In the beginning were words

In what was, for me, the early period of e-government, I remember sitting in an attic in Whitehall (quite literally), reading the Cluetrain Manifesto which had been published a few months before, in April 1999.  It was an important book not because it marked the beginning of something – the internet and e-commerce were no longer new – but because it captured some of the critical characteristics of what was to come.

Its authors were not shy or self-deprecating.  They thought they had seen the future – and in many ways the future has shown them to have been right.  They started the book with 95 Theses – these were the first dozen:

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
  6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
  8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
  9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
  11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
  12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

“Markets are conversations” has since become a cliché, but it is a thought which is no less important for that.  In government, though, it has yet to become a cliché, because the power of the thought has barely been recognised at all.  Government still tends to default to monologues, not to conversations.

That happens at (at least) three levels.  The first and most obvious  is in the delivery of services  by government as service provider to users of those services (government as instantiation of the democratic will is a slightly different issue).   To be fair, most commercial service providers aren’t very good at this either, but enough do it well to show it can be done.

The second is in the design and delivery of services – again between government and service users.  Trying to get a deep understanding of what people want and need and of how they want and need it is also still relatively immature in government. 

The third conversation is the one among the designers and deliverers of services – and is in some ways the least mature of all.  There is no possibility of joining up services without the providers of the separate services talking to each other.  There is no possibility of developing a shared understanding of the customer as a precursor to addressing the full range of their needs without those who have fragments of that understanding having a conversation about how to fit different pieces of customer insight together.

It is that third conversation which is the prompt for this post.  From the outside, central government can look monolithic.  From the inside, it can often feel balkanised.  The conversation fails to start, or starts and quickly peters out because the forces of fragmentation are greater than the forces of integration.  That has real and important consequences.  It leads to the endless proliferation of websites and the consequent lack of coherence or critical mass.  It leads to solutions which are seen as competitive rather than collaborative and the consequent cost of repeated reinvention of wheels.

That’s not a new insight, nor, I suspect, a particularly controversial one.  There has been a number of attempts over the years to address the problem, some more successful than others, but none so far which has made systematic and sustained progress to the sense of common purpose and endeavour which is arguably the only possible foundation for addressing the symptoms.

Those who seek to facilitate the third conversation are therefore making a contribution which they may not understand themselves and which is unlikely to be fully appreciated by those whom they seek to influence.  It may be easier to facilitate the conversation as a challenging outsider than as a reforming insider – though in the end it is only those who are or who become insiders who can deliver the necessary change.  So the challenging outsider can be an invaluable catalyst, allowing the bigger reaction to happen.

All of that takes us to Ideal Government – an inspiring mixture of the faintly despairing and the fundamentally optimistic.  It is a thoughtful examination of ways in which government is not working well mixed with constructive suggestions of how it might do better.  It has generated the Public Office, which seeks to take the conversation from the third category to the second.  And it is wondering where it should go from here.

My answer has two parts.  The first is pretty obvious from what I have said so far:  it’s the conversation.  The conversation has started and is a powerful one but even now has not yet fully broken out into the mainstream (as another Ideal Government post illustrates with horrible clarity).  So the second part of the answer is the adoption curve.  In the terms of the classic diffusion of innovations approach, we are moving from the innovators to the early adopters, but it’s hard to argue that we have reached even the early majority.  Until that has happened, it isn’t surprising that decisions, policies and systems are still being based on the foundation of the traditional approaches not the new ones.  There is bound to be a lag, and it has strong tendencies to be a long one.

So what does Ideal Government – and all those interested in government being more ideal – need to do?

  • continue the conversation among themselves – but more explicitly for the purpose of creating energy and enthusiasm for taking the conversation wider
  • recognise that even now, all this is still a minority sport – which means that working out who falls in to the next few percentiles (and then the next and the next and the next…) is pretty important.  Focusing now on the 98th percentile will lead to tears – ours, not theirs
  • recognising that some interests are shared – but not all are.  Suppliers to government, for example, often have great insights (because they too stand outside in a potentially helpful way), but also have a huge investment in the current model.  Theirs can sometimes be an overlapping conversation – but it is not the same one.
  • receive the thanks of a grateful nation.  But they might have to wait a bit for that.