From data to debt, what I’ve learned working with CDPS

In this guest blog post, Neil Butt describes how working with CDPS gave the Welsh Revenue Authority a platform to change how they manage and deliver services

14 October 2022

By Neil Butt, Chief People and Communications Officer (Interim)  

“Agile weekly sprints have allowed us to take tiny bites out of a big problem and incrementally deliver improvements.” 

The Centre for Digital Public Services (CDPS) has been supporting us at the Welsh Revenue Authority (WRA) on two Agile projects since January this year. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in both and I’m keen to share my experience. 

Rather than talk about each project in detail, I want talk about what we’ve learned and the impact working with CDPS has had. 

It all started for me in January this year when I joined the land and property data proof of concept project, my role was to lead stakeholder engagement and support user research. This was my first time working in an Agile project, doing daily stand-ups, retrospectives, show and tells, and planning all squeezed into a weekly sprint.  

If I’m honest, I was a bit cool on whether the Agile methodology was going to work for us. I felt we were already undertaking a lot of the practices (i.e., small groups from different WRA teams delivering change). The project was a multidisciplinary team made up of an Agile coach and product owner from CDPS and 2 or 3 people from WRA providing business knowledge and developer and research support from one of our digital suppliers. 

What I’ve learnt  

The first thing I learned was that I loved daily stand-ups, even if it meant walking the dog in the dark, on cold January mornings, and taking a shower at 9:15 when the stand-up finished. I liked the discipline of meeting every morning to decide our focus for that day and knowing that the next day you had to report back on your progress, really helps you to focus.  

The weekly sprints and goal of a show and tell at the end really helped us take chunks out of a potentially overwhelming end solution. We were constantly learning as we went through research and prototyping. The short-term planning is liberating and lets you focus on one issue at a time. We had our moments of discord, and the weekly retrospective enabled us to clear the air, learn, improve, and move on. 

Not only am I now a convert, but I’ve also realised how wrong my assumptions were on how our existing change process compared to Agile. I’ve been able to share my experience with our leadership team and our board. 

What’s next for the land and property data platform?  

This project has been paused following successful completion of the first two phases. The work completed in the first couple of phases has highlighted the opportunities a land and property data platform present and, most importantly, the learnings from the work to date has changed our understanding of how best to implement increased rates of Land Transaction Tax for second homes and holiday lets.  

However, given the fast-emerging financial pressures we are all contending with and the uncertainty that brings, we have reluctantly concluded the need to prioritise and pause the wider land and property data platform work for the time being. We are determined to pick this work up again in future and have packaged up the work so that it’s easy to pick back up.   

This experience has given us the confidence to pilot our own Agile service team made up entirely of WRA people – with the guidance of Jamie Arnold from CDPS as our coach. 

Working with CDPS has given the team confidence to pilot their own Agile service team made up entirely of WRA people in the future

WRA project to tackle debt  

We landed on debt for our pilot Agile service team. We had some long-standing areas for improvement that if tackled, could hopefully prevent debt and improve the debt experience for taxpayers and the process for our people. 

We had Jamie as our Agile coach, everybody in the team undertook Agile training, and our team is made up of business expertise, developers, business analysts, and a user researcher. A good start with a well-equipped team. Everybody was new to the technology we used to collaborate, Miro and Trello. Now, I’m not sure how we ever did anything without them. 

I won’t talk about what we did, that’s another blog post, I want to say how Jamie helped us understand how to use Agile. How to use the methodology to suit us, how to go through the phases, set goals, test in alpha to prove something will or won’t work – without this guidance and enthusiasm we probably would have fallen into the trap of building a solution and trying to implement it in the first six weeks. Jamie helped us stay user focused during discovery and alpha. It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself focusing on internal process as opposed to user experience.  

Early results  

One of the things we have done is reduce the number of debt letters we send to taxpayers, under certain circumstances. We reflected that it was easy to do, and I was puzzled as to why it had never been done before. The simple answer is that Agile weekly sprints have allowed us to take tiny bites out of a big problem and incrementally deliver improvements. Up until now, this simple solution had always been gathered up with the bigger issues and never resolved. I think this articulates one of the key benefits to Agile.  

What’s next for the team?  

We’re almost ready to go solo as Jamie will be leaving us soon. We have a confident product owner who is a natural at Agile; the team are flying with ideas and keep testing each other, and the daily stand-ups have the same energy today as they did when we started in May.  

The learning and development of our people is as important as the outcome and we’re on our way to achieving in both areas. We’ve had our challenges, we’ve been testing our internal governance, and it’s not all been easy. We’ve learnt lessons around resourcing and how we have tried to mitigate risks so that people feel supported and empowered to be part of these teams.   

I think the debt service team pilot has given us a platform to change how we manage and deliver our services, which I think is huge. 

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