UKTI Ideas Lab

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I’ve been working at the UKTI Ideas Lab for about six months now – it’s high time I explained a bit more about what we do there on this blog.

Disclaimer: this is all written from my point of view and does not represent UKTI. You’re not going to find out about UKTI future strategy from this blogpost, but you can learn a bit about the working life of a service designer in government.

What is UKTI Ideas Lab?
UKTI is a government department – UK Trade & Investment. It provides support services to people that want to export goods or develop their business abroad. It also encourages investment in British businesses from abroad.

The Ideas Lab is a team within UKTI. It was set up to encourage and nurture ideas from staff to improve UKTI internal practices and services they provide. More recently, the Lab has developed in a way that I have not heard of other Labs developing – our main result and unwritten objective is to drive principles internally.

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We do project work to bring people on board with the changes underway – we help people understand why user needs are important, what one can find out from qualitative research, and help get staff on the same page as each other and citizens by producing visual communications of research. In this way, the Lab has been more about change management and internal politics than designing and prototyping services. We have conducted design research but we have not prototyped any services – at least, not yet.

The Lab, I feel, has done some significant ground work about user needs to pave the way for the recent and future changes, following of course GDS’s sparking huge change across government. Around the same time as I started, a Digital Director started, Jason Caplin. In the last month he has managed to hire a new digital team who have previously worked in the Ministry of Justice. I’m very excited about this – they’ve got stuck straight into prototyping. The early work we did on customer insights has helped develop an internal cultural foundation for the digital team to flourish.

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My role
Initially I joined the Ideas Lab as a service designer – the objectives I had revolved around encouraging a culture of collaboration through bringing together informal cross-team networks around opportunities for learning about innovation (which they call ‘capability building’), as well as lending my service design skills to whatever other projects came up, and driving service design principles.

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Within a month of starting my contract, the scope of the Ideas Lab work changed. We had to drop the capability building objective in favour of a customer insight project about exporters. All team members dropped their projects in order to work on this full time. UKTI had never undertaken a customer insight project in this way before. There were no processes in place. Our team members all came from different backgrounds, so there was a lot of upfront experimentation about what research processes could work.

We interviewed over 50 people, in a broad, loosely structured style. In this way, we found out about the big picture – what does exporting mean, and how do people do it? What does government need to do to encourage people to export? We also held 9 ‘Export Jams’ simultaneously in 9 regions in England involving over 350 people, asking how exporting could become more efficient. Hundreds of ideas came out of the jams. More on this later.

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I believe we had a unique opportunity to ask the big picture questions. Our research was not geared around developing one particular government service, which is what service designers and user researchers in government are normally tasked with. We could get a view on the end-to-end process of people who export goods or services, and what people do in their journey when government is not involved. Our multidisciplinary team could understand the research we conducted from different angles, so we could truly have a big picture view.

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This sort of information is spectacularly useful when it comes to internal developments. The Ideas Lab is part of the digital team with links to the strategy team, so we help to bridge the gap, and encourage philosophies in strategy teams typically held by service designers and GDS-style digital teams. I would love to hear if there are other Labs working in this way.

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A designer in the civil service
I’d spent six months working in a council with FutureGov, so the civil service was still quite new to me when I started this job. I am still learning about how internal politics works. Internal politics are hugely important in government, especially in a time where the power is rebalancing after a change.

I’ve found it fascinating – government working styles are so different from what I’ve been used to. Hierarchies deeply inform the ways that people think, and it means adapting my style to a new environment. I am used to participatory design so I’m accustomed to working within a team where everyone has a personal stake in a project, but in a traditional civil service environment the vision has often already been laid out either politically, or within the hierarchy. Nurturing creativity and collaboration in this context can be a challenge; it’s something the civil service knows needs to change, and so it’s encouraging that the Ideas Lab has been given space to really try and build this. It will be exciting to see what impact we’ll be having over the coming years.

Prior to this job, my understanding and thinking of how teams should be set up revolved around skills. Seniority simply didn’t factor in to the way I thought about working on projects, to the same extent as it does in government. I thought this thinking stemmed from working in design, but at the moment I suspect it’s more down to my experiences freelancing for clients and working in start ups, where power structures are looser and flex with respect to each others’ skills and experience depending on what you are working on at the time.

I am also used to having a great deal of autonomy having freelanced: it’s taking time to get used to not owning my own time and falling in line with working practices that are alien to me. I’m sure this is something that every 20-something year old goes through when changing jobs, but I do believe it’s an especially big change to go from working in an extremely creative autonomous environment to a bureaucratic hierarchical risk averse environment (as in government, not the Ideas Lab).

I’m pointing this out because it’s part of the reality: as a social designer, you have to be totally wedded to your mission of helping government develop, if you are thinking about entering this field. It’s challenging on a personal development level.

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Co-design and jams
My opinion of what co-design can be has changed. Before this job, I thought of co-design as a way of designing with citizens. However, government has a very complex set of criteria to meet: we have to meet user needs, as well as meet the Minister’s vision which is of course, political. It is difficult to present this complex criteria to citizens – for one thing, much of the time it is too sensitive to actually talk about. This means that whatever ideas citizens come up with are going to be very hit and miss – they won’t all be able to fit in with the sorts of ideas we need.

Hundreds of ideas came out of the ‘Export Jams’ we ran. Just because we will not be able to implement most of the ideas in precisely the way that the citizens intended doesn’t mean that the jams weren’t hugely useful. They illustrated to us what people expect to see out of services that are provided to them. The ideas ranged from systems thinking concepts, involving ways of joining up government and private sector services, to small tweaks that they’d like to see in our current services. They revealed cultural trends about how people expect services to be.

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Banal realities
Design in government sounds like a glamorous, mysterious, exciting thing. It is exciting, but the rub with being radical is that design in government is still finding its feet. Most civil servants aren’t sure what to expect from service designers, and it takes time for designers to learn about government contexts. It takes time to pick up all the acronyms – there aren’t lists you can just google – it takes time to decode the language and establish new common language. And then there’s the technology with all the layers of security, which never stops frustrating anyone.

Design in the civil service during political change is not the easiest job, but I do feel that we are making history here. My team have been part of laying down the ground for real change in UKTI, and I hope we are helping pave the way for other government teams to drive principles of user centredness and collaboration in their own departments.

Thank you UKTI Ideas Lab for a fascinating first six months.

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Filed under My current work, UKTI Ideas Lab

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