This week marks the one-year anniversary of my time as product manager at the DigitalService. Not a weeknote, but more of a list of what happened during this year, so to say, a moment of looking back and recalling the things that happened as I tempt to forget to do this. So watch out, this is a rather long one, but also a glance into how the Digitalcheck got created.

Creating a Digitalcheck for Germany’s legislation:

The majority of my last year was spent setting up, structuring, drafting, shipping, supporting, and iterating the Digitalcheck with the goal to enable policymakers to draft digital-ready legislation that work better for everyone:

Setting up a project service:

End of May 2022 Stephanie approached me with the topic, back then we did not have a team, or any idea about the policy process. At the beginning, there was just the thought, that this could offer a great leverage point for a more digital Germany, and the ministry of the interior that entrusted us with this task.

  • Starting out, I build up and lobbied strongly for a “product/service logic” in a project that was not supposed to ship software. I did so as I strongly believe in the power of starting small, working user-centered, and iterating fast. After almost a year, this bet holds up, we are one of the first initiatives in the whole German administration that approaches a non software subject with a different, not project centric mindset (I wrote a bit about project vs. product in this weeknote). #DareToLearn #TakingOwnership
  • Entrusted with a topic that spans the entire German administration, the power to influence everyone’s everyday life, and also gets close to the core tasks of every ministry, called for an interdepartmental working group. To mitigate negative decision and coordination effects that are the norm for such groups, I focused on creating a safe environment. This enabled the participants to work without thinking about their level of hierarchy, personal, or leader’s agenda, but rather towards a common goal. Today, we look back on facilitating over 14 meetings, still having a strong participation rate, and more importantly having informed different parts of the service through a multidisciplinary perspective, ensuring its viability. I contribute much of our success to this group of people - investing and setting something like this up is untypical in the normal product building world, but super important for the product viability in an administration/governmental setting. #EmbraceDiversePerspectives
  • Right from the start, I also had to create a frame and think about what we need to create an outcome, not just some output. Most importantly for this is the shared understanding about what “digital-ready” legislation even means. A challenge made even more complex by: the different areas of law, different states of digitalization in ministries, the different actors in the policy process, and also by the hierarchy of the German administration. We needed a way to transfer the mindset and thinking patterns of software engineers as well as executing staff to policymakers that often have no background in either of these two trades. I drew up this picture, placing a set of principles and definition as the core of our attempt to create digital ready-policy, this logic informs our work at the Digitalcheck till this day:

    Grafik zu Prinzipien als hierarchie-übergreifender Sprache. Im Zentrum ein dunkelblaues Quadrat mit der weißen Aufschrift „Prinzipien für digitaltaugliche Regelungen“, von dem aus zwei Pfleile mit der Beschriftung „informieren“ zu zwei weiteren, sich rechts anschließenden blauen Rechtecken mit den Bezeichnungen „Methoden“ und „Leitfragen, Dokumente“ verlaufen. Am linken Rand sind vertikal drei Hierarchie-Stufen gelistet. Luckily, I could do this by building on the shoulders of giants. I was inspired by the ideas and attempts that were made in New Zealand, US, Estonia, Sweden, Taiwan, UK and most importantly Denmark. A great moment, and something that made me appreciate and pursue working in the open even more. A huge thank you to Kristoffer and all the other public servants that were happy to reflect ideas with us! #FocusOnImpact #TakeOwnership

Growing the team:

With growing traction on a political level, first desk and user-research done, a vague understanding of the problem space, a contract finalized, and a deadline in sight, we were finally becoming a team working on this. Together with Sabrina as a service designer, and Jakob as a transformation manager, we joined forces for digital legislation.

  • I invested time onboarding both of them. Luckily, this wasn’t a challenge as we clicked seamlessly on a personal level and I could rely on the written documentation of the project on confluence. #OpenByDefault
  • I set up a slim scrum / kanban like project structure to enabled us working on a common goal while splitting up the workload. After the finished onboarding of Jakob, my area of responsibility shifted. From here on I was not the project lead anymore but had more time to focus on the actual service development, our way of working, and methodical set-up.
  • Parallel to this, we continued user research, and testing the first iterations of the principles, as well as a prototype checklist - I still look back to this phase with great appreciation. I enjoyed that we now as a team had more capacity, but even more the power that comes with diverse perspectives. Sabrina 100% stepped up our quality of user-research, helped iterate, and visualize first the problem, later the policy service landscape and created an artifact that we as a team up to today, heavily rely on. Even better, the service landscape of the policy process also helps the overall government at places we did not imagine (e.g. policy people plan to use it for onboarding new team members). Jakob inspired us with his broad knowledge about the policy system, the administration, and his can-do attitude when it came to take over most of the time-consuming and complicated stakeholder work. It should be mentioned here, that the fundamental factor (in my opinion) was our common focus and understanding. I attribute a lot of this to two visuals: the problem journey and the policy service landscape. We could clearly pinpoint different opportunities and pain points on it. Also, it ensured, that we talked about the same “thing”. Another reason for our shared understanding, focus, and the concise Digitalcheck was the continuous user-research sessions, reflecting, building, and testing assumptions (at least bi-weekly).
  • During this timeframe, we also finalized the 5 principles and the definition sentence of digital-ready policy. Both achievements of a multiple stakeholder process. We included the feedback and ideas of policy people (they need to understand and apply the principles), NKR (they need to check if these were applied), staff that is executing the created policy (they need to understand and digitize the legislation), the interdepartmental working group (as an instance of feedback on the different perspectives of ministries), researchers and professors (as they already looked into this for quite a while), international experts (to learn from all the attempts that have been tried). We knew we were at an “okayisch” spot when both policy people and staff understood and could explain the principles.

    Do we believe that all of this is perfect? No! But working iteratively allows you to take some risks, as we can easily publish a new version. #DareToLearn

  • We ended up with a three-step process that covers a large time frame: Grafik die die 3 Schritte wie darunter beschrieben in einer linearen Timeline darstellt.

    • The first step is a preliminary audit of the policy idea, this should inspire the policy personal to think about all the opportunities and new solution spaces that digital possibilities open up.
    • If this audit is “positive” policy, people are offered a set of five principles with examples and tips, as well as the inquiry to visualize the process that is described by the policy.
    • The third step is a super simple eight question, binary checklist to document if the principles were followed, the process visualized, and user as well as experts were consulted. This should happen shortly before the legislation is passed into the inter-ministry participation process.

    You might be wondering, why is this so “simple” - the answer is: The one thing that needs to be digital-ready is the policy content itself, not a documentation, not the check, not the process towards it! So we need to change a mindset, inspire, and start an early thought process about digital opportunities, and not check things from a list. This also informed the format, our check is so far paper based (more about this in this weeknote). #FocusOnImpact #CareToChallenge

Getting it out there:

With the end of the year rushing in (the deadline was the 01.01.2023), it was time to lift the cover and get the first version into the wild. Personally I would have liked to do this way earlier, but getting here was a complicated and careful process balancing the needs of different stakeholders. In the end, we could release the Version 0.9 in November, one month before the deadline and official start (I wrote about the launch here).

  • We focused much of our team power on a role out of the beta-version. Reaching over 400 policy people in 15 different formats. These formats were carefully crafted with the goal to remove the fear that was out there, plus to convey the message that we’re going to continue to work on this iteratively. Both aspects are building a strong fundament for our continuing work. We were especially proud, that we could do these events together with the NKR (the control authority) and by this addressing the origin of most fears right away. #CareToChallenge
  • Besides, we were now able to blog about our work (Julia a communication professional joined the DigitalService and now supports part-time our team with this) and I could write weeknotes with more context. #OpenByDefault

Making the first steps on the iterative path of the Digitalcheck:

With the beginning of the year 2023 we grew the team. Lena (Design) and Sarah (Product) complete our set-up so far. Our project partners on the government side also changed. Both created some breathing time for Jakob, Sabrina and me.

  • Onboarding all the “project new joiners” was a great opportunity to check if our messages, documentation, and decision-making could be translated into a consistent story. Knowledge transfer is and will continue to be one of the most challenging parts of product work!
  • Furthermore, with the start of the Digitalcheck media coverage skyrocketed. Over 50 different outlets ran stories about an otherwise “niche” topic. We are quite proud that even the ZDF (a main German TV channel) wrote about it. What leaves me puzzled is the focus on the process that we see so far, I wrote about that in a past weeknote. Another success story is that that our working in the open approach let the Tagesspiegel Background write a great article about how the different federal states approach digital-ready policy themselves. Creating a great overview that will help us in the future. #OpenByDefault
  • Right now, we are conducting the second part of the roadshow and roll out. An in-person training focusing on the principles and how to apply them with the help of process visualization. As you might remember, we need to change the mindset of people, and this always takes a lot of important and time intensive “feet on the ground” work to accomplish. #FocusOnImpact
  • Besides, we are starting to work on the next version of the Digitalcheck. After a rather long vision, mission, and goal set up at the beginning of the year, we are finally back to building, testing, iterating, and therefore learning. This feels great. Even more exciting, all of this is now in a more structured set-up, as we as a team took some time to structure and visualize our approach. Thanks to Sarah’s synthesizes work, we call this now the “MickyMaus” - more on this at a later date. #DareToLearn
  • Being “live” also means, that we start to see real policy people apply our Digitalchecks to real legislation. We see the output (the outcome is delayed as policy takes a while to be passed and then be implemented) and we also have a chance to evaluate the “how these people work with it”. Both create data points that inform the iterative development of new versions. And this is just the beginning… #DataDrivenDecisions #DareToLearn

This first year was quite a ride - I feel accomplished but even more I am looking forward to the next steps of the Digitalcheck. But the last year was not only product/service work, I also participated in the growth of a company.

What happened on a company level:

I joined the DigitalService as the company was a 65-people team, at the 2nd of May 2022 - today we are over 120 people at the DigitalService. Much happened on a company level this past year:

  • the company reflected on its vision and mission,
  • we got a new discipline called “Transformation”,
  • both the Tech4Germany and the Work4Germany fellowships took place, it was determined to discontinue Tech4Germany for now,
  • the company values got revised:
    • #CareToChallenge
    • #OpenByDefault
    • #EmbraceDiversePerspective
    • #FocusOnImpact
    • #TakeOwnership
    • #DareToLearn

I feel particularly lucky that I was able to leave some personal marks:

  • by participating in the value revision process as part of the working group
  • together with Markus and Merlin driving and owning the carbon awareness initiative
    • we grew it by onboarding Chris and Clemens
    • we set up a process to calculate the companies carbon emissions yearly and offset these
    • we worked on awareness for the topic on different levels (Vytal bowl return service with slack-bot and onboarding slot, bike repair day, procurement of stuff with less waste, occasional reminders at company-wide meetings)
  • participating in three iterations of the bookclub (Accelerate, Kill it with fire, Digital Transformation at Scale: Why the Strategy Is Delivery)
  • participating in the agile community of practice and giving back by being a sparing partner for others
  • ensuring that the companies awesome lunch&learn format is documented

Writing all this makes me excited: what will happen in the upcoming year?, but also humble and thoughtful about what it takes to keep up this pace.

It is, was, and will be the people that make this possible and fun!

What makes me even more excited is, that all this was only possible as part of a great group of people at the DigitalService! Starting about a year ago felt like coming home, many familiar faces from my time at Tech4Germany but also many new that are all gathered under the umbrella of doing something with a deep purpose. This makes working fun, rewarding, and something I look forward to every day. Thank you to everyone linked to this journey who makes it special through reflection, sparing, laughter, lunch and dinner dates, or coffee/drinks on the rooftop, this is awesome. A special shout out to the awesome Digitalcheck team: Sabrina, Lena, Sarah, Julia, and Jakob!

Looking forward to DigitalService year number two.