I’ve been a bit quiet for the past 6 weeks. The pre-election period has been in effect and, as a civil servant, I’ve been keeping shtum; lest I accidentally interfere with the democratic process and breach the Civil Service Code.

Well, that’s over now.

Seeing as I haven’t posted about much of anything for 6 weeks, here’s a bumper week note to compensate.

Keeping on, keeping on

The past few weeks haven’t been as quiet as you might expect. The running joke of elections – even among civil servants – is that the pre-election period is an extended holiday for Whitehall. I’d love that to have been the case; we’ve been busy!

The pre-election period hasn’t been full of preparations for an incoming government in my case though.1 Election or no election, returning or new government; businesses and individuals were relying on the things our team does to keep working. And so that was our focus.

My teams have been keeping on top of certificate changes and working with conformity assessment bodies to iron out day-to-day issues. Important things to keep the digital identity and attributes market working safely and effectively.

Probably the biggest thing we’ve continued to progress during the pre-election period though is our new register of digital identity and attribute services. We’re intending it to replace this spreadsheeta spreadsheet that supports an entire market! – later this year.

We’ve made huge progress in the past few sprints. Three of the four parts of the service – the application service, the certificate submission service and the backend administration system – are all now minimally viable. We’ve also started building the first iteration of the public facing register.

Whilst that’s been going on, we’ve also been given a “health check” by our departmental digital function. We had some interesting feedback and I’m increasingly feeling myself grate up against the “assurance” processes the department is forcing us to go through.

Whilst some of the feedback we’re getting is helpful and nudging us to improve, a lot of it is devoid of context and missing the point.

Our digital service has been built against a backdrop of legislation, a very strictly regulated certification process, and a carefully constructed and complex market model. It is complicated. Arguably it’s intentionally complicated. In a somewhat counter-intuitive way, making a complicated service for one subset of our users actually means we better serve the needs of our users as a whole. And that is really stressing the limits of the Digital Service Standard; or at least the department’s internal interpretation of it. (There’s probably a whole other blogpost I could and should write about that. I’ll get around to it eventually.)

Anyway, it’s not reasonable for an assessment team to understand all that context. But because they don’t understand it, the feedback we get is always a bit off. Cue the endless requirement to defend things that could not have been done any other way.

Frustrating feedback aside though, after 6 months of development, we’re planning to open up the full end-to-end service for unmoderated testing in a couple of weeks time. What we’ve created for the minimum viable product won’t be perfect, but it is going to be so much better than what we have now.

Actual blogging!

I’ve also been spending some time during the pre-election period drafting some blogposts. Actual, honest to God, blogposts!

We’ve been trying for months to get a blog onto GOV.UK so we can talk a bit more frequently about what we’re doing and “Show the Thing”. Just before the election, we got the green light.

It’s been pretty fun sharing some bad first drafts2 with members of the team and seeing what they think of them. I just hope we can now get them on the web sometime soon!

Election night

I think in another dimension somewhere I’m a psephologist. I bloody love voting. Like when Eurovision’s on; most people get weary of the voting but I think it’s the best part.

So of course I stayed up all night to watch the election results rolling in. That took a modicum of preparation.

I had a power nap between getting home from the office at 18:30 and 22:00 when the exit polls were due. I then powered through to 07:00 the next morning, following a combination of the BBC and Channel 4 coverage, and flanked by a lot of snacks and Cherry Pepsi Max. I then had another power nap just before starting work, as usual, at 09:00.

Power napping was not a skill I thought I had. Apparently I do, and Friday was actually fine! I wasn’t as exhausted as I thought I would be. (Though I have deliberately deferred any important decisions until Monday!)

Tracking the LGBT+ MPs

The reason for pushing my sleep cycles to the limit wasn’t just for the love of Jeremy Vine’s swingometer though. It was also to update my LGBT+ MPs dataset.

Throughout the night, as the election results rolled in, I was working through an enormous spreadsheet and updating the dataset in real time.

By the end of the night I’d tracked 54 MPs, and throughout Friday and Saturday, friendly contributors from the interwebs helped to find some more. As I write this, we’re up to 60 MPs that are openly LGBT+; close to but not quite as high as the last Parliament.

Day 1

Election night, power naps and spreadsheets behind me, I did make it into the office on Friday too. As in physically into Westminster. There’s always a buzz in the office on the day after election night; so it’s fun to go in even when you have no real practical reason to do so.

The election – and appointment of new ministers – doesn’t have much of an immediate impact on what you do as a civil servant on day 1.

New ministers get an opportunity to meet their private offices and the Permanent Secretary on day 1, usually followed by the most senior civil servants they are most likely to be working with. In the days that follow, ministers start to set out their priorities, and the department slowly starts to brief them on both the things they now need to know, and on proposals for implementing their priorities.

For the middle management layer of the Civil Service – hi! – and those below, the biggest impact on day 1 is “the clap in”3. This is a process that involves civil servants lining the corridors for a new Secretary of States and, as the name implies, clapping as they head to their new office. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved, not least the ministers I think, but it’s tradition, so we do it.

Anyway, our new Secretary of State received his clap in, and I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming after what has no doubt been an incredibly long 48 hours for him.

All change

I’ve been in the Civil Service for 11 years now. In that time I’ve served under the Coalition and various formations of Conservative administration. This will be the first time I’m serving under a Labour government.

I’ve been told – by colleagues longer-in-the-tooth than I – that the tone and culture of the Civil Service noticeably changed in 2010; something that wasn’t as pronounced in 2015, given the continuity of the Conservatives in power. I’m curious and looking forward to finding out how different the Civil Service is going to feel as this new Labour administration takes the reins.

  1. There’s been some of that, as always, but not loads. ↩︎

  2. All first drafts are bad first drafts. ↩︎

  3. “The clap in”, as I was reminded this week, is a substantially better way to describe the ensuing activity, than “giving the Secretary of State the clap”. ↩︎