Starting small to go faster at UKRI

One of our principles at Public Digital is starting small to go faster. This means delivering something quickly, even if this means on a smaller scale, so that you can identify its strengths and weaknesses at the earliest possible stage. It follows our approach that strategy is delivery, so implementation should begin early. Start with good enough, not perfect, and then get better before you scale up.

Our work supporting UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a great example of this approach.

We began working with UKRI in 2020. UKRI is a government public body, established in 2018 to coordinate the UK’s research and innovation system. Every year it distributes over 17,000 research and innovation awards, totalling over £8 billion to researchers, businesses, NHS bodies, NGOs and charities. It therefore plays a vital role for the UK economy and university system.

Over the last few years UKRI has been focussed on delivering its Simpler Better Funding programme: a modified funding service designed to make applying for and securing funding easier. The project involves convening numerous funding application processes run by different funding councils and making them more streamlined for users.

Following concerns that the Simpler Better Funding programme wouldn’t reach its 2023 launch deadline, we were invited to to review the project and get it back on track.

And starting small, we went faster…

Resetting and refining the programme

The Director of Simpler Better Funding, Anne Sofield, described the early problems with designing the service: “I didn’t have the necessary visibility required of a Programme Director to take appropriate decisions, we didn’t have all the necessary skills in the senior team, and there was too much influence from outside the programme regarding decision making, which was slowing down the work.”

We identified that in order to accelerate progress, the Simpler Better Funding programme needed three major changes: defining clear outcomes, establishing a multidisciplinary, agile team, and simplifying the programme structure.

We began by supporting a restructure of their team. We reorganised and expanded the group to make best use of available skill sets, and ensured active collaboration between UKRI’s operations, policy and digital teams, as well as visibility across all activities.

With a new multidisciplinary team in place, we could start small to ensure a clear focus: designing and delivering a first end-to-end slice of the Simpler Better Funding service. By going end-to-end as quickly as possible, the team not only ensured that the flow of the service was user-friendly, but also developed a sense of where the real opportunities and challenges lay, enabling the teams to prioritise strategically.

Equipped with a clear target to work towards and the skills necessary to execute it, the new team mobilised, creating a prototype service designed for one funding applicant in one of UKRI’s research councils.

While the prototype wasn’t perfect, it exposed the problems with the service at a stage when they could be managed. These issues would be fully rectified before going bigger.

In the words of Anne Sofield: “The big win from Public Digital was to help me see where the blindspots in our programme were and how to fix them… Without the reset recommended by Public Digital, the programme would have continued to struggle.”

Diamond Light Source
Diamond Light Source Oxfordshire: a not-for-profit limited company funded by UKRI and Wellcome Trust. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Emboldened to go faster

With the prototype tried and tested, we worked alongside the team to create a realistic roadmap for scaling up.

The starting small approach, alongside other strategy shifts, was crucial in helping the team to accelerate delivery of the programme. Lead Product Manager, Lorna Jordan, has summarised its impact: “One of the ideas of the reset was to scale down and go smaller to go faster. We gave the team autonomy to self organise and take decisions on the work that they were doing to achieve quarterly outcomes, and they started producing at a faster rate.”

Supported by our intervention, the Simpler Better Funding programme is on track for service launch in 2023, and is set to deliver key efficiencies for the UK’s research and innovation system in the coming years. We continue to support UKRI as a strategic transformation partner.

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