[day note] The National Archives, Kew

Today I was very pleased to take up the kind invitation from John Sheridan to visit his team at Kew. John is still relatively new to his role as Director of Digital at the National Archive but his work on Legislation.gov.uk was extremely influential on our thinking during the early stages of the ONS website rebuild so it was a no-brainer to jump at the opportunity.

It was a packed day hosted by John but with discussions with a number of other folk from different teams so I’d like to thank John, Alison, Sarra, Beth, Mariangela, Simon and Tom for being so generous with their time.

Again I was struck by the many common challenges and similar evolution towards digital working (which I coming to use as shorthand for agile, user focused, multi-disciplinary teams who are influencing organisational change from the bottom up).

TNA are embracing agile but finding a tension between team based agile working and organisational governance which is still much more comfortable with more Prince/MSP artefacts for reporting.

This seems common and isn’t going anywhere. As I’ve written elsewhere I’m betting on the learnings from the Verify team to provide the blueprint for doing this but at the moment nothing really feels either replicable outside of individual projects or doesn’t get the balance right between agility and audit-ability (I just made that up I think!).

Interestingly Kainos are supporting the uptake of agile (on a small scale) at TNA as well as their history at DVLA and recently with us. There is, I think, a Kainos flavoured approach to agile that I am starting to spot.

A big difference at TNA from elsewhere though is their total commitment to in-house (rather than in-sourced) team. Great to see.

There is a clear commitment to user focus and I met two of the full-time user researchers for an insightful conversation. TNA have some knotty challenges around where and how to focus their usability efforts — they have a ready resource on site due to the dual nature of their offices (being a public archive as well) but these users tend to be skilled and experienced (given they have got to the stage of the process they have visited the Archives) whereas it is users who are giving up at an earlier online stage where there are probably more lessons to learn. Like ONS they have a smaller but very vocal group of experts and then a long tail of academics, family historians etc who actually make up the vast majority of usage of the web tools.

It was good to chat to Simon, an agile delivery manager who has managed to avoid becoming dogmatic about any particular approach and had experimented with processes and ceremonies to the benefit of the team. Multiples teams are using multiple flavours of agile with a combination of Kanban and Scrum most visible but with some real ‘lean’ methodology visible (via Mariangela I believe). They all make use of ‘big boards’ with some additional work done in Trello — a nice hybrid approach.

The web team(s) (the web team has split in to two squads) is working to integrate the flow of BAU changes and bug fixes into their sprint work-in-progress as they are still a small team trying to undertake large projects at the same time as keeping the ‘lights on’.

Like many places (including my own) they have a mix of high performing agile teams and non believers so there is an ongoing internal advocacy job to do — without detracting from the good work already going on. Like William Gibson said

“the future is here just not very evenly distributed.”

I spent some time chatting to Tom from the web archiving team — I was happy to be able to thank Tom in person as he did amazing work ensuring the ONS website was archived to a high level of fidelity before we moved to the new site. We have some ideas of projects to use that archived data as well so it was good to chat about those as well.

The day finished with John showing off the latest development on Legislation.gov.uk — a custom search query language which provides users with amazingly powerful capabilities to query the database of legislation — it is clearly going to be hugely useful for serious researchers and got me thinking about what we’d need to do to other that level of flexibility to our users.

It was another really useful day and hopefully I contributed as much as I got out of it.