Data as institutional memory

Adam Locker – Medium

There’s more to this deceptively self-deprecating piece than meets the eye. Fragmented data cannot support integrated services, still less integrated organisations. Deep understanding and effective management of data are therefore not a minor issue for techie obsessives, but are fundamental to organisational success.

As so often, the diagnosis is simple (which of course doesn’t stop it being hard), acting on that diagnosis is complicated, and even harder. This post brings the two together through an account of making it work on one part of government.

MoJ digital and technology strategy

Tom Read – MOJ Digital & Technology

The Ministry of Justice digital team has long exemplified many of the best characteristics of digital in government, getting on with doing good things without making a song and dance about it.

So it’s no surprise that their approach to creating a strategy embodies those same characteristics. In about a thousand words, this post makes clear what is to be done, why it matters, and how they will make it happen. Your strategy is probably longer, but it’s worth asking whether it’s better.

In which I am a bit over this digital transformation business.

Catherine Howe

It’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that whatever Catherine Howe is thinking about now, the rest of us will stumble onto at some point in the indefinite future. So if she is over the digital transformation business, we need to wonder where the zeitgeist will manifest next.

One of the more provocative definitions of technology is ‘everything which doesn’t work yet’. Similarly, we will know that mapping as a technique and transformation as a goal have become normal when we hardly need to talk about them, any more than we talk about the mature technology which is around us and so hardly needs to be spoken about. But that, as this post starts to explore, merely clears the ground for deeper and harder questions. The search is on for a theory of change to shape the search for answers.

What is a Customer?

Bob Marshall – Think Different

The question of what a customer is (if anything) in the context of public services is one to be approached with trepidation. The bigendian battle has been rumbling for decades, occasionally flaring up into active skirmishing, without ever quite being resolved. One of the main reasons for that is that all the relevant words – customer, user, client, and so on – have a range of connotations, with proponents tending to focus on one set and opponents on another.

Yet another definition won’t solve that, though this one might have a better chance in the fight than most. A customer, this short post suggests, is:

Anyone who receives or anticipates receiving something (e.g. a good or a service) from someone else.

Perhaps the time has come to turn the problem round. Instead of picking a word and arguing about its definition, perhaps we should pick a definition and argue about which word best encapsulates it.

Civil servants civilly serve

Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist

A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.

The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.

But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.

Just enough Internet

Rachel Coldicutt – doteveryone

This is a thoughtful and important piece which challenges one of the pervasive myths of digital services, and particularly digital government services. More, it argues, is not intrinsically better, for a number of overlapping reasons. Collecting more data than necessary carries costs – human and ecological, as well as financial and technical. In making that argument it challenges the naive equivalence between public and commercial services, and the assertion that the former are somehow failing if they do not ape the latter – summarised in the splendid line

The fact that neither NHSX or BBC R&D will send a rocket to Mars this year does not mean they are not innovative. It means they are not in the rocket business.

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowski – Idle Words

This is another piece which isn’t new but which provides some good provocative food for thought, on how applying a computer programming perspective to problems which are fundamentally social can – and does – lead to unfortunate results. It’s written by Maciej Cegłowski, who brings elegant erudition to an unlikely range of subjects, in this case how an approach based on controlling closed systems breaks down when confronted with messily indeterminate systems, with a scattering of provocative one liners which combine challenge and simplicity, such as

Machine learning is like money laundering for bias.

We have to stop treating computer technology as something unprecedented in human history. Not every year is Year Zero. This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.

Enabling collaboration across the public sector

Pia Andrews – The Mandarin

Pia Andrews has long been a powerful voice and a practical exponent of doing government better, not least doing government better in ways which confront and address the difficulties caused by the structures of governments themselves.

This article is a great summary of some of that thinking. Much of its power comes from the recognition that government is fundamentally about people and their relationships with each other, and that that is true as much of people within government as it is of the people that governments serve. Vertical organisational structures can easily be and often are barriers to collaboration and dampeners of motivation, reinforced by a concept of leadership derived from functional management. But none of those is immutable, and a combination of fresh approaches to teams and leadership internally with a readiness to look at the needs of the people governments serve more holistically has real power and potential (greater than either one considered in isolation).

Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Matt Edgar writes here

Unusually for Strategic Reading, this post earns its place not by being new and timely but because it has become an essential point of reference in an important debate. It makes a very powerful argument – but one that is slighly undermined by the conclusion it draws.

It is a measure of continuing progress in the four years since the post was written that the proposition that service design is important in government has become less surprising and less contentious, as well as much more widely practised. It is a measure of how much more needs to be done that the problems described are still very recognisable.

So it’s absolutely right to say that service design is critically important for government and that much of what happens in government is better illuminated by service design thinking. But to assert further that that is most of government most of the time is to miss something important. Much of government is not service design and much of what is service-related is an aspect of a wider public purpose. The function of many government services is only in part to deliver a service, even where there is a service being delivered at all. So the five gaps which are at the heart of this post are all real and all can and should be addressed by service design approaches – but they are not the only gaps, so a solution which addresses only those is at risk of missing something important.

Defining services

Kate Tarling and Matti Keltanen – Services and service organisations

The question of what a service is is both eminently straightforward and impossibly difficult to answer. This post does a great job of demonstrating the straightforwardness, in five pithy elements of a definition, but in fleshing out each of the five points, it also demonstrates the impossibility.

The problem is not that the definition being put forward is wrong or unhelpful. Quite the contrary. It is that drawing the boundaries of a service requires huge understanding, empathy and insight – and even then is unavoidably a matter of judgement rather than the consequence of the precise application of rules. It needs to be big enough to be clearly about satisfying a need rather than conducting a transaction; it needs to be small enough for it to be practically and organisationally possible to make it better. It needs to be sufficiently self-contained to be addressed as a single challenge, and sufficiently broadly based to avoid the construction or reinforcement of silos and the associated inefficiency of duplication. And across all of that – and more – we also need to be clear about the role of government and about whether that role is inherent or arbitrary. Back in the primordial dawn of digital government, a decision was made not to offer a government change of address service – on the grounds that when people move it’s never just government they need to notify, and that in any case the real service was something closer to ‘moving home’. And for that, government is not the service provider – but then nobody else is either. Perhaps we are driven to the slightly uncomforable conclusion that even with all possible understading, empathy and insight, a service is still defined, at least in part, by what a service provider says it is.

 

Warning: Graphic Content

Gavin Freeguard – Warning: Graphic Content

Link blogs come in two different flavours: more links and less commentary or fewer links and more commentary. Strategic Reading is an example of the second kind; Warning: Graphic Content of the first.

And of that first kind, it is impresssively – almost dauntingly thorough – a weekly post which starts with the intersection of data visualisation and government and expands rapidly from there. You won’t want to click on every link, but if you like Strategic Reading you’ll want to click on more of them than you can find the time for.

The only downside is that it’s hosted on Tumblr, which in turn uses Oath, which runs a particularly obfuscatory approach to personal data consent, so approach with proper caution.

You didn’t hear it here first…

The Tangled and the Trapped

This post neatly captures and crystallises ideas which – as the title acknowledges – aren’t themselves new but have been overshadowed by the dominance of a transaction-focused mentality in much government service design. Sometimes, of course, a transaction is exactly what we are talking about and making them simple and effective is the right thing to do. But often the underlying need is not for the (still necessary) transaction but for something deeper and better connected. Getting closer to that involves

learning when to transact, when to intervene and when to do the thing in the middle, support.

As the original emphasis suggest, the middle category, support, is the key to this. Examples such as Mark Smith’s work at Gateshead and the wider set in Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help show the value – in both effectivness and efficency – from looking at people and the support then need before looking at services and tests for eligibility.

There’s a lot or richness in this post about identifying and applying some simple principles for doing that effectively. But it brings out very clearly that however much the design of single services is improved, the impact will be severely attenuated if there is insufficient focus on the wider context.

The Double Diamond, 15 years on…

Cat Drew – Design Council

The double diamond is simple, elegant and intuitive – so much so that is has the feel of something which must always have existed, of being so well designed that it doesn’t feel designed at all. But of course the double diamond is as it is precisely because it is the result of design processes as well as a tool in many, many more.

It comes as a slight shock to be discover that it took form only 15 years ago, not least because if I were asked when I first became aware of it, I would have guessed longer ago than that, perhaps because I came to it from established ideas around divergent and convergent thinking. But it’s a good moment to step back and reflect on those 15 years and the value and variety the double diamond has offered.

Even better, it’s an invitation to look forward, to recognise that the double diamond has constantly evolved and mutated and that it will and should continue to do so – so if you have a double diamond story to tell or a double diamond prediction to make, this is the place to share it.

 

Time for a tactical withdrawal

Matt Jukes – Medium

The UK government design principles – last updated only a few days ago – still unambiguously assert:

10. Make things open: it makes things better

We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets – howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.

But of course the clarity of the principle is no guarantee of the consistency of its observation – and this post argues strongly both that the principle is now less observed than in the headier times of recent years and that this is a very bad thing.

That prompts the question of whether openness is – or can be  – an independent variable, separate from the wider political context. I have argued elsewhere that it is far easier for civil servants to be open about some kinds of activity than others, and that in particular that it is easier to be open about process than about substance. So it is possible that what has changed is the balance of activity; it’s possible that overall levels of political sensitivity have gone up – but it is also possible that openness is still seen as a slightly maverick activity, and that it will tend to decline unless it is actively nurtured.

The rhetoric of openness – not just in the design principles but, for example in the availability of tools for open policy making (to say nothing of broader initiatives such as OECD’s observatory of public sector innovation) – is still alive and well. If the substance is fading, this post should be read as much as a call to arms as an acknowledgement of retreat.

Revisiting the study of policy failures

Mark Bovens & Paul ‘t Hart – Journal of European Public Policy

What is a policy success? What is a policy failure? It feels as though that ought to be straightforward question, but the answer looks more uncertain the more closely we look. There is a gung ho – but still very valuable – approach of finding fairly big and fairly obvious blunders, but that’s a way of avoiding the question, rather than answering it.

This paper takes a more reflective approach, distinguishing between ‘programmatic’ and ‘political’ success and failure, arguing that neither determines the other and that the subject attract analytical confusion as much as clarity. None of that may sound helpful to the jobbing policymaker, struggling to find practically and politically effective solutions to complicated problems, but there is a clear conclusion (even though, perhaps in parallel with some of the policies used as examples, it is not entirely clear how the conclusion follows from the evidence): that open policy making is better than closed, that the messiness of democratic challenge is more effective than the apparent virtues of pure analytical precision.

But it also follows that policy failure is a political construct, as much as it is anything:

there is no ‘just world’ of policy assessment in which reputation naturally reflects performance. The nexus between the two is constructed, negotiated and therefore contingent, and often variable over time

It further follows, perhaps, that that jobbing policymaker needs have a political sensibility well beyond what a more managerialist approach might think necessary, being ready to recognise and operate in ‘the world of impressions: lived experiences, stories, frames, counter-frames, heroes and villains’.

Complex systems thinking is being used for policymaking. Is it the future?

Sarah Quarmby – Apolitical

Metaphors evolve. The fashion for mechanical metaphors to explain social phenomena is no longer as dominant as it once was (though such metaphors are still often lurking a little below the surface); the fashion for more organic metaphors is in the ascendant. Systems thinking generally and complex systems more particularly fit nicely with that trend. So it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves whether talking more about complex systems in the context of politics and policy making is merely following fashion or is getting closer to some underlying reality. Or to put that slightly differently, are complex systems an interesting metaphor for social and political systems or an accurate encapsulation of them?

This post gives some helpful pointers to answering that question, without quite actually answering it. Coincidentally, a Gordian knot-cutting tweet pops up from David Henig:

If a problem seems to be simple to solve, yet hasn’t been over many years, it’s probably complex.

One of the subheadings in the post asks ‘Is it really a new approach?’ The answer to that is clearly ‘no’ – the basic ideas have been known about in government for a long time. It’s tempting to get a bit recursive at that point: the reason why complex systems approaches have not become more deeply rooted in social and political change is itself an interesting complex systems problem.

Universal Laws of the World

Morgan Housel – Collaborative Fund

Rules of thumb are useful things; partly because they avoid the need for original thought on every occasion and partly because they can help avoid the risk of being over persuaded by one’s own arguments. This modestly titled post is a slightly random collection of laws, some more rigorous than others, some more widely familiar. No 5 is new to me but seems to encapsulate something important, which could be expressed even more pithily as ‘all change is irreversible. And No 11 is one which people with tendencies to strategic abstraction should chant ritually whenever they come together.

(found through Ian Leslie’s gloriously eclectic newsletter, which is always packed with gems)

We’re missing the point of digital government

Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper – Apolitical

‘The point about the digital transformation of government,’ the authors observe, ‘is that digital transformation isn’t the point.’ That apparently trite thought both unlocks some very important questions and also forces confrontation with the fact that some of those questions are very hard – which is perhaps why they have so often been wished away. It doesn’t help that ‘digital’ is used by many as a synonym for ‘technological’, so creating near limitless opportunities for mutual confusion. This article attempts to defuse that confusion by identifying four broad drivers of change, only one of which is directly about technology. It will perhaps be a mark of progress when we can get beyond calling the result digital transformation at all.

But once past that, this is a serious and important attempt to understand how governments – both the ones we have, and the ones they might become – are responding to changes in the environment in which they operate. Government is about service design, but it is also about democracy and engagement, about visibility and legitimacy. Too many technologists don’t understand how government works; too many people in government don’t understand what technology could and should be doing for them and for the people they serve – and both groups too often fail to realise that hard boundaries between them are themselves part of the problem.

The article is a teaser for the authors’ new book, Are we there yet? (spoiler: no). Its focus is on Australia, but that shouldn’t discourage readers from elsewhere, who will see issues they recognise and will have much to gain from the understanding and insight with which they are discussed.

Government as a Platform

Richard Pope posted a series of tweets linking to all the outputs from his time as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It’s some of the most sustained thinking and writing on digital government by somebody deeply involved in doing it there is, so since tweets sit at the curious intersection of the ephemeral and the permanent, it seemed worth bringing it all together. What follow are lightly edited versions of those tweets.

Government as a Platform Playbook

In part based on interviews with people from digital service groups around the world. Aims to provides teams building platforms in government with actionable guidance.

Government as a Platform – the hard problems

These are mostly bigger political/policy questions that need political capital to resolve.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The design of services & public policy

Part 3 – Shared components, APIs and the machinery of government

Part 4 – Data infrastructure and registers

Part 5 – Identity and trust

Curated lists

1. Cross-government registers, shared components and open APIs

2. Design systems and standards

3. Service standards and other technical standards (and a short article explaining the rationale)

Resources

Government as a platform reading list and various other resources

Stand-alone articles and blog posts:

The case for a design archive for digital services

The narrative around “data-sharing” in government needs resetting

Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government

Digital service standards and platforms

Digital proofs

Real-time government

Platforms for government? Platforms for society?

Interview with Will Myddelton – UK Government as a Platform programme

Making public policy in the digital age

A working definition of Government as a Platform

When U.S. air force discovered the flaw of averages

Todd Rose – The Star

The failure of product and service design to reflect human variety has been made more visible by work such as Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women and Joy Buolamwini’s work on racist algorithms. Those are important and very necessary perspectives, but in a way they are both special cases of a much more general problem. There is a bad assumption implicit in many of the choices and decisions they and others write about that the average person is a white, middle class, middle aged male. But one of the reasons it is possible to fall into the trap of making that assumption is the more fundamental assumption that it is useful to think in terms of averages in the first place.

This article is a few years old, but it holds up well as a challenge to that assumption, in two important ways. The first and more straightforward is the demonstration that across more than a tiny handful of characteristics, nobody is average for all (or even most) of them. It follows that designing for the average is designing for nobody, not designing for everybody.

The second is that even then, facts are not neutral. There’s a good response to that evidence, which is that pretty much everything has to be to designed in a way which fits systems to individuals, not individuals to systems. But there is also a bad response, which is that if people fail to be average, they should work to remedy their deficiencies. And to complete the circle, it’s probably not altogether a coincidence that the example illustrating the first response is about men, and the example illustrating the second is about women.