Organising around users

At GDS, Russell used to say that digital transformation is about shifting the organising principle from government needs to user needs.

In its simplest form, this is culture. People start asking the question “what is the user need?” in product teams, perhaps in the leadership. Many good projects happened because somebody at the right point in time reframed it around the real user needs that had to be met.

At the opposite end, many are rethinking their overarching governance and business processes in response to transformation: the kinds of processes from which funding decisions get made, people get hired, and performance gets measured. Some orgs are focussing on making it easier to run and manage agile projects. The ones who are doing this really well are re-engineering their funding models for prototyping and continuous improvement.

But – few are bringing user needs into the crux of their planning processes. What if user needs were actually the framework for everything your organisation does?

You would start by identifying the most important needs you serve. If you’ve done user research recently, you might already have this. Then you’d write them up as user stories and put them in a place where everyone can see them. (If this sounds familiar, it’s a bit like the tooling we built on GOV.UK to track user needs for content.)

Performance measurements could be set against needs, not projects. After all, most organisations try to solve the same user problems from one year to the next, but the way in which they’re addressed might change. What if your quarterly business planning was “focus on the user needs that we aren’t meeting very well”?

Assign owners to each user need. If not empowered to deliver on all of it, give your owner a remit to ensure the user journey is joined-up across different business areas or functions. Tag your research, code, and lessons learned, and you have a collection of well-evidenced needs that would enrich over time.

Finally, map everything you do - services, content, policy, support - to your needs. It would become clear which needs are being met, which ones are not, and which projects don’t actually meet a real user need at all. Best of all, you’d see where multiple projects are trying to meet the same need, but might be housed in completely separate parts of your organisation.

(Now, what would this look like for the whole of government?)