31 January 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Open Knowledge Foundation Blog » Blog Archive » Open Public Data: Then What? – Part 1 The opening up of public data is a vast, complex, never-ending process that encompasses thousands of different actors. It shifts information, power, and responsibilities, in ways that are difficult to foresee. Its consequences will probably be felt in many different areas: the business of service organizations, decisional software, participative democracy, job requirements for civil servants, budget funding of public agencies whose job it is to produce data, media economics and content, etc. And depending on how we open up public data, and on what we do on top of making data accessible, some of these consequences may be less positive than most of us would like.
- Government productivity in UK social security has not grown across two decades to 2008 – largely because DWP senior civil servants blocked any move to ‘digital era’ services | British Politics and Policy at LSE For much of the 1980s and ’90s DWP’s organisational culture was also dominated by the ‘new public management’ (NPM) doctrine, which focused on disaggregating large bureaucracies into smaller agencies (now put back together again); outsourcing to big IT contractors; and incentivising staff and contractors to deliver outcomes. DWP managers mostly ignored an alternative paradigm for public management in modern times, ‘digital era governance’ – which stresses re-integrating and joining-up services; remodelling internal structures around client needs; and digitalising all administrative operations.
- My ongoing love of consistency | The Local Government Officer How does one get hold of civil servants? I mean, if you don’t have an ongoing relationship on a particular issue, do you start at the top and work your way down, ring reception and ask for the policy area in question, or what?
- Why are public sector efficiency savings so hard? | Flip Chart Fairy Tales Service processes differ from those in manufacturing in that the customer is actually an actor in the process, rather than someone consuming the product from it at the end. People being what they are, their needs and requirements are always slightly different so, while a process might look the same on paper, it is never quite the same for each customer. It will vary each time depending on how the customer interacts with the service provider. Service processes, therefore, are rarely as controllable and predictable as manufacturing ones.This is exacerbated in the public sector because public-facing organisations have to deal with whoever comes through the door. While price acts as a gatekeeper for private service organisations, public sector organisations must deal with the poorest, least educated and least articulate people, some of whom may not speak English as their first language. Consequently, the customer’s impact on the process is even more significant. There might be a neat box on the process map saying ‘assess customer requirements’ but, in practice, this might take five minutes or five hours.To standardise and streamline processes, service organisations often try to design out the complexity and unpredictability – because simple equals cheap right? However, this often means designing out the main source of the complexity and unpredictability – the customer. By channelling people through pre-determined options in call centres and forcing them to use standard forms or websites, the providers can make their processes more uniform and therefore cheaper.
- FT.com / FT Magazine – Why we do what we do If behavioural economists do not really understand why we do what we do, there are surely limits and dangers to the project of nudging us to do it better.
- HMRC’s Latest IT Fail – and What to Do About It – Open Enterprise Of course, when I went yesterday, it was raining. And, of course, when I got to this inconveniently-located HMRC office, thereby wasting the key time of my writing day, I was informed that this new, updated system was “down”, and they they didn’t know when it would be coming “up”. And no, they couldn’t just look at the two documents establishing my identity, and enter the info later because, well, you know, the “system was down”, which meant that everyone was reduced to a state of organisational de-cerebration.
- My #ukgc11 session on Agile lessons learnt in local government by Michele Ide-Smith Here are the slides I presented in the session:
Lessons learnt from agile in local government
- A quick overview of digital activism « Curiouscatherine’s Blog We tend to treat Policy as a constant – the point of this post is that it shouldn’t be. The objective of the policy is the constant – the policy itself needs to vary in face of changing context and the delivery plan needs to vary even more and we can deliver better outcomes more effectively if we allow this to happen.
- How Facebook Used White Space To Crush Myspace | Techdirt The tendency to plan for any daring enterprise is irresistible, and critically necessary in many cases. But Hartung’s point is that innovation is a different beast from other types of business management. When you choose to innovate clever, competitive solutions to new market conditions, you have to be open to the possibility that you might create a newer business model that cannibalizes or “devalues” your current product or service.
28 January 2011
Yesterday, in a moment of distraction, I put the wrong password into my office smartcard three times, causing it to lock up.
There are two ways of sorting that out. One is to go cap in hand to the IT support people, and wait while they do mysterious things on phone and screen, feeling mildly idiotic, despite their friendly charm.
The other is to go into a special user ID which loads a programme to reset the password. It’s very easy. All you have to do is remember the answers to three questions you gave several years ago when the thing was set up in the first place. Which, of course, is potentially not very easy at all.
Three questions. Favourite teacher. Pet’s name. Favourite singer.
This wasn’t going to work. I could argue with myself for the rest of the day what the right answer to any of them should be, and still not reach agreement.
I stared at the screen for a while. Then the penny dropped. The question wasn’t:
What is the right answer?
It wasn’t even:
What might you have thought the right answer was a few years ago?
It was actually:
How would you have answered them to give your future self the best chance of answering them?
Armed with that insight, the rest was easy. I know how my past self thinks (if less often what he thought). Three correct answers at the first attempt.
Back to work.
24 January 2011
The oddest thing is not a gathering of almost 200 people choosing to spend a Saturday enthusiastically debating how they can use their deep collective knowledge of the workings of public services radically to improve them. That is startling enough, but it’s not the oddest thing.
Considerably odder than that is that having spent a day enthusiastically debating how they can use their deep collective knowledge of the workings of public services radically to improve them, so many of them then spent so much of the next day writing about and sharing the ideas that had been prompted the day before.
And oddest of all – or not oddly at all, depending on how you look at it – is that they will all go to work on Monday morning wanting something to be different.
This was the weekend of UKGovcamp an unstructured and open unconference at the intersection of IT, social media, public services and democratic engagement.
Dave Briggs, one of Govcamp’s leading lights, warned participants that Monday would be the most depressing day, as the exhilaration and sense of possibilities of the weekend crashed into constrained reality. Perhaps. But making things better can only start from where we are, and understanding that place is as critically important to successful reform as having the ambition to move beyond it.
If there is a single way of summing up Govcamp participants – and it is one of their many strengths that there is not – I would say it is this, that almost every one is a starry-eyed pragmatist.
Monday morning may not be so bad.
The wordle at the top of the page was created by Sharon O’Dea. It is made up of the words participants used in the introductory session as their reason for being there.
21 January 2011
Public sector organisations have a tendency to be elephantine. I suggested a few days ago that this was at least in part as a result of their size and age, rather than necessarily because being elephantine was limited to the public sector. In a comment on that post, Rik Barker challenged that view:
I’ve been involved in delivering agile software projects to organisations across multiple sectors; my experience has been that the number of stakeholders ‘with skin in the game’ in a public sector project is exponentially higher than in any other sector. Each one of those stakeholders requires some degree of convincing of some variation of the same point: That agile does not equal risk.
Once engaged, the process wins converts extremely quickly and –to pick up your analogy –the friction is reduced, the cogs turn and the elephant sprints. But the journey of getting to that point is a very rocky road to navigate –especially on an elephant.
That chimes with a fascinating article by Adrian Hartung in Forbes about why Facebook has so comprehensively overtaken MySpace. Essentially the argument is that Facebook managed to retain flexibility and responsiveness while MySpace suffocated under more conventional “grown up” management techniques:
Underlying all those tactics was a very simple management mistake News Corp made. News Corp tried to guide MySpace, to add planning, and to use “professional management” to determine the business’s future. That was fatally flawed when competing with Facebook which was managed in White Space, letting the marketplace decide where the business should go.
That in turn has prompted Ross Pruden to reflect on innovation and the concept of White Space:
When managing innovation, including operating in high growth markets, nothing works better than White Space. Giving dedicated people permission to do whatever it takes, and resources, then holding their feet to the fire to demonstrate performance. Letting dedicated people learn from their successes, and failures, and move fast to keep the business in the fast moving water. There is no manager, leader or management team that can predict, plan and execute as well as a team that has its ears close to the market, and the flexibility to react quickly, willing to make mistakes (and learn from them even faster) without bias for a predetermined plan.
White Space, as it is used here, is an interesting but slightly blurred concept. Partly it is being used to suggest space created or protected within which innovation can happen, though that space isn’t a skunkworks or anything quite like it, because it isn’t an adjunct to the company, it is the company. But partly is is being used to suggest something less defined and more creative. In a Harvard Business Review article from 2001 (and much of it behind a paywall), which is where this usage seems to originate, Mark Maletz and Nitin Nohria observe that:
Whitespace exists in all companies, and enterprising people are everywhere testing the waters with unofficial efforts to boost the bottom line. The managers who operate in these uncharted seas are often the ones most successful at driving innovation, incubating new businesses, and finding new markets.
So we seem to be back to a kind of agile, externally stimulated sense of constant change which at first blush is very different from the concept of agility applied to software development. And yet looking again at the Agile Manifesto, maybe the meanings are not so very different after all. Taking this back to Facebook, Pruden points out that:
At the heart of Facebook’s success is Zuckerberg’s willingness to “destroy” Facebook to make it better and more competitive. Facebook was once the entrant, and now it is the incumbent and will stay the incumbent for as long as Zuckerberg retains the attitude of an entrant. Incumbents face a choice of abandoning much of their expensive infrastructure to adapt to a changing market, whereas entrants face no such choice –quite the opposite, entrants have nothing to lose. They can try anything.
And that may seem to take us back to where we came in. Most of us in large organisations or public-sector organisations, still less in large, public-sector organisations, can’t easily retain the attitude of an entrant, because we don’t have it in the first place. I don’t think it follows that we have to give up on the quest for greater agility. Though it probably does follow that we won’t become billionaires in the attempt.
18 January 2011
Interaction design is largely about the meaning that people assign to things and events, and how people try to express meanings. So to learn from any tool, interactive or not, go watch people using it. You’ll hear them talk to the tool. You’ll see them assign all sorts of surprising interpretations to shapes, colors, positioning, dings, dents and behaviors. You’ll see them fall in love with a thing as it becomes elegantly worn. You’ll see them come to hate a thing and choose to ignore it, sell it, or even smash it. And I guarantee you won’t have to do much of this before you encounter someone who makes a mental mapping you would never dream possible. And you’ll learn from that.
Marc Rettig, quoted in Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices by Dan Saffer, chapter 1
Earlier this evening, I asked a question:
It was prompted by reading the paragraph above and by reflecting that in my very limited dabblings in the literature, I am still finding it hard to find people who don’t slide immediately from interaction or service design to an assumption that we are solely or primarily in an online world. That rather splendid paragraph appears to make no such assumptio, but I suspect that will not prove to be the case for the book as a whole.
Metatextual interaction design note: In the old days when you wanted to quote a paragraph from a book, you put the book down and wrote or typed out the paragraph. In these new modern times, you read the book on kindle and… have to write or type out the paragraph. Such is progress.
18 January 2011
It is well known that elephants cannot dance. It is less well known why that is. Helpfully, this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have thrown some light on the subject. Essentially, elephants have big fat legs because as size doubles, mass cubes, so proportionately fatter legs are needed.
Mark Miodownik, the lecturer, demonstrated the effect of this by putting on some sandbagged trousers and attempting to dance. It was not a pretty sight.
It is not just elephants (or elephant wannabees) which have this problem. Organisations, or projects within organisations, are increasingly attempting to be agile – or rather Agile. The more elephantine among them may find that quite hard, and even those which succeed may not look terribly elegant in the attempt. It is a common observation that small agile companies lose agility very quickly as they grow and probably a still more common conception that public sector organisations never have any agility to start with. Three years ago, when I wondered why change is slow, I thought that differences were far more a function of size and longevity than they were of sector, and I have seen no reason since to think that that is wrong.
The problem is that knowing that doesn’t necessarily help. Beginning your project by making your organisation smaller or younger isn’t normally an option. Having made that realisation, there is probably not much in the way of sensible generic solutions: navigating each particular organisation’s culture and ways of getting things done will resist generalisation.
But there are some points worth a bit of reflection.
The first is that faster moving parts running up against slower moving parts will generate heat and friction. That can’t be avoided, because in an organisation of any size, being agile has to start somewhere, but can’t and shouldn’t start everywhere. So getting a small, committed group of people together to identify and implement a solution is is essential, but is a long way from being enough. The point of a skunkworks (though I am with Steph Gray on the use of that much overburdened word) is to deliver more effectively for the organisation of which it is a part, it is not to be wholly separate. That has implications not just for managing expectations and communications but also for governance processes designed around an assumed way things are done. The essential point is that if heat and friction are unavoidable, coolants and lubrication are vital to the smooth running of the machine.
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
The second is that agile approaches move organisational power – and that this is a good thing. Decisions being taken in the moment are decisions not being taken by a hierarchy of ever more important committees. If the committees are still going to be there, and it feels a fairly safe bet that in most organisations they won’t self destruct at the first whiff of agile, they will need to be helped to resist any temptation to fill an apparent vacuum. Conversely, those unused to being trusted with authority will need to learn to take it – and as importantly, to know when the issue is such that they should hold back from taking it.
The third is that the process gives early and persistent voice to the users of the service. If it doesn’t work the way they need it to, it doesn’t work. That’s not to say that it necessarily works the way they want it to, that’s another matter for another time. But it does mean that user testing as a discrete activity, and even more as a final stage activity, is out of place. Users may, of course, have some uncomfortable messages – in fact any appearance of there being no uncomfortable messages should probably itself be interpreted as an uncomfortable message. The question is how to deal with them in a way which is constructive in relation to all the interests involved. That is a particularly acute issue for a new or significantly changing service, where even customers cannot be expert on service experiences they have never had. Facebook notoriously rolls out changes to the user experience in the teeth of vociferous customer opposition, banking on the fact that six months later the derided change will have become the new standard. That may or may not be seen as an example to emulate.
The fourth is that all of this gets more complicated in a political environment. Political change is in many ways even more closely aligned with the waterfall method than conventional IT development. In central government the traditional sequence runs from think tank to manifesto to green paper to white paper to primary legislation to secondary legislation – and user involvement in design (as opposed to citizen consultation) comes only very late in the process. What happens, though, if the agile design process identifies ways of delivering the service which deliver the policy objective and efficiently meet user needs, but which are different from those envisaged in the process of developing the policy?
And finally, there is an elephant in the room, and it’s not necessarily the one which is trying to dance. Why, in this context, are we talking about agile at all? The Agile Manifesto is very explicitly about software development. I have heard agile described as applying the principles of lean to IT change. What, though, if we are not interested in IT except as a means to the end of some broader change process? The mantra that there is no such thing as an IT project has become a commonplace (in words, if not always in deeds), and it surely cannot be helpful to go back to IT-led change. Michele Ide-Smith has recently reflected on this point and points out that just changing ‘software’ to ‘systems’ in the Manifesto completely changes the scope of its application.
I have no problem with the idea that agile has outgrown its roots in IT. On the contrary, I very much welcome it: in many ways, agile is an encapsulation of many of the ideas this blog has been going on about for years. If we can bring together the technical and non-technical aspects of service design and implementation in a way which can make change happen more quickly and more effectively, that can only be a good thing. Whether it actually has outgrown its roots in this way is a question it will be interesting to explore.
17 January 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- A Shiny World: Innovation (and JFDI) If you sit and think that innovation, ideas, changing cultures, suggesting and doing the ridiculous things is not possible, as a leader, that attitude will permutate throughout your organisation. If you decide that whatever suggestion someone makes will receive consideration and you are transparent about the process in examining those suggestions for their validity, you will cause a snowball effect. Employees right now have to feel valued. Have to feel listened to. Have to feel that they are not simply throwing words into the wind.
- The Nature of the Relationship, part 1 – honestlyreal This is a world of baddies, of fraudsters, of the incompetent and the helpless, of the excluded and the disabled. It’s a world of error, of approximation, of faults and mistakes. Lots of gritty reality that, if I’m honest, tends to bugger up enterprise-scale secrecyidentitysecurity systems faster than we can actually squeeze benefits out of them.
- Going undercover by Michele Ide-Smith What they really drive home is this: if you’re passionate about user experience and you care enough to try to make a difference, you can do. By going undercover, being disruptive and getting results.
- Using personas for web and service design by Michele Ide-Smith I’m a fan of personas. In the user experience (UX) field, personas are fictional profiles of your users based on research data. Personas can bring your users to life and help guide the design process. Giving your personas names, pictures, personal profiles and using believable narratives will help everyone involved in a project to empathise with user goals, behaviours and motivations in a very tangible way.
I don’t believe our personas can just focus on website users. We need to make sure they are rich enough to describe situations when customers might prefer to phone us or use social media, for example. But our personas must also consider our business goals, for example we need to try and encourage our customers to use cheaper channels (channel shift) where possible to reduce service delivery costs.
- Creating democratic, scalable innovation | The Democratic Society There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations. The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.
Building a network of open and participative spaces – outside the wall of government, but with their active involvement and participation – can connect these different elements and allow better, more focused conversations, massively increasing the opportunities for participation, innovation and local co-production.
- The 1910 time traveller « thenextwave But there’s perhaps an underlying story here. When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology –planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.
- The Innovation Imperative It seems pretty obvious that budgets will be much tighter over the next few years, which means the heads of these departments and agencies will need to find new, better, and cheaper ways to do things.How? Well, the answer has to be innovation. Economists say that innovation drives more than 85 percent of productivity growth in the private sector. In the public sector, though, where productivity growth has been stagnant for a decade, innovation is much harder to come by. So what should public-sector leaders do to foster innovation?
- 2010 Gov 2.0 Year in Review – O’Reilly Radar Here are the themes, moments and achievements in the Gov 2.0 world that made an impact in 2010.
What is clear is that open government is a mindset, not simply a fresh set of technological tools. Gov 2.0 is a means, not an end. It can and will mean different things to different constituencies.
- What lies ahead: Gov 2.0 – O’Reilly Radar Tim O’Reilly: At the end of the Web 1.0 era, some people claimed the web had failed because banner advertising, pop-overs, pop-unders and all the increasingly intrusive forms of advertising didn’t work. Then Google came along with a better idea. I think something similar will happen with Gov 2.0. Many of the things people label as “Gov 2.0″ are really the early signals and efforts of a “Gov 1.0″ period. Important shifts will eventually occur, and they won’t have anything to do with government agencies putting up wikis or using Twitter. We will see many unexpected outcomes over time.
14 January 2011
Yesterday, as I was going down the stairs on the bus, it jerked to a halt and I nearly lost my balance. It often happens and, as usual, it wasn’t a sudden and necessary reaction to traffic: we had simply arrived at the bus stop. There are some bus drivers whose driving style is calculated to inspire terror in all their passengers, but this wasn’t one of them. Why then was he so careless of his passengers’ comfort and safety?
I think the answer is disarmingly simple: he was the driver, not a passenger. The experience of being a driver is not like that of being a passenger. Drivers do not walk around a moving bus. Drivers do not struggle to find a seat, and are not left to stand because they have failed in their struggle. What feels like very moderate braking when you are the driver feels very different when you are the passenger.
My recollection is that the old routemasters didn’t brake so sharply. Maybe my recollection is ruined with nostalgia. Maybe they didn’t have to brake hard because they had virtually no power of acceleration. But maybe it’s because there was a bus conductor.
The ostensible purpose of bus conductors was to collect fares. But as a by-product, they were quasi-passengers, having elements of the experience of real passengers, among them being thrown around by sudden braking. My entirely evidence free guess is that one reason that drivers of routemasters didn’t throw their passengers around is because their conductors were well placed to give them pretty pithy feedback.
Now there are no bus conductors. Now a potential source of feedback has been lost. Now it sometimes feels as though the bus is going round corners on two wheels.
Bus drivers presumably feel close to their buses. If they are not on the frontline of public services, who is? And yet they are impossibly distant from their customers.
What then of the rest of us?
Bus conductors can be invaluable – though even they can never be more than a proxy for actual customers. If you have bus conductors in your service, listen to them. If you don’t have any bus conductors, the silence does not mean that there are no messages to be heard.
And of course, we are promised the return of the conductor on London’s new bus of the future. How helpful of the mayor to arrange some testing of my hypothesis.
Picture © Paul Clarke, used with permission
8 January 2011
Every person and every organisation has some form of reality distortion field. Some are more severe than others, and according to Stephen Toulouse, Microsoft has a particularly severe version of the problem:
The Redmond Reality Distortion Field:
The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.
Its most common effect on individuals is to make design decisions or requests either on the way customers should use products as opposed to how they actually use them, or by the interoperability of a product in the unique environment of the employee’s home.
The field itself is invisible and exceedingly hard to detect, as once under its influence reality itself becomes distorted. Entire Microsoft products have been designed under the influence of the field.
Anyone who is not an ordinary customer of their own service is vulnerable to this effect. And it is almost impossible for anybody who had anything to do with the design or delivery of a service to be an ordinary user in this sense, if only because, by definition, they know too much.
That much is understood enough for the concept – or at least the rhetoric – of user centred design to be getting increasing prominence (if not necessarily similarly increasing traction). Even that though is easily undermined by a sufficiently powerful Reality Distortion Field. The result is innovation which is not necessarily very innovative or designing for users who are not very like the actual users of the service concerned. Anthony Zacharzewski has written a really interesting piece reflecting on how to create innovation which is democratic and scalable. The problem he sees is that:
There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations.
The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.
His solution is to propose the creation of an innovative civic space, ‘based on the democratic conversation’, which support the triangle of citizens, innovators and public services.
The space needs to provide connections, context and means of implementation. These are likely to focus around events, co-design sessions with public services, opening up seed resources or research, and links with innovators and ideas beyond the local area. Throughout this, the democratic conversation takes and informs citizens’ views, and engages them in the design and delivery of improved services.
This is powerful and interesting thinking which needs and deserves more reflection. One of my immediate reactions – from a central government large system perspective – is to wonder how far along the spectrum from research to participation to democratic validation it is possible in practice to get. Another is to recall a thought from Bruce Tognazzini which I have quoted before:
User-testing does not result in brilliant design. That requires brilliant designers. User testing guarantees that whatever level of design a company has been able to achieve will actually work.
In other words, the trick is to blend in the right proportions the professional expertise (and focused, dedicated and sustained time) to design, build and operate a service with the expertise of users and democratic owners of the system to understand, express and design the service which meets their needs.
Back in my own Reality Distortion Field (as if I could ever leave it), the challenge is to marry these approaches with the constraints of large system changes in a large organisation. Creating the necessary agility in not wholly promising circumstances will be the subject of my next post.