Net present value

The train now approaching platform 2 has been delayed for 155 years.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the Cornish Riviera, the fastest train from Cornwall to London, stopping only at Plymouth, Exeter and Reading between the Tamar and Paddington, and timetabled to go from Penzance to London in exactly five hours.

Splendid. Except that the distance is a shade over 300 miles, so the average speed is a less than dizzy 61mph. And even that average covers some interesting variation. Looked at section by section, the speeds tell a powerful story.

Distance (miles) Time Speed (mph)
Penzance to Plymouth 79½ 2h 40
Plymouth to Exeter 52 57m 55
Exeter to Reading 137¾ 1h 38 81
Reading to London 36 25m 86
Penzance to London 305¼ 5h 61

Some of that variation is explained by the fact that the train stops eight times between Penzance and Plymouth and not at all between the other pairs of stations, but on any basis, a supposed express taking two hours to cover eighty miles is hardly impressive.

This isn’t about the trains. They may be forty years old, but they are still capable of reaching 125mph and they certainly don’t get close to that anywhere west of Exeter.  So it comes down to the track and, more specifically, to a set of design decisions made in the 1840s.  The terrain was not easy, with lots of steep valleys perpendicular to the line of route, money was short, and construction costs were minimised. Apart from the curves, other obvious signs of those constraints remain today – the splendid Royal Albert bridge across the Tamar is an engineering masterpiece, but it is only single track, as was the entire line in Cornwall when first built.

In making those design decisions, did the promoters of the line give any thought to the fact that they were investing for the next two centuries or more? Of course they didn’t – what, after all, had posterity ever done for them? With the benefit of those two centuries of hindsight, would it have been rational to have invested more at the outset in order to secure a long stream of higher benefits? Almost certainly, and if the capital markets were not capable of doing that, we can now see that it would have made good sense for the government of the time to have borrowed to make more effective investment possible. Leaving aside the fact that that’s not what governments in the 1840s saw their job as being (we are already well into the realm of fantasy here), the very long range value of some kinds of investment decisions, combined with the very long term constraints some of those decisions bring means that the there is a long-term skew to sub-optimal levels of public investment.

Meanwhile, Daniel Davies has written a beautiful essay, summarising Switzerland in 18 vignettes. The whole thing is a delight and well worth reading, but a couple of sentences prompted me to think again about my Cornish experience:

The SBB, great though it is, is not the real miracle of Switzerland compared to the dozens of little cantonal and sub-regional railways that serve even the smallest little towns on rails carved into the roads or running alongside them. This sort of infrastructure asset doesn’t depreciate if maintained properly, and it keeps providing the services for which it was intended in all economic climates. It’s a classic illustration of a point that John Quiggin has regularly made – that classic “risk-adjusted” discounted cash flow analysis will always overstate the risks of government spending and result in underprovision of infrastructure.

Devon and Cornwall provide a different example of that point with the closure of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot earlier this year when a stretch of track was washed away. There was once some redundancy in the system which could have routed round the damage – but that has long since been removed, leaving rail access to Plymouth and beyond vulnerable to a single point of failure. Again, we can only speculate about the long term return there would have been on keeping the line across Dartmoor open.

This isn’t a post mourning a pre-Beeching world, where trains puffed across sunny rural landscapes, pausing from time to time to pick up a few milk churns. Seeing how the past might be valued differently is not the same as valuing everything that is past. Trying to understand the long-term value of infrastructure is not the same as saying that all infrastructure has long-term value.

Indeed, this isn’t really a post about the past at all. The railway line across Cornwall, curves, gradients and all, is what it is, and nobody is going to build another one. So this is a post about the future: can we find ways of being smarter about the long term value (and costs and risks) of our investment choices?

 

 

 

Interesting elsewhere – 6 August 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

War – the mother of the tech sector | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
War, then, is good for technological development. Of course, it’s not the killing and destruction itself that leads to innovation. You can do a lot of that with relatively primitive technology. What drives the scale and speed of technological innovation is a massive concentration of investment. It’s just nothing seems to promote quite that level of investment quite like armed conflict, or the fear of it.

The UX problem with Agile | mmitII
One element that can help is for the providers of systems to try to hold onto empathy for their users – and to understand fundamentally that sometimes what we see as “making things better” might not be perceived in the same way by the people using a service. For most of us the status quo, no matter how buggy or badly designed, is initially favoured to the new because, whilst it might be crappy, we know its limitations and have built coping mechanisms to work around. Every improvement runs the risk of initially removing a level of self determination from the people who are using the system.

FutureGov | Play time is over
We can’t just sleepwalk into this stuff, we must think about the impact of decisions we make and the values we want to design into the public services we build. Technology and open data is not neutral anymore than anything else we do. We need to think carefully about whether and how we want to design with people. To give them access to their data – or not. To support participation in public services – or not.

Why I Tweet | Sharon O’Dea
I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

Let citizens spend tax revenues rather than the technocrats at the top : RSA blogs
In these creative times, when people have so much more confidence in their capacity to think for themselves, develop ideas and change theirs and others’ worlds, a relationship built around the notion that citizens should simply hand over cash in return for top-down provision is bound to cause annoyance and confusion. It also encourages the very abdication of personal responsibility which politicians now tell us we need to revive to meet the challenge of long-term austerity.

The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often – NYTimes.com
The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.

Government should be joined up and grown up | LabourList
Mature and competent ministers can work very successfully with officials. Politicians should provide a sense of direction. Civil servants should carry out the work that ensues. It may not always be easy, but it must be doable.

more work required: on ‘big govt IT’, ‘transactions’ and the future of public service design | new tech observations from the UK (ntouk)
Many current government ‘transactions’ are merely automated versions from the old paper world, moving electronic versions of forms from one place to another — either literally, or by mimicking the form online in a series of interminable web pages that ape the paper world. We can throw all the tin and software we like at these ‘digital forms’, but it’s not going to do much to improve the quality, efficiency, or relevance of the services involved.

Why big IT projects always go wrong | Technology | The Observer
The message is clear: if you run a big company or a government department and are contemplating a big IT product, ask yourself this question: can your company or your ministerial career survive if the project goes over budget by 40% or more, or if only 25-50% of the projected benefits are realised? If the answer is “no” go back to square one.

10 Lessons from 4 Years Working Remotely at Automattic | When I Have Time by Sara Rosso
When you work with a distributed team, the only way you measure if they are working is on their output. Did they do what they said they would do? Where is the result of that work? Did they even say they would do anything, or have they gone dark? It’s frightening easy to notice when a distributed coworker checks out or becomes disinterested in what they’re doing…they stop communicating, they stop creating. There’s no output.

Don’t blame the mandarins | Freethinking Economist
From time to time you will read columns revealing how some great idea has been being thwarted by Mandarins.   This is usually the clearest sign than an incompetent spad has been on manoeuvres.  It isn’t a coup.

Cucumber legislation

We are approaching the traditional time of the silly season in UK news and politics, the quiet period when in the absence of real news, the frivolous and the dotty get more column inches than they otherwise would.1 In Poland and indeed much of the rest of Europe, that period is know as the cucumber season.2

cucumber cross section

With that slightly unlikely introduction (for reasons which will become apparent), let us return to the question of whether law is code and, to the extent that it is useful to talk about it that way, what ways of producing better code might tell us about making better law. Quite clearly, law is not actually code and it is arguable – and indeed argued – that it is wrong and unhelpful to think of it that way. Just recently, Evgeny Morozov has written about ‘algorithmic regulation’ as a threat to the democratic process. But even to the extent that he is right (which in my view is not very great), it’s a different question to the one I am interested in here.

Law, like code, is a complex system of components, where defined inputs should lead to determined outputs. A critical question in both worlds is therefore whether the black box between the two successfully translates the first into the second. Every approach to software development there has ever been – and there have been many – has been an attempt to solve that problem for code. Approaches to the development of law have been less structured and less eclectic, but again, the purpose of drafting legislation is to give effect to intentions.

In each case, it is valuable to test whether the inputs do in fact generate the intended outputs. For law, that can be quite tricky. One reason for that is that it may take a long time (and a complex process) to work out what the inputs are, never mind what the output is. One reason we have judges is to run just such tests: given a set of facts, and given the application of the law to those facts, what outputs does the system generate? In more complex cases, it can take several sets of judges several years to reach a final answer to that question. To add further complexity, the judicially correct assessment of the meaning of law can change over time, even where the law itself does not.3

Computer code, to put it mildly, is not like that. Because it is not like that, the techniques for testing and validating it are very different. They can in principle be more structured and more systematic – indeed they can in principle and occasional practice produce error free code. But even – or perhaps especially – outside such rarified exceptions, ensuring that code matches intent is a difficult and imperfect process, as it is for law.

And so back to cucumbers and to an intriguing post from Richard Pope about using software test techniques to identify whether regulations are being enforced, by analysing data about activity and matching it with regulatory activity.

There are tools for doing this using a syntax called Cucumber, which as Richard explains

is designed to both be readable, and to be written by, a non-technical person, but can be run automatically by a machine.

But if it is possible to use such an approach to test whether regulations are being applied, why not use the same approach to generate the regulations in the first place?

There are fairly well established tools for turning legislation into decision rules (though their adoption for their core purpose does not seem to be terribly widespread).4 Turning decision rules into legislation is a rather different question, but conceptually is not so very different from the kind of behaviour-driven development which Cucumber supports (though ‘conceptually’, of course, can be a very long way from ‘practically’).

All of that takes us back to a question first raised by John Sheridan: if law has some similarities to code, are there tools and techniques which can be adopted from the development of software to the development of law?

The short, but not very helpful, answer is almost certainly that there are. Any longer answer needs to take account of some profound differences – the architecture and structure of legacy legislation compared with legacy code, to take just one example. That might mean that tools and processes need to be quite distinct, but it doesn’t stop the concepts and disciplines having common application.

So Cucumber-driven legislation might or might not be the next big thing – but in either case the idea prompts some important questions and points to useful areas for more detailed exploration. And this is, after all, the cucumber season, a time for speculative fancy with little requirement for strong foundations.

Cucumber picture by viZZZual.com, licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Column inches are not what they once were, of course, but I use the phrase deliberately since the idea of a silly season has itself rather wilted under the pressure of the constant news cycle, and this is not a week where the news feels particularly silly.
  2. That seems both horticulturally slightly inaccurate and a bit of a stretch of association, but let’s not worry about that.
  3. The interpretation of the US constitution by its supreme court provides clear examples.
  4. The market leader has existed in various guises for at least 15 years, and is now known as Oracle Policy Automation.  It is probably most suited to very rule-based processes such as tax and benefits,  but even there it has never really taken off.

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.

Interesting elsewhere – 9 July 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Help Joy help you. On the unusability of internal systems. – disambiguity
If you’re going to do this user experience thing properly, you’ve got to look at all the angles. If you respect for your employees and your customers you need to care about the user experience of internal systems. Challenge yourself to solve the often more difficult design problems of internal systems, and know that by doing that, you’re creating a better user experience for all.

We need public service reform but it won’t be enough on its own | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
The whole reason I started banging on about the country’s fiscal position in the first place was to demonstrate the need for reform of the state. Anyone in the public sector who thinks that, under a more sympathetic government, things will go back to how they were, is deluding themselves. Even with a growing economy, the squeeze on budgets will be a feature of public sector management for at least the rest of this decade and probably well into the next one too.

Making prison visits easier to book | Government Digital Service
This visit opened my eyes to just how hard people will work to cope with inadequate and unsuitable IT systems. They’ll tolerate a huge amount of unnecessary administration without challenge or complaint.

7 tribes of digital? | Curiouscatherine’s Blog
Leadership is essential not just in terms of effective decision making because we don’t want this to be a values-less exercise. Technologists make values based decisions everyday and if they are not being guided by shared strategic and cultural principles set by organisational leaders who understand what they are doing then they are likely to make at best chaotic and at worst bad choices. Ensuring our digital spaces reflect our cultural values is going to be a key aspect to leadership in the 21st Century.

danah boyd | apophenia » What does the Facebook experiment teach us?
I resent the fact that because I barely use [Facebook], the only way that I could actually get a message out to friends is to pay to have it posted. My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm.

Jill Lepore: What the Theory of “Disruptive Innovation” Gets Wrong : The New Yorker
Among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

Stumbling and Mumbling: The home-working puzzle
Early factories supplanted home-working not because they were technically more efficient, but because they gave capitalists more control over the labour process and hence the power to extract more of the gains from the employment relationship for themselves. A similar thing might explain employers’ aversion to home-working today. Or, more loosely, perhaps narcissistic managers want to feel a sense of power from seeing employees working.

Users: an addendum

The Facebook research furore burst just after my post last week on the connotations of ‘people’, ‘customers’ and ‘users’. Benjamin Ellis’s thoughtfully furious post is a powerful account of the affair, including this comment on the use of ‘users':

Perhaps we need to stop using the term ‘users‘ just as psychologists stopped using the word ‘subjects‘. Language drives attitudes, and viewing people as ‘big data’ leads to a mindset that is dangerously abstracted from the human consequences of action, or inaction.

The key phrase there is that ‘language drives attitudes’. It’s the reason why this matters – and the reason why an apparently esoteric debate about language has some very real consequences.

We, the people

Let’s put this as neutrally as possible.

People interact with public services.

Now, here’s a simple question: what should we call those people – and why?

Perhaps it’s not such a simple question after all. They – we – are many things. We are patients, customers, passengers, swimmers, clients, taxpayers, claimants  and more (as well as, but slightly separately, being voters, citizens, residents).1

The question of what the collective noun should be for all of that, and of whether there should be one in the first place, never quite goes away. I don’t think it’s a particularly fruitful debate, and there never seems to be a way of avoiding going round the same circles, but I have just read a post by Russell Davies, which achieves two remarkable things.  The first is that he has something to say which takes the debate forward. The second is that just maybe something has changed in the real world which we should respond to.

Of all the possible words we could consider, I want to focus on just three, because that keeps the problem manageable and is enough to bring out the issues.  Those three are:

  • people
  • customers
  • users

What is the user need?

People

Let’s deal with ‘people’ first. Yes, of course we are. And precisely for that reason, it’s pretty meaningless in this context. Russell nails that one pithily and mercilessly:

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.

Customers

Then we get to ‘customers’, which is where it gets more interesting. Russell is pretty dismissive of that approach too:

At the centre of the ‘customer’ relationship is the need to win someone’s custom. That might seem like good discipline – we’ll import the competitive service ethos of the private sector! – sadly what you get instead is a set of corporate habits founded in sales and marketing rather than service; born of a time when the dominant corporate habit was persuasion, when taglines and image were more important than delivery.

There are two drawbacks with that argument. One is that in an important sense we often do need to persuade people to behave one way rather than another (even if that persuasion is not about capturing their custom in a commercial sense). The other is that behaving as if there were that need has some very positive effects on both the design and the delivery of public services.

That’s why I argued in a post I wrote six years ago that were several reasons why ‘customer’ might be a good word to use:

  1. because that’s what we are
  2. because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got
  3. because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times
  4. because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well.

As I noted then, by that stage the debate had already been rumbling for at least ten years, prompted in part by Michael Bichard, the then newly appointed founding Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency, who insisted on referring to customers, not claimants. But the use of the word ‘customer’ in the context of public service delivery goes back much further than that – it was used in a completely matter of fact way by a writer in 1951, for example.

So it’s not that users of public services are customers in every sense of the word, but that it is a good idea to treat them as if they were. Designing a service as if the people using it could reject it and walk away forces a powerful and valuable discipline. To that extent, the point of talking about customers is as a way of framing questions for designers and providers of services. As a wise colleague of mine who went through the Bichard revolution put it in a comment on that post from 2008:

Who should really care what we call customers? Customers don’t. (And actually we don’t really call them that to their faces, as surely as we never said “dear claimant”). Customers care about the service we give them, not what we call them. And if calling customers customers means we give them a better service, then who but the customer should care?

When I first wrote about all this, that was reinforced by the fact that in an important – and often new – way, people were customers. Being a customer was and is about making a choice, not necessarily about making a purchase. We did, in Russell’s words, ‘need to win someone’s custom’, indeed that need was often why the question came up in the first place, because we wanted people to choose online services:

In many ways, the most interesting thing about services going online is that they create choice, often for the first time.  Not, of course, choice about everything and not necessarily about the whole experience, but choice where there has not been choice before.  If there is choice, we can exercise that choice, embracing or spurning the channels being offered to us. Since there are strong reasons for wanting people to exercise their choice in a particular direction, there is a necessity to make that alternative attractive and to market it effectively. The terms of trade are dramatically changed – and at that moment, we are customers in a strong sense of the word.

Paradoxically, the success of digital may mean that that is now changing. If we were in a fully ‘digital by default’ world, there would be less choice for most people to exercise in many circumstances than there is now. Of course, we haven’t got there yet, and as the government’s digital strategy recognises, persuasion and awareness are still vital:

To persuade people to use government digital services, we need to improve the quality of the services to make them clearly preferable to the alternatives.

We also need to make people aware of the services that are available. A number of techniques can be used to raise awareness and encourage people to use digital channels.

So at least for now, I think there continues to be some positive value in talking about customers.

Users

What then of the third candidate, users? Russell is clear about that one too:

User is a good word because it clearly indicates what the relationship is all about. Our primary responsibility is to make something that someone can use. It’s about utility.

Users are everybody

I have got a lot of sympathy with that. I have no problem talking about users (or about usability). But from other perspectives, it’s a word which is seen as alienating and mechanistic. Some of that is just about other contexts in which the word is used – ‘Are you a user?’ can be a rather unfortunate question to ask. But more importantly, it is part of a broader concern about feeling dehumanised – there is a website dedicated to proclaiming that I am not a user; I don’t know of any similar campaign to disclaim being a customer or a person.

In another post I wrote at a point when it seemed that patients might be in danger of becoming users too, I quoted Don Norman:

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer – you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer – one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user – the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused. […]

People are rich, complex beings. They use our devices with specific goals, motives, and agendas. Often they work with – or against – others. A label such as customer, consumer or user ignores this rich structure of abilities, motives, and social structures.

There is a bit of a paradox here. The people I know who tend to talk about users (and usability, user research, user experience and all the rest) are among those who care most passionately about getting behind mechanistic and dehumanising interactions and who best understand that people are indeed ‘rich, complex beings’ – the kind of attitude imbuing this post by Leisa Reichelt, for example. Criticising her for using ‘users’ seems to miss the point fairly spectacularly. But despite all that, it does abstract from the more specific and varied roles we play as humans. That’s what makes it possible (or appear to be possible) to have a single word, but it is also what makes that word risk being a little alienating.

We are many things

If we are at risk of condemning ourselves to an infinite loop, from people to customers, to users and  back to people, that strongly suggests that the question has gone wrong somewhere. As far as that goes, I am not sure I can improve on my conclusion from six years ago:

So where does all that get us?  Well, probably nowhere very much – which is precisely the point.  Using ‘customer’ isn’t the perfect solution, but its use has had powerful and largely positive consequences for public services and their users.  It isn’t the perfect solution because there isn’t one to be found, and the more time and energy spent looking for this unicorn, the less time and energy there will be for the basic job of making things work better.

But that doesn’t mean coming back to the question is a waste of time – and as I said at the beginning of this post, Russell is on to something important here. In some respects, the more successful the digital agenda proves to be both in providing online services and in encouraging people to use them, the less like customers we collectively become.

Much more importantly, I think Russell may have captured an important turning point. When Michael Bichard started talking about ‘customers’ of the benefit system in 1990 it was a revolutionary act. His aim was not to suggest that there was any new element of choice or consumer power which those people could exercise, it was to force his staff to think differently about the people to whom they were delivering services. A quarter of a century later, the best reason for no longer talking about customers  would be if that mind trick were no longer needed.

Update:  I wrote a very short post as an addendum to this, picking up an argument from Benjamin Ellis that talking about ‘users’ allows confusion of thought between big data and people and that in consequence, we should stop talking about users altogether. And don’t miss Mark Foden’s suggestion in the comments below that ‘human’ might be the answer.

Picture of users taken from Aviation House by Ben Terrett, licensed under creative commons

  1. And yes, separating those two lists is itself contentious, but that’s an argument for another time.