A few months ago, we spoke at a conference about the knotty challenges of government funding rules, as captured in the Green Book, and how they often get in the way of good public service design. As a topic, it didn’t quite scream crowd-pleaser, and to be honest, we expected a quiet room.
But lots of people did come. They came because they’d already felt the consequences themselves, or maybe could see them coming their way before long. Because service design isn’t about nice people playing with post-its. It’s people who want to work on services that matter, delivered at scale, and build the best toolbox for doing that. Figure out how to fix funding, and you’ve got yourself a bigger toolbox.
If you’ve felt that the government spending game is stacked against you trying to do the thing that feels obviously right: it’s not just you. Nor is there some magic way others have found to navigate through or around it that you haven’t yet. But there are some tricks.
Before our talk, we sent out a questionnaire that asked how people were finding ways to work with budgets and business cases, given these are designed for one off projects when the preferred goal is to create the conditions for continuous learning, improvement and delivery.
We wanted to find out what people are doing to get funding, obtain more of it, or even work without it, to deliver and improve services at scale. This is what they shared with us.
First, do the basics. Get to know how the flow of money works in the organisation you work with. Follow a few examples from the initial idea to how funding was granted or allocated, to get a sense of who and what was involved. Get to know what major investments are underway; large programmes of work or other planned spending.
Be imaginative in how you could start small. You could secure seed funding to be able to do some initial work to test, learn and build an evidence base to inform a larger business case. Scout widely for that initial cash; it could come from philanthropic sources, from "innovation" pots, or (more often) from "spare" or re-sequenced budget from related programmes.
"Put yourself in your funders' shoes. The outcomes the organisation is interested in might not be your priorities. But you can’t ignore them, and you’d be daft to try"
Put yourself in your funders' shoes. Be clear about the drivers that result in what they are interested in (that could be revenue, cost savings, headcount changes, or other outcomes) and develop business cases around these. If we could reduce or increase X by 20-30% while meeting user needs more effectively, is that an exciting enough proposition? The outcomes the organisation is interested in might not be your priorities. But you can’t ignore them, and you’d be daft to try. Be creative in thinking how you can square them with what users need, or what will result in services that perform better – and realistically doing something that could drive both.
You can amplify the effect by going where the money already is – often the significantly larger pot. Find out where areas of big spending are and focus on influencing approaches there, rather than carving out pots of money for "digital" stuff that’s entirely separate to what people already think is important. Offer your help and influence, guiding the type of work, how it is being done and who by, to increase its chance of success. Start by getting very clear on the outcomes and drivers stated in the original business case and programme documents. Evaluate its chances given the teams and work that’s currently underway.
And be prepared to write business cases and other logical arguments through papers and slide decks. Everyone has to eventually. Use the process to build allies. Don’t try to win the argument just on paper – a demonstration of a working proof of concept or of a better approach to some existing work, followed by an outline business case runthrough, is far more compelling than one or other alone.
Say you’ve got some funding, and there’s a team up and running, delivering value. But really, you’ve only just started in terms of scaling your efforts, and the funding runs out soon. How do you keep going?
Most importantly, be able to marshal a strong argument to point out the impact and risks of not doing something or of stopping work. Inertia is a powerful force in any big organisation; make it work for you. Don’t let the "do nothing" or "stop work" case imply a steady state – "do nothing" in digital service terms means a swift and consequential degradation; the kind of thing people notice, complain about, and that creates expensive failure demand as a result. Develop allies here – the users, operational staff or stakeholders that will be most affected should the work not properly be supported.
"Be able to marshal a strong argument to point out the impact and risks of not doing something or of stopping work. Inertia is a powerful force in any big organisation; make it work for you"
From day one, you should be gathering the data and evidence to support your future funding request. Make sure you have been tracking indicators you can use to build successive business cases. You’ll thank your past self when you do.
Keep a close eye on the bigger picture. Be aware of what (else) is being funded in your organisation, or is a focus of strategic priorities. Does your team fit? And have you told a clear story to explain how it relates to delivering on those priorities?
Get your hands dirty. Sometimes you need to be in the room where it happens. Get involved in corporate budget planning to create the opportunities. Consider it a learning opportunity for you, and a moment to educate your colleagues on ways of working they may be unfamiliar with.
Fixing funding is hard. It can mean confrontation between differing attitudes to risk, what’s important, even fundamental ways of looking at the world. Wherever you can, push for bureaucracy that is proportionate to risk, and seek little and often. And remember that, ultimately, the people with the purse strings are on the same side as you – even if you may need to show them how.
Andrew Greenway is a founding partner at Public Digital, writer and former senior civil servant who was involved in setting up the UK Government Digital Service. Kate Tarling is a service leader and specialist who helps large organisations create successful services, by changing their working practices.