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.

Transformation is not a programme

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Flow chart distinguishing hopeful thinking from transformationTransformation is one of those words which sounds good, without actually tying you down to meaning anything in particular. It sounds more daring than innovation, more glamorous than project management – and it’s got more syllables than change.

This useful post presents a view of transformation through six principles which together make it clear that it is fundamentally cultural in nature, and is only what is left once other kinds of change have been accounted for. And there is an interesting parallel between these ideas and Paul Taylor’s similar sense that transformation is too vague and self-serving a term to be useful, which he then addresses through a series of design principles.

Culture is our strategy

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Delivery is hard. Delivering consistently and with high quality is harder. Sustaining that over time without damage to individuals, teams and the wider organisation is very hard indeed.

In the short run it is often possible to over deliver, but there is a price to be paid. Getting that right is not, of course, about organisational structures or project plans, it is about people and the shared culture of their working environment – or about ‘trying hard to strike a balance between delivery now, and delivery tomorrow’.

This post approaches that question from the perspective of recognising and nurturing culture. But there is also a strong parallel with the concept of organisational debt (itself derived from technical debt), the recognition that failing to keep the organisation’s structures and processes in line both with its changing internal needs and with its external environment stores up problems which might be avoidable for a time, but cannot be avoided indefinitely. Or to put it differently again, culture as strategy is one of the ways in which teams and organisations can better manage strategic drift.

Introducing the Government Data Graveyard: the numbers we’ve stopped measuring

Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers

Counting things is boring and costs time and money which could be better spent on something less boring.

Having counted things – particularly having counted them for a long time – provides incalculable value in understanding what has been done and what might be done.

If you need a fifty year data series, you need collection to have started fifty years ago – starting now will do you no good at all (though it might cause your memory to be blessed half a century on).

It is of course easy to tell what we wish our predecessors of fifty (or ten, or five) years ago had done, rather less easy for them to know that then (or for us to know that for our successors now). That is in a way just a specialised version of a much more general problem of long term public investment, where there is a respectable argument that in undervaluing long term benefits, we end up with fewer long term assets being created than would be optimal – which applies as much, and perhaps more obviously, to investment in physical infrastructure

None of that is quite what this post is about – it’s based on a simple observation not only that some data which used to be collected is no longer collected, but that data on what data is no longer collected is itself not collected. Maybe that’s fine – nobody could seriously argue that data once having been collected must always be collected for ever more. But maybe the decisions on what to stop and what to continue have been driven more by short term expediency than long term value.

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet  missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

Jonathan Zittrain – New Yorker

Being understood is not a precondition to being useful. The history of medicine is a history over centuries and millennia of spotting efficacy without the least understanding of the mechanisms by which that efficacy is achieved. Nor is that limited to pre-scientific times. There are still drugs which are  prescribed because they work, without any understanding of how they work.

Zittrain calls that intellectual debt (by unspoken analogy with technical debt), where theoretical understanding lags behind pragmatic effectiveness. The problem is not that it exists, as the medical examples show, it is that machine learning takes it to a new level, that our understanding of links between cause and effect come to have more to do with association than with explanation. For any single  problem, that may be no bad thing: it can be more important for the connections to be accurate than to be understood. But the cumulative effect of the mounting intellectual debt has the potential to be rather less benign.

Russell Davies’s strategy advice

Anna Shipman – JFDI

A simple list of a dozen points about how to do better strategy making, from somebody with real insight and experience. They won’t all be right in every context, but they are all worth thinking about – to be treated more as provocations than as prescriptions. There’s also a plug for Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is an excellene book, though its ideas are even better expressed in the shorter, sharper article version

Design, Diversity and Tech: How to use your power

Vimla Appadoo – FutureGov

Vimla Appadoo speaking at a FutureGov branded lecternThese are the slides (and speaker notes) from an exceptionally powerful presentatation about diversity and inclusion given at FutureGov’s recent Designing 21st Century Government event – though alas without the energy and power brought to them on the day.

At the core of the argument is a challenge not to deny or elide bias, but to recognise and address it through five stages:

  1. Know your core (what ideas are most important)
  2. Show your flex (which ideas you can compromise on)
  3. Recognise your privilege
  4. Learn to disagree well
  5. Be a leader

The fourth is in some ways the most powerful: inclusion is not a reduction to a faint common denominator, it is a respectful integration of perspectives and challenges. Simple disagreement is easy and unproductive. Disagreeing well is how good ideas generate better ones.

 

Lets talk about plugs

Leigh Dodds – Lost Boy

The value and importance of data standards are explained by analogy with the value and importance of electrical standards. It’s a good choice – the analogy works well even at its simplest level, but is also a good way in to some of the complexities which lie not far below the surface. And the post asks by subtle implication – though understandably without answering – how standards are set for the setting of standards.

How the World Conceals its Secrets

Michael Blastland – the RSA

We like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers, using patterns of evidence to discern meaning and to understand and shape our environment. The case made in this video is that that is at best a half truth. The reality is that our powers of explanation are much weaker than we tend to recognise or care to admit and that in looking for patterns we are too ready to overlook random variation.

That’s not just an abstract or theoretical concern: the crisis of replication in science is a real and alarming symptom of the problem; the challenge to the very concept of statistical significance is closely related.

This video is a thirty minute summary by Michael Blastland of the ideas in his recent book, followed by a discussion with Matthew Taylor which is also well worth watching. That’s a rather bland description of a talk which was anything but – these are challenging ideas, powerfully presented, which anybody who creates or uses evidence for public policy needs to understand.

Taking the leap: getting staff and patients to use the NHS App

Tristan Stanton – NHS Digital

This post – and the app it is about – stands as a kind of metaphor for digital public services much more widely. The app has a mostly slick front end, with a visual design which is both distinctively of the NHS and a clear descendant of the earlier work of GDS. But it sits on top of chaos which it can obscure only to a limited extent. It is a front end veneer for different systems, supporting different sets of functions and so fundamentally is not in control of its own user experience.

The post does a good job of explaining why that is and why, despite that, there is still value in the app. There is a circle which needs to be virtuous where a well-designed front end and a growing user base both demonstrate and create value to GP practices in improving their systems which in turn stimulates adoption and use by patients. But there is a risk that the circle turns vicious, that the expectations set by the modernity of the immediate user is undermined by the clunkiness of what lies behind. The good needs to drive out the bad, but the bad will not give in easily.

The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power

Naomi Stanford

Speaking truth to power is often talked about as though it is a heroic endeavour, a point of challenge and catharsis, a showdown when either the message is heard or the messenger is shot. And of course if the norm is that power does not hear truth, none of that is surprising. But perhaps the more interesting approach is to ask why that is assumed to be the norm, and what might change it.

This post doesn’t – and couldn’t – answer that question, but it does shed some interesting light on it. If what is actually at issue is as much or more competing belief systems rather than competing realities, then solutions can’t be about piling up more facts, but might have to do with building relationships in a different way. The difficult bit in that, of course, is not the speaking of truth to power. That just takes bravery. The difficult bit is creating the conditions for power to listen, and that takes a much broader set of skills and approaches.

But as the post hints at, it would be better still to reverse the question. The real challenge is for leaders to show more clearly that they want to listen, not for courtiers to have to balance honesty and self-preservation.

Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent

Elizabeth Ayer – Medium

Strategy is a subversive activity. Both in development and application it is likely to have uncomfortable consequences. Some people will see the value of the consequences; others will focus more on the discomfort. But in either case, doing things as they are always done round here is unlikely to be the best way of making progress. And thus the widespread mantra, ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’.

It sounds like a licence for liberation, but as this post brings out, it is in fact anything but: it depends on a level of confidence and sense of inclusion which is far from universal. But the post is less about criticising it and more about making the positive case for ‘radiating intent’ as an alternative: not directly asking permission, but clearly signalling intentions in way which allows them to be supported – or challenged – ahead of time.

The power of that is not just in avoiding the need for forgiveness while not being caught up with permission, it is that important things can’t be done either in isolation or in secret. Radiating intent is a critical superpower for strategic subversives as well as a useful approach to getting things done in staid organisations.

Making what you do explicitly political

Alex Blandford – Medium

Technology is not politically neutral, nor can it be. So making technology choices is also making political choices – about who has power, who has agency, who gets to make choices and who has to act in a context set by choices made by others. Denying the politics of that – asserting that somehow technology is neutral or inevitable – is itself highly political. Digital is political not because there is something odd about digital, but because there is something ubiquitous about politics and political choices.

Given all that, there is a lot to be said for being explicit about it, in part because not being explicit means that some political positions – typically more technocratic ones – can be presented as neutral and beyond question when they are anything but. This post is an explicitly political post about being explicitly political, not in a partisan sense, but as a recognition that how choices are framed is a strong influence on how they get made.

Internet trends 2019

Mary Meeker

Another year of Mary Meeker’s internet trends has landed with a loud virtual thump – weighing in this year at 333 slides. In what it covers it is relentlessly detailed, though the framing of the story not surprisingly is influenced by a very particular west coast world view.  It is easy – perhaps inevitable – that eyes glaze over a bit on the way through, as yet another slide about yet another implausibly named company shows a chart rocketing to the near vertical. So rather than attempt any kind of summary, here are four slides which caught my attention.

There is an elegant simplicity about this chart of global internet users, delivering a powerful message that more than half the world’s population is now online, a proportion which has doubled in the last ten years.
Advertising moves to where people spend their time, with alignment of the two much stronger in 2018 than 2010. Though even after all that, print media get more than their ‘fair share’. Even ignoring the advertising dimension, the shift in how time and attention are spent is a dramatic story in itself.
This chart stands out from the crowd, if only for being speculation rather than quantification. There’s an argument to be had about the slope and relative position of all the lines on the chart. Is the rate of change of technology increasing relentlessly? Is it already outstripping human adaptability and is the gap going to get relentlessly bigger? And most fundamentally, to whatever extent the picture as a whole captures something real, is it describing what happens to be or what necessarily must be?
And this chart is a great – though in this case rather unsubtle – example of a local perspective being treated as universal. The descriptions and comparisons in table aren’t wrong (though some are a little tendentious), but the red amber green colouring gives a pretty unambiguous message about who is to be seen as getting it right.