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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Better Together: Co-Designing with Local Authorities

Our family hubs digital project is complex - we knew we would need sustained involvement. 

The DfE’s family hubs digital team are developing services to help families and the local authority professionals who work with them. As local authorities open family hubs, it is important that each community can access and connect to information about services.

There are approximately 153 upper tier local authorities in England. Each area is different, with a unique configuration of staff, services, and residents. We needed to involve more of their perspectives to make sure we design services that are useful to a wide range of local authorities. To do this, we are working with a number of partner local authorities.

We set up our co-design group with local authority family hubs staff to:

  • build a group of local authorities who would have sustained, regular involvement with our project

  • get regular feedback on our family hubs digital work from a wider range of local authorities

  • enable local authorities to share their experiences and understand what others are doing

We now have a group of 15 local authority members who meet with the DfE team every month. Everyone brings different experiences and skills, from front line service delivery to digital expertise and service planning.

The co-design group has been meeting for about 18 months. The meetings involve a mix of discussion and design work. They also include presentations from local authority members sharing their own projects. On occasion, guest speakers join us to share their projects and insights that interest the group.

Lancashire Local Authority Family Hub Play Area
Lancashire Local Authority Family Hub Play Area


Learning to work together

We knew when setting up the group there would be challenges for DfE and local authority members. It's a new way of working for the team and understanding the challenges of each partner can be difficult.

We hoped that regular meetings would help build trust and understanding. We also discussed how the group operates by:

  • writing terms of reference that describe our group’s purpose and scope

  • agreeing our information sharing approach and meeting behaviours

  • checking in to reflect on how the group is running

We have found that ensuring everyone can contribute is hard, because we cover a wide variety of topics across strategy, service delivery, and technology. We have worked together to address this. As a result, we share agendas early and try to avoid jargon in our meetings.

Local authority members have found it can be challenging to deal with the uncertainty of working with DfE in the early stages of design. It can be unclear what the outcome will be, or how widely a product will be adopted. We’re trying to address this by being as open and clear as possible when we are looking at early ideas, using different mediums and mechanisms to explain and explore concepts together.

From a local authority point of view, it is useful to get early insight into government work. It helps local authorities in planning our own innovation. Working together has enabled us to improve the offer to families at a local and national level. It’s also always interesting to hear from other areas and find out what they are doing. Having the time and space to share and reflect on each other's practice has been beneficial for all of us.

The group’s impact

The co-design group has a significant impact on DfE’s family hubs work. It has complemented our user research and helped the team on ‘big picture’ thinking.  Together we have:

  • identified new features and revised our roadmap

  • explored risks

  • shaped project communications

The group also get involved in the design details, for example:

  • reviewing screen designs & workflows

  • helping design user research

  • commenting on language

This involvement makes our work more inclusive and transparent. The group has supported better understanding and relationships between DfE and local authority members.

If you are considering setting up a co-design group, it is a long-term commitment that needs buy-in from your team. You must invest time and create an open and trustworthy space for all participants. It is important to be upfront about expectations, the scope of the group and the time commitment.

Our group brings together a range of expertise and experience to develop solutions to complex problems. While that has its own challenges, it is also the strength of the group. We believe that more collaboration like this will likely lead to valuable advancements in DfE projects, in which local authorities are more invested in their development and success.

If you’d like to read more about the FH digital work you’ll find our Inside Design page here.

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