Digital Innovation Fund has been really effective in kick-starting cross-government collaboration. There are some fascinating outputs coming out of the other funded projects too

What’s next?

We are awaiting feedback from the team administrating the fund at MHCLG on the final report. Hopefully they will be happy with the work we did!

Our Discovery report includes lots of recommendations for how the GOV.UK Pay team will improve their product, to make it better for all its users, including local government. We look forward to seeing them implemented. Some of the other recommendations are around the help that can be provided to local authorities, such as a user group and a library of information. We will help with this if we can.

The potential alpha project involving Barnsley Council’s self-built Income Management System is a really exciting idea. We will be helping organise discussions with local authorities that might be interested in collaborating with Barnsley.

Having enjoyed and benefited from working on this MHCLG funded project, we will be looking at some of the other Discovery project outputs and other problems we might identify, to see if there are other Discovery or Alpha projects to bid for in the next round of funding.

We’ve learned so much from the experience, it would be a shame to miss any good opportunities to continue working in this way.

Finally, thanks to everyone who worked with us on this project.