Over the last 12 weeks, our team has gone to the homes, offices and factory floors of people who will use the National Retraining Scheme. The service will help people whose jobs are most at risk from automation to learn new skills and get better jobs.
We developed prototypes to test our ideas and assumptions with our users. And we used feedback from over 270 people to make changes to policy and service design in line with how the DfE is taking a more user-centred approach to its work.
Being user-centred is one of the department’s four transformation aims, all of which have guided our work. The other 3 are:
- deliver end to end
- empower yourself and others
- make evidence-based decisions
This post is about what working to these aims has meant for our team and how engaging this has felt.
We’re working in an exciting way – simultaneously developing policy and a large-scale service in a user-centred way, using agile ways of working. We're developing the policy with operational colleagues and other stakeholders, based on what we learn from research with users. By working across policy, design and delivery we're genuinely making policy and delivery the same thing.
DfE is increasingly becoming a delivery department. Traditionally, the department made the policy decisions, and commissioned third parties to deliver them. We're now bringing things in-house. That’s a shift in culture and it requires a shift in our capability. We need more people who understand the nuts and bolts of practical delivery.
During our alpha we found ourselves repeatedly returning to the transformation aims. Each one helped us in a different way.
It’s really inspiring to work in a team that’s focused on designing an excellent service for users.
To make sure this translated into practice, lots of the policy and analytical team came to our user research sessions, took notes, and helped evaluate and summarise the findings. We have collectively stepped out of our policy-making comfort zone.
We have experienced our policies through the eyes of our users, many of whom have a different experience of life to us. This has challenged our assumptions about how people will engage with the service.
What's really important is that our whole team fully understands our users' needs. This consistency of understanding closes the gap between the advice we give our ministers and what they hear from their constituents every day.
Deliver end to end
Towards the end of the alpha phase, we realised we didn’t know enough about the user needs to move the whole end-to-end National Retraining Scheme into private beta.
But by working in a truly multidisciplinary team made up of of policy leads, digital specialists and our delivery partners – the National Careers Service and the Education and Skills Funding Agency – we've been able to get a deeper understanding of the wider context of the National Retraining Scheme. The scheme is a number of interconnected services, all meeting slightly different sets of needs.
We needed to narrow our focus on the part of the journey we knew enough about, and build an early version of that first.
Empower yourself and others
‘Showing the thing’ is hugely empowering. We found that giving senior colleagues a mock-up of the service to play around with, made it easier for them to understand the service and our work.
Working in the open, having working sessions involving the whole multidisciplinary team, and regularly communicating about the work helped me, as lead product owner, to feel more empowered.
There were more opportunities for others to provide feedback, or to tell me if they disagreed with the decisions I was making. That turned out to be just as valuable for me as it was for them.
For us working in the open includes:
- using software that lets us collaborate and shows the tasks everyone is working on
- a daily work planning session
- a week note of what we did last week and the focus for the week ahead
- giving regular progress updates to the wider team
- working documents being saved in shared folders rather than waiting for final versions
Being able to work alongside suppliers was important. Getting to know each other personally at the beginning of the project helped build trust quickly. We made use of the knowledge and skills of everyone on the team.
Make evidence-based decisions
Early in the project, we assumed more people would complete retraining if the courses were more flexible. We thought the best way to make that happen would be to incentivise third party training providers to redesign their courses.
But user research and social research told us that most of our users face multiple barriers, and they need a clear incentive to do any new training. For example, we found that linking training to specific job opportunities made a big difference. People need to believe they are able to retrain and get a better job and that they will have support throughout a long and challenging user journey. We're now developing a scheme that will do this.
We’re making the most of as much data as we can to help us make better decisions. That includes quantitative and qualitative data, social research, user research and insights from Career Learning pilots. (These pilots explore different and accessible ways of reaching, encouraging and training working adults with low or intermediate skills).
Developing and delivering the service using agile methodology means we can iterate the service based on new evidence. We can continue to test and learn, which is less risky than deciding everything up front and basing it on assumptions.
We now have a much better understanding of the needs of the people we're designing this service for. This will help us to make good decisions about delivering a service which gives them real value. And this is what our department’s transformation aims are about.