What’s the “Uber” of the Civil Service?

Terence Eden

This intriguing post starts from – and riffs off – the provocative observation (now, amazingly, more than five years old) that

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

What then is the equivalent core asset of a government department that it might not need any more? Does a policy department need expertise in the policies for which it is responsible, or does it only need to create a market and attract the information and insights it needs from a pool of gig workers? It’s an entertaining idea. But it’s worth noting that there are other things the organisations we started with don’t do – adding to the original, one might say that:

Uber doesn’t care where you want to go. Facebook doesn’t care what you want to share. Alibaba doesn’t care what you want to buy. Airbnb doesn’t care where you want to spend the night.

So before turning a government department into a bundle of StackOverflow questions, perhaps we would need to understand what it was that that department didn’t care about. And whether, once we had taken that thing away, the thing which remained was a government department in any meaningful sense at all.

The pandemic has broken the promise of universal healthcare

Charlotte Augst – Health Service Journal

There are three reasons for reading this article. The first is that it describes a health service stressed to its limits, which is very naturally a matter of wide concern. The second is that it is beautifully and perceptively written, as is everything which Charlotte Augst writes. And the third – which is what brings into the scope of strategic reading – is that it is a fascinating description of a failing system and thus of how systems fail. Failure of a machine or of a business is often obvious and binary. The engine starts, or it doesn’t; the shop is open, or it has closed. An organisation – or rather and entity – such as the NHS degrades to failure in a very different way. Understanding that difference, and recognising when it is happening is a necessary precondition to influencing its trajectory. Not all Cheshire cats end with a smile.

We’ve published our first digital strategy at the Royal Borough of Greenwich

Kit Collingwood

There is nothing special about the digital strategy for a London borough, which makes this one very special indeed. It is very easy for such strategies to be focused on technology and to see the world from the perspective of service providers – and as a result to be rather impenetrable to the reader who might just want to know how their life or their environment might be made better. This one pulls off the trick not just of approaching the problem the right way round, and of expressing the strategy intended to respond to it clearly and succinctly.

This post describes how that strategy came about, distilled and abstracted from the crucible of pandemic response, and more deeply human as a result. That too should not be very special – but of course it is.

The Inspector’s Dilemma

Martin Stanley

Public bodies do many things, not all of them necessarily at the front of mind when we think about what governments do and how those things might be done better. One of those things is, broadly, inspection – checking to see that requirement which should be met are being met (and sometimes to see whether failures reflect inadequate requirements or poor compliance). The existence of regulation and inspection raise an important question about the attribution of responsibility: does the very existence of a regulatory system shift responsibility inappropriately, does it in effect create a form of moral hazard? And if the answer turns out in practice to be to fudge the issue, the consequences may turn out to be very bad.

What Dominic Cummings got right

Aris Roussinos

Most of what appears in Strategic Reading is chosen because it makes an interesting argument well.  Just occasionally something makes it in because while the argument may be interesting, it is not persuasively made. Perhaps the publisher of this piece had some doubts too – the original title, preserved in the URL, was ‘Cummings was right about our government’s failings’, softened to its current version a few hours later.

Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the machinery of UK government is well known. That that machinery has serious weaknesses is unarguable, but whether either his diagnosis or his prescription serve to address those weaknesses is quite another matter. This account of his thinking boldly asserts that “Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.” But his failure to get anything much done in government unavoidably brings into question whether his analysis should be taken at all seriously.

The core argument, borrowed from Cummings himself, but repeated and amplified here is based on a sleight of hand. The diagnosis is at a grand scale – it is the state capacity of liberal democracies, their systems of governance and their political institutions which are not up to the challenge of addressing crises, tested against the slightly unlikely standard set by the Chinese Communist Party. But the solution is a much narrower one: “drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall.” The problem with that is not that the civil services has already reached a state of perfection – it is very far from that. It is that the civil service, big and complex as it is, is only part of a much wider system, which Cummings and his apologists seem determined to ignore.

There is indeed a crisis of governance in the UK. If we address that crisis, we may end up with a better civil service. But if we try to fix the civil service, there is no chance that that will solve the crisis of governance.

We need new operating systems. Whose job is that?

Alastair Parvin

This is not a post about operating systems, in the obvious sense. It might be better described as a post reflecting on Marx’s early view that the base determines the superstructure, so that to achieve deep change your intervention needs to bite deep into the system. Many of our component systems are deeply rooted in the circumstances of their creation and evolution, they are solutions to the problems of their time which may not be our problems. But they are neither easy to change nor perhaps even easy to recognise for what they are. This post describes a clear problem, a future post offers the promise of an approach to answering it.

Strategically writing

Strategic Reading has been quiet for the last eight months. There was no particular reason why it stopped, and there is now no particular reason why it is starting again – but starting again it is, continuing much as it did when it left off. The one difference is that a very large backlog has built up of things flagged for inclusion during the hiatus, so for a while there may be a slightly more retrospective feel as some of the pieces which still seem fresh and pertinent get added to the mix of largely more current things.

What Covid-19 tells us about service

Joel Bailey

Behind this bland title, there is a radical and compelling essay on the nature and intrinsic value of service. It helps to makes sense of some of what we are seeing in the responses – and in responses to those responses – to the present crisis, but its power goes much further and deeper than that.

It restores a link to a deeper sense of the meaning of service than is commonly implied by phrases such as service industry and customer service agent:

Service is noble. Those who serve, in whatever function, are working to progress others. This nobility of service is what we’re seeing globally right now. This is the form of selfless service that is closer to what our evolved selves instinctively need than the usual, narrow view of service.

Suddenly that meaning is laid bare as it becomes apparent just how fundamental the idea of service is to much of what we really value – and yet how misaligned that value is to the way we reward, recognise and celebrate the activity of those who serve. That insight goes far beyond the service of personal care which is now much celebrated as an expression of the social response to an epidemic: it is also about how, between individuals and within and between organisations, service is an enormous positive force which we fail to recognise because we systematically overlook the good which comes from it, for those who serve as well those who are served.

This essay is not how you will have been accustomed to thinking about service. That is the measure of its importance – and of the service it provides to those who read it.

When part of your job is *not* caring

Terence Eden

Strategic Reading – and indeed strategy – tends to the lofty, the grand scale and the dispassionate. So at first sight, this personal and emotional reflection by Terence Eden might seem out of place here. But it is precisely because of the lofty perspective that his point is so important. Thinking about and, even more so, making decisions about issues which affect thousands or millions of people can never be about each of them as individuals. And few real world complex problems have a reassuring Pareto-optimal solution where we can sleep easy knowing that we have made things better for some and worse for none.

Abstracting from the individual can be a very necessary thing to do. But that’s not at all the same as forgetting that there are individuals, real people with real lives which can be made better or worse by distant decisions. To lose sight of that is to become less human. The first step to treating people badly is to strip them of their individuality. More insidiously, stripping people of their individuality is a step towards the risk of treating them badly. And yet as Terence says,

I simply cannot think about them as individuals. No one’s brain has room to contemplate the pain and joy and heartbreak and elation of so many people. It is unfair of me to care about any one person more than another.

The dilemma is inescapable. Being aware of it is the very least we should expect of those whose work forces that issue upon them.

Avoid learning too many lessons from these ‘unprecedented times’

Matt Jukes – Digital by Default

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post makes the simple and powerful point that it is rash to assume that changes made under pressure in the particular circumstances of a crisis will survive once those immediate pressures have lessened. The much-touted “new normal” may well turn out to be surprising like the old one. So it’s a good idea to read this against the accidentally parallel piece by Matt Ballantine.

Is there any way of reconciling these points of view, beyond the trite observation that opinions differ?None that is certain, of course, it is genuinely too early to tell. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too early to think about what the answer might be. And in reflecting on that, it’s worth starting with Charlie Stross’s adage for thinking about the future:

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

Are all offices, are some offices, is your office in the 90%, the 9% – or the 1%?

The world turned upside down?

Matt Ballantine

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post argues that the office ion its current form can’t and won’t survive an era of social distancing. As long as physical distancing is required, no part of modern office design can work effectively, reversing its social value as well as its physical utility;

The “corner office”, blocked off in an open-plan space for senior bod, no longer has social capital when the main reason people work in an office is because they haven’t got the space at home to work remotely.

The post stresses how little physical change there has been to offices in the last half century, though in doing so perhaps understates the degree of social change which those physical structures have absorbed. But the more immediate question is whether the current hiatus in office life will be a driver for more radical change and the argument here is that it will be, both by choice and by inexorability.

All that makes it interesting to read alongside Matt Juke’s post which argues to an opposite conclusion.

The path from crisis

Matthew Taylor – RSA

A matrix to help distinguish between one-off crisis actions and interventions that have longer-term potential, and between innovations resulting from new activities and those enabled by putting a hold on business and bureaucracy as usual.It is easy, but not in the end very productive, to worry about how we got into a crisis and to pin the blame as we choose. It is harder, and very much more productive, to look at what the crisis has forced us to do and to ask how we can discard that which was of only short term utility while keeping and developing that which shows promise of longer term value.

This post provides a really useful framework not just for thinking about the difference between what we have needed to do in the crisis and what we may be able to do beyond it – neatly summarised in the matrix. But it goes beyond that to reflect on what is capable of making potentially radical change more robustly sustainable. The answers to that come not just in institutional change and adaptation, important though those opportunities are, but also from an approach to public engagement and participation which has the potential to provide the foundations necessary for better decision making more generally.

Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric. […]

The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.

How to Make Better Decisions About Coronavirus

Thomas Davenport – MIT Sloan Management Review

It’s generally far easier to make decisions badly than to make them well, even at the best of times. Knowing that is the first step towards countering it, and this post gives a pretty standard account of a range of cognitive biases which may be relevant in the context of COVID-19.

Nine biases are covered in the post, some more obviously of particular relevance to present circumstances than others. The last two are perhaps most pertinent. Neglect of probability is essentially the same point made in Scott Alexander’s much more detailed argument, that structuring thinking in terms of probabilities is harder than the attractive simplicity of binary choices. And perhaps the most challenging of all, normalcy bias. What is normal is a really useful guide to what is to come, until it isn’t. There is a lot of rhetoric around at present about things not going back to the way things were and about the need for and desirability of a new normal. But we have seen from other crises that the sense of what is normal, the sense of there being a natural order of things (often reinforced, as it happens, by a poor grasp of probability) can too easily overwhelm the sense of opportunity and possibility which the crisis itself has created. Normalcy bias is part of what made the crisis what it is, but it is also part of how we will manage the aftermath, with the risk of becoming part of why fewer lessons will have been learned and applied when we come to look back at this period in the years to come.

‘Government as a system’ for COVID-19

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This post takes the government as a system approach which the Policy Lab has been developing and applies it to the policy challenges created by COVID-19, less in terms of the immediate response, more in terms of emphasising three areas where modern policy approaches are likely to be critical.

The first is thinking about the future in conditions of particular uncertainty. Doing that creatively, radically, realistically and usefully is hard enough at the best of times, and these are not they. The more self-consciously and the more collaboratively that is done, the better the chance that the results will survive contact with developing reality.

Policy Lab’s Analytics ladder diagram for COVID-19: what happened? what is happening? why did it happen? what will happen? how can we make it happen?The second is data, critically recognising that it is not just a matter of collecting updated answers to existing questions, but of identifying new questions and the data needed to answer them. The Policy Lab analytics ladder provides a really useful framework for thinking not just about how approaches relate to high level questions, but how their relative emphasis will change as we go through the crisis.

The third is relating all that and more back to the whole system and providing leadership and direction – a reminder that policy is an approach and an activity for those who want to change the world, not for those who wish merely to observe it.

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Paul Taylor

For many of us, the most obvious and immediate forced experiment we are taking part in is doing office work without an office. At some point the constraints which forced that to happen will start to relax and at that point we will have a choice. We can do our best to re-establish the old familiar patterns of work which seemed to work well enough, but which in any case needed to change. Or we can attempt a better synthesis of tools and places, of concentration and dispersion, of work and home – and of how we add value collectively to what we do individually.

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal’.

As an experiment, it has severe limitations: every other aspect of the crisis means that for many this is a forced coping strategy rather than a bold experiment to uncover a better future, but that doesn’t mean that there is no value in it, it simply means that we need to be careful in interpreting what it is telling us. But there should be no mistaking the strength of the message or the scale of the opportunity.

This post does not prescribe what we should do with that opportunity, but it is a characteristically powerful call to arms to take it and to make something of it.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

Digital Cubicles

Simon Terry

Sometimes things are worth reading because they pose good questions, rather than because of the answers which are offered. This may be one of those. It starts with a tweet:

At one level, that’s a simple – but important – restatement of the classic analysis of technology adoption from 1989, The Dynamo and the Computer, which showed that the transition from steam to electric power in factories a century and more ago had parallels with the adoption of technology-supported working practices today: the benefit comes not from the technological breakthrough, but from the subsequent – sometimes long subsequent – transformation it supports in the way work gets done.

The suggestions made in the post for adding back transformation are sensible, but not especially radical or distinctive. But it comes into its own again at the peroration:

None of this digital transformation has anything to do with how many video images your videoconferencing platform shows on screen in meetings. What matter is how organisations and individuals work, learn and adapt. The real value is not to work on digital tools. The value creation occurs when we work, learn and adapt in new ways.

Contact Tracing in the Real World

Ross Anderson – Light Blue Touchpaper

This post is interesting at three levels. It is a meticulous case study of why contact tracing, and particularly pseudonymous contact tracing, and particularly app-based pseudonymous contact tracing is a hard problem (maybe even a wicked problem). It is an example of a more general phenomenon that describing a policy aspiration generally turns out to be much easier than describing, let alone implementing, a way of meeting that aspiration. And it illustrates the adage (distorted from an original by Mencken) that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

And there is a fourth, which is perhaps most pertinent of all, which is that for problems of any complexity, technology cannot wish away human behaviour. Even if a contact tracing app were to work perfectly in technical terms (whatever that might mean), the individual and social behavioural responses may be far from what is desired. Or as Anderson puts it:

We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

That’s an insight relevant to many more problems than this one.

How should government manage big risks – pandemics to financial shocks?

Geoff Mulgan

Another Geoff Mulgan post, but a very different one from his reflections on the imaginary crisis, which spanned continents, philosophies and centuries. This one is a rigorously pragmatic account of how governments should manage risk effectively, using the UK as a case study and drawing on Geoff’s own experience of working in government.

There is much to reflect on in the post, but one of the points which comes through very clearly is the need to accept apparent short-term inefficiency, in the form of many kinds of excess capacity, in order to maximise overall long-term efficiency and effectiveness. There is of course an important debate to be had about how much of what kinds of capacity is worth paying for, but if that debate takes place in a political environment in which short-term cost efficiency is valued above all else, it is not likely to end in the optimal place.

Governments can’t avoid being the insurer of last resort for high impact risks. It matter to all of us that the premiums are kept paid up.

Preparing for risks is costly. It takes people and resources away from immediate priorities. But ultimately protecting people from risk is the heart of what government is for, and good bureaucracy manages risk systematically. Indeed, times like this remind us why boring, competent, reliable and forward-looking bureaucracy is so vital to helping us live our lives freely.  They worry so that we don’t have to.

A Failure, But Not Of Prediction

Scott Alexander – Slate Star Codex

At one level, this is about why we didn’t see COVID-19 coming. At another, it is using that as a case study of a whole class of decisions which depend on making judgements about uncertain futures – which is to say most of the ones that matter. The problem is not a shortfall in prediction skills, which is just as well because prediction is a tricky game. It is instead presented as a shortfall in probabilistic reasoning skills, which in turn relates to the classic risk management scales of likelihood and impact. Low likelihood, high impact events matter a great deal – which is why the insurance industry exists. If there is a 10% chance of an imminent global pandemic, it is well worth investing in mitigation, even if it turns out that the pandemic fizzles out – which is why it made sense to stockpile large quantities of flu vaccine in 2009 which turned out not to be needed.

But, slightly less explicitly in the article, there is another step which is essential before any of this becomes useful, as opposed to merely interesting. Probabilistic reasoning can be a good pointer to action, but it has succeeded only if appropriate action is in fact taken. So perhaps those showing greatest wisdom back in January and February were not either those who dismissed what was happening in Wuhan as far away and unimportant, or those who jumped immediately to proclaiming imminent global catastrophe – but those who saw from an apparently moderate risk, an immediate need to take precautionary actions.

There is, of course, a political dimension to this as well. Back in 2009, the then French Health Minister was heavily criticised for the money spent – money apparently wasted – on one of those vaccine stockpiles. She is quite rightly unapologetic, but it’s another reason why understanding the concept of risk and its mitigation is important. As Alexander observes,

Uncertainty about the world doesn’t imply uncertainty about the best course of action!