This was originally published on the Services In Government blog.
We assess services to make sure what we deliver works for users. It’s a great way to build organisational memory, cross-government community and experience through peer-to-peer feedback and guidance.
I started assessing because I wanted to learn more about the services we provide in government, the challenges teams face and how they’ve overcome them. I also wanted to build my confidence talking about design and to apply this critical thinking to my own work.
I’ve assessed over 30 services and been on the other side of the table once. During our own assessment, I felt more vulnerable than I’d anticipated and this led me to reflect on what it means to be an assessor.
Why we do service assessments
Delivering services amounts to most of what we do. You’ll have used these services if you’ve ever registered to vote, learned to drive or started a business. To make sure these services are safe, consistent and work for everyone, we have the Service Standard. The standard ties together the ways of working, technology best practice and design patterns that are proven to work.
Service assessments are a way to formally review and critique work at each phase of development: discovery, alpha, beta and live. They can either allow the team to move to the next phase or highlight where improvements are needed, motivating stakeholders to remove external pressures and blockers from the team.
The assessment panel is made up of peers across government who have experience designing government services and have been involved in assessments before. They’re there to provide a balanced, objective assessment while acknowledging that services won’t be perfect and that every service has its own constraints, like policy, timelines, scope, or increased public attention. Assessors are pragmatic: not there to block to delivery, but to enable teams to build better services.
High capability teams know how to build digital services and what they want is a “critical friend” to peer-review their work. For service teams with less experience or capability, we identify their specific needs and provide guidance to support them.
It’s about offering meaningful support
Assessments are about knowing the team is doing the right things to build good services. That’s why, before assessments, service teams are supported through things like design crits, accessibility reviews and peer-to-peer support.
Our approach has developed over time, from a tool to encourage senior stakeholders to allow their teams to work differently, to a process that’s focussed more on supporting teams. We still see high capability teams under pressure to deliver solutions that may not meet user’s needs due to the pressures imposed on them, in this case, the assessments are still useful for encouraging change from above.
Being a supportive assessor
Set aside time to read through the briefing, review any accessibility or content reports and run through prototypes. This shouldn’t take much time; you’ll get much more context on the day and there’s time after the assessment to look at things in more detail, speak to specialists or follow up with the service team. If the service has been assessed previously, read the previous reports and feel free to talk to the previous assessor.
Look out for anything that indicates the team may need additional support and raise this with the service assessment team. No one is an expert in everything and it’s ok to ask other specialists for advice if you’re not sure about something.
If it’s complicated, reach out to members of the service team to better understand the situation: a quick chat with someone on the service team can really help. You can also suggest breaking into groups during the assessment to go deeper into each specialist area.
Keep a list of feedback to send after the assessment.
On the day
An assessment generally lasts for about 3 hours. Try to create a relaxed atmosphere and remember: it’s about being a critical friend, not an examiner; avoid appearing confrontational.
Service teams often prepare presentations. This is fine but let them know that you’re looking for one example to demonstrate how they meet each point in the standard, and reassure them you’ll ask follow up questions if needed. Running out of time isn’t fair on the team.
Copy the points you’ll cover, question prompts, and any additional questions you have into a document and listen for answers during the assessment. I often hear the answers to most of my questions before I need to ask them.
Try to understand the scale of the problem and avoid overreacting to anything less than perfect – understand the team’s constraints and how that has affected their outcomes. If you’re not happy with the direction they’ve taken, try to find out if there are any good reasons for it. You’re looking for evidence that the service meets the point. If no more evidence is needed, move on.
Ask the team what you can do to help them overcome challenges.
After the assessment
Lead on the points you’re responsible for but don’t be put off inputting on other areas too; your experience and opinions are relevant.
It’s ok to ask follow-up questions, meet with the service team or other specialists if you’re unsure of something before making a final decision.
Help the team to overcome challenges with realistic recommendations about how to make their service better and what is expected at the next assessment. Include these in the report, but if there are detailed recommendations, send these separately with your feedback.
Don’t worry, giving a service a ‘not met’ can be helpful for a team – it may make it clearer to the wider programme that things outside of the team’s control need to be addressed. For example, key skills may be missing, or unrealistic deadlines have been set.
Become an assessor
We need more assessors from across the government. Assessing is a valuable way to learn from how teams have approached their design challenges, they provide an opportunity to work with others across government and they also count towards your community objectives!
You’ll be trained and be given opportunities to observe assessments, giving you the experience you need. Although it can seem daunting, the community of assessors and the assessment team are there to support you.
Find out more about how to become an assessor.