2021 public sector digital blog round-up!

As 2021 draws to a close, we thought it would be nice to see out the year by sharing some great blog posts about public sector technology we saw this year.

Making space to learn

A new look for DVLA’s Code Learning Community is a super post from DVLA’s Michelle Slee on the agency’s support for people who want to learn to code. Rather than relying solely on online resources, Michelle takes the time to teach classes in an online classroom (something we know can work brilliantly, based on our experiences running the academy).

A quote from Nicola Porter, Budget and Reporting Coordinator, IT Controls at DVLA:

“Joining the Code Learning Community has allowed me to acquire new skills and pick up new ideas and platforms from other members of the community. Thanks to the support I’ve received and the ability to learn at my own pace, I’d highly recommend the club to anyone who is interested in learning to code.”

As a result, Nicola and colleague Jade Hone achieved Amazon Web Services Cloud Practitioner certification – a great achievement, and a testament to the power of making space for learning at work.

Benefits of mob programming

In How to make mob programming work for your whole team, Made Tech Senior Software Engineer Tom Foster shares the benefits of mob programming. One is that it cultivates a sense of shared ownership:

“In teams, there can be a tendency for one person to become the authority on a certain section of the code base, but with mob programming the whole team is involved from the beginning increasing collaborative software development. The entire team is responsible for each line of code, meaning that there is a shared sense of ownership of what is being produced.”

It’s a valuable tool, but can be quite hard work, so Tom includes tips on spotting and avoiding burnout.

More accessible maps

In Designing a more accessible flood map, Defra interaction designer Dan Leech talks about the work done to make maps for the check for flooding service more accessible. As well as making improvements for people with visual impairments, Dan also discusses users with arthritis and Parkinson’s disease who may prefer to use keyboards when mouse or touch interfaces are more typical. 

Dan also shares great insights into the (perhaps counter-intuitive) benefits of hiding maps for users when they land on the page:

“In testing when users were initially presented with a map showing a flood warning area they were often confused as to what it meant. Many users assumed this was the area already under water. When presented with a text link titled ‘View map of the flood warning area’ users were more likely to interpret the area correctly the first time.”

Working on what matters

Why your roadmap should have a ‘Not doing’ section is a super post from Public Digital’s Matt Harrington. It’s a piece very much in praise of using roadmaps for planned work, but as well as the usual now, next and later sections, Matt makes a great case for adding a not-doing section too:

“Humans cannot multitask. We can switch context quickly, but we cannot do two things at once. Switching context is an inefficient way of working and doesn’t set people up for success. So when you fill your roadmap to the brim with ideas and projects you are setting up for failure.”

Reducing errors

How we reduced errors on GOV.UK is a great post from GDS senior developer Chris Ashton on the Technology in government blog. This is all about how the GDS team worked in early 2021 to reduce errors on GOV.UK by more than 90%, partly by using error-tracking app Sentry and pushing important notifications to Slack:

“We created an alert to notify us when an issue occurs more than 100 times in the space of 60 minutes. We’ve found that this strikes the right balance, as it prioritises our worst errors whilst avoiding spamming the channel. We hope to gradually lower this threshold so that we can work through the long tail of issues.”

Super work.

Solving problems with platforms

GDS Senior User Researcher Moyo Kolawole and Frontend Developer David Biddle shared this great post: Making all forms on GOV.UK accessible, easy to use and quick to process. This is a great reminder that, despite the great work already done in building digital government, the caseload of the work yet to be done is sometimes growing rather than shrinking:

“The scale of the problem means that the current pace isn’t fast enough – we estimate that it would take the 11 existing form-building service teams around 70 years just to convert existing PDF forms into HTML forms, let alone deal with the 6% annual growth.”

Instead, the team is taking a proactive approach to understand how document-based forms come to be published and develop a platform that will help.

The power of context

On the Mace & Menter blog, Natalie Vanns shared a super post, Making the case for visiting your users. With the recent shift towards ever-more remote ways of working, this is a timely post that reminds us of the value of doing user research in person – a topic Made Tech user researcher Melani Kruk also touches on in a recent Designed and Made blog post.

Here’s a quote from Natalie:

“When my colleague Sam visited a mechanic’s garage for a project for the DVSA’s new MOT system, he saw how grubby some of the computers and keyboards could be, getting covered in oil and grease. To remedy this, they had put the keyboard inside a clear plastic bag. The frequently used letters still got covered in oil to the point you couldn’t read them, but at least the keyboard worked.

“The Caps Lock light was drowned out behind layers of dirt, making it difficult to sign in, not knowing which case the password was being typed in. Filling in that online form is going to be a bit trickier than it is for me on my shiny Macbook then! In hindsight it sounds obvious, but it’s a reminder that you don’t know what you don’t know, until you see it for yourself.”

Inclusivity matters

Making content about skin symptoms more inclusive is an excellent post on NHS Digital’s Design Matters blog by Rhiannon Smith. The post addresses how the team has begun to tackle inclusivity issues around skin tone on the NHS website, including the problem that skin symptoms are often explained solely in terms of how they look on white skin.

“Between December 2019 and September 2020, the chickenpox page had over 600,000 visits. It had 3 images which were all on white skin, and we’ve had lots of negative feedback about the page not being inclusive. Our team ran a sketching ideation workshop which helped us to settle on 3 different concepts to test with users. After 1 round of testing the different concepts, we identified a clear winner and developed an HTML prototype.”

The work also included user research on inclusive language – well worth a read.

Mitigating single points of failure

“Do you get cold sweats brought on by the thought of losing one particular person from your team?” How we identify and mitigate single-points-of-failure is a wonderful post from Faith Johnstone on the Ministry of Justice Digital and Technology blog. Faith makes the case that though, yes, this is about reducing organisational risk, it’s also about being kind to those people the organisation relies on for particular things:

“SPOFs are indispensable, and we need to value them by removing the pressure that comes with the weight of this expectation, and the stress it creates within a team. For the rest of this blog post, I will rebrand them, the linchpins.”

And:

“There’s a whole ecosystem of people that surround your team and their ability to deliver, and you’ll often find linchpins there too, in governance, stage gates, and approvals for things like POs. If one person isn’t around, and things start to fail or be delayed, that’s a sign that a way of working needs to change.”

The post is packed with advice on how to cultivate ways of working that remove systemic reliance on important people.

Understanding digital carbon footprints

If you’re trying to save the planet, do not forget the net is a super post from Laura Hands’ on Essex County Council’s Service Transformation blog. The post looks at the team’s effort to understand the environmental impact of the essex.gov.uk digital estate.

This provided us with the following insights:

  • essex.gov.uk emits around 1,000KG of CO2e every year – that’s equal to making approximately 141,531 cups of tea!
  • We could save 60kg of CO2e by our digital service providers switching their servers to ones powered by renewable energy (web host checked against The Green Web Foundation database of green hosts)
  • We could make further savings by reducing page size in certain areas of the site e.g. the news section.”

The post highlights that the valuable first in reducing the carbon footprint of an organisation’s digital estate is to first understand the scale of the challenge.

The ever-increasing need for solid cybersecurity

The importance of good cyber security during a pandemic is a blog post by Toby Griffiths, ​​Head of Innovation and Delivery, NHS Digital’s Data Security Centre. It begins with some fascinating context on how cyber attacks on private health providers can have knock-on effects on the NHS. It also goes into detail about various measures taken to keep health services as safe as possible during the pandemic, and in the face of rising threats.

Taking time to reflect

Finally, Mistakes and achievements from starting a UCD team is a lovely post from our Head of Design Harry Scott-Trimble, reflecting on a year spent building out the user-centred design capability at Made Tech, which now stands at 27 permanent team members.

“Sounds a bit woolly, but it’s strategically important a team has a good vibe. It spreads to other teams. A team vibe sets the tone for everything. How the work happens. How people communicate in and outside the team. How relationships are built and maintained. How users are involved in shaping a service. Teams with a bad vibe struggle to get much done.”

More blogging in 2022!

Thanks to everyone who’s taken a moment this year to share in the open about what they’re working on and what they’ve learned – I wish there was time and space to include more here. It always helps others make and do things better. We hope you have a happy and safe festive season and new year. And please: keep bloggin’ in 2022.

About the Author

James Holloway

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