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.

Twenty years of e-Government

Many of the ambitions of twenty years ago still resonate today. Their realisation is still work in progress.

Jerry Fishenden has taken on the labour of recording the main trends of the history of e-government, or online government, or digital government (even the name has archaeological layers) in the UK over the last twenty years. So far, there are four thematic parts, with the possibility of more to come:

Part 1: Progress towards a single online presence

Part 2: “e-government” architectures

Part 3: Approaches to identity

Part 4: Approaches to social inclusion

There’s a fair bit in all that which I recognise from my own experience, but plenty more which is new to me, or reminding me of things half known and long forgotten. Of course there are other ways of telling the story, there always are (my far less systematic attempt, also prompted by Jerry’s work, was a ten year anniversary piece written five years ago), but this is a really clear account of the history and foundations of current digital government, with much of it more relevant to today’s challenges than you might expect.

Capturing the story this way highlights just how ephemeral it all is. Much of the material Jerry refers to is somewhere between hard and impossible to find online, and there seems little prospect of stable, long-term canonical references. Many of the links in my 2009 post are now broken, sometimes because archive sites I linked to have themselves been archived. Even that is oddly inconsistent: archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk, redirects to the National Archives breaking specific links as it goes. But archive.official-documents.co.uk redirects first to a gov.uk landing page before linking to the National Archives, but despite that preserves the underlying link structure.

I am not going to attempt to review or provide a commentary on Jerry’s posts, but I do want to offer one small addition to the final part, on social inclusion. Jerry quite rightly makes the point that:

It’s clear that social inclusion has been a concern at least since the 1990s and the first attempts to move government services online. But this narrow association with purely technological aspects has at times diluted the focus on the underlying causes of social inclusion — notably the way public services are designed, operated and delivered across multiple channels.

But his account of what’s happened here is mainly about the very early years, essentially from 1996 to 2000, taking in the genuinely pioneering View from the Queue along the way. Stopping there, I think he misses a subtle but critical turn in the direction of e-government which happened a couple of years later. In the early days, the focus was very much on the availability of services: the core target was about putting services online. Success was counted in terms of what could be done, not whether anybody was actually doing it. In 2002, that changed, with the focus moving much more to the use of services. That was both a minor change in wording and a fundamental change of approach. If you want people to use an online service but they have a choice not to, you have to start doing user centred design. Of course that doesn’t guarantee social inclusion, nor yet the integrated multi-channel approach Jerry rightly advocates, but it is the turning point from online as technology to online as service – the consequences of which have been playing out ever since.

Antelopes grazing in the open plan

Here’s another interesting talk on the office working environment, this time from Ben Hammersley. Ben talks about the impossibility of reaching the flow state necessary for any kind of thoughtful work in an environment of constant interruptions, and about the adrenaline levels needed to sustain vigilance against the predators of open plan.

We have optimised being on top of things, rather than getting to the bottom of things

So

Perhaps the future of collaboration is less of it

And he is scathing about the extreme form of hot desking, and the elimination of all physical delineation of social space

It takes away respect for the social relationships which make up the organisation

Some of this, perhaps quite a lot of it, is tied up with the perceived virtue of being busy.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Thanks to Rich Watts for the video and to Kathryn Corrick for the busyness article, which includes the brilliant line

If your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.

How many of us could pass that test?

Peak office

Culture eats technology for breakfast (to adapt the more common version, that culture eats strategy for breakfast – but culture is omnivorous, so no problem there). The critical question which follows from that statement gets much less attention: where are we going to have breakfast. That question is the focus of this post.

Not long ago, culture could only eat technology in the workplace, because that’s the only place where there was enough technology to form a nutritious (but not very varied) diet. Culture still often does have breakfast in the office canteen. But sometimes it has breakfast at home. And increasingly these days, it can be sometimes be seen having breakfast in a café. The technology gets eaten either way.

The occasion for this thought is a splendid new book, Remote: Office not required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the founders of 37 Signals (and many thanks to Matt Jukes for his post, which is how I found out about it). It is striking in format as well as content, written in short, sharp, almost self-contained sections, more like an uncannily well structured blog than a normal business book (and to achieve innovation in book structure is itself quite an achievement).

The book’s core proposition is that offices are largely – but not completely – redundant. They are a solution to problems of work organisation and management which now no longer exist, and are not very effective as a solution at all. Part polemic, part manifesto, part how-to, the book makes the case for change, counters the resisters and suggests what to do.

The starting point is that offices are ill suited to getting stuff done:

The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. That’s because offices have become interruption factories.

Take that thought, put it together with technology which makes working at a distance entirely practical, many people spending time and money commuting, and the cost and inflexibility of city centre office space – and the answer seems obvious: forget the office and let everybody work wherever they want to.

A lot of the book is about what to do with that answer, how to ensure that distributed working is productive, how to ensure that human relationships are sustained with much reduced face to face contact, and how to overcome concerns that this approach can’t work in theory however well it can be shown to work in practice. Interestingly, much of the advice on offer is just as relevant for those who are still expected to turn up somewhere to work: if trusting your team is more effective than physical oversight for people working at a distance, why would it not be for people working in the same building?

What the book is not about – or not much about – is the technology which makes it all work, for the fairly simple reason that technology isn’t much of a constraint. Of course it needs to be there, it needs to work, the tools necessary to work most effectively in this environment need to be available, but none of that is intrinsically difficult or expensive.

The hard bit, particularly for established organisations, is culture, and particularly trust. If being present is no longer a job requirement, being present can no longer be a virtue. People have to be managed not on whether they turn up and look keen and energetic, but on what they achieve. How, when and where they do that becomes much more a choice for individual workers (and teams) and much less a matter of management standardisation.

As with any culture change, the starting point is imaging that it can be different:

Past generations have been bred on the idea that good work happens from 9am to 5pm, in offices and cubicles in tall buildings around the city. It’s no wonder that most who are employed inside that model haven’t considered other options, or resist the idea that it could be any different. But it can.

But then the message that comes across time and time again is that remote working has to be based on trust. Again though, remote working does not create the need for trust, it makes the need explicit and shows where it is missing. For what are we doing with untrusted people in the organisation to start with?

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t hire people you don’t trust, or work for bosses who don’t trust you. If you’re not trusted to work remotely, why are you trusted to do anything at all? If you’re held in such low regard, why are you able to talk to customers, write copy for an ad, design the next product, assess insurance claims, or do tax returns?

But although few like to admit it explicitly, many managers do not have that trust or, more generously, have not needed to develop a management style which is based on trust:

It’s rarely spelled out directly, but a lot of the arguments against working remotely are based on the fear of losing control. There’s something primal about being able to see your army, about having them close enough that you can shout “Now!!” like Mel Gibson did in Braveheart, and watch them pick up their spears in unison. To a lot of people, being the big boss is about achieving such control. It’s woven into their identity. To such alpha males and females, having someone under “direct supervision” means having them in their line of sight—literally. The thinking goes, If I can see them, I can control them.

There is much more to the book than that, including a lot of thoughtful material about getting the balance of remote working right – which doesn’t mean that offices don’t have their uses or that face to face contact is never beneficial. It recognises problems, but sometimes seems a little to wish them away, for example assuming that everybody can find a suitable working environment at home or close by. Camping out in Starbucks might work for some, but will never be a solution for all.

The strengths though far outweigh the weaknesses and I strongly recommend Remote to anybody thinking about organising work differently, whether or not remote working is explicitly part of the plan.

Given all of that, it’s pretty clear that if a large office-based organisation with a long established culture wants to change how it does things, it needs to go into it with its eyes open, to understand the challenges, and to demonstrate, embody and support the change process it entails. Some of what needs to happen might of course be about IT: the wrong devices supporting the wrong tools, communicating through inefficient networks, hobbled by security inappropriately trumping usability will go a long way to stopping change dead. Conversely, seeing an IT update project as an opportunity for getting all that right creates a critical enabler for the wider change.

So I am nervous about the concept of a technology transformation programme not because it will do the wrong thing, but as part of the much broader argument that there is no such thing as IT:

It is not possible to make change management work better in government as long as the challenge is expressed as being about fixing IT or about distinguishing IT and non-IT projects.

The current set of organisational technology available to me doesn’t stop me working remotely, and in some ways it already supports it. The standard computing device, for example, is a lightweight laptop which is highly portable. I can easily think of ways it could be improved, but the dynamics of my personal working patterns are driven much more by culture and habit than they are by technology availability or bureaucratic oversight. We need to see those as linked issues, not to bring about paralysing complexity, but to make sure we are clear about the outcome we want to achieve. There is no point in new technology if it is only to serve as breakfast food for culture.

The need though is real, for both culture change and for the technology to support it. As Remote concludes:

A tipping point for remote work is coming. It may not be that the office completely ceases to exist, but its importance has peaked.

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

Out of office

The desk drawers are empty. The recycling bin is full. The last email has been sent. The coffee mug has been washed and put away. The farewells have been said. Time to move on.

I am not going very far, just from one government department to another. A couple of hundred yards as the crow flies, a five minute stroll through the streets of Westminster. It couldn’t be simpler. Could it?

It’s all a bit of an eye opener. There is one civil service supporting one government. But just now it doesn’t much feel like it.

I am not losing my job, but I will get a P45, as I move from one payroll to another. I have an old email address and I have a new email address, but there is no connection between them. I have some files created and accumulated in the old job which might be helpful in the new, but they will become inaccessible unless I move them, and there is no easy way to move them. Each department has an intranet and a directory, but neither is visible from the other.

I don’t know how many civil servants move between departments in the course of a year. Probably not many as a proportion of the total. Optimising systems for those who stay rather than those who move may be practical and pragmatic. But every one of those small barriers is a part of a bigger barrier.

Sending me a P45 may only be a curious by-product of an arcane piece of HMRC bookkeeping, but the message is no less clear for being unintended: there is not one civil service but many, not a continent but an archipelago.

Does any of that matter? The Civil Service Reform Plan suggests that it does:

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

Other governments seem to manage this slightly better. I can work out who does what in the Australian government far more easily than in my own, though I am an outsider to the former and supposedly an insider in the latter.

All too often the boring things get left until last, or just don’t get done at all, for no better or worse reason than that they are boring. I am not looking for one huge and monolithic system, carefully designed to be as consistently useless to as many people as possible. But a bit of shared information, a recognition that identities persist when their owners move around and some federation of infrastructure would all help make more tangible the ephemeral goal of joined up government.

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?

 

The phoenix and the constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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