Looking for guidance

Are there any useful purdah guidelines for social media, asks Matt Jukes, prompted by my post last week on civil servants and social media in the pre-election period. What a good question.

To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t yet any guidelines at all. But guidance on general elections tends to change incrementally rather than radically, so we could do worse than check what was said last time. It should be easily found, because I captured the link in a post at the time:

When a general election is announced, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance on the conduct of civil servants during the election period.

It turned out to be not easily found at all, but in reading what follows it’s important to remember that the problems I encountered are the result of the state of the government web presence in 2010 and of the decisions made then about how to manage and archive material in response to the change of government. This time round, in the world of gov.uk, the problem is a very different one, as is the approach to solving it – the gov.uk team roadmap has an entire workstream on election preparation.

Armed with that original link, the guidance should be close at hand. Sadly, it isn’t.

This item has been archived

That’s not wholly unexpected since although the guidance is a perfect example of a non-partisan government document, it was nevertheless published under the previous administration. So let’s look in the web archive.

Page/Document not found

That works perfectly, other than arriving at another page not found screen – but at least it’s an archived page not found screen from about the right date. But there are still clues worth pursuing, some helpful, others misleading. The most prominent date on the page is 28 April 2010, which is before the election and so before you would expect this page to have been archived. But the National Archive banner at the top of the page declares this to be a snapshot of its state on 10 November 2010 (though the url includes the string ‘20130128101412’ which implies something else again) which is comfortably after the election. So let’s follow the next invitation to check for the archive copy.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct

Now it looks as if we are getting somewhere, with links to the document we want in an enticing range of format flavours. Let’s keep things simple and open the PDF

This item has been archived (again)

Although the page looks identical to the one we had three steps ago, the underlying link is of course different. So it’s probably worth following the web archive link again.

This page cannot be found

Or perhaps not. And perhaps not surprisingly, since this time the red banner tells us we have arrived on 4 July 2013. Though that date is itself a slight surprise, since two steps back we had been at 11 May 2010.

But the red banner also invites us to find a more auspicious date. So let’s try that.

UK Government Web Archive

There are lots to choose from, but of those on offer, 7 April 2010 is by far the most promising.

Step 7

And indeed we have arrived at what is apparently the Cabinet Office home page with the publication of the guidance as the main – indeed the only – story.  Following the offered link delivers both the desired page and a sense of foreboding.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct (again)

The reason for the foreboding is obvious. We have seen this page before, several steps ago. But while it may be obvious, it is also misplaced. This time the links work and the guidance is finally to hand.

General Election Guidance 2010

The reason why this works when the previous attempt didn’t is that although the two guidance notes landing pages look identical, the archiving process has treated them very differently. The link to the PDF first time round went to:
while the version which works links to:

In other words, in some circumstances, the archived version attempts to link to the live site (and in this case to a live site which isn’t live at all), which it’s not very surprising isn’t very helpful.

Meanwhile, of course, poor Matt is still waiting for an answer to his question. I wrote about the guidance and its implications at the time, but more formally, social media is covered as part of a section on digital channels, starting on page 28. The basic approach is pretty straightforward:1

Civil servants’ participation in a professional capacity in social networks (e.g. (Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn etc.) as well as in forums, online communities and other public online discussions should be limited during the Election period to:

  • commenting on operational matters relating to services such as notifying users of technical problems with a website or digital service
  • responding to factual queries by signposting existing content.

Guidance on ‘ministerial blogs’ is essentially similar – there shouldn’t be any new ones or any new posts on existing ones, but ‘Civil Servants may continue to respond to comments on existing blog posts to provide routine and factual responses to queries and to moderate for inappropriate comments.’

Finally, on Twitter, the guidance is indirect.

Use of Twitter may continue for publishing factual information only in line with guidance on news media

That guidance essentially boils down to being minimal, factual and avoiding any appearance of political content.

What’s interesting about all that is that it written on the implicit assumption that blogs were ministerial and that communications is done by specialists. It’s actually not hard to work back from the examples presented to some more general principles and in turn to apply those principles to other situations, but it will be interesting to see how the imminent updated guidance covers all this.

It is at least not hard to do that for activity through official channels. Quasi non-official activity through unofficially managed channels is altogether less clear – which is precisely the issue discussed in my previous post.


  1. I have corrected here what seems to be a mistake in formatting in the original.

It’s beginning

Five years ago on election day, I wrote a post about civil servants’ use of social media during general election campaigns, arguing that it was time to start thinking about the next election.

This time round the traditional rules and the new means of expression have managed to co-exist without too much difficulty. But we are all going to be back in another few years, and another few years after that. Next time more people might be more reluctant to close down part of their lives for the duration of the election. Next time there may anyway be fewer people comfortable with the traditional constraints of civil service expression. Next time there will be a generation becoming more prominent who have a visible online identity and history from which they may not be able to separate themselves even if they want to. Next time – or perhaps the time after that – civil servants may be less invisible, less silent and less disinterested.

Alongside all of that – and potentially amplifying it further – norms of engagement and participation will continue to change in the wider society and polity. Civil servants are necessarily part of that, they cannot stand outside it.

And if that were to happen, the whole idea of what it is to be a civil servant would start to change, with implications which go far beyond a handful of blog posts. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the next election before the polls have closed on this one.

Now we are approaching that next election, and I am not sure how much thinking there has been.1

The starting point is simple – or at least apparently simple. Civil servants are politically neutral. Demonstrating that neutrality is more than normally important during an election campaign. So government communications should largely fall silent once parliament has been dissolved on 30 March.2

For official uses of social media – blogs directly published by the government, twitter accounts maintained as part of somebody’s job – the result is simple. They stop.3 That pretty much covers it for civil servants who happen to be human beings, but it’s not quite so straightforward for human beings who happen to be civil servants.

There are several intertwined reasons for that, all of them more complicated now than they were in 2010, and all of them, I suspect, less complicated now than they will be in 2020.

The first is that the distinction between official and personal is getting less clear cut. Institutional accounts can close for the duration, but the position is less straightforward for accounts which are personal, but are also used for work-related activity. That creates a more blurred boundary for more people than was the case five years ago (though many were very aware of that boundary even then), but it also prompts a bigger question about the public lives of civil servants, on which more later.

The second is the distinction between current and past. There are things which it is perfectly proper to say now but which would not be appropriate during the election period. I know people who are sufficiently concerned about the risk of being quoted out of context that they are planning to delete their twitter histories. I am not convinced that that’s necessary, but twitter is mostly in the moment, so the impact would be relatively minor. For blogs, such as this one, the tradeoff is different: in many ways the archive is the blog. Much of its traffic comes from people finding older posts by who knows what circuitous routes. And even if I were to delete the whole thing tomorrow, it would live on in zombie form outside my control.

Putting those two things together suggests a compound risk, that more public statements by civil servants will retrospectively look ill-judged in the political context of a differently constituted government. If nothing else, those who seek to make mischief will have more raw material to work with.

The third distinct reason is the distinction between central and peripheral. Even five years ago, the personal visibility of most public officials was pretty limited. Back in 2009, I wrote a post about looking for people talking openly online about their work in the public sector and didn’t come up with much.4 Only a year before, it had seemed reasonable to write:

We are in a world where the technology has advanced and a few have adapted, but where most of us are still struggling to work out and apply the social norms which will govern the new world.

One part of that is in the use of social media.  Government is in a simple position here:  with some very honourable exceptions, it ignores them.

Much has changed since then.

Now there are over three thousand posts on the 74 blogs running on the blog.gov.uk platform. Blog posts have authors, and those authors constitute a much wider group than the few who used to publish under their own byline in the past. When civil servants blog for the government, that is of course exactly what they – we – are doing, but there is still an individual person and an individual voice behind them.

There are also more channels – or at least more channels being much more widely used by civil servants in relation to their work. Twitter in particular (and to a lesser extent LinkedIn) has dramatically reduced the barriers to entry. I don’t know how many civil servants there are on Twitter (I doubt that anybody does know or could know), but there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have acquired a public voice, many of them more recently than the last election.5

Those changes are recognised and reinforced by the latest civil service social media guidance, which makes the shift from tolerating to encouraging. It starts

The purpose of this guidance is to encourage and enable civil servants to use social and other digital media appropriately to enhance our work. [emphasis added]

Taking all that together amounts to some pretty big changes even in the five years of the current parliament. It seems rash to assume that change over the next five years will be less significant than change over the last five.

Nor are those changes – past or prospective – simply about quantity. Greater online visibility has deeper qualitative consequences too. Dennis Grube has recently raised the question, for example, of whether senior civil servants are being pushed into ‘promiscuous partisanship’,

the idea that civil servants are now expected to support government policy with the same fervour as if they were in fact partisans. The only difference being that they must then turn around and offer exactly the same fervour in turn to the next government when a change of government occurs.

Grube is concerned with a wider range of activities than are the subject of this post, but he clearly considers that the consequences are potentially profound:

Does it in fact matter if civil service leaders become more public figures than they have previously? I argue that the reason these changes matter is because the traditional anonymity of civil servants is linked in important ways to the impartiality of the civil service. To dispense with the former is to endanger the latter in ways that re-shape the core role of civil service leaders in a Westminster system.

That’s an interesting echo of my thought from five years ago that the idea of what it is to be a civil servant might start to change. It’s hard to judge how far or fast that change might go, but the fact that the question can be raised is a useful reminder that the social change unleashed by technical change is frequently neither obvious nor immediate – but may still be inexorable.

We’ll be back for another update in another five years. Or perhaps sooner.

  1. Though interestingly, that post got a very prompt response from Patrick Butler at the Guardian (and a journalist commenting on a civil servant’s blog post itself is a signal that things are changing) with the thought that the very idea of purdah was already under threat:

    Purdah looks less workable now, when social media – Twitter, blogs, Facebook – is so universal. It is easy enough to silence the departmental tweets. But what about the individuals-who-also-happen-to-be-public-servants, who, in their private lives use social media to comment, discuss and argue (non-impartially) on the issues of the day, including politics. When, for example, are they tweeting in their capacity as civil servants and when as private individuals? (the same question might be asked of journalists).

  2. There is also a slightly separate argument that government communications shouldn’t crowd out coverage of the candidates and the campaign. That argument is less relevant here – and, as I have argued before, doesn’t in any case carry the weight it once did in a more monolithic communications environment.
  3. At about this stage in the run up to the last election, I set out the rules and what they might, or might not, mean for civil servants who were also personally (as opposed to institutionally) active in social media. The detail of the formal rules changes from election to election, but the principles don’t, and I have no reason to think that they will be radically different this time from last. The big difference is that the timetable is formally known much further in advance. There are also new rules on non-party campaigning, but that’s not really relevant to what’s being discussed here.
  4. I was looking for blogs then, rather than, say, people talking about their work on Twitter, not least because I had only joined Twitter myself about a week earlier – but even if I had been more familiar with it, there was nothing like the breadth of expression we take for granted now. And that was little more than one parliament ago.
  5. Being human on Twitter hasn’t always been risk free for civil servants. The likelihood of attracting critical press coverage may be low, but the impact is undeniably high.

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.1

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.2

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 September 2015: I have recently come across a long essay by Mike Horne arguing that looking far enough into the future, enlargement of tube tunnels will become essential and that the scale and complexity of the works involved mean that planning should start now. I remain unsure that jetpacks are not more likely.
  2. 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:

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…