What Scottish Government has learned about how to do ‘Digital Discovery’

December 4, 2020 by No Comments | Category Digital Public Services


I’m Angela Saunders, Product Manager at the Scottish Government.  If you’re on the point of starting a “Digital Discovery” project, I want to tell you about what we’ve learned recently from ours.  For those unfamiliar with the term, Discovery is the important first step in designing a public service.

What is Discovery, and why do it?

“Suck” by Sir Anish Kapoor (at Jupiter Artland) presents an inviting void, containing what? (photo by the blog author)

In Scottish Government, it starts when a public sector client organisation asks us for help to develop its services, culture and/or ways of working.  Normally, if our most effective impact can be achieved by collaborating directly with that organisation, we start by carrying out a Discovery exercise.  Discovery is an Agile term, described here in GOV.UK, and it does what it says on the tin.  The focus is on finding all you need to know to inform what service users are going to need.

Sometimes, our client’s already decided, “If I’m going ‘digital’, I’ll be needing some new system or kit.”  Not necessarily!  We need them to park that thought, and come on a voyage of Discovery with us.  Whatever Discovery produces, it will not in itself deliver a shiny new platform. Sometimes what we discover is, it’s not a tech solution that’s required at all.

What’s often needed is a better understanding of the service users and their needs. While that’s always been a key factor in citizen service, it sits at the heart of digital methods and practices.

Great digital service is the same as any great customer service.  It starts and ends with people.  In Government, we like to define digital services as: driven by citizens, enabled by technology.  And following implementation, we keep asking citizens if we’ve got it right.

Citizens may want a lot of things, but what will be the best fit for their particular needs?  How can we ensure citizens have seamless access to the services they need – and are entitled to – from government?

Finding out

The answer emerges from doing a load of research.  A Discovery project uses the time allocated (four, six or maybe eight weeks) to find out everything possible, ideally, to inform and develop a ‘delightful user experience’.

In Discovery, the mission is to collect and interpret data –

  • who are the service users?
  • what are their motivations and preferences, what barriers affect their satisfaction levels, and how will disabled people interact with the service?
  • what do analytics reveal about if/how/when the service is accessed?
  • how should the service operate, to meet users’ needs?
  • what looks like it might/might not help to remove obstacles to delivery?
  • what functions will the service require, to provide a swift and pain-free user journey
  • are organisational factors (structural silos, policies, practices etc.) a problem?

By asking these questions we can start to understand how to create the best user experience for a service.

If you complete Discovery and there are things you still need to know – keep going.  Otherwise, complete the exercise by weighing up the costs versus benefits of prototyping solutions.  Of course, you may conclude the answer is a lot simpler than you’d expected – like putting in place a new process, to remove obstacles for service users.

What a Discovery is not

Having grasped a thorough understanding of the users of your service and any barriers to delivery, you will have an idea of what might work, and what will not.  Stop there!

The next phase of a digital project (called Alpha) involves lots of prototyping, to explore possible approaches and solutions. But this ‘solutionising’ is not part of Discovery.

What we learned – doing it right

Scottish Government’s analysis of recent Discoveries found these themes were important: clear direction, good communications, and common processes.

  1. Clear direction

To ensure your service has a clear direction and purpose:

  • agree scope with project clients and clarify what outputs will be like (stick to this)
  • agree the ultimate purpose of the client organisation
  • agree strategy, objectives and priorities
  • focus on’s Digital Scotland Service Standard criteria, to which you will work
  • agree a project period – sufficient for thorough enquiry and analysis
  • take a sufficiently broad view of service users and stakeholders
  • agree to examine all existing barriers, both internal and external, process-related and behavioural
  • confirm all dependencies – some user needs involve several providers
  1. Good communications

Good communication is essential when doing a Discovery. The best way to do this is to:

  • keep reminding clients how the project contributes to national digital objectives such as platform reuse, upskilling, interoperability, and collaboration
  • ensure clients understand they must be part of the collaborative process
  • employ relevant Digital, Data and Technology professionals (see the GOV.UK DDaT framework) to deliver the project, discussing with the client what those experts will bring to the exercise
  • achieve clear understanding within the team about: ways of working, planning, protocols, hopes and uncertainties
  1. Common processes

Finally, common processes will help you to:

  • make consistent use of project tools, templates and digital processes
  • use agreed tools for stakeholder and user mappings, to understand who’s involved and examine the service processes
  • clarify what extra time and tools are needed for online working during the current pandemic
  • follow agreed risk and quality assurance approaches
  • document what you do, why, and what works

It works!

This blog has covered some successful ways to deliver Discoveries using the Agile methodology in Scottish Government’s digital projects with public sector clients.

The methodology has four phases: Discovery, Alpha, Beta, Live – and beyond.  While Agile is often used for software development, I hope this blog will show that the principles hold good for any business engineering project.

I believe that getting Discovery right is the only foundation for a successful project.  It’s a great alternative to uninformed intuition.  It is said we make 75% of our decisions based on assumptions – and a further 75% of those decisions are wrong.  Users of public services deserve so much better.

So let’s start discovering!



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