28 Jun 2021

dxw: Successful digital services need blended teams

For the past few years, public sector organisations have set about transforming, and many of them have created their own digital teams. Often, as was the case with the Government Digital Service, a small team starts from scratch which is then supplemented by existing teams in the organisation or with help from outside agencies. Sometimes, the IT, technology or even the marketing team is rebranded as the digital team. 

A blended approach needs partners, not contractors  

When you’re at the start of a modernisation, transformation or change programme you need to build new capability quickly. It’s often the case that a small team of pioneers and digital specialists will take on a project, usually a website, and operate as an exemplar showing new ways of working for the organisation. 

Pretty soon, you will hit up against capability or capacity constraints and ideally at this stage, you should be looking for a partner. The outcome you should be looking for is not simply people to work to whatever plan you might have, but to build your own team’s confidence and capability. Interim people are a good option but if you rely on a contractor workforce, it’s hard to move away from that and build a permanent team.  

Some central government departments use flexible resourcing contracts, which are an overarching contract with a partner to supply people on demand, often called bench contracts. These can work in a delivery organisation that has a solid roadmap, clearly understood objectives and a degree of digital maturity. But in organisations at an early stage of transformation, there are huge risks if you go down this path. You are effectively ceding control of the work to contractors and putting your faith in planning and project management, rather than learning and iterating your approach by building your own teams. 

At this early stage of transformation, you should create a blended team with a trusted partner. This team must include your own people too as a partnership will fail if it’s only the supplier providing people. Outside expertise helps you build your capability where you don’t have it, but you marry this with your own institutional knowledge and domain expertise. A delivery partner will have an approach and a way of working which can be a model or basis for your team to create its own. 

Most importantly, teams set up this way retain institutional knowledge. If you rely on an army of contractors, when they go, they take their learnings and knowledge with them. Don’t forget, the best way for an organisation to transform is for that transformation to come from within. This is how you create teams that can sustain and improve services over the long term. 

Creating the right conditions to build something new 

Teams succeed when you create the right conditions for them to thrive. If you are bringing in a partner, you should be looking for them to help you adapt and find approaches that are compatible with your organisation and culture. Applying top-down edicts that mandate how you should work is not going to build a sustainable team. 

New, unfamiliar ways of working can bring a fresh perspective. Coming from outside means you aren’t constrained by organisational debt, by which I mean the world-weariness and cynicism you often find in organisations that have been engaged in endless change programmes. We often hear the phrase “post-it note fatigue” when we arrive at an organisation that has been through endless workshopping but is yet to deliver anything tangible. 

Domain and institutional knowledge are invaluable, and both are among the prerequisites for successful delivery. Not only will they help partners navigate an organisation, but in times of scarcity, you can avoid wasted effort on things that have been tried and failed before. 

Collaboration and growing capability 

The pandemic has shown that the most successful services are built on top of existing capability, for example the scaling of Universal Credit at DWP or the Job Retention Scheme service by HMRC. It’s the same with blended teams. They offer a way to bring in outside expertise to do things differently while at the same time building capability on top of what exists. The best way to hold and retain institutional memory and build good services is through blended teams, not short-term thinking and temporary projects.  

A successful delivery partner will look to build a team through pairing and mentoring, matching specialist capability with domain knowledge. This means that as client team members grow in confidence, you should see your delivery partner disengage over time and step back into more supporting roles. This gradual shift is the benefit of a truly blended approach. You will not just have built a product or service but a team that can continue to improve and strengthen your services in future.

Dave Mann dxw.jpeg

This blog was written by Dave Mann, Managing Director, dxw. Learn more about this author here. Prior to joining dxw, Dave was part of the team that built the alpha of GOV.UK at Government Digital Service (GDS).

Companies like dxw share the same philosophy of putting users first and designing services around their needs.Transformation on this scale is a huge cultural change for government and it can only be successful if suppliers play their part too. Read more... 

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