As it’s (just over) a month since I started at Delib, I thought I’d do a quick post with some of the things I’ve learned in my first few weeks. So here are five:

1. How things are done in an SME

Having worked in a relatively large government department, coming to a small startup has brought an interesting change in atmosphere. Departments tend to be split up into a lot of specialised teams. Whatever it is you need to know about, there’s someone who will know a lot more about it than you, and so one of the most valuable skills you can have is being able to find that person and get what you need out of them.

In a small business, that person isn’t there – so the skills needed are different. It’s down to you to either work out the answer yourself; usually an answer that gets the job done, rather than a perfect one, allowing you to concentrate on what you really need to do. After all, every minute of work lost costs someone money, and if they’re in the same room as you…

2. Being outside of Whitehall and central departments: government is much bigger than you think!

Delib’s client base is very broad – going all the way from central government departments to small district councils. Coming into contact with all of these organisations is a real reminder of what it’s often easy to forget – that the public sector and government is huge, and does a lot of things.

3.Digital literacy is a big challenge in government

The need for greater digital skills in government is one of the mantras of the ‘Civil Service Reform’ agenda that has been advanced under the current government, to the extent of becoming a bit of a cliche – although that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong! From my experience of Delib, however – a business that to some extent depends on government being reasonably digitally competent – it’s not necessarily in the same way or for the same reasons that we assume.

The reasons that are most commonly given for ‘digital illiteracy’ tend to be an ageing workforce and ingrained organisational resistance to change. These are certainly factors – but these aren’t exclusive to local government, and I think there are others at play that perhaps aren’t talked about as much.

The equipment that people are given to work with is also a big problem. It’s very hard to develop digital skills if email systems, internet browsers and desktop machines themselves are several years out-of-date. From my own experience, this can often be the case in central departments – and the situation seems similar in local government (perhaps understandably, given the pressure on budgets).

If we consider our public servants who deal with information as ‘knowledge workers’ – which, in my mind, we should – I think it’s important to make sure they have access to the technology they need. This isn’t without cost, but it might be more justified than sinking huge sums of money into bespoke IT projects that often add little to the quality of public services.

There is also the tendency for senior managers in organisations to exert an undue influence over the way technology is used. Big projects become totemic parts of ‘change management’ and are cloaked in nebulous project management terminology, but with the disadvantage that the people in charge have little real understanding of how it’s actually going to work or what it will really look like. Maybe I’ve become biased at Delib, but it’s definitely given me the impression that smaller organisations do tech better.

4. Designing a web service: aesthetics do matter

At the end of the day web services are all about the users. Their value is in making things easier and quicker to do.

It’s for this reason that one of the foremost concerns Delib’s customers have with the product is ‘how does it feel for the user?’. And whilst we might rightly accuse some web products of putting form over function, a visually appealing interface can make all the difference for a site that is designed to publicly engage with citizens and, in some way, make their lives easier.

The online world should be thought of in the same terms as a real, physical environment. It’s both a working space and a space for dealing with visitors and the public. We think a lot about the design and construction of our public environment. In some ways, however, us citizens of the information age spend our lives between two worlds  Given how much cheaper, easier and quicker it is to create a pleasant online environment, it’s surprising government doesn’t spend more time making it so!

5. What running a support desk actually looks like – managing ‘failure demand’.

Like most people, my previous experience with using ‘support desks’ was often that of communicating with a somewhat disembodied presence at the other end of a phone or an email. Manning the support desk at Delib has let me see behind the curtain…and it’s been enlightening.

In any case, I’ll be (slightly) more sympathetic when I call someone at a support desk, tell them my problem and they ask me to ‘create a ticket’…

And now, back to work on a rainy monday!