My Squiggly Career Path: One day you are writing policy, the next drowning in user stories

Social Security Programme Blog: Leadership Series

Elizabeth Sloan: Social Security Programme Service Owner


It started with discovery

In the summer of 2016, I had just started in a division which had just been renamed from Welfare Reform to Social Security Policy. Back then, there were about 20 people looking at the policy and legislation which would be needed to help support the devolution of benefits. As a policy lead, my role was clear; I would work with stakeholders, I would work with analytics, complete my Equality Impact Assessments and develop the policy needed for what was then called the Mother and Baby Grant (which would later become the suite of Best Start Payments).

And then along came Programme and the first Social Security Discovery.

I got to represent policy in the first Discovery – which was looking at ‘Could we pay a regular benefit and a grant from the same system?’

I learned, in that Discovery, you should never ask for flexible payment dates and, although I didn’t understand digital delivery, I was intrigued and excited by it. It felt tangible; it was like a big jigsaw I had to fit together and it really suited the way my brain likes to jump around from problem to problem (although this isn’t always an advantage, especially for those who need to follow my thinking process in a meeting 😊….).

Following the Discovery, I kept peeking through the doors in Programme. They worked differently from any team I had encountered in my career and I liked the buzz and noise which came from the area (although we did have to shut the doors a few times, and that was before I even joined!). After a few prompts and encouragement from colleagues in the Programme, I applied for the Product Owner role – even though I still didn’t even know what this would mean. I was successful and I became one of twelve Product Owners hired through that campaign. It felt like we were all stepping into a world of the unknown.


Be careful what you wish for

These were the last words my line manager said to me as I accepted the role of Product Owner. And boy was she right…

I entered a whole new world and was given the responsibility of launching the first benefit to go live, Best Start Grant; and I didn’t get it. I didn’t get Agile, I didn’t get the acronyms, I didn’t get service design, or user research (how this differed from policy engagement). I didn’t get defects, I didn’t get infrastructure, I didn’t understand my Solution Architects diagrams, I didn’t get j-units, or the importance of regression testing. I didn’t get why the Business Analyst was wanting to influence the regulations or why everything had to be impacted for deliverability. I didn’t even get the difference between Jason and Json – person or code became one of my favourite games!

Despite this, what I did have was energy and willingness to learn. And learn I did. What happened over the next 18 months was the biggest upskilling of my career and is still some of the hardest work I have ever done, and with some of the best teams I have ever worked with. Within 3 months of starting the role, the Programme had grown at a rate I had never seen before in the Scottish Government – suppliers turned up, contractors bolstered our skill set, and I found myself in a world of Programme Management Office (PMO), risk management, plans that needed to be printed on A2 paper, tools and agile training.

We got Ministers to ‘walk the walls’, we laughed, debated what would make up an MVP – that’s minimum viable product for those who are wondering! – celebrated big birthdays, supported colleagues through rough times, had team lunches (flatbread Friday was a fav), got confused over governance, danced together on nights out, argued over acceptance criteria, changed scrum structures and ways of working, and ultimately WE DELIVERED.


Tell the stories and celebrate the wins

A key part of this was ensuring no matter the role you played in the scrum, you were bought into the vision we were trying to achieve.

We heard feedback from citizens around the difficulty they had interacting with the current benefit system. It was sobering to see how the form, guidance, or product you had worked so hard on still caused issues or problems for people. But seeing this change and improve from session to session was so satisfying and really hit home how small changes can make a big difference.

Hearing first hand from those who will use the product/service you are designing is the most enriching and sometimes most emotional work you can be part of. I remember pushing back tears as I listened to a mother talk about how she wouldn’t have to send her child to nursery with a carrier bag but could buy her an actual bag, or a mum could buy a carpet so her child could crawl along the floor, or the invaluable work we did with parents who had suffered a neo-natal death or stillbirth which ultimately lead to them having their own journey and forms for Best Start Grant payments.

All of these were invaluable, they bought us into the vision and it motivated us through long days and weeks.

We didn’t get everything right though. Hindsight will always be a beautiful thing and the learning curve was steep. My key takeaways from that time were:

  • Day 1 will never go as you expect.
  • You can’t please everyone but we can prioritise being inclusive. Real people live in the real, complex, world and this means we have to focus on a combination of things that impacts their access and outcomes.
  • You need to ensure the foundations of the system are built correctly – all the user experience improvements in the world won’t help if we don’t get the plumbing right.
  • Finding the balance between making decisions, and giving people structure to gain experience can be hard to achieve but is crucial for building successful teams.
  • Empower the skill-set not the grade.
  • Pilots are better than big bang launches (got the scars from getting this one wrong).
  • Invest in creating a strong team culture, this weathered us through many a stormy sprint.
  • Post-release come down/burnout is real and it can really floor a team. This isn’t always preventable but we should have structures in place to support teams through this.


Taking my learning into new projects

As Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods were the first benefits to go live for Social Security Scotland, this meant my remit included not only the benefit, but a lot about setting the system and infrastructure up for the first time. While this did add extra bite (stress), it also meant my knowledge around digital services grew, and I was then in a prime position to take this onto new projects.

After 3 years in the Social Security Programme, I left in October 2020 to join a policy unit looking at establishing Scotland’s Redress Scheme. The scheme was aimed at delivering tangible redress in the form of acknowledgement, payment, apology, and support to survivors who suffered abuse as children while in the care of the state. In this role, I would be responsible for setting up the Unit responsible for the service design, business processes, and the underpinning IT infrastructure.

Suddenly, I went from feeling like an important but small cog in a large programme to being the ‘programme’. The division I joined included some of the most passionate, empathetic, and dedicated officials I had ever worked with, but it felt like oil and water combining. We began to find our feet on how delivery and policy work together in a way that was very similar to the journey I had been on in 2017. Yes, user research was a must, yes IT systems and suppliers require a substantial budget, no, I couldn’t just lift and shift the case management system from another scheme and so on.

So from October 2020 to an unprecedented launch date of December 2021 we all ran forward together and this was only possible due to a few things:

  • I was lucky that good people with strong skillsets wanted to follow me to this project.
  • I was empowered by my Deputy Director to establish the unit, structure, and budget that I needed to deliver.
  • Strong collaborative working with policy, survivor relations, and suppliers to help support the design and implementation of this scheme.

The scheme would be underpinned by three principles – dignity, compassion and respect – and these principles shaped the whole approach we took. Importantly, there was a strong survivor voice throughout the process of designing and developing the scheme. This was some of the most sensitive and carefully handled user research and co-production I have ever seen. This resulted in a scheme which was designed to be survivor-led, trauma-informed, and be responsive to feedback from survivors and, in its first 18 months, paid out more than 21 million pounds.

After launch began the work of continuous improvement and maintenance, which allowed me to have disconcerting balance in life. That was until, one weekend, I was pulled into working on the Scottish Government Warm Welcome Project which was established in a matter of days to help Scotland respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine … but that’s probably a story and lessons learned for another day/blog.


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