One of the reasons the UK became a world leader in digital government services was the work of multi-disciplinary teams across the government

It is proven repeatedly that multi-disciplinary teams build better products and services. Yet, despite being part of the Government Service Standard, there are worrying signs the government and the wider public sector are reverting back to more traditional approaches.

Talking to government colleagues, we regularly hear about pipelines of single-discipline teams working largely in isolation from each other. Contracts are getting bigger, and rather than asking for a team to deliver and take responsibility for an outcome, we are seeing more and more contracts that ask for numbers of individuals at often very short notice.

Multi-disciplinary teams should be at the heart of delivery

To quote the Service Standard: “You’ll need a team made up of people with a diverse mix of skills and expertise. It’s important that people who are involved in decision-making are part of the team, so they’re accountable to the team – and the team as a whole can respond quickly to what they learn about users and their needs.”

How this translates to a programme of work with staffing decisions made by contract managers is unclear.

The unit of delivery is the team

This phrase will be familiar to visitors to the GDS blog in particular. It recognises the reality that great teams build great services. Organisations, both public and private, collectively spend millions of pounds on team-building exercises because everything in the modern workplace revolves around functioning teams.

It’s far easier to scale a programme based on smaller component parts than starting with a huge army of individuals.

But there’s a return to classic big IT programme thinking happening before us. The theory is that if you define objectives and tasks clearly enough and closely manage output, you can slot individuals into huge programmes. These individuals then work through their tasks, tick them off and move on. You have a team analysing to break the work down into chunks, write the tasks and then hand them over to whichever discipline is next in line in the chain before releasing in a big bang.

We also see a version that pays lip service to user-centred design but is just recreating the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) with new job titles. Researchers do research and synthesise findings for designers to design a wireframe. They will throw it over the wall to be built by developers to a specification, who then pass it on to a tester. The thing gets deployed and may or may not meet a user’s need. Multiply this across a programme with hundreds of people working in this way, and you have all the ingredients of a classic “IT disaster”.

What should a multi-disciplinary team look like?

In a multi-disciplinary team, there is less siloed working and a shared focus on the end outcomes. People work together to solve problems that actually meet a user’s needs instead of figuring out who does what and how to work together. Designers, researchers, developers, products and delivery can work together and make rapid progress because they are part of a single delivery team rather than larger discipline-specific groups.

Delivery specialist Emily Webber has also written about this, noting the worrying trend of focussing on specialism over “collaboration, shared responsibility and valuable outcomes”.

Although it can take a while for a team to gel starting from scratch. A multi-disciplinary team of overlapping and complementary skillsets will produce value more quickly, bonding a team together.

We are staring down the barrel of more public sector cuts, so efficiency has never been more important. To make the most of scarce resources, we cannot go on spending money on services that actually generate more problems than they solve through workarounds and generating failure demand.

Multi-disciplinary teams that rapidly deliver services around user needs are the most efficient way to tackle this fundamental problem. Once services are live, a multi-disciplinary team has the skills and capability to iterate a service based on what happens when people actually start using a service. Iteration and release cycles can be far quicker than in more traditional IT projects. Multi-disciplinary teams have the ability to help structure programmes and make teams work more effectively. What they leave behind is upskilled civil servants, a transformed way of working and services that meet the needs of the people who use them.


Dave Mann, CEO at dxw.


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