Locally centralising the centrally local

Seen from a certain distance, local government looks untidy and inefficient. The same functions are replicated hundreds of times over. There is limited scale efficiency of operations. Boundaries create anomalies and inconsistencies. So it must make sense to join it all up, to standardise, to have common platforms and common tools. The counter-argument is that that perspective misses out the fact that local government is, well, local. Place matters. Priorities differ. And as both result and cause, there is a political dimension to local government which is quite different from the politics of national government. And so the debate rumbles on.

Its latest incarnation is the idea that there should be much greater integration of local government online services as a way of bringing the overall standard to a much higher level, an argument sometimes framed as the need for a GDS for local government. Harry Metcalfe and Alex Blangry have written a powerful polemic (with some useful pointers to other contributions to the debate) which concludes with a call for revolution:

I think it is hard to argue that local government, Parliament, the NHS and housing are much further along than where central government was in 2011: small pockets of excellence in a sea of business as usual. Small incremental changes are just that: small and incremental. As the user experience of these parts of a citizen’s online life falls behind the rest of the internet, can anything less than a complete revolution in approach be appropriate?

That’s all very well, but just what is it that might need revolutionising? Sarah Prag (newly moved from GDS to a more local world, so well qualified to judge) is clear that there needs to be a more specific question with more specific answers – a shopping list not a monolith. She lists 16 things GDS does which you might – or might not – want to replicate for local government, ranging from limitless cake and bunting to a shared publishing platform. As an indirect response to that, Richard Pope tries to break down the questions, rather than the possible answers. From his list, three strike me as getting to the essence of the issue:

Geography is core. The information and services that local government provides are often inherently geographical in a way that central government is not.

Democracy and power matter. Local governments are independently elected to provide services, in a way that separate government departments are not.

The same problem is being solved many times over, or, at least a set of very similar problems, are being solved by each local authority. And that is just an obvious frustration and inefficiency.

That’s all good stuff, but it brings me back to the starting point of Sarah’s post, where she asks:

There’s been a lot of renewed chat recently (see below) about “a GDS for local government’ or “GOV.UK for local government” but I’m curious about what people really mean when they use these terms. What is it that “GDS” represents in these conversations – a central team of specialists? A set of standards? A publishing platform? A mandate? All of the above?

The one I want to focus on – and which is the real purpose of this post – is the mandate. In sixteenth place on Sarah’s list of things a local GDS might want to copy from the central one comes:

A mandate to force through change, backed by a senior minister

GDS did not begin the search for coherent, consistent, user-focused, efficient government online services, and it may be that we need to look further back for some of the lessons. Directgov did not manage to become gov.uk, and one of the reasons for that, certainly in the early days when I had most to do with it, was the lack of commitment and hard cash from departments. Even when it did work, questions such as how to manage the structure and editorial voice of the whole with the sometimes divergent priorities, approaches and tone of the parts were never fully resolved. GDS has benefited from a political willingness to be centralist about this in a way which hadn’t existed before. Without that, trying to make progress with a small number of central government departments under common political leadership was very hard. It seems unlikely that making progress with a much larger number of local authorities with varied and competitive political leadership would be any easier. Aiming at a GDS for local government and achieving (at best) a Directgov might not be quite the breakthrough the Jacobins have in mind. Harry and Alex think they have the solution to that one:1

Sometimes in this sector, the only way to change things is with primary legislation and a big stick. It’s important to bring everyone along on the journey, but without a few bruised egos, the journey is unlikely even to begin.

I may be being unfair, but a call for legislation in this context feels more like a cry of despair than a practical solution. Demanding change to hearts and minds by edict tends to be more attractive to authors of edicts than to owners of hearts and minds.

I don’t have a simple answer, or indeed any answer, to the question of where the mandate should come from or whose mandate it should be. That may be a failure of knowledge or imagination on my part, or may mean that there isn’t an easy solution waiting to be found. But I do have three thoughts about how to frame the problem in a way which may make it easier to to work towards a solution.

Symptoms and causes

The first thought is that we need to be clear about what are symptoms and what are causes. That matters because tackling a cause is likely to change the symptoms, while focusing on the symptoms is less likely to have an effect on the underlying cause. A joined up government can produce a single website more easily than a single website can produce a joined up government. So not for the first time, the digital symptom is at risk of being mistaken for the underlying cause. Maybe it would be better if local government were less local, but if that were the underlying problem, the approach to digital service design and delivery would be a consequence of that, not a way of achieving it.

It’s not iterative if you only do it once

The one heroic surge view of history is always attractive, but it’s almost never complete. GDS in part represents radical change and discontinuity, but it is also in a part a clear successor to what went before:

The innovation of gov.uk does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago. The innovation of gov.uk lies instead in taking brilliant advantage of a moment in time – a political, technical, financial and personal concatenation which was never quite in place before.

The fact that gov.uk is the third generation single central government website doesn’t mean that it would take another fifteen year trek through the wilderness to get to the promised land for local digital delivery. But it should, perhaps, prompt the question of what the stages might be and how those stages should build up towards the goal – and critically what a good first step could be which heads in the right direction. The idea that a local GDS could somehow be conjured fully formed out of thin air is more than a little unrealistic. As so often with policy development, the question is not whether there is a better place. It is whether you can get there from here.

Layers and scope

This debate is often framed in all or nothing terms. It’s nonsensical to develop the same systems hundreds of times over, let’s just standardise on one. It’s absurd to impose a single one size fits nobody solution on authorities with different needs and different priorities, let’s resist any kind of standardisation.2

A better answer might come from breaking the question down. There almost certainly isn’t a single right answer for everything here, the question is where the efficiency of standardisation outweighs the value of local variation. That may well vary within individual services – to take one fairly random example, the processing of parking tickets needs very little variation, the work patterns of the wardens who issue them needs more to ensure that they maximise the effectiveness of their interventions, and engagement with people to decide how parking should be managed in my street is intensely local.

My starting assumption would be that a common design for case processing could be useful but a common design for local engagement wouldn’t.3 Whether or not that’s the right answer, though, is much less important than that it strongly suggests that there isn’t a single answer which is right.

From questions to answers to questions

All of that may seem like a slow and laborious way to reach not much of a conclusion. But that should almost be a virtue in this context. What this debate strongly suggests is that a single grand plan with an all-encompassing approach to delivery is unlikely to work. That in turn has something to do with the fact that without a clear objective, there is no benefit in a having a grand plan. It’s possible that a local GDS is the right solution to a problem – but I have yet to see a clear statement of what that problem is or of why it would be the best solution. In the end, it may be less important to understand how a local GDS would work than to understand why it would work.

  1. And extra points for getting ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ into a blog post about local government digital services.
  2. Apart from the fact that there may well not be anybody who takes a position quite as extreme as either of these, it’s also worth bearing in mind that in practice for many services there is a small number of IT suppliers with a very large share of the market, so there is substantial but incomplete de facto standardisation.
  3. Though a common toolkit to support varied local engagement is another matter altogether.

Digital is political

Governments govern. Oppositions oppose – or, more positively, present an alternative set of policies based on an alternative political perspective. Political initiatives taken by one government will be looked at critically by its potential successors, for the obvious reason that the decisions embodied in those initiatives will have been taken by people with different political goals, different political instincts and in a different political context.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that every decision taken by one government is overturned by the next. It does mean that new policies and new institutions created by one government are likely to be looked at closely by parties with the ambition to form the next government, and mere assertions of the virtues of those policies by third parties are unlikely to be persuasive. Some policies survive that scrutiny and go on to be part of the shared understanding of what governments do and how they do it. Others do not.

And that brings us to a little flurry of concern yesterday about a Computer Weekly article on a Labour party review of digital government, with a headline which proclaims

GDS becomes political as Labour launches digital government review

I am not interested, for this purpose, in whether the questions said to be covered in that review are good questions or whether the right assumptions are being made about what the best answers might be. What I am interested in about the article and some of the commentary round it is two points.

The first is the implication that a review by Labour politicises something which was previously apolitical. The second is that it is somehow illegitimate to question the government’s digital policy in general and GDS in particular. Behind them both is the idea that there is an objectively correct policy which, once found, should transcend politics. That matters not just because it is wrong – though it is (as I argued in much more detail in a post last year) – but because it sets up the wrong kind of argument.

GDS is a creature of the current government and is the result of decisions by its ministers. Those decisions were made in the context of a set of political views and priorities. That doesn’t make GDS itself a political organisation, it doesn’t mean that those who work there share the ideological framework of its political creators, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the only possible justification for what it does and how it does it is in terms of that ideological framework. But it does mean that the existence of GDS is and always has been political, in the same sense that every other policy and its implementation is political.

Should Labour come to power after the next election, the people in GDS will carry on implementing the policy of the government of the day, because that’s what civil servants do. That policy may be to continue on the current path. It may be to adjust it marginally – to prioritise the development of one service over another, for example. Or it may be to change the approach more radically, perhaps to the extent of changing what GDS does or dispensing with it altogether. Whatever it is, civil servants will do their best to make it happen, again because that’s what civil servants do. It’s not the job of anybody in GDS to express a preference between a government by – or the policies of – one party rather than another, so they won’t.

That doesn’t stop anybody else, of course, from attempting to persuade any party they choose of any policy they choose to advocate, including the policy of not changing the current policy. On the contrary, doing so is also a vital part of the political process.

The potential mistake is not in having a view that the Labour party should have a digital policy which is broadly a continuation of the policy of the present government.1 It is not even in having a view that policy continuity in this area itself has value. The mistake is in claiming that such a policy would somehow be less political than any other. It might be less politically contentious, but that isn’t at all the same thing.

“I want to take the politics out of this” is often a way of saying “I want to make it illegitimate to challenge the status quo”. Politics is the art of making public choices, and we do not make an issue less political by denying that there are choices involved.

Technology is not neutral. Service design is not neutral. Decisions about priorities and resources are not neutral. There are some important questions facing the future government – any future government – about where digital goes next. The decisions and priorities of 2015 (to say nothing of 2020) will not be those of 2010. The Computer Weekly article and commentary by Alex Blandford and Matthew Cain all make good points about what the issues are and how they should be thought about. There are debates to be had, and we all benefit if well-informed people take part in those debates and influence their direction.

But those debates are intrinsically political, because digital is political.

  1. Though I am not expressing an opinion myself one way or the other.

The phoenix and the constitution

It is hard to change constitutions – deliberately so.  It is hard to re-engineer physical infrastructure – intrinsically so.  It is hard to stop and start again from scratch.

Every decision and every context in which those decisions are made is the product of what has gone before, even when in another sense they may be radical and innovative. The past is deeply embedded in the present. The choices available today are heavily constrained by the choices made by those who went before us – sometimes a very long time before us. That sometimes makes things complicated which seem as though they should be much simpler, and sometimes means that there is no practical solution even when it seems obvious that one should be possible.

Some of that is technical. There is an old story of how the dimensions of the space shuttle were constrained by the design of Roman chariots.  That is alas discredited, but less extreme examples are all too real. Tube train showing tight fit with tunnel walls The design of tube trains in the twenty-first century is massively constrained by the decisions made about tunnel diameters in the nineteenth. Of course in theory it would be possible to rebore all the tunnels and replace all the trains – but it seems slightly more likely that we will all finally get personal jetpacks than that will happen.

This problem is not limited to heavy engineering. In many sectors (banking, air travel and government come to mind) even the most apparently modern of systems may rest on foundations going back decades. Nor are the limitations the past imposes on the present necessarily as obvious as the diameter of a tunnel. Charles Stross sums up the broader issue with examples ranging from which side of the road we drive on, through weaknesses in computer languages, to which drugs are made illegal, and makes the critical point that

Part of the problem is that we build rafts of infrastructure on top of existing design decisions. Which means that fixing a bad decision requires the abandonment of lots of stuff that depends on it.

In all those cases, it is pretty clear that we are dealing with constraints and that those constraints do in fact constrain. Providing for potential future change can be expensive in the real world of heavy engineering, and it is understandable that not much of it is done.

Single carriageway road crossed by bridge with spans for two carriageways.

There are two very obvious reasons for that.  The first is that building things for which there is no immediate need costs immediate money but provides no immediate benefits. The second is that there can generally be no guarantee that what is provided for will turn out to be what is needed. Parts of the pre-war German Autobahn network were built as single carriageway roads, but with bridges and other infrastructure ready for a second carriageway. East of the iron curtain, those second carriageways were a long time coming, and driving along those shadowy half motorways remained a faintly surreal experience decades later. The road in the picture above was finally upgraded just a few years ago – but the original carriageway was demolished, not reused.

It should be easier where there is no requirement to dig holes or pour concrete, but the basic difficulties are similar in heavy computing to those in heavy engineering: you can’t easily take account of future technological developments, and once you have built it, it’s difficult and expensive to move. Even if system architects in the 60s and 70s had understood and extrapolated Moore’s law for thirty years, that would have done nothing to change the immediate costs of memory, storage and processing they faced, and the practical consequences would have been non-existent.  That’s less true now in some important ways, but complex established systems are still hard to change. As so often, it may well be clear that there is a better alternative, but very unclear how to get there from here. The principle of designing for future flexibility is largely accepted, even if the practical obstacles are substantial. And even though the new stuff may be easier, the problem of the installed base has certainly not gone away.

And if we take all this up a level again, it becomes an issue for social and organisational change. Cultures, products and processes can atrophy just as surely as engineering solutions.

Most big companies deal with the issue, sooner or later, by going bust or being taken over. Those which don’t can end up in a very different business from the one they started in – it’s been a while since Sony had rice cookers at the centre of its product range.

Governments are not immune to this either, though the stability of governments and governmental systems obviously varies enormously too. But perhaps uniquely in government, there is a strong body of opinion that making design decisions which constrain adaptability to future change is a good thing not a bad thing. The US constitution is a particularly striking example of this effect: its continuity and consistency have taken it through a form of transmutation, where constitutional law becomes increasingly akin to scriptural exegesis. It is for most practical purposes unchangeable: all political decision making has to be built on top of design decisions made over two hundred years ago. A striking illustration of both the short term and the long term stability of the constitution comes from the fact that the most recent amendment went into force over twenty years ago, in 1992 – having been submitted to the states for ratification in 1789. To put it mildly, none of that is seen as a weakness of the US political system by those subject to it: there is no clamour of which I am aware for a new constitutional settlement.1

The point here is not whether the specific provisions of that or any other constitution are good or bad, nor indeed whether having a formal written constitution in the first place is itself a good or bad thing. It is whether constitutions – or anything else – should be designed to constrain the choices of future generations to decide matters. I am not against the idea of constitutions – in the UK context, I quite like the idea of a Constitutional Consolidation Act – or against the idea that they should not be casually changed. But I am not persuaded that I know more about the situation or needs of people fifty or a hundred years in the future than those people will know at that time.

In practice, few constitutions enjoy either the formal continuity of the US system or the informal continuous accretion of the UK approach. The number of countries without a radical constitutional discontinuity over the last century or two is pretty small, and the phoenix approach to constitutional change, of letting the old one burn up and creating a new one from the ashes is probably the most common way of doing it.  But systems so brittle that you can only change them by having a revolution are hardly ideal. My simple solution to the problem of over rigid constitutions is to time limit them. Fifty years sounds about right to me – but of course each constitution would need to contain the conditions for its expiry, since there is no more certainty about the longevity of that approach than of the underlying constitution itself.

That’s not going to happen, of course. In principle forcing the system to refresh itself would allow small issues to be identified and addressed before they got large enough to threaten the whole system, but this is classic innovator’s dilemma territory, so we can be pretty sure that those threatened by change would fail to see the need for it and would have the power to obstruct it, applying what Kevin Kelly has called the Shirky principle:

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

So the challenge for designers of roads, railways, constitutions and IT systems remains. Current needs must be met. Future needs must be anticipated, in the certain knowledge that our understanding of what they are decays progressively with time. And above all, the fact that there will be future needs which cannot be anticipated must be anticipated.

Tube picture by Ian Rory licensed under Creative Commons. Berlinka picture from www.goerke.us

  1. Update May 2014:  Eric Posner has since written on this point in much more detail, concluding that the most needed amendment to the US constitution is to make it easier to make constitutional amendments – which is probably impossible without already having done it.

If you want to change the system, you have to change the system

If you want to change a system, you have to understand the system you want to change. If you want to reform the civil service, you have to understand why it is the way it is. Part of that is undoubtedly about its internal structures, operations and cultures, but part of it – and a much bigger part than is immediately obvious – is the way it is because other parts of the system are the way they are. Perhaps the biggest of those is the political dimension, both ministerial and parliamentary, which is a huge influence at every level of the civil service.

That symbiosis is not a problem. On the contrary, political oversight of a non-political civil service is fundamental to its legitimacy. But its existence means that changing the way the civil service works without considering how it influences and is influenced by ministers and others is likely to have unintended consequences. The connection is acknowledged in the reform plan:

Overall, the culture and behaviours of the Civil Service must become pacier, more flexible, focused on outcomes and results rather than process. It must encourage innovation and challenge the status quo, and reward those who identify and act to eradicate waste. Achieving this change in any organisation is difficult, but it is especially difficult in one that is dispersed and organised into separate departments and agencies, and one that operates in a political, parliamentary and media environment that seizes on mistakes but seldom champions operational success. It is vital to engage and empower staff, and to create a dynamic and flexible career path.

The recognition that culture and behaviours are affected by environment is important and welcome. But the corollary also needs to be recognised, that if the culture and behaviour is to change, the environment may need to change too. To take just one example, I have argued before that there is no such thing as the government, and the fragmentation described there is not just a historical accident of civil service organisational structures, but is at least as much to do with ministerial responsibilities and the workings of cabinet government.

The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.

If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.

 

 

Should the long tail wag the dog?

The burial of human remains at sea requires a marine licence.

That must be one of the more arresting first lines of any government web page. Its combination of human tragedy and bureaucratic process packs a lot into eleven words.

You won’t find that line, or anything else on the subject, at Directgov. That’s neither surprising nor perhaps unreasonable. Very few bodies are buried at sea – exact numbers are hard to come by, but estimates are in tens a year, a tiny proportion of the half million or so deaths each year in the UK.

The line instead comes from the website of an organisation little known, I suspect, to non-specialists, the Marine Management Organisation, the core purpose of which has little to do with the disposal of corpses. But getting a licence for burial at sea is without doubt a government service directed at individuals, so in principle it should be found where other such services are to be found, which in the not too distant future means the single government domain. I have no imminent expectation of finding it there (and make no criticism that it won’t be). But it is worth asking why that should be and what it tells us about government more generally.

Back in the early days of e-government, there was a target to get all government services online. Increasing the numerator would help achieve the target, but then so would decreasing the denominator. Creating a definitive list of relevant services was the only way of preventing a percentage score from drifting about uncontrollably. Burial at sea was often the example used in the largely pointless debates which ensued. It was a good example, because it brought together two separate issues:  was this a service which anybody was every likely to want to do online; and were there enough of them to justify putting it online at all?

Entirely expectedly, government information and services follow a Zipf distribution, made famous by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail (but applied to websites at least as early as 1997): there is a small number of things which get an enormous amount of attention, and there is an enormous number of things which get a small – sometimes a vanishingly small – amount of attention. Two lessons are often drawn from that: one good and one potentially very bad.

The good one is that there is great value in identifying the things which most people want to do most of the time, and ensure that they can do them easily and efficiently. The potentially bad one is to assume that the rest doesn’t matter and either ignore it or delete it.

In the physical world, it is more or less essential to cut off the distribution.  A good bookshop won’t just rely on best sellers, but equally there will be a limit to the number of titles it can stock which only sell one or two copies a year. Amazon, with warehouse fulfilment, can do much better than that, and it has been estimated that 37% of their revenue in 2008 came from sales of books ranked below 100,000.* It would be supreme folly for Amazon to announce one day that they were rebuilding their web presence and would henceforward only cover the top 100,000 titles.

Government is not Amazon. Web pages are not books. Analogies are flawed. And yet.

The question of how the government’s web presence should be culled and curated is not a new one. It has been around in various forms since the earliest days of e-government, documented perhaps most clearly and consistently by Alan Mather. At least as far back as 2003 (and actually well before then)  he had a strategy which looked uncannily like that of  the single government domain:

  • Fewer websites not more. Kill 50 websites for every new domain name.
  • Less content not more. Delete five (or fifty, or five hundred) pages for every page you write.
  • Solve the top 50 questions that citizens ask … and structure your content around those first. Then do the next 50 and the next. The people who know these questions are the ones that answer the phone in your call centres, the ones that write in to your agency and the ones that visit your offices for help; likewise, they visit accountants, advice bureau, charities and so on.
  • Test search engines to see how your site ranks – both from a mindshare side and for individual queries.
  • Impose rigorous discipline on use of “words” – plain speak.
  • Impose even more rigorous discipline on the structure of the content, including metadata so that it’s easy to read – by people and by search engines.

Or in other words, start at the top of the Zipf distribution, and work systematically along until you stop. Tom Loosemore has a pithier version which means much the same:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/tomskitomski/status/111007350210576384"]

Taken as expressed, it’s hard to disagree with the approach Tom and his team are taking. But a great deal hangs on the word ‘superfluous’. In this context, I think it is being used to mean two quite distinct things, but risks treating them as one. The first is rot, decay and duplication. Too much money is being spent very inefficiently to maintain – or all too often to fail to maintain – information which is poorly organised, hard to find, badly maintained and structured round what organisations do, not what people need. The second is obscure specialisation: there is a vast amount of information which most people don’t want or need and won’t ever want or need, and its existence makes it harder for the important stuff to shine through.

Focusing on an ‘irreducible core’ is a very good way of tackling the first problem, but risks overlooking the second. Whether that is a bad thing is a contingent question which is not inherently an easy one to answer, and which potentially raises some awkward questions about the singularity of the single government domain. There are three basic options:

  1. Everything goes into the single pan-government site
  2. Popular and important stuff goes into the single pan-government site and the rest goes somewhere else
  3. Popular and important stuff goes into the single pan-government site and the rest doesn’t go anywhere

To an extent this is (or can be made to be) a matter of timing – pursuing Alan’s idea of tackling the problem in fifty-question chunks. But even with that approach, sooner or later we get to the question of whether enough is enough. In order to know that, we need to understand two things.  The first is the value to users of the long tail  – government’s version of Amazon’s 37%. If it is high, or to the extent that it is high, the choice is between options 1 and 2. Neither is entirely attractive: option 1 risks compromising the quality and clarity of the much smaller set of key services; option 2 creates a messy boundary and breaks the principle that there is one place to go. If though the value to users of the long tail, or some furthest reach of it, is relatively low, the choice is between options 1 or 2 and 3. And if option 3 is even to be considered for some subset of information that might otherwise have been included, that raises a very big question.

Luckily, GDS is full of exceptionally smart people (and now even fuller) and better still, they have invented the needotron. That’s the right systematic approach – but I will be fascinated to see whether they find a way of creating the right long tail, and of stopping the tail being so unwieldy that it trips up the dog.

*These numbers are hard to make intuitive sense of. Amazon are currently claiming to have ‘over 750,000′ books available for the kindle, which sounds like more than enough for anyone – yet I regularly find that the books I actually want to buy are not among them.

Civility in service

It really is quite simple.

If you wouldn’t have said it before there were social media, don’t say it now just because there are.

If you work for an organisation, don’t be rude about its leaders, products or policies in public.

Don’t imagine that online anonymity is an invisibility cloak.

If you work in the public sector, social media does not remove the politics from the politically contentious.

None of that is new. None of that should be even faintly surprising. There are ways in which online is another world. These rules are not among them.

But it still happens. Civil servants should understand the constraints they accept as part of the job. They – and everybody else – should understand the limitations on public speech (not quite the same thing) which are part of the deal.

Now there is reported (from a slightly unlikely source) a new case of somebody allegedly using twitter to make inappropriate political comments.  As reported, that sounds remarkably like the Civil Serf affair in 2008.

Why is this hard? The excuse that social media are too new for anyone really to know the rules is wearing a bit thin.  But I do think – as I wrote last time some of these issues came up – that twitter can be particularly beguiling, precisely because it plays so many different roles:

For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once.

But while that may explain, it does not explain away or justify.

In the end, it really is quite simple.

On being private in public

From the random juxtaposition of things in a feed reader come two posts, one human and passionate, the other dry and analytical, each illuminating the other.

Here first is Julian Sanchez writing about The Trouble With “Balance” Metaphors:

Legal scholar Dan Solove, for instance, argues forcefully that “privacy” is not a monolithic value defined by any singular essence, but a cluster concept defined instead by overlapping family resemblances. (The classic example from Wittgenstein is the idea of a “game,” instances of which range from football to chess to Myst to the unstructured pretend-play of Cops and Robbers.) In Solove’s schema, privacy encompasses an array of quite different interests: Colloquially speaking, we recognize that one’s privacy may be violated by physical intrusion on the seclusion of the home, by the disclosure of sensitive or embarrassing personal facts, by the denial of autonomy to make intimate medical or sexual decisions, by the mere knowledge that one’s actions (even one’s “public” actions) are being systematically monitored and recorded, by having one’s image (again, even an ordinary photograph snapped on a public street) plastered on billboards and television without one’s consent. The point is not, of course, that the law should forbid all these things; merely that we find it perfectly intelligible to describe each as, in some sense, an incursion on privacy.

And here is Sarah Baskerville, still reeling from having her world exploded by the Daily Mail:

I do not live in the public limelight, nor do I actively court the media circus. I do not consider myself to be fair game. I am a private citizen and have rights as such not to have my life plastered across the tabloids. If however I had done something that merited press intrusion (murder, fame, terrorism, espionage etc) then I would consider myself to be “fair game”… however merely owning a blog and Twitter account, being an active user of Social Media does not make one “fair game”. Publishing on the internet/social media platforms is not the same as being published in the national press.

So two views collide. The law does not forbid reference – even critical and distorted reference – to material which has been freely published and is available to all who choose to see it. But that sense of what is legally permissible does not align with what many instinctively feel about their relationship with social media, that despite its technical openness it retains some form of social privacy. Sanchez’ point, though, is an important one:  there is an essential difference between saying that the Daily Mail should not have published and that it should not be allowed to publish, or should be punished for having published. But more important in this context is that argument in reverse:  the fact that something is legal does not make it right.

Complaints choirs – the album

This is a great day for everybody who has been on tenterhooks for the last four years after watching the Helsinki Complaints Choir in action. I have just discovered that a dvd plus no fewer than three cds of complaints choirs from around the world is about to be released.

For those too eager to wait or who may be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of material, you can already get volume 1 from emusic or spotify, and all the audio tracks from Amazon with songs and choirs from Wrocław to Wolfenbüttel, via Juneau and Tokyo.

If you know a service designer, a customer insight expert or a complaints handler, your christmas present problems are solved. For your musician friends, though, you may want to look elsewhere.

And if you are a service provider, think about the gift of feedback and how it can be better built into your service. Maybe next year we should look out for Patient Opinion karaoke…

Social and civil – Public Strategist reaches 500

If a major objective of this blog were to be anonymous, it would have failed catastrophically. The power of google is such that searching on my name now gives this blog as the first result, despite the fact that my name does not appear anywhere in it. I doubt that it would take a moderately industrious and moderately web savvy individual more than a few minutes to make the connection even if they didn’t have a name to start with. Even my mother found her way here (hello!) without my ever having hinted that there was a blog to look for (for the avoidance of doubt, she did know my name to start with).

From time to time I toy with dropping this increasingly threadbare pseudonymity. Each time – including this time – I have decided not to, precisely because this blog is pseudonymous rather than anonymous. Over time, I have planted increasingly obvious clues around the web, which is no doubt one reason why google can pull off its party trick, but I have drawn the line at how this blog identifies itself.

The basic reason remains the one I started with several years ago:

Public Strategist is pseudonymous not to hide behind a cloak of anonymity but to underline a distinction between an individual and an institution.

That distinction is important to me because I am a civil servant, and there is a responsibility which goes with that to be impartial, to avoid politically controversial issues, and not to abuse the confidence of those I work with.  I deal with that by writing only rarely directly about the matters which occupy my working day, and when I do I wrap them in such obfuscation that even I find it hard to disentangle. I have no intention of changing that.

So why, you might wonder, do I bother mentioning it all?  There are two reasons.  One is that this is the 500th post on this blog, which feels like quite a milestone and encourages a bit of introspection.

The second, and less felicitous, reason is that that milestone coincides with attacks by the tabloid press on Sarah Baskerville for her personal online activities. I wrote a piece on that as the storm broke and many others have come to her defence. I don’t want to repeat or add to that directly. But it is worth thinking about the general question of where the lines should be drawn, so that bloggers, tweeters and, critically, their managers know where they stand

That of course presupposes that there is a line.  I think there should be no doubt that there is one – or rather that there are two. That does not mean that in practice they are either clearly visible or sharply focused. It does mean though that the interesting question is where they are to be drawn. The core issues are organisational loyalty and political impartiality and the real questions are whether anybody should feel free to use social media to comment on and criticise their employing organisation and whether the answer to that should be different for people working for elected politicians. There is nothing new about any of that: the thing which is new is the context in which those judgements are made.

Users of social media are in a difficult middle ground in which social norms have not yet fully formed. Interactions are often conversational and immediate, informal and spontaneous. But they are also recorded, broadcast and archived and can be received far away in time, space and – critically – context from the place where they were transmitted. For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once. I am no better placed to delineate that frontier than anybody else, though there are some clear principles which take us quite a long way.

The central one is set out in the Civil Service Code, which as of last week has a statutory underpinning in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The section on political impartiality states:

14. You must:

  • serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
  • act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
  • comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.

What restrictions on political activities might those be? There’s a detailed answer in the Civil Service Management Code (section 4.4 if you are curious), which defines two relevant variables: national or local and politically restricted or not. Essentially, more senior people are ‘politically restricted’ and may not take part in national political activities and need permission for local political activities. Notionally there are ‘politically free’ people who can do anything, but I suspect that most of the jobs in that category have been outsourced for years. In between there is a large group who are neither of the first two, but for whom there doesn’t seem to be a name. They need permission for either national or local activities, though there is provision for block exemptions.

And what are the political activities which might be restricted? The relevant bit in this context is in para 4.4.1:

Speaking in public on matters of national [or local as appropriate] political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets.

All that provides the appearance of clarity, but not necessarily the precision one might hope for, as is often the way with guidance. For a start the activities described in 4.4.1 have a slightly faded air to them. The general point is, however clear: civil servants do have to accept limitations on their political speech which do not apply to others.  So when Adrian Short tweets that ‘In short, political neutrality isn’t the same as clerical celibacy’ I think he is wrong: for at least some of us, that is pretty much exactly what it is.

But even if we were to sweep all that aside, would that imply that there were no limits? I don’t think so  In a comment on my earlier post, Ian says that, ‘This case has great similarities with Civil Serf in DWP case’.  I don’t think that’s right at all.  On the contrary, Civil Serf’s case shows some very important diferences from Sarah Baskerville. She was a civil servant in DWP who wrote an anonymous blog about her work, including passages commenting directly on both policies and ministers. She got some critical press coverage early in 2008, and her blog was completely and rapidly vanished.  As I said when reflecting on her case at the time:

I think there are some pretty clear rules of the game here, most of which are not specific to the public sector – though the iron law applies, here as elsewhere, that something happening in the public sector is intrinsically more newsworthy than the same thing happening in the private sector.

There is an entirely reasonable expectation of confidence about the internal operations of the organisation.  Not all of them, not about everything, but any organisation needs some shared assumptions and expectations about what is internal and what can be shared externally.  The argument that more should be shared externally doesn’t change that:  the question of degree is not the same as the question of principle.  We wouldn’t expect a manufacturing company to be happy to cede decision making on the timing of new product announcement to the whims of bloggers within the company, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect ministers to be any more tolerant of civil servants opinionating about future policy announcements.  For civil servants, particularly those working directly with or close to ministers, an acceptance of constraints on what would otherwise be perfectly legitimate political activities is a basic part of the deal.  Anybody who doesn’t like that is free to follow Clare Short’s example and switch trades.

What Sarah has demonstrated – as have many public sector bloggers – is that it is possible to be open, human, informed and informative while at the same time respecting both organisational confidence and the particular constraints of being part of a non-political public service.  On the evidence I have (admittedly very incomplete, particularly for Civil Serf), Sarah’s activities were proper, in a way Civil Serf’s simply were not.  I think that that is broadly encouraging (though some think I am foolishly optimistic): there are boundaries, but they do not make a straitjacket and there is no shortage of good things we can do within them. Not everything will be easy, not every choice will be clear, but there is scope to apply passion pace and pride here – and professionalism too.

Getting social with media

Three years ago, Owen Barder was the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for his blog. It caught my attention partly because I knew Owen slightly and admired what I knew and partly because as a then much more tentative public sector blogger it was a reminder of just how unclear boundaries and expectations could be. I don’t remember how I found out about it, though I don’t think it was until some time afterwards and I do remember the vigorous defence mounted by Tim Worstall. There was some other blog commentary, but the reverberations quickly died away – except no doubt for Owen himself. Megaphone journalism remained ascendant.

Today, Sarah Baskerville is the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for her twitter account. It caught my attention because Paul Clarke wrote an excoriating rebuttal on his blog. What is different is not just the more rapid appearance of a strong defence, but the speed and power of reverberation. On twitter, by 10pm the #welovebaskers hashtag had been used in 659 tweets by 341 people. On the web, almost 7,500 people have clicked on bit.ly short links to Paul’s post. Understandably, Sarah has now locked her own twitter account, but she can be in little doubt about the outpouring of support. Megaphone journalism hasn’t gone away, but it can be challenged and contradicted in a way which wasn’t possible even three years ago. That’s apparent even in the Mail itself: the story about Owen attracted a total of two comments. The story on Sarah so far has 59, overwhelmingly critical. Those few which are not have been strongly marked down by other readers.

But although the megaphone may no longer have a monopoly, it can still make a lot of noise. Thousands of people have seen the defence of Sarah, but the circulation of the Daily Mail last month was 2.1 million.

Even with those numbers, the shift is unmistakable. It is worth noting where some of the support for Sarah is coming from. Alex Butler wrote in a comment on Paul’s blog post:

As you know i had more than a hand in drafting the guidance for civil servants and their use of social media. In the past few years I’m pleased to say that we’ve opened up to real and honest debate. Whether or not you agree with Sarah B she is one of those windows into our world.

And Bill McCluggage was one of the hundreds who tweeted support. It’s unfair in a way to single them out, but they are both emblematic of a sea change in government approaches to social media and the use of IT more generally.

The most negatively rated comment on the Mail site is rather pathetically condescending:

One imagines that poor Sarah is looking forward to a ‘quiet chat’ with the Boss on Monday morning!

Not long ago, though, that would have been a reasonable guess. My hope now is that any such chat will be to express the support Sarah deserves. My confident expectation is that even if it were not, there are many within government who would be happy to explain to her boss why support is the right reaction, should that be necessary. That may be the most important change of all, even if it is of little comfort to Sarah today.