Yeah but…this place doesn’t want to work in the open

Audree Fletcher
6 min readNov 4, 2022

Sure, I get it.

Some places are deeply political. Some policies are so controversial that critics are looking for any weakness or misstep to undermine the policy, the project, your department, or your Minister. If you share the wrong thing, you might end up being outmaneouvred internally, drowning in FOI requests, tied up in red tape, starring in an inquiry, shut down, disbanded, redeployed, or even fired.

You might feel it’s better to keep your head down and mouth shut. Do what’s necessary to get the job done and, if you misstep, just ask forgiveness and deal with the consequences.

But don’t kid yourself that resisting transparency is low cost. Opacity — internally and externally — exacts quite a price in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Look at all the goodness you’re missing out on.

Working in the open is good governance

  • Show-and-tells are a light touch way for stakeholders to keep up to speed with how the project is going in close to real time— helping them shape the work, give early feedback or remedial nudges, and connect the team into to related work. And, because show-and-tells are regular, they can be much lighter touch than traditional governance fora with associated reporting. Taking this approach won’t mean no reporting — but with a much heightened ambient awareness of what’s going on, it should be easier for leaders to trust teams to deliver.
  • Shared roadmaps, outcome delivery plans, business cases —they help people understand relative priorities, stay aligned to outcomes, and manage risks and dependencies better. And seeing commitments captured in writing and shared — well, that promotes accountability, as it makes it more likely people will deliver what they say.

Working in the open is good comms

  • Blogging and weeknotes are a great way to tell the story of the project and bring wider stakeholders on a journey with you. Public Digital’s Sickle Cell Discovery weeknotes are an example of fantastic practice in this space. Telling the story of how a project is developing, who you’re involving, how you’re making the choices and decisions you are — that builds the legitimacy of a project through progressively detailed disclosure. And it makes it more likely they’ll trust your intentions and support what you’re trying to do.
  • Exposing audiences to technical challenges, trade-offs and digital ways of working — it all helps to build their digital literacy and capability over time, as they start to understand and adopt your mental models. And that way lies deeper culture change.
  • Sharing your work supports knowledge transfer in organisations that don’t do knowledge management well (that’s most of the public sector tbh). It’s also *really* handy for getting new team members up to speed quickly — something like a design history, for example, is great for helping people understand the background, user and policy context for design decisions that might not seem all that obvious from the outside.
  • Telling the story of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it can also help with recruitment. Smart applicants do their homework on a prospective employer — and many will want to gauge a workplace culture by hearing about staff experiences, seeking out blog posts to do just that. Real talk here: sharing only what’s going well isn’t working in the open, it’s just PR. And people can smell inauthenticity a mile away — it won’t do anything for building trust or legitimacy.

Working in the open makes things better

  • Working in the open brings with it the opportunity to draw in additional voices and new perspectives. Actual input from beyond your team — from across your organisation’s siloes, from the people running your services, people using your services (and from those choosing not to) will make your work better. Because it’ll be more likely to be inclusive and meet their needs, be deliverable and achieve the outcomes you seek.
  • Sharing your work and your learning makes things better elsewhere. If your code is (safely) open, people can copy it. If you’ve designed and tested a component or pattern likely to be usable in other services, it’s potentially a reusable common component for the community. If you’ve found some great insight about a particular user group, or solved a common knotty problem, or discovered a great new tool — you can build on the existing collective knowledge base across government. Saving time and money for the common good.
  • Finally, you should remember that sharing your successes and mistakes isn’t just good for those who can learn from you. It’s good for you too. The process you go through to reflect on what happened, what you did, why, and how it turned out the way it did, what you might do differently — well that process in itself is beneficial to you. Plenty of people go through life without really reflecting on the choices they’ve made — those who do practice that reflection will grow faster as a professional and make better future decisions.

Ok — do you like the sound of that? Might you be willing to give it a crack?

Yes? Excellent. Okay. So I’ve given you the arguments above, you can re-use them with your boss. You need your boss to have your back — and for them to do that, you need to equip them for it. What else might you need to do to prepare them?

Persuading reluctant colleagues

  • A contingency plan. This can be beneficial if you’re sharing widely internally (turns out departments leak, who knew?) — but it’s especially useful for anything being done in the public eye to spend a little time running through some scenarios with your comms team. Share what you’ll publish ahead of time, provide them with lines they can take and defensives as necessary. Comms teams that feel equipped to deal with enquiries can be really quite chill.
  • An emphasis on how working in the open can be used to de-risk things— regular, small, open updates at this level of detail; opportunity to test ideas with a wider audience before decisions are made; positively engaged external stakeholders no longer holding pitchforks. For those departments with good reason to fear public criticism, it’s an advantage to own your narrative. As Ben Holliday recently noted, if you don’t write your story, someone else will. By setting out the context, intent and justification for your decisions, you make it harder for people to wilfully misinterpret what happened and why.
  • Show them that they’re not the only people doing this stuff. People hate being the first to do something novel or contentious — showing someone else (or multiple someone elses) have done it already and the sky didn’t fall in on them seems to be disproportionately reassuring for many government leaders. Richard Pope has compiled a great list of things being done in the open in the UK government.
  • If they’re still too scared, you probably need to plot a path to taking them to the edge of their comfort zone before you persuade them to step outside it. Maybe they need to try taking baby steps. How might they build their confidence in working in the open in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling so exposed? You could share with a friendlier audience first (trusted outsiders outside government? colleagues across government?). You could share in a format that feels safer — in-person discussion that allows for questions and context; Chatham House rules if needed. You could share relatively innocuous material at first (a list of services, screenshots that show your current journeys) — before working your way up to some more proactive storytelling. Maybe you could get more internal eyes on it before you share — a wider group of colleagues, perhaps those most experienced with likely critics and best able to spot elephant traps?

Yeah but…this place doesn’t want to work in the open

Make things open: it makes things better is a government design principle for many reasons, some of which I’ve articulated above.

Your workplace might not be comfortable with it yet — but if you want to work in the open more, don’t let your first “no” (or fear of getting one) stop you trying.

There are things you can do, steps you can take, that will get you closer to your first time working in the open. The strategy really is delivery here — once you’re working in the open, you can demonstrate value of the approach, build the organisation’s confidence to work this way and slowly start to shift culture more widely.

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Audree Fletcher

Leader — digital/product/service design/research/strategy — and mother