Interesting elsewhere – 26 June 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Discovering discovery | Make it quotidian
Not enough people actually begin at the beginning.

Often when I meet teams working on service transformation, or digital change projects, I find that they’ve begun somewhere else. Perhaps their work began when someone decided the organisation should be using a particular system, so they’re busy trying to implement that, or someone thought a particular process should be put online, so that’s what they’re doing. They’ve been presented with a solution and told to make it work.[…]

This tends to result in teams who are doing their best, but are feeling rather put-upon and disempowered; teams who find that the priorities and targets aren’t entirely clear, or that they keep shifting; teams who can’t really explain the purpose of what they are working on, or who it is for, or what will happen to it after they’ve finished their particular project.

GovTech is Not Broken | Civic Innovations
The most under-appreciated characteristic of the government procurement process as it exists today is that it’s current design is largely intentional. Much like the federal and state income tax systems, we imbue a number of values deemed important into our procurement processes in the hopes of fostering desired outcomes.

Ben Holliday » Thinking about iteration
It’s important to design and test different design approaches to the problem. This means that we quickly throw away things that aren’t working and move on to something else.

With our approach to prototyping in government the cost of throwing things away should be outweighed by the value of what we’re learning.

It’s only when we’re then confident enough about how well a design approach meets user needs that we should be looking to improve or iterate on this user journey.

Tomorrow’s World | Perfect Path
In all technology, we face a tension between our desire to make life easier by replacing human labour with code or machines and our attachment to human labour as the primary sense-making tool of life and the means by which most of us get the things we need to live.

We seem to understand that work is changing but most of the #futureofwork stuff I’ve seen assumes capitalism based on corporations as a given.

I do have an opinion on this, I think we need fewer jobs and to really accept that people don’t need any more to work as hard or as long doing stuff to justify staying alive. What I want to do more though is point out the incongruity that our tech efforts go into replacing human labour but our politics, culture and society, our communities and social interactions assume that everyone should have a job or some easily understandable means of income like owning or a company or assets that create value.

being more human at work – disambiguity
Consider every business process as a (usually) poorly solved design problem and approach it like a design team should – firstly understanding the what the actual problem is then thinking about different ways it could be solved, and then choosing the one that actually solves the problem – remembering that businesses are really nothing but groups of humans trying to work together to do something great.

diamond geezer
Those who push their chair in I like, because if one of them is in place I can escape from my desk. Alas they’re also in the minority. Most of the people they send to sit next to me are chair-leaver-outers, getting up for a coffee or a meeting and blocking the aisle in their wake. I want to sigh deeply at their thoughtlessness, but by that time they’re not usually there, so I simply push their big office chair back under their desk and proceed.

Department of Digital

Government is finally developing a nascent digital department, and that department is DCMS.

That’s from an account by Chris Yiu of a speech by Ed Vaizey at yesterday’s Digital Leaders conference. Chris, who was live blogging the event with characteristic panache, went on to comment:

Merging the digital economy bits of DCMS and BIS is only the beginning – a truly digital department would need to annex bits of the Cabinet Office, Home Office, Department for Education and beyond if we’re serious about a coherent digital strategy for the UK. Perhaps he should go see the PM and pitch to become the first Secretary of State for Digital?

As far as I can tell (I wasn’t at the event, didn’t hear the speech and the text does not seem to have been published), Vaizey was talking about bringing together government policy on the digital economy. Chris is more ambitious than that, as his comment makes clear, prompting the question of why a Secretary of State for Digital might be a good thing in the first place.

There is an easy answer. The future still looks relentlessly digital. Government is still a long way from being organised around meeting needs, rather than providing (or requiring) services. Becoming a more effective digital nation depends on the interaction of networks, tools, people, education, ambition, legal frameworks, security and no doubt much else beside, and it’s very hard to construct a coherent picture, never mind a coherent policy, when those things are fragmented across government. Government’s efforts to make itself digital have been spectacularly successful in some areas, showing what can be done, but those successes are still unevenly distributed. A Secretary of State for Digital could bring drive and focus, accelerating both the pace and the effectiveness of change.

And yet. If there is a Department of Digital, and a Secretary of State for Digital, what should they not be in charge of? If there is a message from the digital revolution, it is that digital touches everything, that the remit of the Department for Analogue will never regain the heady scope it once had. Digital is not a separate thing to be bolted on when the real work has been done elsewhere, it is not a channel for final delivery, independent of context.

We have been here before, in times so long ago that e-government was the cutting edge word:

A long time ago, I used to give a lot of presentations about something called e-government, and particularly e-government strategy. After doing that for a while, I became increasing convinced that that the language of e-government left a lot to be desired, mainly because it had too many connotation of separateness. e-Government was something done by e-people to produce e-strategies which eventually, if you were lucky, might deliver e-services.  In the meantime, government-without-an-e carried on doing what it does, and the two seemed destined to have little to do with each other.

That’s a caricature, of course, but it’s close enough to home that by the end of 2000, those presentations had a little box which faded in (powerpoint animation was still a cool trick back then) proclaiming that ‘e-government is government’.  By the end of 2001, the box had grown, the text had gone from 24pt to 60pt and it took up an entire slide on its own.

That perception, that e-government is not a helpful concept, that the future is a single and integrated one, was an important one, with important consequences.  It was one of the first routes for bringing the concept of the customer into central government thinking, it was the vehicle for the first serious work on what we would later call customer insight, reflecting the fact that the real power of online services was their relationship with other channels, and the revolutionary consequences of providing choice in access to public services.

The choice is not as binary as this suggests, of course. Some centralisation of effort, coupled with political drive and leadership, can be a powerful way to drive progress – GDS is an obvious example of that. But organisational solutions demand organisational questions: not just, what is the problem to which the creation of a Department of Digital is the answer, but also, what is the reason for thinking that that is the best available solution?

In other words, the question is not about digital or not digital, it is about systems in a much wider sense. I have argued before that if you want to change a system, you have to understand it as a system.1  I wrote a longer piece on what is fundamentally the same issue a couple of years ago,2 making the point that

It is an encouraging sign of maturity when we can stop qualifying things with ‘electronic’ or ‘digital’. Digital engagement is not a digital problem, it is an engagement problem. More digital activity will be a symptom of better engagement. Better engagement won’t, on the whole, be a symptom of more digital.

All of that suddenly reminds me of a great report Chris wrote (with Sarah Fink) a couple of years ago when he was still working at Policy Exchange. I started to write a response to it at the time, but never got round to finishing it. A few paragraphs from that draft post seem worth resurrecting:

The stack of reports by and to government about the transformational power of digital is tall and tottering. The bottom of the stack is twenty years old, faded and dusty. Now, at the top of the stack comes the latest diagnosis and prescription – Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age from Policy Exchange. Do we really need yet another strategy? And can it tell us anything different from all those which have gone before it?

The answers to those questions are a resounding ‘yes’  – much more so than I had expected. This is a good and thought provoking piece of work and one very much worth reading and reflecting on – though not necessarily to agree with. Its purpose is to bank the achievement of the current digital strategy and ask what should go beyond it in the years to 2020. In addressing that question, Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink, the authors of the report, put forward some powerful and radical arguments for change. They are absolutely right to argue that the unavoidable implications of continuing digital changes require a more radical approach than they have so far received. Even more importantly, the stress they place on people and leadership is a critical, but too often overlooked, part of the challenges – and the very fact that they pay so much attention to it marks them out from all too many techno-utopian fantasists:

As is so often the case when it comes to public sector reform, this is really a story about people, leadership and organisational change. Technology is both the context and the enabler for radically better government, but it is how we choose to embrace it that will make the difference between success and failure. [29]

But the report is made even more interesting for me by the fact that there is plenty to challenge and disagree with, as well as much which is persuasively argued.

Their starting premise is that there is something distinctive about government:

When we look back over the last two decades, nowhere has the internet revolution has been felt less than in the business of government. [12]

And their fundamental explanation for that is very simple:

Unlike the other dinosaurs of the pre-internet age, government enjoys a singular status that lets it sidestep the choice between change and extinction. [13]

That’s not wholly wrong, of course, not by a long way. But it doesn’t tell us as much as it might first appear. If the problem is not primarily about technology and is instead more about leadership, culture, people and organisations, we have to ask what it is that makes government distinctive. The report does identify the lack of competitive pressures on governments, which have a lower risk of going out of business than more commercial organisations. But almost nothing is said about two other obvious factors, the fact that government is political and the fact that it does things differently from other kinds of organisation at least in part because it does different things.

Let’s start with the politics. Government as an institution has a longevity which outstrips most other kinds of institutions, but governments are short lived and survive by their responsiveness at the macro level. To dismiss that effect as ‘one administration succeeds another’ is to have things precisely backwards: much radical reform is difficult in government not because of some underlying and relentless continuity, but because of its fundamental discontinuity. That’s not to say that there is no institutional inertia in government, of course there is, but treating government as a closed system operated by civil servants is a very partial view of the complex dynamics involved. Recognising that makes it possible to see an important risk. There is a balance between the apparently inexorable pressures making government digital and the fragility with which some of that is happening in practice.3

Then there is delivery. There is much to agree with here, and it is unquestionably right that ideas developed and progress made in other sectors should be borrowed and adopted by government. Clearly the more government and its services are like other organisations and services, the more straightforward that borrowing can be. So we need to get some measure of the differences before we can be confident that the similarities are a guide, not a siren. In discussing the need for open APIs, the point is made that

It is important to remember that government web services are a particularly high profile target, and that citizens may be less tolerant of downtime on government services compared to similar commercial services. Moreover, as the rules of engagement for these sorts of encounters are still evolving, the transparency attached to government may make it harder to deploy the same breadth and intensity of countermeasures that other organisations might deem necessary. [39]

That sounds right as far as it goes, but it may not go far enough. There is a rather deeper level at which the differences of government may matter in this context. To take just one example, the land registry is not just a useful database of property and ownership – though it is that – it is the canonical record for those things. Opening the data to use in new and powerful applications has great power. Opening it to third party transactions creates an opportunity for property fraud on an industrial scale. That is not a reason not to be open, it is an indication of the need to understand systems at a sufficiently deep level.

It is still true that government is not a disruptive start up. It is still true that it can be – and will be – disrupted by organisations which are. It is still true that government is institutionally conservative. It is still true that the impact of digital on government is a long way from playing out.

Perhaps a Department of Digital would further shape and catalyse that change. But whether that is the best or only way forward is a harder question, and I am not sure I know the answer.

  1. That doesn’t mean endless analysis of every last detail as a convenient excuse for never actually doing anything, it does means recognising that there is a system in the first place.
  2. Though from a slightly different starting point, prompted by a really good challenge by Steph Gray which is also well worth reading.
  3. In a very different context, Ian Leslie has written about the fragility of freedom as a political system and how hard that fragility is to see for those within it. I think it is worth asking whether in the short to medium term, digital in government shares that unseen fragility.

Interesting elsewhere – 12 June 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Government as a platform, or a platform for government? Which are we getting?
The distinction here – and government’s choice – between a blueprint for GaaP that supports participation versus one that supports mere access, is critical. The former is about democratic re-invigoration, and the latter is about – well, just technology. Participation is much more disruptive to existing modes of organising within government.

The importance of selective inefficiency » The Spectator
When people try to introduce market competition into a monopoly or public sector organisation, what they generally mean is ‘to make it ruthlessly efficient’. This is a mistake. Successful private sector organisations usually follow the Kano model — they learn to practise selective, symbolic inefficiency because customers like it better that way.

Where innovation sits in public service reform | arbitrary constant
Very little can truly be thought of as “innovative”. Having a more honest appraisal of the extent to which something is “new”, in my view, leads to a better understanding of the extent to which this “thing” might achieve change. This also provides us with a better understanding of the practical approaches, tools and techniques that might be useful to take the innovation from its current “degree” to the next, higher “degree”.

Stock and flow / Snarkmarket
Stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Designing digital democracy: a short guide | Geoff Mulgan
My guess is that the most successful models in the next few years will fuse representative and direct elements. They will be honest that the buck still stops with elected representatives – and that the online tools are inputs and supplements rather than replacements. They will present conversation and deliberation as preferable to relying on occasional elections, and the odd binary petition. But they will also be clear that the 21st century parliament or city council has to be a hybrid too – physical and digital.

FutureGov | A nuanced post about local government finance
Austerity and the inevitable next wave of cuts is daunting, but throwing our hands up and saying there’s nothing we can do about it is wrong. If you’re a public servant, you can become an accounting archeologist, finding out where money is going and where it’s sitting, uncovering its potential and using it now to invest in public services of the future rather than propping up the past.

The pursuit of power: Why Isis loves spreadsheets and mafia bosses build chapels – Ian Leslie
The politician, the gangster, and the terrorist all want something from you, though each of them wants something different. The politician wants your vote. The gangster wants your money. The terrorist wants your soul.

On the complex relationship between political ignorance and democracy | British Politics and Policy at LSE
Political analysis, if it is to have meaning, should take the ignorance of democratic citizens seriously – but it should also probably take it as a non-negotiable feature of the way that democracies work in the era of mass voting publics.

The Approaching Tidal Wave of Technological Change – RSA
What is remarkable about these achievements is not that they happened, but that they happened in such a short time from when such feats were confidently deemed impossible. Thinking like Gordon Moore rather than Thomas Watson Sr., computers over-taking humans in many more areas is a given.

A new operating model for government | Open Policy Making
Why do we expect government to be immune from the more radical impacts, just because we don’t have the luxury of going out of business? It is not just a case of feeding modern digital tools into our existing policy processes (though that too), it is about recognising that these technologies have the potential to allow or even require a different operating model for government.

Weasel words and no-apology apologies | Patient Opinion
Targets on response times were introduced and closely monitored by our board but there was little emphasis on the quality of our written responses.

Writing weasel words is not easy. Finding ways to express an apology without actually saying you have done anything wrong is an art form.

Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me: Leadership, Vision and Statecraft | NAKED DIPLOMAT
Politics is easy when you are building, ‘on the up’ and offering clear choices in simple language. Politics is easy when power is concentrated, when the rules are clear and, while they might not agree, everyone is all playing on the same chessboard.

Politics is hard when the power is fragmenting, when the rules of the game are in flux, and when there are players willing to turn the chessboard over. Politics is hard in the periods when your constituents don’t think you, or any of your rivals, matter – and wouldn’t trust you even if they did.

When being delayed means you get there faster

It’s easy to say we should start with the user. At one level, it’s self-evidently the right thing to do. But it isn’t always obvious why even well-intentioned efforts can go wrong if the starting point is even subtly distant from the users. Here’s a simple story of how that can be so.

Moon and bus station

There were long delays at Vauxhall yesterday morning. I know because TfL told me.

There were still long delays at Vauxhall an hour later. I know because TfL told me that too.

In between those tweets, I got on a bus which sailed through Vauxhall more quickly than any I have been on for quite a while.1

On the face of it, that’s all a bit odd. But there is a very simple explanation. TfL’s view of delay is that of a provider of transport services. My view of delay is as a user of those services.

From TfL’s point of view, bus x is supposed to go past point y at time z. If it gets to z late, it has been delayed.2 Quite rightly, TfL care about specific buses and the overall service. But from my point of view, if I get to point y at time z, I am happy – and will be blissfully ignorant of the fact that I am on bus q which should have got to y half an hour earlier. There’s a big difference between delay in the sense of TfL not having its buses where it wants them and delay in the sense of congestion slowing everything down. Of course they are related – the second is a major cause of the first, but talking about them as if they were the same thing obscures rather than illuminates.

I wasn’t delayed by 40 minutes this morning and, from what I saw, I would be surprised if anybody else was either, at least in the sense of reaching their destination 40 minutes later than they had expected. There clearly were problems in that the gaps between buses were longer and less regular than they should have been, but that’s a bus placement problem, not a passenger journey time problem – the delay from extended service intervals might have been five minutes, or even ten, but it certainly wasn’t 40.

So does any of this matter? I’d argue that it does for two reasons, one specific and one general.

The specific one is that if there are actual delays, I want to know about them and about how bad they are.  If those warning are indistinguishable from notional delays, then I will still not have the information I need to make sensible choices.

But the real reason for writing this post is the general problem. TfL is confusing information which matters to them with information which matters to their passengers. They are looking at the problem as producers, not consumers. So the real moral of this story is that providing information to customers is valuable in direct proportion to its focus on meeting actual customer needs – and that is both harder and less obvious than it might first appear.

  1. The only delay I encountered was at the end of Victoria Street, where a tour bus had broken down and was completely blocking northbound traffic. As it happens, TfL didn’t tell me about that at all.
  2. Or at least that’s what I assume their point of view is, but I am inferring that from what they do, rather than knowing it for a fact.

Leeway

Rules, we tell ourselves, are made to be broken. When strict application of the rule produces a silly outcome, we prefer to bend the rule rather than enforce the silly outcome. A rule which could cope with every exception and every special circumstance would be so complex and incomprehensible that it couldn’t in practice work as a rule at all. And so we muddle through.

David Weinberger coined a word for this many years ago. He called it leeway.

Leeway is the only way we manage to live together: We ignore what isn’t our business. We cut one another some slack. We forgive one another when we transgress.

By bending the rules we’re not violating fairness. The equal and blind application of rules is a bureaucracy’s idea of fairness. Judiciously granting leeway is what fairness is all about. Fairness comes in dealing with the exceptions.

And there will always be exceptions because rules are imposed on an unruly reality. The analog world is continuous. It has no edges and barely has corners. Rules at best work pretty well. That’s why in the analog world we have a variety of judges, arbiters, and referees to settle issues fairly when smudgy reality outstrips clear rules.

It’s a concept I have found useful in all sorts of contexts since I first came across it more than ten years ago, but while I have referred to it in passing a few times, I have never written about it directly. That feels like a gap overdue for filling.

At first glance leeway may seem a charmingly harmless idea. But in fact it is deeply subversive. It applies in all sorts of contexts, as Weinberger’s own examples make clear, but there is a very obvious set of issues around automated systems and services, which have a default tendency to be highly rigid. The need for leeway suggests that we should give careful thought to where the safety valves need to be, and how they should operate.1

The best rules are simple and explicit. The best way of applying rules is with an element of judgement about the context. Computers (and, for different reasons, bureaucrats) are good at the first part, rather less so at the second. Computerised bureaucrats (who can be found far beyond the public sector) are a case of their own. So there is a dilemma. We can try to create a system which is perfectly rule bound, where total fairness is ensured by the complete absence of discretion – but that complete fairness is almost certain to look (and be) unfair in a whole range of difficult edge cases. Or we can try to create a system based on the applications of principles and judgement, where fairness is ensured by tailoring decisions to precise circumstances – but that fairness is almost certain to result in similar cases getting dissimilar outcomes. That dilemma does not just apply at the level of individual entitlements and obligations. It – or something very like it – also applies in broader collective decision making. We demand that service provision should be tailored to local needs and circumstances but decry the postcode lottery.

Computerisation tends to make all this worse, for two big reasons. The first is that humans become interface devices not autonomous agents, not able to offer leeway even it they want to (indeed, preventing them from doing so may be part of the point). That’s not limited to government, of course, as anybody who has done battle over a mobile phone contract or a dodgy gas bill knows. The second is that computerised rules need to be computable. Binary conditions are easier to code than fine assessments. More subtly, the act of computerisation can be a prompt to ‘simplify’ systems in ways which risk creating much cruder boundaries, so exacerbating the first problem.

Computers crystallise and may exacerbate the problem, but they do not create it. Without needing to plumb the depths of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, it is not possible to deal with the problem of ill-fitting rules by endless refining the rules. Doing so doesn’t drive out fractally increasing detail, it blurs the idea of their being rules in the first place. Or as Jay Stanley puts it in a recent blog post:

No matter how detailed a set of rules is laid out, no matter how comprehensive the attempt to deal with every contingency, in the real world circumstances will arise that will break that ruleset. Applied to such circumstances the rules will be indeterminate and/or self-contradictory.

One obvious response to that is to head in the other direction and attempt to simplify the rules. But however obvious, that approach is unlikely to work either, because it is trying to solve the wrong problem: there is no reason to think that reducing the number of rules will reduce the number of cases for which the rules are not a good fit. On the contrary, it means that more people will get rougher justice.2

So we come back to leeway, being careful to follow Weinberger’s approach to what it does and doesn’t mean. Leeway doesn’t mean that there are no rules or that some people are entitled to ignore the rules,3 it means that at the margin it may be more important to respect the spirit of a rule than the letter. That leads us to some very familiar systems.  As Stanley summarises it:

So far the best that humans have come up with is what might be described as “guided discretion.” First, judges must work within the core currents of the law, but apply their own judgment at the margins. Second, such discretion must be subject to review and appeal, which, while still vulnerable to mass delusions and prejudices such as racism, at least smooths over individual idiosyncrasies to minimize the chances of unpredictably quirky rulings.

But we don’t need to depend on imagery drawing on the full panoply (and expense) of the judicial machine. The same principles can be applied more prosaically, where even bureaucracies can show virtue:

Bureaucracies often have something that computers do not: logical escape valves. When the inevitable cases arise that break the logic of the bureaucratic machine, these escape valves can provide crucial relief from its heartless and implacable nature. Every voicemail system needs the option to press zero. Escape valves may take the form of appeals processes, or higher-level administrators who are empowered to make exceptions to the rules, or evolved cultural practices within an organization. Sometimes they might consist of nothing more than individual clerks who have the freedom to fix dumb results by breaking the rules. In some cases this is perceived as a failure—after all, making an exception to a rule in order to treat an individual fairly diminishes the qualities of predictability and control that make a bureaucratic machine so valuable to those at the top. And these pockets of discretion can also leave room for bad results such as racial discrimination. But overall they rescue bureaucracies from being completely mindless, in a way that computers cannot be (at least yet).

There are many ways of testing whether systems are appropriate and effective. The possibility of leeway is not enough to rescue a bad system. But the absence of leeway is a strong indicator that the system as whole may be in need of improvement.

  1. That may mean creating flexibility in the rules or their application within the core system, but it is at least as likely to mean ensuring that there is a way of breaking out of the system where circumstances require it.
  2. And defining justice as the result of applying an algorithm, however fine its distinctions, doesn’t solve the problem at all, it merely provides a way of relying on ostensibly neutral authority.
  3. That’s not to say that there is no unfair discrimination in the application of rules and norms. Of course there often is, and that’s a very important reason for having the rule before the leeway – but it’s not a reason to think that things would be better with no leeway.