Weeknotes from Content and Publishing (S1 E4)

Hello there. I manage the Publishing, Content Design and Digital Content teams at the ONS in Digital Publishing. Each week I’m attempting to give an overview of my work, key projects we’re involved in and encourage my wider team to blog more often about their work. You can find me on Twitter.

Welcome to the bakery! That will likely mean little to you but this week I managed to pour out a few thoughts from my head on how the ONS is like a bakery. I’ve been working on a paper for our director on the future content and publishing strategy of the ONS and it struck me that our challenge lies in the sheer range of customers and different product needs we are trying to serve, and the tangle of channels, outputs and services we use. So I used the metaphor of a bakery, which is also a mill, and, well, let’s just say things got weird from that point on.

The week has been a challenge in trying to pull together a cogent set of thoughts about how the ONS deals with some of the contradictions, frictions, tensions and incoherence in both the website and the wider ONS portfolio.

More than 2,700 people have completed a survey we’ve been running around their needs and priorities and it’s been so valuable to get the range of opinions and recommendations from users. What it points to, of course, is yet more work we should be doing to better understand how we shape our services. However, I’m not sure we have the time or resources to do this as well as I’d like to meet the timescales for the paper and so I’m determined to reflect their views as best as I can in the space available.

If I were to sum up what the feedback says to me, it’s a realisation the ONS, and wider GSS, really needs a Service Standard and Service Manual, much like the Government Digital Service.  While we have some of the pieces in place already we lack a clear clarion call and framework which puts users at the heart of what we do, and explains how that manifests itself practically in the way we work as an organisation.

I’ve included that very broad recommendation, including some reviews of our key product sets, and a refreshed approach to governance (how we commission and how we measure success) into a draft paper that is going to some senior colleagues. I’ll be interested to see how many of the recommendations make the final version. I remind myself and my team often that progress is measured in a series of small steps not giant leaps.

Apart from writing and re-wrifting the draft, my week also involved some really good discussions with some colleagues in economic statistics who are looking to make some improvements to outputs. We got a really good response to the offer of help but given we only learned about the work by accident it reminded me again that multi-disciplinary working (point 6 of the GDS Service Standard) just isn’t embedded in our thinking.

I caught up with two of my senior team – Rob Fry and Callum Thomson to talk about some planned work and prioritisation. We’ve got some really interesting topics and work coming to us and the challenge is always one of juggling projects where we feel there is a real user need with projects where there is a real commitment in our statistical partners to the work. Sometimes these things align,  but not always,  and the team spends a great deal of its time trying to win support for projects or move them forward at a sensible pace. It’s one of the challenges around commissioning  we’re looking to improve.

The Census is only a year away but planning for our outputs is already in place and the Digital Content team is keen to bring as many of our skills and learnings from our last 5 years as a group into the work we do around analysis and commentary from the data when it’s made available.

We’re ambitious and we’re looking to win support to turn that ambition into tangible products. But there’s work to do to make the case for properly researching what users need, and how we might present some of the most interesting data the ONS will release to users in formats that really get engagement and interest. The digital landscape has shifted considerably in 10 years (PDF) and we need to ensure we reflect that.

This week a few of us met to discuss how we frame a presentation to senior colleagues where we want to both update them on plans, but also ignite some interest in the potential of what we could do.

What else this week? Well, the UK Statistics Authority is working on its next 5-year strategy to follow Better Statistics Better Decisions (PDF) and I took part in a staff session to offer some thoughts on the current strategy and issues, changes, challenges and opportunities the next strategy potentially needs to consider. It was certainly a robust discussion and given it was anonymous I won’t break any confidences. But I will say that as a group there was broad consensus that the next strategy needed to have clearly articulated outcomes, which are measurable, and instill a sense of purpose in staff, while also giving people a view of how they contribute to those goals.