Against biggerism

Mr. Thacker was a humble and quiet man, except when he thought other people were making things too big and complicated. “His lifelong fight was against what he called ‘biggerism,’” …

WSJ Obituary: Charles Thacker’s Work Gave Rise to Modern Versions of iPad, PC


Joining NHS Digital

On Monday I’m joining NHS Digital as head of design. My focus will be with teams delivering patient-facing programmes, while developing designers and the design profession across the whole organisation. I can’t wait to get started!

Over my years of consulting, I’ve been lucky enough to work on many and varied things, from Internet of Things energy controls, to digital skills development for health and social care practitioners. With GDS and the DWP Digital Academy, I’ve developed and delivered courses for hundreds of civil servants.

As I’ve gone along, I’ve evolved 4 questions to filter and focus the engagements I take on:

  • 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?

When I saw this opportunity back in February, I realised I was missing an unspoken fifth question:

  • Could this be a massive, multi-year, challenge for me?

Through a series of interviews and informal chats with others who know this space much better than I do, the temptation to work alongside great groups of people delivering such important service continued to outweigh my trepidation at the scale of the challenge.

For one thing, there’s the impact of the stuff this organisation is delivering to meet user needs. Patients, service users, families and carers have a visceral need for information about their health and care; it’s about them personally. At system scale, small changes can make a massive difference.

Secondly, I’ve found it hugely rewarding in previous roles to help designers develop their practice into a strategic capability for the whole organisation — making visible what’s valuable, and supporting creative leaps to deliver better service.

And further, I have long held a hunch that the practices of co-creation and co-production emerging in health and social care will be the foundations for the next phase of people-centred service design. If we want to transform the relationship between citizen and state, we should start by understanding the changing dynamics between patients and practitioners.

Fully committing to this role means tying up my consulting engagements, including my coaching with the Digital Academy. I’ll miss them all! (My Stick People colleagues Kathryn and Sharon will carry on their work, including the GDS Service Manager Programme.)

As with any new job, the window of opportunity to shape things comes just when I understand the least. My week one priorities are to hear from the designers and key stakeholders, and to observe some user research on the programmes we’re delivering. Further out, I look forward to working more widely through the health and care system, and with the community of heads of design across government.

My colleagues and I will need all sorts of help from other people. We’ll need to develop ourselves as designers and design leaders, to strengthen our networks across the whole health and care system, to clarify and simplify every part of the service that we touch.

I’ve been reading up in preparation for the new role. The following seem particularly relevant right now:

Meanwhile the design team at NHS Digital is already growing. Applications for these interaction design roles in Leeds and London close on 9 June.

Now that’s what I call doing not talking

Doteveryone CEO Rachel Coldicutt’s Medium post, ‘What if tech conferences don’t matter that much?’ landed just as we were wrapping up Leeds GovJam 2017. Here’s me posing awkwardly with the awesome volunteer team who made this year’s event happen…

Leeds GovJam volunteer team: Sharon, Tim, Emma, Kathryn, Tero, Lisa, Matt, Angela, Marie and Si

Every one of these people could, and should, stand on a platform and drop pearls of wisdom to an attentive audience. I would definitely pay to go to that conference.

But what the volunteer team did this week was more valuable than that: they modelled, coached, and mentored. They created a platform for others to perform.

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Leeds GovJam 2017 teams at work

Our jammers made many things:

  • 7 prototypes, tested and iterated multiple times within 48 hours
  • new connections across the public, private and third sectors
  • commitments to keep on working differently…


At the jams, we have a hashtag for that — #doingnottalking.

Annual Report Number Five

This is my fifth annual report on working as a service design and innovation consultant. For the story so far, see posts from 201320142015 and 2016.


Saying yes to more things, more often

Early in the New Year, a Stick People client got in touch to ask about a big piece of work with a very short deadline. I knew it would be a great fit for us, that we could really help the client – but also that we’d need some help. And for this job I knew where to turn.

This client is based in Birmingham, so it seemed natural to call Daniel Blyden from Spaghetti. We had never worked together formally before, but I knew that as a fellow global service jam host, he would have a shared language and way of working in a team with Stick Person Kathryn Grace.

So it turned out. Dan and Kathryn did a great job between them organising and running 6 co-creation workshops in 2 weeks, capturing loads of useful insights to help move our client’s thinking forward.

Being able to say yes to more things, more of the time, was a big part of the vision for Stick People – to quickly assemble dream teams of specialists wrapped around each client’s needs. Having a diverse network makes it possible to do this while keeping Stick People as small and lightweight as possible.

For the Digital Practitioner Programme, we were fortunate to partner with Vanessa Garrity, of Sociable Angels. Having a mental health nurse on the team gave us confidence to engage with both citizens and practitioners to understand what needs to happen for them to get the most out of digital in health and care. Our report has now been published by Leeds City Council, and mHabitat are developing the programme in an exciting direction.

Meanwhile, Sharon Dale had been facilitating the Government Digital Service’s Service Manager Programme pretty much single-handed for more than a year. Now user researcher and People Before Pixels organiser Rose Rees Jones is running cohorts too. It’s great to have her enthusiasm and perspective on the course.

Did I mention, we also ran a Global GovJam?

Helping people learn


My own main coaching commitment continues to be with the Digital Academy, mainly in Leeds, occasionally London. I’ve delivered working level learning for business analysts and product owners, many of whom I first met a couple of years earlier on the original academy foundation courses.

As the transformation agenda ripples out across the government, there’s growing demand from people who aren’t digital specialists but have important roles to play in making digital service a success. My academy colleagues and I have run closed courses with teams that make policy and run frontline operations.

In particular, it has been my privilege to work with senior civil servants responsible for some of the biggest services in government. We don’t just explain design concepts, we get leaders to experience them with activities covering concepts such as rapid concept generation, synthesis, prototyping and iteration.

As I work with others learning, I’m also learning loads myself, from every group of participants, the academy team and other coaches.

The academy is now moving from DWP to GDS, giving us the chance to offer agile, iterative and user-centred learning right across government. As this snippet from the Government Transformation Strategy suggests, the ambition is huge:

We need to be user-centered, multidisciplinary, open with our thinking and working, data-driven and led by service design. We will create an environment and culture that supports making policy based on cycles of user research and rapid iteration. We will invest in service design leadership and capability. We will ensure that the policy profession is fully equipped to work with agile design and delivery teams.

Putting it into practice


This time last year I was just starting out on an engagement with the amazing CoopDigital team on Funeralcare. I did some research, made some prototypes, and learned loads about the complex, unexpected and important business of caring for the bereaved and the deceased. I also got to see one of the world’s sharpest, most dedicated product managers in action. I’m now looking on enviously as Kathryn gets stuck into a proper contract with a different team at the Coop.

One of my interests in the past year has been how teams make the leap from just having a service in development to owning a proper live one. I did some service blueprinting work with a team in this position on Coop Membership, and a day a week working with the Skills Funding Agency in Coventry as they approached going live with a major new policy initiative and matching digital service.

My one regret from the past year’s consulting is not being able to spend enough time with these awesome teams. If you have experience of working successfully on a “day or two a week” basis with an agile team, I’d love to know how you made it work.

The money bit

In last year’s report, I shared some numbers from the management accounts for my consulting practice, Changeful Ltd. This year, as Stick People HQ Ltd has ramped up but some contracts continue to go through Changeful, it seems reasonable to show a combined picture consolidating both of them. Unaudited accounts, rounded to nearest £1000, usual cautions apply…

Sales are up, but much of that increase went, as it should do, to the people who did the work. I feel very fortunate to have the chance to work with them all.

The black line on the chart is what enables my independent consulting adventure to keep going. It covers my own salary, pension contributions, national insurance, personal tax and corporation tax. What’s left after that can be dividends or reserves to reinvest in the business. As I’ve noted before, 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.

What should these numbers look like in a year’s time? There’s no iron law that they have to keep growing. Then again, I see lots of opportunities to work with great people, on work that matters, and to keep discovering and improving practice as we go. Maybe this is less an agency, more an action learning set with a P&L.

Thanks, as ever to all the family, friends and collaborators who make this possible. Want to be part of Year 6? I’m at and

Want to grow a better culture of citizen engagement? Start with a #GGovJam

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Pascal surveys the GGovJam map

There are 4416 cities in the world, but last year only 32 of them took part in the Global GovJam.

That’s a shame for lots of reasons, but one struck me forcefully when reading the final report of the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission: every city needs to be more openly creative if the widest range of people and places are to contribute to economic success, and benefit from it too.

As the commission says, inclusive growth is not just a British pre-occupation:

“The OECD launched an inclusive growth campaign last year. Governments and mayors of all political affiliations have been looking at how growth can work better for people.”

More to the point:

“… no one organisation is more powerful than the others. The individuals need to know each other, trust each other and be able to work together on an equal basis to find common objectives…”

So how about this from the About page?

“Jamming offers a high-energy, massively diverse environment which focusses firmly on doing, not talking. By moving through a common innovation process, participants move away from well-trodden paths, building on each other’s ideas to take practical, constructive steps towards novel solutions.”

The commission’s model of inclusive growth is underpinned by five key principles:

  • Creating a shared, binding mission
  • Measuring the human experience of growth, not just its rate
  • See growth as a social system, not just a machine
  • Be an agile investor at scale
  • Entrepreneurial, whole-place leadership

You’ll find every one of those principles embodied in a GovJam:

  • Creating a shared, binding mission – by getting people to collaborate intensively, around a shared theme, rather than traditional “talking shop” formats where everyone takes turns to promote their own agenda
  • Measuring the human experience of growth, not just its rate – by training teams and citizens in qualitative design research techniques to complement traditional financial and quantitative measures
  • See growth as a social system, not just a machine – using tools such as stakeholder mapping, ecosystem and service blueprinting and the business model canvas
  • Be an agile investor at scale  – by creating a space for rapid prototyping and testing of many small ideas that collectively add up to more than would be achieved by simply “picking winners”
  • Entrepreneurial, whole-place leadership – in a forum that no one organisation owns, allowing leaders across sectors to try out new ways of working with each other, with citizens, and with communities.

So how about it?

Global GovJam 2017 will be on 17 and 18 May.

Here’s a note we wrote last year about hosting a local jam.

Registrations for 2017 hosts will open soon over at


Do the hard work to help people learn

Giles, Ella, Matt and Russell have pulled together various opinions about presentations in one place: It’s ace. Follow their links and their advice. Your presentations will be better for it.

In fact, stop reading here if you only ever do presentations in situations that look like this…

The sage on the stage

But, but, but…

But, pedagogy!

Often I find myself making slides for a different kind of setting – one where people want active learning, not a passive “talked at” experience. As Giles says, “presenting is performing“. Facilitating, on the other hand, is creating a platform for learners to perform…

Social construction over content transmission

No matter how polished the materials, learning is always an exchange. The facilitator responds and adapts to participants’ emerging needs during the delivery of a session…

Designing for diversity over delivering standardised material

Over recent months I’ve set myself the challenge of applying all the good stuff from, overlaid with the things I’ve learned about learning. I think it’s working.

Let’s begin with the obvious…

The course is not the slides

… and…

The slides are not your notes

You know those things already, right? Start with an outline of what you hope learners will achieve and experience in the session – an outline you’ve co-created with potential participants. Then plan the activities to support them. Have some slack in the plan so you can change direction, sequence and pace according to the unique needs of each group.

Still, it’s easy to lapse. Like a visual Newspeak, the guidance makes slidecrime less thinkable.

Constraints preserve your focus and flexibility…

  • no visual metaphors
  • no wordart or clipart
  • no bullets
  • no slide transitions
  • few words per slide
  • a single font

When the template isn’t working, you’ll usually find that the thing you’re making shouldn’t be a slide at all. Double down on the other tools in the learning armoury instead…


Leave the instructions for an activity on the screen so everyone knows clearly what they’re meant to do, and how long they’ve got to do it.

Walls and whiteboards

Slides disappear, stuff on walls builds as the session goes on.


Instead of writing the wise person’s words on a slide, get a clip of them speaking for themselves.


Slides can support a conversation, but only if they’re designed and used a certain way…

This is me telling you something

What if I put a question on the screen instead?

Show the thing

If it’s a digital thing, link to it from the slides. Even better, invite participants to try the thing on their own devices. Keep a few nice screenshots as backup in case of live demo failure.


Put the detail in handouts and takeaways. If those bullet points are important, people will want to refer back to them.

If a 2 by 2 matrix is important enough to explain box by box, people will need to follow the story. 4 text slides can tell the story step by important step – or lose the slides and draw it on a whiteboard.

Above all…

Own your slides

Great presenters always tell the story their own way (which is why nobody should be forced to use someone else’s slides.) The better you prepare, the more you can perform in the moment, and respond to what happens in the room.

Examples of slides

Cease transmission.

The eleventh day of Christmas: better maps

Few worthwhile service designs start from a blank canvas. By making visual what’s intangible, we understand what actors might be involved, and how they are already connected. But complex worlds demand honest maps. No more 2 by 2 matrices and deterministic left-to-right drift. Show me the dragons and the uncharted territories.

moomin map.jpg