Leeds GovJam 2017

Last week, Ellen Care from the Transformation and Change Team attended the Global Gov Jam in Leeds for the first time. This blog shares a few of the (many) things she learned over the course of 48 hours which might be useful in exploring design in local government.

GovJam is a global event with cities from across the world taking part. Working around a common theme, small teams work over 48 hours using service design techniques to build innovative approaches and solutions towards challenges faced by the public sector. The emphasis is on doing not talking, showing not telling, and getting out of the building to talk to people, not theorising in a closed room.

Not every idea solves a problem

At several points over the course of the Jam our team had moments that went “we talked to some people and the thing that we thought was a problem turns out not to be a problem for them”.

This meant we had to let go of the ideas we’d just been excitedly working on and come up with something different. At times this could be disheartening and disconcerting as we felt under pressure to produce something in the limited time available, but it meant that we were listening and reacting to the feedback we got, not just ploughing on regardless.

There was no time to be attached to ideas that weren’t solving a problem for someone; if it’s not useful, people won’t use it, so it’s a waste of time and energy to force it forwards.

The lesson: Don’t expect every idea you come up with be valuable and pivot when it’s clear it’s not. An interesting idea isn’t the same thing as a good service.

Team working

The team get stuck in to developing a new idea after the conducting some ‘failed’ research

There isn’t one perfect idea

Real things that people want and can use are more complicated and messy than the neat packages we come up with in our heads. There was also a temptation to try and encompass all of our ideas into one service in some kind of unifying theory, when in reality we needed to keep things simple and focused. This meant the ideas we were working on were always adapting, either being added to or stripped back at different points in the process.

We spent some time worrying about whether we were doing it ‘right’ or being innovative and different enough for it to be worthwhile. Even though it may have only been half an hour or so of discussion, in Jam terms this was a pretty big proportion of our work time. And all the time we were discussing whether the idea was good enough, we weren’t actually making or testing anything.

The lesson: If we wait for the perfect idea or a unifying theory that neatly brings everything together, we’ll never get started and we’ll never know whether the ‘thing’ has any legs.


Be visual

Working in a group of people who didn’t know each other and under a time pressure was smoother than expected, as everyone was motivated to get on and get stuck in. What really made a difference to working at pace was clearly articulating what we were working on. Spending a couple of minutes clearly defining a problem statement, and then writing it down and sticking it on the wall, meant we could all get behind the same thing and understand it in the same way, enabling us to stay focused, make decisions and work at pace.

Using the walls to document our project not only helped us to stay on the same page, but gave a really sense of achievement as the work expanded and reminded us of the journey we’d been on as we moved through and past ideas.

The lesson: Take time to define the building blocks you’re collectively working from (problem statements, user needs, insights from research, customer journey etc.) and make them visible to everyone so you can easily refer back.


Working visually on our project wall

Cheer each other on

There was a really celebratory atmosphere at the Jam, focused as much on the tools people were using and trying as on the services that they produced.

Whenever a group left the building to talk to users, everyone paused their work to give them a cheer. Whenever anyone shared their work at a Show and Tell, they got a round of applause. Although it was only a small thing, it made a big difference to the atmosphere in the room, building the feeling that you were learning and progressing and keeping momentum up.

There were also small prizes for teams at the end the focused on the principles of user centred design rather than the quality of services produced, including awards for:

  • The first team out of the building
  • The most failed prototype
  • The best pivot away from an idea that wasn’t a problem

The lesson: Trying new things can be scary. Knowing you’ve got a friendly and appreciative group cheering you on makes a difference.

Thank you to everyone involved in the Global Gov Jam – the volunteers, venue and everyone I spoke to and worked with over the course of 48 hours. It was a really wonderful experience and I hope to be back soon.

Find out more about GovJam and see the results here.

Team sticks

“The unit of delivery is the team”: stick people representing our team