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Achieving Alpha: A step towards modernising Veterans UK digital services

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Alpha, Defence Business Services

Tom Stewart, Assistant Head of Modernisation for Veterans UK, a pillar of MOD’s Defence Business Services (DBS) reflects on the Alpha assessment process for digitising the process to apply for the Armed Forces Compensation and War Pensions Schemes.

My team have taken up most of the seating in the back half of a smallish pub off Mayfair, where we can almost form a complete circle. Even the most casual observer would probably presume that this group – this team – are celebrating a success, such is the good-natured cheer we are radiating.

And that observer would be correct. We are celebrating. We have succeeded, even if we don’t know yet to what extent.

It is February 2020 and my team have just presented our new digital service for a Government Digital Service (GDS) Alpha Assessment and are awaiting the result. The self-imposed pressure to ‘succeed’ in meeting the service standards and achieving that all-important ‘Met’ has been exhausting. Now is the time to relax and reflect. I know that we have performed well, and I begin to mentally draft emails of thanks to each of our supporters and enablers and stakeholders, including the GDS Standards Assurance Team who I have had the pleasure of working with for almost a year now. I feel immensely proud of my team. I am one content Service Owner.

And yet, I have some niggles. Have I (or we) done enough? I know the technical solution is sound, subject as it was to its own mini-assessment before the main event so as to not take up too much time on the day. The user research is plentiful and to a high standard and was presented, in my opinion at least, brilliantly. We demonstrated how we will provide a joined-up experience across all channels, how we’ve made the service simple to use and how we’ve made sure everyone can use the service (service standards 3, 4, and 5 – check, check and check) and yet, a niggle. I have a few days before the result will land and I am becoming more introspective.

Had I given a compelling account of having and maintaining a credible Multi-Disciplinary Team? I had tried certainly, but I was about to lose my User Researcher (who was on contract) and the person I had interviewed and selected to be the new User Researcher had, just days before the assessment, turned down my offer, so I couldn’t yet be sure where my next one was coming from. Had my assessors picked up on that?

I hoped that we would become the first MOD team to successfully advance a citizen-facing service through a GDS Alpha Assessment. Over the next few days I allowed myself to believe that we had passed whilst also indulging my pessimism. We totally passed that, didn't we? No, we couldn’t have passed, could we?

I’ll answer that in a moment. But for now, let me tell you a bit about the exciting new Service my team have developed.

Apply for the Armed Forces Compensation and War Pension Scheme Front Page

After some Discovery work to develop a digital vision and roadmap for Veterans UK, my team concluded that we could begin the long journey of realisation by digitising one of our most popular Service Lines – the Armed Forces Compensations Scheme  and War Pension Scheme. As the scheme titles suggest, our users are serving military personnel and Veterans of the UK Armed Forces. Each year, approximately 13,000 of them tackle a lengthy paper application to explain how their injury or condition is attributable to their service in the armed forces and how they are therefore entitled to compensation. Our user groups are extremely diverse since a 17-year-old who injured themselves in basic training is considered a veteran alongside the 90-year-old Chelsea Pensioner you may have just imagined when you first read the word ‘veteran’. I put together a team including some external assistance, programmed some Sprints, developed the Service and…

failed the GDS Alpha assessment.

Our Alpha Assessment report is here. We met 13 out of 14 of the service standards, missing point 6 – ‘Have a Multi-Disciplinary Team’.

So close. And yet…

Now, to be clear, I was mostly delighted with the result. 13 out of 14! In most circumstances that would surely be considered a remarkable victory? And so I took it and communicated it as such. Of course, there was a sadness which I mostly hid from others, concerned that I might deflate team morale. I felt I had let the team down. I felt I had let myself down. But the sadness would not be communicated without a positive solution attached. My team to their credit, exhibited that same attitude. There was no time to dwell on our ‘Not Met’. We had a service to deliver, and it was time to continue building.

The Veterans UK Modernisation team: Tom Stewart (left), Sally Hickling (top), David Johnson (middle), Ian Clare (bottom).

It helped that the GDS team were so fair with us. Their Service Assurance team have never been less than brilliant in their support and their guidance and offer of more support and guidance. The assessment team themselves were encouraging and receptive - I never once felt they were there to trip me up, but rather to assist me to the finish line.  Further support from the MOD Digital Transformation Team including Robin Riley, Stacey Crump and Bhavini Desai (you are each awesome!) was just the icing on a new-service-trying-to-find-a-home-on

There were many points for us to consider in the report but ultimately, it was the lack of access to a permanent User Researcher that sealed our result. But now I had exactly what I needed to demonstrate to my Executive Leadership Team that it was time to secure a talented and expert User Researcher on a permanent basis if I were to progress this service further. And here we are, a global pandemic later, and I have 21 applications for my new User Researcher role to sift!

Equipped with evidence of proactively addressing those points Not Met, we re-presented for Alpha Assessment in  July 2020. It was a virtual assessment as you would probably expect, and it was also a much shorter assessment since we were assessed only on the points we had not met previously.

There were no niggles afterwards this time round, only regret that I couldn’t physically be with the team to take over another small pub and discuss our performance. I was confident we had addressed the GDS concerns, and the result arriving a day later confirmed as much.

My team are officially trail-blazing and have even booked our Beta Assessment for March 2021.

My unsolicited advice for those presenting a new Service to the GDS and fearing a ‘Not Met’ is to consider programming your mind to understand that ‘Not Met’ equals ‘Opportunity to improve your service’.  I also recommend that you and your team rehearse your presentation several times since the GDS panel are expert in uncovering and exploring all elements of your Service and the team creating it.

My ‘Not Met’ delivered a greater and more permanent Multi-Disciplinary Team and that same MDT will now create a better service than the one we envisaged at Discovery. And for that I must thank the team, too large to name, but you know who are.

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  1. Comment by Alice Whitehead posted on

    Hi Tom thanks for writing such an interesting blog - and about the tough times, too! As a fellow civil servant I would love to hear more about your experiences as a service owner. Any chance you'd like to have a virtual coffee?

  2. Comment by Tom Stewart posted on

    Alice, certainly; I'd be delighted to chat. Please drop me a line.

    I look forward to catching up with you.



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