ONS @ Civil Servants Showcase

The ONS visited Civil Service Live last week (Weds 29th June in Coventry) where we presented as part of the “Civil Servant’s Showcase: an audience with Sir Jeremy Heywood” session.

Here’s the synopsis of the session:

Do you want to hear about some of the ground-breaking, ambitious or simply excellent work that civil servants have been involved in over the past year and learn from some best-practice projects?

Come along to this session to hear teams and individuals from across the Civil Service showcasing their work in an audience with the Head of the Civil Service. In this quick-fire session, four teams will be given eight minutes each to give an overview of their work before a two-minute question and answer session with Sir Jeremy Heywood.

We hope that you’ll leave the session inspired to think differently about how you might approach your work, and with a greater appreciation of the sheer breadth and variety of work that goes on in Her Majesty’s Government.

We were one of the four teams from across the Civil Service, representing online collection at the ONS; I wanted to share the slides and narrative we presented.


Presentation slide with ONS logo and the title "Online Collection"

The ONS is the UK’s largest provider of official statistics; you may not of heard of us but I’m pretty sure you will have heard of some of our statistics – GDP, RPI and of course we run the Census. In order to do this we need to to collect huge amounts of data from the public via surveys.

Until recently this was via paper forms posted out, scanned and processed on their return – a not insignificant amount of paper, postage and burden on our users. But now, in a very short space of time, we have enabled the public to provide some of this data online.

We thought we’d share some pearls of wisdom with you today about how we had achieved this success; we thought what three words sum it all up for us…


Presentation slide with ONS logo and speech bubble with the word "Together" inside.

According to Henry Ford:

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

For us the “Coming together” had to include our users as a key part of our team. Anyone involved in a Government delivery will be familiar with the GDS Design Principle of “Start with needs – user needs not government needs” – without a true understanding of what it’s like to be a user of a service we run the very strong risk of building an Aston Martin, when actually the user can’t even drive! So we carried out a variety of research with users, walking in their shoes, understanding their pain.

“Keeping together” was all about looking at our own capabilities and skills, asking did we have what we needed? It would have been easy to dismiss our existing people’s skills as behind the times, but that would have been a huge mistake – our people have vast amounts of knowledge about our users built over years of dedicated service.

So, we knew it made sense to harness that knowledge and supplement it with some additional skills, so we partnered with an external company to get the balance right. We were aiming for the best mix of experience and innovation that allowed opportunity for our existing people to learn and grow, to become more multi-skilled.

As you’d expect, it wasn’t always easy – people needed to be coaxed, cajoled and bribed with cake (lots of cake!) – but they took the leap of faith that we asked them to – remarkable when you think of the diversity of the team – we have everything from Civil Servants with 30+ years service to 3rd party partners with just a few weeks at ONS under their belts.

But the effort and cake baking was all worth it. We all know more than when we started, are all a little less scared of future changes. In fact we now positively relish the challenges ahead – because we know we will face them working Together.


Presentation slide with ONS logo and speech bubble with the word "Enable" inside.

So we brought a strong team together, next we needed Enable them to be successful.

One of the key enablers for the team was being able to unshackle it from the corporate restrictions by working ‘off network’, that is, on separate unrestricted laptops; providing the freedom to rapidly try new tools and approaches without approval processes or the restrictions rightly needed when working in a more secure environment. This freed the team to use the tools that were most appropriate and productive for the situation.

A second key enabler was the physical environment. We had the team co-located in their own dedicated space. We commandeered a couple of rooms for the exclusive use of the team; spaces which rapidly filled up with information, designs, workflow and outcomes; areas that become living spaces; that the team made their own and used for discussion and engagement both inside out outside the team.

Thirdly challenging existing processes was a way to enable the team to move at pace. Historically a process was put in place for a good reason, to solve a problem, reduce a risk or ensure the right people are involved. However, over time things change and the process may no longer meet with demand or be proportionate, this is often exacerbated by IT ticketing systems, handovers and Service Level Agreements. As obvious as it may seem, we found simply enabling two people to talk together, as opposed to ‘raising tickets’, dramatically decreased friction, improved turnarounds and highlighted where the process could be optimised to meet demand.


Presentation slide with ONS logo and speech bubble with the word "Trust" inside.

So we had a strong team working together that we had enabled, but there was something else we needed to do, and that was to trust them to get the job done.

Trust is at the heart of our success, without it we would have almost certainly failed. It was this trust that enabled us to deliver at pace, to experiment with technologies, to improve processes. This made us  feel empowered to make informed decisions at the right level; allowing us to do the jobs for which we had been equipped.

We made changes to governance, the management approach, decision making and reporting. Not easy to do on a large, established government funded programme. Even trickier for one that was repeatedly scrutinised and questioned over whether it was the right thing for ONS.

This became much more about flexing leadership muscles than managing. The team were reassured it was ok to fail (albeit small and quick!), it was good to explore, to innovate, to have uncertainty –  it took real strength of character to achieve this both by those of us lobbying for it and those we were coaching toward that change in mindset.

To help us earn (& keep) that trust we placed the emphasis on product you could see and touch, not on reports and slide-packs. So we delivered little and often – giving something we knew would be of value to our user and gaining us some real world feedback; gold dust in the world of product development.

And, of course it  built confidence with our senior stakeholders – we built a reputation for being able to get things done; so surely we could – and should – be Trusted.


Presentation slide with ONS logo and the subtitle "Together Enable Trust"

As a result of this; we are now collecting real data online. The products we are building are forming the bedrock of the vision for ONS, they will be used across all our business areas, collecting anything from turnover, to migration, right through to the 2021 Census.

Our team are more skilled, more focused and more productive; but most importantly they are simply happier and excited at the prospect of continuing to be a part of such a positive change in the Civil Service.

Our approach to delivery, the way we are organised and operate is now seen as an exemplar across ONS with other teams following suit and keen to learn from us. We’re not perfect though, so we will be keeping an eye on those around us, looking to pinch good ideas at every opportunity!

The one thing that really stands out to us is that this all comes back to the people in the engine room, they are the real power behind the Civil Service. They don’t want bells and whistles recognition, they just want to work together in a great environment, being trusted to deliver the best outcomes and to know that by doing this they’ve done their best and helped make a difference to the public.

Put simply – by working together, enabling our teams and trusting them we can succeed.

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