Managing digital services beyond the exemplars

Our digital exemplars are currently in Alpha. In about six weeks time we’ll be in front of a panel having them assessed against the service standard. We will need to demonstrate that we’re “putting in place a multi-disciplinary that can . . . operate the service, led by a suitably skilled and senior service manager with decision-making responsibility”. This formed part of the diagnostic we presented to the board which led to the creation of the exemplars project. Now we need to make it happen.

Thanks to the openness of GDS, I thought I had a decent, if high-level understanding of the roles in that team. The service manager job description and videos helped me understand roughly what they’d do, why it would be hard, and the type of person they’d need to be. In particular, Kit Collingwood’s presentation ‘What is a service manager?‘ helped me explain to  clients in previous roles, why they needed one and how they should recruit to the role. However, I had a set of questions that I needed to answer if I was to understand the structure well enough, to start discussing with colleagues:

  • Where should the service manager sit in the organisation? Which team and what seniority?
  • Do we need dedicated FTEs, or can one postholder work across multiple services?
  • What resources would they need to draw on to be able to do their jobs? (we currently have no in-house development capability)

I’ve contacted a number of colleagues in central government, and yesterday was fortunate enough to meet Kit Collingwood, of the Ministry of Justice, to help me find the answers.

Everything starts with this triangle:

Service structure

1. The service manager – role and seniority

The service manager is a much more strategic role than I’d understood. The key responsibility is enabling the product owner and delivery manager to do their job, free from organisational pressures and noise. The service manager will sit on boards, report to senior stakeholders and set the vision for the organisation. It’s a senior post. Coincidentally, it’s the role I’ve tried to play on the exemplars to date – and Kit’s former job title was ‘Head of Digital’.

With responsibility for multiple services, and ownership of the vision for the role they play in the organisation, it makes sense that this role sits within a digital function.

2. Dedicated FTEs, or multiple postholders

I wondered whether a small team required three separate postholders, or whether this was inefficient for a small digital function with a limited number of services.

The service manager isn’t specific to a particular service, but the overall manager of digital services. One service manager will certainly be sufficient for the first two, and probably next set of digital services, too.

However, there’s a strong case for each digital service to have its own product owner. As the ‘voice of the user’, the role needs to understand the customer experience which differs between each service. These product owners should sit with the rest of the team delivering the service.

The delivery manager is also a dedicated role with responsibility for delivering on time and budget, without the developers having to work too hard. The product owner and delivery manager may be in conflict – so the service manager can arbitrate in any disputes.

However, the delivery manager may not be specific to an individual service. Instead they could supervise a bench of digital specialists.

3. What resources can they draw on?

We’re likely not to have (or afford) more than 1-2 user researchers, and similar number of developers. If they can work across multiple services, we’re more likely to be able to ensure an efficient and resilient development capability.

Intuitively, I’m not sure this resource can be outsourced. Working to fortnightly releases, with an ever-changing backlog, it would be hard to define this resource as a commodity. And the exemplars build has taught us the value of co-location of developers, product people and researchers.

This napkin drawing by Kit, sets out the possible structure of the team to manage the services post-exemplars.

Digital service team structure

Next steps

I’ve been invited to a training event for service managers. I’m looking forward to learning more about the type of people, their backgrounds and skillsets – and what is hardest and most rewarding about the role.

Then we’ll need to discuss with colleagues and management across the organisation. We’ll need to understand what skills we need to develop, who is best-placed to do this, and how we’re going to resource it. But it feels like we’re developing a strong hypothesis for how the multi-disciplinary team could work.

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