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5 reasons local government projects don’t make it out of discovery (and what to do about it)

To improve local government digital services, we need to transform the ones that aren’t fit for purpose into ones that create a better user experience, are accessible and inclusive, and meet user needs. This all starts at the discovery phase. It sets the priorities when delivering a new service, or improving an existing one. It’s where you’ll identify the problem, and come up with ways to fix it.

Note: if you’re not familiar with discovery phases, take a look at How the discovery phase works in the GOV.UK service manual.

Not all projects make it past this stage. And I’m not saying all discoveries should. Sometimes you realise there’s nothing you can viably build to solve the problem, or it’s not worth the time and resources. But we can work on improving our processes to get important work past the finish line, so we can make impactful change.

Here are 5 reasons projects don’t make it out of discovery, and how to make sure they do when they should. (Or as close to make sure as you can reasonably get). 

1. You haven’t defined a clear outcome

You can’t really move forward with a project just because you can see there’s an area that’s not working. Chances are it won’t make it out of discovery unless it’s meeting a priority, goal, or need from the leadership team. They could be interested but can’t see how it will fix a problem. Or they’ll not be able to find the time, money and people to see it through. And then it’ll just sit as a useful piece of discovery that’ll probably never be acted on.

Find the right things that are the burning issues of the teams you’re working with and try to tailor your discovery towards that to help them. Talk to the right people upfront about the latest priorities and strategies. This probably varies slightly between different organisations. Try the programme management office, executive leadership team or policy and partnership people. 

2. You haven’t got the money to build it

This is a big one. Some local government teams have lots of time and the right people to do discoveries. They’ll have a digital transformation team, for example, who can present their discovery to the board and move it forward. But sometimes there isn’t enough money to deliver it. 

This isn’t a user-centred design (UCD) issue – it’s an organisational one. Understand your environment. For example, if your organisation only uses suppliers to deliver stuff, understand how that affects your ability to do discovery in the first place. Agree to a defined budget or within certain parameters. For a certain amount of work, get a small, in-house team. Make sure there’s one system for getting work approved, and that you’ve defined ownership of it.

3. Delivering the changes relies on legacy kit or IT fixes

There are a number of traditional key players who have always provided big, legacy back-office systems for local government. These cost a fortune if you want to improve your in-house coding system to do things like, for example, getting council tax bills online. 

If you don’t have ownership of a system because a third-party supplier does it, your ability to fix things gets blown out of the water. The bits out of your control can take months to complete. By the time the work’s done, you might not have the people anymore to finish the project because they’re working on the next bit of strategic importance. This can happen in-house, too. Teams tend to be stretched. If something’s broken they have to fix it but it’s hard to keep to time frames because there’s always so much going on and so few people. They may have other important priorities that can’t wait.

For an organisation to genuinely be able to redesign and transform, you need a bit of slack in the system. You need to be able to give people the time to go and do the thinking, meaning they’d need to step back from day-to-day operations.

In summary, focus on making sure everyone agrees on things, and decide on the priorities because you can only really work on those.

4. You haven’t translated it into the language of your organisation

Sometimes, the money for transformation is placed in roles where people might not be experts in digital service redesign, like service improvement roles. Don’t get me wrong these roles can be important, too. The problem is, they might know loads about the service or sector, but they don’t know the detail and expertise involved in UCD, just as we don’t in social work or planning legislation. 

Be mindful of your budget allocation to different jobs. But also, get clear on everyone’s roles. Have one team working together in a way that allows everyone to play to their strengths. The service improvement people can tell you everything you need to know about the problem needing to be solved, and the digital design team can make sure that the solution is based in UCD so that it does actually solve the problem. If you can get clear on everyone’s roles as early as possible this will mean that the service improvement people don’t also come with what they think the solution should be.

5. You haven’t worked to the government Service Standard

If your organisation doesn’t work to the government Service Standard, they should. This sets out all the things you need to have done to make a project successful.

You don’t need to pass a GDS assessment for it to be a valuable thing to do, because you’ll still need to meet the standards for your IT and security team to be able to deliver a piece of work. Everything’s there to make it easy for you. If you’re confident you’d pass an assessment then the thing you’ve built is good, and your organisation is more likely to agree with that. 

What makes it hard in practice is the point where the legal and information management team have to get involved. Usually, it’s because they’re overworked. They’re also on the greatest side of caution. This can be about money or reputational risk.

If I could give just one piece of advice to local gov teams…

It’s best to stick to one joined-up plan and pre-agree things to prioritise. Not being told over here to do it, and over there somewhere else. Don’t put discovery in its own bubble. 

The best way to get people to understand the value of good agile discovery is to remember this: the strategy is still delivery. That can be really hard, but if there’s an acute or emergency situation you can use for the benefit of all, that’s when people get it.

If you’d like to hear more from us on UCD, project delivery, and more, sign up for Made Tech Insights to get new blog posts and other content delivered to your inbox.

Hear Made Tech UCD Principal Joanne Moore speak at our webinar on how to set up user-centred design to save time and money this August! Find out more and get your tickets.

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