Camping trip

Westminster Cathedral tetraptych


Another year has passed. Another Govcamp beckons. Every year it is much the same, because the basic model of an event with emergent content and structure works and works well. Every year it is very different, because the mix of people and the things they want to talk about changes. And even if they didn’t, there are tens of thousands of routes through the day – you really can’t experience the same event twice (or the same event as anybody else there):

We started the day with forty potential sessions, and by the end of the day forty actual sessions had happened – with the complaints I heard all being about the agony of deciding between the eight sessions going on in any given time slot.  That, by the way, has a consequence which is not always recognised – a choice of eight sessions, five times over gives 32,768 different combinations:   it’s a fairly safe bet that, quite literally, no two people experienced the same event.

So as a reminder to myself – and perhaps for the benefit of new and returning Govcampers – I have assembled a few thoughts from past Govcamps. The starting point and the most important is that I like Govcamp, for a long list of reasons, many of which contradict one another:

I like govcamp because I meet people I know

I like govcamp because I meet people I don’t know

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who were there the year before

I like govcamp because there are lots of people who weren’t

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I am interested in

I like govcamp because there are sessions about things I didn’t know I was interested in

I like govcamp because I can walk out of sessions I didn’t know I wasn’t interested in

I like govcamp because I can create the sessions I want to be interested in

I like govcamp because I don’t have to be in a session at all

I like govcamp because there are so many parallel sessions that it’s unlikely that any two people experience the same event

I like govcamp because there are so few parallel sessions that the rate of cross-fertilisation remains high

I like govcamp because it is starting to have history and in jokes

I like govcamp because it reinvents itself each year

Govcamp is also quite useless, which is its profound, but often misunderstood strength.

That uselessness is not a weakness, it is the very essence of what Govcamp is and how it works… So, as ever, Govcamp was useless. But it is a very special and rather compelling form of uselessness. If we could be this useless more consistently, who knows what could be achieved.

This year Govcamp is back at Microsoft, giving everybody the opportunity to compete with Paul Clarke for the all time most stunning photograph taken at a Govcamp award. His winning entry from 2011, as yet unchallenged, is at the top of this post. Even at Govcamp, it’s worth being distracted from what’s going on in the room by what can be seen on the outside.

Tomorrow, I might pitch a session on putting the continuousness in continuous improvement. Or I might not. But whatever 200 individuals decide to do, the collective impact will be another day to like, exactly the same as, and totally different from, all the ones before.

Interesting elsewhere – 22 January 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Day 1 – Postbureaucrat
Whoever walks into ministerial offices after the 7th May, it’s likely there will be new faces with big ambitions and even higher expectations about how digital tools can help them win stakeholder, media and public support.

Falsehoods programmers believe about addresses

The challenge for web designers in 2015 (or how to cheat at the future)
Most of those won’t work if you try them on a laptop browser, but they will on your phone or tablet if you use chrome or firefox. This is partly the point, the technology is here, not in the tools that we use to design things for the web (laptop browsers), but in the place where users are spending more time.

Written evidence – Sir Stephen Laws KCB, QC (Hon), LLD (Hon)
The UK constitution is currently best analysed in terms of politics. The most important balancing and control mechanisms within the UK constitution are all essentially political, rather than legal. The doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty is no more than the articulation of a political fact of life, namely, that in the last resort politics always trumps law.

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes
Many large organisations, in both the private and public sector attempt to reduce a small risk to zero risk, yet in the no doubt well intended processes they create, the overall costs to the service escalates. Many organisations don’t place sufficient value on time. If time had been a measured factor in coming up with this process, it is probable that a leaner procedure would have been devised. Finally, often a lack of trust between the politicians or those in positions of authority and the rest of the workforce results in too many prescriptive procedures, adding to the overall cost of the service.

The Innovators – lessons from the digital revolution – davebriggs -
People and computers working together in a kind of symbiosis is where the real sweet spot in digital innovation lies, rather than in artificial intelligence. Instead of trying to make machines that act like humans, we should leave the computers to do what they are good at – crunching through data and calculations – which frees up the people to do the creative, intuitive bit that machines struggle with so much.

Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” | Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report: Web Design News & Insights Since 1995
If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.

How Markets Crowd Out Morals | Boston Review
Markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes market values crowd out non-market norms worth caring about.

Optimism, Technology and (Citizen) Diplomacy | NAKED DIPLOMAT
If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between sharers and exploiters. Between those who want transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want privacy, or as its critics call it, secrecy. Between old and new sources of power. The next wave of technological disruption will be faster and greater than anything we have ever experienced. But we can and must be ready for it.

Sharing about sharing

The problem with now having two blogs is the need to decide which posts belong where. I’ve just written something on my new blog about sharing between apps and how the power of mobile devices is not necessarily in their mobility. But it might just as easily have gone here, so it seemed worth adding a pointer.

There are still plenty of things it is easier to do with a full size computer. Writing blog posts is one of them. But the balance is shifting and the power to do things differently is happening somewhere else.

King Canute was buried at sea

King Canute is famous for thinking that by his royal command, he could hold back the incoming tide. King Canute is famous for demonstrating the limitations of even royal power by showing that he could not hold back the incoming tide. His attempt to show humility and the limits of power became a story of his arrogance and his deluded belief that his power was unlimited.

Early in the days of online government, the focus was on the percentage of different services which could be done online. As it turned out, that wasn’t a particularly smart way of measuring progress, let alone of setting targets. For if the target were to be the availability of every service online, that must include deeply obscure services, used by tiny handfuls of people, in circumstances least conducive to online activity.

Burial at sea started to get used as the limit case example, the reductio ad absurdum of service based targeting. It showed not that it was or should be a high priority to make burial at sea an online service, but that a literal interpretation of a 100% target probably wasn’t going to turn out to be the smartest approach. Alan Mather is on the record making that point in characteristically trenchant terms as early as 2002 and I remember using the example a year or so before that.

A few years passed. Directgov came – and went – without ever covering burial at sea. New faces arrived as GDS started to develop what was to become But burial at sea was still there as an example to think about in deciding how far along the long tail it was sensible to try to get. Reflecting on it then, I concluded:

I will be fascinated to see whether they find a way of creating the right long tail, and of stopping the tail being so unwieldy that it trips up the dog

Now a few more years have passed. Michael Cross has just written a piece about two decades of digital government strategies, describing in understandably critical tones the sequence of strategies since the first in 1996. Most of it is a perfectly good summary of what happened and a telling reminder of just how short – and tactical – the life of a strategy can be. But in the middle of the story, there is this arresting paragraph:

Modernising Government was put into action by the newly created Office of the E-Envoy. The following year, in a brief flurry of interest, Blair brought the 2008 target forward to the new European target of 2005 and threw money at grandiose and disconnected plans to drag public services into the digital age, regardless of business case or take-up. A classic example was the e-enabling of the process for applying to conduct burials at sea.

It was indeed a classic example. But it wasn’t an example of grandiose and disconnected plans. It was an example of how the need for prioritisation was recognised early on, with the dozen or so burials at sea each year being a long way down the list. By 2002, the list had in any case got much shorter. For the spending review that year, a list of ‘key services’ was agreed between Cabinet Office and Treasury for priority funding and attention. It was a short list, and burial at sea was not on it.

None of that much matters now, of course. As a mistake it is so minor as to be hardly worth the correction. But it amuses me that, Canute like, the example of a thing sensibly not done has been remembered as an example of the folly of doing it.

Meanwhile, things have come a long way since those heady days of the targets set in 2000. Pragmatically and steadily, information and services have gone online, and now you can find out about burial at sea on More than that, it is even possible at least to begin the process of applying for the necessary licence online, not through a grandiose dedicated service, but unceremoniously by including burials as a special case of waste disposal.

King Canute, meanwhile, is buried at Winchester. Not every headline is accurate.

Marine Case Management System

Nuclear catastrophes, speeding tickets and agility

How do you stop your stock of nuclear weapons accidentally blowing up the world? How do you devise a straightforward system for recording penalties on driving licences? Those sound like very different questions, but they turn out to have some unexpected similarities.

Let’s start with nuclear weapons. Eric Schlosser has written an extraordinary book about the command and control systems for the US nuclear arsenal. He describes the deep structural weaknesses in those systems, illustrated with a seemingly endless stream of examples of how those weaknesses came close to causing disaster, for reasons ranging from operational carelessness to fundamental design flaws, and with potential consequences ranging from contamination to conflagration.

The book is well worth reading but you can also watch Schlosser speaking at a recent RSA event in this video (the whole thing is almost an hour, but the meat starts at 3:30 and runs for about 20 minutes, the rest is Q&A – or there is a shorter version here).

One of the themes which came through very strongly from the book was the importance of maintenance and improvements. It turned out to be relatively easy to get eye-wateringly large budgets for the development and deployment of new weapons and almost impossibly difficult to get any money at all to improve control and safety systems for existing weapons. That’s partly a reflection of a military preference which underplays safety (given the risk of a bomb which doesn’t go off when it should, and one which does go off when it shouldn’t, some may see the first as more important than the second), but it’s also a reflection of a much more general political issue: it’s much more attractive to be responsible for delivering a new thing than for doing maintenance on an old one.

Meanwhile, rather less cataclysmically (except perhaps for him), Matthew Cain got a speeding ticket. He didn’t contest it, paid the fine and accepted the points on his licence. That’s an apparently simple and apparently online transaction which, at the end of a terrific blow by blow account he summarises as involving ‘three public bodies, three different websites, four outbound letters, eight pieces of post in total’.

The problem is not that it’s impossible to go through the process. Indeed, the problem (in this form) only exists because it is possible to complete the transaction: if it weren’t, somebody would fix it. The problem is that it isn’t anybody’s priority (or anybody’s budget) to improve, streamline and integrate the current fragmented process. As Matthew points out, the obstacles to improvement are very real:

1. West Yorkshire Police has higher priorities. I suspect no senior manager will be held accountable for a slow, inefficient money-making service

2. Left to its own devices, West Yorkshire Police would probably redesign the service inefficiently, either relying on contractors to build a unique service or purchasing a proprietary service

3. The opportunities to improve the service are only incremental. West Yorkshire Police could redesign its part of the service but lacks control over payments or licensing issues (and, it appears, speed awareness courses)

4. Probably only the MOJ has the convening power to bring together its payment service, the DVLA’s licencing service and a police force’s processes. But to do so across 42 police forces would be a considerable hassle

5. The current incentives government digital services prize redesigning existing high volume, central government services. The redesign of speeding fines is probably low on attractiveness and achievability for the MOJ — although of all departments it’s probably best placed to make progress

Every description of agile development ends with ‘iterate’, and the GDS service design manual is explicit about what they call the live phase:

[Going live] is not the end of the process. The service should now be improved continuously, based on user feedback, analytics and further research.

You’ll repeat the whole process (discovery, alpha, beta and live) for smaller pieces of work as the service continues running. Find something that needs improvement, research solutions, iterate, release. That should be a constant rhythm for the operating team, and done rapidly.

Those are good principles, but they don’t on their own solve the problem. When budgets are tight, it’s easy enough to slip back to thinking that what is there is is good enough, to finding workarounds rather than solutions, to accepting what works rather than looking for ways to make it better.

It’s not just the money, of course. Perhaps a little counter-intuitively, the opposite can be a problem too. We have all seen systems where features have been added and designs tweaked in ways which reduce utility, rather than adding to it.  Continuous improvement is virtuous if it delivers improvement, not just from being continuous. Getting – and keeping – people with the right skills and the right attitudes to maintain or enhance a service may be more difficult than assembling the team to build it in the first place.

Nor of course is this just about IT. There are new public buildings which struggle to cover their running costs, new buses designed to run with a second crew member who will increasingly be absent, new phones with patchy network coverage.

But in a sense all of those are consequences of the deeper problem, that the wholly new is grander, more exciting and generally better rewarded. Slowly and painstakingly reducing risk and increasing resilience has much less obvious benefits. Except, perhaps, for avoiding nuclear devastation.


Interesting elsewhere – 15 December 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

De-geekifying open data | LocalGov Digital | Lucy Knight
But here's the most important thing for me about open data; the reason I support it and promote it the way I do. It's not about the cool stuff we could do with it (although obviously there can never be too much cool stuff). It's about fighting the perception that the public sector is full of people hiding information from the public. I'm tired of being seen as part of some evil cynical fact-obscuring machine. 

What is a ‘policy’ – and what is good policymaking? | David Allen Green
Good policy is the considered course of action by which a supposed public benefit is accomplished, which otherwise would not be accomplished, by the best use of the resources available. It is grounded in reality and thought-through as to its consequences. But get policy wrong and instead of the desired benefits there may be further and unintended problems, or even nothing achieved at all.

arbitrary constant | Up to and including itself
Basing policy on evidence is common sense, isn’t it? Why would you base policy on anything else? Shouldn’t we only spend tax-payers’ money on what works?

But scratch the surface of these questions and things aren’t as rational, predictable, and benefit-maximising as evidence-based policy would have us believe. There are similar heuristics when it comes to making policy.

‘Generalists don’t know what they don’t know and that can be dangerous’ | 21st Century Public Servant
Clearly there is a balance to be struck between generalists and specialists – I would like my surgeon to be a specialist and the person who signs off the safety of new buildings to have technical expertise – but it seems to me that there is a tendency to overstate the dangers of generalism. Generalists who don’t know what they don’t know may be able to be more innovative and experimental than people whose specialism leads them to see an existing service intervention as the solution to every problem.

Stumbling and Mumbling: Leadership in question
Is leadership and hierarchy really the best way of running political parties and government? Could it be that our idiot political culture which demands "strong" leadership is, in fact, an obstacle to good governance?    

This is a post about tone policing
If you see someone who is angry and upset about something that was said or done to them, don’t tell them they should be nicer. Instead: Recognize their emotions as valid. Recognize that their emotional state is an indication that something extremely harmful was done to them, whether it was by you, or someone else

The Whitehall ideas machine must go: politicians are the cause of bad services | John Seddon | Society | The Guardian
For innovation to flourish the locus of control must shift to the frontline where people deliver public services. Innovation requires freedom to learn and experiment; it can’t happen if it is constrained by consensus and regulation, especially when that consensus is largely developed among people with no knowledge. The Whitehall ideas machine must go. It is at the heart of the current malaise and is a disservice to ministers, entrapping them in a situation where they always need to be right, hate to have their opinions challenged, and are obliged to lay down the law.

Risk management of cyber security in technology projects – GOV.UK
Unusable systems encourage users to find workarounds, resulting in systems that are unproductive and insecure. Well-designed systems are both enjoyable to use, and more secure as a result.