SEPA weeks 01 and 02

Two weeks ago I started a contract with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to carry out user research. SEPA is Scotland’s principal environmental regulator, protecting and improving Scotland’s environment and is a non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government. I’m part of a small team whose purpose is slowly being defined and articulated but is ostensibly in place to bring service design approaches to modernising some of SEPA’s regulatory systems.

I’m starting part-time because I’m transitioning out of a job with the Democratic Society while transitioning into SEPA. I’ll be going full-time from the end of next week so this weeknote is looking back on one week of work over two. I’ll be working in the open as much as I can over this 16 week contract so I can keep questioning myself, so I can develop a kind of non-maker portfolio and so I can share my experiences with the ever growing service design and public service reform communities in the UK’s public services (we are everywhere!)  These weeknotes will be focused on introspection and personal reflections using Satori Lab‘s post-event prompts as a guide.

This week’s (very broad) context

SEPA has a relatively new CEO (three years in post next month) who has set out a vision and strategy for a ‘regulator fit for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.’ Sitting underneath this big vision is a big organisation with legacy systems and some working practices that regulatory and enforcement staff feel need to be improved and redesigned in order to be fit for the 21st century. Roughly between June and November of last year, a number of SEPA’s regulatory and enforcement staff carried out an enormous amount of internal user research, service mapping, process mapping, pain point identification and internal service design/agile working capability building with generous support from the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate. What they identified together is the need for an IT solution that allows them to capture, organise and share information about external service users in better ways with a system they love to use. Since November, this work has stalled due to a number of factors and now I’m in with 2 other people (a user researcher and a designer) to help pick things up and get them moving again. This is one of the most exciting teams I’ve been part of for a long time because our skills, experiences and areas of interest are different but really complementary. We are in an unusual circumstance not only because we have a great big set of assets as a jumping off point but also because we’re being folded into a kind of emerging ‘innovation lab’ (my possibly inaccurate phrase, not SEPA’s) by being co-located with two existing agile development teams, the majority of which are populated by SEPA staff who are developing service design and agile capability as they go along.

This is what I learned

Environmental protection regulation and enforcement is incredibly interesting. SEPA does some really cool stuff and it’s been easy to geek out on their intranet and set off the nerd alert digging around their internal documents. But like lots of other public bodies, they seem self-conscious about how interesting and important they are. The general feeling I have right now is that some of this comes from working for so long with a binary and traditional view of what the relationship between a regulator and the regulated is. I think the work we’ll be doing with throw up plenty of opportunity to challenge those views, especially as we help them think about what a 21st century regulator could look like.

This surprised me

I spent the first week feeling aggrieved that the focus of all the work done so far is entirely internal. All the work we have to look back on since June last year is only focused on internal users. My irritation was made worse by knowing the project I’m on is closely linked to the internal discovery phase of a new IT solution. Was this all just solutionism and consultants hired in to confirm a pre-determined solution? I was surprised at myself for doing something I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do: prioritise external users’ voices. Looking back, my feelings were a bit misplaced. I think what I was reacting to was a concern external users had been factored out for some reason. What I know now is SEPA simply started where they could reasonably work comfortably and quickly- with themselves. And that is OK. I’m in now with 2 other people who can bolster capacity to start reaching outside. Design for everyone.

This frustrated me

Every day has been punctuated with a lot of meetings and I have not yet been able to get my head down and focus on completing one task. Lots of meetings and introductions are inevitable at the start of a job though so I am thinking about how I can shift the way I’m collecting and processing information in the early days to avoid feeling frustrated. I could be more disciplined to keep focussed on a thread to pick up and put down instead of coming in and out of a giant pools of possible actions. At the moment I feel like part of the coolest detective agency in town though so it might be difficult to zoom in and focus when we’re discovering so many new things each day.

This is what I let go of

Thinking I need to understand the detail of every document, every system, every team in order to get started. We have a huge amount of information at our fingertips, we are only just learning about a big organisation and my instinct was to hold off planning much work until it was confirmed I understood everything. I let that go when I got to a place where I could reasonably describe things at a high level and understand where our piece of work fit in. Anything more might be unreasonable given our time line. I think I was a bit intimidated and confused about the complexity of the ecosystem around me but when I started to get some clarity, I felt better about knowing where to stop trying to know it all and just get going.

This gave me a glimpse of the future

The understanding and valuing of service design and the importance of internal capability building is quite mature where I am in SEPA. Until I was inside, this wasn’t at all visible to me. The briefs during my recruitment and interview were a little unclear so I was halfway afraid this was going to be work motivated by having a shiny new thing or looking for silver bullets. I can’t claim this maturity is present over the entire organisation but the time and resource that has already gone into practical learning in just one area of the organisation is really impressive. I might be glimpsing a future where service design is built into the fabric of the place.

What I will do next week

I am determined to raise the visibility of SEPA’s new ways of working internally and externally and to move to a design on the inside culture. My priorities on this project include leaving behind SEPA staff who feel more skilled and confident and networking those who are enthusiastic about embedding service design approaches in SEPA. Next week I will start mapping out internal community outreach, involvement and management activities that can act as the beginnings of reigniting the community of interest that did so much mapping and research in the last half of 2017. Those members of staff are crucial to our next phase of discovery and their work needs to be referenced, recognised and supported to develop further. I’ll link up with my colleague Sam, who is focusing on a user research plan, to see where internal community interactions and involvement will create less formal research insights and outputs to complement structured interviews and workshops. Watch this space…


Posted in: Weeknotes

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