Ben Holliday

New models for service ownership and leadership

With more organisations working with service-oriented approaches to delivery in the public sector, this is increasingly leading to questions about models for service ownership in how we design, develop, maintain and improve whole services.

This was a very timely tweet/thread from Chris Fleming (Programme Director at NHS Digital)

“To successfully design the service you must also own the service. It’s very hard to do this in health because care pathways typically span multiple orgs operating under different rules and incentives. Is ICS the level at which this can really start to happen? I’m seeing more clearly than ever before why Bracken, Loosemore et al argued that true transformation would only come from institutional reform and not just application of ‘digital’ (with the usual definition)”

Some thoughts on the question of service ownership.

Full service ownership is an unrealistic model. As Chris explained, this is because accountability for end to end service deliver or service pathway is most often shared. It’s shared between different organisations and there are important relationships between different parts of government, providers and parts of a wider system (e.g. housing, health and social care) to think about when you’re designing for how a service needs to work to meet different sets of needs.

As I’ve said before, there is no digital service design. Digital products and services need to be understood in a broader context. This means understanding user needs as part of life events or as different types of situations and scenarios. As part of any design or improvement process we have to be willing to ask the broader question of what system a service is really part of?

Following the original GDS digital delivery model, the definition of service ownership is this:

“A service owner is accountable for the quality of their service. They adopt a portfolio view, managing end-to-end services which include multiple products and channels.” – GOV.UK (Service Owner Role Description)

It becomes more difficult to apply this to service ownership at a system or whole service level. We saw this at FutureGov in discovery work with NHS Digital for urgent and emergency care in England. This is a whole service view with multiple pathways, organisations and dependencies that determine individual experiences and outcomes as part of a health system.

An emerging definition of whole service leadership could be more like this:

A service director is accountable for the vision, direction and quality of a whole service. They oversee how component parts of the service and pathways are connected or ‘joined up’, and ensure overall quality of user experience and outcomes, working with service providers and partners.

This is a service director role in terms of the level of responsibility that it would hold. It is more about how you own and ensure quality control across all the component parts of a whole service. It feels more aligned to programme director type responsibilities with overall accountability for service models. All of this is to ensure that a whole service becomes responsive and capable of meeting different types of changing needs, delivering outcomes that are more likely aligned with a policy or key strategic area of focus.

For many people, especially if this was applied to existing programme director responsibilities, it would mean applying a new mindset for how services are designed, opposed to traditional commissioning, change management or process improvement management processes.

Service ownership is about vision and alignment. A whole service approach needs an overall strategy, vision and direction that is agreed and shared with service owners and managers in different parts of an overall system. I hope that you agree that this is sounding like a strategic service design approach. It’s orchestration at a senior and exec level across many component parts of organisations, services, and programme areas.

Beyond accountability, the important relationship here is who becomes the anchor point in connecting and joining up the component parts of an overall service model, ensuring that vision, values and design principles direct and align how individual teams work when there are shared responsibilities for delivery. This is governance but with a service design focus–service management and quality assurance for overall user needs, experience and outcomes.

Without institutional change, what makes this hard is dealing with differences in governance structures and ways of working across the organisations and service partners that need to work more closely together.In places like local government funding for service improvement and transformation is still more likely to be aligned to projects instead of invested with dedicated service teams, especially teams with a whole service focus.

We need more service-oriented approaches to organisation design for how work is commissioned and sustained, supported by long term service and strategic leadership that connects, and creates value–most importantly through outcomes and the improved experiences of service users. All of this needs to be supported by design as a process of continuous delivery, ideally with agile delivery approaches.

Taking a whole service approach makes sense if you start to optimise and prioritise how your organisation works around whole services – like “finding a place to live” as part of a housing system, or even something as big as “urgent and emergency care” in the NHS. You can still have service owners who have accountability for the part of service delivery that they own, but while recognising how these roles and relationships are part of something bigger.

I see this as part of a bigger challenge and the future shift in design-based leadership from “things I own directly” to “things I influence and places and networks where I can add or create value”. This will need a shift from traditional hierarchy and ownership within job roles, and even exec roles, to new types of whole service leadership.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.