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.

What is a digital leader?

What is a digital leader who doesn’t do digital? Not a digital leader would be a one obvious answer (though not the only one possible).

Perhaps we need to reflect on what constitutes a minimum viable digital leader. And that in turn suggests that the answer should be specified in terms of user needs.

But whoever this group is and whatever their starting point, it’s a safe bet that they will be more digital after a day with Chris.

Blundering about

I had high hopes of The Blunders of our Governments. Its authors, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe have spent decades apiece observing the British political system. If they can’t make sense of what happens, perhaps nobody can. And that’s a worrying thought, because although their book is entertaining and very readable, it doesn’t leave us as much the wiser as I had hoped. Like so many of the policies it describes, the ambition is impressive, but the delivery falls short of the promise.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not well worth reading. On the contrary, every MP, every minister and every civil servant who works on the development or implementation of policies should read it. And I suspect that every one of them should feel a frisson of recognition: all of us have done or have seen done the things which King and Crewe criticise, nobody who has been in this game for any length of time has an entirely clean record.

There are three essential questions which we need to answer. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? And why did it go wrong again? King and Crewe have a lot to say about the first, some useful insights into the second, but not so much to say about the third – which is a shame, because in many ways it is the most important of all.

The basic structure is very similar to that of Conundrum. The first half of the book is a series of what the authors call ‘horror stories’ – how a number of policies were developed and implemented (or failed to be implemented) over the last thirty years. There are then two further parts, covering human errors and system failures, which draw on the examples set out earlier on. Though subject and structure are very similar between the two books, the substance is very different. King and Crewe cover broader ground, including policy failure as well as programme failure (and very effectively demonstrating how closely linked those two things often are), over a longer time period, drawing on a wider set of sources. Their stories are richer, their analysis more systematic, but the basic message is the same: too many things go wrong, too often.

Despite the bleakness of its message, this is in many ways an entertaining book: King and Crewe have found a large barrel full of fish, which they shoot at with great gusto. The horror stories are told with great panache, some are rightly rescued from obscurity, and even the better known examples are told with telling details which add usefully to understanding.

Once we get through the stories and into the analysis, things get a bit more curious. The same examples pop up relentlessly and repeatedly. Are they typical or extreme? They are clearly too many, but are they edge cases or the norm? Are these failures of systems or failures of individuals? We can never quite be sure, and that’s a symptom of an important problem we will come back to.

King and Crewe are trenchant on the recurring characteristics of failure. Three particularly stand out for me.

The first is the consistent failure to see – still less act on – the gap between political intent and policy implementation. This is a description of the public-private partnership to manage the modernisation of the London Underground, but it could have been almost any of the case studies:

A handful of ministers thus handed down from on high a tremendously ambitious strategic idea. But they did not hand down anything that remotely resembled a strategic plan. They knew roughly where they wanted to go but had little idea of how to get there, and they left others almost wholly alone to do the detailed work.1

Or more pithily,

Ministers made policy, it was up to others to implement it.2

The second is the misplaced idea that actors in the system will respond and behave in the ways that the policy assumes they will or should. The Child Support Agency did not meet with eager compliance. Individual learning accounts did meet with very eager compliance, in large degree from those who saw an opportunity to use them to commit fraud. The people who were expected to pay the poll tax were very different from those who invented it:

The fact that the core group of ministerial decision makers was so homogeneous and so comfortably middle class – in a context in which the behaviour of people, many of whom were not even slightly middle class, would be crucial – made it highly probable that cultural disconnect would occur; but what made it a near certainty was that the members of the core group seem never to have entertained, however remotely, the possibility that cultural disconnect could occur.3

Even in services for which there is a legal obligation, or for which there is no alternative, failure to understand customers’ attitudes and behaviour is a route to failure. The importance of customer insight has taken root in government only recently, too late to have influenced almost any of the case study projects. There is now much more rigorous customer insight than used to be the case – but whether its harder messages are acted on, and whether they are available to be acted on early enough in the decision making process is yet to be seen.

The third characteristic of failure is to assume success:

Almost all those directly involved in almost every instance seem to have been taken unawares by the failure of their policy and, having assumed that their policy would work, to have given no thought to what they would do in the event that it failed to. 4

That is more than a little surprising, both because of recurrent experience that the implementation of policy is not always successful, and (although King and Crewe don’t put it this way) because of simple arithmetic. If five steps need to be taken in sequence, even if each step has an 80% chance of success, the project as a whole has a two thirds chance of failure.5 Shared purpose and enthusiasm are huge strengths, but can also be the source of great weakness:

Later, asked what had gone wrong, one senior minister was blunt: “The major defect in the whole process was that everyone involved in it was in favour of it. There was no grit in the oyster. No one saw that the whole concept was ludicrous.”6

Those three issues taken together – and they are by no means the only ones discussed by King and Crewe – show a further emergent property: much energy and attention and such perception of risk as there is are often focused in the wrong place:

The easy bit, though it may not seem easy at the time, is deciding what ought to be done: the hard bit is the doing of it, and the hard bit is likely to be very hard.7

So much for the diagnosis. What of the prescription?

Here King and Crewe are on weaker ground. They have looked for blunders and found them. They have looked at blunders and discerned some common features. But they cannot tell us how successes differ from blunders and they cannot tell us whether other approaches to public administration result in more or fewer blunders or whether other kinds of organisations are better at avoiding blunders or better at hiding them. They do occasionally mention successes – trade union reform and the minimum wage, for example8 – but not in a way which helps us understand what’s different about them.

What’s needed is some form of prospective cohort study. Given a set of policy intentions, which ones survive through to effective implementation, and which go badly wrong somewhere along the way? There is a powerful and important book needing to be written about the decision making processes of government and why the results of those processes are often so far from their intent. This is not that book.

That limitation takes us full circle. We know what goes wrong. We know many of the factors which result in things going wrong. But we don’t why, knowing those things, it has proved so hard to break the cycle. And so at the very end of Blunders we come to this:

What we observed – and still observe today – is not a sequence of unrelated episodes but a pattern. It would seem to follow that, if the incidence of blunders is to be reduced, it is the British governing system, and the ways in which people function within that system, that needs to change.9

Do we know how to respond to that challenge? And if we do, can we admit to it? And if we can admit to it, can we act on it?

  1. Location 3896 (references are to the kindle edition, which for this book does not have mapping from location to page numbers)
  2. Loc 3900. I think that may be to draw the line too firmly between ministers and others: as a number of the case studies indicate, the divide is perhaps more generally between those who formulate and those who implement.
  3. Loc 4278. Again, drawing the line between ministers and everybody else is probably not quite the right place for it.
  4. Loc 4816
  5. No, of course it’s not as simple as that: the point is not that failure is inevitable, but that risk management is essential.
  6. Loc 4542, on the Child Support Agency
  7. Loc 5040
  8. Loc 6133
  9. Loc 6777

More public strategist

It’s time for a change. From today, the public strategist is becoming rather more public. The threadbare pseudonymity of Public Strategist has outlived its usefulness – the new About page tells all.

There were two reasons for being faceless and nameless here. The first was distance. I wanted to be very clear that there was – and is – a separation between what I write here and the work I do as a civil servant. I have gone on about that more than once, so will only say here that this blog does not and will not contain material about the substance of my working life, though it does and will talk about issues on which I have something to say in part because of my experience as a civil servant. Having sustained that distinction for quite a few years and a few hundred blog posts, I don’t think it needs any longer to depend on pseudonymity as well.

The second reason was caution. There is a great deal more social media openness in government than there used to be, but it can be hard to remember just how recent and limited a phenomenon that is. It has matured a bit since I wrote about the voices of government in 2009, though the basic picture hasn’t changed much and this still feels like a slightly odd thing to be doing. But when the head of the civil service and my about to be permanent secretary are both active on twitter and when the former has a blog, the balance of risk is clearly tipping. I have always operated here on the basis of seeking forgiveness rather than permission, but always with a slightly niggling doubt about how easy forgiveness might be to come by. That can’t – and shouldn’t – ever go away entirely but here too the balance feels different from the way it did a few years ago.

There is a recognition of reality here too. A pseudonym is not a binary state, there are degrees of opacity. This change is the end of a slow process: it has never been a great secret and I very consciously made a link between my name and my blog when I joined twitter four years ago. Google has long made the connection and the distinction gets ever more artificial.

So, blinking slightly in the unaccustomed daylight, the Public Strategist emerges.

Blundering into agreement

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe were on great form today at the RSA where they did a splendid double act in support of their new book, The Blunders of Government.

I plan to write a fuller review to go alongside my post on Conundrum earlier this week, but that will have to wait until I have read the book.  So far, I have only got as far the introduction, where one point particularly jumped out at me.

In expressing some frustration with the approach taken in Conundrum, I wrote:

More fundamentally, while the case studies are useful as a set of reminders about what happened, there is very little about how or why… That’s why the case studies are ultimately unsatisfying: they can describe what went wrong in relentless detail, draw out common areas of weakness and in that sense give some substance to the assertion that we know why projects go wrong. It’s much harder to discern why this one and not that one, or to be clear who was making what decisions on the basis of what evidence – or absence of evidence – which led to later catastrophe. Given the reliance on NAO and PAC reports as primary sources that’s not surprising: the value for money study process doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – attempt to do that.

Interestingly, King and Crewe make almost exactly the same point in their introduction:

The National Audit Office, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and some, though not all, other parliamentary committees are admirable bodies, and in what follows we frequently cite their reports. That said, however, their reports and the investigations that lead up to them typically suffer from two limitations, both to some extent self-imposed. One is that, partly out of a desire to operate on a non-partisan, dispassionate basis, they largely focus on the “what” questions and tend to neglect the “why” questions. They say that something went wrong, describe what went wrong and usually say what they think should be done to avoid the same kind of thing going wrong in future; but they seldom delve deeply into the causes of whatever went wrong. In particular, they seldom explore the decision making by ministers and officials that led to the committing of the blunder in question.

Apart from the small satisfaction of having my opinions validated by two such panjandrums, that gives me still greater confidence that this is going to be a book well worth reading.

Much more importantly, though, it reinforces the point that this is a really important issue. If there is a problem that many things do not go well in government – and both these books make that case pretty unarguably – and one of the primary mechanisms for identifying and challenging the blunders fails to do so in a way which provides any real help in addressing systematic problems, then that mechanism itself is a blunder which needs fixing.

Who is there to audit the auditors?

Can government deliver?

I expected to dislike Conundrum.

A book written by a member of the Public Accounts Committee (Richard Bacon) and a journalist (Christopher Hope) starting with a series of case studies about some of the worst examples it has examined in recent years was surely guaranteed to be an exercise in the simplistic mandarin bashing which at times seems to be PAC’s preferred approach. But it’s a lot more subtle than that, and the last few chapters wrestle with the question of what goes wrong and why in a way which transcends easy answers of any description. Almost every time I found myself muttering ‘but what about…?’, within a page or two, and sometimes a paragraph or two, that very issue was addressed.

That does not make it a completely satisfactory book. It starts with twelve chapters which are effectively summaries of NAO value for money studies of programmes which went horribly wrong, ranging from the CSA to NHS IT via the Rural Payments Agency. There is a relentless grimness to these stories and if the point is to demonstrate that there is a problem which needs solving, it is a point made firmly over and over again. Unfortunately, while these accounts are energetically written, they style is quite long winded and repetitive: the whole book would have benefited at lot from the attention of a good copy editor. More fundamentally, while the case studies are useful as a set of reminders about what happened, there is very little about how or why. In part I suspect that reflects some of the limitations of the NAO’s methodology, but whatever the reason, the approach gets a bit wearing. So when they say firmly that

It is now simply a statement of fact to say that we now know what causes IT projects to go wrong.

at one level they are right, but at another, it focuses attention on the wrong question, as the authors recognise a few pages further on:

Technical problems usually have technical solutions but the biggest problems with major IT projects are generally not technical. They are human.

That’s why the case studies are ultimately unsatisfying: they can describe what went wrong in relentless detail, draw out common areas of weakness and in that sense give some substance to the assertion that we know why projects go wrong. It’s much harder to discern why this one and not that one, or to be clear who was making what decisions on the basis of what evidence – or absence of evidence – which led to later catastrophe. Given the reliance on NAO and PAC reports as primary sources that’s not surprising: the value for money study process doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – attempt to do that. It will be interesting to compare this approach with The Blunders of our Governments due to be published later this week, which describes itself as ‘informed by years of research and interviews with senior cabinet ministers and civil servants’ – a claim Anthony King and Ivor Crewe are well placed to make.

More subtly, there is an unspoken assumption that big change programmes are an accurate indicator of overall government effectiveness and a revealing anecdote which criticises a relentless focus on failure, but ends up reinforcing it:

Sir Leigh Lewis, who was a Permanent Secretary in Whitehall for ten years – variously in the Benefits Agency, the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions – tells of one occasion when a departmental press office persuaded him, somewhat against his better judgement, to meet a journalist and discuss a project which the department had just delivered with considerable success. The journalist listened with increasing dismay as he heard the details and finally said: ‘You mean to tell me that this project was delivered on time?’ Lewis confirmed that it was. ‘And it was delivered on budget?’ ‘Yes, indeed it was,’ said Lewis. ‘And it is working exactly as it was supposed to do?’ Once again Lewis answered in the affirmative. ‘There’s no story there,’ said the journalist and left the building.

It’s a neat story – but we end up none the wiser about what this success might have been, so can learn nothing from its merits.

I was tempted to give up after reading the first few case studies, but instead I skipped forward to the last five chapters where a serious attempt is made to understand why and to make suggestions about what needs to be different.

There is plenty of rich material to be found in this part of the book, though drawn from a relatively narrow range of sources. They look hard at what makes ministers and civil servants behave as they do and there is an encouraging recognition that politics does make it all harder and that as a result government is different for good reasons.

At the heart of all this is a basic truth that Whitehall is its own animal. It is not a private company, nor can it simply be run according to a formal, logical structure with a code of conduct on how to develop and implement policy. Its very nature means that it is both administrative and political, and there is bound to be a tension between politics and management.

But questions are raised without ever quite being answered, and here too, the writing style means it is not always clear what is being argued. I think, though, that it’s fair to extract a number of propositions:

  • Ministers cannot and should not be expected to be managers
  • Electoral and other political cycles are a fact of life
  • Policy and implementation are not separate
  • The civil service recruits for intelligence and policy skills, not for implementation and delivery
  • As a result, it is no longer able to grow its own top talent, resulting in a level of senior external recruitment which risks undermining stability and losing institutional memory
  • Civil servants behave they way they do in part because ministers behave the way they do…
  • … and vice versa
  • There are real and important differences between government and other kinds of organisations
  • Targets don’t work
  • But systems thinking might
  • Big programmes don’t work
  • But agile might

There’s a lot of good sense in that, and the discussion which leads the authors to these propositions is well worth reading. But the book stops, rather than concludes. It’s all difficult, it’s been like this for a long time, you can’t expect ministers to act differently, it should be possible for civil servants to deliver nevertheless, if they were only to change culture, approach and their relationship with ministers. On the face of it, that’s quite a weak conclusion, though perhaps a realistic one, but the authors deserve some credit for not succumbing to the temptation of giving an easy answer:

Economics has now rediscovered its earliest roots in the study of human behaviour. We urgently need a similar shift in how we seek to understand the way government and politics actually work.

What we should actually do to identify and achieve that shift and how we should set about doing it are questions left hanging. It’s a good challenge. Where might a response come from?


Systems and symptoms

I am a menshevik. Steph Gray is a bolshevik. It may not end well.

Steph wants a revolution, and he wants it by next summer. He does not believe in the false consciousness of the bourgeois revolution and is wary of alliances with objective supporters of the current regime. Despite the immaturity of the proletariat, they and only they can be the vanguard of the revolution.

October glory

1917 was a good year for the bolsheviks, of course. Little was heard of the mensheviks after that, though little groups survived in exile for a surprisingly long time. But while the bolsheviks successfully introduced the language and the superficial structures of communism,1 they made rather less progress on changing the substance. When the façade cracked, what lay behind seemed remarkably unchanged.

This is not 1917. Steph is not Felix Dzerzhinsky and shows no signs of wishing to lead the Cheka. But in calling for revolution rather than evolution, Steph is asking us to make a similar choice.

The question he raises is a good one. GDS has made very visible strides on the delivery of online information, in part through ruthless intolerance of counter-revolutionary saboteurs. But that has not been matched in the embedding of digital engagement and open policy making across government more widely, where the white armies still control much of the hinterland and where there is still too much tokenistic playing with technology, and not enough real change. He calls for an end to ‘pat on the head’ digital engagement – and that in itself has recruited Stephen Hale to join him on the barricades.

Catherine Howe, meanwhile, is perhaps the Bukharin of our story: the pragmatic but committed theorist trying to make sense of the landscape and to create policies to match.2 Having started with the question ‘are comms the blockers?’ she, and the group whose discussion she is recording, very quickly show the range of people and concerns which can make the adoption of social media slow. Solving that is not about fixing comms, it is about fixing the bigger system:

As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from.

By coincidence I was at the Institute for Government on Friday, where Marco Steinberg was talking about the work of the Finnish Innovation Fund and the Helsinki Design Lab.

One of his strong messages was the need to identify and address the architecture of problems: it is easy to see particular aspects of an issue, particularly since organisational structures and job roles tend to reinforce a narrow view; it is harder – but essential if we want to achieve innovation – to understand how the pieces fit together and to design solutions in the context of that understanding. Policy makers need strategic designers to rethink systems fundamentally. Open policy making and engagement are central to doing that effectively – though I suspect Steinberg would be sceptical about defining the problem in terms of digital engagement, rather than engagement more generally. There is a a social dimension to engagement which online approaches can complement, but cannot be a substitute for.

In the discussion which followed, Matthew Mezey mentioned Jake Chapman’s Demos pamphlet System Failure and made the point that though it was greeted with huge acclaim when it was published ten years ago, it has had almost no long term impact. Lots of people were inspired by the approach; few if any found it possible to make the changes necessary for it to work. That resonated with me because I was one of them: I read System Failure when it first came out in 2002 and saw Chapman talk about his work – but until prompted today, I had almost completely forgotten. As ever, the real question is not about the methodology or the technology, but the organisational culture which inhibits innovation.

From that perspective, concentrating on the need to get policy teams blogging, rather than on understanding why digitally enabled policy making is still the exception itself risks being a form of head patting.

Open policy making is one of those new things which is actually not new at all. The idea that better policy making would result from wider engagement and greater participation in the policy making process – or simply from talking to more people who had direct experience and understanding – long predates digital anything. Almost twenty years ago, I remember being present at (and thanking my lucky stars that I was not on the receiving end of) a stern lecture from a cabinet minister to a group of hapless policy officials about the general uselessness of their proposals resulting from their failure to engage properly with the world beyond Whitehall. As Jo Maybin has recently observed:

This concern that civil servants are not using enough knowledge, or the right kinds of knowledge, when making policy is as old as the civil service itself. While the terminology may have changed, laments about the gap between models of evidence-informed policy-making and policy-making in practice, date back to the Haldane report of 1918 and beyond.

The fact that this a problem with a history does not, of course, make it any less of a problem. It is depressingly easy to imagine similar lectures being given today and Whitehall is still not famous for openness and transparency. And I also agree with Steph and others that digital engagement tools create possibilities which were scarcely imaginable twenty years ago and that there is real value in their wider adoption. But before jumping to prescriptions, it’s worth understanding the problem a bit better to see what might help and how.

Politics is making choices about things people disagree about. If there disagreement without a choice, it’s just an argument. If there is choice without a disagreement, you are talking about – or better still doing – implementation. Policy making as a bureaucratic process (the thing which – some – civil servants do) is a way in to making political choices, but it isn’t the only way in and certainly doesn’t solely determine the choices made.

Policy making is not always a wholly rational process, in part because politics (at the level of professional politicians) is in large part tribal:

And herein lies one of the biggest problems in politics. Because choosing between political parties should be a straightforward matter of selecting the policy platform that most closely aligns with your own. But it isn’t; it’s about group identity. And to a certain extent it has to be; because this is a representative democracy not a direct democracy, and we are picking people we trust to make decisions down the line.

So the first temptation for rationalist bureaucrats to put aside is the belief that there is some right policy waiting to be found, and that policy making is about gathering and sifting the sands of data and opinion until the nugget of truth is found. There are areas where something like that happens, but crudely speaking, the more the issue is politically salient to begin with, the less policy making will look like the rational ideal.3 So the first question is whether we are dealing with a political issue or what, for want of a better word, I will call a technical issue.

There is also a critical question about what aspects of policy making we are talking about in the first place. There can be discussions about the process (in a broad sense), identifying data, gathering opinions and perhaps identifying options. There can also be discussions about the substance of the policy in question, not just identifying options, but evaluating them and arguing for a preferred outcome. Civil servants do the first of those, and could undoubtedly do it better. But they don’t do the second in public, and the question of whether they should gets tangled up very quickly with some meaty constitutional issues. So the second question is whether the intention is to be open about the process of a particular piece of policy making or about its substance.

All that suggests that there are two important variables here, which together produce that dreaded, but occasionally useful, thing, a two by two matrix.

Two by two matix with technical v political on one axis and process v substance on the other

In the sense I am using here, a lot of policy isn’t particularly political. To take one prominent example, the rightly applauded openness of the Government Digital Service is firmly concentrated below the line. That gives them a lot of latitude because politically there is almost no controversy (there aren’t many areas of government activity where milestones are retweeted by leading opposition politicians).

GOV.UK made it's 1,000 code release in 6 months today. That's 7 releases every working day since coming out of beta last Oct. :-)// Retweeted by tom_watson

But even then, most of what they are and have been open about is in the lower left quadrant, rather than even the lower right. There have been interesting experiments in other departments, most recently at the Ministry of Justice and perhaps most bravely at BIS. The areas MoJ has announced that it is working on – booking prison visits, making civil claims, paying tribunal fees and applying for lasting powers of attorney – are firmly at the technical end of the spectrum, and the coverage of their excellent blog is, unsurprisingly, concentrated on process. Overall, they are where you might expect them to be – in the lower left quadrant.4

There is plenty of room for more of this. Four years ago, I rhetorically demanded

Where are the blogs of the policy makers, the operational managers, the chief executives, the tax inspectors, the social researchers, the whole army of people who make up public services?

The answer, now as then, is that even departments attempting systematic coverage are barely scratching the surface – some individual enthusiasts shine out, but even in the best departments there is little sense of systematic openness, still less of this being a tool for open policy making. And as I answered myself four years ago:

One obvious reason why there aren’t very many bloggers is that there aren’t very many blog readers. The blogosphere is so very large that it’s easy to overlook how very small it is. I don’t think most of the people I work with read blogs, so it’s not surprising that they don’t write them. That’s partly because I inhabit a working environment which is about as inconducive as it could be to a modern online existence but it’s partly because people have other ways of spending their lives, odd though that might seem to the people likely to be reading this.

All of which means that, while I would love to be wrong, I am pretty sure that an exhortation for all policy teams to blog, and for all ghost writing to be banned is not going to have quite the immediate transformational impact Steph (and I) would like. The absence of a multitude of blogs is not the problem, it is a symptom of much deeper organisational and cultural characteristics.

But all that still leaves the question of the top right quadrant.

Policy matrix - the radical quadrant

Of course we shouldn’t assume that the roles of civil servants are locked into the structures of past ages and are beyond improvement. It would take somebody considerably braver than I to argue that were true. But as I find myself saying a lot at the moment – and echoing Marco Steinberg – if you want to change the system, you have to change the system – you can’t just take one small part of it and assume that you can change it while everything in the wider system is unaffected.

Steph pretty clearly does want to change the system, and suggests:

An independent commission to rewrite the Civil Service Code, to rethink the roles of Ministers, senior officials, and more junior officials in terms of engaging in policy discussion and taking responsibility for decisions. Alongside it, a frank Parliamentary discussion about the responsibilities of backbenchers and Opposition in holding government to account without stifling open policymaking.

I tend to be sceptical about ideas which depend on taking politics out of  politics (not least because I tend to the slightly unfashionable view that politics is a good thing, not a bad thing).5 The idea that any opposition would – or should – avoid challenging and discussing ideas put forward from within government is not just unrealistic but wrong.6 There is in any case no prospect of such a commission, and even if there were, answers would be a long way off, so this won’t help meet Steph’s challenge to make a radical difference by summer 2014.

Even if we were to take away the question of political alignment there is still a much more universal question of organisational alignment. Organisations which allow and encourage their employees to think aloud about their employer’s business and its strategic direction are rare oases of self-confidence. Other than a few licensed mavericks (who tend to be smart enough not to bite the hand which is feeding them), that is just not how organisations work. Ending the political neutrality of civil servants wouldn’t stop the secretary of state being the boss.

So my pragmatic view is that starting towards the bottom and the left of the matrix makes good sense. Let’s encourage people to build up confidence, experience and good practice there, moving up and to the right over time. For the reasons I have outlined, the top right corner is much more difficult territory. But if we stop to solve those problems now, we risk getting completely bogged down.

Let’s also stop framing the question as being about the use of digital tools.  It is an encouraging sign of maturity when we can stop qualifying things with ‘electronic’ or ‘digital’. Digital engagement is not a digital problem, it is an engagement problem. More digital activity will be a symptom of better engagement. Better engagement won’t, on the whole, be a symptom of more digital.

The mensheviks need to be more radical about the actions they are willing to take and not just rest on theory and ideology.  But the bolsheviks need to read System Failure and decide what revolution they really want to bring about.

Proletarians of the world, unite!

Picture by Joseph Morris licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Technically socialism rather than communism, but you either already know that or really shouldn’t care.
  2. If anybody is going to write the ABC of Communism of this little world, it is she. But this is probably the point where the analogy should be taken out and shot.
  3. And that’s not a problem. Elected representatives have democratic legitimacy, not rational legitimacy – even though I for one like them to earn the former in part through the latter.
  4. That’s not a criticism – what I choose to write about in this blog fits exactly the same pattern. There have been times when what I have written about had some fairly immediate (if not necessarily spelled out) connections with what I was doing at work, but the more my work takes me up and to the right, the less likely it is that the blog will stay closely aligned with it.
  5. Which is why I see the proposal by Gus O’Donnell for retired Treasury officials to vet policy proposals before they are submitted to Parliament as a further symptom of the problem rather than as even the beginning of a solution.
  6. It would also create opportunities for gaming – the temptation to get an idea floated by an official and declare it off limits to challenge might be irresistible.

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.