Week #46 at the Digital Service: Notes for 13–17 March 2023

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A framed poster of the German government’s Service Standard on a wall, listing at least 16 points; a big caption on top says in German: “User-centricity is the key principle when digitalising administration”

Colleagues spotted and commented on the Service Standard poster I put up on our 4th-floor level last week. The empty frame the landlord had placed there bothered me for some time. It was time to fill it with something timely.

This poster differs slightly from the original one the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community created in the summer of 2020. I added a quote from the Ministry’s introduction website and put it right in the centre: “User-centricity is the leading principle when digitalising administration”. Related to our cross-discipline objectives and key results (OKRs), I am working towards embracing the Service Standard holistically at Digital Service. If other people are interested in this new poster version, they can download it from our public documents GitHub repository.

Doing bits and bobs

This week was reasonably fragmented, but that was okay. It instead meant making little progress in various areas.

I joined the comms team for an afternoon workshop to ideate and prioritise new features for our organisation’s blog. New features will arrive soon, significantly improving the experience for people with access needs, yet now is a good time to review the blog’s current usage and see how it can be involved. Using Kirby as a CMS, fewer features seem to come built-in than with WordPress. So adding author profiles, categories, a search function, an option to subscribe to new blog posts, and topic overview pages is more catching up with what comes out of the box elsewhere. Those things will make the blog much more usable while the number of blog posts continues to rise beyond 2 to 3 posts per month.

A workshop of another kind was led by Fabian and Sonja on organisational values. After multiple rounds of engagement and co-creation, we are now narrowing down the options and deciding on 5 to 6 values. The work is supposed to be completed in the coming few weeks. We aim at making them broadly applicate and actionable while also being distinct. Inside the extended leadership team, we had a productive discussion and sorted and limited the options. As work on design principles happens in parallel, I need to ensure these fit together and are distinct.

Aiming at sharing work on guiding principles, we had an exchange with the UK Cabinet Office’s Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) on Thursday evening. As part of their Systems Reform programme, they work on frameworks for digital-ready policy and legislation as we do in Germany. The conversation was interesting and friendly. However, I was taken aback by the fact that Big Four consultants effectively do all the work instead of in-house teams. In the past, GDS and CDDO have argued the strongest for multidisciplinary teams of civic servants. It makes me uneasy sharing the work our teams have done here, paid for by taxpayers in Germany, with internationally operating consultants. We know they distil and sell these approaches to governments in other countries – and their taxpayers pay. Having our internal cross-border exchange via international communities of practice feels almost like an antidote to the globally operating consultants with the goal of maximising shareholder value over public value.

This week’s book club session discussed chapters 7 and 8 of ‘Digital Transformation at Scale’. These chapters discussed ‘building credibility’ and ‘winning the arguments’. The first one nicely distinguished digital service teams and innovation units. But it, maybe now naively, recommended to pick a greenfield area for the first service a new digital service team should build. Back in 2018, when the book was written, that may have been legitimate advice. Now, in 2023, and with many people taking a broader service design approach, such a greenfield approach seems extremely rare or non-existent. After our exchange in the book club, my most important question was: How come no single Federal government department in the German government has set up its own digital service team? It’s not that there aren’t services that need building.

With spring around the corner, more social design events in Berlin are scheduled again. The local chapter of the Interaction Design Association IxDA invited for an evening with 3 talks touching on climate considerations to not getting too absorbed in your work. About 120 people joined, and it was nice to see some familiar faces after many years abroad. The following evening, a much more intimate service design leads dinner took place, allowing more personal exchange. An attendee told me about their work on the digital certificate wallet for a neighbouring EU country. In a future international community call, I hope we can hear more about this work in that and other countries.

It took us some weeks, but we have a meetup group published: ‘Öffentliches Gestalten – shaping public sector’s future’ is the bilingual title. We will run it as a one-off meetup in the second half of April and then see how much demand there is. Things are still a bit drafty at the moment. In the coming days, we will complete the description, announce the date and add flashy graphics. My partners in crime are Christian and Magda, both engineers, and it’s exciting to kick off a new format that, I believe, Berlin’s community will benefit from.

On Tuesday, in our ‘Design Weekly’ session, I finally launched our ‘About me’ subformat. For almost 50 minutes, I rambled about myself, my life and my work life. At GDS, we had a version of this format, and it allowed us

  • to connect and learn more about the individuals in the design discipline and what shaped them
  • to understand what skills and experiences they have – to better know who to approach regarding a particular topic or issue
  • to equally recognise our commonalities and diversity

So I hope someone from the design team is going to claim the next slot in mid-May to tell something about themselves.

Beyond work responsibilities, I joined for a thesis kick-off. In the coming 3 months, I’ll be the secondary supervisor of a Bachelor thesis on the design of democracy. The student has been a Tech4Germany fellow before and now finishes their studies at my former university. So it will be an honour to advise and guide them. On the way, there will be plenty for me to learn.

What’s next

Next week is #ServicesWeek in the UK Government. I’m massively proud of the many people continuing the format, and it is getting more support than ever from comms colleagues in the Cabinet Office. They picked ‘Designing for uncertain times’ as the theme, and their schedule looks packed.

GDS is running its usual open show and tell, which I plan to join. And in the international community, we are running our 30th call discussing designing services in different languages. We’ll hear about the multilingual work happening in Finland, Switzerland and Wales on Tuesday midday.

On Thursday, I will talk to Druv from the Scottish Government about their current approach to service assurance. Knowing that Scotland has been iterating their approach quite a bit over the last few years, I’m curious to see what they are doing now after they have taken a measured approach, adjusting the assessment to the maturity of the service team.

I hope to find some folks from UK Local Government who can tell me more about the voluntary service assessments they used to run until a few years ago. Coincidentally, a person working in Westminster Council put in time for Monday via my MegaMentor link to talk about adopting the Service Manual.

Otherwise, I’ll spend more time on recruitment-related tasks and interviewing next week.