Annual Report Number Four: theory, practice + Jaffa cakes

I’m on a train

It’s the second-to-last day of April in the year 02016 and I’m just getting round to writing this annual report to myself on a fourth year of independent consulting. For the story so far, see:

This one has taken a little longer than usual. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

Government services: not done yet

In matters of public administration I am a Brackenist. Like many, I came to the Government Digital Service inspired by the unstinting focus on “Trust, Users, Delivery” and stayed for the breadth and depth of talented people assembled at Aviation House. So when many of the pioneers moved on last summer, there was a moment of hesitation.

But what I had seen at first hand through my work with service managers was that the government digital revolution already stretched well beyond the bunting at 125 Kingsway. All over the country, hundreds of civil servants are reimagining public services, with people at the centre. Just scroll through the #ofthegovernment tweets to see some of these heroes in action.

So I’m still coaching user-centred design, agile and digital stuff in the DWP Digital Academy. Their commitment to industrial scale skills transfer is a massive vote of confidence in the department’s workforce, rightly recognised with a Civil Service Award.

Meanwhile, Sharon Dale has pretty much single-handedly and unflappably delivered successive cohorts of the GDS Service Manager Programme. And we’ve both carried on delivering the one-day Digital Foundation Day through Civil Service Learning.

True to our agile values, we aim to learn and improve with every delivery. Here’s one comment I received after running a Foundation Day for a group of civil servants in Preston…

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Over use of the word iterate !

As Louise Downe put it, we’re not done yet.

Winning here

The opportunity to transform Britain’s public sector goes even further than the 24 ministerial departments and their national offshoots. My home city of Leeds has been at the forefront of local democracy and public health since the 1830s. And even when Whitehall makes the policies, it frequently depends on locally managed institutions for delivery.

I’m proud to have been a minor player in two areas where Leeds has special expertise: digital health with mHabitat and open data with ODI Leeds (I reckon Tom Forth is right -it’s time to back this winner).

Let’s jam!

ODI Leeds has been the perfect setting for a couple more service jams this year. The biggest so far was Leeds GovJam 2015, brilliantly documented in this video by our sponsors DWP. Kathryn Grace, Matt Lund and I told our combined jamming story at Service Design in Government 2016 where we received my favourite ever piece of workshop feedback…

Good balance of theory, practice + Jaffa cakes.

In a few weeks’ time we have the honour of hosting the Global GovJam HQ team in Leeds for #GGovJam 2016. No one makes a profit from the jams, but I feel I have benefited immensely from being a part of this global movement.

And, and, and…

Some other interesting things I’ve done in the past 12 months…

At Impact Hub Birmingham

As I enter year 5, I’m also starting to work with the amazing new digital team being brought together at the Co-operative Group in Manchester.

The local maximum

The good news – it feels like I’ve found a model that meets my initial criteria:

  • Is there a service design challenge here?
  • Does it involve digital innovation?
  • Will I be helping to develop capability?
  • Can I do this work mainly in Leeds?

The frustrating bit – there’s only so much of me to go round. Working like this I’m reaching a local maximum – either I keep on optimising little by little, or I strike out and try something new. So in the past year I’ve started passing more work to associates and working with them on engagements I could never have taken on alone.

Here’s what that looks like in numbers

This data comes from the management accounts for Changeful Ltd, my consulting practice. Unaudited accounts, rounded to nearest £1000, usual cautions apply…

Year 1 was about finding my feet, working out what clients needed, what I could do for them, and all the gubbins of running a micro-business. (To anyone daunted by that stuff, get a good accountant who can work with cloud-based accounting software. Mine has become an enthusiastic convert to Xero, which is ace.)

In years 2 and 3, I worked at pretty much my full capacity as a freelancer. I’m fairly sure I could make more by doing fewer, longer, full-time contracts, but I enjoy the flexibility of working on two or three things in parallel. My clients want me to bring new ways of looking at things, not go native as just another team member.

In year 4, I continued working at full capacity – and then some – by relying on some fantastic associates to carry on and collaborate on stuff with me. So while the sales line on my Profit & Loss account jumped by close to 50%, most of that went back out to other people (the negative “Consulting” series on my chart). That’s as it should be: they’re brilliant, and they did the work.

Travel and other expenses – co-working space, insurance, sticky notes and felt tip pens etc. – have remained remarkably consistent across the four years. I believe the service design sector has benefited greatly from the global over-supply of 80’s Glam Fine Point Sharpies.

The black line on the chart shows what’s left after my company has paid my associates and expenses. From this come my salary, pension contributions, national insurance, personal tax and corporation tax (fun fact – in 2014 my micro-business paid three times more of this than Facebook in the UK). What’s left can be dividends or reserves to reinvest in the business. My total reward package in full time employment at Orange was higher than this, but as a family we continue to live about as comfortably as we did then.

That local maximum again: these are the rough metrics of that dread term “lifestyle business”. I prefer Paul Hawken’s anti-startup, “a keep-going”. Your Mileage May Vary.

One more thing

That’s not the end of the story because year 4 for me as a consultant was also year 1 for Stick People.

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Thanks to Lisa Jeffery for the lovely photo of Stick People

Kathryn, Sharon and I have worked together on projects for a few years now. We’re starting up a consultancy to help make organisations more capable in service design and digital. So far we’ve done two things together formally …

  • workshops and coaching for Leeds City Council’s community hubs initiative
  • discovery and development of Leeds’ Digital Practitioner Programme with mHabitat.

We hope these are only the beginning.

Want to be part of Year 5? I’m at and

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