The problem with “why wouldn’t you…?”

When I was only a year or so past graduation I had an opportunity to help define a new business proposition: finding ways in which malicious insider behaviour could be identified using the data already available to our client.

I distinctly remember the afternoon following our first half-day workshop with the client team in which we’d been figuring out how we could have spotted insider activity based on real historical cases. As I briefed back to my senior manager to show him where we’d got to, he jumped in with a “why wouldn’t you just do X?” question.

His proposal was a good one and I fumbled for a response as to why we hadn’t found that answer. I felt stupid and like I’d wasted my and our client’s time, but was frustrated because what we’d done that morning was collaborative, intellectually rigorous good work. We’d just found a different answer.

It was a form of phrasing often used by this manager and I quickly realised a very poor one. Fast forward to today and I still see this form used inappropriately all the time.

What’s wrong with it?

It’s a lazy and disempowering way to issue an intellectual challenge.

Firstly, it’s a proposal, not a genuine question. Most often in my experience it is meant as “what about doing X?”.

Second, because it’s a proposal, not a question, it can be quite disempowering, particularly from “senior” people. The time for this kind of proposal is before the team have to invested a bunch of work finding their own answer, not afterwards.

Thirdly, it’s aggressive. The framing of the proposition is essentially challenging the responder, in the short time it takes to comprehend the proposal hidden in the question, to find quality arguments against the proposal.

It’s incredibly easy to find yourself making proposals in this way (I certainly do). Should it exist as a tool in your toolbox? Of course, but use it judiciously.

And if you find yourself frustrated and on the receiving end of this kind of “question”, consider doing what I did: learn to spot the question and reframe it, with something like “I don’t know, that’s not what we came up with but I’ll be sure to fold it in to the next discussion”.

Designing for delivery in public services

This post is not about making design fit an organisation.

The public sector often has little choice about what it must deliver – much of the “what” is enshrined in law. It has no choice.

This is a stark quality of building products to meet the needs of citizens. The need for parallel delivery is obvious where new services are being delivered simultaneously (think Welfare Reform Act), also where existing services are being improved.

We have spent time over the last year or so moving towards any one of our teams being able to work on “the next most important feature”. I call these “global priorities”.

However, this is not enough. We must carefully balance how products themselves are described and prioritised to allow some compromise to be made. Where teams are organised around “lines of business”, for example Working Age Benefits, Retirement and Health, this breakdown of products becomes a matter of duty above and beyond the tangible benefits to be had from building a strong affinity between teams and the products they build and run.

What began as a tightly-knit set of empowered people building a service to meet a specific set of needs has grown into the agent for the transformation of a whole government department.

In so doing, we are now finding ways to scale hard things like service design and prioritisation. Succeeding will help us realise the ability for more people to build and evolve brilliant services at an even greater pace. In so doing we really will improve the lives of our users.

They key to this is in understanding how to “scope” products that come together in a user’s journey through a service. Putting too much into this scope will create a bottleneck around those roles in the product team that aren’t easy to scale (product management and UX most notably). Too small and while the product might iterate liberally with all the gusto a small team can throw at it, the overall experience risks becoming disjointed.

If you’re interested in joining the team and putting this into practice – keep your eyes on

As we expand, we’re recruiting across most roles in Leeds, Manchester and London, including into the Burbank team in Leeds.

We could all be a bit more like Aethelflaed – come and celebrate Women in Digital this Wednesday

Last year's event

Two days to go until our Women in Digital event!

I’m very excited about Wednesday – we’re hosting another Women in Digital event in my home town of Leeds.

Last year’s event made a big splash. The women I work with every day came back energised, optimistic and boasting a new and strong professional network. The event itself became a bit of a springboard for leaders at DWP (and in digital in general) to channel the surging energy of the year’s historic events and movements such as #TimesUp,  #MeToo and the statutory requirement for large organisations to make public their gender pay gap.

I am so incredibly proud of how boldly, clearly and loudly the voices of some of those who attended last year have been heard. Many have become successful role models for women with a career in digital, helping in turn these women to be role models.

And since then, the equality narrative has evolved. What had been at its core a debate about equality between two genders (men and women) has now turned into something with even bigger consequences.

There is still so much to do

Women are still the largest single group on the wrong side of the pay gap. However, this is not true when it comes to things like ‘covering’ at work, where it is the group made up of LGBTQ people who are most affected. See this excellent report from Deloitte University in the USA from 2013 for more.

This year the event will expand its horizon towards tackling an (even) bigger challenge. Perhaps it can be summarised with the question “what if by working towards equality for all genders, we can also work to a more inclusive and effective workplace for everyone?”

The challenges ahead of us – successfully delivering Brexit, delivering critical government services that meet citizens’ heightened expectations, responding to an economy being reshaped by technological advances such as Artificial Intelligence (the “fourth industrial revolution”) – mean that we need to nurture leaders who can lead across boundaries more than ever, and find ways to build inclusive environments in which people can bring all of themselves to bear to the benefit of us all.

Leading across boundaries

This week I learned about the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. 1,100 years ago she led across boundaries to great effect. It would be a crying shame, but not a surprise, if you too hadn’t come across her story – I’d encourage you to read some of it here.

In these times of great opportunity and challenge, in this month of Pride and with a spirit of excited optimism, I’ll be thinking this week of how we can all channel a bit of Aethelflaed. See you on Wednesday!


2017 review: A year of Burbank

To my brilliant team (and forgive me this indulgence),

A year ago you were not one team – you were disparate parts of the wider DWP picture. Parts of what is now Burbank were already together and some of you were working in completely different parts of the department. Some of you weren’t even working in government.

Since then, you’ve come together and blown me and everyone else away. Two new, operationally critical services have been born and have gone live and our data analytics platform has evolved from being a bit flakey into something hundreds of users and operations managers rely on every day. You’re making a difference to DWP’s bottom line. And more importantly you’re making a real difference to it’s users.

But against this backdrop of hard work, I hope the achievement you’re most proud of is the way you’ve formed and evolved as a team. We use the word “capability” a lot, but it really is a fit term for Burbank. From a standing start you have jelled into a “capability” bringing together people, tools and shared experience in a way that any agency would be proud of (and profitable because of!).

As we head into 2018 there are some big challenges ahead. Universal Credit is more important than ever. So is the need to make judicious use of our people and technology to meaningfully transform how government operates. No one strikes these balances as well as you do.

You stand on the front line, in terms of Digital Group, but more importantly in terms of DWP.

Over the next 12 months there will be forks in the road. Whichever directions you (we) choose, what is most important is that we carry forward the best of what we’ve learned and built over the past year: our respect and support of each other; our openness to share; our humility; and the sense of safety that this all brings. As long as I or any of you are working together, stepping up, sticking your neck out or plainly speaking your mind will be valued. Cherish this and uphold it for others.


Ethics on the ground 

I had the privilege to speak about “agile data” at an event last week. Alongside me in the lineup were the CEO of, an internet of things energy company servicing the African market, and a senior technologist from a leading car manufacturer. 

Each talk provoked discussion and it was great to see people in the audience really getting their heads around the wider issues being discussed, particularly when it came to ethics. 

Two of the talks touched on data sharing and data collection (and retention) infrastructure and it was genuinely reassuring to see audience members – practitioners – questioning the ethical framework within which these projects sit from at least two perspectives: “is it ethical to do that?” and “is it ethical to not do that?”

It’s all very well having CEOs, university professors and politicians calling out sociological and ethical implications of technology (think Musk and Hawking on the potential dangers of AI development), but having it thought about and having opinions form at the working level is what will really make the difference. Bravo. 

A Solid start to protecting data freedom in the age of the information giants

Not long after I’d written Carbon Paper for Personal Data, I was fortunate to be able to attend a livecast at ODI Leeds of the truly inspiring Sir Tim Berners Lee talking about the evolution of the web. He talked about the growth of the internet giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon in particular) and how the web had changed from a grassroots information publishing movement into something quite different.

He said that one quality of today’s use of the web is that user freedom is hurt because we (users) trade it for convenience. In return, the internet giants get to make us the product and sell our attention to the highest bidder.

I’m worried about the risk giants pose to users’ freedoms. Discussions on “freedoms” can quickly become vague so I’m going to try and use this series to clarify what I mean by showing what protecting these freedoms feels like.

By “freedom” in this context, I mean the freedom to switch information service provider and to control what information I share with each service. This matters because in a market (unlike a functioning democracy) the only real power users have is the power to choose to use a competitor.

If “absolute power corrupts absolutely” isn’t enough take a look at the excellent information here from 2015 by Mozilla’s Mark Surman, particularly the bits about Android, Facebook and WhatsApp.

So as well as adding my voice to the growing number who feel as though the noose is slowly tightening, I’m going to put some effort into trying to walk another path, a path where “we the people” are back in control. Tim Berners Lee founded Solid to try and give people the tools to build services differently and it is with this toolkit that I’d like to begin experimenting.

I believe that the only way this kind of thing will really make sense to people is if we can find a real set of services that, by using them, make users see the world completely differently – just like iPhone made people completely change how they saw a collection of technologies that was mostly already available to them.

In my mind the biggest barrier to avoiding the risk of internet giants abusing their power over us is that we’ve not yet found a way to give people a sense of the freedom they risk losing. There is no concept of a “mobile app” and the world is just SMS and phone calls.

Stay tuned for more, folks, or even better, if this has clicked with you, get in touch via Twitter and we can change the world together.

Training Otis – recall and walking on the lead

Two weeks ago we adopted a Romanian rescue dog (newly) called Otis. What a brilliant start to his time with us.

We’ve been working really hard on his training and specifically recalling him to us and lead walking.

For anyone thinking of going through this: be sure you’re confident in what you’re doing, put the hours in and go for it. Seeing the improvement from an afraid untrained dog into a well (better…) behaved happy pet is heartwarming.

One of our first challenges was teaching him his name. We did this by associating his name with getting treats, then slowly reversing the association – calling his name gets him a treat if he looks towards us.

Next was getting him to accept having a lead on – something that we don’t think he was particularly used to. To do this, we taught him that it was in fact a trick – “insert snout”!


Once he was really sure he was called Otis we started to develop his recall. Starting just a couple of metres away, calling his name and rewarding him when he walked up to us. We then used a long line to get him used to doing the same at greater distances and outdoors. Lots of intense effort resulted in fast progress – these next two videos are only two days apart!

Finally, now his confidence is higher we’ve spent the past week or so building up some discipline about how he walks to stop him dragging us all over the place when we walk him.

In this I’m building on the heel work and lead walking that we’ve been doing while on our way to the park. I’m aiming for him to walk nicely next to me, regularly looking up to see what I want him to do next.

To help with this, I’m still making some noises at him to get him to look up, then rewarding the look. Soon I’ll stop doing this and only reward when he looks of his own accord.

Stay tuned for more pupdates!