4 June 2010
In every organization, there is at least one awesome idea that can upset the status quo. The challenge is finding it – and freeing it.
25 May 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- In the loop: How Twitter transformed political reporting – Features, Gadgets & Tech – The Independent The secret of Twitter’s success is that it sounds stupid. No one has to take it seriously, which means anyone can use it for anything they want. And, because the idea is so devastatingly simple, they do. You write short messages to a group of people who choose to read them, and read short messages written by people whom you choose.
But it was ever thus. Theatres were a distraction from the pure religious life. Novels encouraged hysteria. And in most modern music you can’t hear the words. Television was going to kill books. Video killed the radio star. The internet was going to kill books. Texting was going to kill literacy. The Kindle was going to kill books. Books are still here. Amazon turned out to increase book sales. So did the Richard and Judy Book Club. Each wave of technology (apart from the fax machine) has enriched intellectual life. One or two technologies appear not to have survived. But then surprising things happen.
- Security engineering: broken promises | ZDNet For several decades, we have in essence completely failed to come up with even the most rudimentary, usable frameworks for understanding and assessing the security of modern software; and spare for several brilliant treatises and limited-scale experiments, we do not even have any real-world success stories to share. The focus is almost exclusively on reactive, secondary security measures: vulnerability management, malware and attack detection, sandboxing, and so forth; and perhaps on selectively pointing out flaws in somebody else’s code. The frustrating, jealously guarded secret is that when it comes to actually enabling others to develop secure systems, we deliver far less value than could be expected.
- “Is that Google or the Internet?” – Podnosh One [question] really made me stop and think: “Is that on Google or the internet?”.I was stumped for a moment. It felt like a cartoon character has just looked up at me from a drawing and asked me to explain the world of 3 dimensions.
It’s a perfectly reasonable one mind (all questions are). “You can find it through Google or you can go straight to the web page using the web address,” I tried to explain, adding: “they’re all on the internet” to a rather puzzled frown.
It happened to be Silver Surfers this week. I’m not keen on the idea myself but marketing minds often feel it is working and perhaps that question explains the need.
If even the concept of the world wide web is still slippery for some (hence the question) how do we describe this fundamental shift in information and relationships for those who have yet to grasp it?
- Imagining the Internet Tim Berners-Lee offered his “Five-Star” plan for open data. He said public information should be awarded a star rating based on the following criteria: one star for making the information public; a second is awarded if the information is machine-readable; a third star if the data is offered in a non-proprietary format; a fourth is given if it is in Linked Data format; a fifth if it has actually been linked.
- The Coalition: what now for digital? So, a week into a new kind of government, what does the outlook for digital look like? [...]
There seem to be three big ideas about the role and potential of the internet:
Transparency: the internet as a publishing medium for government spending and Parliamentary expenses…
Collaborative individualism: the internet as a decentralised network enabling individuals to come together as civil society…
Efficiency: the internet as a lower-cost approach to delivering government IT programmes effectively including through smaller and more modular approaches.
- The net is not just for the young One of the most important things that the new government could do with its services is to break away from the idea that each department or ministry has “a website” that is a gateway to the “real” department behind it.This is the sort of thinking that businesses abandoned years ago.
Amazon simply is its website, and the Guardian is an online news service that also prints a daily paper. If we required government departments like Revenue and Customs to act in this integrated way then it might be able to perform its role far more effectively.
But we can only do this if almost everyone is able and willing to access these services online, so that the costs of supporting those who are simply unable to do so are manageable.
We should not compromise on the quality of the public services we deliver, and nobody must be left behind when they are offered online.
- open government for the UK – new report launched We believe that there is a natural potential alignment between our UK system of government, our long tradition of liberal democracy, and what technology now makes possible. But it will take a strong political will and the implementation of a series of practical steps to get there.This is, after all, not about our government and our public services as they currently exist. But how they would be if we were to design them now. It is in that spirit that this paper aims to add momentum and support to make open government pervasive, routine and sustained by offering a series of recommendations that we believe will help advance and embed the necessary cultural and technical changes required to help make open government an embedded reality in the UK.
20 May 2010
The Google Reader team are pleased with themelves, not without reason:
Today we built the 500th version of Reader; over the 5 years that we’ve worked on Reader, that works out to almost two builds a week.
I suspect that’s distinctive, if at all, only in that they are both keeping score and saying so in public. I heard an Amazon person talk about version 300 or so quite a few years ago. Closer to home, I remember Tom Steinberg saying the N010 petitions site was on version 3 (or was it 5?) at the end of the first day of live running.
Some of that, of course, is about how you to choose to count things. But a lot of it isn’t.
19 May 2010
Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.
Clay Shirky, quoted by Kevin Kelly, suggested by Martin Stewart-Weeks
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
19 May 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- The big society – meeting at Downing Street For me, as an old Whitehall hand (my day job before talk about local) this was the first time the coalition thing has really sunk in. It was remarkable to see two leaders of different political parties sit opposite each other at the cabinet table and govern together. The big society is perhaps easier common ground, the deputy prime minister said that the liberals and the conservatives had been talking about the same thing but with different labels. For the DPM a big society that embraced community grass roots action and self empowerment was core liberalism. The Prime Minister said that he wanted a major part of his legacy to be a government that ‘laid the foundations for the big society’.
- Phlebotomy Phiasco – a customer-oriented process? I discovered I was in what turned out to be a pre-queue since the department door was locked shut. A roll of numbered paper tickets lay on a counter which experienced users knew to take. In the best traditions of user-administered service process, first time users were instructed in the system by the veterans. About 30 people were there already – 50 by opening time at 7.30. Why were so many people there so early in the morning? Well I can only guess that they knew that turn up any later and you can say goodbye to most of your day.
- John Seddon: Why Lean is a Wicked Disease Why did Ohno teach his managers by getting them to study the system? Because only careful study of the work reveals what the true problems are — and mostly they are not the ones you thought they were.In fact, this revelation is frequently followed by an even more challenging one: the real issue is actually the way you were thinking about your problems.
And so it is with service organisations. Managers assume that standardising work cuts costs, yet when they study their services they find that standard processes prevent the system from absorbing variety — put simply, it makes it hard for customers to get what they want, and the organisation consumes more resources as a consequence.
- Schneier on Security: Worst-Case Thinking There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability and magnifies social paralysis. And it makes us more vulnerable to the effects of terrorism.
Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.
- Focussing on the voice of the customer | acidlabs Of course, in any project you need to balance the business requirements against what’s actually deliverable to the customer or user. But I’d argue that at no point in the project should business requirements outweigh or force a compromise in the experience you deliver to the customer. You should never expose your problems, limitations or issues with the business to the user or customer. If you do, you’ve failed in delivering the best experience.Of course, this doesn’t mean that those issues don’t exist and that you don’t consider them very carefully. But you don’t expose them to customers. You use whatever smoke and mirrors you can. You do clever things under the hood. Or you even change the business to remove the problem so it’s no longer a problem at all.
- How public services can save the world « Disciplined Innovation And in social innovation, the public sector has certainly helped promising ideas get to scale. From universal education to social security, great social innovations have started life in civil society and grown to scale with the public sector’s help. As it has been in these areas, so we at the Innovation Unit believe it will be for green social innovations.
18 May 2010
Last week I illustrated my post about the mergers and demergers of Whitehall with a very bad picture of a very neat illustration of the timelines of government departments in tube map style. Steph Gray responded to my plea for help in finding a cleaner version of the picture and linked me up with its custodian in BIS.
So I now have a high resolution version, though it came with a health warning, not guaranteeing complete historical accuracy – which turned out to be important shortly afterwards, when Patrick Dunleavy left a very helpful comment pointing to a more rigorous treatment of the subject, albeit one not so visually striking and covering only the last twenty years.
This is the BIS-produced diagram which was in my earlier post (click on it to see a larger version):
This is the diagram Patrick Dunleavy pointed out to me, taken from Making and Breaking Whitehall Departments: A Guide to Machinery of Government Changes by Anne White and Patrick Dunleavy and published by the Institute for Government just last week – and clearly worth a thorough look in its own right (again, click on the image to see a slightly larger version):
And finally a splendid bonus in the form of a tongue in cheek extrapolation by the BIS team of departmental changes out over the next century and a half:
So now we know where we have been and where we are going. Nothing can possibly go wrong.
14 May 2010
Your first design may seem like a solution but it is usually just an early definition of the problem you are trying to solve from.
14 May 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Gov 2.0 in Australia This showcase has been set up to collate and create a gallery of Australian Government innovation in the Gov 2.0 space, from which others can learn. Once a few submissions have been received and verified, we will publish a gallery of case study videos and images which people can click on to get the full details of each case study.
- Civil Service Live: Conservatives – Interview “We know that huge numbers of public servants at the front line get hugely frustrated by the way things are currently done: by the restraints, the detailed targets, the monitoring, the auditing, the regulating, the inspecting – all of which get in the way of them doing what they want to be doing, which is delivering public services,” says Francis Maude.“So the deal will be, yes, there is going to be less money around in the future, but the other side of this is that there will also be less interference, less micromanagement, more responsibility taken by people at the front line. And that means more freedom for them to do things themselves in a way that responds to the needs of the public.”
- Customer Journey Mapping Resources On The Web ” Experiencing Information Below is a list of English resources on the web for Customer Journey Maps. The focus of the list is on CJM as a document and deliverable, and how to create them. It doesn’t include general resources about serivce design and, with one exception, doesn’t include resources about service blueprints. The resources that begin with an asterisks are recommended starting points with particularly good practical information.
- Question everything #4: James Woudhuysen on innovation | spiked Genuine innovation, consistently advocated and debated, is an afterthought among British officials. Is that because it is thought too expensive, or too risky, especially in a downturn? Certainly. Is cutting back ‘waste’ of all sorts automatically preferred to creating new products and services? Yes. Have regulations, like the target mentality and the ceaseless propaganda aimed at raising ‘awareness’, gained a kind of unstoppable dynamic of their own, to the detriment of innovation? They have. Are the Cabinet and the shadow Cabinet dominated by people with little experience of science, technology or even business? Yes.
- What’s so great about the welfare state? | spiked The debate we must initiate needs to move beyond the limited political imagination that dominates both left and right. The state is neither the only institution that can guarantee the wellbeing of the citizenry, nor can we rely on the market consistently to provide for individuals. Rather than understanding the current situation as a reason for despair, we ought to embrace the very positive challenge that rejecting the interventions of the state would force us to confront: how we might begin to build a new set of public institutions and bodies, through which, acting in concert as citizens, we could begin to decide what kinds of welfare provisions we might actually need, and what kind of society we might really want to live in.
11 May 2010
The UK structure of government has the aura of great longevity. Prime Ministers have succeeded one another, the great offices of state have the outward form they had the century before last. There is no truck with a fifth republic – or a fifth anything else – here.
But behind that facade of stately permanence, the structure keeps changing.
Her Majesty may by Order in Council—
(a) provide for the transfer to any Minister of the Crown of any functions previously exercisable by another Minister of the Crown;
(b) provide for the dissolution of the government department in the charge of any Minister of the Crown and the transfer to or distribution among such other Minister or Ministers of the Crown as may be specified in the Order of any functions previously exercisable by the Minister in charge of that department;
(c) direct that functions of any Minister of the Crown shall be exercisable concurrently with another Minister of the Crown, or shall cease to be so exercisable.
And she does.
The picture below shows how departments have split and merged over the last few decades (it’s a poor quality mobile phone picture I took at last year’s Civil Service Live –
if anybody knows a source for a proper version of this image and its pair which projected forward over the next few decades, please do let me know Update: high quality images kindly provided by the good people of BIS and included in a new post here).
But the fact that it happens a lot doesn’t make it an unalloyed good thing. The National Audit Office notes ascerbically:
Central government has always reorganised, even though its fundamental activities change little.
The Institute for Government has seven lessons for a new government, the second of which is pretty blunt:
Don’t reorganise departments on a whim – build institutions to last
The creation of a new department is a powerful way to signal a change in direction and grab the headlines, but machinery of government changes do not come cheap.
More importantly, in most cases it takes at least two years for the new organisation to settle and three or more for the expected benefits to begin to flow through.
So, before playing around with the map of Whitehall, the next PM should be sure they have strong rationale for the change, and be prepared for morale and productivity to drop – especially in departments that have been frequently reshuffled in the past.
The force of this advice is only slightly diminished by the Institute’s map of Whitehall which places the Cabinet Office in Dartmouth Street, the Department of Health in Victoria Street, the Northern Ireland Office in New Palace Yard and the Department for Transport half way along the platform of St James’s Park Station.
What some of us are used to calling ‘machinery of government’ changes have a rather brisker feel in the private sector where it is known as M&A. Notoriously, many company mergers destroy value rather than creating it – which doesn’t seem to have any effect in reducing their numbers. But it does mean that there has been a lot of attention paid to the questions of how value can be maximised and of where the pitfalls are.
Apparently that’s rather less true in government. As the NAO observed in their report:
Central government bodies are weak at identifying and securing the benefits they hope to gain from reorganisation. There is no standard approach for preparing and assessing business cases setting out intended benefits against expected costs. By not identifying anticipated benefits clearly, public bodies run the risk of carrying out reorganisations unnecessarily. More than half of reorganisations do not compare expected costs and benefits of alternative options, so there can be no certainty that the chosen approaches are the most cost effective.
There are of course many challenges in managing the bringing together of organisations. Cultural issues are often particularly long running – it’s not unusual to be able trace fault lines back to the differing cultures supposedly merged years before. From outside, that might appear an entirely trivial problem for government - the civil service is, after all, homogeneous and in a single line of business. Except that it isn’t. The cultural variations between government departments may or may not be small in absolute terms, but that doesn’t stop them from being quite big enough to be an impediment to smooth integration and collaboration.
Other issues may be shorter term, but a more immediate and more immediately frustrating obstacle to effective merger. I remember a colleague who had been closely involved in the birth of DEFRA finding the complexity and cost of the apparently simple task of integrating two email systems out of all proportion to what anybody had expected or prepared for. More recently, another colleague in the thick of another merger felt overwhelmed by the process of moving people from jobs in two predecessor organisations into roles in the new organisation which, he felt, had stopped him from focussing on his real job for several months. It is the accumulation of those issues which, I suspect, have as much to do with the medium to long term success of organisational changes as the policy, political, or operational logic which drove the decision in the first place.
It’s not all gloomy though. Here as in many areas there are new opportunities. Steph Gray’s account of how he and Neil Williams found themselves in a newly merged department one Friday and had created an integrated website for it within 72 hours has a sense of urgency and achievement not always associated with the coming together of new IT systems. And yes of course to start with that was just a thin layer sitting above the two existing departmental sites, but within a few months Steph was able to report the completion of a radical and comprehensive integration project.
It’s that sort of practical experience which has the potential to make a real difference to the speed and effectiveness of integration. So back to the private sector: is there anything that the mixed experience of M&A can tell us about the mixed experience of machinery of government?
There’s a new report out on the parallels between private and public sector restructuring which strongly argues that there is – and that even in apparently hard edged areas such as IT integration, the technical challenges are not the real issues:
Three crucial lessons stand out from our conversations: the need to focus on creating value, not just cutting costs; the importance of being able to connect the very top of the new organisation to its front-line staff; and the role of decisive, sometimes dictatorial, leadership.
Source for Consulting, the company which produced the report is running a free seminar next month to launch it formally, which could be rather useful to anybody who unexpectedly finds themselves merging – or demerging – bits of government.
[Anybody tempted to follow those last links should know that they are not quite as disinterested as most of the stuff I point to - the Source report was written by my wife. But that doesn't mean it isn't good. Quite the contrary.]