Office in the coffee

As an antidote to the three posts this week criticising London transport maps and information, a particularly splendid reworking of the tube map has been going the rounds recently (click on it to see a bigger version).

London coffee tube map

It shows the names of good independent coffee shops in place of station names. That could be really handy on reaching the surface in an unfamiliar part of town. Or of course when refuge is needed because there are no trains.

The map comes from Out of Office – a site dedicated to the proposition that work is better done in coffee shops than in offices. And that, of course, is an idea which fits very nicely with another recent theme on this blog.

Govcamp is useless

It’s the Monday1 after the Govcamp before, the day Dave Briggs once described as the most depressing day of all, as the exhilaration of the event crashes into the realities of working lives. I like Govcamp for a long list of reasons I wrote about last year – I won’t repeat them here, but they are implicit in what follows, so might be worth a quick look before going on.2

We were all at the same event, but it’s a safe assumption that few if any of us were at the same event. Ten parallel sessions four times over means that there were 10routes through, even before taking account of the application of the rule of two feet. So these are some some thoughts on the event I was at, which may or may not resonate with anybody else’s.

Why Govcamp is useless

But before diving into that, an aside on the general uselessness of Govcamp. That uselessness is not a weakness, it is the very essence of what Govcamp is and how it works.3 Govcamp as an entity reaches no conclusions, sets no actions. It has no opinions and no manifesto. It does just one thing, and does it very effectively: it brings people together in a way which facilitates conversations between them on the topics they most want to talk about.

View from City Hall through a window with the word 'talk' stencilled on the glass

It’s worth saying that, because from time to time people (including me a few years back) get frustrated, and argue that if only Govcamp were different, it would be different, and that without concrete actions resulting from it, it is somehow a waste of time. There are two ways of responding to thoughts of that kind.

The first follows from the way Govcamp works now. What gets talked about is what people want to talk about. So the way to change what gets talked about, is to encourage different people to come – and what gets talked about in any case will change over time as both people and issues come and go.

The second is to put Govcamp into context. Not every kind of event needs to attempt every kind of task. There are events designed to make things happen, get things built, train people in specific skills, collaborate across organisational boundaries, and a whole host more. There is room in all that for an event where conversations happen, for as long as people find value in the conversation – and the way that Govcamp tickets disappeared suggests pretty strongly that the appetite for that has not gone away.

How Govcamp was useful

So with that out of the way, a few reflections on what did happen.

The setting, in City Hall, was without doubt the most spectacular yet, a building of spirals many of us found temptingly photogenic.

City Hall - Assembly Chamber

It was interesting though, how even very small changes to the layout and to flows of people can make what seem to be disproportionate differences. So the combination of the long walk from the assembly chamber to the other meeting rooms, the absence of on site coffee, and having ten choices at each of four sessions, rather than eight choices at each of five resulted in fewer serendipitous conversations and an even stronger sense than usual that too many other interesting things were happening somewhere else.

I started at the session on votecamp, which was exploring ways of encouraging more young people to vote. It’s an important topic, but I didn’t feel I had much to contribute, so I moved on – though not before hearing Ade Adewumni make the simple and very powerful point that we can’t hope to understand why some people don’t vote without understanding why other people do (especially given the basic irrationality of voting at all). I suspect that thought has much wider application: we tend to focus much more on why people don’t comply and don’t think enough about why people do.4

I ended that session in a group asking ‘what do you want from your agile supplier?’, though that felt like a bit of a euphemism for ‘how do you cope with your decidedly non-agile customer?’.

Then to a session I had proposed on how work works, which was partly written up as we went along, and which I won’t add to here.

After lunch, there was a compelling option: John Sheridan had dangled the prospect of combining legislative structures and JS Bach, which made his session irresistible.

I hoped for the emergence of a new Gödel, Escher Bach, but alas JSB went unmentioned, with only the pale consolation of copies of the Interpretation Act in his place.5 John Sheridan and the Interpretation ActBut despite that initial disappointment, the discussion was both fascinating in its own right, and a great example of how a Govcamp audience could pick up on a theme and bring a distinctive perspective to it. Prompted by John’s work, I have written before both on a concrete example of where a more code-based approach might lead to clearer law and more abstractly, how law, code and architecture fit together. I left the session with three one liners rattling round my head:

  • There is no architectural thinking in how the structure of the statute book is managed.
  • We shouldn’t let the lawyers get away with it any more
  • How do we, the geeks, share what we know with our lawyerly friends?

I spent the final session of the day in a debate on the question of whether all was well with digital in central government. The proposition was that there is nothing to worry about, but it was pretty clear that it was a question intended to evoke a short sharp answer to the contrary – which it successfully did. There is a slightly simplistic view that if the rest of the world were more like GDS, it would be a better place. The problem with that is not that it’s necessarily wrong (if it were, it probably would be), but that it doesn’t take sufficient account of the cultural and organisational context within which all this is happening. I keep going on about (and kept going on about) the fact that a relatively thin joined up information layer cannot in itself be expected to drive deep organisational and service change: the solution requires a better government as well as a better web service. The apparent GDS focus prompted some back channel dissent:

which helped draw the conversation back to what I think is a better version of the question:

That’s all an issue which has been rumbling along ever since GDS started, and actually for years before that. There isn’t going to be a solution which is intrinsically right for evermore, but that makes it the more important that we don’t lose sight of the question.

Useless but very valuable

That was my day. Or rather that was a version of my day, but in the telling, it’s lost a large part of what was best about it all. There were conversations, some brief, some longer, some connections made, which shed new light on old problems and identified whole sets of new challenges. The most frustrating thing, as ever, is that there was a whole bunch of people I would really like to have spent some time with who I didn’t talk to at all, and in some cases barely set eyes on. An event with 10,000 routes through it cannot be otherwise.

So, as ever, Govcamp was useless. But it is a very special and rather compelling form of uselessness. If we could be this useless more consistently, who knows what could be achieved.

Pictures by me, W N Bishop, and Alex Jackson

  1. No, it’s not actually Monday, but half this post self-destructed and had to be recreated, thus adding delay and reducing dramatic effect.
  2. Especially if you are not familiar with the barcamp/unconference model – in which case the description of the process at the beginning of this post might be useful.
  3. Or, indeed, any unconference or barcamp – this is a point about the method, not about the specific event.
  4. Which in turn reminds me of a great post from a few years back by Will Davies on the illusory reality of government.
  5. And I can never wholly escape the thought that policy on interpretation should rest with the Circumlocution Office.

Work Place

Fading shardThe question of how we work in a digital world is occupying me quite a lot at the moment. Prompted in part by my involvement with the project to deliver technology good enough for work, I wrote a post here a few weeks back on whether offices are redundant, with a couple of follow up posts linking to others’ thoughts on the subject. From a central government perspective, that’s all also an aspect of the TW3 initiative – the way we work. All of that is feeling to me like the context for a potentially interesting conversation at UK Govcamp tomorrow – and the point of this post is just to bring some material together which might be useful background for a discussion. I have included a few links below which happen to have caught my eye – I haven’t made any attempt to be systematic in looking at what’s out there. But even with this semi-random approach, a few question tend to come out (often implicitly) from several different directions.

Do we need offices?

There are few who argue for total abolition, but there are some who argue that the last thing they should be used for is working. On that view they are about corporate projection more than anything else – and anybody who does somehow end up doing other kinds of work should behave as if they were working remotely anyway

To the extent that we do need offices, what do we need them for?

Bringing people together is the obvious answer, but there is an overlap here with a very different agenda of space efficiency and the spectre of open plan working.  There are some very strong reactions against that – but equally strong arguments that done right it can generate better work as well as better space

How do we balance different needs?

Working from home is great, if you have a home where you can readily work. Working in a coffee shop is cool, if distractions do not overwhelm concentration. That doesn’t make the single organisational office building the only alternative – being imaginative about where and how space is used could transform working patterns, but would take more work to set up than making finding a place to work the responsibility of each individual.

How do we ensure that the technology helps?

It’s one thing – and an essential thing – to update and enhance what we have got. It’s another thing to think about where the discontinuities might be both from the demands of new ways of working and the technology developments which may create radically different possibilities.

What are the implications of all that for the work we do?

Sitting at home, or even sitting in a coffee shop, doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the work. If we are interacting with the same people, taking account of the same opinions, we remain in a conceptual office block even if we have escaped from an actual one. In a world (and as it happens on a day) when ideas such as open policy making are becoming more central, to miss the wider opportunities of more flexible working would be to miss something fundamental.


My first computer came with a big solid manual. In fact it came with two, one for MS-DOS, the operating system, and one for BASIC. The first – and for a long time only – software package I had to run on it was Word Perfect, which came with another hefty manual. WordPerfect box, 1989All three were ring binders, and together they took up a good stretch of scarce book shelf space. The ring binders went first. Then the paper got thinner, the covers floppier, and gradually the volumes got slimmer. They stopped attempting to be comprehensive and then stopped being printed altogether. Probably nobody much read them when they were there to be read. Now it’s probably more efficient to google the answer anyway, but that requires you to know the question to which you want an answer. But “I didn’t knew it could do that…” is not a question, it is the result of discovery, not a prompt for it.

I wrote the last few paragraphs on a Nexus 7. A few weeks ago, it updated itself to the latest version of android. The font on the clock has changed. Some icons which used to turn blue now don’t. As for anything less obvious, I have no idea, and Google has not made the slightest attempt to tell me. But I have come across an article that tells me that some rather useful functionality which had been added in the previous release has now been removed again. Had I known it was there I would have been irritated at the loss of it. But as I didn’t know it was there in the first place, I am not in practice any worse off. Perhaps that’s because nobody takes any notice, even if they are told. One of the commenters on Charles Arthur’s article which prompted all this argued strongly that they – we – don’t:

I think that people’s unwillingness to take even a few minutes to learn some simple techniques shows how this won’t change time soon. Windows 8 shows people key functionality when first installed for example, but I’ve seen users simple click through it all without taking the slightest bit of notice. 2 minutes increased could have made their X years experience with the product much less stressful. Similarly, I released an App early this year that had a 30 second tutorial showing how best to navigate it and useful techniques to maximise your experience. 70% of the support requests and negative reviews are asking for things that are clearly included this tutorial (and honestly, it’s reasonably well done and very straightforward)!

Meanwhile, as I was starting to write this, Aral Balkan was setting up a new app with learning baked in to the design – though of course that doesn’t guarantee that the process is effective:


I am frequently surprised how many people who spend their working lives working in Windows don’t know some very basic keyboard shortcuts, including ones I use many times a day. But smug though that lets me feel, I have no idea how much time I waste by not employing some equally basic shortcuts which I just don’t happen to know about. In the interest of research, I have just confirmed that it takes only a few seconds to find the definitive list (which is something I have never bothered to do before). And even if you do trouble to look, the resulting experience is not always a rich and rewarding one:

ALT+- (ALT+hyphen): Displays the Multiple Document Interface (MDI) child window’s System menu (from the MDI child window’s System menu, you can restore, move, resize, minimize, maximize, or close the child window)

If that makes immediate sense to you, you’re probably a power user so extreme that you are operating through telepathy rather than anything as mundane as a keyboard.

In an ideal world, you would get useful suggestions, related to the thing you were trying to do, that helped you do it but otherwise kept out of your way.Clippy parody: "I think you are trying to work. Would you like me to bug you instead?" That is, of course, what Microsoft tried to provide through what rapidly became the most derided and unpopular feature in Office, the ever helpful and ever irritating Clippy the paperclip.

Clippy is long gone, but serves to show just how much harder this is than it first appears. There are now many more subtle and less intrusive ways of providing help related to what a user is trying to do, but they still have two intrinsic weaknesses. They usually depend on the user recognising that they need help.  And they invariably can’t help the user do something they don’t know can be done.

So that leaves us with two challenges.  The first is the one which Neil started this post with: if better understanding of fairly basic tools could reduce frustration and improve efficiency, there would be great value in helping people move further along the spectrum from newbie to power user. Or to put it a different way, how do we introduce continuous improvement into the way we use our tools?

The second is the implications of all this for discontinuous change. If it’s hard enough to help people become more effective users of tools they are already familiar with, how much harder to move them from tools they know to start the learning curve afresh with new tools – which means there is a strong connection between this and the issues of usability and familiarity I wrote about last week.

The world would be a (very slightly) better place if more people knew the power of Ctrl-/Cmd-F. It would be (a great deal) better still if our tools were smart enough to teach us how to use them better.

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


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.

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.

Small pieces loosely joined

If you don’t want to read the whole of this post, there are two simple actions to take:

  1. Go to the new Public Sector Blogs site, admire it briefly, then subscribe to updates by RSS or by email, according to your fancy
  2. Follow @PubSecBlogs on twitter which tirelessly tweets updates in real time.

These each replace their predecessors. If you followed @pubsecbloggers or subscribed to the old feeds you will have had nothing new since Google Reader closed last week – so now is the time to catch up.

But to begin at the beginning.

Once there was Public Sector Blogs, a simple but useful service which was put together by linking some basic components in a way which made the whole distinctly more than the sum of the parts. A Google Reader account brought together a disparate bunch of public sector blogs. That generated an RSS feed which was used to power a simple web site and, separately, a twitter feed. Once set up, it more or less ran itself, occasionally topped up with a few fresh blogs loaded into Reader and a few which had died being or changed direction being pruned back.

The odd thing was that nobody controlled all of it – each piece was owned and operated semi-independently of the others  I don’t know how it all started or quite why it grew up that way, but I do know that Dave Briggs, Steph Gray and Paul Canning had made it happen between them Dave Briggs started it all  off in 2008, with later contributions from Steph Gray and Paul Canning – kudos to them all. And the fragmentation simply didn’t matter – until gradually it did.

The first to go was the website. Its hosting wasn’t renewed and the site quietly went away. Nobody much seemed to notice – which isn’t altogether surprising since it was the least useful bit. But then of course Reader went, and that was the end.

Or it was the chance for a new beginning. Out of that has come new Public Sector Blogs.

Screenshot from Public Sector Blogs

None of the Reader replacements, as far as I have yet discovered, directly generate a composite RSS feed in the way that Reader did. So the setup is distinctly Heath Robinson. The contributing blog feeds are curated in Feedly from which an IfThisThenThat recipe conjures up posts in a WordPress blog. The blog, of course has an RSS feed, which Twitterfeed uses to generate tweets. WordPress supports email subscriptions out of the box, but only at the level of individual posts, which isn’t what anybody wants for a stream like this, so Mailchimp is plugged in instead to produce daily summaries (and not just for Tim Lloyd).

The miracle is not that it is elegant, but that it dances at all. It’s all held together with a little bit of configuration, with virtually no coding (and absolutely no necessary coding – which is just as well, as my BASIC and FORTRAN skills from around 1978 aren’t tremendously useful here), and with virtually no money (total investment is about £8.50 for the domain name). There’s plenty of scope for improvement, both in making the flow more robust and in enhancing the value of what flows through, but that can come later. For the moment, the minimum viable product is in place.

All of that is a neat microcosm of the power of the network more generally. It is a lovely small scale example of David Weinberger’s pithy description of the wider web, small pieces loosely joined. Value comes from connecting things, and connections are easy to make if plugs and sockets are designed to fit together.  There are undoubtedly slower, more expensive and more difficult ways of making all this work in a more bespoke way – and there would be benefits as well as costs in doing that. But much better to be slightly bodged, slightly inflexible – but up and running.

In the meantime, it’s an unfortunate by product of all this that neither the original URL nor the twitter account could be carried forward.  So subscribe to Public Sector Blogs, follow @PubSecBlogs – and spread the word.

Law, code and architecture

Law matters.

It matters at a detailed level because we all need to understand rights, duties, obligations and constraints. It matters at a social level because it is the framework for mutually accepted constraint which is part of what defines civilised society.

The purpose and foundations of law are lofty and quite abstract. The immediate practicality of law is often hugely detailed, complicated and largely incomprehensible, even to specialists. That’s not a new problem – as Edward VI put it almost 500 years ago:

I wish that the superfluous and tedious statutes were brought into one sum together, and made more plain and short.

That line is taken from – and this post prompted by – the launch of a Cabinet Office initiative on Good Law which aims to ensure that law is necessary, clear, coherent, effective and accessible. It’s hard to argue with those characteristics. But anyone who has ever needed to understand legislation will know just how far the statute book is from representing them.

This post is a reflection on that event. It puts forward an idea for making law more usable which I am fairly sure is absurd and unworkable, in the hope that at the very least it might give those whose job is to think about this problem a fresh way of framing the question – and if by some miracle there might be more to it than that, so much the better.

Update: there is now a summary of the launch event (including a video which is two hours, including questions and discussion, but well worth watching at least the opening presentations). There is also a lively discussion among the contributors to a live chat at the Guardian public leaders network.

Some law is simple and powerful. Years ago, when I worked on benefit fraud, the Theft Act 1968 was one of the tools of our trade. Its opening words distill its essence:

A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it

Some law is far from simple. It is hardly possible to sustain the basic clarity of that definition of theft in creating the 4,000 further criminal offences which were apparently enacted between 1983 and 2009. The loss of simplicity may result from the detail and complexity of what it is trying to address, for example the obligation for a mariner to pay national insurance contributions may depend on whether his ship has sailed beyond the River Elbe. But all too often the complexity comes from the structure of the law itself. A power may be inserted in one act by a provision of a second act to produce regulations which may have effect in part by amending a third act or any number of other sets of regulations. It is possible to navigate along those chains, but it is not easy. The diagram below, taken from the good law report shows the web of effects of just one Act, the Companies, Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise Act 2004. It is not a pretty sight.Diagram showing complex network of connections between different pieces of legislationSo the fact that there is a problem is clear enough. The question is what can be done about it. I will not attempt – and am not qualified to attempt – anything like a comprehensive answer to that, but I do want to reflect on one aspect of the problem.

Legislation does not spring fully formed from the heads of parliamentary counsel (and secondary legislation does not spring from there at all, but let’s keep things simple). It is the culmination of long and complex processes which express the underlying intention in different ways at different stages. The general direction is usually from the more general to the more specific – green papers go white, primary legislation generates secondary.

Legislation is far from being the only area of life where this is true. The development of any system or process will tend to go through some version of it, it just won’t have legal force at the end. One of the more obvious parallels is with software development. Commonly that’s seen in terms of law as a logical system, typified by this remote contribution to the good law launch:

I am a former computer systems analyst and now a solicitor. I believe that reducing statutes and case law to a series of nested if-then propositions is possible and would make the law far more accessible to anyone who is able to access a computer. Such computer systems used to be called expert systems. With this new initiative has their time now arrived?

There is a lot of power in this view. In principle such an approach should support a much more direct link from at least some kinds of law to implementation. There are powerful tools based based on just that perception, such as Oracle Policy Automation, which are already starting to be used in some parts of government.

But in this context I am less interested in law as code and more in law as coding. To whatever extent law is like software, is drafting law like writing code?

As John Sheridan pointed out at the launch event, the process of software development has become increasingly sophisticated, not just in the availability of tools, but also in softer techniques such as pair programming. Could similar techniques help create clearer and better structured law?

One starting point is to consider where the definitive version of any piece of software is to be found. Ultimately there is some machine level code which is the set of instructions actually followed by a computer. It is though incomprehensible to humans. Sitting above that is source code which is written by and comprehensible to humans – but only highly expert ones (and the more powerful the software the less straightforwardly comprehensible the source code will be). *A step back again, there may be documents which capture the logic of the intended system. Critically in this context, that is the first level for which the primary audience is human. Beyond that, there may be various documents capturing requirements and intentions, but those are descriptions of the intended system, not representations of it. For a system of any complexity, there will also be some kind of architecture which sets out the role of each component and how each relates to all the others.

There is no arguing with machine code: it does whatever it does, and so is undoubtedly definitive in one sense. But in a different way, there is no arguing with higher level requirements: they should be the definitive description of what is intended.

If you want to know how a system works and what it does, you are likely to be much better off starting with architecture and working down towards code than starting with some arbitrary code and trying to infer architecture.

How does any of that map to legislation? Source code is probably the closest match to legislative text. General requirements are, perhaps more loosely, analogous to policy documents. But what of more detailed specifications? And where is there any sense of architecture?

As it happens, there is a place in the legislative process where high level system logic is captured, though one I don’t think was mentioned at the good law event – instructions to counsel. These are curious documents, with no constitutional or legal status but immense practical significance. They are supposed to be the most complete, rigorous and systematic specification of what the legislation is intended to achieve and in theory (though I suspect vanishingly rarely in practice) should be all that is needed to allow parliamentary counsel to draft legislation which correctly implements ministers’ intentions. In order to do that, they need to operate at several different levels at once. They specify the system logic – the if-then statements both for the policy core and for the inevitable edge conditions. In addition, they both communicate the intention, against which more detailed parts of the solution can be tested, and also set that in context, and may illustrate what is intended in one area by analogy with what has previously been done in another.

Nobody would pretend that they are a light read, but they do have real advantages over the legislation which they generate. The first is that they are comprehensive:  the intention is in a single place, even if the legislative implementation is scattered over new and amended statutes. Secondly, they are continuous prose: they tell a story in a way which the more code-like text of legislation will never equal. Thirdly they are more easily testable: it requires less specialist knowledge and expertise for a minister or policy official to ask themselves whether what the instructions describe is the outcome they intended to achieve. And finally, they are rigorous: much of the virtue in producing instructions lies not in the finished product but in the sometimes painful process of being made to translate implicit or unspoken aspects of the policy into explicit requirements.

A good set of instructions, therefore, is a robust description of the intended legislative effect. The actual draft legislation is either a faithful representation of the instructions, in which case it can have no greater information content than the instructions did to start with, or it fails to be a faithful representation, in which case it is wrong (I am, of course, massively over-simplifying here – ignoring both how legislation changes through its parliamentary passage and the fact that there are already established – if exceptional – ways of ascribing meaning to law other than just through its own language). So we can ask again, which is the definitive version. In the world we know there is only one answer: it is always the legislative text. But perhaps there are advantages in creating a world where the answer is not so simple.

What if we were to give primacy not to the legislation but to the instructions? Put like that it sounds absurd, but what if we were to ask instead, what if we were to give primacy not to the technical coding, but to the agreed and understood system requirements.

The effect in one way would be related to purpose clauses and recitals, both of which try to make clear what the legislation is intended to do before getting into all the detail of doing it – though neither of which seemed to find much favour in the discussion. But it would be a much bigger change than that. Perhaps the most powerful feature would be that they could start at the level of architecture, embodying a version of the network diagram at the top of this post. They would map the landscape to set the reader’s bearings before diving down into the greater detail. They would shift the political debate, with the primary question always being whether the intention is clear and has been fully captured, rather than time and energy being spent on technical amendments which nobody understands.

More subtly, they offer some chance of bringing some of the narrative clarity of case-based law to the more arcane structures of statute-focused law. Richard Heaton made a powerful point that much law is taught and learned through stories, the cases which bring the law to life and set its boundaries in a way very different from the endless technical detail of administrative and other areas of law. That immediately makes it easier to engage the interest and contributions of the great majority of people who are constantly affected by laws of which they have little understanding and over which they have little influence.

So my modest proposal is this. Recognise instructions to counsel for what they are: the definitive statement of what the law should be. Let that be debated by parliament – and by all the rest of us. Treat everything we currently see as legislation as technical implementation of that architecture, still vitally important, still needing the highest quality of professional skill in its construction and application, but of no more interest to non-specialists than the source code of a browser is to those reading these words.

This may be a completely ludicrous idea. I am more than half inclined to think it is myself. But let me end with a thought experiment. If we had the freedom to start again completely, without any sense of how law should best be made and without any burden of history or tradition, what might we then invent? And would that be more like the Westminster model we are all so familiar with, or might it be closer to the approach I have sketched out here?

Source code picture by Sebastian Delmont, licensed under creative commons