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Ways of working - experiments and odysseys

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Open standards

We’ve asked Fliss Bennee, a Senior Technical Advisor here at the Government Digital Service, to share her thoughts on ways of working in a more digital environment.

I’m a big fan of practising what I preach, so as part of the “Ways of Working” event in our series of clinics for open standards, I’ve been thinking about whether I could be doing things more easily and openly.

What’s this all about then?

I sometimes think we don’t spend enough time asking the question “Why?”.

Genuine curiosity can be a powerful force for good because it can lead to understanding and discoveries that make our lives easier.

  • Why do we work like this instead of like that?
  • Why do we use this format when we write?
  • Why don’t we try something new?

We probably don’t spend enough time answering the “Why?” questions either. The answer is usually “because that was how the last person did it” but it could equally be “because we don’t have the time or the money to get new things” or any other of a thousand other responses that mean things never change.

But most of us never even ask the question any more, and that means that we miss out on looking at our day-to-day tasks from a new perspective.

So you’re telling me to change what I do?

Absolutely not.

But I am asking you to ask yourself: “What could I do differently?” and “Would it help?”

There are more ways to work productively than ever at the moment. Some come at a cost, or are for a specialism that doesn’t affect you, but there might be applications and approaches that could make your work easier to do and much easier to share.

So how was the clinic?

I used a web-based presentation app called Prezi for the introduction, and then we got stuck in.

Our external speaker was Mark Foden, a facilitator and communicator who often comes up with really interesting new ways to help government be more digital. He shared some of his feelings, particularly about the presumption that our documents should always be formatted for printing rather than reading on the screen. He also introduced me to one of my favourite new words - “meta-lettuce”.

I won’t try to reprise his whole talk - you can always read the article for yourself - but there were some interesting points I’d like to tease out:

  • Don’t think in print – More and more people would rather read information on their computers, tablets or smartphones than print the papers out first. Think about how your information will appear on different devices, and whether HTML5 would be better than a document.
  • Don’t worry about the layout when you’re writing - Write in markdown or clear the formatting out of your current word processor and just write. The layout will be stripped off anyway before your information is published online.
  • Do see what works for you - and share what you find out with your colleagues and your technical teams.

We also had a speaker from another part of GDS, the splendid Anna Wojnarowska from the User Research team. She shared what it was actually like to find out how people worked, and gave us an insight into just how much you can get from watching someone work.

  • Working is like moving - most of the things we do become automatic so we’re not even aware of them.
  • It takes hours to properly observe a single user - Just working with one person involves an introduction, at least two hours observing in silence and an hour or so debriefing. That’s before you even begin to analyse what that could mean.
  • The savings are huge - if we take the time to properly understand why people are working in a particular way, we can save not only time but cost in purchasing, developing and rolling out solutions for problems that don’t really exist.

What does any of that have to do with Open Standards?

It’s pretty clear looking at how different people work that one size does not fit all.

Some people will choose to work across lots of different applications and some will want to find one piece of software that does everything they need. Whether you want software that is full of features or something online that is very simple, there will be others who need something different.

We can only really ensure that people can choose their ways of working if we standardise the formats we use to share information.

By agreeing open standards, we are ensuring that everyone has the choice of ways to work, and everyone can share and consume the outputs.

For public servants creating documents, that means that whether your department chooses an offline or cloud-based suite, whether it’s proprietary or FLOSS (free libre open source software), you’ll be able to share your work with people across government and beyond, without having to use what they’re using.

In my next post, I’ll blog about the tools I’ve experimented with and assessed in my own ways of working voyage, and which ones I’ll continue to use.

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