Introducing a new series in which we try to find a sustainable and credible way to enable good agile governance

My name’s Steve Parks, and I’m a business geek. While others get their kicks from code, design, research or tinkering with tech, I get mine from figuring out how to make organisations work better for people. It means I enjoy building teams, designing processes, improving collaboration and so on.

The challenge

A while back, I observed that, while by no means being perfect, the delivery teams charged with delivering digital services across government were broadly working in fairly healthy and productive agile ways — massive progress had been made in the last ten years on this front. But then they were coming up against intense friction when they had to interface with the rest of their organisation, usually at stakeholder level. I heard this as an issue right across government (and, to be clear, in the private sector too!). Agile teams were being wrapped in very onerous waterfall processes — and it was driving everyone, on each side of the divide, nuts.

Stakeholders, and their gatekeepers, thought the agile teams were chaotic and unable to do simple things like submit a report a few weeks in advance that wouldn’t be out of date by the time of the meeting. Delivery teams didn’t want to have to stop to do lengthy reports when they could ‘show the thing’ and focus on maintaining flow. Governance was still carried out at quite some distance to the actual delivery.

Let me be clear at the start — this friction is nobody’s ‘fault’ and no one role needs ‘fixing’. Stakeholders have responsibilities to meet that they care about and set ways they are expected to meet them, and delivery teams have ways of working that are more about flow, sustainability and changing to adapt to learning — but no longer fit the old model. It’s just a compatibility problem.

Think of it like an iPhone. We’ve removed the headphone jack because it fits the long term vision, removes tangled wires, and allows us to meet other key customer requests — but stakeholders no longer understand how to plug in and listen to what is going on and can be annoyed by the change. Our mission is first to work on the equivalent one of those little £8 dongles that connect the two again. In the future maybe we can get them onto wireless. One day they’ll laugh at how, in the old days, there used to be this special little plug just to listen to stuff ;)

The Mission

Just over a year ago I started using some of my Friday time to explore this problem. With the guidance of service design colleague, Lewis Nyman, I set out to understand stakeholders and their needs, with the idea of being able to design simple tools to meet those needs and act as the dongle.

Last year I presented some early thinking at the Agile on the Beach conference around one of the tools for managing risks. I’ve just returned there this year to give an updated session showing more progress across the project. I got a lot of requests to write and share more about it.

Also, a couple of weeks ago I was part of the OneTeamGov #BureaucracyHack day, dreamt up by James Reeve, and took part in the workstream on governance. I shared some of the work we’d done on user research and empathy mapping, and took part in the discussions. My homework was set as going away and blogging about what we’ve been doing so far. So here I am!

Putting it out into the wild

I’ll now share my research and work as it currently stands, including some prototypes for simple tools. It’s not finished, and it’s far from perfect — but there seems to be some momentum around the topic of governance right now, so I’m publishing my thinking to contribute to the discussion and open up collaboration.

Coming Up

In the coming weeks, I’ll publish the following blog posts in this series:

  • The mission (this post)
  • What is governance for?
  • Understanding stakeholders
  • Understanding teams
  • Maximising value
  • Reducing risk
  • People, time, money and resources
  • Behaviours, practices and safety
  • Assurance
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Implementation and next steps

To follow along, either subscribe to the Convivio newsletter, down in the footer of this page, or follow us on Twitter at @convivio where we’ll announce each new post.

If you want to discuss with me or send ideas, feedback, or anything except abuse, I’m on Twitter as @steveparks. DMs are open for anything you can’t say in public, or you can email me at

And I’d be very grateful if you spread the word to other geeks like us, interested in good governance of public sector digital services. Thanks!

Stay tuned…

With thanks

In preparing to write this series I’m grateful to others who have shared their thoughts, writing, tips or feedback. In particular Mark Dalgarno, Cate Mclaurin, and Richard McLean.

Mark was part of a team at GDS that worked on governance in 2014 and produced the governance principles in the service manual as a result. Others who worked on that included Ashley Stephens, James Ashton, and Andrew Greenway.

Richard has produced a comprehensive reading list on governance that was both a great way to find other people’s thinking research, and an easy way for me to provide a bibliography by just linking to the whole damn thing ;)

Thanks of course to my colleagues Lewis, Alice, Joe and Mike, as well as our lovely clients, who have been patient and enthusiastic with experimentation. In particular, the team at the National Leadership Centre have been admirable in their enthusiasm to experiment and embrace the ideas.

Finally, thanks to the other stakeholders and delivery team members that were willing to spare me some time one-to-one, or in groups at OneTeamGov, GovCamp, LocalGovCamp, Teacamp and more.

Main photo: A woman leaps in the air with an umbrella. By Edu Lauton

This post was originally published on our Medium blog at