Prioritising, accepting and starting policy design projects.

Amanda
7 min readNov 16, 2022
A hopscotch with the word ‘start’ and then numbers to 10 drawn in chalk on the pavement.
Photo by Jon Tyson (Unsplash)

One of the questions I was often asked when leading the User Centred Policy Design team at the Ministry of Justice was ‘but how do you choose and prioritise your projects?’

And it was something I enjoyed discussing — firstly because prioritisation is always tricky and you get to have a lovely (often therapeutic) chat with someone and learn about their experience and their craft; and secondly because we had an approach in UCPD that we were experimenting with and wanted to get better at.

It’s worth saying at this point that there are lots of good prioritisation methods out there: WSJF, MoSCoW, Value vs Effort and RICE to name a few. Good product leaders are able to pick and choose the method that best suits their environment. Our environment was different to the other teams in Digital, so when developing our approach we were influenced by all of those methods — as well as our many years of being Civil Servants, particularly in a Policy space and understanding the different levers you need to pull to get things done.

Some context about the environment we worked in:

  • Our team was housed in Digital and worked with Policy and ‘operational policy’. (I’ve previously shared some of my experiences from leading our ‘Policy Lab’ here).
  • We had four teams: three discovery, one delivery and each of them was headed up by a Product Manager and led by a Service Owner (me).
  • Our projects focused on early stage (upstream) policy design as well as digital delivery. (The approach I’m referencing further on is for those policy design projects, rather than building digital products)
  • , the then Deputy Director of Digital empowered her leadership team (comprised of the other Service Owners and Profession Leads) to prioritise within their own areas and then discuss our quarterly/yearly plans with her — we operated in a space of trust and psychological safety.
  • I structured our four UCPD teams so that they mirrored the structure of the Policy teams (ie: created longer lived ‘service areas’ teams, with one focused on Access to Justice & Family Justice, one on Prisons, one on Youth Justice & Vulnerable Offenders*. The fourth was our Cross Justice Delivery Team)
  • I deliberately chose policy spaces where we would have the most traction and success, and disregarded policy spaces that I knew wouldn’t be suitable for working in this way. You’ve got to go where you can flow, otherwise you’ll burn out so much quicker.

So how did we prioritise projects?

  • That ‘service area’ structure meant that we could have direct conversations with the Policy Senior Civil Servants (SCS). This was good for deepening our relationships, knowledge and expertise. We also benefitted from my previous role as Deputy Director in Data, which helped open up new doors for us. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.
  • It was tricky for balancing projects against each other, but ultimately we trusted the Policy Directors to help us make the best call for their area. And we balanced competing projects against each other using a criteria (more on that below).
  • The other thing I had to balance was my role as a leader within Digital. It wouldn’t have been enough for Policy to agree on the priority (rightly so). I had to balance competing ideas against our Digital strategy, the priorities of other teams in Digital, the expertise we had, the risk of building future legacy, the often-invisible-to-policy rules of Digital (eg: no you can’t have a brand new, one-stop-shop website and easily get a GOVUK exemption), and the misunderstandings of how policy operate as well as their pace and ways of working, particularly their ability to easily iteratively improve (I have lost count of the times I’ve used the phrase ‘watching brief’ to digital teams)
  • And of course, the third group not in the room but undeniably the most important — our users.

So what was our approach?

We developed a three-step approach to prioritising, accepting and starting these projects.

We talked through these questions as a team, we talked them through with our Policy (and Digital) sponsors, and we kept asking certain questions to be absolutely sure of the commitment. Those repeated questions are very much by design.

We captured everything about a project in a light touch brief so there was little room for ambiguity — which is essential when you’re working in complex, nebulous spaces.

And although I’m writing this blog post, it’s very much the effort of a collective — so thank you as always, Team UCPD for everything you’ve done.

So here’s the questions we asked and the conditions we requested were in place.

Step 1: UCPD Project Critical Criteria

These are the critical criteria (our ‘qualifying questions’) we used to determine whether a potential project can move into prioritisation.

  • Do you have an accountable senior project sponsor?
  • Do you have an accountable and available project lead?
  • Do we have the right people and skills to deliver value?
  • Will it deliver value to users?
  • Is it a highly complex and highly unknown problem?
  • Where applicable, is there scope to test solutions?
  • Does it align to our UCPD OKRs?

Step 2: UCPD Project Prioritisation Criteria

These are the criteria we used to inform the prioritisation of the UCPD portfolio. As we were comparing these against other requests, but didn’t want a bureaucratic process in place, we scored these on a simple sliding scale and discussed the results together.

  • Is it a ministerial priority? (Are ministers asking for this work? Are we contributing to advice for ministers? Are we delivering a ministerial commitment?)
  • Is it a departmental priority? (Is it aligned to the objectives of the Single Departmental Plan?)
  • Is it a policy team priority? (Is the policy team able to contribute time, expertise and support to the project?)
  • How will it improve departmental decision-making? (Are clear decisions going to be made as a result of the work? Will it contribute to a business case? Will it contribute to ministerial decisions?)
  • How far will it contribute to transforming the department? (Can we show how it will improve the UCD capability of the department?)
  • Will it deliver value to end-users? (To consider: time taken for user value to be realised, type of value, replicability)
  • Can we measure the value? (How easy will it be to capture the value to end-users and stakeholders?)
  • Are we the only ones who can do this? (Is it an unknown and complex problem? Are we best-placed to do the work now?)
  • Is there a positive economic case? (See HMT Green Book)
  • Do we have a delivery commitment?
  • Is it funded?
  • Is it urgent?

Step 3: UCPD Project Start Criteria

‘Start Criteria’ are the minimum conditions required for a project to start and stand a reasonable chance of success (ie: value to users). They represent lessons learned from previous UCPD projects. Projects can start without meeting all criteria, but on the understanding that they are proceeding at risk.

Do you have an accountable senior project sponsor? Without a senior project sponsor (usually a Policy Deputy Director) who is bought into the project it can be difficult to land recommendations or outputs.

Do you have an accountable and available project lead? Without a project lead (usually a Policy Lead/Manager) who is available to the team, it can be difficult to ensure that the team is on track to deliver value to the policy team.

Do you have a set of milestones or end dates that the project can deliver into? Without a clear path to delivery it can be difficult to integrate a project into the policy cycle.

Do you have a clear and agreed challenge statement? A challenge statement ensures everyone is aligned on the value to be delivered.

Do you have a clear goal that you’re trying to achieve and has been agreed by the senior project sponsor? The goal should represent the policy team’s intent and describe how we contribute to it.

Do you have a clear metric of success that you’re trying to influence? To deliver value to users and be clear on the goal we need to align on success metrics.

Have you agreed on outputs? Although we work to deliver outcomes, it can be helpful to align on the outputs of a project so that there’s no misunderstanding. This should be constantly reviewed.

Do you have a kick-off meeting planned? This is essential to align on ways of working and formalise goals right from the start.

Hope you’ve found that interesting — would love to hear from anyone else who has been experimenting in prioritisation approaches and critical criteria to start projects in complex and unknown spaces.

I’ve got a few more blog posts to draft on lessons from policy design — I think the next one will be focused on what it means to be a Delivery Manager in a policy design space. Let me know if there’s anything else you’re curious to hear about.

*On a personal level, I deeply dislike this word but unfortunately it’s the framing Policy chose to use. We didn’t use that label in UCPD, instead using ‘people in prison’.

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Amanda

All things data, digital, design, communities, leadership & open culture. With relentless optimism and plenty of magic.