Week #61 at the Digital Service: Notes for 26–30 June 2023

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A big framed poster with various graphs and a big headline standing against a wall – it reads: 937 days at Digital Service

This week was the last of Philipp, who served as DigitalService’s Chief Operating Officer and Co-Managing Director. A few days earlier, we had a farewell event where he received the framed poster.

Building on GDS’s history of well-designed personal leaving gifts, our designer Robin created a poster with data and graphs illustrating some of Philipp’s achievements, building on our organisational KPI dashboard data.

I’m beyond the moment of surprise and loss and now just grateful for what Philipp did and impressed by what he achieved in the last 2.5 years. He built a unique team, culture and value system at DigitalService – unique in the German public and might be hard to match in the private sector, too.

Without any intention to return to Germany, the conversations with Philipp at the end of 2021 intrigued me and made me leave my beloved UK GovDesign community. From the moment of arrival, Philipp gave me enormous space, liberty and support to figure out what the user-centred design discipline is, needs to be and should evolve into. And I learned quite a few things from experiencing his humble, pragmatic, people-centred, impact-focused leadership style.

Working with the Service Standard

As obvious as it sounds, we are actively working with the Service Standard. It had turned 3 over the previous weekend, so I initiated more conversations around it and its application. To some surprise, no one I contacted so far seems to be actively using it or have used it with some level of more profound attention or rigour. I hope I just missed some essential people and will meet them soon.

The improved format for our Service Standard reports is now with our developers. I hope to see a draft early in the coming week, and the enhanced reports up soon, in conjunction with the third report scheduled for about 1 week.

In the coming days, I hope to speak to members of digital teams, their seniors, in-house consultants and digital educators trainers in German government.

Bringing people to talk to each other across silos

This week, Sonja took over a pre and sub-format for the user-centred design community as part of NExT. After inviting user researchers from across the German public sector last month, Sonja saw the need to turn it into a monthly format.

So this Tuesday, 8 of us from 4 different organisations came together to discuss user research participant engagement. How do we find users and get them to participate in research? What are best practices and barriers? We all quickly recognised some patterns and soon ran out of time. We plan to continue with operational topics next month and want to discuss tooling.

Towards the end of our 1-hour session, we touched on creating a fertile ground for user research to get valued, prioritised and supported. At the risk of sounding like a broken record or offering just a single item on a word bingo card, utilising the Service Standard can generate some necessary humus for user research to prosper.

While it will be too early to discuss the Service Standard in the kick-off of our NExT community next week, it should be an autumn topic and important focus point for autumn.

The inaugural edition is nicely coming together with prospective 5 short talks, discussions and short workshops in a 2.5 hours block. My co-runner Maria and I will keep it short and fast so that people get a broad idea of what design in the public sector currently looks like and want to come back for more with deeper theme exploration after summer. We have no idea how many sign-ups there are and how popular or not the session might be. So we will need to prepare for small and large groups.

At the same time, we are not slowing down on the international side. After our Creative Bureaucracy Festival activities 2 weeks ago, Kara and I ran the second community call on designing digital certificates and wallets. We heard from 3 subject matter experts on Thursday and have a somewhat better idea of how much European collaboration happens in the space, how technology still gets prioritised over any user experience in EU context and what the service integration in other countries looks like.

In the coming months, I want to get closer to topics and speakers focusing on the doing. That could be particular service areas like taxes, design tooling, or a team’s view on accessibility. We also want to hear more about community approaches in other countries, most notably Japan.

Having some good design moments

Otherwise, I had some moments of observing good design happening and discussing design. Dirk and Nadine spent a few days in our second-floor kitchen area co-designing improved interfaces that handle very long laws. It’s part of their work on the new legal information system, which includes tools for the employees of the documentation centres of the federal courts. They worked with paper, scissors and glue to prototype improved interaction mechanisms for themselves – through thinking by making – and to discuss them with their internal users and stakeholders next week.

On Friday afternoon, I went to Potsdam, just outside of Berlin, where I started studying design 20 years ago, to join the celebration of 20 years of interface design at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences. Almost 100 people – students, staff and alums – came together to discuss the discipline’s past, present and future in talks, discussions and workshops. After 4 hours of the scheduled programme, chats continued long after midnight, and I had my best alum experience so far. In the structured workshops, we touched on the social responsibility of designers in a changed world, how methods and creativity support or block each other, what the role of design and designers in an AI-supported environment is and what a future-proof curriculum must include.

What’s next

I hope to finish a blog post about the community work we do, work on more community autumn formats and make our design community kick-off a success.

I hope I will have time to sketch a theory of change for a broader adoption of the Service Standard. I have various thoughts and ideas but need some time to put them together.