Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world
Brian Hoadley has a powerful go at the answer:
Those who campaign for the release of Government data seem to fall into a few major camps:
- Those who want more access to information because it will inform their work – e.g. the press via MP Expenses
- Rights activists who once the data is free will move onto another cause – because that’s what they do
- Those individuals who encircle Government who continually talk about how they could produce far better ‘Services’ than Government, at a fraction of the cost and time
Better access to data for those who monitor Government and then report on its activities will have certain benefits. We can all agree that some portion of the expenses scandal was beneficial and could lead to positive change in Government spending policy. We should also acknowledge the reality – that probably 80+ percent of the scandal was merely spectacle to earn revenue for news organisations.
I will admit that the efforts of rights activists will help groups 1 and 3 above by fighting a meticulous battle to gain access to what many term as Public data in any case.
But what about those ‘Services’?
To understand the drive behind this, we need to understand that with the Government in a precarious position due to over-extension of resources during the Recession, anything that could lead to a reduction of costs will look attractive. Take, for example, the appointment of a Digital Inclusion Champion to get the remainder of the UK population online.
Why would the Government do this?
Because long-term, the consumption of digital services, that can accommodate millions in the way a physical location cannot, will result in cost savings through the reduction of said facilities and staff to run them.
My instincts on this are very much like Brian’s: industrial strength systems require some form of industrial strength management. But it doesn’t at all follow that nothing has changed or will change (and I don’t imagine that Brian is suggesting otherwise). There are several important forks in the path, which separately or cumulatively could lead to our ending up in quite a range of different places.
1. Personal and impersonal
The focus of open data is very much on impersonal and aggregate data: postcodes, mapping, crime statistics, school performance and a whole very long list more. What all of that data has in common is that it can all just be handed over for people to play with and build new things. Leaving aside the surprising ability of impersonal data to become personal in slightly unexpected ways, that can all be open and straightforward. The issues suddenly get very different once personal data comes into the picture, because the same spirit of playful openness is simply not an option. That’s not at all to say that personal data can only be handled inside government organisations but rather, as some of the points below start to explore, that different approaches and tools are needed to building services which deliver personal outcomes.
2. Front end and back end
Front ends can and should be simple, back ends often need to be complicated. That doesn’t make either one inherently easier; it means that they are different kinds of problems. Achieving elegant simplicity at the front requires hard work, but very different hard work from that required to achieve robust completion at the back end. Brian goes on to talk about FixMyStreet, the inspired genius of which is that it doesn’t make the slightest attempt to solve the back end problem, it simply presents information to local authorities to do with what they will. The LA then needs to diagnose what kind of problem it is and whose responsibility it is to solve it, identify and allocate resources, integrate with existing plans, schedule activity, undertake task, record completion and, ideally, somewhere along the way consider whether the problem could have been avoided in the first place. I can see no obvious sign that systems to support that set of activities are going to come from anywhere other than their current sources (which is not to say that they will continue to be designed and built in anything like the same way).
That’s not at all an argument for government doing everything. Even big, complex, sensitive systems don’t have to sit wholly within government. A large majority of tax returns reach government as structured data without having touched a government front end, because a whole lot of third party providers have found it in their interest to create front ends.
3. Inside and outside
The question of how to do all this still tends to be framed round the assumption that it is government which holds personal information, that it has an obligation to limit access to and use of that information and that issues such as joining up services and sharing the data necessary to do so are problems which need to be solved and which only government can solve. Shifting the primary data store away from government (and other service providers) altogether – the volunteered personal information model – is one way of reframing the question. But even that doesn’t take away the government big systems problem: the piece of information you chose to share will often (but certainly not always) itself need to be stored in order to provide the service, to smooth future service provision and to provide assurance that the right things have been done.
4. Facebook and Prince 2
Choices on those first three dimensions between them open up a huge range of futures, with no reason to suppose that any one of them will become the single universal model. But unless we do something even more radical, they all still need there to be big transactional, personal systems (though they don’t necessarily require those systems to be owned or operated by government). Brian’s answer is simple and, I suspect, right:
So who, in reality, will create those digital services? It will be same internal teams, companies and consultancies who currently work for Government.
In practical terms, they are the only ones who have the infrastructure and capital to go through ISO accreditation, PRINCE training, supply account and project directors, planners, technical architects, UCD experts, designers, developers, testers and hosting.
The argument in the past has been that those techniques are the only reliable way of delivering systems with the scale and resilience needed. But the critical question now is not whether big complex systems are needed, but whether there is only one way of building them. I have written before about the Facebook example, which is one of several which challenges the idea that robust large scale systems supporting high volumes of rapidly fluctuating personal data can only be managed in one way
None of that means that we will ever stop needing fast moving and often small scale innovation. There are far too many examples of attempts to build big things in one go where either it proved too big to succeed, or got finished only when the rest of the world had moved on to something else - or both. But it does make the big challenge of the next few years look more about turning ideas and prototypes into boringly robust services than about generating new ideas – which is not to say that we won’t still need new ideas, just that it’s pretty clear that they will continue to come.
That’s why I was so encouraged to see Rewired State taking a step in this direction when I wrote about it earlier this week. They are moving in from one end of the spectrum. Now we need to get some movement from the other end.
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
Mr Suffolk also believes civil servants and public sector workers should be more active on social networking sites. He runs a blog, although it hasn’t been updated for almost a month. “The more we can move to a dialogue is a good thing. [Government blogs] are still very rare.” However, there is a risk when communicating directly to a wide audience: “You have got to understand there will be the potential for misinterpretation.” [h/t @iancuddy]
But don’t feel too comfortable when your Customer Experience Management vendor tells you they have a sophisticated text analytics engine because “truth be told” they come in all shapes and sizes… from statistical word counting and targeted keyword lists, to sophisticated natural language processing or NLP. When evaluating text analytics solutions it’s very important to not only evaluate the output – dashboards, reports and exploration capabilities, but to also inspect the quality of the data being extracted…
Vendors that invest in NLP technology to model the structure of words in order to understand a sentence can yield accuracy similar to that of a human. Statistical approaches (keywords, classifiers, etc.) are considerably less accurate because they typically require the user or implementer to create rules to model what data is pulled from the system.
Suddenly, thanks to the magic of Google, that post became the most heavily-featured result for searches like “Facebook login” – which caused all kinds of confusion.
It looks like a number of users clicked on the top result, expecting to be taken to Facebook’s login page (also known as, erm, facebook.com) and instead being presented with this ENTIRELY DIFFERENT site.
The post now has a comment thread of around 300 posts, many from disgruntled Facebook users who have clicked and can’t work out what’s happened to the site they know and love…
But, lest we simply laugh at the failure of the great unwashed to get the web, let’s take a couple of serious points away from the whole thing… Perhaps we should refigure our idea of how many people actually use the web in this way. While the confused commenters largely seem to be middle-aged non-web-literate people, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid – just ill-informed.
Each of us represents the company to the world and the character of the company is defined by our beliefs and actions. We must be mindful of this when participating in social media and any kind of online communications.
You may be active in social media on your own account. That’s good. But please remember that whether you are on your own time or company time, you’re still a member of our team. And the judgment you exercise on your own time reflects on the judgment you exercise at work. There’s only one you – at play and at work.
More on powerpoint… the more, in number and in detail, your bullets, the less I believe you know your stuff!
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
We seek to use systems to impose standards of service and uniformity across the offering. “People are unreliable!”, we scream as we write as much discretion away from users as possible, thinking, as we do so, that we are serving both them and the customers.
Well, we’re not. What we’re actually doing is eliminating those things that would really make what we do thrill customers. At the edge, where people meet real customers, such a standard offering doesn’t thrill anyone. It may provide some value to most people. But I suspect that only outliers would actually be thrilled.
Today the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee publishes its report on decision making and appeals in the benefits system, the headline press coverage reports on huge errors in overpayment and underpayment of benefits and as part of the solution the select Committee is calling for a Welfare Commission to be set up to simplify the benefits system. We welcome this news and believe that any redesign should place a one-to-one service to claimants at its heart; ensuring efficient and humanised service delivery.
You don’t destroy or change what’s there, you just resolutely go about building an alternative. We’re starting to see the effects of this with the music and newspaper industries – the web has provided a platform for parallel structures and better alternatives have emerged. I think the same could be achieved with public services. Many of them no longer meet people’s needs, so rather than trying to change government from the inside there is a good chance that building new public services outside of its walls may be the answer. Just as with music, those artists that recognised the potential of the web early on continue to thrive. The difference is that public services aren’t subject to markets. Like it or not, perhaps that will start to change as well.
Take the area in which I live… There are over 5,000 people claiming Jobseekers Allowance. This is up 1,500 on 12 months ago. Real levels of worklessness are likely to be around three times this. It’s concentrated, in the main, in some of the most deprived wards in the country, where almost half the working age population will be out of work… There are already approximately 17 workless people for every available job…. How do we tackle worklessness and poverty and tell people that they have opportunities, without a range of good quality, sustainable jobs? If Marx got nothing else right, he was spot on when he observed that men and women make their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.
We see real, workless people in our offices every day. The reality is that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who are out of work categorically do not want to be so.
It’s a new payment service that absolutely doesn’t guarantee payments. In fact, its unreliability is what makes it so attractive to social game publishers and other people selling virtual goods. It’s also a great way to let the unbanked masses out there pay for stuff without getting sucked in to stuff without getting sucked in to scamville-type scams. The product is called Kwedit Promise. [via @grimbold]
Steph Gray has raised the interesting question of what should happen to public sector social media activity during the election campaign which will be upon us in the next couple of months:
When the General Election is called, and government enters the pre-election phase known as purdah, I’m going to suspend my personal blogging and tweeting at least until the results are announced.
Simon Wakeman has reflected on the same issues from a local government perspective and although he hasn’t yet made up his mind, it sounds as though he too is inclining to hanging up his keyboard for the duration. Now Dan Wood has joined the debate, again coming down on the side of safety first reticence, though with a strong sense that this is sensible pragmatism rather than necessary principle:
Secondly, the need for public servants (certainly those at any level of seniority or experience) to be unbiased and to serve the administration of the day exists all year round. Purdah should be no different. And I’ve not seen any blogs from public servants that stray over that line…
So no problem there then – everyone carry on as you were! But Simon and Steph point out that purdah is a particularly sensitive time, and as we gear up for our first election with an established social media, no-one quite knows what the rules are.
So where does all that leave us? One simple approach is to start with the official guidance. The rules for the general election this year have not yet been published – and on past form will not appear until the election is called. But the guidance for the 2005 election is still on the Cabinet Office website (pdf document, web page). The main elements of the guidance – and certainly the principles behind it – have remained pretty stable for the last several elections at least, so it’s probably a reasonably good guide to how things will be this time. The main bit which is relevant in this context is the section on communications, which begins:
The general principle governing communication activities during a General Election is to do everything possible to avoid competition with Parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public. In addition, it has always been recognised that special care must be taken during the course of an Election since material produced with complete impartiality which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times, may excite criticism during an Election period when feelings are running high.
Those two sentences are each worth reflecting on. The first has a silent assumption, that communication capacity is a scarce resource, and that the more of that capacity which is taken by government, the less is available for candidates to get their messages across to electors. Of course it remains true that attention is a scarce resource, but it isn’t true in the way that it was even in 2005, let alone earlier elections, that column inches are scarce. I can write here at any length I choose to, but it is a pretty safe bet that I won’t as a result impede the ability of parliamentary candidates to get the attention of the public. The second sentence more directly echoes the concern expressed by Steph, that the very fact of there being an election puts what would otherwise be unexceptionable at risk of criticism. Civil servants should, it appears, be impeccably impartial at all times, but even more so when an election is imminent.
My own opinion is that the first of the two sentences will have more bearing than the second – which is not, of course, to say that civil servants can blog without risk of criticism. But I don’t overall think that bloggers such as Steph should have too much to worry about if they stick to their normal normal subject matter and professional standards. ‘Official’ blogs, such as those produced by FCO and DFID are another matter: as part of formal government communications activity, they will have to stop.
That’s my interpretation anyway. But even I am not untouched by the febrile environment, so I feel oddly compelled to underline the point that I have no authority or special expertise on any of this, and nobody should base any decisions just on what I say. And even if anyone were inclined to take any notice of what I say here, it is the guidance for this election, not the last one, which will matter in the end.
Last week, this blog hit five years and 400 posts, just as it became apparent that blogs are history.
As this momentous milestone approached, there was a flurry of coverage of the latest Pew Internet Project report, on social media and young adults, picking up on the decline of interest in blogging – at least among young Americans. The Guardian reported that:
Blogging, on the other hand, may become more and more of a side issue. In fact, among all the content creating activities the decline in blogging among teens and young adults is striking as it looks like the youth may be exchanging “macro-blogging” for microblogging with status updates. Since 2006 blogging among teens has dropped from 28% to 14% and among young adults (aged 18 to 29) by 24% to 15%. Some 11% of those aged 30 and over now maintain a personal blog, and 14% of them maintain a personal website.
There is nothing terribly surprising about that: maintaining a blog is not a trivial undertaking, and it has always been true that a lot more people are consumers of online material than are producers of it. Kathryn Corrick recently picked up on some Forrester analysis (again based on the US) which shows this very clearly:
What has changed, perhaps, is that tools have become better tuned to what it turns out people actually want to do. As John Scalzi puts it:
For the vast majority of what people (not just teens, but teens also) used blogs for — quick updates on line to friends and family — Facebook and Twitter offer an easier, friendlier and therefore better solution than starting up a blog. If you’re starting out in social media, for most folks it makes sense to go there. Later, if you want the ability for customization and a format beyond 140-character tweets and status updates, you can always start a blog. But I suspect most people don’t need to get to that point, and certainly not most younger users of social media.
Also, you know. Blogs have been social media’s Last Year’s Model for a spell now; heck, they were Last Year’s Model when Friendster hit. And it’s certainly true that when I note that I’ve been blogging since 1998, certain younger folks get that look in their eye that says No! No one was even alive then! That’s when I hit them with the concept of “newsgroups.” Good times, good times.
Or, more pithily:
Great content is really, really hard to make. That’s why so few blogs have it, but that’s not the medium’s fault. The same is true for any other media.
And so back to the discussion of the state of the UK gov blogosphere kicked off by Dave Briggs, continued before and at UK Govcamp. Now Dave is back with some fresh thoughts (and with a great comment from Steph Gray), most importantly and perceptively that none of this is really about blogs:
I was wrong to mention blogs. A lot of the resultant discussion in the comments of that post and other chats have focused on blogging, which is of course just the medium. It’s the content I am interested in. What we seem to lack is an ecosystem of ideas in public services. Discussions about new ways of doing things, how to change the way things are, how ideas get progressed into prototypes and then into actual delivered services or ways of working. Whether this happens on a blog, in a social network, on a wiki or over a cup of tea is neither here nor there.
I think that’s a good way to approach the question, not least because the first incarnation of this blog was as the only available tool for the job I really wanted to do. Its original purpose was to act as an informal knowledge management exchange for me and my team at work. In the absence of any official way of doing that, a group blog – with access restricted to members of the group – seemed as good a way forward as any. For a whole range of reasons, it never quite took off in the way I had hoped, so it fairly quickly became more of a personal notebook of things I had found interesting or thought I might want to remember. That meant I wrote largely for myself – if anybody else found it interesting, that was a bonus, but their absence didn’t stop me (which is just as well).
Large organisations tend to be predominantly inward looking: there is so much going on and calling for attention on the inside that it can sometimes be hard to remember even that there is an outside, let alone that that is where challenge and innovation is most likely to be found (I read something interesting and thought provoking on that, using the pattern of email usage as the way in to the question, just in the last few days, but now I can’t find it to add a link here – which is itself a measure of one part of the problem). Blogs are one good way of countering that trend, for readers but perhaps particularly for writers, but its not the only way nor even the best way for many people and many ideas. As Steph says, there is an existing ecosystem (and set of assumptions) which long predates the world of social media. The challenge for government – and probably the challenge for any large-ish, non-technology focused organisation – is to recognise and embrace the additional power which comes from widening that ecosystem and, critically, to accept the loss of control which comes with it.
In the meantime, there’s a few more years blogging to be done.
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
Two Pew Internet Project surveys of teens and adults reveal a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. Even as blogging declines among those under 30, wireless connectivity continues to rise in this age group, as does social network use. Teens ages 12-17 do not use Twitter in large numbers, though high school-aged girls show the greatest enthusiasm for the application.
Security is rarely static. Technology changes both security systems and attackers. But there’s something else that changes security’s cost/benefit trade-off: how the underlying systems being secured are used. Far too often we build security for one purpose, only to find it being used for another purpose — one it wasn’t suited for in the first place. And then the security system has to play catch-up.
Design is going through a change. Designers are now realizing they can apply their skills to make a positive difference on social issues. Designers design processes like ideas generation, prototyping, and testing, whereas people in public sector organizations might not think about using these processes. Even large private sector organizations may not go through the steps of a design process. steps of a design process. [h/t @choosenick]
There are many reasons why people don’t claim everything they’re entitled to – we frequently meet people who just don’t know about them, people who think they could get them but are left baffled by the complexity of the system, and those who want to but don’t know how.
The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.
The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table’s order, designing the house and organising the party.
If the people who read this blog are the sort of people I think read this blog, few will have paused over the title of this post. For better or worse, people who read this are people who are comfortable in an online world. They will shop online, bank online, talk to their friends online, rant at their enemies online.
So it it terribly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what is obvious to us now has always been obvious to everyone, or even that it used to be obvious to our own former selves.
But of course it wasn’t obvious before it became obvious, however obvious it now seems that it must always have been obvious.
Looking at these two examples – the poster above from the 1950s and the still below from a film about how to use ticket barriers made in 1969 (which you can watch on the London Transport Museum site) – two points stand out.
The first is that in both these examples, the people giving the instructions felt that painstaking detail was required (whether those on the receiving end found that useful is, of course, another matter). The second is how quickly in both cases the self-service model became first accepted, then obvious and finally invisible.
The apparent moral of that is that once most people have been persuaded to change and the new way has become the default, the service provider’s problem is over. At one level that probably is right, but there is another factor which is also vitally important: the quality and clarity of the service design customers are being asked to follow. The post office round the corner from where I work has recently installed a new queuing system. A screen at the front door offers four service options; choosing one gets you a numbered ticket for the appropriate queue. The problem is that the options are so completely non-intuitive that somebody has to be employed to stand by the machine, ask customers what they actually want to do, translate that into one of the four options and then operate the ‘self-service’ machine for them. The lack of clarity of both purpose and implementation radically inhibits customers’ behavioural change.
So, self-service done well can certainly become easy. But it won’t actually be easy until it becomes obvious, and that takes time and clarity. Getting that right requires the early adopters to see through the eyes of those who follow them into the change. Self-service is only easy if we make it so.
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
Given a difficult technology policy problem, lawyers will tend to seek technology solutions and technologists will tend to seek legal solutions.
The best thing to do is treat your IT colleagues like glorified order takers. Like, for example, you’re in some really expensive restaurant. You want them to show up, and ask you what you want, and go away and get it. You want them to do it often enough that you never want for anything, but not so often you get annoyed by all the attention. I mean, the best IT person is the one that just does what they’re told, right? Even better if they’re like that perfect waiter in the perfect restaurant that knows what you want without even being told.
It will be hard for people to change their mindset, because it’s not what they’re used to. But if we can show how these less formal- and coincidentally much less costly- events deliver more benefit, then eventually even the hardened cynics will get the message. And what should drive home the message is the sheer enthusiasm of the barcamp attendees. They’ve been visibly inspired by the event. And I can’t remember the last time I saw that in anyone who attended a traditional, expensive conference. The trick will be converting that enthusiasm into organisational change.
While we might believe that it is blindingly obvious that involving the people who use services as early as possible – to make sure we develop the right thing – this may be particularly challenging in a digital context.
You’ve read about social media. You may have thought it was a fad. Now you’ve been waking up at 3am with the gnawing thought that you’ll have to do something. something.
“Strategy, as we knew it, is dead,” he contends. “Corporate clients decided that increased flexibility and accelerated decision making are much more important than simply predicting the future.”
And as far as I’m aware, the fundamental problem with innovation in public services is this confusion between what constitutes ideas, and what constitutes service implementation. And why I’ve come up with some alternative approaches to crack the innovation problem; more on this later.
And why people so often misunderstand the difference between good ideas and things that actually work. For that you need to build bridges, and remove roadblocks – a metaphor which will be the subject of my next post.
Great bit of service design from Tesco in this bit of direct marketing that came through my letterbox – linking in-store and online elegantly and easily using a loyalty card. Helps customers move online, makes things easy, great graphics too! Simple. Love it.