COVID-19: Reflections of delivering services at pace

A blog by Lisa Moran, Head of Digital at the NHSBSA

Looking back over the past three months, during which we moved to home working and stepped up our support for the COVID-19 response, I am in awe of the people I work with, their willingness to help, support and collaborate. They went above and beyond, working tirelessly without any complaint or comment about the new home working arrangements or the additional workload often arriving at very short notice

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This amazing team working didn’t happen by luck or by accident; it’s reflective of the culture we have developed across the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) over the past 4 years. Working as a team, we support each other to be the best we can be, whilst creating great user centric services that meet user and business needs.

The COVID-19 effect

During the COVID-19 crisis the NHSBSA were asked to help deliver more than 30-COVID-19 related projects ranging from consultancy, payment services, and contact centre support to service design, research and delivery. Working with Private sector, Government and NHS organisations we released 45 new iterations of software, sent over 13 million messages to provide advice and support to vulnerable people and those who were symptomatic and self-isolating and over 1 million test results notifications. At the same time we worked hard to maintain our existing services and ensure that home working did not have a negative impact.

I really enjoyed collaborating with other organisations on the COVID-19 projects. Often our teams hadn’t worked together before and were meeting for the first time virtually.  As such there was no time for the usual project kick off and ‘meet the team’ conversation, it was straight into planning and governance but this allowed us to work at pace.  With a shared goal, we were deploying software just a week later. Working across different organisations can be challenging and it can often take months to reach this point in development but our strong foundation built on empowerment, trust and teamwork and supported by a scrum culture and matrix management structure, allowed us to flex and work to productively.  Our teams were supported, and working in a trusted and safe space, and many volunteered to help, knowing they were in for some long days and nights.

What changed

We worked in delivery teams as usual, so the processes were familiar but tweaked things to meet the demand and pace. The strategy was to develop iteratively and release features quickly, supported by user research and data to ensure we were meeting user needs. We set up Trello boards to manage the backlog and agreed responsibility for deliverables. The team raised risks and issues, and offered alternatives which could be scaled to meet the initial deadlines. We agreed a Minimum Viable Product and a shared purpose; objectives were understood.

We established daily ‘stand-ups’ and retrospectives to take stock, learn and celebrate. We were in constant communication with the cross government/organisation teams using remote tools such as Slack and Miro to collaborate and answer queries.

Despite the pace there was no corner cutting.  Security, design and pen testing (working with National Cyber Security Centre NCSC), quality assurance, testing, research, UX, and an expedited release management process were created to support the pace.

We were also able to leverage our investment in serverless technology and create our first serverless auto scaling service, building security in from the start working with the NCSC, allowing us to deploy in seconds with no downtime.

The challenges of working from home

The NHSBSA had already begun work on COVID-19 services before lockdown and working from home was mandated, so I was able to quickly see the changes as the team adapted – coping with working from home, parenting, schooling and excitable pets and children! Many were working long days (12-18 hrs) to deliver and it was a real example of dedication and team work

Developments post COVID-19

Moving forward we are now architecting using a serverless framework and providing training for our teams to upskill with new technologies. We have learned so much about delivering at pace and are planning to run a retro to capture all the learnings from this time to ensure they become part of our new way of working. 

I was fortunate to work directly on the COVID-19 projects, and it gave me the opportunity to get the know people for which I am grateful. I was inspired by their flexibility; willingness and approach to teamwork which I believe is a direct result of the culture we have created at the NHSBSA.  Our people matter, they are supported, empowered, trusted and have a good support network. This is the key to delivering good services at pace.