I have never been one to plan too far ahead. When it came to my career, I don’t think I ever learnt how to and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Skills over titles
A wise leader (Vicky Branchett) once told me never to narrow your progression to a job title. Go for the skills you want to learn instead. In hindsight, not having a plan or being wedded to a job title has meant that I have been open to say yes where opportunities presented themselves.
During the last five years with Essex County Council, I've often thought back to when my grandad was diagnosed with dementia and my mum became his main carer. I recall this time with fondness because I got to help my granddad towards the end of his life. This wasn’t without its challenges. I often think about how the 'system' let my mum down during this critical time. She had to fight for a diagnosis. She got handed paperwork without guidance and sent to services that didn't meet her or my granddad's needs. I reflect back on this time and think surely this moment could have been better?
Quick wins or sticking plasters?
I went into research eager to learn and quite excitable (some things never change). I wanted to make a difference to how local government works. All too soon I realised that research in government is hard. Not so much doing it but doing something about it.
You can present a dazzling report, hold interactive workshops, share all the important things you have learnt, but the research gets left gathering dust on a shelf.
Often people say that it's too hard or that quick wins are needed first. I've lost count of the number of times I've said that quick wins will not get you to where you need to be. Quick wins are just plasters on an already bandaged up service.
Leaving Research and joining Adult Social Care, it dawned on me that the slow pace of change in government wasn’t for want of trying. We are surrounded by public servants and public sector leaders who work tirelessly and with the best intentions to make positive changes.
I was inspired but overwhelmed. We talk about health and social care integration, something that is crucial for all users, but in reality leaders are bound by the tension between policy ambition and business as usual pressures. So systemic transformation such as integration becomes a meeting. If you’re lucky, an hour, once a week. But “transformation” cannot be scheduled and it does not have a deadline in a project plan. It has to be earnt.
Shall we push the boulder up the hill together?
Years later, another leader said to me it feels like I am pushing a boulder up a hill. I laughed and replied that’s how it feels for me too. Maybe I should have said, “shall we push the boulder up the hill together?” But I think at the time I was realising that I needed a better toolbox before I could. Something to facilitate bolder, healthier conversations about change. Something that would help leaders feel confident to jump with me.
That for me is the power of Service Design. I didn’t join Service Design because it was a lifelong ambition to be a designer. I joined Service Design because I needed to help government become the best version of itself. I genuinely believe that by understanding the people we serve we can better meet their needs. Five years ago, I just didn’t appreciate that there was a role to help facilitate this.
What Service Design has taught me
Being in Service Design, like my previous roles, has had highs and lows. It is still hard to move local government along and implement change.
Along the way I've learned that:
- the power of empathy, both outside with our end users and inside with our staff and leaders, is our most powerful resource. This means truly appreciating the complexities we work within, including our motivations on the inside
- design does not need to be fancy. It is paper, pen, ugly and cheap
- for me design isn’t mine. It is the services I work with. Services should own design. I am merely a facilitator
- the journey is important. For services so often the end result is what counts but for me the journey is incredible
Watching frontline staff have fun drawing, sharing their ideas out loud, speaking and being heard, this, for me, is magical.
And I guess the biggest learning is that, although it is hard, design is not impossible. It is often small, incremental movements. The impact, if we get it right, can be enormous. Local government is important in people’s lives. The pandemic shows us that. It is local enough that it transcends all of our lives. Important enough that it steps in when times get tough.
Lots has changed, but the positivity's still there
I am grateful for the opportunity local government has given me. It has opened up many opportunities of learning and progression, as well as working with many inspiring leaders. Leaders who have opened up my eyes, helped me move forward, talked me through many frustrations and wins. These are people who have pushed me to be better and do better work. And now I am leaving Essex, with the same feeling of optimism and positivity I came in with.