Interesting elsewhere – 30 November 2010

30 November 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • Banking on the Channel Shift — Transform One lesson (of many) that we learned is that it’s not just about systems and technology. It’s very easy for any major organisation to become convinced that multi-channel integration is a massive systems investment programme that is just too scary to take on. The reality [...] is that if you start with a focus on creating integrated customer experiences it is possible to make real headway ahead of the infrastructure challenge [...]. But it starts when you choose to define multi-channel as a priority and break out of the organisational channel silos. [...]
    There are plenty of examples of branch redesign but not much evidence of anyone really reshaping the question. I think the real channel shift challenge is this: should my bank have two teams thinking about a) the role of the branch and b) how to drive direct/digital banking or should my bank be crashing these questions together and thinking about how to deliver an integrated multi-channel experience for customers?
  • How do you operationalize knowledge? So, my point is simply this: KM is the abstract doesn’t help anyone.  There comes a point where you have to drag the theoretical into the actual.  You have to  take knowledge from this abstract plane and operationalize it so people can get some use out of it.
    Put more simply: at some point, you have to write it down and distribute it.  How much thought have you put into this part of it?  Understand that, and you’re halfway there.
  • The New Rules Of Email | Six Pixels of Separation – Marketing and Communications Blog – By Mitch Joel at Twist Image I’ve come to accept that my inbox is just one big, never-ending game of Tetris – where the email keeps flowing down into my inbox. In this strange race against time, I’m competing to respond and move the correspondences over into their appropriate file folders. Unfortunately (and much like Tetris), the emails keep stacking up and increasing speeds to the top and it’s, essentially, “game over” for me. It doesn’t end and they are no bonus rounds or extra lives to save me.
  • Don Tapscott: New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark But the evidence suggests that many young people today are using technology to become smarter and more capable than their parents ever could be; and, like Vishal, to accomplish important, perhaps great things. Rather than kids losing their attention spans there is a stronger case to be made that growing up digital is equipping today’s youth with the mental skills, such as scanning and quick mental switching, that they’ll need to deal with today’s overflow of information. The superior performance for many of them, as evidence by university graduation rates show they know when they have to focus, just as the most intelligent members of my generation did. They may think and process information in a different way than most boomers do, but that doesn’t stop them from coming up with brilliant insights, new models of doing business, new ways of collaborating; or, for that matter, creating a carefully edited film as a teenager.
  • Premise: Open Data: How Not To Cock It Up We should celebrate the fact that the political classes are paying attention to open data. And we should celebrate the fact that we are starting to get information that many of us in this room have been clamouring for for years. But we should also realise that the current situation is extraordinary, and if we don’t work together to manage it quite carefully, it could crash from extraordinary to ordinary with considerable speed.And that’s why the title of my talk today – a talk which is addressed to each and every one of you in the audience – is Open Data: How Not To Cock It Up.

    What do I mean by cocking up open data? I mean making making mistakes that result in the flow of data we think is so valuable either drying up, or never starting in the first place. And when I say mistakes, I mean mistakes that we can make – those of us in this room right now, not the politicians.

  • Why Is Everyone Worried About Attention Now? | DMLcentral In times of great technological change like our own, when many of us feel challenged by new ways of responding to the world, it is natural and normal and good that we worry about what the change is doing to our children.  But their video games and texting are the best possible preparation they could have for their digital future.  We have to unlearn old patterns before our neurons lead us sleekly and rapidly to an effortless interface with new technologies
  • Public sector approaches to public cloud have to relax – In-Depth – CIO UK Magazine There’s been a deafening, almost messianic, chorus of “cloud, cloud, cloud” at recent events exploring the future direction of public sector IT. Yet one question remains unanswered: what will happen when the elephant snoring loudly in the wings awakes? You know the one – it’s sporting an ill-fitting straitjacket marked Security.

The future is a foreign country

29 November 2010

Here’s an idea to take to Hollywood.

Take a large hole in the ground, where nothing is happening except a few people working to make it bigger. Take a bunch of talking heads whose professional expertise covers nuclear waste management and theology. Take a few moody landscape shots of snow and trees. Take some impossibly difficult questions and fail to answer them. Assemble all of that into a film and fill the multiplexes of the world.

Well, perhaps not Hollywood, but it appealed enough to a bunch of Scandinavian funders to get made anyway. The film is Into Eternity, and it’s astonishing. You almost certainly won’t be able to see it, but if you can, you should.

The Finns are digging a very big hole in which to store their nuclear waste. They won’t finish filling it up while any of us is still alive, but once it is full, they plan to fill in the hole and keep the waste secure for 100,000 years. To put it mildly, that raises some interesting questions.

100,000 years is an unimaginably long time. The oldest pyramids in Egypt were built less than 5,000 years ago. We share no mutually comprehensible language with anybody much more than 500 years ago. We have known how to create nuclear waste in troubling quantities for little more than fifty years. One of Wittgenstein’s great one liners is

If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.

(which is a member of the same family as Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”) . Animals may be the obvious subject matter for such speculation, but the same issues surely arise with the distance of time. We would, I suspect, find it overwhelmingly difficult to communicate with an ancient Egyptian, with the language itself being the least of our problems. So what have we to say to the inhabitants of Finland four thousand generations into the future, and how on earth might we expect them to understand us?

That’s one of the more interesting questions explored – but not in any way resolved – by the film. The practical question is simple enough: what is the best way of warning people that this is a dangerous area and not to be interfered with. Actually, though that’s slightly the wrong question. The real objective is not to warn people, but for the waste not to be disturbed, and the question then becomes whether it is better to attempt a warning or not to attempt one at all.

Security through obscurity is a concept with a generally poor reputation, but this could just be the exception. To see why, start with the alternative approach, which is to put something in place which will both discourage people from digging 500m deep holes in just the wrong place and do so reliably for as long as is needed. What could that something conceivably be? And as important, if it fails – and we have to assume that it will – will it fail gracefully or destructively? Any attempted communication, it seems to me, has two components: the message content, and the fact of its being a message. Unless you can tell that the thing is intended to be a message, there is no chance of discovering its content, so you can’t have the message without its container. But it is entirely possible to realise that something is intended to be a message without having the slightest idea of what it is attempting to communicate. Indeed, it seems more likely than not that whatever form of symbolism is used to encode the message, the very best which can be hoped for is a distorted understanding. Even something as linguistically and culturally close to us as the works of Shakespeare carries that danger. The bits we can tell we don’t understand are one thing, but it is the bits we may think we understand but don’t – ‘caviar to the general’ – which are the more risky.

So the difference between ‘there is something interesting here, dig until you find it’ and ‘there is something terribly dangerous here, keep away at all costs’ may be too subtle to be transmitted reliably.

Nor does the idea of recoding the message for each succeeding generation carry much comfort. There is no telling how quickly ‘radioactive nuclear waste below, do not disturb’ becomes ‘send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance’, but we can have no confidence that it will not be a long time before the 4,000th generation is reached.

So what should the Finns do? I think they should plan for Onkalo to be forgotten, recognising that distorted forgetting may have some of the same dangers as distorted remembering. There are three basic scenarios with which they have to deal, only one of which is really dangerous.

First, there may be some form of social and technical collapse, with all knowledge of nuclear physics gone and no awareness of radioactivity let alone any ability to detect or measure it. If that society has also lost other forms of advanced technology, digging through 500 metres of solid rock may be socially or technically beyond it. Unless there is something obviously valuable close to the surface, they would have no reason to start digging in the first place. There is no value to them in a warning: it could do no good, and conceivably be the only thing – the gift from the gods – that induced them to think of it at all.

Then there is a scenario which is like the first but with advanced mining techniques and the social and technical capital to invest in large holes with uncertain returns, but with no knowledge of the dangers of radioactivity. That’s the only one where a warning might do some good, though the risk of its doing harm by attracting attention must be at least as great.

Finally, it is possible that the march of technical progress continues. Then our successors will either understand the problem as well as we do and so will know enough to manage the risk, or they may know a great deal more and so be able to neutralise any harm in any case. They might benefit from a handy indication that feedstock for their 17th generation fusion reactor is to hand, but can probably work it out for themselves anyway.

There is something a bit awe inspiring watching a bunch of distinctly ordinary looking Finns wrestle with a question with implications which ripple through millennia, and something a bit alarming about how far they have got into the construction of Onkalo without yet having a very coherent answer. It puts the suddenly slightly trivial seeming questions the rest of us deal with in fairly extraordinary perspective.

So you should go and see the film. If you missed it in London and Cambridge, the current choices seem to be limited to Cardigan and Ludlow, but think of the journey time as a proportion of 100,000 years and it will be but the blink of an eye.

Complaints choirs – the album

26 November 2010

This is a great day for everybody who has been on tenterhooks for the last four years after watching the Helsinki Complaints Choir in action. I have just discovered that a dvd plus no fewer than three cds of complaints choirs from around the world is about to be released.

For those too eager to wait or who may be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of material, you can already get volume 1 from emusic or spotify, and all the audio tracks from Amazon with songs and choirs from Wrocław to Wolfenbüttel, via Juneau and Tokyo.

If you know a service designer, a customer insight expert or a complaints handler, your christmas present problems are solved. For your musician friends, though, you may want to look elsewhere.

And if you are a service provider, think about the gift of feedback and how it can be better built into your service. Maybe next year we should look out for Patient Opinion karaoke…

There is no such thing as the government

25 November 2010

In the UK, we appear to have a government. It looks like a government, often talks like a government, and sometimes behaves like a government.  But you can’t really understand the way government works until you realise that it doesn’t exist.

Bits of government exist, of course, lots of them. Sometimes we call those bits ‘departments’ and sometimes we call them other things. Sometimes they co-ordinate and collaborate. When No10 rings, they answer the phone and listen attentively and at the very least will appear to do something which can be described as a response. But government as a whole is at least as much archipelago as land mass.

It can take a while to spot that. It took me years. It took me to the Cabinet Office where, I deluded myself, I would get access to the levers of power, and would be able to make the world a better place as a result.

The levers of power (and the power brokers’ kettle)

The delusion is not in thinking that there are levers of power. There most assuredly are. There are rows of them, with brass handles and the patina of age, polished daily until you can see your face in them. When you move one, there is a satisfying clunk and a little bell rings. The levers are connected together in complex ways and there are people who have made it their life’s work to understand those linkages, and to pull the levers in patterns and sequences which send clear messages in exactly the right direction.

No, the delusion is to think that those levers are necessarily connected to anything, that they directly control any machinery, that anybody hears the little bell ringing in the corner, that brass and polish are correlated with consequence.

And that matters. It matters because once you recognise that fact, you can start to do things differently.  People do, of course, recognise it at the level of caricature I have described here and nobody will admit to believing that they can get things done simply by pulling the levers of power. But inactions speak louder than words and the myth of the lever is harder to eradicate than any of us like to admit.

There are two ways forward from there. One is to connect up the levers; the other is to recognise that they are not connected and to find other ways of getting things done. I don’t particularly mind – at least for the purposes of this post – which route is chosen, nor do I think that it necessarily has to be the same route for every decision made in government. The essential thing, though, is not to imagine that anything will come from installing an additional set of unconnected levers or investing in better quality brass polish.

With that in mind, let us turn to the review of Directgov prepared by Martha Lane Fox for Francis Maude, which needs to be read in conjunction with the essential gloss provided by Tom Loosemore (and do read Steph’s post while you are there).  This is not a post about that review: it’s something I am directly involved with, so I am not going to discuss the specific content and recommendations here. Neil Williams has both his own analysis and some good links to other people’s if that is what you are after. In any case, what matters for this post is not so much what is in the report as what is outside it, the context into which it has dropped.

The idea of joining up government services by bringing them together online has been with us for years. In some ways a lot has been achieved, but pretty much nobody is satisfied with where we have got to. I have written at some length on e-government ten years on and I won’t repeat that here, but I strongly suspect that we have often looked for solutions in the wrong place. Somehow the ambition has always comfortably outstripped progress. The temptation is always to blame the digital delivery (e-government, online services gov 2.0, call it what you will), as the new thing which was supposed to achieve miracles, but has unaccountably failed to do so. That’s not completely wrong, but it is at best only half the story. The missing levers of power provide the other half. To some extent, joined up online services can cover up the essential fragmentation of government, but they cannot actually defragment it, and it is unreasonable to expect them to do so.

As a demonstration of the importance of the issue, it’s well worth reading Tom Watson’s reflections on the nature of the problem, why the last government didn’t fix it, and what would be needed to sort it out now. I recognise his diagnosis, though I don’t altogether agree with it, but it is his prescription which is relevant here. He suggests that bringing in the A team would make the critical difference:

For, as Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise.

And Francis is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.

If I were Francis, I would draft in Lib Dem Lord, Richard Allan, of facebook to the team. I’d steal Tom Loosemore and Matt Lock from Channel 4. And I’d throw in that well know anarchist and inventor of, Stefan Magdalinski. I’d demand that the BBC lend me Tony Ageh and Bill Thompson.

And to finish off the A-team, I’d persuade David Cameron to put Martha in the House of Lords. Make her the minister for digital engagement and let her run the team. My God, they’d change Britain for the better. Good luck to them. And well done Francis.

That’s not a bad suggestion. They are all good people, and any one of them, let alone all of them, would bring energy, insight and experience. But I don’t think it solves the problem, it’s a one last heave approach. We need (as well, not necessarily instead) to recognise that providing a government web service when there isn’t a government is an intrinsically difficult thing.  The solution requires a better government as well as a better web service.

I am not for a moment suggesting that there is no point in doing anything until the whole machinery of government has been restructured. That’s not going to happen, and no good will come from waiting for it. But it does mean that there are some important questions which are well worth exploring, not because they will ever have final answers, but because we need there to be better answers than we have now. Three to start us off, all closely related, might be:

  • Whose is the cutomer?
  • Who is the agent of whom?
  • Whose fault is it when it goes wrong?

There is no such thing as the government.  But there could be.

Picture by Ingy the Wingy, licensed under creative commons.

The black screen of life

24 November 2010

Every now and then I still get a slight frisson from the thought that I can get things out of my computer that I didn’t put there.

My first computer was very simple.  You turned it on and got to a screen which said, in its entirety:


(note to younger, but not very young, readers: no it didn’t say ‘C:\>’, that was more than I could afford)

One of the two key pieces of software I used back then was even more terse. It’s opening screen was:


(note to readers with dust or dead pixels on their screens: that’s a single dot, not a complete blank)

After that, everything which came out was a product of what had gone in. Documents came out after they had been laboriously typed. Data analysis came out (and in short order an entire work management system, but that’s another story) after not only had the data been keyed in, but all the rules and structures as well.

Time passed. That computer got replaced. A modem was acquired. And suddenly, stuff came through my computer that I hadn’t put there. That was extraordinary, exciting, and more than a little magical.

Much more time has passed. Computers have been replaced and replaced again. The warbling modem became a silent, speedy, but expensive ISDN connection, then broadband arrived (and though the speed has since changed, that first ADSL router is still chugging away after more than ten years of constant service).

And thresholds of what is extraordinary, exciting and magical have gone up a few notches:

[blackbirdpie id="28774584760"]

Technology, it is said, is everything that was invented after you were born. I have always liked that idea, but perhaps it is no longer adequate to capture the rate of change, which is why Douglas Adams’ variant is even more seductive. And in the meantime, plain old online check in is starting to feel a bit quaint - if your boarding pass isn’t on your mobile, it’s not magical at all.

What are we creating today which will still feel magical tomorrow?

Interesting elsewhere – 22 November 2010

23 November 2010

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

  • ” Design Jam London 1 Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction … At hackdays, the only time when outcomes are being shared is during the (often very short) presentations at the end of the day. At a Design Jam, the process is just as important as the outcome. How did you get this idea? How did you approach the problem? To allow teams to compare their processes and bounce ideas off each other, the groups shared what they had done so far before lunch. Articulating their ideas and getting questions from the audience helped teams to focus, and seeing how other teams had taken completely different steps got everybody reflecting on the many different ways to explore a problem.
  • Developers | Emma Mulqueeny The average view of developers and open data (from within government) is that:

    1. developers work for free/very little because they are so driven

    2. developers will do anything for early access to data

    3. developers will do anything for kudos

    None of the above statements are true. I can name perhaps two people who may fall into one or two of the above categories, but I know no one who actually fits all three. So let’s start from there.

  • Seeing through transparency? | I is for…. Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that transparency is important. The point is, though, that transparency can be dangerous without engagement. If the processes, conversations and decisions of our public services are really to become transparent, then public servants need to have the tools (and that means the technical resources, the skills, and the backing) to contextualise, to consult, to explain, and at the end of the day to defend, their own actions. Otherwise the release of post hoc data will only encourage witch-hunts and scare stories which reinforce the view that public servants are, literally, a bunch of wasters.
  • The anatomy of a service delivery disaster: how the UK’s tax agency goofed up. And what it means to one of their ‘customers’ « Patrick Dunleavy « Contributors « British politics and policy at LSE But perhaps the most chilling thing about this case is that the simplest aspects of the HMRC letters demonstrate how extraordinarily little they know about their customers (as is true of Whitehall generally). Writing to an 85 year old widow, who has lived in the same house for five decades now, both the form letters begin brusquely ‘Dear SMITH’. Apparently the department cannot even determine the gender and marital status of the people they are writing to (despite decades of contact). Alternatively, perhaps they cannot be bothered to get right such unimportant details as writing to citizens in a basically polite fashion. After all, the top managers have so many other ‘transformational’ and ‘tell us once’ things to be getting on with.
  • OPM Blog: a community for public interest discussions » User experiences of the welfare-to-work system The LSP wanted to gather the experiences of service users on the provision and systems to move from welfare to work. The hypothesis was that people can become trapped in a rigid welfare-to-work system and be put on journeys over which they have little control.These people are not involved in co-producing outcomes and are constrained in their ability to draw on their existing strengths or wider resources. The result is unnecessary duplication in provision or courses of action without clear goals. The dream of obtaining paid employment never seems to be realised.
  • The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics Newspapers compete with other newspapers, but newspaper websites compete with other websites.

Service design opportunity 2 – the car crash

22 November 2010

Somebody drove into my car last week while it was parked outside my house and carried on without stopping. Somebody else, driving just behind, took the trouble to take the registration number of the car and to leave a note on my windscreen. There is both good and evil in the world.

That has been enough to generate not one but three fascinating insights: two into service design, or rather into services without obvious or complete design, and one into why government does big IT.

The police

Since there was a witness, I thought it might just be worth reporting to the police. The Met has one of those fashionable single non-emergency numbers (though the world being the way it is, it isn’t very single). My call was answered in an efficient and friendly way, I told the story, gave the registration numbers of the two cars, and was asked if I had access to the internet. As it happens I do, so was told to go to the Met’s web site (which at a quick glance is worth the services of service designer on overtime in its own right) and, mysteriously, to search for “F207″.

That turned out to lead to a PDF form. A 21 page PDF form. A 21 page PDF form with the instruction on the front to return it to the “reception staff / volunteer” (volunteer?) from whom you got it. Presumably the expectation was that people should print it, fill it in by hand, and then take it to a police station. That felt a bit too much like hard work, so I did the whole thing on screen. Having done that, the obvious thing to do was to email it to them. I even had a potentially relevant email address, that of my local safer neighbourhood team, an only very slightly orwellian sounding bunch of friendly coppers who take an interest in mostly minor crime. So off it went. And came straight back again, stopped by the Met’s email filters:

Because it believes the message or an attachment to this message
contains JavaScript code.  This detection is based on scanning
the content for JavaScript and JavaScript like commands.

MailMarshal Rule: Policy Management (Inbound) : Block JavaScript
Script JavaScript Triggered in form207completed.pdf
Expression: if FOLLOWEDBY=20 (null OR true OR false) Triggered 8 times weighting 80

Unless Acrobat itself is in the habit of generating  malicious PDF files, that’s just a little strange, particularly as sending the same email to my government account just to see what would happen occasioned no problems at all.

So where to take it instead?  Any police station? A particular police station? A second call to the contact centre.  Ah yes, of course, it has to be taken to the second nearest police station. Off we go. The function of the second nearest police station is, it seems, simply to be charming and helpful, at which they are excellent, and then, in a particularly enjoyable piece of reverse Pinter, to send the papers to Sidcup. It is not their role, it is clear, to add any insight which may come from being second nearest as opposed to conveniently reached.

The insurance company

The insurance company has so far performed flawlessly which is reassuring in many ways, but useless for a blogger in search of material. But then it struck me that what they were doing might shed some tangential light on a very different and slightly unlikely issue, the whole question of government and big IT.

Big IT companies have been everybody’s favourite enemy for years. They are perceived as being unimaginative, slow, expensive and incompetent all in one unhappy package. Some of that is a bit unfair (this spectacularly misleading graphic from the Guardian is a lovely example of demonisation, however much they may want to hide behind the small print), and there are certainly more sophisticated versions of the challenge which deserve a serious response, particularly in world where other very large scale users of IT seem to be able to do things differently. Andy Murd in a comment last week on a great (and sadly rare) blog post from Emma Mulqueeny describes his willingness to play with open data and to build proof of concept services as being based in part on a desire

To embarrass, shame, and (hopefully) put out of business the EDS/Accenture/Gartner/CSC consulting firms that make a massive sum from obfusticating and holding back government IT. I could go on a long rant about firms whose primary product is invoices and whose R&D consists of lobbying but it’s easier to spend an hour on a demo that would cost millions through the state’s “preferred suppliers”.

So why if it is that easy is it that difficult?

Back to my car crash. I know a man in Battersea who has a small body shop. If I were spending my own money, that’s where I would go. But there’s him and his mate in a tiny yard behind a row of terraced houses. I doubt that he could absorb more than a small fraction of the work needed by my insurance company. And he certainly isn’t set up to deliver the range of related services which might be needed – collecting the car, disgnosing, let alone fixing any deeper mechanical damage. If my insurance company were to do business with him, they would have to manage and co-ordinate suppliers to a degree which would push an administrative burden back on them which they simply do not want. So they don’t. They find a bigger supplier who can deliver an integrated service at the scale they need. My man in Battersea doesn’t get a look in.

So one version of the question – and I am not suggesting it is the only one – is how you deliver large scale outputs while using a loose federation of small scale inputs. The answer needs to cover how it applies to the back end as well as the front end. An answer which starts by saying there should be no need for large scale outputs may be interesting, may even be right, but in the short to medium term is not helpful.

The hire car

So I am not sure my car is safe to drive, and I am certainly not going to experiment by driving down a motorway, which is precisely what the plans for the weekend require me to do. No problem, we can go by train. Except we can’t because of engineering works (or at least that’s my best guess, based on cryptic statements on badly structured websites – you might think that it would be worth giving some prominence to the basic question of whether a train company is running trains, but it seems not).

So nothing for it but to hire a car. The practicalities of that mean I have to collect the car on my way home from work. I carry the plastic card bit of my driving licence with me but, like any other normal human being, I don’t carry around the paper bit. That’s a problem, though, as it turns out, one which can be solved by spending £6.38 on a short phone call to DVLA. DVLA aren’t going to give out personal information to just anybody. Quite right too. So they make the car hire person hand the phone to me so that they can check my identity and record my authorisation for them to disclose my driving record.

They want to know my name, my full name with a peculiar inistence on middle names, I don’t think (pace Simon Dickson) they are at great risk of confusing me with anyone else, particularly since they also check my address and date of birth, but never mind. So now I am authenticated.

Bear in mind though that the use case I am describing is one where the plastic card bit of my licence is present. So it seems faintly odd that every question DVLA asks can be answered by reading things off that very card, so long as you can rise to the very mild challenge of deobfuscating dates of birth from driver numbers. So what is this process protecting for whom and from whom? I am not at all sure.

Maybe next weekend will be quieter.

Social and civil – Public Strategist reaches 500

18 November 2010

If a major objective of this blog were to be anonymous, it would have failed catastrophically. The power of google is such that searching on my name now gives this blog as the first result, despite the fact that my name does not appear anywhere in it. I doubt that it would take a moderately industrious and moderately web savvy individual more than a few minutes to make the connection even if they didn’t have a name to start with. Even my mother found her way here (hello!) without my ever having hinted that there was a blog to look for (for the avoidance of doubt, she did know my name to start with).

From time to time I toy with dropping this increasingly threadbare pseudonymity. Each time – including this time – I have decided not to, precisely because this blog is pseudonymous rather than anonymous. Over time, I have planted increasingly obvious clues around the web, which is no doubt one reason why google can pull off its party trick, but I have drawn the line at how this blog identifies itself.

The basic reason remains the one I started with several years ago:

Public Strategist is pseudonymous not to hide behind a cloak of anonymity but to underline a distinction between an individual and an institution.

That distinction is important to me because I am a civil servant, and there is a responsibility which goes with that to be impartial, to avoid politically controversial issues, and not to abuse the confidence of those I work with.  I deal with that by writing only rarely directly about the matters which occupy my working day, and when I do I wrap them in such obfuscation that even I find it hard to disentangle. I have no intention of changing that.

So why, you might wonder, do I bother mentioning it all?  There are two reasons.  One is that this is the 500th post on this blog, which feels like quite a milestone and encourages a bit of introspection.

The second, and less felicitous, reason is that that milestone coincides with attacks by the tabloid press on Sarah Baskerville for her personal online activities. I wrote a piece on that as the storm broke and many others have come to her defence. I don’t want to repeat or add to that directly. But it is worth thinking about the general question of where the lines should be drawn, so that bloggers, tweeters and, critically, their managers know where they stand

That of course presupposes that there is a line.  I think there should be no doubt that there is one – or rather that there are two. That does not mean that in practice they are either clearly visible or sharply focused. It does mean though that the interesting question is where they are to be drawn. The core issues are organisational loyalty and political impartiality and the real questions are whether anybody should feel free to use social media to comment on and criticise their employing organisation and whether the answer to that should be different for people working for elected politicians. There is nothing new about any of that: the thing which is new is the context in which those judgements are made.

Users of social media are in a difficult middle ground in which social norms have not yet fully formed. Interactions are often conversational and immediate, informal and spontaneous. But they are also recorded, broadcast and archived and can be received far away in time, space and - critically - context from the place where they were transmitted. For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once. I am no better placed to delineate that frontier than anybody else, though there are some clear principles which take us quite a long way.

The central one is set out in the Civil Service Code, which as of last week has a statutory underpinning in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The section on political impartiality states:

14. You must:

  • serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
  • act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
  • comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.

What restrictions on political activities might those be? There’s a detailed answer in the Civil Service Management Code (section 4.4 if you are curious), which defines two relevant variables: national or local and politically restricted or not. Essentially, more senior people are ‘politically restricted’ and may not take part in national political activities and need permission for local political activities. Notionally there are ‘politically free’ people who can do anything, but I suspect that most of the jobs in that category have been outsourced for years. In between there is a large group who are neither of the first two, but for whom there doesn’t seem to be a name. They need permission for either national or local activities, though there is provision for block exemptions.

And what are the political activities which might be restricted? The relevant bit in this context is in para 4.4.1:

Speaking in public on matters of national [or local as appropriate] political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets.

All that provides the appearance of clarity, but not necessarily the precision one might hope for, as is often the way with guidance. For a start the activities described in 4.4.1 have a slightly faded air to them. The general point is, however clear: civil servants do have to accept limitations on their political speech which do not apply to others.  So when Adrian Short tweets that ‘In short, political neutrality isn’t the same as clerical celibacy’ I think he is wrong: for at least some of us, that is pretty much exactly what it is.

But even if we were to sweep all that aside, would that imply that there were no limits? I don’t think so  In a comment on my earlier post, Ian says that, ‘This case has great similarities with Civil Serf in DWP case’.  I don’t think that’s right at all.  On the contrary, Civil Serf’s case shows some very important diferences from Sarah Baskerville. She was a civil servant in DWP who wrote an anonymous blog about her work, including passages commenting directly on both policies and ministers. She got some critical press coverage early in 2008, and her blog was completely and rapidly vanished.  As I said when reflecting on her case at the time:

I think there are some pretty clear rules of the game here, most of which are not specific to the public sector – though the iron law applies, here as elsewhere, that something happening in the public sector is intrinsically more newsworthy than the same thing happening in the private sector.

There is an entirely reasonable expectation of confidence about the internal operations of the organisation.  Not all of them, not about everything, but any organisation needs some shared assumptions and expectations about what is internal and what can be shared externally.  The argument that more should be shared externally doesn’t change that:  the question of degree is not the same as the question of principle.  We wouldn’t expect a manufacturing company to be happy to cede decision making on the timing of new product announcement to the whims of bloggers within the company, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect ministers to be any more tolerant of civil servants opinionating about future policy announcements.  For civil servants, particularly those working directly with or close to ministers, an acceptance of constraints on what would otherwise be perfectly legitimate political activities is a basic part of the deal.  Anybody who doesn’t like that is free to follow Clare Short’s example and switch trades.

What Sarah has demonstrated – as have many public sector bloggers – is that it is possible to be open, human, informed and informative while at the same time respecting both organisational confidence and the particular constraints of being part of a non-political public service.  On the evidence I have (admittedly very incomplete, particularly for Civil Serf), Sarah’s activities were proper, in a way Civil Serf’s simply were not.  I think that that is broadly encouraging (though some think I am foolishly optimistic): there are boundaries, but they do not make a straitjacket and there is no shortage of good things we can do within them. Not everything will be easy, not every choice will be clear, but there is scope to apply passion pace and pride here – and professionalism too.

Getting social with media

13 November 2010

Three years ago, Owen Barder was the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for his blog. It caught my attention partly because I knew Owen slightly and admired what I knew and partly because as a then much more tentative public sector blogger it was a reminder of just how unclear boundaries and expectations could be. I don’t remember how I found out about it, though I don’t think it was until some time afterwards and I do remember the vigorous defence mounted by Tim Worstall. There was some other blog commentary, but the reverberations quickly died away – except no doubt for Owen himself. Megaphone journalism remained ascendant.

Today, Sarah Baskerville is the subject of an attack by the Daily Mail for her twitter account. It caught my attention because Paul Clarke wrote an excoriating rebuttal on his blog. What is different is not just the more rapid appearance of a strong defence, but the speed and power of reverberation. On twitter, by 10pm the #welovebaskers hashtag had been used in 659 tweets by 341 people. On the web, almost 7,500 people have clicked on short links to Paul’s post. Understandably, Sarah has now locked her own twitter account, but she can be in little doubt about the outpouring of support. Megaphone journalism hasn’t gone away, but it can be challenged and contradicted in a way which wasn’t possible even three years ago. That’s apparent even in the Mail itself: the story about Owen attracted a total of two comments. The story on Sarah so far has 59, overwhelmingly critical. Those few which are not have been strongly marked down by other readers.

But although the megaphone may no longer have a monopoly, it can still make a lot of noise. Thousands of people have seen the defence of Sarah, but the circulation of the Daily Mail last month was 2.1 million.

Even with those numbers, the shift is unmistakable. It is worth noting where some of the support for Sarah is coming from. Alex Butler wrote in a comment on Paul’s blog post:

As you know i had more than a hand in drafting the guidance for civil servants and their use of social media. In the past few years I’m pleased to say that we’ve opened up to real and honest debate. Whether or not you agree with Sarah B she is one of those windows into our world.

And Bill McCluggage was one of the hundreds who tweeted support. It’s unfair in a way to single them out, but they are both emblematic of a sea change in government approaches to social media and the use of IT more generally.

The most negatively rated comment on the Mail site is rather pathetically condescending:

One imagines that poor Sarah is looking forward to a ‘quiet chat’ with the Boss on Monday morning!

Not long ago, though, that would have been a reasonable guess. My hope now is that any such chat will be to express the support Sarah deserves. My confident expectation is that even if it were not, there are many within government who would be happy to explain to her boss why support is the right reaction, should that be necessary. That may be the most important change of all, even if it is of little comfort to Sarah today.

Overheard: service design opportunities

13 November 2010

To the post office this morning. Twice: once to queue up to post some parcels and once to queue up somewhere else to collect one.

At the post office, the woman in front of me wanted a form to convert her Portuguese driving licence into a British one.  Easily done. And she wanted some advice: her mother had recently arrived from Portugal, had found a job, but was having difficulty opening a bank account. Could the post office help? Yes, of course, delighted to. What evidence of identity would be needed? A passport. No problem. And a bank statement or a utility bill. Oh dear.

Then to the sorting office to pick up the parcel. The woman in front of me handed over the card that had been left. The postman went to look for it but came back empty handed. It seemed that the package had not yet come back from the delivery round.  But, pointed out the woman, the card said she should wait two hours before attempting to collect it and two hours had passed. Well, said the postman, sometimes it could be quicker than that. But sometimes it took longer. Such was life. The woman was perplexed. What was the point of putting the waiting time if it was meaningless? Well, it was a guesstimate, it wasn’t to be relied on. Oh dear.