Week #77 at the Digital Service: Notes for 16–20 October 2023

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Two middle-aged white men in casual attire in front of a wall with the logo of the German federal ministry of digital and transport – both are smiling into the camera

Big digital projects need accountability and good scrutiny. Running them as secretive waterfall projects makes them prone to fail. We know that for decades – from the Chaos Reports and other studies – and from plenty of publicly reported and documented cases of failed IT projects.

The German government has an external advisory council for the task of applying scrutiny to its digital strategy – launched in the summer of 2022. Every month, the 19-people advisory council – with experts from academia, industry, and civic society – gets together to review 2 of the digital strategy’s lighthouse projects. It’s part of a healthy democratic review process set up by Minister Volker Wissing. For some time, the advisory council has been publicly critical of the implementation of the strategy and some projects.

So when we were given a slot with the council to share progress on the lighthouse project DigitalService is working on, naturally, we were a bit nervous and full of respect.

Together with our ministerial colleagues, my colleague Nico, a product manager, and I went to the Federal Ministry of Digital and Transport to tell and show how we work on the ‘file a civil court action’ service with the Federal Ministry of Justice. We were ready to answer some critical questions

We talked about the pain points of users, the complexities of the stretched justice system, and how we work in an iterative way to address the challenges one by one. Nico demonstrated the latest alpha version of the service live from the staging environment, and I highlighted why it’s crucial we follow the Service Standard to get things right.

In the session, council members responded positively to seeing a live service demo with a clear structure and plain language. They asked many questions, made comments, and proposed ideas. And we left with plenty of notes to follow up on.

I left in gratitude – being able to represent our team’s work and receiving some high-quality feedback. The feedback will also be helpful to play back to stakeholders in the ministry for them to see the value of the back-and-forth content design work and the various rounds of iteration they have to endure.

Bringing all delivery disciplines together

On Thursday, we ran our 2023 Delivery Offsite. During the days leading up to it, I worked with the other heads of disciplines to prepare for the event. It’s been 10 months since the last one, and it was about time to do one again.

Since December 2022, the delivery disciplines have grown by just over 50%. 31 people joined us this year, making it 92 people in total. Software engineering and transformation management saw the biggest growth, with 12 and 10 people, respectively. The change in design & user research and product management was more modest, adding 5 and 4 people.

Head of Engineering Christian managed to get some further numbers from the recruitment team. In the past 10 months, we collectively interviewed 187 candidates and did 550 interviews that led to 31 hires.

A woman with light skin and short hair in a striped wool jumper holding a microphone while standing on a stage with lecturn with a computer next to her, a slide is projected big behind her saying “Hello”

Stephanie, our Chief Product Officer, went through some more numbers that capture where we are:

  • 3 live projects
  • 1 project soon to be go live
  • 2 projects in the initiation phase
  • 3 new contracts referencing the Service Standard
  • 3 public meetups organised
  • 1 cabinet decision mentioning iterative development and DigitalService
  • 2,200 production deployments
  • 6,000 deployments
  • ∅ 18 minutes deployment time from local machine to production
  • 177 research participants
  • 150 million page views on our property declaration service

Also, 8 babies were born during that time. And 3 more babies are on the way.

The goal for the day was to have a vivid exchange between
disciplines – across projects. To break the ice, Jutta facilitated a mad tea conversation from the Liberating Structures library. It got people to talk about what got them to join the organisation and how to do things better.

A woman with light skin and short hair standing on a stage holding a microphone looking at 2 dozen people in casual clothes who are talking to each other in pairs

We continued with an un-conference in 2 rounds, discussing 12 different topics in small breakout groups. Like last year, the topics ranged from in-team subjects to cross-organisational matters. One group discussed resilience, another the role of developers in discovery, and a third how we keep our culture and not turn into a government agency.

After lunch, instead of a slump, the different teams did their peak presentation with a mostly slide-less show & tell. Teams got wonderfully creative by acting out their service setup, running a quiz, or facilitating an in-space-move-around survey.

As a final activity, we asked teams to sketch a new agile wall for themselves. As Digital Service is an organisation created during the pandemic, agile team walls never existed. Every bit of information lives on Asana, Confluence, JIRA or Miro. We wondered, and some people asked, what an agile wall looks like in a partly remote and hybrid team setup.

I briefly went through some wisdom from the ‘Setup a team wall’ Service Manual guidance and left people with the question: “What does your team’s agile wall look like when you only use it once a week?” The teams returned an hour later with the most diverse sketches of wall types.

A pile of colourful round stickers with shiny reflective foil saying: “DELIVERY OFFSITE 2023 – THE YEAR OF CLARITY”

For the event, I also had the chance to do some rare hands-on design work. The cheerful event branding manifested in slides with moving colour clouds and stickers for people to remember the day’s spirit.

It’s important we pay attention and take care of these get-togethers and exchange formats. Especially when work is challenging, having a well-planned day in good spirits can feel like a recharge. That’s the feedback we received after the event, and I hope it has a longer-lasting effect.

What’s next

Next week’s calendar is a little less packed. And I am glad about it. It leaves space to think and do – proactively.

I will help Charlotte with her upcoming TEDx talk on ‘Designing good public services that work for everyone’.

With Kara and Viktoria, I need to make some progress on the international community events. We need a weekly cadence now, building up to our remote 24-hour conference at the end of November. Viktoria is joining our international organising team, which will significantly help. She has been working as a content designer in HM Courts and Tribunal services since she left GDS. A small group of 3 with a shared history but placed in different organisations is the ideal setup for the work we are doing.

More talks and community events are on the horizon. We also plan the next local Berlin meetup and NExT user-centred design call.