Interesting elsewhere – 9 September 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away… — Medium
The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

You Are Not Late — The Message — Medium
Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other.

The spirit of the age | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
It’s not just funerals and retirements that change attitudes. The process by which whole societies change their minds about things is much more interesting than that. Generational attitudes waver and people move with the times. The word zeitgeist translates as spirit of the age. That spirit moves in mysterious ways.

Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change | Matthew Taylor’s blog
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’. When, for example, I tell politicians there their most constructive power may lie not in passing laws, imposing regulations or even spending money but on convening new types of conversation, they react like body builders who have asked to train using only cuddly toys.

Already Here: the importance of ordinary innovation | Native
I’ve grown to learn that the greatest innovations are not always with the new ways to tell stories, or the new ways to make a noise. Instead, the truly revolutionary are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so.

How to Harness the Wisdom of Crowds in Public Services
Polls, referenda and consultations request individuals’ views on a subject. They ask citizens to express the level of their support for a particular measure, or to state their preference from a list of pre-set options. Gathering such qualitative responses may be helpful in revealing the strength of public opinion on a specific issue. But the pressing need for good policymaking is having ideas and information. A more interesting and potentially fruitful approach would therefore be to ask citizens to provide facts or answers to specific questions; to provide knowledge that government alone could not find for itself.

Not just the government’s playbook – O’Reilly Radar
Whenever I hear someone say that “government should be run like a business,” my first reaction is “do you know how badly most businesses are run?” Seriously. I do not want my government to run like a business — whether it’s like the local restaurants that pop up and die like wildflowers, or megacorporations that sell broken products, whether financial, automotive, or otherwise.

Net present value

The train now approaching platform 2 has been delayed for 155 years.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the Cornish Riviera, the fastest train from Cornwall to London, stopping only at Plymouth, Exeter and Reading between the Tamar and Paddington, and timetabled to go from Penzance to London in exactly five hours.

Splendid. Except that the distance is a shade over 300 miles, so the average speed is a less than dizzy 61mph. And even that average covers some interesting variation. Looked at section by section, the speeds tell a powerful story.

Distance (miles) Time Speed (mph)
Penzance to Plymouth 79½ 2h 40
Plymouth to Exeter 52 57m 55
Exeter to Reading 137¾ 1h 38 81
Reading to London 36 25m 86
Penzance to London 305¼ 5h 61

Some of that variation is explained by the fact that the train stops eight times between Penzance and Plymouth and not at all between the other pairs of stations, but on any basis, a supposed express taking two hours to cover eighty miles is hardly impressive.

This isn’t about the trains. They may be forty years old, but they are still capable of reaching 125mph and they certainly don’t get close to that anywhere west of Exeter.  So it comes down to the track and, more specifically, to a set of design decisions made in the 1840s.  The terrain was not easy, with lots of steep valleys perpendicular to the line of route, money was short, and construction costs were minimised. Apart from the curves, other obvious signs of those constraints remain today – the splendid Royal Albert bridge across the Tamar is an engineering masterpiece, but it is only single track, as was the entire line in Cornwall when first built.

In making those design decisions, did the promoters of the line give any thought to the fact that they were investing for the next two centuries or more? Of course they didn’t – what, after all, had posterity ever done for them? With the benefit of those two centuries of hindsight, would it have been rational to have invested more at the outset in order to secure a long stream of higher benefits? Almost certainly, and if the capital markets were not capable of doing that, we can now see that it would have made good sense for the government of the time to have borrowed to make more effective investment possible. Leaving aside the fact that that’s not what governments in the 1840s saw their job as being (we are already well into the realm of fantasy here), the very long range value of some kinds of investment decisions, combined with the very long term constraints some of those decisions bring means that the there is a long-term skew to sub-optimal levels of public investment.

Meanwhile, Daniel Davies has written a beautiful essay, summarising Switzerland in 18 vignettes. The whole thing is a delight and well worth reading, but a couple of sentences prompted me to think again about my Cornish experience:

The SBB, great though it is, is not the real miracle of Switzerland compared to the dozens of little cantonal and sub-regional railways that serve even the smallest little towns on rails carved into the roads or running alongside them. This sort of infrastructure asset doesn’t depreciate if maintained properly, and it keeps providing the services for which it was intended in all economic climates. It’s a classic illustration of a point that John Quiggin has regularly made – that classic “risk-adjusted” discounted cash flow analysis will always overstate the risks of government spending and result in underprovision of infrastructure.

Devon and Cornwall provide a different example of that point with the closure of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot earlier this year when a stretch of track was washed away. There was once some redundancy in the system which could have routed round the damage – but that has long since been removed, leaving rail access to Plymouth and beyond vulnerable to a single point of failure. Again, we can only speculate about the long term return there would have been on keeping the line across Dartmoor open.

This isn’t a post mourning a pre-Beeching world, where trains puffed across sunny rural landscapes, pausing from time to time to pick up a few milk churns. Seeing how the past might be valued differently is not the same as valuing everything that is past. Trying to understand the long-term value of infrastructure is not the same as saying that all infrastructure has long-term value.

Indeed, this isn’t really a post about the past at all. The railway line across Cornwall, curves, gradients and all, is what it is, and nobody is going to build another one. So this is a post about the future: can we find ways of being smarter about the long term value (and costs and risks) of our investment choices?




Interesting elsewhere – 6 August 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

War – the mother of the tech sector | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
War, then, is good for technological development. Of course, it’s not the killing and destruction itself that leads to innovation. You can do a lot of that with relatively primitive technology. What drives the scale and speed of technological innovation is a massive concentration of investment. It’s just nothing seems to promote quite that level of investment quite like armed conflict, or the fear of it.

The UX problem with Agile | mmitII
One element that can help is for the providers of systems to try to hold onto empathy for their users – and to understand fundamentally that sometimes what we see as “making things better” might not be perceived in the same way by the people using a service. For most of us the status quo, no matter how buggy or badly designed, is initially favoured to the new because, whilst it might be crappy, we know its limitations and have built coping mechanisms to work around. Every improvement runs the risk of initially removing a level of self determination from the people who are using the system.

FutureGov | Play time is over
We can’t just sleepwalk into this stuff, we must think about the impact of decisions we make and the values we want to design into the public services we build. Technology and open data is not neutral anymore than anything else we do. We need to think carefully about whether and how we want to design with people. To give them access to their data – or not. To support participation in public services – or not.

Why I Tweet | Sharon O’Dea
I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

Let citizens spend tax revenues rather than the technocrats at the top : RSA blogs
In these creative times, when people have so much more confidence in their capacity to think for themselves, develop ideas and change theirs and others’ worlds, a relationship built around the notion that citizens should simply hand over cash in return for top-down provision is bound to cause annoyance and confusion. It also encourages the very abdication of personal responsibility which politicians now tell us we need to revive to meet the challenge of long-term austerity.

The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often –
The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.

Government should be joined up and grown up | LabourList
Mature and competent ministers can work very successfully with officials. Politicians should provide a sense of direction. Civil servants should carry out the work that ensues. It may not always be easy, but it must be doable.

more work required: on ‘big govt IT’, ‘transactions’ and the future of public service design | new tech observations from the UK (ntouk)
Many current government ‘transactions’ are merely automated versions from the old paper world, moving electronic versions of forms from one place to another — either literally, or by mimicking the form online in a series of interminable web pages that ape the paper world. We can throw all the tin and software we like at these ‘digital forms’, but it’s not going to do much to improve the quality, efficiency, or relevance of the services involved.

Why big IT projects always go wrong | Technology | The Observer
The message is clear: if you run a big company or a government department and are contemplating a big IT product, ask yourself this question: can your company or your ministerial career survive if the project goes over budget by 40% or more, or if only 25-50% of the projected benefits are realised? If the answer is “no” go back to square one.

10 Lessons from 4 Years Working Remotely at Automattic | When I Have Time by Sara Rosso
When you work with a distributed team, the only way you measure if they are working is on their output. Did they do what they said they would do? Where is the result of that work? Did they even say they would do anything, or have they gone dark? It’s frightening easy to notice when a distributed coworker checks out or becomes disinterested in what they’re doing…they stop communicating, they stop creating. There’s no output.

Don’t blame the mandarins | Freethinking Economist
From time to time you will read columns revealing how some great idea has been being thwarted by Mandarins.   This is usually the clearest sign than an incompetent spad has been on manoeuvres.  It isn’t a coup.

Cucumber legislation

We are approaching the traditional time of the silly season in UK news and politics, the quiet period when in the absence of real news, the frivolous and the dotty get more column inches than they otherwise would.1 In Poland and indeed much of the rest of Europe, that period is know as the cucumber season.2

cucumber cross section

With that slightly unlikely introduction (for reasons which will become apparent), let us return to the question of whether law is code and, to the extent that it is useful to talk about it that way, what ways of producing better code might tell us about making better law. Quite clearly, law is not actually code and it is arguable – and indeed argued – that it is wrong and unhelpful to think of it that way. Just recently, Evgeny Morozov has written about ‘algorithmic regulation’ as a threat to the democratic process. But even to the extent that he is right (which in my view is not very great), it’s a different question to the one I am interested in here.

Law, like code, is a complex system of components, where defined inputs should lead to determined outputs. A critical question in both worlds is therefore whether the black box between the two successfully translates the first into the second. Every approach to software development there has ever been – and there have been many – has been an attempt to solve that problem for code. Approaches to the development of law have been less structured and less eclectic, but again, the purpose of drafting legislation is to give effect to intentions.

In each case, it is valuable to test whether the inputs do in fact generate the intended outputs. For law, that can be quite tricky. One reason for that is that it may take a long time (and a complex process) to work out what the inputs are, never mind what the output is. One reason we have judges is to run just such tests: given a set of facts, and given the application of the law to those facts, what outputs does the system generate? In more complex cases, it can take several sets of judges several years to reach a final answer to that question. To add further complexity, the judicially correct assessment of the meaning of law can change over time, even where the law itself does not.3

Computer code, to put it mildly, is not like that. Because it is not like that, the techniques for testing and validating it are very different. They can in principle be more structured and more systematic – indeed they can in principle and occasional practice produce error free code. But even – or perhaps especially – outside such rarified exceptions, ensuring that code matches intent is a difficult and imperfect process, as it is for law.

And so back to cucumbers and to an intriguing post from Richard Pope about using software test techniques to identify whether regulations are being enforced, by analysing data about activity and matching it with regulatory activity.

There are tools for doing this using a syntax called Cucumber, which as Richard explains

is designed to both be readable, and to be written by, a non-technical person, but can be run automatically by a machine.

But if it is possible to use such an approach to test whether regulations are being applied, why not use the same approach to generate the regulations in the first place?

There are fairly well established tools for turning legislation into decision rules (though their adoption for their core purpose does not seem to be terribly widespread).4 Turning decision rules into legislation is a rather different question, but conceptually is not so very different from the kind of behaviour-driven development which Cucumber supports (though ‘conceptually’, of course, can be a very long way from ‘practically’).

All of that takes us back to a question first raised by John Sheridan: if law has some similarities to code, are there tools and techniques which can be adopted from the development of software to the development of law?

The short, but not very helpful, answer is almost certainly that there are. Any longer answer needs to take account of some profound differences – the architecture and structure of legacy legislation compared with legacy code, to take just one example. That might mean that tools and processes need to be quite distinct, but it doesn’t stop the concepts and disciplines having common application.

So Cucumber-driven legislation might or might not be the next big thing – but in either case the idea prompts some important questions and points to useful areas for more detailed exploration. And this is, after all, the cucumber season, a time for speculative fancy with little requirement for strong foundations.

Cucumber picture by, licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Column inches are not what they once were, of course, but I use the phrase deliberately since the idea of a silly season has itself rather wilted under the pressure of the constant news cycle, and this is not a week where the news feels particularly silly.
  2. That seems both horticulturally slightly inaccurate and a bit of a stretch of association, but let’s not worry about that.
  3. The interpretation of the US constitution by its supreme court provides clear examples.
  4. The market leader has existed in various guises for at least 15 years, and is now known as Oracle Policy Automation.  It is probably most suited to very rule-based processes such as tax and benefits,  but even there it has never really taken off.

Locally centralising the centrally local

Seen from a certain distance, local government looks untidy and inefficient. The same functions are replicated hundreds of times over. There is limited scale efficiency of operations. Boundaries create anomalies and inconsistencies. So it must make sense to join it all up, to standardise, to have common platforms and common tools. The counter-argument is that that perspective misses out the fact that local government is, well, local. Place matters. Priorities differ. And as both result and cause, there is a political dimension to local government which is quite different from the politics of national government. And so the debate rumbles on.

Its latest incarnation is the idea that there should be much greater integration of local government online services as a way of bringing the overall standard to a much higher level, an argument sometimes framed as the need for a GDS for local government. Harry Metcalfe and Alex Blangry have written a powerful polemic (with some useful pointers to other contributions to the debate) which concludes with a call for revolution:

I think it is hard to argue that local government, Parliament, the NHS and housing are much further along than where central government was in 2011: small pockets of excellence in a sea of business as usual. Small incremental changes are just that: small and incremental. As the user experience of these parts of a citizen’s online life falls behind the rest of the internet, can anything less than a complete revolution in approach be appropriate?

That’s all very well, but just what is it that might need revolutionising? Sarah Prag (newly moved from GDS to a more local world, so well qualified to judge) is clear that there needs to be a more specific question with more specific answers – a shopping list not a monolith. She lists 16 things GDS does which you might – or might not – want to replicate for local government, ranging from limitless cake and bunting to a shared publishing platform. As an indirect response to that, Richard Pope tries to break down the questions, rather than the possible answers. From his list, three strike me as getting to the essence of the issue:

Geography is core. The information and services that local government provides are often inherently geographical in a way that central government is not.

Democracy and power matter. Local governments are independently elected to provide services, in a way that separate government departments are not.

The same problem is being solved many times over, or, at least a set of very similar problems, are being solved by each local authority. And that is just an obvious frustration and inefficiency.

That’s all good stuff, but it brings me back to the starting point of Sarah’s post, where she asks:

There’s been a lot of renewed chat recently (see below) about “a GDS for local government’ or “GOV.UK for local government” but I’m curious about what people really mean when they use these terms. What is it that “GDS” represents in these conversations – a central team of specialists? A set of standards? A publishing platform? A mandate? All of the above?

The one I want to focus on – and which is the real purpose of this post – is the mandate. In sixteenth place on Sarah’s list of things a local GDS might want to copy from the central one comes:

A mandate to force through change, backed by a senior minister

GDS did not begin the search for coherent, consistent, user-focused, efficient government online services, and it may be that we need to look further back for some of the lessons. Directgov did not manage to become, and one of the reasons for that, certainly in the early days when I had most to do with it, was the lack of commitment and hard cash from departments. Even when it did work, questions such as how to manage the structure and editorial voice of the whole with the sometimes divergent priorities, approaches and tone of the parts were never fully resolved. GDS has benefited from a political willingness to be centralist about this in a way which hadn’t existed before. Without that, trying to make progress with a small number of central government departments under common political leadership was very hard. It seems unlikely that making progress with a much larger number of local authorities with varied and competitive political leadership would be any easier. Aiming at a GDS for local government and achieving (at best) a Directgov might not be quite the breakthrough the Jacobins have in mind. Harry and Alex think they have the solution to that one:1

Sometimes in this sector, the only way to change things is with primary legislation and a big stick. It’s important to bring everyone along on the journey, but without a few bruised egos, the journey is unlikely even to begin.

I may be being unfair, but a call for legislation in this context feels more like a cry of despair than a practical solution. Demanding change to hearts and minds by edict tends to be more attractive to authors of edicts than to owners of hearts and minds.

I don’t have a simple answer, or indeed any answer, to the question of where the mandate should come from or whose mandate it should be. That may be a failure of knowledge or imagination on my part, or may mean that there isn’t an easy solution waiting to be found. But I do have three thoughts about how to frame the problem in a way which may make it easier to to work towards a solution.

Symptoms and causes

The first thought is that we need to be clear about what are symptoms and what are causes. That matters because tackling a cause is likely to change the symptoms, while focusing on the symptoms is less likely to have an effect on the underlying cause. A joined up government can produce a single website more easily than a single website can produce a joined up government. So not for the first time, the digital symptom is at risk of being mistaken for the underlying cause. Maybe it would be better if local government were less local, but if that were the underlying problem, the approach to digital service design and delivery would be a consequence of that, not a way of achieving it.

It’s not iterative if you only do it once

The one heroic surge view of history is always attractive, but it’s almost never complete. GDS in part represents radical change and discontinuity, but it is also in a part a clear successor to what went before:

The innovation of does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago. The innovation of lies instead in taking brilliant advantage of a moment in time – a political, technical, financial and personal concatenation which was never quite in place before.

The fact that is the third generation single central government website doesn’t mean that it would take another fifteen year trek through the wilderness to get to the promised land for local digital delivery. But it should, perhaps, prompt the question of what the stages might be and how those stages should build up towards the goal – and critically what a good first step could be which heads in the right direction. The idea that a local GDS could somehow be conjured fully formed out of thin air is more than a little unrealistic. As so often with policy development, the question is not whether there is a better place. It is whether you can get there from here.

Layers and scope

This debate is often framed in all or nothing terms. It’s nonsensical to develop the same systems hundreds of times over, let’s just standardise on one. It’s absurd to impose a single one size fits nobody solution on authorities with different needs and different priorities, let’s resist any kind of standardisation.2

A better answer might come from breaking the question down. There almost certainly isn’t a single right answer for everything here, the question is where the efficiency of standardisation outweighs the value of local variation. That may well vary within individual services – to take one fairly random example, the processing of parking tickets needs very little variation, the work patterns of the wardens who issue them needs more to ensure that they maximise the effectiveness of their interventions, and engagement with people to decide how parking should be managed in my street is intensely local.

My starting assumption would be that a common design for case processing could be useful but a common design for local engagement wouldn’t.3 Whether or not that’s the right answer, though, is much less important than that it strongly suggests that there isn’t a single answer which is right.

From questions to answers to questions

All of that may seem like a slow and laborious way to reach not much of a conclusion. But that should almost be a virtue in this context. What this debate strongly suggests is that a single grand plan with an all-encompassing approach to delivery is unlikely to work. That in turn has something to do with the fact that without a clear objective, there is no benefit in a having a grand plan. It’s possible that a local GDS is the right solution to a problem – but I have yet to see a clear statement of what that problem is or of why it would be the best solution. In the end, it may be less important to understand how a local GDS would work than to understand why it would work.

  1. And extra points for getting ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ into a blog post about local government digital services.
  2. Apart from the fact that there may well not be anybody who takes a position quite as extreme as either of these, it’s also worth bearing in mind that in practice for many services there is a small number of IT suppliers with a very large share of the market, so there is substantial but incomplete de facto standardisation.
  3. Though a common toolkit to support varied local engagement is another matter altogether.

Interesting elsewhere – 9 July 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Help Joy help you. On the unusability of internal systems. – disambiguity
If you’re going to do this user experience thing properly, you’ve got to look at all the angles. If you respect for your employees and your customers you need to care about the user experience of internal systems. Challenge yourself to solve the often more difficult design problems of internal systems, and know that by doing that, you’re creating a better user experience for all.

We need public service reform but it won’t be enough on its own | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
The whole reason I started banging on about the country’s fiscal position in the first place was to demonstrate the need for reform of the state. Anyone in the public sector who thinks that, under a more sympathetic government, things will go back to how they were, is deluding themselves. Even with a growing economy, the squeeze on budgets will be a feature of public sector management for at least the rest of this decade and probably well into the next one too.

Making prison visits easier to book | Government Digital Service
This visit opened my eyes to just how hard people will work to cope with inadequate and unsuitable IT systems. They’ll tolerate a huge amount of unnecessary administration without challenge or complaint.

7 tribes of digital? | Curiouscatherine’s Blog
Leadership is essential not just in terms of effective decision making because we don’t want this to be a values-less exercise. Technologists make values based decisions everyday and if they are not being guided by shared strategic and cultural principles set by organisational leaders who understand what they are doing then they are likely to make at best chaotic and at worst bad choices. Ensuring our digital spaces reflect our cultural values is going to be a key aspect to leadership in the 21st Century.

danah boyd | apophenia » What does the Facebook experiment teach us?
I resent the fact that because I barely use [Facebook], the only way that I could actually get a message out to friends is to pay to have it posted. My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm.

Jill Lepore: What the Theory of “Disruptive Innovation” Gets Wrong : The New Yorker
Among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

Stumbling and Mumbling: The home-working puzzle
Early factories supplanted home-working not because they were technically more efficient, but because they gave capitalists more control over the labour process and hence the power to extract more of the gains from the employment relationship for themselves. A similar thing might explain employers’ aversion to home-working today. Or, more loosely, perhaps narcissistic managers want to feel a sense of power from seeing employees working.

Users: an addendum

The Facebook research furore burst just after my post last week on the connotations of ‘people’, ‘customers’ and ‘users’. Benjamin Ellis’s thoughtfully furious post is a powerful account of the affair, including this comment on the use of ‘users':

Perhaps we need to stop using the term ‘users‘ just as psychologists stopped using the word ‘subjects‘. Language drives attitudes, and viewing people as ‘big data’ leads to a mindset that is dangerously abstracted from the human consequences of action, or inaction.

The key phrase there is that ‘language drives attitudes’. It’s the reason why this matters – and the reason why an apparently esoteric debate about language has some very real consequences.