Interesting elsewhere – 11 September 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

The Security Risks of Third-Party Data – Schneier on Security
Organizational doxing is a powerful attack against organizations, and one that will continue because it’s so effective. And while the network owners and the hackers might be battling it out for their own reasons, sometimes it’s our data that’s the prize. Having information we thought private turn out to be public and searchable is what happens when the hackers win. It’s a result of the information age that hasn’t been fully appreciated, and one that we’re still not prepared to face.

It’s not about us, it’s about collaboration | Government Digital Service
Digital transformation isn’t just service design, it’s organisation design. It’s as much about people as it is about pixels and processors. And it’s hard. Re-thinking digital services means re-thinking how your organisation does things and why it does them in a particular way. It means challenging the status quo and constantly asking “Why?” and “What is the user need?”

What I’m talking about when I’m talking about government as a platform | Dave Briggs
Digital is not about technology, and government as a platform is not about IT. It is instead a way of rethinking the operating model of an organisation to meet the current and future needs of its customers, in the digital age. The technology is an important enabler, but it is the means rather than the end.

The Future of Firms. Is There an App for That? — Medium
For most of the developed world, firms, as much as markets, make up the dominant economic pattern. The Internet is nothing less than an extinction-level event for the traditional firm. The Internet, together with technological intelligence, makes it possible to create totally new forms of economic entities, such as the “Uber for everything” -type of platforms/service markets that we see emerging today. Very small firms can do things that in the past required very large organizations.

Russell Davies: You can’t fix services with engagement
How did so many organisations end up here?

Because they’ve spent money on making their marketing digital, not their processes. They’ve got good at social media rather than service design.

They’ve invested in conversations, not services, so now they spend their whole time having conversations about how shit their services are.

Ben Holliday » Asking the right questions to frame the problem
I’ve found that framing the problem is something that teams really struggle with. This should be something we constantly refer back to as we look to iterate and improve what we’re working on. Framing the problem should provide the constraint and reasoning behind new features, or be used to guide the prioritisation of any content and design changes.

Web Design – The First 100 Years
Here we are, fifty years into the computer revolution, at what feels like our moment of greatest progress. The outlines of the future are clear, and oh boy is it futuristic.

But we’re running into physical and economic barriers that aren’t worth crossing.

We’re starting to see that putting everything online has real and troubling social costs.

And the devices we use are becoming ‘good enough’, to the point where we can focus on making them cheaper, more efficient, and accessible to everyone.

So despite appearances, despite the feeling that things are accelerating and changing faster than ever, I want to make the shocking prediction that the Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today.

Digital transformation strategy | Deloitte University Press
What separates digital lea­ders from the rest is a clear digital strategy com­bined with a culture and leadership poised to drive the transformation. The history of technological ad­vance in business is littered with examples of companies focusing on technologies without in­vesting in organizational capabilities that ensure their impact. In many companies, the failed imple­mentation of enterprise resource planning and previous generations of knowledge management systems are classic examples of expectations falling short because organizations didn’t change mindsets and processes or build cultures that fostered change.

Lessons for the Public Sector from the Evolution of Early Life | Richard Copley MSc, BSc, SMSITM (and CIO)
It is necessary for each partner to give something up if the eukaryotic organisation is to be created. The thing that you’re losing is sovereignty over some functions. To my mind the kind of protectionism/sovereignty that we typically see in the public sector is a crime. ‘Sovereignty’ is really little more than macho chest thumping and posturing. It is a dog, scent marking its territory. We need to grow up.

Thinking time

I went to the post office at lunch time. Lots of other people did too, so it was quite busy.

For the last few years, this post office has had a fancy queuing system (though it now no longer seems to require a dedicated member of staff to explain the self service options, which is progress of a kind). I took my ticket and prepared to wait.

Ticket to queue

But then I realised that it might be quite a wait. My little ticket told me that there were 54 people ahead of me in the queue, which sounded like a lot. There were three counter positions open, so if each transaction took about two minutes, I could expect to be there for half an hour. A moment’s further thought suggested that there was a big unknown in that estimate. An obvious reaction to facing a queue 54 people long is to go away and come back some other time when the queue is shorter. But it’s only possible to find out the length of the queue by getting a ticket and joining it – or by getting a ticket and promptly abandoning it. So information value is destroyed by the act of publishing it: telling people how long the queue is changes the length of the queue.1

In other words telling me that there are ‘54 customers in front’ actually tells me very little. It’s a production line view of the situation, not a user-focused view and it was a safe bet that there weren’t going to be 54 actual transaction before mine.

So I waited. And indeed the numbers rolled past faster than they should have done. I wasn’t counting, but at a rough guess, somewhere between a third and a half were no shows. And as I waited, three fairly basic lessons came to mind, applicable far beyond the post office

Modernising a service doesn’t necessarily make it better

Choosing an option on a touch screen which prints a numbered ticket has connotations of modernity which just standing in line in order of arrival altogether lacks.2 Being modern for the sake of doing things better is a very good thing. Being modern for the sake of appearing to be modern is not. Some aspects of the new way of doing things are undoubtedly better (people can sit while they are waiting, for example), but it’s not self-evident that the improvement is as overwhelming as the post office likes to think.

If there has to be a queue, the best thing to do is to make it visible

Shoes queuing for peopleWe would all prefer there not to be a queue. But if there has to be one, make it visible. That doesn’t have to be physically standing in order, smarter ways are possible too, as the picture shows.3 But whether it is a face to face interaction, a call centre or an order backlog, it is far better to know than not.


If you are going to give customers information, give them information which has some meaning

Telling me that there were 54 people ahead of me was at least an attempt to tell me something. But it suffers from the weakness that there is no easy way of converting what it is easy for the organisation to tell me to what I actually want to know. I wrote about two contrasting queues a few years back – one brilliantly managed, with visual queues supported by hard information about actual waiting times, and one which worked a bit differently:

If a customer had the temerity to ask how long they were going to have to wait, they were shown the pile of forms in the pending pile – which without knowledge of the number of staff on duty and the average time each one took to deal with, conveyed precisely no information whatsoever.  Similarly, ‘we are very busy at the moment, please hold until you can’t bear the tinny music any longer’ is dramatically less useful than ‘we are currently answering calls in six minutes’.

With the data the post office ticketing system already has, it ought to be pretty straightforward to create reasonably accurate predicted waiting times. The fact that that is not the information they choose to provide is quite telling.

Meanwhile, today the BBC is reporting a much more subversive idea on queue management: serving the first person in the queue last and the last first. Let’s hope nobody from the post office gets to read it.

  1. Strictly this is a consequence of how the information is published: it is tangling it up with the act of deciding whether to join the queue which does the damage.
  2. Or at least it’s supposed to. There is though nothing quite so dated as slightly tarnished novelty.
  3. It was doing the rounds on social media a little while ago and the trail to the original source seems to be dead. I found it on Reddit, so it could have come from anywhere.

Driving licences have been abolished. You may not have noticed.

Secure printing is on its way to being one of the casualties of the digital revolution. It hasn’t yet gone away of course, with bank notes remaining its apotheosis.1 There is a reason for that complexity and the costs which go with it, which is that fundamentally bank notes are self-authorising.

That used to be true for lots of other things as well, some of them quite banal. Even the humble MoT certificate was produced on special paper using special inks to make forgery more difficult, and had to be kept securely to reduce the risk of theft of blank certificates. All of that has gone. As I noted a few years ago:

The penny has dropped at VOSA that the MOT certificate is no longer a certificate in any meaningful sense, it’s a receipt:  the real value, and the thing which needs to be secured is the database entry.

The piece of paper you get at the end of an MoT test may be convenient, but it’s not authoritative, it’s one way (and not even the only way) of getting to what really matters, which is the entry on the database.

Now the same has happened to the driving licence – in practice, if not yet in theory. The oddity which was the paper counterpart of the plastic card driving licence has been abolished, presumably because it achieved the unfortunate combination of being inconvenient, expensive to maintain, and open to abuse. But the information which used to be printed on that piece of paper still has uses, so DVLA have provided an alternative. The simple bit is that it is an online, but printable, version of the paper counterpart (but without any of the complexity of keeping it up to date). The clever bit is that it comes with a single use validation code. The result is that a third party recipient – a car hire company or an employer – can have a trustworthy and up to date view of the driving record.

That’s not supposed to replace the driving licence, just to supplement it. But it goes further to making the actual driving licence pointless than it first appears. Given the choice between trusting a plastic card, albeit one with security features designed to protect its integrity, and trusting a scruffy bit of paper which can be directly validated against the underlying database, I’ll go for the piece of paper, every time.

That leaves the driving licence itself with only two remaining advantages. The first is that it has a photograph of the driver and the print out does not. But since the photograph is just another field on the database, it would be trivial to change (or to provide access to, for example, the police by another means). The second is the widespread use of driving licences as a quasi proof of identity in situations which have nothing to do with driving. Arguably that isn’t DVLA’s problem, but in any case that use will be overtaken by other approaches to identity management in the not too distant future.

It’s about fifteen years since I was first in a serious discussion about the abolition of tax discs.2 This year they have vanished. In another fifteen years, there will be a gap in your wallet where your driving licence used to be. But that will be just the final stage of a transition which has already begun.3

Driving licences have been abolished. There’s just a bit of tidying up to do now.

There’s a wider point worth noting too. This is a example of what a few years ago I called Cheshire cat government – ‘The best service is the one which disappears.’4 DVLA seem to be particularly good at abolishing things in a good way, a skill with potential application across government far beyond the world of motoring.

  1. The Bank of England boasts that the £20 note has nine security features, and no doubt there are a few more about which it is more circumspect.
  2. The question was serious, the response was fairly dismissive.
  3. Unless, of course, they have already gone because driving by humans has been abolished. But that’s another story.
  4. ‘Disappears’ doesn’t mean cut or abolished – people need to be licensed to drive, they don’t necessarily need a thing called a driving licence.

Interesting elsewhere – 17 July 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

The WTF Economy — Tim O’Reilly — Medium
Over the past few decades, the digital revolution has transformed the world of media, upending centuries-old companies and business models. Now, it is restructuring every business, every job, and every sector of society. No company, no job is immune to disruption.

I believe that the biggest changes are still ahead, and that every industry and every organization will have to transform itself in the next few years, in multiple ways, or fade away. We need to ask ourselves whether the fundamental social safety nets of the developed world will survive the transition, and more importantly, what we will replace them with.

Office, messaging and verbs — Benedict Evans
The way forward for productivity is probably not to take software applications and document models that were conceived and built in a non-networked age and put them into the cloud, or to make carbon copies of them as web apps. This is no different to using your PC to do the same things you used your typewriter for. And of course that is exactly how a lot of people used their PCs – to start with. Just as today we make web app copies of software models conceived for the floppy disk, so the first PCs were often used to type up memos that were then printed out and sent though internal mail. It took time for email to replace internal mail and even longer for people to stop emailing Word files as attachments. Equally, we went from typing expense forms (with carbon copies) to entering them into a Word doc version of the form, to a dedicated Windows app that looked just like the form, to a web page that looked just like the form – and then, suddenly, someone worked out that maybe you should just take a photo of the receipt. It takes time, but sooner or later we stop replicating the old methods with the new tools and find new methods to fit the new tools.

danah boyd | apophenia » I miss not being scared.
Is our society really worse off because youth take risks and adults don’t? Why are they wrong and us old people are right? Is it simply because we have more power? As more and more adults live long, fearful lives in Western societies, I keep thinking that we should start regulating our decision-making. Our inability to be brash is costing our society in all sorts of ways. And it will only get worse as some societies get younger while others get older. Us old people aren’t imagining new ways of addressing societal ills. Meanwhile, our conservative scaredy cat ways don’t allow youth to explore and challenge the status quo or invent new futures. I keep thinking that we need to protect ourselves and our children from our own irrationality produced from our fears.

Spaces of possibility | Catherine Howe
The redesign of physical spaces provides an opportunity to reimagine their surrounding digital space. I have been talking here of libraries but this is true of housing, or parks of any other kind of regeneration. My worry is that is if we don’t think about it then we risk ending up with a mish mash of smart vending machines, intelligent lampposts and clever video walls with generic content. These are all marvels in their own right but they don’t create a space for the community which they are designed to serve.

Some notes on Obama in Charleston | thenextwave
We make our own futures through our choices, if not under the circumstances of our choosing. While speeches rarely create change, they can crystallise it. They can help us choose. – the future of digital government
By applying the techniques of successful marketers and eCommerce businesses, digital can and should deliver more than efficiency savings for governments. It can improve outcomes by supporting behaviour change and ensuring that the right people access the right services at the right times. And it can improve trust and engagement between citizens and the public services and institutions that their taxes pay for.

The digital transformation illusion

This is something you see quite often as digital impinges on old-fashioned industries, that first of all digital makes the old product better, and then all of a sudden it creates a new product that kills the old product entirely. And so digital looks to begin with like everything’s going great, that it’s going to be wonderful, we’re going to make lots more money than we did before, and then all of a sudden, somebody comes along and crushes you.

That’s from Benedict Evan’s presentation, Mobile is eating the world which came out a few weeks ago and is as good as everybody says it is – well worth 25 minutes of your time.

The lines I have quoted (which come about twenty minutes in) are from a passage about the transition to digital photography, illustrated with data about camera sales. If you were making cameras in 2006, you were probably dizzy with the success of your transition to digital. But looking at the chart below, it’s hardly surprising that Kodak was getting out of the camera business altogether by early 2012.

Digital gives and it takes away

The problem for Kodak (among others) was not, of course, that everybody had stopped taking photographs, still less that they were abandoning digital.1 The problem was that there was a different way of getting to a better outcome (and a very different sense of what counted as a better outcome), a problem which the traditional companies could neither recognise nor counter.2

The disruptive effect of digital on government remains much debated (as does the very concept of digital government). How much of the current excitement – and achievement – of digital government is about making the old product better? And what might the new product be which will change the idea of government altogether?

We may think that we are delivering digital transformation. There may be clear evidence of change in the right direction. But others have thought that before and found that the transformation they thought they had achieved was at best a respite, and at worst an illusion.

  1. The previous slide in the presentation shows that more than ten times as many photographs were shared on social media in 2014 than were taken in total by consumers in 1999.
  2. The camera industry is not dead, or course – the chart itself shows that more digital cameras were sold in 2013 than film cameras were sold in any year ever.

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.


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.