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Building prototypes at our cross-government hack

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After calling out the merits of hack days in my blog Collaborating across government: let’s hack, I must admit to feeling a little nervous on the day of the hack itself. We’d persuaded 40 people from across government to join us at the Open Data Institute (ODI) in Leeds and I wanted to make sure they got value from it at an individual and organisational level.  We also persuaded senior leaders from DWP and NHS Digital to give up their time for our Show and Tell - so no pressure then!

Setting the agenda

Coalescing the event around a theme was key and we used this to generate interest and collaborate in the days before the event. This allowed hackers to do some early thinking and come prepared with their own ideas or problem.

The theme of the day was ‘Do the right thing for citizens by breaking Conway’s Law’. The thinking was that if you let users choose what information is shared it removes a large number of complex cross-government data-sharing challenges and enables us to tackle problems in a completely different way.

What did we do?

On the day our approach was clear: create the environment, set context and themes, form the teams and start hacking as quickly as possible. Our rallying call centred on the fantastic opportunity we all had to work outside of government boundaries to look at citizen-centric solutions.

It’s fascinating to observe the ebbs and flows of a hack day:

•    challenging discussion and debate

•    focussed planning

•    a constant buzz as code is being cut, shared, tested and integrated

As the day went on, sometimes every team was hunkered down, poring over code and testing functionality. At other times, the teams were noisy, chatting through ideas and testing solutions. This was very apparent in the hour leading up to the Show and Tell when very often things comes together at the last minute and noise levels peak!

What did we build?

Sophie Lambert, User Researcher, DWP (right)
Sophie Lambert, User Researcher, DWP (right)

On the day we were able to put together a view of a service where citizens could easily and clearly share information about their health condition, in order to streamline access to different government services.

This was complimented by looking at specific scenarios such as hospital admissions or medical conditions that impacted on teams’ ability to work.

We also looked at how we could communicate more effectively with healthcare professionals and make it easy for citizens to upload documents and evidence online. Having people from GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Verify team at the hack was great as we could demonstrate how we can use these services in our solutions.

One team even thought about how we could make this real by developing a model for delivering cross-government opportunities.

Each team showed their prototype to Rob Shaw (Chief Operating Officer) and Andrew Meyer (Head of Spine Digital Delivery) from NHS Digital, and Kevin Cunnington (Director General, Business Transformation Group) and Nic Harrison (Director, Enabling Digital Delivery) from DWP.

The reaction was really positive – Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) colleagues are picking up work on an end-to-end service that re-used what was built from DWP and GOV.UK notify, we are looking at how we integrate an upload facility into an existing service, and working with NHS Digital on a more detailed prototype to understand a service where customers can share their data.

Everyone was impressed with seeing working prototypes. The preparation before the hack had definitely paid off as it meant that teams came with working code and data around the theme.

What did people get out of it?

Hacking allows you to move your thinking forward, identify ways to solve thorny problems and work on something new and exciting so a real business value emerges. Here's a view from some people at the hack.

Lee Croucher, a Product Owner in DVLA, said:

“It was a really rewarding day working together with team members from a host of different agencies, including DWP.

“Breaking down the boundaries that we all work within allowed us to create an example cross-government system, combining technology from each of our agencies and showing what is possible when an emphasis is placed on working collaboratively.

“Ultimately all respective teams came together and delivered a product on the day that was able to demonstrate what could be possible in the real world when working cross-government.”

Lee Croucher, Product Owner, DVLA
Lee Croucher, Product Owner, DVLA

Sophie Lambert, a DWP User Researcher who was Product Owner on the day, said:

“The best thing about the day was that everyone was taken out of their departmental silos meaning that they could stop thinking within the limits of their department and start thinking about the best way to solve the problem for the user.”

Phil Mawson, a DWP software developer, said:

"As a developer I get the opportunity to look at a problem that would normally be out of scope for the project I am on and to collaborate with people who are outside the team I work in on a day to day basis."

Phil Mawson, Software Developer, DWP
Phil Mawson, Software Developer, DWP

What now

As a Service Manager I truly believe that by meeting user needs we can deliver great services for citizens and meet the needs of our business. Breaking Conway’s law is where this can get truly transformational and a hack is one of many tools we can make use of.

We are ‘on it’ as we speak, taking these ideas further but I am going to let Lee close off this blog as he travelled the furthest to get there and says it so well:

“I hope this is just the start of a series of Cross Government Events/Hacks that further promote what the ‘Art of the Possible’ is when working across Government. This is certainly something I would want to keep supporting and would encourage other Agencies to do so going forward.”

Watch a two-minute video of the Cross-Government Hack Day below (subtitles available on YouTube).


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