Early this week I told my manager and my fellow designers at HMRC’s digital delivery arm that I am leaving. I had an offer. It wasn’t the first I have had over the past few months. But this time I wasn’t going to say no. I couldn’t say no. It feels the right time, it feels the right opportunity.
I joined HMRC last July (albeit on a contract until the end of the year), after much nudging from pals and accepting an offer from the then-head of design, Andrew Travers. Time to go as all in as I could. I haven’t regretted that decision or hated my time working at HMRC. Quite the opposite.
At the turn of the year I was saying “no thanks” to chances to go back to being a head of this and a director of that. I was alright just being an interaction designer. I opted to stay on: I opted to stay on as an interaction designer, I opted to stay on away from my family most of the working week. I was even flirting with the idea of applying for the head of digital design role at HMRC after Andrew’s departure, a chance to move sideways back into “management”. (Which I was put off after learning-about-by-seeing the annual reviews. Another story for another time though.) It’s not all a bed of roses at HMRC, but it’s not bad: It’s alright – good stuff to keep doing, other stuff that needs to be done better.
It’s vital to stay grounded, keep perspective. Not too head in the sky, not too head in the sand, not too much head in hands. Once a month I try to make sure I spend time away from the current thing. If I am near somewhere I find interesting I’ll drop them a line. Hi, I am in the neighbourhood, can I pop in, have a chat, even a snoop. More often than not I get a “Sure!”. Some of those places are other bits of gov, some are non-gov. Some times I get an hour or two, other times a full day. These trips give learnings and a sense of perspective. I’m not sure if it’s more working for gov that opens these doors. Or “being you” (as someone once put it). Or both. But those trips are invaluable, and thank you to every one who lets me in.
Recently I had a couple of weeks away from gov. I ended up with some time out-of-contract as HMRC got the paperwork together for me to stay on (another story for another time, as this seems a wider gov thing). So I spent time at a place dedicated to making digital products. Top drawer place, top drawer people, top drawer way they with work with their clients, top drawer how their clients work alongside them. Agile. Talent. Collaboration. Modest, focused MVPs. Getting stuff out there. Flattish structures. Alignment. It was difficult not to reflect on what I was going back to at HMRC. It was a reminder of the ways can be. It was a reminder of the way things are, outside HMRC and inside HMRC.
Here’s the rub: HMRC has come a long way in the past few years. That progress could be viewed as relative within government. And it is getting there also compared to the outside world. But there’s still a long way to go. Change doesn’t happen overnight. This is a behemoth modernising after all. HMRC is having a go, throwing a lot of resource at it (I’d say people and technology, but “resource” is how HMRC views it). But it is getting there, trundling along, in their way. That a government arm can get something together and out there in a few months and keep improving it is a massive leap from the old ways of months and months of gestation before a big bang launch.
But there’s still a way to go. Sometimes it can still feel too much like we are just laying a new gov.uk skin on top of the existing organisational skeleton and nervous system. (Or putting lipstick on pigs, if you will.) With that comes the resistance, the hold backs of legacy structures (be that the people as much as how and what data we can store), and that most civil service of things: people pulling rank because of their grade (which doesn’t equate to making the right decision). The hard is made harder by these. You just can’t cut through them. But it will get there, it has to get there. It will take time. Maybe being another “experienced person” leaving won’t help that, but there’s a point when you just want to get stuff done in one of a number of ways that isn’t the one we are pursuing. And other places are like “We are on with that, we are doing that.” And there’s other people out there who will help HMRC get there. HMRC has to get there. HMRC. Has. To. Get. There.
Because? HMRC does work that does matter. It’s a cliche but spot on. HMRC gathers the funds that are redistributed across government, to services, for people, and to people. It genuinely effects people. For that reason it is hard to leave.
There is also a great team of designers at HMRC – as well as some great researchers, developers, product managers, and scrum masters. Genuinely talented, passionate people that want to make things that work. It will be hardest to leave them behind. There are people there I have enjoyed working alongside, supporting. I wish I could have been able to do more for them. As content as I was being just an interaction designer, that in its own right – as well as being a contractor, as having a role that lacked seniority in a place where job titles mean a lot – reduced the ability to affect change, to even talk with the decision makers.
I am always privileged and proud to be one of the many involved with this work, and will always be thankful to Andrew for letting me in last summer. But it’s the right time to move on and go somewhere that is more in line with what I want to do, how I work and want to work.
There are times when you are asked by people somewhere if you’d work with them – and it’s a case of you just cannot say no. There are some things in life you only say yes to. This time is one of them. I will be joining the nhs.uk team.
There is already a talented team of people working on nhs.uk, a team that isn’t massive. This isn’t about throwing loads and loads of resource at something. It’s about the right people and technology working in the right way for the job, collaboratively. And particularly the management are a part of that team, one foot in, one foot out – not above, pushing into the team, but alongside. Key. Stuff I was reminded of in late March in my “sabbatical”. And above all that the most important thing: This is work for you, being done openly. This is work and ways of working made of the right stuff. A sign of that progressivism is the work they are doing has recently moved into beta.
I believe that more government digital transformation work would benefit from having a wider acceptance of a “start up approach”, runways to instill some “must do”, building a solid core that has value – that works – to the users and getting it out there sooner, and iterating around and on that. And always with user needs driving the service design. It feels there is a lot of that within the nhs.uk team.
It won’t be easy or straightforward, but as I was reminded again a month back when everyone is involved, when everyone – from side to side, from bottom to top of whatever the org structure – is attuned, when everyone is willing, when everyone communicates, talks, understands, it enables you as a team to act as unified collective on what is needed, to get through what is needed faster, and get what is needed out there faster. That I will have the chance to be back in Leeds more doing this work was just a bonus. (It wasn’t a swayer, honest. It is a bonus though. Lunch anyone?)
One thing I want to finish on: This is a great time to help change, especially in government and public services. Whatever your political persuasions making better digitally enabled public services is what we should be doing. You expect it from so many other bodies. You should expect it of the body/bodies that look after our society.
There are so many other bits of gov working on this change. While meeting the government digital by default service standard by putting user needs at the centre of the work is their shared approach, their problems, their environments, their context can be so different. There are so many opportunities to help make things better. Some will be better for some people than others by virtue of the opportunity’s collective chemistry. The choice is there (even if it is you prefer using a PC laptop to a Macbook).
You could be involved too. If you’re talented you should be. We need more talented people doing this work. If you want to help this change and willing to learn you should try as well. Gov is a great place to learn, to be nurtured.
And, especially, if you are a user-centred designer available to work from Newcastle in about four weeks time when I head off. I am sure HMRC would love to hear from you.