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A foot in the Digital Front Door: expanding digital thinking in policy-making

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Policy design

post-it notes laid out on a table, with two people's hands visible adding some new notes

In this post, Greg Winfield, Head of User-Centred Policy Design at DLUHC, talks about how adding user-centred design support at the spend control gateway spreads digital thinking across policy-making. 

Hooks, levers and the D word  

Within DLUHC Digital our strategy is focused on further embedding digital thinking into the wider policy work of the department. Our Digital Front Door team (DFD) is a key part of this ambition, accelerating the spread of digital thinking through active, appreciative and supportive engagement with policy teams who are new to the digital world. 

What I mean by ‘digital’ 

Before I go on, it’s important to note I’m talking about digital in its broader sense here – not just the practical delivery of digital products but going about work in a way that is nimble, iterative and user-centred, making it applicable to the policy space whether or not that policy may have an obvious digital delivery method. 

The DFD team 

a diagram showing the different stages in the digital spend approval process - from pre-discovery to pre-beta

At its core, DFD is a team you must talk to if you’re planning some digital spend. It’s a key sign-off point. This creates a helpful hook. It means that a conversation begins between digital and policy colleagues that may never have happened otherwise. The spend control lever means that there is also a means of controlling how the delivery of the digital work progresses. There are gateways where assurance can take place (including assessments against the Service Standard) so we can steer anything that might be going off track. So far so procedural.  

It would be possible to leave it there and for helpful stuff to happen. However, assurance can be a conversation, and the DFD team is set up to do so much more with that opportunity to talk. We fully unpack pieces of work that come our way, taking them back to the key aspects of problem, intent and user need. Stepping outside our purely digital box, this highlights a relevance of digital thinking in wider policy work. But doing this right requires something a bit special. 

People, pillars, and policy 

DFD is not a transactional conveyor for digital projects. It’s a foot in the door that creates a wide-ranging conversation on the benefits of digital thinking and supports teams on taking that forward in their wider work. To do this well requires – amongst other things – legitimacy and people skills. Luckily, the team is hugely diverse in its experience – full of skills in product management, content design, service assessments, delivery management, user research, service design and more. It’s also a group who embrace (and dare I say it, enjoy) the opportunity to talk digital with anyone who’ll listen (and even those that will not). There are some key pillars of how the team think and work that make these interactions hugely valuable in the wider mission of spreading digital thinking: 

We are realistic 

Having worked in or with policy teams, we understand the pressures they face and we consider each project independently in terms of what is possible. As we push towards change, we strike the balance between pragmatism and idealism, appreciating that learning new ways of working is not an overnight change. 

We support and guide  

We help navigate. We hand-hold if needed. We support not just those who are engaging directly with us but their seniors and stakeholders too. We translate and mediate, particularly with external digital experts who come in to deliver with the policy team. We are there for informal chats when stuff does not make sense. We contribute to business cases and we help recruit digital people as things progress. We create trust. 

We network  

We sit at a sweet spot that allows us not just to promote the reuse of practical assets but share learning and create support relationships too. We know what’s going on across the department, so we put colleagues in touch with others who have experienced similar digital journeys so that a peer network is created for both the shorter and longer term.  

We collaborate  

We leverage the diversity and experience of the DFD team itself by coming together frequently to share what we are working on and consider different ways to approach problems. We support each other when the work gets difficult.  

We empower  

We do not lead the projects that come to us. We prompt, steer and assure to build skills and confidence in the policy team so they can take a digital approach forward in future work. We can step in if needed, but the approach of the previous 4 points means we will be required to do this less and less as digital awareness grows. 

Going beyond digital 

DFD has grown significantly in the last year, but it will never be large enough to be hands-on in every project. This is ok, as we do not want to be. We are working towards a model where digital ‘franchises’ emerge within various parts of the department, embedding the skills and ethos that we are trying to drive forward. Our role is to develop at the earlier stages and create this pipeline of new skills and enthusiasm, meaning more franchises pop up and the momentum increases.  

At the same time, the multiplier effect of more policy colleagues telling their other policy colleagues about their good experience amplifies the message and its reach, furthering the strategic goal.  

There is still more to do to embed digital thinking earlier in the policy making process, and we are working on innovative ways to do that. Breaking the perception of digital as a tool to deliver policy and instead embedding digital as a tool to create more effective policy is a key challenge that will take time.  However, with the core team of skilled and passionate advocates in DFD we have strong foundations that our pillars can build upon. 

Subscribe to our blog for the latest updates from the team or visit our careers page if you're interested in working with us. 

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  1. Comment by anonymouse posted on

    From my experience working as a service designer in government, I'd like to share two problems I've found with describing this agile, iterative way of working as 'digital':
    - Despite many efforts, including this blog, trying to change the prevailing meaning of word 'digital' isn't helpful. I'd advocate for saying what we actually mean (in plain english if you will) ie. an agile, iterative and user-centred way of working. Better to say what we actually mean than confuse people and conflate meaning.
    - As a service designer working in government (and with plenty of experience designing services outside of government), I find it incredibly frustrating that we so often overlook the value of investing the human touchpoints (people) alongside the digital ones, often to the detriment of the user experience and the policy outcomes we're aiming for. I wonder whether the misuse of the word 'digital' (previous point) might contribute to this.

    As a service designer I do not identify with a 'digital way of working'. I don't just work in 'digital ways' and I find the persistent misuse of this language in in government really irritating and unhelpful.

    I also feel more focus is needed on creating the data ecosystem and trust frameworks (within and beyond government) that underpin delivery of really joined up digital services.

    Here's another example of this problem:

    • Replies to anonymouse>

      Comment by Greg Winfield posted on

      Hello. Many thanks for your thoughts.

      I do agree that ‘digital’ is a problematic term. As you note, the fact that it needs defining and explaining in a this blog illustrates that point.

      However, when we think about that often-referenced Tom Loosemore quote that is in the DEFRA blog you linked to, the logic of this shorthand term for a way of working begins to make more sense. Perhaps a plain English approach would be better but perhaps ‘Digital’ becoming accepted as this shorthand speaks to the growing impact of ‘internet era’ approaches on our wider lives.

      I would say that my experience of human-centred, iterative activity in DLUHC is that it very much appreciates the value of human touchpoints as well as the digital ones. Any umbrella term which encompasses a lot outside it’s headline meaning will always make people uncomfortable. However, perhaps the growth of digital working in government allows human centred, iterative activity to gain wider access and acceptance, allowing the principles of the approach to create the best outcomes for more people, whether interacting digitally or not.


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