Lessons learned from public sector projects

Working with Government provides interesting, complex and challenging problems to solve, within an environment where process and policy are naturally (and understandably!) very closely controlled.

I’ve been part of teams working with high-profile departments in the UK Government, on flagship projects. Over the course of this work I’ve noted a number of key takeaways, which I’ll touch on here. Many of them hold true for any successful project – but I’d argue they are even more crucial to remember within the public sector.

Focus on people and process over technology

It’s my view that public sector projects tend to be particularly interesting because they seek to provide technology solutions to needs that concern real people; the lives they lead and the processes they follow. The solutions we end up delivering can touch millions of lives – it’s just so important to get it right!

The best way to help people is of course to actively listen to them, and understand them (client and end user alike). It’s therefore vital to be receptive, not prescriptive.

Similarly, focusing on people is how one builds a “here to help” relationship, which puts stakeholders at ease. This is the only way you’ll develop the trust required to revisit requirements and/or proposed solutions as you go along.

Evolution, not revolution

Public sector projects bring together a dynamic collective of civil servants, external consultants and other service providers.

In a team with a spectrum of skill levels, a key way we can add value as senior, experienced practitioners is to take a lead on coaching and mentoring the wider team. Steady, undramatic progress towards continuous improvement is the thing to aim for; always prioritising the team over individual preferences.

Prioritise effectiveness over efficiency

Often, delivery teams focus on improving their efficiency. Within the public sector, however, overarching processes and procedures can govern the details of how your team must operate – potentially nipping any such initiatives in the bud.

I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to focus on your team’s effectiveness instead. While you may not be able to eke out the maximum possible efficiency, you can probably still look to the big picture and prioritise your workload accordingly. Within a more restrictive environment, this is a great way to exhibit leadership in delivering the required change.

Stay flexible

In an ideal world, a team owns the product or service that it’s working on, and takes full responsibility for it.

In the public sector, this level of ownership is not always possible. While the team will be a key stakeholder in the delivery of a quality product, ownership is shared by all stakeholders: the wider department, the client’s central teams, and a host of other service providers. All will have their own priorities, and sometimes competing demands.

The answer here is to not obsess over ownership, but to remain open to changing requirements, schedules and process demands. Accepting this reality is key to always delivering the best that your team possibly can, while operating within the constraints of the wider organisation.

Outcome is what matters

One of our delivery values at Equal Experts states that “we value the outcome more than the approach”. It’s a sentiment I heartily agree with and it’s particularly true in the public sector, where the working environment is subject to external forces that may prevent a team from working exactly how they would choose.

The key is to break work into simpler, unambiguous tasks, aiming for quick wins with clearly defined goals. This keeps momentum and morale high, and the focus firmly on the outcome – which is all that really matters.

Pragmatism over pessimism

It’s not unusual for public sector projects to be in a state of what can seem like perpetual preparation, and expected deliverables can take time to emerge. So it’s essential that the team is pragmatic about the “what, how and when” of project delivery and uses its initiative to steer the situation towards the best outcome.

The aim is to create a prototyping culture, with each step getting progressively better at delivering value. Continuous collaboration and context-based communication helps to spread this spirit of pragmatism to the wider group of stakeholders – setting realistic expectations that eventually lead to a win-win situation for all involved.

This demands pragmatism, and patience. And at times we must let go of ideas and thoughts that don’t provide the expected benefit in the particular client environment. Continued belief in the project goals and faith in your team is crucial.

Experience counts

All the above explains why high levels of experience – standard among Equal Experts associates – are so valuable within public sector engagements.

I’ve seen first-hand the pride we take in thriving and performing as part of a team in challenging environments, whether those challenges come from people, process or technology.

That’s why clients engage with us to help them make software better, and it’s a real thrill to work on such projects, knowing we are making a tangible difference to the lives of citizens. For me, this really makes public sector projects something very special!

What springs to mind when you think of Government IT projects? Slow, rigid, cumbersome? They’re notions a grizzled veteran might be forgiven for thinking, but they’d be wrong – as our ongoing work for a large UK Government department shows.

Over the last two years, we’ve helped the department change the way it thinks about its digital services, and enabled a flourishing programme of Agile development.

MongoDB provides the non-relational database that sits at the heart of the platform we’ve built, so we were pleased to be asked to present at the recent MongoDB Days event in London. It was a chance to tackle the myths that have built up around what can and can’t be achieved when developing for Government organisations:

Myth: Government products depend on archaic legacy systems.

Not so. Thanks to ‘digital by default’ policies introduced over the last few years, the public sector is increasingly open to more modern approaches – as our adoption of the open source MongoDB shows. It allows us to use a flexible micro service architecture for the platform, and improves the end user experience with higher availability and faster response times. It’s as progressive a set-up as any you’d find in enterprise.

Myth: Multiple teams make development harder.

Our platform currently enables more multiple agile teams to co-exist happily and productively. It’s perfectly po ssible to have teams working separately, with collaboration occurring naturally and smoothly as and when required – you just need to have the right set-up. You need the right culture as well as technology for this, of course; one way is to treat the platform as a club. Government is now open to this approach.

Myth: Progress is slow within Government.

Again, rapid embrace of modern approaches makes progress much swifter than it used to be. Our teams now make dozens of releases on the platform each week – that’s compared to just a few major releases a year before the switch to our microservice architecture.

Whether you’re a grizzled vet or a fresh-faced developer, it’s time to re-appraise development within the public sector. At Equal Experts we’re helping modern, iterative agile practices become the norm across a wide range of Government services.