16 October 2013
It’s time for a change. From today, the public strategist is becoming rather more public. The threadbare pseudonymity of Public Strategist has outlived its usefulness – the new About page tells all.
There were two reasons for being faceless and nameless here. The first was distance. I wanted to be very clear that there was – and is – a separation between what I write here and the work I do as a civil servant. I have gone on about that more than once, so will only say here that this blog does not and will not contain material about the substance of my working life, though it does and will talk about issues on which I have something to say in part because of my experience as a civil servant. Having sustained that distinction for quite a few years and a few hundred blog posts, I don’t think it needs any longer to depend on pseudonymity as well.
The second reason was caution. There is a great deal more social media openness in government than there used to be, but it can be hard to remember just how recent and limited a phenomenon that is. It has matured a bit since I wrote about the voices of government in 2009, though the basic picture hasn’t changed much and this still feels like a slightly odd thing to be doing. But when the head of the civil service and my about to be permanent secretary are both active on twitter and when the former has a blog, the balance of risk is clearly tipping. I have always operated here on the basis of seeking forgiveness rather than permission, but always with a slightly niggling doubt about how easy forgiveness might be to come by. That can’t – and shouldn’t – ever go away entirely but here too the balance feels different from the way it did a few years ago.
There is a recognition of reality here too. A pseudonym is not a binary state, there are degrees of opacity. This change is the end of a slow process: it has never been a great secret and I very consciously made a link between my name and my blog when I joined twitter four years ago. Google has long made the connection and the distinction gets ever more artificial.
So, blinking slightly in the unaccustomed daylight, the Public Strategist emerges.
14 October 2013
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.
4 October 2013
The web is much better at making information free than making it expensive.
2 October 2013
I was brought up to enjoy the look and heft – and smell – of books as well as to treasure them as repositories of knowledge. A house without books looks both uninhabited and uninhabitable. If you can’t browse a stranger’s bookshelves, how will they ever stop being a stranger?
So I did not rush to join the e-reader revolution. But having made the leap, there is no going back. E-readers are not without their disadvantages and irritations, but for me the advantages heavily outweigh them. So now our household kindle library has reached 551 titles and I am deeply reluctant to buy books any other way.1
But getting hold of the books isn’t always straightforward. Perhaps not surprisingly, back catalogue material is only very patchily available, often with weird complexities stemming from territorial based licensing of copyright which is conceptually stuck in the physical world. More oddly, buying very new books, and particularly books not yet published, is also a lot harder than makes any sense.
This isn’t really a post about book buying, it’s a post about workflow and front and back end integration. It’s another example of how having the smartest website in the world can’t save you from weaknesses deeper in the system.
Publishers announce their new books months before they actually publish them. And pretty much as soon as they have been announced and given an ISBN number and a price, they appear on Amazon.2
So here’s a book I have been wanting to read for a while about to be republished in a new edition. It won’t be out until 25 February 2014, which is quite a while to wait, and perhaps I will have forgotten to look out for it by then. But Amazon are far too canny to let a sale slip through their fingers, so I can order it right now, for delivery in five months’ time. Or at least I can if I want the paper version – but not if I want to read it on my kindle. I am fairly confident that it will be made available that way, but past experience suggests that it won’t be visible on Amazon until a couple of weeks before publication (and maybe not until the day of publication itself).3
This makes no sense. Publishers don’t suddenly remember that they are going to need a kindle version when copies fresh from the printer are stacked up in the warehouse. And it’s not that they need the book itself weeks or months in advance, all they need is a catalogue entry and a price tag.
I know nothing about Amazon’s backend systems. But the only explanation for that which I can think of is that the process by which publishers signal the future availability of an e-book is different from the process for printed books. From a producer’s point of view, you can understand why that might be. Books have enjoyed standardisation of cataloguing for longer than any other consumer product I can think of: the ISBN had its roots in the 1960s, with the numbers translated into bar codes by the early 1980s. An entire eco-system grew up round that, and it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if some parts of it were not well adapted to dematerialisation.
But one of the strengths of the ISBN system is that it numbers formats and editions, not titles. That’s because books came as hardbacks and paperbacks, but an e-book can be treated as just another format as far as giving it a number is concerned. Oddly though, while the ISBN of a paper book appears on that book’s Amazon page, kindle books are shown only with Amazon’s internal reference number.4 Publishers are part of the weirdness too: in a random check of catalogue pages for four books from four publishers, only one even admits to the existence of an e-book, and two will tell me about a paperback not available until next year, but not that I can buy it for my kindle right now.
I deduce that both Amazon and publishers think about and manage e-books differently from paper books. I don’t know whether it is by design or accident, how easy it would be to change, or whether any of the players would oppose such a change.
I don’t really understand what’s going on here, and I don’t really care. I am just the customer. But Jeff Bezos has something to say about that:
We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.
And even with those principles, even with a customer interface and ordering system which is endlessly fine tuned to streamline the experience, the mechanics of the supply chain still somehow stops them from delivering the service I want.
- Unless there are pictures or diagrams, that’s another story. But plain words now arrive only ethereally. ↩
- Which may have something to do with the fact that in it’s very earliest days, Amazon wasn’t much more than a front end to the books in print catalogue combined with proximity to a wholesaler. Or that might be nothing to do with it at all. ↩
- Another book I am waiting for has a formal publication date next week. The paper book can be bought right now, the kindle edition observes the proprieties. ↩
- Though a search for the e-book ISBN (if you can find it) does seem to end up in the right place. ↩
30 September 2013
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
At its heart, web design should be about words. Words don't come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.
Start with words.
Nate Silver on Finding a Mentor, Teaching Yourself Statistics, and Not Settling in Your Career – Walter Frick – Harvard Business Review
The thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.
Are you motivated or getting something done? | Clear message
At work we often see a lot of people and organisations re-tweet, write or in some way help to promote our policy engagement projects, but the numbers are rarely proportionate to the number of responses we receive or, if I’m honest, meaningful engagement. In the time it takes people to help promote a project, they could have contributed directly themselves, which would probably be more beneficial all round.
danah boyd | apophenia » eyes on the street or creepy surveillance?
Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest societies are those where there are “eyes on the street.” What she meant by this was that healthy communities looked out for each other, were attentive to when others were hurting, and were generally present when things went haywire. How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy? When is proactive monitoring valuable for making a difference in teens’ lives? How do we make sure that these same tools aren’t abused for more malicious purposes?
Our blog | We Love Local Government – Tales from the NHS
All of this could have been avoided if a little common sense had been demonstrated at any moment along the way. Instead, a lot of people were employed implementing a pointless process, lots of money was spent on temporary staff and more importantly the quality of care for the patients was damaged.
If ever there was a situation that demonstrates why the NHS is seen as a failing bureaucracy this is it.
Is this a reason some council and NHS scandals stay hidden for years? | Campaign4Change
It appears that those who write board reports for public authorities feel an obligation to motivate and inspire, to leave the reader feeling good, to clothe bad news in layers of good news, omit it altogether or put it in the appendix hardly anyone reads.
Is this one reason so many outsourcing and NHS scandals stay hidden for years?
Matthew Butterick: The Bomb in the Garden
The web has always been great for making information free, and terrible at charging for it. And that’s a technological flaw that’s existed since the beginning of the web. So from early on, folks took this lemon and tried to make web lemonade by latching onto the belief that exposure mattered more than money.
Does this sound familiar, designers? “This project’s going to be great exposure.” It’s never true. It’s never been true. It’s never been true on the web. But it became one of the web’s core religious beliefs.
The problem, of course, is that information wasn’t actually free. It’s just that no one wanted to pay for it. But somebody had to. So we’ve ended up with what?
We’ve ended up with a web dominated by advertising.
The trouble with calling people trolls | Ben Proctor: digital skills for resilience
Some behaviours are difficult, time consuming, troubling or irritating. That’s not trolling. In fact it is really important that citizens are able to behave in exactly these ways with manifestations of the state. As public servants we should be asking ourselves why citizens feel the need to act in these ways.
If we bandy the term trolls around (in a public sector context) we risk dismissing those who are, entirely legitimately, challenging state power and equating them with those who abuse individuals for expressing opinions online.
The Three Individuals Your Organization Needs For Innovation | PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT TECHNOLOGIES
There is an answer to the innovation challenge: engage your brokers, role models and risk-takers to push the organization. Take an informal look around your organization: search for where connections and links are being made between areas of operation and expertise; see if there are visible, authentic champions of innovation; and watch for strong, well-prepared risk-takers pushing boundaries. If you are finding these kinds of activities, your organization fosters good innovation, and is in a prime position to push some boundaries.
Government and the internet · Patrick Collison
Over the last two decades, tension between government and the changes caused by the internet has been a recurring theme. Today, they’re almost seen as opposing forces. This is somewhat strange when you think about it. Most technologies don’t cause so much ongoing upheaval.
Why is the internet so challenging? I decided to make a list of reasons and came up with 11. Though none of them are very novel, I found the catalog interesting. (For one thing, I expected fewer.)
ThinkUp – Is advertising the only way to change the web?
The arguments for directly charging users are pretty straightforward, and they’re all grounded in a simple principle: It’s better for the web if a site or app is more accountable to its users and community than to its advertisers.
The appealing-but-falsely-reductive phrasing of this idea is “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product”, which is fun to say but has been persuasively refuted. But the more important question may be, can we build a business that is structurally and financially more accountable to its users and community, with advertising being used primarily to help reach a big enough scale to have meaningful impact?
Iteration doesn’t mean getting better every time | Martin Wright – a friendly web designer
Iterating on something, whether it be a product, a design or a process doesn’t mean getting better every time. There is no guarantee that every iteration will be an improvement over the last, but over a longer timeframe you will see significant improvements.
Schneier on Security: Restoring Trust in Government and the Internet
In a world where everyone lies to us all the time, we have no choice but to trust blindly, and we have no reason to believe that anyone is worthy of blind trust.
How to be strategic in local government
Being strategic is not big and clever. If you want to improve the lives of service users just saying things about the arrangement of words on a page isn’t enough. It is harder than that. You need to be smarter and more resilient because the job is messier. You need to get out into the actual work and find out what is going on, warts and all. You need to understand what problems people have, what gets in the way of staff solving them and what you can do improve things. Neither the documents nor the strategic prattle will help you with that.
Don Norman on Wearable Devices | MIT Technology Review
If simultaneous task performance is so deleterious, why do people maintain that they can do it without any deterioration? Well, it is for somewhat the same reason that drunk drivers think they can drive safely: monitoring our own performance is yet another task to do, and it suffers. The impairment in mental skills makes it difficult to notice the impairment.
10 Rules of Internet – Anil Dash
Any new form of electronic communication will first be dismissed as trivial and worthless until it produces a profound result, after which it will be described as obvious and boring.
Stumbling and Mumbling: Cutting waste
Governments cannot reduce "waste" merely by increasing efficiency. Even in the private sector, remember, efficiency increases not so much by individual firms becoming more efficient, but by firms entering and exiting the market. If governmental efficiency is to increase, it will have to be through a similar mechanism – the government exiting from some functions and rethinking how it provides others.
Metrics for government reform – Nesta
In judging a programme of reform it's therefore vital not to mistake what is being assessed. So in the earlier examples – new devices or actions – evaluation can be very rigorously quantitative and often fast. There is no excuse for not measuring impacts; not using plenty of control groups; not feeding results fast into decision-making.
For the later examples – that are more strategic – all of these tools for assessment risk becoming vices rather than virtues. Then you need complex judgement; a sense of history and context; and above all, the time and space to interrogate those judgements. The conversations prompted are likely to be as useful as any written outputs.
Edge Perspectives with John Hagel: Strategy Made Simple – The 3 Core Strategy Questions
In increasingly turbulent and complex times, we understandably fall prey to a dangerous temptation – both as institutions and individuals. We’re tempted to abandon long-term strategy and fall back on rapid adaptation as the only winning game – sense and respond quickly enough to events as they occur and everything will be OK.
GOV.UK – why are we still struggling to convince some stakeholders and civil servants? | digital@BIS
We know the site is constantly iterating and big things like search have been improved but something is missing. What are the user needs of civil servants or partners? When it won the Design of the Year award recently, why did the site get a sneer rather than a cheer?
27 September 2013
It’s quite common to see people on Twitter celebrating a milestone of the number of people following them, or to urge for themselves or for some deserving cause the attention of a few more people to push them over the next threshold. That is clearly a measure of something, but it’s not completely clear what, or against what standard success should be measured.
I want to celebrate a different kind of milestone. A couple of days ago the number of accounts I follow reached 500. It’s been quite a long slow process getting there. I am by no means one of Twitter’s older residents, but there is 4½ years of slow accumulation, a fraction under ten new accounts followed each month.
I hope the people who follow me feel they get some value or pleasure from doing so, but the value I get is not from them but from the people I follow, who inform, educate, ask, inspire, irritate, answer and challenge – and best of all converse. Some of those 500 have no idea who I am. Some of them are machines. Some of them I think of as friends and have to remind myself that I have never met them. And some of them are long silent, sometimes for reasons I know, often for reasons I don’t.
By happy chance, the 500th entry on my list has a deeper significance. Back in 2009, I was well past the process of hearing about Twitter and dismissing it as the latest west coast fad which would never catch on with normal people. Then I found myself in a room for a workshop which Emma Mulqueeny had generously organised for me, with a bevy of interesting people, among them Ben Hammersley. There was some kind of transport disruption and several people were running late, and I slowly realised that Emma and Ben were better informed about what was going on in general, about what had happened to some of our missing people in particular, and were having a silent conversation about all that and, for all I knew, seventeen other things as well, right under my nose. I joined Twitter that day, and Emma and Ben were two of the first of my five hundred.
Also in the small group in the room was my colleague Beccy Russell, who somehow missed the clarion call of Twitter that day. This week she has started a new job at BIS, adding to the list of smart people who do digital things there (and where to welcome her they are starting their impressive digital fortnight). That’s prompted her to join Twitter, allowing me to be her first follower and she my five hundredth followed. And so the cycle turns. She hasn’t broken her duck yet – but you might want to follow her to be ready when she does.
Two small afterthoughts:
1. There are some who argue – or used to argue – that being followed on Twitter brought some obligation of reciprocity. I have never understood that argument. There are people I like and respect but who tweet a lot on subjects which don’t particularly interest me. Or who tweet a lot at a rate I can’t absorb. There are lots of people whose tweets I might be interested in whom I have overlooked, some of whom might be following me. I make no judgement and intend no slight in that.
2. The language of ‘followers’ jars on me. It implies leadership and hierarchy in a way completely at odds with the networked relationships which are the best of Twitter. And to make matters worse, there is no good word for the reciprocal relationship: ‘following’ doesn’t really work, ‘friend’ which some seem to use is nonsensical. But ‘followers’ is the universally used term, so I have given in to it.
26 September 2013
There is a difference – often elided – between a probability and a degree of confidence in a forecast. It is one reason why we are better at avoiding drizzle than financial crises.
25 September 2013
Not long ago, staying in Cornwall entailed giving up on most modern forms of communication. This summer, the house we have rented there for the last few years had sprouted broadband. Not very fast broadband, admittedly, but a big improvement on no broadband at all- and it’s just there, no fuss, no charge.
Back in London, my office is just across the road from the site of what was once a grand hotel, which must have had splendid views across to the west front of Westminster Abbey. The building is long gone, but the palest of shadows remains in the form of an advert from a century ago.
There is no charge for electric light, it proudly proclaims, so self-consciously positioning itself on the cutting edge of modernity – and from our enlightened perspective, unwittingly positioning itself on the edge of antiquity. The list of things we don’t expect to pay for in hotels is a long one: typically there isn’t a fresh sheets charge, or a bill for wardrobe access, any more than there is an electric light fee.1
Of course there is an exception to that approach of bundling all the elements of the service together into a single price: internet access. It isn’t just that the price is not bundled together with everything else, it is that it is expensive and unreliable thus prompting pain and rage communicated to the world as soon as network access is restored. But just as lights and baths have become part of the service instead of additions to it, it seems to safe to say that network access will go the same way – or if it doesn’t, it will be because mobile access has become dominant, not because hotels are still charging. So carrying on as they are doesn’t look like a viable strategy – or much like a strategy at all:
I appreciate that providing online access is still a significant revenue stream for many hotels, and no-one is going to voluntarily forsake it without an adequate alternative. But if a source of income is drying up before your eyes (with guests increasingly able to create their own wireless hotspots or go down the road to the competition who are giving it away for free) the imperative to come up with an alternative should surely be more urgent. If hoteliers can actually find anyone still making a living in print publishing they should perhaps ask them for a few tips while they still can.
All of this is, of course, an example of a tendency for products and services to become more integrated and commoditised.2 Years ago, I remember seeing a diagram, probably by Gartner, showing waves of IT commoditisation over time. The argument was that computer hardware had started out as highly specialised and bespoke and thus high margin, before first becoming more standardised and commoditised (and as a result with much lower margins) and then largely vanishing from sight altogether. The same cycle happened a few years later with software, as what was once bespoke increasingly became packaged. And then it happened again with the services which the software supported and with many of the businesses which operated and sold those services. Canny companies tried to ride up the stack as the only way to maintain distinctiveness and thus profits. The example often used to illustrate the process is IBM, which once used to make computers.3
All of that was long before people started talking about clouds, though the basic idea is identical: it is better to buy the service than to have to buy the technology to deliver the service, and that holds true at different levels of abstraction from the underlying technology.
We have had Software as a Service, Security as a Service, Storage as a Service (SaaS is a generically useful abbreviation). Now the shark has been jumped with Anything as a Service and Everything as a Service. But the apotheosis will come when we reach Service as a Service.
Just remember that Edwardian hoteliers were there first.
- The curious fact that hotels almost universally assume that soap and shampoo need to be provided but that everyone always travels with their own toothpaste can be left for exploration on another occasion. But for now we can note that there is neither a shampoo charge nor a toothpaste absence discount. ↩
- Airline tickets are a curious exception to this tendency, with relentless unbundling being a feature initially of low-cost airlines which has spread more widely ↩
- And perhaps the anti-example is Kodak, which failed to stop making film and chemicals, until it failed altogether. ↩
19 September 2013
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?
19 September 2013
In 1999, I wrote a paper with the zeal of the converted, about how online shopping was going to kill supermarkets. It wasn’t that I thought everybody would abandon them, it was that I thought most of the profitable customers would, leaving the supermarkets with high fixed costs and unsustainably low margins.
In 2009, I noted that since I had written that paper, Tesco had trebled both its turnover and its profits. That didn’t say much for my forecasting skills, but I concluded slightly folornly that perhaps it was my timing which was wrong in 1999, not my argument.
Now it’s starting to look as though I might have been right all along, with two telling news stories last week. The first is that the relentless growth of big supermarkets may have had its day:
Tesco slashed its UK expansion plans in half with around 110 development sites no longer slated to be turned into supermarkets and a further 40 plots of land next to existing stores were put on the market after store extensions were abandoned.
The second story was all in the headline: UK online grocery sales forecast to double amid shakeup of retail market.
Meanwhile, Tom Loosemore was reflecting not on predicting a change in the world, but on making one happen. It’s ten years since he and a gang of other subversives created They Work For You, which is Hansard on steroids.
In last week’s Spectator there’s an article by Peter Lilley. It is subtitled thus: “Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing.”
The piece heralds the role TheyWorkForYou has played in helping constituents hold their MP to account.
It’s ten years since we started building TheyWorkForYou – a decade’s lag between cause and effect.
There shouldn’t be any surprise about any of this. The first electric motors were replacement steam engines. It took decades for factories to be designed around distributed power rather than centralised power. As Diana Coyle put it, ‘technologies have to be used as well as invented’, before she went on to say:
The error of hype is because new technologies often have such great wow factors. The error of not noticing profound change is precisely because many people find it hard to see the cumulative effect of all the many contextual changes needed for a technology to be widely used.
Famously, Zhou Enlai is said to have responded to a question about the significance of the French revolution by saying, ‘it’s too early to tell’.
Supermarkets are not about to start closing their doors. Parliamentary democracy is not about to collapse or even radically mutate. But the web is only twenty years old. The disruption is just beginning.