Two worlds, not quite yet colliding

I went to two events yesterday.

The first was the launch of the Government Digital Service, or rather a housewarming party for their shiny new offices. In fine agile tradition, they put on a slick show and tell with short sharp presentations about their work and achievements topped and tailed by Francis Maude, Mike Bracken (who has blogged his account of the day), Martha Lane Fox (likewise) and Ian Watmore. There was an enthusiastic crowd of supporters twittering furiously and other blog posts are starting to appear [added 10/12 – and GDS has now posted the presentation material and links to press coverage] . The dress code was smart casual, with a lot more emphasis on the casual than the smart. There was a buzz, a sense of creativity and spontaneity, of energy and talent unleashed, of an approach which felt a million miles away from both the stereotype and the reality of government projects.

Frustratingly, I had to leave early to get to the second event.

That was a much more sombre affair, closed and closed in, in an anonymous Treasury meeting room. The programme I work on was being reviewed, to check that we are managing effectively and are on track to deliver. There was little that was casual, in dress or anything else. There were plans, business cases, critical paths, migration strategies, decommissioning strategies, privacy impact assessments and a pile of other stuff besides. There was pointed questioning on risks, affordability and resilience. I make no complaint about that. We are spending public money – rather a lot of public money – and we should be challenged and tested on whether the spending is wise and the results assured. The track record of large government projects is not so great that there is room for complacency. But it felt a very long way from the world of GDS.

That matters, because actually the two are very closely linked. They represent, in effect, different ways of thinking about the same problem, and have roots in some of the same people and ideas. And in recognising that, I suddenly realised that I had rediscovered a thought I had first had at a seminar I went to almost four years ago, where both approaches were represented, each largely talking past the other. Tom Steinberg, who spoke at the point of inflection between the two, memorably started by saying that he completely disagreed with everything which had been said in the first half, and that the solution to the problem of big blundering IT projects was to have small fleet of foot projects, not to find a cure for blundering. I reflected on the apparent tension then as I reflected today:

And then the penny dropped. The apparent gulf between the two parts of the seminar is itself the challenge.

We need to apply two different sets of disciplines (in both senses), in two separate domains:

  • An approach to the customer experience – both offline and online elements – which is flexible and responsive and which maximises its exposure to customer intelligence in order to do that
  • An approach to the supporting processes which is robust, consistent and correctly applies the full set of rules

The collective culture and skills of government are much more geared to the second than the first – and the risk is not just that we don’t do the first as well, but also that we can all too easily fail to spot the need to do it all. The first is where there is the greatest need for change, flexibility and responsiveness – and where tools and approaches are available to deliver that responsiveness. The second requires the hard grind of implementing big robust systems which do the transactional heavy lifting as invisibly as possible.

Of course the distinction isn’t an absolute one, and of course each domain needs to incorporate the key strengths of the other.  But if we confuse them, we are at risk of getting the worst of both worlds.

My view has changed in the four years since then. I no longer think they are two different domains, they are aspects of what should be intrinsic in any approach (though scale and purpose will drive balance and relative importance). But perhaps there is a risk that big projects are still too much trying to learn the lessons of the last decade and too little trying to anticipate the needs of the next. It is no longer enough for systems to work (though they do, of course, absolutely have to work); they must work well, and work well specifically for the people who will use them. Or, as Helen Milner reported Mike Bracken as saying at another event yesterday:

That makes a lot of sense to me, though only if it is understood that in this context function is an integral part of beauty (as Brian Hoadley rightly challenged).

Conversely though, it is not enough to make beautiful things, though, perhaps less obviously but no less necessarily, they do need to be beautfiul. It is essential that they work and work well too. Looked at one way, the core mission of GDS (and not just GDS) is to make beautiful things which work well. That means some of the values so apparent in the GDS event need to be more obvious in many other aspects of the work of government. We will have made great progress when discussions about projects in anonymous Treasury meeting rooms are more like the world of GDS. But as increasingly function begins to underpin beauty, it may also mean that the palest shadow of the Treasury meeting room also needs to fall across the sunny loft which is GDS.

One of the key tests of the success of GDS will be that when their turn comes to give an account of themselves in that room in Treasury, their approach is recognised and valued – and the work of every other project is being tested against it.  And another key test may be that that room will be a bit less anonymous, with its own wall of post-its and whiteboards.

Pictures by Paul Clarke

Comments

  1. Thoughtful post, and completely valid.

    Isn’t there a third world too? What happens when the cheery world of cloud, wireless, open source and Apple laptops is pored over by CESG. Will there also be a GDS-R?

    When do they take the top team down to Cheltenham to put the frighteners on them? And how does this bright new team balance the risk of “this is important so it must be restrictively protected” versus “the risk of being so security constrained we can never get big important things done fast and cost-effectively”.

  2. I wonder if Amazon would have something to teach the robust, consistent government world in the same way that Apple may be helping the flexible, responsive one.

    One of the possible ways to shift government away from consuming 40% of the economy, and our wealth, might be to look under the bonnet of its business structures/applications/models/processes.

    If GDS can save 82% of HM G’s original solution list price at slide 6 of 7 by Chris Chant here

    http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2011/12/09/presentations-from-gdslaunch/

    then HM Treasury may take the trouble to find their new offices and ask how ? Then the finance people might say,

    If it can be done for GDS, can we do it for HMRC, Rural Payments, DWP, NHS…. housing benefit, social care ?

    Is it small, rapid iterations for these clients as well ?

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