Why we need service literacy
This is a powerful polemic by Lou Downe who quite literally wrote the book on good services. We experience services almost everywhere and yet often fail to notice them. We focus on the thing which the service delivers much more readily than on the service which delivers it. Worse still, the providers of many services either don’t recognise that that is what they are doing or, more subtly but more perniciously understand the service to be what they deliver rather than what the service user needs or experiences.
I wrote about a fairly trivial but telling example of that almost ten years ago (faintly ironically, in relation to GDS), observing that:
‘Resolved from the point of view of the gov.uk helpdesk’ turns out to mean something quite different from ‘resolved from the point of view of the service user’.
The reasons behind that are perfectly captured in Lou’s analysis:
For the organisations that provide them, services are often barely more visible than they are for users. They require multiple people, and sometimes multiple organisations to provide all of the steps that a user needs to achieve their goal. Sometimes there are so many pieces to this puzzle, or it stretches across such a long period of time that we struggle to see them as a whole. They’re big, they’re messy, and importantly, they’re intangible, meaning their costs are hidden and so are their consequences.
But Lou is making a much broader point, that failing to recognise that something is a service not only leaves it orphaned rather than owned, but can result in decisions being made with no understanding either of the immediate consequences or, more alarmingly, of the strategic and political implications.
At its most basic, that creates a requirement first to see services for what they are, and then to take the need for their design seriously:
We need to create organisations that can see services as real, tangible things that can and should be designed, but we also need organisations that will commit to designing those services, not as an accidental byproduct of other decisions, but as a conscious, deliberate act. In short, we need organisations that are ‘service literate’; seeing services, understanding what good looks like, and committing to designing them.
That is, of course, not an easy task. The first examples in UK central government of recognising services and customer journeys for what they are, and the need to take radical steps to address failure demand go back at least twenty years, and the job is far from done. Lou’s three components of service literacy provide the necessary foundation for continuing that work.
In 2022, I thought a lot about my Mum, the internet and a cashless society
Anonymous – I thought about that a lot
In the early years of online service design, the online part was felt by many to be a self-contained activity. To the extent that other ways of accessing services were to be considered, it was in terms of encouraging switching to the online service. Gradually that got replaced by a more human approach, recognising that there was a special responsibility on public bodies , because governments don’t have the luxury of choosing their customers, or more specifically of choosing which groups they feel comfortable excluding from their service offer. The current UK government Service Manual is quite clear on the need to provide a joined up service across all channels:
Users should not be excluded or have an inferior experience because they lack access to technology or the skills to use it.
That’s still as important as it always was. But in the meantime, the nature of the problem has changed and broadened. This post is a lament for a disappearing world in which it was possible to operate with cash and without technology, being replaced by a world in which not wanting to – or not being able to – adapt to changing ways of getting things done leads to marginalisation and exclusion.
Mum’s 84 but she’s as sharp as a tack. It should be her choice whether to embrace the digital era or not. And society should respect that.
In one sense, though, ‘society’ isn’t doing anything. Lots of independent decisions are being made, predominantly about the design of commercial services, with the cumulative impact of those decisions heading in a clear direction. Whatever the (imperfect) clarity of government’s role as a service provider, there is a growing and largely unanswered question about government’s role as a regulator of service provision. There have been patchy attempts to discourage the last bank branch leaving town, there are occasional suggestions that shops should be required to accept cash, and that shops should stay on high streets rather than join the migration to ring roads and the cloud, but nothing which amounts to a coherent policy, still less one with practical effect.
What counts as undesirable new technology is, of course, not a constant. I remember being told with absolute confidence many years ago that older people would always want to transact their business with government face to face, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing telephone services for them. A few years later I was told with equal confidence – as it happens by the same person – that older people would always want to transact their business with government by telephone, and that there was no point even in thinking of developing online services for them. Both the technology and the people had changed in the meantime – and those changes are, of course, why the old patterns of service provision are disappearing, because demand, expectations and generations have all moved on – and all those things will inexorably move on again.
But none of that is any comfort to those who can’t – or don’t want to – keep up with that pace of change. Each of us will adapt to every iteration until we reach the one when we don’t. Society should respect that. Whether it can find the will and the means to do so is the harder question.
Looking for balance on the Future Leaders Scheme
This is both an account of the experience of being on a very specific leadership development scheme – in this case for the ‘future leaders’ of the civil service – and at the same time a universal forensic deconstruction of the very idea of attempting to mould people into a single pre-defined model of leadership.
Anybody who has ever felt pressure to fit in to get on will recognise the picture drawn in this post. It is not a pretty one. At its root is, perhaps, a singular inconsistency. In a working world where some forms of diversity are ever more celebrated, other kinds of diversity are seen as problems to be homogenised away. That should be unacceptable, but it is barely even seen.
How to read a formal document
David Allen Green – The Law and Policy Blog
Words provide powerful tools. They can be used to make things clear and they can be used to obfuscate. They can reveal what their author is thinking and wants you to think – and sometimes they can reveal more than the author intends. Some words are quite casually written, even with though with serious purpose, but often words are written with great care and deliberation to communicate an intended message very precisely – though sometimes that intention is to leave an impression in the reader’s mind which is at some distance from the facts of whatever is being described. Omission and misdirection are as present as clear exposition.
Being able to parse carefully constructed documents is a core skill in understanding political systems and actions (and not only those, of course). In the days when that was pretty much all anybody had to go on in trying to understand the politics of the Soviet Union, the art of textual interpretation at a distance was known as kremlinology. I was trained in that art long ago, grappling with long and turgid speeches by politburo members reproduced in the pages of Pravda, to find the one nugget which was new or pointed to a possible change of priorities or direction, to be found with odd consistency somewhere around two thirds of the way through.
This post provides an expert tutorial in interpretation for slightly easier circumstances, but with no less need of close attention to detail. The two basic rules it sets out apply with equal power to any formally constructed political document, whether that is a Soviet speech or a British ministerial letter. The first rule is to identify what is there and understand why it is there. The second rule is to identify what might have been there but isn’t and consider why it is not. There’s a bit more to it than that – and the whole post is well worth reading – but the simple application of those rules is enough to provide more insight than a less questioning reading can do.
The stuff of politics: Getting to know our material
Are institutions the raw material of politics? And if they are, what does that help us understand about the nature of politics (and the nature of institutions, for that matter)? Those are the questions explored in this thoughtful and thought provoking essay – where ‘institutions’ are to be understood much more broadly than merely organisations and structures, but something perhaps closer to norms, the way things are done, or more particularly the way things are done which lends them acceptance and legitimacy.
That is of course a pretty broad starting point and perhaps risks derailing the argument before it is properly underway – if pretty much anything can be an institution, then using them to explain something about politics risks being too thin to be useful. But that risk is neatly side stepped by talking about them in the context of a metaphor:
Imagine if we took all of society’s institutions and lined them up on a spectrum from liquid to solid. At one end we’d have institutions that are almost as fluid as water, having barely formed. At the other end we’d have institutions that are frozen hard like ice, holding our behaviour firm.
That spectrum seems very recognisable, as does the consequence of the metaphor, that more fluid things change more and are capable of being changed more than those at the frozen end. So step one in changing a frozen institution is to thaw it a little. Much of the thawing and freezing which goes on is climatic, it is the emergent consequence of the interaction of varied forces. To the extent that those forces are aligned, it may be possible to sense a direction of change, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the net result should go in one direction or another, or support one political agenda or another. So that takes us to the next step in the argument, the means by which political activity can influence both the ambient temperature and more specific institutional change:
Politics and public policy, then, is about intervening with intention in the freezing and thawing, in recognition of the realities of power, working with focus and purpose to speed up, slow down, or redirect processes of institution-formation.
All of that then provides the basis for an interesting discussion about how to manage political interventions either to create or take advantage of thawed institutions, and from all of that to derive five reasons which are presented as ‘a useful corrective to the way we tend to think about politics and public policy.’ I can’t do any of that justice in a short precis, it’s well worth reading the whole thing.
It does leave me with two questions, though, about the nature of institutions and about the difference between continuous and discontinuous change.
Institutions are themselves complex entities. They can be deeply frozen and completely liquid at the same time and even in respect of the same behaviour. Where, for example, should we position the institutions of UK central government democracy? In both an organisational sense (what Parliament is and does) and a behavioural sense (the roles of the various actors involved), there is widespread frost, and in places the ice is very deep indeed. That there are parliamentary procedures which take place in Norman French is both trivially unimportant and a potent symbol of stable longevity. Over much shorter time periods, what we understand by labels such as ‘prime minister,’ ‘cabinet,’ ‘department,’ ‘election’, ‘scrutiny’, and very many more are all ostensibly pretty much unchanged for a hundred years or more.
But at the same, all those things have been very fluid. None of them operate in the way they did a century ago, arguably none of them operate in the way they did a decade ago. There are many reasons for that, but at least some of those reasons could be expressed in terms of change in other kinds of institutions, including those outside the stuctures of the state and formal politics altogether. In one sense, all of that is simply a way of saying that structures tend to change more slowly than behaviours. But it does mean, I think, that there is a need for care in thinking about institutions in the very broad sense used in this essay: the question of where an institution is between being thawed and frozen is surely always going to be a question about characteristics of the institution chosen to be relevant to the question at hand, rather than being a single intrinsic characteristic of the institution in its every aspect.
The process of thawing can be a gradual one and much of the shared imagery in a temperate country such as the UK encourages us to think about it in that way (which is itself a form of institution). That’s reflected in how examples of change are described, such as this one:
Take an institution like the dress code of white collar office work. It’s been melting for years. A few decades ago, office dress codes were frozen firm, allowing little flex. Men wore suits and women wore skirts and blouses, no questions asked. Then the institution started to melt, sweating like an ice cube under the sun. Notice how the melting happens. The water that forms on the surface isn’t even; it beads into droplets of disobedience as whole departments or companies or sectors break away.
But that’s not how everything changes, it’s not even how thaws always happen. The calving of an iceberg does not have the slow dissolution of a melting ice cube. Many institutions can and do evolve gradually, but some inhibit change so, to draw in another metaphor, their brittleness becomes a critical thing to understand: how far does the twig bend before it snaps? Or to switch metaphor yet again, springs retain their fundamental characteristics while stretched and compressed, but only up to their elastic limit, when they become irreversibly deformed. Understanding whether we are seeing – and indeed whether we want to see – institutions stretching within or beyond their elastic range is important too. Indeed the purpose of some institutions is to inhibit change – that is arguably the primary purpose of constitutions – and their dampening effect can both provide useful stability and dangerous inertia in a changing environment.
That though perhaps takes us back to the central argument being made in this essay. We need to understand the institutional materials which make up politics, including their varied characteristics and behaviours, because understanding those materials gives us a better chance of understanding and influencing change:
There are valuable arguments to have about the way we balance individual freedoms and collective conceptions of justice, and about the character of the intuitions we build, and the ways in which institutions constrain us, or how they’re funded, or about their sources of legitimacy. But we’ll waste less time if we have these arguments in a way that reflects the kinds of things institutions are and the ways in which they behave. Statecraft, like any other craft, starts with knowing our material.
Things I believe about change
This post presents seven propositions on organisational change, based on the simple but powerful perspective of having successfully changed organisations. It is a theory of change which denounces theories of change in passing along the way, or perhaps to be fair it is a pragmatic distillation of insights (the difference between the two can be left to explore on another occasion). Of the seven, the one which simultaneously resonates most strongly and is the most subversive, is the fourth, ‘most people are motivated to do good work.’
Intrinsic motivation certainly makes organisational change easier, which is the point being made in the post. But it does something even more important than that as well: it changes the nature of the change which is needed and the change which can be delivered. That’s because most organisations are designed – overtly or otherwise – on the opposite proposition, that most people will work effectively only if closely supervised. Changing that changes a great deal.
That then links very directly to the fifth proposition, ‘everyone knows what’s wrong.’ They may well do, but they will keep their insights to themselves if they do not perceive that their motivation is recognised and respected.
“Charbonneau Loops” and government IT contracting
‘Charbonneau loop’ turns out to be one of those terms which we didn’t know we needed until it was called into existence, but draws attention to something all too easily overlooked. It describes a form of moral hazard, which is simple, obvious, and largely invisible:
Charbonneau Loops ultimately happen when the “pool” of companies (receiving public sector contracts for a given type of work) is small enough that the same companies are sometimes overseeing, and sometimes overseen, by their peers in that same pool. Even if they never actually coordinate with each other – even if they don’t have any conversations whatsoever – they’re all incentivized to be a little bit less critical of each other as a result.
The concept takes its name from an investigation into construction corruption in Quebec, but it can clearly apply to sectors other than construction and far beyond Quebec. It can also be extended beyond the simple two role form of the loop. The story of Grenfell Tower is a multi-player version where a complicated set of public and private sector organisations carefully positioned themselves not to identify risks and not to be resposible for resolving them.
The question, of course, is what can be done to break the loop and restore – or perhaps create – conditions in which the institutional incentives act differently, supporting effective challenge, rather than muddled complacency. The simple answer, set out in the post, is to strengthen in-house capacity and to increase the pool of suppliers. But as so often, the harder question is how to get there from here, and how to avoid letting progress be undermined by regulatory revolving doors which create a form of personal Charobonneau loops embedded in the more institutional ones.
So long and thanks for all the bits
This is a valedictory post from the departing technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, which leads off with a quantum state superposition joke. That might all suggest something of interest only to rather a niche audience. It is true that some of the points made assume a level of familiarity with cyber jargon which not all of us possess, but that turns out not to matter nearly as much as it first appears. The post is in fact a set of ten lessons learned, all of them relevant much more widely across government (and well beyond) than just the immediate world of cyber security. Taken together, they read as a kind of manifesto for systems thinking.
As just one example, point 7 is that ‘incentives really matter.’ That’s something which governments haven’t tended to be very good at, perhaps in part because they don’t think they need to be – governments can, after all, make things mandatory, which is not an approach available to others. But in the end, actors in a system will behave as they perceive it to be in their interests to behave, and it is foolish to assume otherwise. As between government and technologyy infrastructure,
we implicitly expect these companies to manage our national security risk by proxy, often without even telling them. Even in the best case, their commercial risk model is not the same as a national security risk model, and their commercial incentives are definitely not aligned with managing long-term national security. In the likely case, it’s worse.
That that is true much more generally is both pretty self-evident and widely overlooked, and some pretty terrible things have happened as a result.
Every meeting will now be an online meeting
This is another take (from about a year ago) on remote working and the purpose of offices – this one based on a reductio ad absurdum arithmetic of meeting arrangements. The bigger the meeting, the smaller the probability, all else being equal, that everybody is in the same place. So in practice almost any form of hybrid working has the result that the title asserts – every meeting ends up being online.
That has implications both for the management of meetings and the management of offices. Most office are designed to support individuals working at desks and groups meeting in meeting rooms. Neither of those is ideal for participation in online meetings, even before facing up to the prospect of commuting to an office only to spend most of the time talking to people who aren’t there. It is pretty clear that the set of individual optimisations does not sum to optimisation for the group.
That creates a need to manage the working environment – in its broadest sense – in very different ways. And as Tubb points out, the combination of issues involved somehow doesn’t quite belong anywhere:
There is no business owner for meetings. IT owns Microsoft Teams and the M365 stack. Corporate Real Estate and Facilities own meeting rooms. No one is the owner of better meeting behaviours it is left to the assumed soft skills of the individual, the line manager or project manager.
Not for the first time, there are parallels with historic examples of how workplaces have adapted to technological and other changes; not for the first time sociology is at least as important as technology in understanding and influencing what it going on. And of course this particular instance of how technology enables social changes long predates the pandemic – a post I wrote almost ten years ago seems just as as relevant now.
The hard bit, particularly for established organisations, is culture, and particularly trust. If being present is no longer a job requirement, being present can no longer be a virtue. People have to be managed not on whether they turn up and look keen and energetic, but on what they achieve. How, when and where they do that becomes much more a choice for individual workers (and teams) and much less a matter of management standardisation. […] The message that comes across time and time again is that remote working has to be based on trust. Again though, remote working does not create the need for trust, it makes the need explicit and shows where it is missing.
Why the return to the office isn’t working
We used to know what offices were for. There is now a consensus that that isn’t what they are for any more, but there isn’t much of a consensus about anythng else. As so often, when the answers look confusing, that’s in part because the question was confused. The issue isn’t whether people do or do not like offices or whether offices have advantages for some kinds of activities more than others. Still less, for people who do what used to be called office work, is it about finding some ideal universal optimum of days in one place and days in another.
This article is US-focused in its examples, but comes into its own when it moves away from individuals to focus on broader issues. The costs and benefits of office (and home) working fall on different people in different ways. Recognising that and responding to it is the first step towards finding effective models for productive and attractive working environments. Sharon O’Dea summarises the article and the argument neatly in a single tweet:
This piece is a great summary. People don’t necessarily hate the office. What they hate is not having a good reason to be there. The office needs to give people something of value – connection, tools, opportunities – else all people get is the hassle of a commute.
This is another perspective on the (unconfirmed) news of another attempt at civil service reform, unpicking why simplistic approaches are doomed to failure. As is so often the case, treating an aim defined in one way (“the civil service will be 20% smaller”) as if it were the same as a quite different aim (“the civil service should become more efficient”) leads to hopeless confusion. Or as Mark puts it:
Efficiency may lead to the need for fewer staff but fewer staff does not lead to greater efficiency.
This post also underlines in a different way why it is so important to look at all this from a systems perspective. Government can – and does – operate at different levels and different configurations, and there is no reason to think that, in a world where permanent secretaries worry about fixing school boilers, the current balance is anywhere close to optimal. Focusing on a single layer can, at the very best, result in optimising that layer; it cannot result in optimising the system.
Civil Service Reform – Lord Maude Tries Again
Martin Stanley – UK Civil Servant
‘Civil service reform’ is an unintentionally revealing phrase. Its use is a strong indicator of somebody who hasn’t thought through what problem they might be trying to solve, still less what actions might lead to solving it. That’s not because civil service reform is not necessary or not desirable – on the contrary, it is very necessary and very desirable. It is because the civil service (itself a huge collective noun, concealing variety at least as much as describing a singular entity) is part of a wider system. Honest reformers recognise the need to address that wider system; rhetorical reformers do not always feel the need to do so.
Prompted by press coverage suggesting that Francis Maude might be about to be invited to have a third attempt at civil service reform – and with the primary success criterion clearly being the extent to which the civil service ends up smaller as a result – Martin Stanley patiently explains why Maude’s first two attempts failed and why any third attempt is unlikely to do any better. He lists nine problems consistently identified in past reviews of the civil service, all of them depressingly recognisable. But what is perhaps most striking about the list is how much of it is rooted in what ministers and Parliament do (or don’t do) and how little of it is limited to what the civil service does in isolation from that wider system.
Again, that’s not an argument that all is well in the civil service or that nothing there needs to change. Almost exactly ten years ago, I wrote a blog post on this issue, prompted by the civil service reform plan published in Maude’s name. It is not reassuring that the last paragraphs of that post seem just as apposite today:
The civil service is big and complicated and there are important ways in which it could change for the better. But big and complicated as it is, it is also just a component of the wider system of government. The more radical the ambition for the civil service, the bigger the implications for that wider system will be.
If you want to change the system, you have to be ready to change the system.
The Wetware Crisis: the Thermocline of Truth
This is an old post, but a good one. I had occasion to look it out again this week, so posting it here both as a service to others and to make it easier to find the inevitable next time I want to show it to somebody.
How is it that projects seem to be steadily on track for successful delivery until just before the target date for implementation – at which point they suddenly aren’t? It seems implausible that the phenomenon should be helpfully explained by reference to temperature gradients in oceans, but that is exactly what this post does. For all sorts of reasons – some covered in the post – reporting systems give false assurance to senior decision makers for far too long, until the tipping point is reached at which the actual state of readiness can no longer be concealed, when suddenly the project dashboard goes from benign to catastrophic in an instant. Crossrail provided a particularly spectacular and very public example when it failed to open in 2018 having been presented as being on track to do so only a few months earlier – despite what we now know to be a need for more than three years further work before the line could open.
But this is not a phenomenon limited to big infrastructure projects. I can readily think of examples at more or less every scale, and I suspect anybody with any familiarity with project delivery will have their own. From that experience, I see another critical factor encouraging the development of thermoclines of truth: the setting of delivery deadlines. The further ahead the deadline is set (and the more arbitrary it necessarily is as a result) and the more visible that deadline is, the more certain it is not just that the deadline will not be met, but that the fact that it will not be met will only be recognised at a very late stage. There are some pretty obvious reasons why this adds to the risks Webster identifies in his post – the stronger the commitment, the more visible the failure, and the greater the reluctance to face up to the problem, still more so to be the messenger of bad news.
Delivery happenes when the work is complete. Completion of the work does not happen because delivery is due.
Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine
Jonathan Slater – The Policy Institute
There is a recursiveness to Whitehall’s examinations of its own shortcomings. The construction and analysis of arguments, the slight distancing from the subject matter at hand, the elegant and occasionally self-deprecating prose, the focus on the quantity of delivery rather than the quality of service can all be deployed in looking at how government operates as well as at what it does and should do. And those are powerful tools, deployed by smart and thoughtful people, so real insight can be expected to come from them.
Jonathan Slater’s paper is very much of this genre. It is clear about the problems and about how those problems have persisted despite attempts to solve them. It is clear about examples of where better ways of doing things at the very least point to some hope of improvement. But at the same time it is oddly disengaged. Slater draws heavily on hs experience, on which he is thoughtful and illuminating, he has clear ideas about how things could be improved, and can point to clear evidence of using his leadership of the Department for Education to test and develop some of those ideas. But he is now an observer, not a player. It is hard for the reader not to wonder what stopped apparently good ideas from getting the traction they deserved, but while the point is acknowledged, it is not much developed:
The good news is that civil servants responded with genuine enthusiasm to my call to put “the user” at the heart of their work, however hard it might appear, although we only made limited progress.
To some extent that may be because DfE is not a good example of the kind of department Slater wants to see, as its policy and operational responsibilities do not sit comfortably together. I remember hearing Slater talk frustratedly about having to spend his – and minsters’ time – on decisions about the replacement of individual schools’ boilers – decisions which it is quite absurd to be taking in that way and at that level. But the much bigger and much more general question remains. And interestingly I can best express it in the same words I used to sum up King and Crewe’s The Blunders of our Governments. (published in 2013, but still essential reading):
We know what goes wrong. We know many of the factors which result in things going wrong. But we don’t why, knowing those things, it has proved so hard to break the cycle.
But this is still a paper well worth reading by someone whose record of doing this for real deserves great respect. The Policy Institute has also recorded a discussion of the paper, with Gus O’Donnell, Justine Greening and Bobby Duffy, as well as Jonathan Slater himself. Andrew Greenway has a good twitter thread reflecting on the paper from a slightly different angle.
The big idea: should we abolish the Treasury?
Stian Westlake asks an important question, gives the clearly correct answer, but curiously shys away from facing up to the reasons why the Treasury should indeed be done away with.
He lists a whole set of reasons why the Treasury is detrimental to good government, but rounds off his account of the systematic damage it does by asserting that:
The first step to addressing these problems is to recognise that they are not the result of a failing institution or of lazy or incompetent officials
They are certainly not the result of laziness or of incompetence in a narrow sense. But they are precisely the result of Treasury being a failing institution. That’s clearly not true in the delivery of its daily activities: the work gets done, decisions are made, budgets are delivered, smart people are employed. But in a more important sense – the sense that Stian is quite rightly concerned about – it is.
There is huge talent and energy in the Treasury. But it operates in a culture which results in its doing at least as much harm as good. Of course the functions it performs need to be done in any government, but as Stian demonstrates, they certainly don’t need to be done in their current organisational configuration. And it is precisely because they do need to be done that we can see that it is the organisational configuration which is the problem.
Indeed, Stian goes on to make that very point:
The root cause is the structure of the organisation, and the incentives and culture that it fosters.
That sounds to me pretty much the definition of a failing organisation. But I labour the point not to split hairs, but because I think it strengthens the argument in the article. The reforms suggested would arguably be disproportionate as a solution to mild problems in a benign organisation. But if the problems are severe, creating a threat to the effectiveness of any government, the solutions must be proportionately radical to have any chance of success.
A measure of value for digital public service delivery
The quest for a measure of value of digital public services has been running pretty much as long as the quest for valuable public services. Many attempts have been made to pin down the measure, but often with rather lop-sided results. With characteristic elegance, Richard Pope has distilled it all to three factors – and critically makes the point that they need to be balanced against each other. My one quibble with the three he has chosen would be to suggest that ‘capabilty to operate’ needs to be understood more broadly than his brief definition implies. It is the service – in all its aspects which needs to operated, not just the digital team constructing the technical components. But with that broader interpretation of the third axis, this is a useful tool for framing – and addressing – a perenially important question.
Beyond the Web
Metaphors have power, they frame how we think about things, sometimes rather insidiously. We talk blithely about ‘the web’ as if it were a thing and as if that thing were well described as a web. But just as the cloud is somebody else’s computer, so the web is everybody else’s computers, and the connections between them are much less a web than a tangle or, as Searls puts it, a haystack.
Searls is one of the original cluetrainers, and so has been thinking about this for a long time. His metaphor is, of course, no more an accurate description of anything tangible than the conventional one we are all familiar with. But changing the metaphor changes some of the questions in some challenging and important ways, and eleven rather good ones are listed in his post.
The web we all currently experience is a set of points – points which may be linked together, but still points. It is driven by a client-server architecture which takes our data and scatters it around in ways were cannot control, but which is structurally incapable of delivering integrated experiences in return. That’s so normal that we barely recognise it – but it’s not the only possible way for systems to be connected and for data to flow.
So yes, the Web is wonderful, but not boundlessly so. It has limits. Thanks to the client-server architecture that prevails there, full personal agency is not a grace of life on the Web. For the thirty-plus years of the Web’s existence, and for its foreseeable future, we will never have more agency than its servers allow clients and users.
It’s time to think and build outside the haystack.
How Government Learned to Waste Your Time
Time is rarely the central measure of bureaucracy, and where it is considered at all the focus tend to be on total elapsed time rather than the time cost of complying with the process.
But time (which is also a proxy for complexity and cognitive load) is a massive, and sometimes deliberate, barrier to accessing services. That matters for the obvious reason that an impenetrable service is not a good service, and this article is a reminder that even now, as Lowrey puts it, ‘little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist.’
But there is also a more insidious effect, a dark pattern of dark patterns:
The time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work?
This article draws on US examples, but many of the points made are more general. As Vicky Teinaki has pointed out, in the UK the service standard at least has the intention of taking some account of the first problem, ensuring that things work as well as exist. But that doesn’t really address the underlying complexity of individual services, still less the fact that the interaction, or lack of one, between different services can be the greatest time sink of all.
Time always has a cost. But it is too often treated as an externality.
10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain
This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.
It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.
Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.