As part of the work the Digital and Technology Strategy team are currently doing on revising guidance and support for spend controls, we have invited Kassandra Karpathakis from Public Health England (PHE) to talk about some of the work the team at PHE have been doing to update, improve and simplify the advice, guidance and support for teams looking to get digital spend approval and start their digital project.
This post will form the first in a series of posts as we continue to work with our community to improve the spend controls process.
The PHE Digital Strategy team is responsible for approving digital spend and assurance and setting policy and standards around digital public health. We also provide practical advice to teams doing a digital project, demystify digital jargon, and support collaborative working to help teams deliver high-quality digital projects.
My first task since joining the team in May this year has been to improve our guidance and support for PHE teams wanting to do a digital project. As I am sure you know, the Cabinet Office Spend Controls introduced in 2013 means Arm's Length Bodies (ALBs) of the Department of Health (DH) cannot spend any money on a digital product or service without approval from DH and, in some cases, the Government Digital Service (GDS).
To start this work, I talked to our users in PHE who had or were completing a digital spend control form. I wanted to learn about their experience of using the digital spend control form and the process, and what more we could do to help them. So far I have spoken to 11 people across nine projects.
Experience of digital spend controls
For PHE, the digital spend control form with the additional DH questions, is 12 pages long. It has a further 19 pages of guidance. Straight away most users shared they were overwhelmed by the digital spend control form as is stating it is an “alarming form to fill in” and “so much to do.”
Following the interviews, I examined the feedback from PHE teams and pulled out the common themes that were emerging. Users of the spend control form felt:
- The questions in the form are repetitive, especially between the Cabinet Office pages and the DH additional questions
- The form is too long and overwhelming
- The language and terminology expected by the digital teams at PHE and DH is different from that they normally use
- They did not understand the approval process, including who to speak to and what forms to fill in, at the beginning of their project
- They did not know how long it would take to get their digital project approved
The general feeling from users was the digital spend control form, while necessary to ensure taxpayer money is spent on thought out projects meeting user need, was taking away effort from the actual project. Instead of focussing on the Digital Service Standard and getting their project off to the best start, they were dedicating a lot of time and energy into filling out the spend control form.
Great suggestions from our users
But, don’t be alarmed, it wasn’t all bad. I then asked our users what we could do to help and support them with the spend control form and process going forward.
Our users are especially keen to work with PHE Digital and DH Digital to improve the spend control process for themselves and others. A user said “as it [digital] is completely new to us and we have no experience in this area” they welcome all the support they can get.
Here’s some of the suggestions our users came up with:
- They would like a “digital 101” before starting their digital project including clarity on the phases of a digital project
- They would like to know more about the spend and assurance process such as who to speak to and what forms to fill in
- They would like examples on how to complete the spend control form
- They would like a masterclass on the spend control form and the processes they need to follow
- They would like more hands-on support when doing their digital project such as “digital person” to buddy up with during discovery
The suggestions from our users along with the candid feedback really got us thinking about how we can improve our support for PHE teams going through the spend and assurance process and starting a digital public health project.
To meet the ask of our users, we updated our internal content and guidance on the digital spend and assurance process. This included updating and embedding the 19 pages of additional guidance attached to the spend control form within the body of the form itself. We updated the guidance to make it as relevant to PHE teams as possible and tried to ensure it was written in plain English.
We’ve started running ad hoc workshops with PHE teams introducing them to the PHE Digital team, doing a digital project to GDS standards, user needs, and user research. These workshops have been specifically aimed at PHE teams new to digital ways of working and thinking. We’re also exploring options for offering digital teams hands-on support and/or a digital-buddy.
Throughout this work we’ve actively sought user feedback on what we’re doing to test and tweak different ideas. It’s worth saying that without the help of our users we wouldn’t have made so much progress. Thank you!
We’d welcome feedback from other teams outside of PHE on their experience of the spend and assurance process and/or to learn about how they support their teams doing a digital project. Please get in touch at Digital.Approvals@phe.gov.uk.