Week #31 at the Digital Service: Notes for 28 November–2 December

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A group of people of different skin tones sitting around a larger table in a modern office space with glass and concrete, a projected slide behind them says: “Digital Service — Transforming government and its services”; some people wear office casual clothes, other contemporary Arabic clothes with headscarves
Photo: Angelika Pelz

This was a seriously packed week. We finished it with a long workshop on digital transformation challenges with a department on Friday 6 pm.

Over the years, we heard senior officials stating that Germany has no problem realising there is one but doing something about it. Describing the underlying issues doesn’t make them go away. And all too often, implementation is too far out of reach. So we spoke about the various ways we could address that more structurally and systematically.

As GPTchat went viral this weekend, I asked a few obvious questions. GPT is short for ‘Generative Pre-trained Transformer’, a neural network machine learning model trained using internet data to generate any type of text.

When I asked how to improve digital public services in a federated country like Germany, it mentioned technology infrastructure, better user experience of government services through user-centred design, and solid standards and guidelines. The generated response shows how well ‘our’ way of thinking is spread across the internet – even though it might not be practically applied in many regions of the world.

Running training, workshops, and discussions

This week included several interactive sessions.

Sabrina and I started the week with our first local edition of the ‘Introduction to Service Design’ training. Then, over the last few weeks, we made various adaptations to the UK version I co-ran last in August 2021.

The overall structure changed very little, but we contextualised various sections and updated the exercise sheets. We also had a good exchange with Clara and Ignacia, who recently ran a version of the training in the UK. The tried-and-tested training still shows people what a service is, what service design is, what the related approach looks like, and why.

We had the chance to use the space of the Federal government’s Digitalakademie with an ideal cabaret-style setting for the dozen participants. Unfortunately, not everyone could make it, so we will likely run it a second time in early 2023. Colleagues also asked us about opening it up to project partners from ministries. So far, we are a little hesitant. Also, we worry we’d have to translate the training into German.

On Tuesday, I offered a try-run of the new obligatory accessibility onboarding. To keep me going, I scheduled only 45 minutes, which mostly worked for the 4 test participants representing design, engineering and product. The training will be offered to colleagues from all backgrounds, including finance, communications and legal. Despite the generally positive feedback, the training must become more interactive. Building on the work of my former colleague AC, it includes a short exercise, but there could be more of it to make the importance of accessibility experienceable.

Immediately following that session, senior product manager Debbie, chief of staff Sonja, and I ran a lunch and learn gathering on the service standard. Having led the GOV.UK Service Standard and Service Manual team before, the topic remains highly important and personal to me.

In the session, we promised to take a closer look at the service standard developed and issued by the Ministry of the Interior in the summer of 2020. The 3 of us all shared our lenses on the subject and covered the following:

  • What the service standard is
  • How it came about and what role the DigitalService played in the past 2.5 years
  • Why the service standard is a powerful and helpful tool
  • What it says and how to use it practically
  • How teams at DigitalService can benefit from utilising the service standard 

This will not be the last session on the topic, and we talked to teams shortly after about how they can fully adopt the standard. For early next year, we discussed a blog post about how teams at DigitalService have been using it so far and plan to use it going forward.

On Thursday, I attended an advisory board session for the forthcoming Berlin.de redesign I got invited to on short notice. The website contains all state government services and various campaign pages. Recapping the work done since September 2019, the in-house team at BerlinOnline, a state-owned company, shared some convincing work. They set up a new design system and framework to restructure content, started training editors, and launched a few pages following the new design. The impressive thing is: They built a core user group and invested in accessibility right from the beginning. Users with impairments and accessibility specialists have contributed to it over the last months and years. Beyond this session, I’m curious to learn more about the work and do a team visit. 

Lastly, on Friday morning, we welcomed a delegation from Egypt, who came with an intriguing question: “How to build a citizen engagement lab?”. Together with my colleagues Charlotte, Christian, Haytham and Magdalena, representing design, engineering and product, we threw possibly helpful suggestions on them. Not understanding their circumstances and setup in enough detail makes it tricky to make any contextually relevant proposals. After 2 hours of exchange, they appeared at least somewhat satisfied – and suggested we visit them.

What’s next

Our weekly design team gatherings are relatively short, at 50 minutes. So there is always too little time for a more profound exchange. So on Tuesday, we’ll get together to zoom out, review the work done this year and check the latest design principles draft a small group has been working on for the last weeks.