Pre-election period notes

Keeping notes through the pre-election period [1] because we might be quiet but the work doesn’t stop.

I haven’t written since 18 October, so there’s been an 8 week hiatus — that’s quite a while and I’ve missed writing.

I opted not to weeknote the following week because our fund team had been asked to embargo our comms. That sounds more interesting than it really is, more detail later.

There’s been a lot going on though and some interesting change since then. I got offered the chance to go on loan to the National Leadership Centre at the Cabinet Office. It’s exciting as it’s a temporary promotion covering for Billy, their current Head of Digital. I also get to work with Jenny, Morgan, Prateek and more so it’s exciting to work with them outside of our usual One team Gov side hustles.

So it felt like a great opportunity, but I’m also slightly disappointed to be leaving LDCU as I was starting to get into the swing of some really interesting and meaty things, but I fully intend to be back in 6 months time to carry on the good work.

It’s a strange one because where I’ve moved on to jobs before I’ve been keen to wind down. In my last few weeks at LDCU I found it slightly different. I started to get really clear about what I felt needed doing, and more outspoken about certain things. I’m not sure what that’s about other than a need to try and get all of the ideas out of my head and into other people’s before heading off.

So this is a longish note, and I’ve opted to include a short week by week overview of what’s happened since 18 October, partially as a reminder to myself and partly (I hope) to include some of the more interesting bits.

Week beginning 21 October

Overarching feeling of the week: kicking off

A gif of a toddler trying (and failing) to kick a football and then falling over.

The moderation panel had decided on which projects we wanted to fund as part of round 3 for the Local Digital Fund. Those projects had been agreed by the minister, but other stuff was happening which meant we had to pause on announcing it all.

We held our kick off event for funded projects on the 22 October anyway, and it was good to have everyone together, but it meant we couldn’t build a big buzz around celebrating that with our projects, or at least not as openly as we’d hoped.

Anyway, these things happen, it’s part of working in the Civil Service, but it meant that, as the majority of my work had been around getting ready for, and then following up after that event – well – my weeknotes were looking more than a little sparse, and I decided not to write.

I did a short presentation about how to write good outputs, about writing up your projects “for the community” and about sharing decisions, findings, and mistakes throughout the journey.

Some slides from my presentation
A slide showing some outputs from one of our round 1 funded projects: Open Community. They use the structure “What we first thought / What we saw” to show what they’ve learned and what has changed throughout the work.

It was a good proto-presentation for the one we are planning for SDinGov next year. I think it went ok, but I could tighten it up. I need to remember some elements of structure, I always feel like I get to an 80% version and it means I don’t hammer home my conclusions. Must learn and remember to do this.

Week beginning 28 October

Overarching feeling of the week: wheeeeeeeeeee!

A gif of a scene from Despicable Me of the girls and Gru on a rollercoaster

The following week was half term, so I was on leave with my family, travelling to the CBeebies hotel at Alton Towers for some rock and roll debauchery.

[Read: meeting Captain Barnacles, and this absolute unit…]

A goofy puffer fish with the caption “Oh hai”
A goofy puffer fish that I met at Alton Towers.

Week beginning 4 November

Overarching feeling of the week: draining.

A gif of a cartoon person being sucked into a whirlpool.

Delays on the Monday morning meant instead of waste time waiting at the train station I turned on my heels and headed home. I had quite a bit to catch up on after being away.

Our team had an away day to think about our objectives and vision on the Wednesday, which was great, if hard work. I find these things really draining because sitting, listening, and thinking all require pretty extreme uses of my brain over time, and we could have done with some more breaks (and the ability to open a window when it all got a bit stuffy in the afternoon).

It was also a weird exercise in generating objectives for a role I wouldn’t be there to do 😬. The Policy Lab team give us use of their two Sky Rooms so it was good to be in a new environment, and somewhere that was set up to enable moving around and working together.

Three of my colleagues adding post-its to a whiteboard
A photo of James, Egle and Maddie putting post-its on a board at our away day.

Those two days away from the office meant that my other two days were busy with meetings, but also quite a few nice coffee and chat things too. I met Hannah from my old team at GDS, and had a quick telephone call with Kit.

I also met Rae for lunch which was lovely as we’ve only met once before at a Public Sector Heroes drink, but after lunch I felt like I’d known her for ages, which was lovely.

So with the hard stuff there was good stuff too.

Over the week I also helped a friend from school to make her first application for a job within the Civil Service. I realised just how much demystification there is to do and it reinforced for me just how alien some of the rules and processes can be for anyone on the outside looking in.

Anyway, she had a good application and I felt like she should at least get an interview.

A gif of a red alarm light
A gif of red alarm light

Weekend Weeknotes Highlight!

Weeknotes don’t usually cover weekends as they are reserved for being a mum (and sitting on the sofa) but I had a bit of a different weekend so I thought I would add it in here.

When my husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday I answered that I wanted to sleep in a hotel room on my own and not have to be woken up at 5am by a 5 year old.

I meant it sincerely.

So on Friday I headed into London and spent the afternoon finalising and practising my talk for the Ada’s List conference. I stayed in a lovely hotel room on my own — any mums reading will know what an utter luxury this is.

A gif of a snoozing cartoon clock
A gif of a snoozing clock

The next day I headed to the Financial Times offices for the conference, which I’m not going to write about because Jenny did such a good job of it here:

It was a good day and I think my talk went down well. I was really lucky that I had a full room to speak to (somehow speaking in front of only one or two people would have been more terrifying).

Jenny and Jonathan supported me as I prepared and were in the audience to cheer me on. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this and how lucky I am to have people who will show up for me, it makes me feel so grateful.

I also discovered that my presentation was picked from 90 applications which is very nice to hear (if surprising as I never expected to be chosen!)

If you’re interested in my talk you’ll find a write up of it here:

Anyway, I gave out a lot of stickers and saw some other great speakers. I met some lovely new people including Libby.

Going back to what I said at the beginning I’ve been thinking a lot about how our careers ebb and flow, they sort of plateau out and then you have short bursts of… what? Feeling super productive, feeling movement towards something, feeling like you’re making progress? Not quite. It’s those moments where you’re having to learn a lot that feel like you’re going up hill, then something approaching some kind of clarity or mastery, and then something more like creative freedom that kicks in before you have to learn stuff again.

That seems about right… Anyway, Sunday was my birthday too, so yay!

I got socks. (NB: I didn’t just get socks, and I love the socks I did get).

Week beginning 11 November

Overarching feeling of the week: stress and strange

A gif of Psyduck from Pokemon looking stressed

A new nanny joined us to help look after our little one so that meant I worked from home on two days so that I could be there after school, to support and make sure everything was going ok. It was an extra thing going on which meant I just felt a bit distracted and stressed throughout the week.

On Thursday I headed to Leeds for a meeting with my Beta project team and Social Finance. It was good to see those conversations spinning up and seeing how they plan to go about the work. I also had a conversation with my Manchester project team to see how they are getting on, and updated all of my project team boards and weekly updates accordingly.

As the team prepared to deliver a couple of workshops at Local Gov Camp I helped with some ideas for how we might get more out of those sessions. Helping May-N to devise a matrix that would help with discussions, and talking to Rushi about how he might get attendees to his session to plot their own user journeys. It was good and helped me to see how I can add value, and how valuable having just a few different structures for running things can be.

The team attended Local Gov Camp on Friday and it sounded good, but due to the pre-election period weren’t allowed to tweet or speak about it on social media which was a shame.

Week beginning 18 November

Overarching feeling of the week: tired and mixed

A gif of a cement mixer spinning round

The week started with another work from home day, and then two busy days in the office. Meetings with project teams, including a trip to Wandsworth on Wednesday for a kick off with the Early Help project team. I took loads of notes and learned loads about early help, what it is, what it isn’t and met someone from our own Troubled Families team.

I also had a really good catch up with some of Social Finance about the design sprint work they’ve been doing for the Family Context beta project; thinking about user journeys and prioritisation of user needs.

On Thursday I headed to Cambridge for a catch up with my new team from the National Leadership Centre which was really nice. It was a good opportunity to start to build a picture about the work and what I’ll need to be doing (and how I might do it) so that’s good.

I also edited a blog post by the One Team Gov Canada crew ahead of their Ottowa unconference, and helped someone else with an application for a role. They’ve got tons of amazing experience with it so it really was no work to proofread and make some suggestions, and I love doing this kind of thing for people.

Week beginning 25 November

Overarching feeling of the week: bleugh.

A gif showing a representation of the visual aura you get with migraine.

A migraine on Friday night, followed by a little man waking up at 2am (and not going back to sleep) getting up to meet friends for brunch on Saturday morning (totally worth it) but immediately followed by another migraine afterwards, meant I didn’t have the most relaxing weekend.

I didn’t start the week in particularly the right frame of mind, and when I sat at my desk and realised I only had just over a week left in order to handover my work, I felt even worse.

Still Monday was relatively quiet as a lot of the team at the Local Government Design Day in Birmingham and I managed to get my head down and get some stuff done.

I had two intense days of social care stuff going on. On Tuesday I took a trip to the LGA to talk with data analysts and to hear more about their needs for data to improve insight for children’s social care. It was really interesting and gave me a lot to come away with about user needs for data science or data analysts. There were a lot of crossovers with the work that some of our team are doing on cross local government collaboration, and I hope we will be able to continue to be part of those conversations.

On Wednesday I spent the morning over at DfE with a range of people talking about what crossovers our work have with the children’s social care space. We did some mapping across departments which was really interesting and exciting. Afterwards I met James’ team who are looking at mapping this space at the moment — this is awesome because now it means I have a starting point for some of our mapping and we can contribute to their work in a meaningful way. YAY cross government working! YAY breaking siloes!

All this meant I had a lot of notes to write up and thoughts to get out of my head and into some kind of handover. I concentrated on that on Thursday (and even some of Friday despite it being my non-working day).

Over the course of the week I expressed just how upset I was that these things were finally coming together and that I would be leaving at just the point that things are getting exciting (and more clear). That’s annoying, but I’m looking forward to keeping in the loop and coming back to it, because I believe it’s important work.

This comes back to the point I made about not winding down, there’s so much important work that I felt needed to be done and I really wanted to make sure that my handover reflected that. So rather than it being descriptive my handover was more like a list of things I know and ideas I have, which isn’t something I’ve really felt before.

Week beginning 2 December

Overarching feeling of the week: all change please.

A gif of a scene from The Lion King where Rafiki the monkey says “Change is good” Simba replies “Yeah, but it’s not easy”

Bit of a weird week again with a mid week change to a new job!

I was only in the office for the Monday morning, which felt weirdly normal even though my head was swimming with handover stuff.

I met ex-colleague and (relatively) new MHCLGer Phil for a coffee to talk about his work, and afterwards joined a session run by Jo on how we could support local authorities to apply to the fund. I feel like at times we are still making a lot of assumptions about how people are finding the application process and thinking of ideas for solving those, rather than thinking of how we can evidence our assumptions or disprove our hypothesis.

I probably need some kind dictaphone like Bob Fossil in The Mighty Boosh because I feel like I so often say “show me the evidence” that I’m getting a bit tired of hearing my own voice.

A gif of Bob Fossil saying into a dictaphone “Note to self: pocket cup”

It seems to me that when we have diametrically opposing assumptions within the team it should be a key signifier that there’s an opportunity for someone to review existing research or do more user research to bridge the gap.

(Or maybe I just need to pipe down? I hope I’m listening enough, or maybe I just need more than other people to be convinced? Hmmm, will muse on whether this is a me issue).

In the afternoon I headed to GDS to hear about the user research that the EU Accessibility Directive team have been doing with Local Government. It was really useful and there are opportunities for us to work together in the new year and to benefit from each other’s research. I hope that the connections made there get built on while I’m gone.

Tuesday was our Directorate’s away day so not in the office. It was both Rich and I’s last day which was odd. Still it was good to be a part of it and to spend time with the wider team.

In the afternoon I ran another little unconference… well, all I really did was stand in front of people and explain it, where Alex and Liga really did all the work.

The discussions were really interesting, but I felt like I needed the time to rest so I just listened and worked on my cross stitch. In retrospect this may have been the first sign that I was getting a little burnt out and sick, so I’m glad I decided not to push it too much.

New job!

Then Wednesday I started with my new Team in the National Leadership Centre! It was a relatively easy start as I went to One Team Gov breakfast, discovered that James was also going to collect his kit, and then went over to our IT induction with him.

Afterwards I went and hung out with Billy and started talking about the work. I felt like I gave him a bit of a grilling, but I’m looking forward to pulling everything out of his brain over the next couple of weeks.

I’m sat literally a couple of banks of desks down from where I sat when I first joined the Cabinet Office back in 2015. So there’s something strange going on in my brain and I can’t help myself comparing how it is now and how it was then.

I’m spotting lots of familiar faces and it’s good to see people like Alex and Glyn when I’m wandering around, but it definitely feels like there are more people (and is more noise) than there used to be.

“Where do I know you from? You look familiar”

I know the department has grown a lot and you definitely feel that when you’re trying to read and concentrate on some documents, or listen to a hangout call. I’m my latter days in the department I had quiet little ground floor offices to act as a safe haven, I would very much like one of those again. I’m going to have to get strategic about when I need days to get my head down and read and think (WFH) and when I need to be present.

The good thing about the team is that when I joined I had 30 minute conversations already scheduled with the entire team, this is good, it gives me immediate reason to speak with people, but honestly, with lots of short meetings I found that a bit draining, and a bit much to take in. I felt a really strong urge to try and conserve my energy and go kindly on myself.

In being back at the Cabinet Office some of those early feelings I had of impostor syndrome came flooding back. I’d forgotten how intimidating it can be to work with such high performing, well educated, quick and intelligent people.

A gif of a woman saying “You’re better than me”

I remembered how I had felt when I joined the department (my Ada’s list presentation touches on this a bit) and for a couple of days my brain was really busy with dealing with those thoughts and feelings of inadequacy. Thank goodness for walks with Morgan and lunches with Jenny to help me get those thoughts out and away from my brain a bit.

I’ve spoken with someone else in the team since who expressed that it can be really intimidating to work with such a “high performing team”which I meant to mean a mixture of experience, education, confidence and pace — which the NLC definitely are. So this is something I intend to look out for and support people where I can.

Again, in retrospect, the above should have probably also acted as another red flag for illness and/or burnout. Coupled with a sick little man at home, and an ill bigger man with hospital appointments, which added to my stress.

All of this meant that over the weekend I got sick with… something… a quiet, exhausting, but otherwise symptomless virus which had me in bed for all of Sunday.

Week beginning 9 December

Overarching feeling of the week: Something’s not right

A cartoon of an exhausted woman with a key in her back moving along slowly.

Well, the week really started with a text to Billy on Sunday afternoon saying that there was no way I was going to make it on the Monday.

The, on the Monday, I remembered that there would be prep for the team’s Service Assessment on Tuesday that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to. I felt a huge sense of letting the side down, although I basically laid in bed and snoozed all day, unable to get up.

On Tuesday I did manage to get up and make it in to work but was still feeling pretty terrible. We had a team meeting in the morning and in the afternoon went to meet with Convivio to prep for the afternoon’s service assessment.

We met in a nearby cafe away from the office and it was nice, but also noisy and I struggled a bit. The assessment was in the afternoon and was done by my ex-colleagues Luke and Wendy from the DATT team. It was really really nice to see them though somewhat strange to be on the other side of the table rather than doing the assessment with them!

On Wednesday we had sprint scouting and sprint planning with Convivio which was really really useful for me. and I felt, by Thursday, that I was starting to get a grip on the work and what needs to happen, as well as have some good ideas for things I think we can do which might be useful in the future.

Thursday was also the General Election, and I wore my incredible House of Comms Christmas jumper to work all day. In the evening I met Hattie, Katy and some of the MHCLG Digital Directorate crew for our Christmas outing to go and see Hamilton!

MHCLG Digital Directorate Crew ready to see Hamilton.

I’m usually highly sceptical and contrarian when it comes to things that people unanimously tell me are good, but honestly, it’s really good. I can’t believe more people don’t know about it to be honest 😉

And now, here we are on Friday 13th. With general election results in. A continuation of Government means a continuation of work and things staying more or less the same, but of course priorities will shift now and things will change. Again, this is the Civil Service, and we go on, keep going, keep working and doing our absolute best.

There are a lot of good gifs out there signifying migraine. This is a cartoon man with a blue moving scribble over his head.

I woke up with a migraine this morning and have been sat typing this, slowly, and in the dark. Only one more week left at work before Christmas, one more week with Billy and then he leaves me with the trust that I won’t create a steaming pile of mess for him to return to in May.

I’m not sure I’ll write any more this year as there seems little point before Christmas. I might do a wrap up next week, a kind of retro of my objectives for writing this year. I’m not sure I’ve met my number goals due to two pre-election periods, but there is probably still something interesting to say.

So here’s to 2020, have a lovely Christmas and New Year. Look after yourselves and each other and I’ll see you on the other side.

[1] I recently learned about some of the dubious history of the word purdah, and I’ve found out that apparently the Civil Service changed this so that we should use the term pre-election period up to 10 years ago, so its really strange that it’s still in use.

And actually, when I think about it, I had never heard the word until I joined the civil service and it contributed to that feeling of opaqueness and of hidden rules and language that made me feel so out of place. It’s a word that contributes to the social disparity that others might feel when they join the org. I’m a little disappointed at my ability to just pick it up and forget how weird that was, so I’m no longer going to use the word.

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