Will Huggins, CEO of Zoocha uncovers the challenges of building and buying technology to deliver the best outcomes in public sector digital delivery
“Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard”
I don’t think Coldplay were thinking about public sector digital transformation when they wrote those lyrics, but for anyone who has led or worked in a digital delivery team, it will probably feel like they were.
But why? The tools available have grown rapidly in range and sophistication, from digital service standards and design patterns to the maturing procurement frameworks like GCloud and DOS. So too has the expertise and experience within public sector teams, aided by increasing levels of collaboration and knowledge sharing. So why do so many projects fail to meet expectations? I believe there are some important and often overlooked reasons.
Start with the user
This statement now feels so obvious that it shouldn’t warrant a mention, but in reality, too many projects start without full consideration of the user needs it is intending to design a solution for. It might be organisation priorities, replacing legacy technologies or probably more often commencing with the best of intentions, but then shortcutting the essential discovery phase in order to demonstrate progress or reduce upfront costs.
The most successful projects start with a comprehensive ‘discovery phase’, but what are the ingredients for success?
- Procure discovery before alpha and beta phases. There is a very understandable temptation to package an entire project up into a single procurement exercise, which at the outset probably feels both efficient and effective. You select a partner who will provide continuity throughout the whole project and deliver for a fixed or capped cost. However, the biggest problem with this approach is that so many assumptions must be made about what discovery will teach you that the costs for alpha and beta can only be high-level estimates at best. This then instantly puts pressure on the project and can even create a mindset among the project team of trying to confirm or validate the assumptions in order to keep on track, rather than actually listening to the users and defining the requirements based on their needs.
- Select a discovery partner who specialises in user-centred service design. The great thing about procuring discovery separately from alpha and beta is that you do not need to worry about technology expertise – you can focus on finding a partner who is an expert in understanding user needs and behaviour. They will then help you define the requirements that will then become the basis for procuring alpha and beta phases.
Partner with experts
For the same reason that procuring discovery separately enables you to focus on a partner that is an expert in understanding user needs and translating them into user-centred requirements, selecting a partner for alpha and beta phases enables you to find experts in the solution and technology that you now know is needed.
Furthermore, the procurement of this implementation and delivery partner will be so much easier based on the clearly defined requirements that have been detailed during discovery. It may be appropriate to procure alpha and beta together, especially if there is a specific technology landscape that you need the ultimate solution to integrate with. In that case, bringing onboard the right technical expertise at the alpha phase can be beneficial, ensuring the solution design has an appreciation of the ultimate live service systems architecture.
The full-service agency promise
There is no doubt that the allure of a single procurement exercise to bring onboard a single partner who can see through the entire project is tempting. There is certainly no shortage of “full-service agencies” selling this dream, but what is the reality?
The first thing to consider is expertise. What does their team look like in terms of roles, qualifications and experience? If they are going to be your partner for the entire project, you will need expertise ranging from user researchers and business analysts to back end and front end developers, ideally with experience in the technologies you are currently using or intend to be using. This is a big ask for any agency, no matter how large they are, especially when you consider that they will no doubt have multiple in-flight projects to a resource already.
The next thing to consider is their experience. Have they delivered similar projects in the past? If so, which phases? This is important because having delivered the beta phase of a similar project does not necessarily mean they have the experience to undertake the discovery phase.
The final thing to consider is resourcing. Are their team permanent employees or do they use freelancers and contractors? The more ‘full service’ an agency aspires to be, the more likely they are to require freelance and contract resources to fill the gaps in their capability and capacity. Whilst this in itself is not unusual, it is an important consideration when evaluating their long term suitability and the value they can deliver.
The proof is in the pudding
Zoocha has been working on public sector service design and digital transformation projects for over seven years and have completed projects encompassing all phases of delivery as well as joining projects for just the alpha and/ or beta phase. In all honesty, the most successful projects have been the ones that had already completed the discovery phase with a specialist agency to define the requirements. An example is Mace & Menter, who specialise in discovery and alpha phases. Working with them on a project that we joined at the beta phase showed us the value in commissioning a truly user-centred (and therefore technology agnostic) discovery phase. Similarly, they have since referred projects to us that are seeking an implementation partner, where that is outside the scope of their expertise.
The benefit of partnering with genuine specialists at each stage of the project is that you strengthen your chances of success throughout the project. Discovery is truly user-centred and is not compromised by assumptions or commitments already made about alpha or beta. Then as you move into the implementation phase, you can rely on the best technical expertise to implement the solutions designed during the alpha phase.
There is no compromise and no ‘weak spots’ in the project lifecycle.
The right team at the right time
In summary, our experience has led us to the conclusion that ensuring you have the right team on the project at the right time is more important than trying to find a single supplier who can provide a ‘full service’ throughout the entire project lifecycle. There are of course ways of combining the two approaches, for example accepting consortium bids. Something that has been successful at Zoocha has been identifying key strategic partners with complementary capability in areas like branding, content design and ethnographic research. This way, we can call upon their expertise and experience at key stages of the project to ensure we have the right team deployed at the right time.
Ultimately, every organisation and project is different and it is appropriate to have different approaches that can be selected based on the best fit evaluation. However, the notion of ensuring the right team is available at the right time is a very reliable way of making a difficult process just a little easier.