Service design secondments

Emma Parnell
6 min readJun 27, 2020

A year ago I embarked on a 12 month secondment from Service Design agency Snook to drug, alcohol and mental health charity, WithYou (formerly Addaction). All the way through, I’ve had the overwhelming feeling that secondments are a huge opportunity for both individuals and organisations, especially charities.

This piece is written for designers looking to take up a secondment or organisations looking to organise one. It tackles some of the practical considerations. When it comes to my personal experience as a designer, you can read my reflection on my time at WithYou and the impact it’s had on my practice.

The value for organisations

Both agencies and organisations have a lot to gain from secondments. For agencies this is an opportunity for their designers to acquire first hand experience of working within service delivery organisations. With 12 years of consultancy behind me, I can fully appreciate the value of an outside perspective, but I now see how much of a bubble it can sometimes be. In an agency, you’re often protected from the politics, culture and power that make up a huge amount of the work when you’re designing services. If designers in agencies can experience this and bring it back, they are building greater empathy with their future clients.

On the other side of the fence, organisations, especially charities, often lack the resources to bring in valuable skill sets that agencies have in abundance. If funding is acquired, it’s often on a short term, project-by-project basis. Secondments offer the opportunity to work on a longer term, more unstructured basis, with a view to shifting culture and mindsets.

I was heartened to hear some discussion in the industry over the last year about the potential of this ‘skills exchange’, something that’s only been escalated by the many generous offers of support from the furloughed community over the last few months. Going one step further, Giulia Merlo at CRUK advertised a maternity cover role last year, with the potential of it being a secondment, which I thought was a brilliant way of building this opportunity into existing recruitment processes.

Setting up a secondment

My secondment initially came about through existing connections between Snook and WithYou. Fortunately the timing was right as WithYou had just secured funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, allowing them to grow their digital capabilities, particularly around their operations and service delivery.

This was a programme of work without predetermined delivery outcomes. It was designed to allow charities to invest in new skillsets to design new products and services iteratively, learning as they go. A rare and exciting opportunity for WithYou, a somewhat daunting prospect for a consultant who’s used to having a set brief.

Twelve months later, I’m able to reflect on how important the setup of a secondment is, and how different arrangements could lead to different learning experiences for the designer and different outcomes for the organisation.

I propose there is a sliding scale when it comes to scope. At one end you have a clear brief that connects the requirements of the organisation to the desired learning for the individual. Kind of like a year long consultancy project. At the other end you have a much more open arrangement that allows both sides to learn and shift as needs flex. More akin to a year of experiencing organisational transformation first hand.

I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach here and I feel sure organisations and individuals could see value in both (and variations in between). However I would recommend this be a discussion between both parties taking into account the proposed length of time for the secondment.

Getting the timing right

Two aspects of timing have played on my mind through this process. The first in when is the right time for an organisation to commission a service design secondment. Kate Tarling wrote a brilliant piece a few years ago, stepping through the different levels service designers work at, from helping things work better to shaping whole services. A service mindset grows over time, often out of digital transformation, paving the way for service design to mature as a discipline. Service designers can be useful in different ways at different stages of this journey.

For a service designer to add value, it’s important to have a shared understanding of where they are starting from. Are you building the foundations together with a focus on shifting mindsets or are you ready to design and deliver user focused services across silos? These are two different experiences for the designer and areas of focus for the organisation.

Getting support

Having a connection back to Snook has been important for me. Still being involved in company events and meetings, working in Snook 1 out of every 10 days and being connected digitally has provided valuable support.

Often organisations that might look to setup a secondment may not have a whole team of designers. That can feel disorientating at times but I’ve found support from some great people at WithYou, in the whole Digital and NBCR teams especially.

In addition to Snook and WithYou, I’ve found support in the wider community through the SD Breakfasts I help run and the industry friends I’ve made along the way. This network has been important to me as I’ve started to draw on the experience of people inside other organisations. Thanks to Emily Bazalgette, Kathryn Grace and the whole SD Breakfast gang especially here.

There is also something to be said for the organisations supporting each other and networks coming together through a secondment. My connection to both Snook and WithYou has allowed me to play an active part in the Service Recipes work Snook, FutureGov and The Catalyst are working on to ensure the work we’re doing at WithYou can benefit other charities. WithYou’s User Researcher, Christina Herold, has presented at a Snook Learning Session and I’ve been sharing my experiences with Snook along the way.

Splitting your time

My secondment was 90% at WithYou and 10% at Snook. This meant Snook still paid 10% of my salary during this time. I worked every other Friday at Snook until recently moving my Snook day to Monday.

It’s been trial and error figuring out what is realistic in terms of my ongoing contribution to Snook. When I stepped away I was leading projects and heading up the London team. In the early days I tried to continue to direct projects — this didn’t work particularly well. Even though I was only providing light tough guidance and direction, my set days made it difficult to provide the more adhoc support the team required and I wasn’t around the studio to soak up how things were going to give me the context I needed.

Throughout the process I have also retained line management duties. This has been challenging but I’ve worked hard to provide continuing support for the people I manage.

Overall I would suggest continuing any form of active contribution during a secondment needs some consideration.

Line management

When I began my secondment I had a Snook Line Manager but it became clear this would be difficult as my day-to-day work was based at WithYou. Consequently WithYou took on the responsibility for my learnings and development through the year. This has been a hugely useful process for me, in no part thanks to the dedication of Laura Bunt in challenging me and helping me reflect.

Setting overarching objectives at the start of my secondment helped me reflect each quarter and break down more defined quarterly objectives each time we met.

I’d say development is more important than ever during a secondment as it will be a hugely valuable learning experience, so make sure it’s clear where the responsibility lies and that the organisation you’re going into has a process in place. Handovers between line managers at the start and end could also be considered.

Finishing a secondment

How you end will depend on how you started! If a secondment is a year long project this will be more defined than if you’re working under a more flexible arrangement.

For me things came to an end during challenging times. But pandemic or no pandemic I think I would always have felt a mix of emotions.

You could argue 12 months is not long enough and in some ways I feel like I’m just getting started. It’s difficult to parachute in and out without being able to work through a check-list to make sure you’ve ‘done all the things’ you set out to do but that’s not how change works.

Righting a blog at the end based on what I’ve learnt and achieved has been much more useful than trying to retrofit where I am now to where I started. Making sure to include the softer aspects as well as the harder ‘deliverables’ has been an important part of this.

If you’re interested in arranging a secondment from either an organisation or individual perspective I’d be more than happy to have a chat.



Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.