Interesting elsewhere – 12 March 2015

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

4 Elements Of Successful Digital Transformation – DIGITAL LEADERS
We start from strategy. My strong belief at the start of this was that we did not need a separate digital strategy. We needed a business strategy with digital throughout. We need to retain our focus on our customers who still demand multi-channel access to our services. Business leaders that get digital don’t differentiate between business, digital and technology – the latter represents thinking from the early 2000s.

Is it time to ditch Digital Government? – PolicyBytes
As we all seek to further progress during the next Parliament with digital government, big data, smart cities, the Internet of Things, crowdsourcing and Government as a Platform, let’s make sure we say what we really mean: ‘reforming public services’, ‘making better use of information’, ‘improving cities’, ‘connecting devices’, ‘engaging the public’ and ‘coming up with common tools and ways of doing things’.

Schneier on Security: Everyone Wants You To Have Security, But Not from Them
The reason the Internet is a worldwide mass-market phenomenon is that all the technological details are hidden from view. Someone else is taking care of it. We want strong security, but we also want companies to have access to our computers, smart devices, and data. We want someone else to manage our computers and smart phones, organize our e-mail and photos, and help us move data between our various devices.

Those “someones” will necessarily be able to violate our privacy, either by deliberately peeking at our data or by having such lax security that they’re vulnerable to national intelligence agencies, cybercriminals, or both.

Rebooting the government | Civil Service World
Those first few years of work have been an alpha of a different sort: proving that radical change is possible, that digital should be at the heart of government, and that people are key to making big change happen.

What’s really different at DWP? — Medium
Just because the fundamental purpose of the department is different doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be delivering the digital services people expect, in a modern and efficient way.

In one sense, our unique purpose makes it easier for DWP to define its vision than a commercial enterprise, because we won’t have a competitor who will come along and disrupt our market. We need to disrupt our own delivery — which is why it’s such an exciting and challenging opportunity to bring fresh thinking from outside. Is it frustrating at times? Of course!

When experience matters (and when it doesn’t) – disambiguity
Lack of diversity in experience-levels (and lack of diversity in general) in the team will reduce their ability to consider a full range of service design options that can streamline the experience for users. This will limit the potential for transformation.

There are some roles where experience the domain of the project is essential and teams would be foolish not to include them. Designers and user researchers are not those roles.

Internet of Crappy Things – IoT | Kaspersky Lab Official Blog
In general, the problem is that those who develop home appliances and make them connected face realities of a brand new world they know nothing about. They ultimately find themselves in a situation similar to that of an experienced basketball player sitting through a chess match with a real grand master.

Things get even worse when it comes to the users of connected devices. They don’t bother with security at all. For an average user, a connected microwave is still just a microwave. A user would never imagine it is a fully-equipped connected computer which has means of influencing the physical world.

Technical architecture at MOJ Digital | MOJ Digital
Making sure that change isn’t expensive is vital for digital services because they have to change and adapt.

Bits or pieces?: On Government, platform, purchasing and the commercial world.
As with any large system where one size fits all project methodologies are ineffective, the same is true with purchasing. Any large scale system requires a mix of time and material, outcome based, COTS & fixed contract and unit / utility charging. Each has different strengths and merits as with project management methods. All activities evolve and how you purchase them will change accordingly.

Business Design for an Agile world — Medium
In our future world, the change is never finished. Our Business Design is for an organisation that continuously iterates to improve itself. Is our Business Design a TOM? If you think of a TOM simply as the description of the way that we want to operate a business, then it certainly is.

But if you see a TOM as a prescriptive, absolutist, linear description of exactly how the organisation will work in 2020, then that’s not for us.

This thing called agile might kill us all | plate and serve
Agile transformation through service design is inherently political and therefore a challenge to established power structures. One, service design cuts across organisational boundaries, because that’s what customers do. They are ruthlessly horizontal in a way that vertically silo’d organisations really struggle with. Two, agile is ruthless in its slaying of sacred cows because it has to prioritise ruthlessly, based on the as-pure-as-you-can-get empirical customer and operational data.

Looking for guidance

Are there any useful purdah guidelines for social media, asks Matt Jukes, prompted by my post last week on civil servants and social media in the pre-election period. What a good question.

To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t yet any guidelines at all. But guidance on general elections tends to change incrementally rather than radically, so we could do worse than check what was said last time. It should be easily found, because I captured the link in a post at the time:

When a general election is announced, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance on the conduct of civil servants during the election period.

It turned out to be not easily found at all, but in reading what follows it’s important to remember that the problems I encountered are the result of the state of the government web presence in 2010 and of the decisions made then about how to manage and archive material in response to the change of government. This time round, in the world of, the problem is a very different one, as is the approach to solving it – the team roadmap has an entire workstream on election preparation.

Armed with that original link, the guidance should be close at hand. Sadly, it isn’t.

This item has been archived

That’s not wholly unexpected since although the guidance is a perfect example of a non-partisan government document, it was nevertheless published under the previous administration. So let’s look in the web archive.

Page/Document not found

That works perfectly, other than arriving at another page not found screen – but at least it’s an archived page not found screen from about the right date. But there are still clues worth pursuing, some helpful, others misleading. The most prominent date on the page is 28 April 2010, which is before the election and so before you would expect this page to have been archived. But the National Archive banner at the top of the page declares this to be a snapshot of its state on 10 November 2010 (though the url includes the string ‘20130128101412’ which implies something else again) which is comfortably after the election. So let’s follow the next invitation to check for the archive copy.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct

Now it looks as if we are getting somewhere, with links to the document we want in an enticing range of format flavours. Let’s keep things simple and open the PDF

This item has been archived (again)

Although the page looks identical to the one we had three steps ago, the underlying link is of course different. So it’s probably worth following the web archive link again.

This page cannot be found

Or perhaps not. And perhaps not surprisingly, since this time the red banner tells us we have arrived on 4 July 2013. Though that date is itself a slight surprise, since two steps back we had been at 11 May 2010.

But the red banner also invites us to find a more auspicious date. So let’s try that.

UK Government Web Archive

There are lots to choose from, but of those on offer, 7 April 2010 is by far the most promising.

Step 7

And indeed we have arrived at what is apparently the Cabinet Office home page with the publication of the guidance as the main – indeed the only – story.  Following the offered link delivers both the desired page and a sense of foreboding.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct (again)

The reason for the foreboding is obvious. We have seen this page before, several steps ago. But while it may be obvious, it is also misplaced. This time the links work and the guidance is finally to hand.

General Election Guidance 2010

The reason why this works when the previous attempt didn’t is that although the two guidance notes landing pages look identical, the archiving process has treated them very differently. The link to the PDF first time round went to:
while the version which works links to:

In other words, in some circumstances, the archived version attempts to link to the live site (and in this case to a live site which isn’t live at all), which it’s not very surprising isn’t very helpful.

Meanwhile, of course, poor Matt is still waiting for an answer to his question. I wrote about the guidance and its implications at the time, but more formally, social media is covered as part of a section on digital channels, starting on page 28. The basic approach is pretty straightforward:1

Civil servants’ participation in a professional capacity in social networks (e.g. (Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn etc.) as well as in forums, online communities and other public online discussions should be limited during the Election period to:

  • commenting on operational matters relating to services such as notifying users of technical problems with a website or digital service
  • responding to factual queries by signposting existing content.

Guidance on ‘ministerial blogs’ is essentially similar – there shouldn’t be any new ones or any new posts on existing ones, but ‘Civil Servants may continue to respond to comments on existing blog posts to provide routine and factual responses to queries and to moderate for inappropriate comments.’

Finally, on Twitter, the guidance is indirect.

Use of Twitter may continue for publishing factual information only in line with guidance on news media

That guidance essentially boils down to being minimal, factual and avoiding any appearance of political content.

What’s interesting about all that is that it written on the implicit assumption that blogs were ministerial and that communications is done by specialists. It’s actually not hard to work back from the examples presented to some more general principles and in turn to apply those principles to other situations, but it will be interesting to see how the imminent updated guidance covers all this.

It is at least not hard to do that for activity through official channels. Quasi non-official activity through unofficially managed channels is altogether less clear – which is precisely the issue discussed in my previous post.


  1. I have corrected here what seems to be a mistake in formatting in the original.

It’s beginning

Five years ago on election day, I wrote a post about civil servants’ use of social media during general election campaigns, arguing that it was time to start thinking about the next election.

This time round the traditional rules and the new means of expression have managed to co-exist without too much difficulty. But we are all going to be back in another few years, and another few years after that. Next time more people might be more reluctant to close down part of their lives for the duration of the election. Next time there may anyway be fewer people comfortable with the traditional constraints of civil service expression. Next time there will be a generation becoming more prominent who have a visible online identity and history from which they may not be able to separate themselves even if they want to. Next time – or perhaps the time after that – civil servants may be less invisible, less silent and less disinterested.

Alongside all of that – and potentially amplifying it further – norms of engagement and participation will continue to change in the wider society and polity. Civil servants are necessarily part of that, they cannot stand outside it.

And if that were to happen, the whole idea of what it is to be a civil servant would start to change, with implications which go far beyond a handful of blog posts. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the next election before the polls have closed on this one.

Now we are approaching that next election, and I am not sure how much thinking there has been.1

The starting point is simple – or at least apparently simple. Civil servants are politically neutral. Demonstrating that neutrality is more than normally important during an election campaign. So government communications should largely fall silent once parliament has been dissolved on 30 March.2

For official uses of social media – blogs directly published by the government, twitter accounts maintained as part of somebody’s job – the result is simple. They stop.3 That pretty much covers it for civil servants who happen to be human beings, but it’s not quite so straightforward for human beings who happen to be civil servants.

There are several intertwined reasons for that, all of them more complicated now than they were in 2010, and all of them, I suspect, less complicated now than they will be in 2020.

The first is that the distinction between official and personal is getting less clear cut. Institutional accounts can close for the duration, but the position is less straightforward for accounts which are personal, but are also used for work-related activity. That creates a more blurred boundary for more people than was the case five years ago (though many were very aware of that boundary even then), but it also prompts a bigger question about the public lives of civil servants, on which more later.

The second is the distinction between current and past. There are things which it is perfectly proper to say now but which would not be appropriate during the election period. I know people who are sufficiently concerned about the risk of being quoted out of context that they are planning to delete their twitter histories. I am not convinced that that’s necessary, but twitter is mostly in the moment, so the impact would be relatively minor. For blogs, such as this one, the tradeoff is different: in many ways the archive is the blog. Much of its traffic comes from people finding older posts by who knows what circuitous routes. And even if I were to delete the whole thing tomorrow, it would live on in zombie form outside my control.

Putting those two things together suggests a compound risk, that more public statements by civil servants will retrospectively look ill-judged in the political context of a differently constituted government. If nothing else, those who seek to make mischief will have more raw material to work with.

The third distinct reason is the distinction between central and peripheral. Even five years ago, the personal visibility of most public officials was pretty limited. Back in 2009, I wrote a post about looking for people talking openly online about their work in the public sector and didn’t come up with much.4 Only a year before, it had seemed reasonable to write:

We are in a world where the technology has advanced and a few have adapted, but where most of us are still struggling to work out and apply the social norms which will govern the new world.

One part of that is in the use of social media.  Government is in a simple position here:  with some very honourable exceptions, it ignores them.

Much has changed since then.

Now there are over three thousand posts on the 74 blogs running on the platform. Blog posts have authors, and those authors constitute a much wider group than the few who used to publish under their own byline in the past. When civil servants blog for the government, that is of course exactly what they – we – are doing, but there is still an individual person and an individual voice behind them.

There are also more channels – or at least more channels being much more widely used by civil servants in relation to their work. Twitter in particular (and to a lesser extent LinkedIn) has dramatically reduced the barriers to entry. I don’t know how many civil servants there are on Twitter (I doubt that anybody does know or could know), but there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have acquired a public voice, many of them more recently than the last election.5

Those changes are recognised and reinforced by the latest civil service social media guidance, which makes the shift from tolerating to encouraging. It starts

The purpose of this guidance is to encourage and enable civil servants to use social and other digital media appropriately to enhance our work. [emphasis added]

Taking all that together amounts to some pretty big changes even in the five years of the current parliament. It seems rash to assume that change over the next five years will be less significant than change over the last five.

Nor are those changes – past or prospective – simply about quantity. Greater online visibility has deeper qualitative consequences too. Dennis Grube has recently raised the question, for example, of whether senior civil servants are being pushed into ‘promiscuous partisanship’,

the idea that civil servants are now expected to support government policy with the same fervour as if they were in fact partisans. The only difference being that they must then turn around and offer exactly the same fervour in turn to the next government when a change of government occurs.

Grube is concerned with a wider range of activities than are the subject of this post, but he clearly considers that the consequences are potentially profound:

Does it in fact matter if civil service leaders become more public figures than they have previously? I argue that the reason these changes matter is because the traditional anonymity of civil servants is linked in important ways to the impartiality of the civil service. To dispense with the former is to endanger the latter in ways that re-shape the core role of civil service leaders in a Westminster system.

That’s an interesting echo of my thought from five years ago that the idea of what it is to be a civil servant might start to change. It’s hard to judge how far or fast that change might go, but the fact that the question can be raised is a useful reminder that the social change unleashed by technical change is frequently neither obvious nor immediate – but may still be inexorable.

We’ll be back for another update in another five years. Or perhaps sooner.

  1. Though interestingly, that post got a very prompt response from Patrick Butler at the Guardian (and a journalist commenting on a civil servant’s blog post itself is a signal that things are changing) with the thought that the very idea of purdah was already under threat:

    Purdah looks less workable now, when social media – Twitter, blogs, Facebook – is so universal. It is easy enough to silence the departmental tweets. But what about the individuals-who-also-happen-to-be-public-servants, who, in their private lives use social media to comment, discuss and argue (non-impartially) on the issues of the day, including politics. When, for example, are they tweeting in their capacity as civil servants and when as private individuals? (the same question might be asked of journalists).

  2. There is also a slightly separate argument that government communications shouldn’t crowd out coverage of the candidates and the campaign. That argument is less relevant here – and, as I have argued before, doesn’t in any case carry the weight it once did in a more monolithic communications environment.
  3. At about this stage in the run up to the last election, I set out the rules and what they might, or might not, mean for civil servants who were also personally (as opposed to institutionally) active in social media. The detail of the formal rules changes from election to election, but the principles don’t, and I have no reason to think that they will be radically different this time from last. The big difference is that the timetable is formally known much further in advance. There are also new rules on non-party campaigning, but that’s not really relevant to what’s being discussed here.
  4. I was looking for blogs then, rather than, say, people talking about their work on Twitter, not least because I had only joined Twitter myself about a week earlier – but even if I had been more familiar with it, there was nothing like the breadth of expression we take for granted now. And that was little more than one parliament ago.
  5. Being human on Twitter hasn’t always been risk free for civil servants. The likelihood of attracting critical press coverage may be low, but the impact is undeniably high.

Unreflections on an unconference

This post is unlikely to be either interesting or even entirely comprehensible unless you were at, or at least know about, Govcamp. Normal cosmic relevance will be resumed shortly. But if you weren’t there and want to persist anyway, this post and the links it contains will give you a sense of what it’s all about.

This is a rather delayed post about Govcamp as an event, attempting to find a balance both between useful reflection and tedious reliving of an event now past; and between accepting that Govcamp just is what it is and continually striving to improve it to a point where it becomes a different thing altogether. It’s not really about the content, which this year was as ever rich and challenging, though I still intend to write separately about the session I facilitated, on managing change beyond transformation.

Govcamp 2015

What are we trying to do?

If we go right back to the basics, it’s all pretty simple. We want to get a group of stimulating, like minded (but not too like minded) people together, find out what they might be interested in talking about, and then get them talking about it. There’s some history – or baggage – to quite how we do those things at Govcamp, but the doing of them seems to me to be the irreducible core of what it’s all about.

That makes it essential to have an idea of who is there and who might be interesting. It is optional to do that by massed sequential introductions. Essential to create the programme largely in the moment, but optional to pitch by open outcry. Essential that the programme is made as clear as it can be as soon as it can be, optional quite how that is done.

Could we do it better?

If there is a concept which has increasingly flowed through Govcamp sessions, it is continuous improvement. It would be odd not to apply that approach to Govcamp itself. So while I have some sympathy with those who counsel against unproductive navel gazing (and indeed have so counselled myself before now), I see no reason why Govcamp should not adapt and improve. Looking back, it’s clear that that just happens in lots of ways: there is a different mix of people talking about a different mix of things and with a different sense of context and priorities. After my first Govcamp in 2010, I wrote:

I found my concerns about personal data and transactions and about government as service provider rather than information broker feeling a bit on the margin.

One way or another, I spent quite a lot time this year talking about transactions, government not just as a service provider, but as a service. Admittedly, I didn’t talk much about personal data, but that’s not because it wasn’t being talked about. More subtly, but I suspect much more importantly, I felt a small shift in the group culture this year which was hard to pin down, but is really important. The slight sense of beleaguerment that has been apparent sometimes in the past has faded away, leaving both greater self-confidence and greater realism.

But the very fact that this year’s event felt more coherent and engaging to me than the last couple doesn’t in itself answer the question of whether more could be done to make it better. So here are a few slightly random personal thoughts about what might change and what doesn’t need to

Ending introductions was brave – and right

Every Govcamp before this one has started with every participant introducing themselves to the assembled group. Even done amazingly quickly, it still takes a long time. I have argued before that, despite the obvious inefficiency of the process, it was still worth doing. This year, without making any fuss about it, the organisers just dropped the idea altogether. Jonathan Flowers thought that that was an interesting experiment but that we should go back to having them. I think it was an interesting experiment which changed my mind completely – essentially because I can’t think of anything about the rest of the day which worked less well because we hadn’t done the introductions. Moreover, as Glen Ocsko points out, the process has severe limitations in its own terms.

But finding out who people are really matters

Getting rid of the session doesn’t mean not caring who else is there. On the contrary, having a sense of who is who (and which human being are related to which twitter handles) makes a real difference. In another experiment this year, we all had name badges with words to ‘ask me about’ and ‘tell me about’. I didn’t have a single conversation in which anybody took the slightest notice of what was on my badge (or I on theirs). So that one, I think we can drop. The simple thing I would like instead is ludicrously large name badges that help connect names to faces at a range of more than three inches. And person to twitter translation matters, for reasons this exchange (and explanatory picture) make clear:

Pitching could be better

Creating an agenda out of nothing is hard, but it’s the glue which holds everything else together, and critically it’s the only information anybody has about what’s going on and therefore what choices to make. That makes it doubly unfortunate that the agenda setting session doesn’t work very well. The process rewards the strong of voice, the firm of queue, the certain of topic. Those who pitched, and especially those who pitched early, were distinctly more male than those who didn’t. And after all that, nobody can remember (well I certainly can’t remember) forty pitches clearly enough to make good decisions about which sessions to go to in any case.

Govcamp agenda

I don’t want to lose the spontaneity, partly for the wholly selfish reason that I like not quite deciding what to pitch more than a few seconds in advance. But I do think a bit more structure would help and, having abolished the introduction session, we shouldn’t be apologetic about using some of the saved time to improve the way the agenda emerges. There are a couple of quick and easy things. I really like Jonathan Flowers’ suggestion about clearly distinguishing between sessions which are about describing achievements from those which are about asking for help or promoting debate. I also like his suggestion about being unapologetically overt about sponsor-led sessions – though I’d have them running sequentially rather than in parallel. But that won’t be enough. There is something bigger we need to do too.

I don’t pretend to have fully thought this through, but I think the core issue is putting less emphasis on the pitches by session proponents and more emphasis on supporting session participants in making choices. So here are four possible stages. It would probably take longer (though it might balance out), but it would be worth it.:

  1. Capture ideas: There doesn’t have to be a single way of doing that. Some could be logged in advance, some pitched on the day. What matters is that each ends up on a physical or virtual card which is a sufficient basis for deciding on what’s interesting.
  2. Find interest and connections: Make all the cards visible, then let people play with them. Give everybody a few dots to mark cards which look interesting. Bring cards together which might create a flow. If your card isn’t getting much excitement, or you can see another session doing essentially the same thing, feel free to withdraw or amalgamate.
  3. Create the agenda: Almost everybody goes off for coffee and gossip networking. A few hardy souls map cards to rooms and time slots.
  4. Share what’s on offer: All being well, we have an agenda with a slightly more logical structure (though no need to overdo that); a better fit of sessions to rooms, and greater clarity of what each session might actually be about.

Keep both feet

The law of two feet states that it’s perfectly acceptable to walk in and out of sessions at any time, for any reason or without any reason at all, without that reflecting badly on either the session or the walker. Jonathan tested the idea to destruction by spending one slot going to every session for five minutes. To nobody’s surprise, including I suspect his own, that didn’t turn out to be a very good idea. He also observed that the law isn’t widely used. That may well be true, but the power of the law of two feet does not come from everybody exercising it, it comes from granting legitimacy to those who do. Above all else, it reduces the cost of making mistakes, which makes it possible to be less safe in making choices (though as Jonathan also observes, better informed choices at the outset reduce the risk to be mitigated, which is another reason why investing time in making the agenda more effective is well worth it).

There’s no need for a grand finale

Unconferences are intrinsically egalitarian and informal. They don’t lend themselves to easy summary, grand perorations, or ending with a rousing call to action. And that’s absolutely fine. It’s not hard to find events where people stand at lecterns and present slides. Some of them are very good events with interesting people who are well worth listening to. But unconferences evolved to complement those events, not to replicate them.

So I was surprised and a bit disappointed to find that the last session at Govcamp was a conference presentation, not  an unconference session – the more so as there had been no prior warning, making it effectively impossible to exercise the law of two feet. That’s no reflection on the speaker or his message – it is the format which jarred badly not the content (though it would be interesting to debate some of the content too).

Such a session might just work if there were a single clear framing of audience and purpose, and thus an authoritative leadership voice. But one of the joys of Govcamp is that it is too eclectic for that. There isn’t a leader of the UK public sector digital community, because while there is a lot of community, there isn’t anything close to a single thing. Emily Turner’s Govcamp reflections bring out the reality of what in some ways are growing differences of context and experience, which no one perspective fully brings together.

Those who do the work make the choices

It’s easy to carp from the sidelines about how things can be better. But I have been involved with enough events to know that making them look effortlessly relaxed takes massive amounts of preparation and real hard work. I am prepared to give those willing to make that commitment considerable licence to make the choices they feel they need to to make the event work. In this case, James Cattell, Nick Halliday and Sarah Baskerville in particular did a fantastic job. I don’t agree with all the choices they made, or will make, but I make no criticism of them at all for making them, and I am deeply grateful to them and all the other camp makers for creating the conditions for such a stimulating day.

Photographs by Alex Jackson and David Pearson, licenced under Creative Commons