5 minutes with... Janet Hughes

Headshot of Francesca Pearson

Project Manager

3 minute read

Meet Janet - an influential major projects director at the Department for Education. Janet will be speaking about her work at Camp Digital 2019. We grabbed some time to get her thoughts ahead of the event.

At Camp Digital, your talk is entitled "Applying digital ways of thinking and working to things that aren't obviously digital". Why is this important and what can the audience expect?

I think it's really important that now that we've had a very welcome influx of digital talent into government, we extend our influence and impact well beyond things that are obviously digital like websites and online transactions. Those things are only the foothills of the sort of transformation we need to bring about in the way government organisations operate.

We can't change government if we position ourselves as outsiders or interlopers; we need to bring digital ways of thinking and working to the whole of government. We need to get involved in the weird world of policy, and in services and projects that aren't primarily 'digital'.

I'm going to be sharing my experience of trying to do this in the Department for Education - what's been hard, what we've learned and what's on the cards next.

Your career has been heavily focused on public sector digital design. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed over the years?

In the last few years it's become completely normal for government departments to employ designers, user researchers, content designers, product owners and developers - jobs that hardly existed at all in government 10 years ago are everywhere now. It's an amazing shift to have been part of, but I still think we're only just getting started - we still cordon off people with digital skills in 'digital' teams, with separate cultures and ways of working. We really need to move into another phase where infiltrate the entire organisation and influence a much wider range of government activities.

How did you start out on your career path? And do you have advice for anyone thinking about getting into the field now?

I made a switch into my first properly digital role in 2012, having worked in the public sector for about 15 years in a roles mainly to do with making things work better for people. I'd been fascinated by tech and data for a good while, and had been going along to meetups and events like UK GovCamp and getting to know the community of reformers in and around government. In 2012, GDS was just getting started and it was clear that was the place to be if you wanted to make things better, so I was over the moon to get the opportunity to get involved through someone I knew who was working there and looking for a me-shaped person to help on a project.

My advice to anyone who wants to get involved in digital roles is to get involved in the community, get to know people, pitch up at events, learn as much as you can and then get involved and start to understand where you can add value - what's the thing you can bring to the table from all your experience? You don't have to have a computer science degree or have spent your entire life working in digital roles; in fact I think bringing a different perspective from experience in other disciplines can be really valuable. The most important things are a passion for learning and making things work better: if you start with those, the rest can quickly follow.

Can you share any exciting projects you’re working on at the moment?

I am perpetually over-excited, and particularly so right now. I'm loving working at the Department for Education - our work touches everyone's life at some point, we do a huge range of very different types of work (building schools, recruiting teachers, looking after children's social care, creating new qualifications...), and it's a very vocational department - everyone has a story about what led them to work in education, and how important it is personally to them. And most importantly DfE is really serious about becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation and working in more user-centred ways. So it's a really exciting time to be working here.

What are you most looking forward to at Camp Digital?

I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone's talks, learning loads of new things and spending time with lovely digital friends and colleagues.

Janet Hughes - Applying Digital Ways of Thinking (Camp Digital 2019)



Let me make sure it is working.

Hi, everyone, I'm Janet.

I work at the Department for Education;

I have been around in Government for a while.

My role in the Department for Education has

nothing directly to do with digital.

It is the first time I have had a relative like that for a

few years, I'm the Director of Major projects.

I'm responsible for the projects we do, the major projects in DfE.

This isn't working, it is where you learn,

what you learn, how you learn it, who teaches you,

all that kind of stuff, we have projects to

do with all of that kind of thing.

So, I'm going to talk today a little bit about

why I want to do that role, why am I working on

that and how we are trying to apply digital ways of

working for all of those things, I will talk about

why it is all about everything, not just websites.


Why that is, how we have been going about this

in the Department for Education and a couple of reflections.

So, first of all,

it is about everything.

I'm going to give up on that.

So, the point of digital, I reckon is to

change absolutely everything.

Do you disagree with me?

That is what the point s Martha had it write when

she wrote the report to establish DDS,

she call it evolution, not revolution,

make massive change, not on a few little things,

everywhere, I adore Martha, she was right on this,

as she has been on many things,

digital is a Trojan horse which quite

obviously is what that is.

And with a Trojan horse, you go in in disguise to say

- we are here it look at your website and then you go

- we are now going to change up all area shit.

But you have to make sure you get out of the

horse and that is what I'm doing by doing this job at DfE,

getting out of the horse and changing up all the shit.

I am I have now outed myself having been in

disguise in DfE for the last year.


I reckon there are four stages of digital Government.

I talked about this last year,

and if you want to see more about it,

you will see it there, I will give you a quick

summary of my reckon, you start with pre-digital and

there you care about social media, and

that is what digital means to you, it happens when I talk,

I get excited and my nose runs, so,

that is why I'm sniffing, in a minute I will get defeat and

get my tissue out.

For a moment, I will plough on as

though it is not happening.

Stay with me on that.

The next stage is rationalise, we care here about

improved content, maybe putting it all in one place,

making our forms work better for people,

very important work.

And we are all about doing things more

efficiently at this stage, we will move away,

remove duplication, do things, simpler,

clearer and faster, like we were trying to

do on gov.uk when we set it up.


But we are now thinking about how to

integrate all the things, how do we make

coherent end-to-end services.

It is welcome to see the steps that have

been made in DfE where I am from.

We have a set of people outside sharing some

of our work, too, talk to them.

This is one of our services, there are loads

all around Government doing end-to-end

coherent service design for people.

It is about doing things differently,

not more efficiently but differently and better.

It is also not what the point of digital is, for me,

the point of digital, the really exciting thing,

the reboot is where you reinvent Government

for this age, just as Star Trek was reinvented for

the 21st century, if you don't get, that blame James,

he thinks the Star Trek reboot is highly relevant.

I don't watch it.


That is how that goes.

The reboot is about doing different

things altogether, not about being more

efficient or doing things differently,

we are not talking being digital government,

just government and controversially maybe not

about services any more,

we are talking about absolutely everything.

Why is that important?

Because, if we talk about services,

we try to shoe horn everything government does

into service language and it doesn't make

 sense to people who are doing things in

Government that aren't services like making laws,

making big policy decisions, doing regulation and

stewardship, like looking after the schools system.

And doing enforce am, you cannot say

enforcement is a service in the same way

that paying your taxes might be.

So we need to deal with all of this stuff,

not just the services.

We need it make Government into all of

these beautifully arranged,

slightly increasing in size words.


But I have not chosen them for that reason,

it is because they are the correct words to

describe what any organisation needs to

be like in the digital age.

It all starts, of course with putting users at

the heart of everything you do. 

So, we need digital skills and tools and

ways of working for everyone in the organisation.

And I'm talking here about Government,

but my reckoning is it applies to any organisation,

if you are not from Government make a

leap of imagination and think about which

things we have in common as I go

through the rest of the talk.

So, I'm here to change everything,

just to make it clear.

I'm not here to mess around with

pixels although I like that too.

Why is that important?


Being user-centred is the starting point for all of this,

if you don't do that, you might as well not

bother being responsible for the other things,

you want to put users at the heart of

what you do, why is it a good idea?

You will do less things that are a

really terrible idea, you will realise they are

a terrible idea before you release them on

to unsuspecting humans.

Things will work better for people;

you will cock it up less and

there will be less waste.

So pretty obviously something that we

should all just do, I will have to give up and admit defeat.


Talk amongst yourselves, there we go.

It didn't happen, nobody saw it,

can't proof anything!

OK, so why is government not

just doing this, then?

Here are some reasons, one is the

way Government works is designed for the

pre-internet era, we do things like policy.

And what policy is, is having thoughts and

writing them down, in summary and

also talking to some people about them.

And we also, we are stakeholders,

deal with stakeholders and they are at the

forefront of what we do a will the in Government.

We invented stakeholders when we couldn't talk to

people at scale and do experiments with

people at scale because there was no

internet to do that on, so we have to talk to

stakeholders to tell us their continues about

what they thought the users they claim to

represent might need and lots of failure in

Government has happened because of that.


But it is an entirely rationale thing to do in a

pre-internet era where it wasn't possible to

talk to people at scale and get their views and

find out what is going on.

The other thing about Government is we

solve every single problem, in Government,

we reckon, can be do about things,

addressing things better and

handling stakeholders better.

And they are the fundamental skills of

a civil servant.

We reckon in Government if we do that well,

we will succeed.

By that I mean laws will be passed,

the consultation document will be published,

we will get away with it without being on

the front page of the Daily Mail.

The main metric of success in Government.

This all happened because of this era.

It is the 19th century, the point of ministers at that

time was to tell the civil servants what the public thought.


They had politicians who found out what

the public scared about and thought and

went to Whitehall and acted on it

faithfully and effectively.

So how is that working out

for you right now?

Representatives, what is going on there?

But that is another talk.

That is how government is designed and

now the humans who work in Government,

we don't know how to be user-centred.

Most of the people working in

Government have not heard of user-centred design,

it is because it is not relevant to them.

We have not made it relevant for them.

They think it is for people in jeans and

converse trainers in the digital team.

And we in the digital community have created

that impression, we have not told them how to

do it yet much it is scary particularly if you have

not been talking to your user very much or

thinking about them.


The first time you do it, it is a shit show,

they unleash all the complaints they would've

made had you talked to them all the way along,

you have to push on through that pain barrier and

it is painful and upsetting to discover that

what you have done didn't actually work for

people and is causing them pain.

These are all rationale reasons, I should say.

While I'm saying this, it is not to belittle anybody.

I'm saying the way Government works has arisen as a

set of rationale responses to the situation people

found themselves N when I was in GDS we

described the way Government did things,

and the traditional way was on the top.

The new way is from the bottom.

this is to do with transactions and services.

We said the way things happen in Government,

which is rubbish, is we make up a policy and

then we spec out the requirements and

probably outsource it for somebody else to

deliver it and then it gets delivered and

then we unleash it on users, I nearly said

losers then, a Freudian slip.

There you go, losers, and

see what happens then.


And what we say is, don't do,

that involve users all the way through,

find out what they need, these are users,

every single stage, find out what they need,

iterate, make it better.

I have got experience in different Government

departments and in how it works in practice and

also things that are not services.

These are policy people, happy, smiling.

What they are doing is making announcements or

helping ministers to make announcements

and having thoughts.

I should have said I am not a

designer but I like colours.

Don't judge me.

The problem with policy people is they

sit behind a very big wall which that clearly is one of.

A big thick wall with no windows or doors.

On the other side of the wall,

here are some people trying to

deliver services to people,

people working in Jobcentres, for example.


The problem here is, as you can see,

there is a big wall between these sets of

people and they have different world views and

come from different communities and

have different ideas about how to

do things, even if they want it

communicate with each other it is difficult.

The medium of choice, communicating

between policy people and

delivery people is a hand grenade.

That is the grenade of policy ideas.

What you do, you lob your grenade over the

wall and then you carry on making more announcements.

And the poor delivery people over here,

unfortunately have long-standing smiling

faces there - in case you don't get the detail.

That is when it works well, sometimes it doesn't,

sometimes when you make your policy and

before it leaves the policy arena,

it blows up and that is the front page of

the Daily Mail right there.


I have been there,

it is not a good place to be, let me tell you.

And when I say all of this,

I am not blaming policy people,

I want to be clear, it is not their fault.

The prime directive tells us that

everyone is doing the best with the

information that they have available to us.

I have to tell you it is true of policy people,

it is not just digital people who do

their best with the information available to them.

There are others who do that too.


So, that is why I want to

change absolutely everything.


We should all want to do, that right?

So, in DFE we have been trying to

change everything.

And I'm going to explain a bit about

how we have done that.

The question we have been trying to answer is:

How are we going to make it normal and

uniform in our organisation for people to

put users at the heart of everything they do?

Not just when they are making digital services or

dealing with websites but absolutely everything,

make it law, doing regulation,

do enforcements, everything centre?


Define being user-centred as knowing who

all our users are.

The word "all" is important.

We two out of our way to discover the

full range of our users and we know their needs and

we can meet them.

We are using the words "users" on purpose,

we had a debate about whether to

say humans or people,

we haven't because we are trying to

differentiate between users who have to

use our services or have to interact with us

in some way or are affected directly by

what we do and other people.

For example, stakeholders,

they are not users, stakeholders have opinions and

it is important to understand what the opinions are,

and if you don't, then they will put you on

the front page of the Daily Mail and

you will be shut down, you need to

understand their opinions, respect them,

and deal with them but they are not

users or they may not be users.

The other people who are not users are ministers.


Ministers are not users, they very important,

they are political masses and they are

respected and we must talk to them and

we must respect what they want to do

politically and they definitely should not be

telling you what colour the button should be

on website, what is who we think the users are,

that is why we use the phrase users rather than humans.

That is contested within DFE.

We identified and what we tried to do is

distil our collective experience and that of

the wider community, lots of people contributed to

this online for which we are really grateful and

distilled it into six user centred practices.

Our theory is, you can apply these six user

centred practices born in user centred design to

anything at all, that you do, in an organisation,

like the Department for Education,

or any other bit of government.

I am going to run through these and

tell you what they are and tell you

examples of how we have applied these in other places.


Define the outcome.

Define the outcome from the point of view of your users.

Not as a vague statement of overall intent.

So, driving forward an ambitious social

mobility agenda is not a statement of clear intent,

it doesn't tell you what outcome you are trying to achieve.

Maybe you are trying to make it easier for

unemployed young people to get a job.

You can tell if you have done that or not.

Maybe you are trying to reduce the number of

people who are young and unemployed,

that is an actual outcome you are trying to achieve.

Unless you define that outcome,

you can't possibly be user centred because you

don't know what you are trying to

do for your users and will be led by

random bits of feedback and that's how

agile projects get lost actually.

So what we are trying to do,

this is really obvious,

you should obviously have this process set

out for anything you do, you should obviously

if you are going to do inputs you

should work out what is the process,

what are the outputs and the outcomes

we are trying to achieve.


It is astonishing how much of the stuff we

do in Government we do without having

mapped out this simple thing here.

What we tend to do instead is focus on

the inputs, the policy announcement is we are

going to spend 20 billion on the NHS,

isn't that great, I don't know,

I don't know what you are going to spend it on or why.

Or we focus on the outputs.

Universal credit is an example of this,

where we have said we are going to

build this thing called universal credit but

it's remained contested throughout the

life of that project, what the point is of doing it.

So, time and time again that piece of

work has been derailed by a change in

view about what we are trying to

achieve because we didn't define the outcome at the beginning.

First thing, define the outcome.

Next thing, understand your users.

Start with user needs,

and Matt referred to this earlier.


We came up with this when I was working in

NHS Digital but you can apply it broadly.

Not just the transactional need the person has,

but also their emotional needs and

that's really important in government

because very frequently the reason somebody

is come to government is because they are

worried about something.

So the reason parents want to find out

stuff from the Department of Education is

because they are worried about their kids.

The reason people want to go on the NHS website

is because they are worried about their health.

If you don't take account of that you

are going to mess it up.

Have practical needs and Sarah has been

talking about that, really fantastically well about

the different practical needs different people.

All of those combine to make up somebody's user needs.

But that in itself, that's necessary, but not sufficient.


I don't know about you but I don't see myself as a

collection of needs.

I can be a bit needy but that is not all I am.

There is are more to me than my needs.

As I managed to persuade James of this recently,

he's actually married me, idiot.

Needy Janet.

Nobody here is just a collection of user needs,

are you at any given time, you have a context,

you have a back story,

you have always sorts of other things going on

in your life, we need to go out of our way to

understand what is life like for the teachers we

are trying to help or for the headteachers or learners.

We need to work out what is already known,

which we often just ignore.

We often do this in digital teams in

particular because we think although somebody

has done some research it's probably a bit rubbish.

But analysts, and other researchers can

actually do useful things.

I have discovered.


We should look at it and find out what

nuggets there are in the stuff they have done.

Then we should work out how to

find out what else we need to know.

We miss out these steps, we dive in and

that is just being reckless and wasteful.

We have to be mindful there aren't any

new problems, not really.

Most things we are working on in

government or any organisation they are

not really that new,

loads of people have tried stuff before.

 We should learn from what others have done.

This is my favourite one.

Test assumptions, what is missing here and

is missing from an awful lot of what we are

do is what are the assumptions that need to

be true for this process to actually happen as

I have laid it out here.


I have got a really lovely example from DFE,

but before I get on to that, this is my fact

about how much policy failure happens

because of assumptions.

If anybody here thinks they can prove that wrong, t

hen have a go.

It could be higher than that.

Who knows.

So individual learner accounts absolute

cataclysmic shambles of a thing that

happened in the Department for Education and

we are going to own that failure in the DFE.

What we did was we introduced a thing that

was supposed to help young people find

training that would help them get better jobs.

But what we did was, we designed an

entire scheme without really trying it out.

Well we did try it out, we did pilots,

they didn't work, we ignored it and just did it anyway.

The reason we ignored it was because the

thing had been announced in the manifesto of

the Labour Government in 1997.


If you have a thing that is announced in a

manifesto, you basically have to do it

even if it is a terrible idea.

That is how it works.

I don't know what we are going to do about that.

It's really bad.

Because you go to the Treasury and

say we did these pilots and they didn't work and

they say "manifesto ".

That's the end of the game.

They have mentioned the manifesto.

Individual learner accounts,

supposed to help young people,

the idea was you have an account,

you put 20 quid in and you get 100 quid to

pay for a course and to make it simpler and

faster you didn't have to do anything to

prove your identity if you were a learner,

you didn't have to do it yourself,

it could be done by the training provider and

for the training provider there was no

quality assurance at all, we wanted to encourage

more trainer providers to come on board.


Some of the assumptions we made,

young people with no skills will access the

internet independently, create an account,

seek out a course, sign up for the course,

submit a draft to get the money, get the money,

complete the course and then get another job,

so that is about 20 assumptions I have listed there.

Who wants to guess how many of those

we actually tested before we released the scheme?


Not a single one.

We also assumed because each account wasn't

worth very much money, that no fraudsters

wouldn't be interested and all of the,

who is going to defraud for £100, it's not worth it.

So, all the lovely middle-class civil servants who

never occurred to them to commit fraud did a

risk assessment and went nah,

noone will do that, the project was launched,

runaway success, hundreds of thousands of

people signing up, way beyond our wildest dreams.

Oh, dear.


There were a few teething problems.

We didn't bother to investigate them,

we just went teething problems, never mind,

headlines, manifesto tick, excellent and

then it became clear that people were

having problems and people having

problems with the quality of

the courses, people being signed up to

courses they weren't doing and we had to

shut the scheme down.

That's quite a dramatic thing to do.

It wasn't just the Daily Mail that got the

head lip on that one.

The thing that gets talked about a lot is that we

wasted £100 million on fraud,

because fraudsters basically without ever talking to

you just registered you for loads of

courses that didn't exist.

There were thousands and thousands of

nonexistent people on courses.


But the actual scandal was the other

200 million we spent was spent on

basically middle-class white people who

already had degrees and perfectly good jobs.

So not the target audience,

the people who are supposed to be benefitting,

only 10% of the people who actually access

this thing were those people.

So, 300 million wasted because of

untested assumptions.

Test your assumptions would seem like a good idea.

Four is involve users, not just observe them and

look at them in a lab, and do things to them.

And then release stuff on them.

But actually involve them.

So the teacher recruitment and retention strategy,

I wouldn't normally get excited about a

strategy but this one is so exciting because it's

got the best piece of feedback I

have seen about a piece of government strategy.

Here it is.

A noteworthy thing about this strategy is the

absence of bat shit crazy ideas.

Most fail at it and that is true,

as Matt said earlier, no bat shit crazy ideas.


We developed the strategy with people who

were going to be affected by it.

We asked teachers why are you leaving,

what is making your life hard,

what can we do to make it easier and

what would make you stay, and as a

result we have now got stuff we are

doing that is not bat shit crazy and

hopefully won't fail.

Observe actual behaviour,

I am going to skip over this,

this is an important thing but we do it for

digital services, we don't do it for

anything else and I don't know why not.

Here is a team I used for part of many years ago,

with Pete Gayle, and the final one is deliver,

test, learn and adapt.

What is interesting about this one is,

we want to it rate services we all do that

in digital services, but you can't do that

when you are building a school.


Well it turns out you can, if you have a

programme of school buildings which

stretches to several billion pounds.

And you are going to build hundreds over several years.

Because what you can do then is seek time you

build a school you can see how it is used,

so I will tell you a story about this.

When we first started in DFE our

first programme to build and refurbish schools we

thought it would be great to get

headteachers involved and paired them with architects.

What happened was some really good

schools were built very expensively and

some really unusual designs came out.

For example, one school wanted to have a

library and a running track and to

optimise space they made the running track go

through the middle of the library.

That's an actual true fact.


Other schools wanted to have partitions so

they could open up the classrooms and use big spaces.

They were never used.

They were really expensive live and made it

noisy in both classrooms.

So we stopped doing that and instead we

now do evaluation of each school after we

build it to see how it's being used and we

have developed patterns for how to build schools,

what colour to paint them, how to lay them out and

we use those for each school and the

result is they are better and they cost 35% less to build.

Which is amazing, talking about billions of

pounds here, talking about extra schools we

can build because of taking a union centred approach,

only for agility and websites,

that's not true.


So those are our six user centred practices.

How do we make that change.

You have loads of staff across loads of

sites doing loads of things and this is a Yapp triangle,

I love it, I use it 40 times a day at the moment.

It is like when I like a record and listen to it to death.

Next time I will see you, I will be Yapp triangle rubbish.

You have to choose your method accordingly.

To in DFE we really want to do this by agreement,

we reckon if you do it by setting rules and

people don't understand why and

haven't agreed to it, then they are going to

work around the rules and ignore them and

we have had plenty of experience of that

before in other areas where we have these

things called policy tests and

nobody ever does anything meaningful with them at all.

Tick the box, done.

For that reason, we have emphasised having

discussions and running experiments rather than saying rules.


We have had a structured conversation in

every single team in the organisation

going through those six practices and

thinking about how they might apply for that team.

We offered a whole load of

different training about half the staff in the

organisation took part in training on

things like how to do that logic model or

how to do user research and we find pioneers and

help them, which sounds obvious but

actually the experience of being a

pioneering government if you have never done

it is very lonely and the fear of the front page of

the Daily Mail is real.

And will meet you at every turn in the form of

what people saying what about this,

what about that and the other,

it is exhausting.


So we help pioneers,

we find them and go you are awesome,

how can we help you and

it makes a difference for pee.

That's how we have been trying to do it.

My two final reflections I am

going to make before I stop,

I might have time for questions,

I am not sure, the problem with this approach of

doing it by agreement is,

I am not super-patient.

I want it all to happen right now,

so I am a little bit like, for the love of God,

how long is this going to take,

and the answer is it's going to take generations.

There's no point in getting all impatient and

saying how long have we been at this, can't we get on with it.

This is going to take a long time.

It is a generational thing.


If we wanted to do it now,

we would have to set rules and as I said,

we think doing that prematurely

would result in people working around them and

ignoring them and it won't get the

change we want to happen.

So this is really hard for me because I am an

impatient soul and want to change

everything immediately but we have to be patient.

And my second reflection point is,

when we think of policy people,

we tend to diss them and talk about bowler hats and

idiots and do things like that,

that could be seen as disrespectful towards them,

though I did emphasise it is not their fault.

We pull this face at them.

We go, what, have you dropped on

your head as an infant, are you stupid,

that is the face that digital people,

that is the face policy people see when

digital people turn up in their converse trainers and

Mac books, saying haven't you heard of

user centred design.



People don't respond well to that.

Even if you think they are idiots,

they hold a lot of power.

They don't respond well.

Treat them like idiots, if you want,

if it is how you feel but they have a lot of

power and they will stop you doing things and

they can and they won't listen to you,

they get produced by people with

whacky ideas 100 times a week.

This is what they see when they see

digital people coming at them.

So you know, you see a bowler hat,

they see this on a skateboard they think

- you will be here for a few months and

then you will go back to, you know, Google,

or whatever, whatever, see you later.


So we extend a lot of respect and

generosity to our users but we do not he

extend the same respect, generosity and

patience to colleagues, every person here,

started from a position about not

getting being user-centred.

We have to respect other people who

have not got it yet and recognise they have not got it yet.

They are there for the turning and persuading.

So, those are my reflections, PS,

we are hiring in DfE, if you like what you see,

come and have a chat.

And that is me done,

thank you.