Helen Margetts and Cosmina Dorobantu – Nature
Much of what is written about the use of new and emerging technologies in government fails the faster horse test. It is based on the tacit assumption that technology can be different, but the structure of the problems, services and organisations that it is applied to remain fundamentally the same.
This article avoids that trap and is clear that the opportunities (and risks) from AI in particular look rather different – and of course that they are about policy and organisations, not just about technology. But arguably even this is just scratching the surface of the longer term potential. Individualisation of services, identification of patterns, and modelling of alternative realities all introduce new power and potential to governments and public services. Beyond that, though, it becomes possible to discern the questions that those developments will prompt in turn. The institutions of government and representative democracy are shaped by the information and communications technologies of past centuries and the more those technologies change, the greater the challenge to the institutional structures they support. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but it does start to show why those bigger questions will need to be answered.
Catherine Howe – Curious?
It’s been clear for a good while that the boundary zone between an agile project and a less than agile host organisation is often rife with friction, incomprehension and frustration. The value of reducing the friction is obvious; the nature of the best lubricant rather less so.
There are various more or less mechanical ways of approaching this – treating it essentially as the alignment of two models of governance. This post comes at it at a rather different angle, with a strong emphasis on finding approaches which deliver psychological safety for those involved and which recognise the different (and ideally complementary) value of different perspectives. Agile projects should carry on being agile, but the right way of thinking about systems is systems thinking. That sounds ludicrously trite, but is both less obvious and much harder than it sounds. As ever, Catherine Howe provides thoughtful guidance through the complexity.
Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers
Sometimes what is missing can be as telling as what is present. The availability of data drives what can be said, what can be understood and what can be proposed. So the absence of data can all too easily lead to an absence of attention – and of course, even where there is attention, to an absence of well informed debate and decision making. So there is something important and powerful about looking for the gaps and trying to fill them. This new blog is trying to do exactly that and will be well worth keeping an eye on.
Richard Pope – Platform Land
The third part of Richard Pope’s strategic musings is as thought provoking a reflection as the earlier two, though this post is perhaps making a rather different point from the one the headline suggests.
It opens with the idea of small pieces loosely joined, which remains one best descriptions of the web and of quite a few other things besides and leads smoothly into the idea of shared components and services across different governmental organisations. On the face of it, that makes a lot of sense in terms both of system efficiency and of delivering coherent services. Institutional and power dynamics within governments don’t make that easy. The level of trust within governments can be surprisingly low to those who look from the outside and see something monolithic. There’s a whole host of reasons for that, but one of them is the lack of recourse if things do go wrong, with an understandable reluctance to place reputation and service quality on a foundation which is not itself robust. And so the post arrives at the fundamental question, which is not to do with components or APIs at all, other than as the visible symptom of a much deeper issue:
The question governments therefore need to answer is this: what are the appropriate characteristics of institutions capable of operating shared infrastructure for the greater good rather than the priorities of a thematic agency, while remaining accountable?
One answer is to create new institutions whose job is to do that – GDS in the UK is an example. But if, as this post suggests, that model is under threat, that may be a sign it might not be the optimal approach either. So the problem remains very real, the search for solutions continues. Networked government – of small pieces, loosely joined – remains elusive.
Ellen Broad – Inside Story
Ellen Broad is a technologist who is expert on policy, an ethicist who is an incisive thinker, a writer who has published an important and well argued book. She also, as it happens, is a woman. We all know that that last statement should be irrelevant to the preceding three. We all know that it isn’t.
But we can all too easily persuade ourselves that everything is more or less all right, that blatant discrimination is a thing of the past, that even though there are rotten apples, the barrel is sound. This article calmly and comprehensively demolishes that easy optimism. It is a very deliberate breaking of self-imposed silence, a discarding of the assumption that quiet compliance will somehow make things better:
If there is no “right” way as a woman to speak about gender issues — if there is no “right” way for a woman to take up space, to take credit — then silence won’t serve me or save me either. The only way forward from here is to start speaking.
In this essay, Ellen has spoken. She needs to be heard.
Nicole Badstuber – London Reconnections
Algorithmic bias doesn’t start with the algorithms, it starts with the bias. That bias comes in two basic forms, one more active and one more passive; one about what is present and one what is absent. Both forms matter and often both come together. If we examine a data set, we might see clear differences between groups but be slower to spot – if we spot it at all – skews caused by the representation of those groups in the data set in the first place. If we survey bus passengers, we may find out important things about the needs of women travelling with small children (and their pushchair and paraphernalia), but we may overlook those who have been discouraged from travelling that way at all. That’s a very simple example, many are more subtle than that – but the essential point is that bias of absence is pervasive.
This post systematically identifies and addresses those biases in the context of transport. It draws heavily on the approach of Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women: Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, illustrating the general point with pointers to a vast range of data and analysis. It should be compelling reading for anybody involved with transport planning, but it’s included here for two other reasons as well.
The first is that it provides a clear explanation of why it is essential to be intensely careful about even apparently objective and neutral data – the seductive objectivity of computerised algorithmic decision making is too often anything but, and why those problems won’t be solved by better code if the deeper causes discussed here are not addressed.
The second is prompted by a tweet about the post by Peter Hendy. He is the former Transport Commissioner for London and is currently the chairman of Network Rail, and he comments
This is brilliant! It’s required reading at Network Rail already.
That’s good, of course – a senior leader in the industry acknowledging the problem if not quite promising to do anything about it. But it’s also quite alarming: part of the power of this post is that in an important sense there is nothing new about it – it’s a brilliant survey of the landscape, but there isn’t much new about the landscape itself. So Hendy’s tweet leaves us wondering when it becomes acceptable to know something – and when it becomes essential. Or in the oddly appropriately gendered line of Upton Sinclair:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
Hard on the heels of Mike Bracken’s pithy definition of digital transformation comes this longer post, exploring multiple meanings of digital through an extended metaphor of running a café. The two don’t contradict each other, but what this longer account draws out is that what counts as digital improvement is different at different stages of organisational and technical development. It offers nine questions to which digital is the answer, or is at least part of it. The eighth is organisational design and transition:
If I were to design the organisation again today, from scratch, how would I design it, based on the new needs and expectations people have, and how the wider context we are in is also changing?”
That comes pretty close to Mike’s one liner – which is a reminder both that digital change isn’t necessarily transformational and that digital as an unqualified descriptor doesn’t describe anything very precisely, a point further emphasised by Anthony Zacharzewski’s tongue in cheek tweet in response:
Digital is Facebook, right?
Matt Jukes – Notbinary
Hertz wants a new website. They do a deal with Accenture to produce one for $25 million. It all goes horribly wrong. And it ends up in court, which is the only reason anybody else gets to know about it. Nobody is particularly surprised.
That’s the point from which this post starts, rapidly homing in on the question of the expertise Hertz should have had, but didn’t have, on the client side, and the delusion of outsourcing the product owner role to the supplier. That’s not really about the contractual relationship (and so is just as important when outsourcing is not at issue), it’s about the nature of the product owner role, which this post captures beautifully.
One thing which comes out particularly clearly is that treating product ownership as an ‘agile’ role, rather than as an organisational role can contribute to the misjudgement at the heart of the Hertz/Accenture dispute. That confusion can be seen in other contexts too – in the UK government, for example, treating product ownership (or in their language, service ownership) as one of the digital professions risks introducing a version of precisely that skew (which doesn’t, of course, mean that it necessarily does in practice) and so makes it even more important to focus on the core attributes of the role, without their being submerged by the process – important though that is for other reasons.
Matt Ballantine – mmitII
Transactions are bounded, manageable and measurable, which makes it makes them appear easy to improve and easy to tell whether some forms of improvement have been achieved. The temptation which results is to focus on improving transactions and, more subtly, on making more things more like transactions. There are some advantages in doing that, which is why it is so often done. But the more things are transactions, discarding the rich messiness of human variability, the less they are interactions.
That’s the starting point for a post which turns out to be about something rather different: how do organisations best support collaboration and effective team working. The connection is that while transactions are readily scalable – that’s almost the point of them – interactions aren’t. So in a world where organisational change tries to make things more transactional in contexts where interaction is vital, working out how to scale and systematise interaction without killing it off in the process becomes particularly important.
Mike Bracken – UCL IIPP Blog
‘Digital’ is an increasingly problematic word, ‘digital transformation’ a doubly problematic phrase – in both cases because they are used as much to obscure as to illuminate. One of the difficulties is that ‘digital’ is slapped on as a random qualifier of all sorts of things, to the point where it doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) add much meaning at all. Arguably the underlying problem comes from the fact that ‘digital’ started by being a word which said something about technology, and has become a word which says something about it’s not quite clear what.
Mike Bracken has neatly sidestepped all that with a definition which might actually be useful:
digital transformation is the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era
As the post goes on to note, transformation may deliver some technology change; technology change does not deliver transformation. But confusion on that point is understandable, because it is often the case that transformation becomes visible externally precisely as a technology based changed – and there is some faint irony in the fact that GDS and its first flagship product, gov.uk provide an example of how that confusion can be created.
Alex Glennie – Nesta
Innovation is often discussed as a very abstract process. People are, of course, involved, but they are slightly impersonal people, components of the innovation machine, not fully rounded agents. That’s a caricature, but not a wholly unfair one, and the caricature makes it less obvious than it might otherwise be that we need to look beyond the roles to the people who play them.
This post addresses that head on, focusing on the four specific ideas flagged in the title. None of them sound dramatic or revolutionary – and that is perhaps the point. They won’t solve the problem, but they are all useful ways of doing things better, and they are all well worth folding into approaches to innovation.
Digital government is both something and nothing. It is something because there’s no denying that people use the phrase and think they mean something by it. Digital technologies are a distinctive driver of change in modern societies and economies and they make things possible that would be otherwise harder or not feasible at all. Filing cabinet government. carbon paper government and even mainframe government are all very clearly different from digital government. And yet digital government is nothing. Precisely because digital is everything, calling something digital doesn’t add much to understanding, but draws attention to the technology, which is simultaneously vitally important and not the thing which really matters.
But given that the phrase is not going to go away, some clear-headed thinking about what we should understand by it and how we should apply is highly desirable. And that is precisely what this paper offers. It’s a draft open to public comment, so very much still evolving, but it’s already a useful overview. It neatly and successfully avoids the traps of equating digital with technology and digital uniquely with service design, but is slightly less successful in avoiding the suggestion that digital is done by digital teams.
Fifty year old documentaries are not the staple of Strategic Reading, but this one is an intriguing insight into thinking about the future – a future which has of course become our past and present. It was made just a few months before the Boeing 747 went into service: the physical plane was very real, the implications for wider service design were very uncertain.
There’s an intriguing clip early on where the head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment observes that over the then half century of passenger flight, planes had doubled in size every ten years. The 747 fits that trend perfectly. Extrapolating to the next century, muses the Director, that would imply planes carrying 10,000 people. And you can hear in his voice both confidence in the trend and doubt about its implications, battling for dominance.
Half a century on, we know that it was right to doubt – the 747 was in some important ways on the inflection point of the growth curve. Planes haven’t got faster or higher or more comfortable since then, and they haven’t, with the brief and apparently aberrant exception of the Airbus 380, got any bigger.
That brings Herb Steins’ great line to mind, ‘If something cannot go on for ever, then it won’t’, and that in turn is an important reminder that in thinking about the future, it is unwise to assume that exponential change is unconstrained and indefinite.
Meanwhile, stay with the documentary to stumble across the world’s only vertical take off passenger plane, developed at the same time as the 747, but never quite attaining the same dominance of the skies.
Tom Symons – Nesta
Nesta wants to reimagine government, and invites anybody to have a go. This post is a call for contributions, looking beyond the immediate constraints of austerity (explicitly) and Brexit (implicitly).
We are interested in views which challenge existing orthodoxies, as well as those which take current trends, technologies or ideas to a new frontier. For the purposes of this collection, we have no fixed view of what future government should look like. We bring an open mind and hope to be challenged and surprised.
The challenge is a good one and it will be interesting to see what ideas emerge. Some, no doubt, will be visionary descriptions of what might be possible, of what ambitions we might set for ourselves. But it would be a good balance if some at least also contained an account of how it might be possible to get there from here.
Asheem Singh – the RSA
The robots are coming for our jobs. That will bring mass unemployment and social collapse. Or perhaps a benign world of plenty with universal more than basic incomes. That’s if they are coming at all.
There is no shortage of predictions about the future of work, often driven from simple – or simplistic – extrapolations of technological progress. The RSA has consistently avoided that trap, crafting more nuanced accounts of potential futures, and their latest report continues that approach. It’s built round four scenarios, introduced with an unusually clear and succinct description of the approach:
These are not predictions but scenarios. What we mean by this is, we are not saying any one of them will come to be. However taken together they capture what we feel is the entire area of plausible future, and each one, we hope, shines a distinct light on an urgent set of challenges and opportunities that our future might hold.
As is often the case with scenario based approaches, it’s debatable how far they are independent of each other. But that is almost to miss the point: however structured, the scenarios bring out some profound social and political choices – but with little sign of the wider engagement, understanding and debate that that demands.
Mark Thompson – Computer Weekly
This article starts with the strategy of an anonymous pharmaceutical company, or rather with a discussion of its weaknesses. Rather more promisingly, it then broadens out to look at the NHS and digital health information.
There is a long and largely unhappy history of bold claims for the application of information management to the health service, which have consumed a lot of money but have had proportionately little to show for it. NHSX is the latest attempt to bring it all together, and the argument here is that this still represents technology modernisation rather than digital radicalism.
That leads to a still more fundamental issue, a challenge to one of the great mantras of digital government, that the strategy is delivery. That’s always been a naive view – it’s fine to argue that a strategy which doesn’t result in delivery isn’t much of a strategy, but the argument that the strategy emerges from delivery doesn’t really hold up. Instead, the question here is whether government should be rethinking its role more radically, embracing the idea of government as a platform, rather than building another platform for government.
Richard Pope – Platform Land
A history of street lighting in Croydon might not seem like immediately compelling reading. But both the history and the parallels with digital government are unexpectedly fascinating.
A few points stand out. The first is the retrospective inevitability of commoditisation. The parallel between electricity networks and data networks may seem obvious, how far that moves up the stack and with what consequences is rather less so (because less of that had happened yet).
The second is a different way of coming at a question which has arisen around digital public services pretty much from their first appearance: does a model of government drive the design of online services, or does the building of online services drive thinking about government?
And the third is a good reminder that changing and modernising can be much harder than building from scratch, and that for governments more than most, the new is almost invariably intertwined with the old.
Mekala Krishnan, Jan Mischke, and Jaana Remes – McKinsey Quarterly
In 1987, the economist Robert Solow observed that the computer age was everywhere except for the productivity statistics. In some sectors, that started to change a decade or so later. Now, a further two decades on, the nature of ‘the computer age’ is very different and there is a further round of technology-driven change with even greater potential than the last one. The main conclusion of this article is that there is another surge of productivity growth waiting to be captured, though acknowledging some significant transition inefficiencies along the way. And there are still wider effects not directly reflected here – autonomous vehicles, for example, have the potential to be more immediately efficient but might add to externalities elsewhere through increased congestion.
Stepping back from that, perhaps the deeper message of Solow’s paradox, now as much as when he posed it, is that technology-based change is never just about the technology and that understanding the social and economic context in which it is deployed is always a vital part of the overall picture.
Adewale Maye – CEPR
The rise of the gig economy and the relentless undermining of traditional employment structures is often seen and presented as an inexorable characteristic of modern digital economies. That’s partly a consequence of skewed observation, partly a recognition that organisations can increasingly trade rich information for formal structures, and perhaps partly a change in the reality of people’s working lives. This article addresses the last of those points using recent US data – and concludes that the number of people working in the gig economy is small and growing only relatively slowly.
That’s a helpful balance to some of the hype, though it does unavoidably leave one of the central questions unanswered. If we can, to adapt Solow’s paradox, see the effects of the gig economy everywhere except in the productivity statistics, is that because they aren’t there to be seen, or because we are at the very early stage of what may be exponential growth? Perhaps, as with Solow’s original, it will take a decade or two to tell.
Richard Pope – Platform Land
The idea of describing things in terms of stacks is a familiar one in the worlds of technology and of operating models. It’s not such a familiar way of describing government, though it’s an idea with an honourable history, including Mark Foden’s essential summary in his gubbins video.
This post is a trailer for a series of forthcoming posts under the banner of Platform Land, which promises to be compelling reading. That promise rests in part on the recognition in this introduction of the fact that governments are both organisations with much in common with other kinds of organisation and at the same time organisations with some very specific characteristics which go well beyond service delivery:
Considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.
The emergence of government platforms represents a new way of organizing the work of government. As such, the task at hand is not to understand how we patch existing systems of government, but of how we adapt to something new that will come with its own set of opportunities and challenges, risks and prizes.