Lab+: Why I took time away from a perfectly good job to take on a secondment

The TL;DR version

  • Because people were brainstorming and working out how we can make better government services online, and that’s my jam.
  • To try techniques — like the Google Ventures design sprint — to see if they’d be useful back home at PHARMAC.
  • To explore ways of connecting people across agencies to make joined-up services without centralising the whole shebang.

I manage online government services.

I’ve led the web teams for the old LTSA/LandTransportNZ (now NZ Transport Agency) and Ministry for the Environment. If it had to do with cars, crash tests, carbon analysis or consultation about power plants, I’ve probably analysed it, webbed it, managed and maintained it, and taught others how to do the same.

For the last several years I’ve been with PHARMAC, shaping words and websites about how we fund medicines and medical devices to get the best health for New Zealanders from every dollar in our pharmaceutical budget.

And for 6 weeks over May and June, I worked part-time with Lab+ on a professional development secondment supported by PHARMAC.

Professional development for government services

Individuals are expected to take opportunities to increase their skills and knowledge and to take responsibility for their own development.

PHARMAC Professional Development Policy

PHARMAC is a small organisation, and I’m the only person there with “Web” or “Digital” in my job title. That means I get to do a wide range of things working alongside the skilled people here, but there are extra challenges when you’re the only person working in your discipline in an organisation.

Keeping my professional skills fresh involves the usual newsfeeds, forums, taking things apart to see how they work, talks and workshops, and occasional formal training. There’s nothing quite like doing the work alongside other people who are doing the work, though: who do user testing all the time, or know current prototyping tools well, or think about system architecture in ways that make you see new possibilities.

PHARMAC strongly supports on-the-job professional development and cross-training, with coaching and temporary placements in other teams. When there aren’t other teams inside PHARMAC to meet the need, we look outside.

I know of 2 types of secondments in the government sector. Typically, an agency needs a particular skillset for 6 to 18 months, and someone with that skillset from another agency wants the chance to practise that skillset or get subject experience from working with the 'borrowing' agency. The person keeps being paid by their home agency, and the agency that’s borrowing them reimburses the home agency for their salary.

The second type of secondment is shorter, with a week or two full-time to get established and then part-time for a day or two a week for 5 to 10 weeks. It means you keep doing your work with your home agency, and it doesn’t involve salary reimbursement. It’s a model we’ve used before specifically for the people in our agency who are the sole practitioners of their discipline, to get out and work alongside others to keep fresh and challenged. This was the kind of arrangement I worked out — very quickly — between PHARMAC and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) for me to spend time in Lab+. [Lab+ is housed in the Service Innovation Lab, which is managed by the Service Innovation Team in DIA in partnership with Assurity Consulting.]

(In reality, yes, it does mean working weekends.)

Value to PHARMAC

Developing the capabilities of staff is essential to a high performing organisation.

PHARMAC Professional Development Policy

My agency is committed to “increasing the knowledge, skills and abilities of staff members to enable their ongoing effective contribution”. That means professional development secondments are a win-win.

I bring back skills I haven’t used in a while. Or ever.

For example, we want to do more user-testing to get evidence about how our online services are working. It turns out that the fundamentals of user testing haven’t changed much since I last did it, but the technology for running user tests has. I bring back both the knowledge that the basics are sound and ideas about how to set up a testing environment now.

I bring back new ideas and new uses for old ideas.

That’s a built-in horizon scan. What’s coming, and in what general timeframe? Can we use it do our work better? How will it change what we do? Who should we be working with? Lab+ brought new approaches to the long conversation about centralisation and decentralisation in government service delivery, with more ways to make services seem seamless while each agency retains responsibility for the portion they’re funded and accountable for. That has potential to be good for citizens, good for business, and manageable – what can we do to try it?

I bring back contacts and work tools.

It’s another way to meet people working in the field, and in parallel fields where they aren’t part of my usual networks, and to be able to link up people who could help each other. We also get to borrow people’s templates and risk assessments, and sometimes their ways of working.

Being in the right place to hear things and connect people together has other advantages. My time with Lab+ brings a very specific benefit for PHARMAC: we’ll get to try out an Australian tool for turning business rules into machine-readable structured language. It’ll be an experimental test run with a portion of our rules about funded medicines. Because of my secondment with Lab+, we’ll be able to:

  1. try the tool easily and quickly, using our own information, to see if it’s useful to us
  2. learn things about the underlying logic of our rules that we can use in our ongoing work to restructure and rewrite them.

Design sprints for impact

One of the things I got to do during my secondment — and that I’m still pondering about bringing back to PHARMAC — was a week-long design sprint.

This process was developed at Google Ventures (GV), which describes it like this:

The [GV] design sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers….

On Monday, you map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you hammer out a high-fidelity prototype. And on Friday, you test it with real live humans.

I pulled together a week’s worth of secondment days to spend time in June with a team doing a design sprint about student loans. For more about that sprint, read Pia Waugh's Lab+: Working together to improve outcomes for students blog post. It was intense, engaging, sometimes frustrating, and very thought-provoking. Seriously, there’s so much to consider about family attitudes to debt/investment/risk, what tertiary education is for, how to advise young people who are still working out who they are, and how to tell a good tertiary education opportunity from one that’s not going to help or is a bad idea. We started and ended thinking about services, and at times in the middle I was wrestling with “What’s a good life?” and “What’s the role of government?”.

After that experience, my impression is that design sprints do these things well:

  • Finding people who know. We contacted experts from all over the field, and they were remarkably generous about sharing their knowledge, time and connections with us.
  • Mapping the space, which is both exciting and frustrating. We mapped all the things we could think of that affected the problem we were looking at. That gave us a few dozen possible things to work on, but we could choose only one of them to take through the full sprint process. It’s good to see the subject leads taking those ideas and mining them for future work.
  • Learning quickly. The intense process and quick turnaround mean you can check whether you’ve got a good idea and correct it or change direction quickly.

There are issues with design sprints as well:

  • Resourcing. It’s not easy to free up a bunch of people with the right skills and roles for a week to do this.
  • What can we bring to this problem that’s special? Our background work showed that there are already several websites and apps doing most of what we thought needed to be done for the problem we chose, and the problem was still there. A successful sprint wouldn’t lead to proposing one more website or app doing essentially the same thing.

For me, though, the biggest question was:

  • The right approach for the need? Design sprints are intended for developing a product or service. As we got into our research we found we were looking at issues of value and values, behaviour, culture and policy. In our one-week sprint we didn’t have the skills to address those things — although we had some really good conversations. I’d like to see the mapping we did and the things we learnt from the knowledgeable people we interviewed be used for something bigger.

Would I do it again? Absolutely yes, given the right kind of problem.

Would I recommend it to go into my organisation's toolkit of approaches? Yes, for occasional use of the full sprint. Strongly yes for doing the first 2 days of the sprint to map out a problem and all the different things we could do about it, before taking a more strategic approach to choosing ideas to prototype.

Working environment — space for ideas

The Service Innovation Lab that’s housed the Lab+ experiment is on half of a commercial floor that has no hard fittings beyond the basic services.

Work areas are defined by huge A-frame whiteboards on wheels, clusters of tables and chairs, and streamers from the ceiling. There are scrawled diagrams and constellations of sticky notes on most flat surfaces.

It’s great for conversations, collaboration and serendipitous discoveries. It encourages drawing ideas as pictures or condensing them into things — usually sticky notes — so you can show and share how they relate to each other. There’s an element of playfulness in the space that encourages exploring possibilities.

That openness comes with a downside, too. Even more than most open plan workspaces, it’s a distracting place for trying to get solid, thoughtful, individual work done. Headphones and trying to find a quiet space only get you so far. The small screen space of a bring-your-own-device laptop or tablet is fine for chat and text, but not good for understanding or managing the relationships between things.

It was fun and energising to work in, and good for the collaboration phases of our work. I liked it well enough that I brought PHARMAC’s Creative Director along to get some ideas for floor layouts and fit-outs. As a regular workplace, though, I’d also want room for focused, uninterrupted work, with enough screen space.

What I’ve learned

Lab+ has been a chance to have conversations about All The Things for online government services; to share where we’re up to and where we’re heading, and see how we might help each other out. I’d very much like to see those conversations continue: to turn them into more tests and projects and better services. I found:

  • There’s interesting stuff coming for government online services in New Zealand.
  • Some of the tools Lab+ is talking about look like a good fit with some of PHARMAC’s current work projects. We’ll be testing that.
  • It’s invigorating working with people who are making things happen.
  • I’d like to give more time to this: to creating the services we’ve worked on.

All up, do I recommend it?

Yes!


Lab+ is housed in the Service Innovation Lab, which is an experiment carried out under the leadership of the ICT Partnership Framework’s Service Innovation Group. It's managed by the Service Innovation Team in Department of Internal Affairs in partnership with Assurity Consulting.

Check out earlier blog posts about Lab+ and the Service Innovation Lab.

Follow us on Twitter at @NZLifeEvents.

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