Nicholas Tampio – Aeon
Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government except for all the others. So far, so good: few find it tactful to disagree. But the practical application of that ranges from infrequent voting to intense participatory involvement. There is, this post argues, an increasing tendency for real decisions to made by experts (or, at least, professional politicians), with citizens reduced to the role of an approving chorus. The claim implicitly made by those experts that they are just better at this is somewhat questionable; a better remedy is to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level.
In a way the post doesn’t quite seem to recognise, this moves the problem around, rather than solving it. That’s partly because everybody is in favour of devolved decision making (subsidiarity is after all a fundamental principle of EU decision making), but almost everybody sees the level they happen to be at as the most appropriate one. But even more importantly it’s because it fails to distinguish between different kinds of decisions. Politics is only surprisingly rarely about making self-contained decisions, straightforward choices between clear options. What makes politics – and democracy – hard is the interaction between decisions, the fact that every decision is constrained by and constrains every other one, that decisions are relative rather than absolute. On that, Catherine Howe’s approach, recently featured here, is a stronger one: the question is how to design for democracy, in the full recognition that decisions are political; it is not best answered by assuming that being local is itself adequate.
danah boyd – Point
This the transcript of a conference address, less about the weaknesses of big data a machine learning and more about its vulnerability to attack and to the encoding of systematic biases – and how everything is going to get worse. There are some worrying case studies – how easy will it turn out to be to game the software behind self-driving cars to confuse one road sign with another? – but also some hope, from turning the strength of machine learning against itself, using adversarial testing for models to probe each other’s limits. Her conclusion though is stark:
We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build. We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our systems to do harm and cause chaos.
(the preamble promises a link to a video of the whole thing, but what’s there is only one section of the piece, the rest is behind a paywall)
Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin – LSE British Politics and Policy
Public services – and specifically those of the Beveridge welfare state – are dead; long live services to the public. The argument here is essentially that monolithic, top-down solutions are no longer fit for purpose (though some element of the Beveridge welfare state have always fitted that description much better than others), and that we need to replace them with approaches which are more local and are designed more collaboratively. It is undeniably true that much has changed since Beveridge’s time, and the idea that the man from Whitehall (or, of course, in Beveridge’s case, the man from the LSE) knows best doesn’t have the force it once had, to put it mildly. There is much to be said for the three principles which the authors suggest should underpin the new services to the public – that welfare should be seen as a public good; that services should be designed collaboratively; and that they should be organised and led around places. Wishing for a different future is easy, and there is certainly a place of visionary alternatives. But this would be a more powerful post if it gave at least some account of what a transition might look like or how it might be triggered.
Mary Hamilton – Medium
This is a post about the impact of digital change on journalism in general and The Guardian in particular, but much of it is just as relevant to any other kind of organisation managing – or failing to manage – the transition. Of the thirteen things, the one which particularly won the piece an entry is here is the tenth – “it’s often better to improve a system than develop one brilliant thing.” Making new things is glamorous and exciting. Improving and fixing existing things is not. That seems to apply to everything from maintaining nuclear weapons to minor government processes. Fixing things is one of the things governments (and many other large organisations) need to be better at – being so would make more difference than almost any number of shiny new things.
The Centre for Effective Services
How long does it take to make cross-government collaboration work?
The slightly surprising answer from this Irish case study is 15 days – or more precisely, 15 days of work, as the elapsed time was rather greater. But even with that qualification, this is pretty impressive stuff. It is also interesting that most of the tools they used to make it work had been assembled in the UK civil service (specifically the Prime Minster’s Delivery Unit) some 15 years earlier – which suggests that this exercise had the potential to have been a wholly routine application of well-established methods. That was clearly not the case here – nor would it probably have been any more expected in a UK equivalent (where the PMDU is long gone).
Laura Gardiner – Resolution Foundation
This is a good post in both form and function: a complex and important policy area, neatly summarised in a set of well chosen charts, mixing objective and attitudinal data, and quietly prompting some very big strategic questions.
Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose
This is an artful piece – the first impression is of a slightly unstructured stream of consciousness, but underneath the beguilingly casual style, some great insights are pulled out, as if effortlessly. Halfway down, we are promised ‘three big ideas’, and the fulfilment does not disappoint. The one which struck home most strongly is that we design institutions not to change (or, going further still, the purpose of institutions is not to change). There is value in that – stability and persistence bring real benefits – but it’s then less surprising that those same institutions struggle to adapt to rapidly changing environments. A hint of an answer comes with the next idea: if everything is the product of a design choice, albeit sometimes an unspoken and unacknowledged one, then it is within the power of designers to make things differently.
Andrew Greenway – Civil Service World
Do you best transform government by importing disruption and disruptors to overwhelm the status quo, or by nurturing and encouraging deeper but slower change which more gradually displaces the status quo? Or do both methods fail, leaving government – and the civil service – to stagger on to the next crisis, all set to try again and fail again?
The argument of this post is that those attempts are doomed to failure because the civil service is not willing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis it faces, and until it is, it will never take the steps necessary to fix things. It’s a good and thought provoking polemic – and the questions above are very real ones. But it underplays two important factors. The first is to frame this as being about the civil service. Arguably, that’s too narrow a view: if you want to change the system, you have to change the system: the civil service is the way that it is in large part because of the wider political system of which it is part. The second is one the article rightly identifies, but then does not really pursue. One reason disruptive outsiders tend to fail is that by definition they are brought in at a time when they enjoy the strongest possible patronage – and it’s an understandable temptation to see that as a normal state of affairs. But the reality is that such patronage always fades. Disruptors tend to sprint; they might do better if they planned for a relay – and that is as true for those attempting to disrupt from within as for those brought in to disrupt from without.
Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling
The problem with good policies, badly implemented is not primarily the bad implementation, it is that the bad implementation strongly suggests they weren’t good policies to start with. That’s the proposition advanced by this post, (and one interesting to read in parallel with The Blunders of our Government).
There are few examples of good but badly implemented policies because, in this approach, policy making is not – or not just – the grand sweep of a speech, but is the grinding detail of working through real world implications. Failure of implementation is therefore a strong indicator of a bad policy – akin, perhaps, to the idea that if you can’t explain a complicated thing simply, you probably don’t understand it.
Rachel Botsman – The Guardian
A remarkable proportion of the infrastructure of a modern state is there to compensate for the absence of trust. We need to establish identity, establish creditworthiness, have a legal system to deal with broken promises, employ police officers, security guards and locksmiths, all because we don’t know whether we can trust one another. Most of us, as it happens, are pretty trustworthy. But a few of us aren’t, and it’s really hard to work out which category each of us fall into (to say nothing of the fact that it’s partly situational, so people don’t stay neatly in one or the other).
There are some pretty obvious opportunities for big data to be brought to bear on all that, and this article focuses on a startup trying to do exactly that. That could be a tremendous way of removing friction from the way in which strangers interact, or it could be the occasion for a form of intrusive and unregulated social control (it’s not enough actually to be trustworthy, it’s essential to be able to demonstrate trustworthiness to an algorithm, with all the potential biases that brings with it) – or it could, of course, be both.
Henrietta Moore, Andrew Percy, Jonathan Portes, Howard Reed – UCL Institute for Global Prosperity
This is an interesting variant of the idea of a universal basic income – to provide universal basic services instead. The argument is that taking a services-based approach makes it much easier to manage the fiscal impact, with the value of the services being only a fifth of the cost of even a pretty modest universal basic income.
The idea forces us to think a bit differently about the role of government. In the UK, healthcare and schools are provided as universal public services, and to most people that seem almost self-evidently right. But in the USA, that isn’t true at all – state-provided schooling is universal, state-provided healthcare emphatically isn’t. It’s not obvious, to put it mildly, that there is a set of services which intrinsically should be state provided and free at the point of use and another set which shouldn’t (there is also a question about whether all of the services proposed are in any normal sense ‘universal’).
But it’s important that questions such as these are asked. It’s easy to slide into the assumption that the way things are is the only way they can be. If patterns of work are changing, patterns of support to complement work will need to change too, and options less radical than full universal basic incomes need to be considered in that context.
Jennifer Pahlka – Code for America
Civil servants and civil services have ethical responsibilities for what they do. They can and must take account of the democratic mandate of the governments they serve, but that is a factor in the ethical judgements they make, it is not an exemption from the obligation to make them.
Usually when questions of this kind are discussed it is in the context of the limits beyond which government officials should not act, given that by strong implication politically neutral civil servants value the political, legal and civil system more highly than all the specific outcomes of that system. But this post is doubly interesting because it comes from the opposite direction: are there countervailing obligations, are there circumstances in which officials should continue in government despite fundamental disagreements with the policy and ethics of the political leaders they serve? The assertion here is that commitment to the values of public service can – and arguably should – lead people to stay in government both to sustain services to those who depend on them and to mitigate the worst consequences of bad policies and decisions. It’s a powerful argument. But it has the potential to be a profoundly undemocratic one. Democracies undoubtedly need checks and balances and in extremis, civil services can be such a check. But we should be worried – much more as citizens than as bureaucrats – when political and legal checks are insufficient to create an ethical balance.
Stephen Gill – Medium
Making things a bit less rubbish may sound a pale and uninspiring ambition. Set against the grand rhetoric of strategic change, it is certainly unassuming. But this post shouldn’t be overlooked because of its asserted modesty, for at least two important reasons.
The first is that making things a bit less rubbish is no small thing. Continuous attention to making things a bit less rubbish starts to make them a lot less rubbish and ultimately perhaps not rubbish at all. The second is that this is a wonderfully clear account of why mapping services from the perspective of users, rather than providers, is so powerful and so important. The ambition has been there for a long time, but the reality of actually doing it has lagged years behind, so it’s good to see real progress being made.
A few years ago, it looked as though joined up information might be as far as we would get: joined up information wouldn’t and couldn’t deliver a joined up government. With hindsight, that looks a little pessimistic in terms of the possibility of delivering better and more joined up services. But the thirty parts of government described in the post as being relevant to exports are all still there, and the question of how far service design can reality transcend those boundaries is still a very real one.
Jack Collier – Medium
This is a really interesting perspective on when it is – and isn’t – sensible to bring digital approaches and expertise into government policy making. Digital has much to offer policy making, but the value of that offer is massively increased if it is made with some humility, recognising the need to understand and add value to the policy making process. There is a refreshing recognition that not all service design (and so even more so, not all policy) is digital and that the contexts and constraints of policy making can be very different from those assumed in agile development and delivery. That isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a return to the view that policy making is so arcane an art that only true initiates should be allowed to do it, or have an opinion on it. It is though a very welcome recognition of the value of an almost anthropological approach – the idea of sending product managers to be participant observers of the policy making world is a particularly good one.
Ellen Broad – Medium
Facial recognition is the next big area where questions about data ownership, data accuracy and algorithmic bias will arise – and indeed are arising. Some of those questions have very close parallels with their equivalents in other areas of personal data, others are more distinctive – for example, discrimination against black people is endemic in poor algorithm design, but there are some very specific ways in which that manifests itself in facial recognition. This short, sharp post uses the example of a decision just made in Australia to pool driving licence pictures to create a national face recognition database to explore some of the issues around ownership, control and accountability which are of much wider relevance.
Elizabeth Churchill – EPIC
This is a long and detailed post, making two central points, one more radical and surprising than the other. The less surprising – though it certainly bears repeating – is that qualitative understanding, and particularly ethnographic understanding, is vitally important in understanding people and thus in designing systems and services. The more distinctive point is that qualitative and quantitative data are not independent of each other and more particularly that quantitative data is not neutral. Or, in the line quoted by Leisa Reichelt which led me to read the article, ‘behind every quantitative measure is a qualitative judgement imbued with a set of situated agendae’. Behind the slightly tortured language of that statement there are some important insights. One is that the interpretation of data is always something we project onto it, it is never wholly latent within it. Another – in part a corollary to the first – is that data cannot be disentangled from ethics. Taken together, that’s a reminder that the spectrum from data to knowledge is one to be traversed carefully and consciously.
Chris Weller – World Economic Forum
This is a beguiling timeline which has won a fair bit of attention for itself. It’s challenging stuff, particularly the point around 2060 when “all human tasks” will apparently be capable of being done by machines. But drawing an apparently precise timeline such as this obscures two massive sources of uncertainty. The first is the implication that people working on artificial intelligence have expertise in predicting the future of artificial intelligence. Their track record suggests that that is far from the case: like nuclear fusion, full blown AI has been twenty years in the future for decades (and the study underlying this short article strongly implies, though without ever acknowledging, that the results are as much driven by social context as by technical precision). The second is the implication that the nature of human tasks has been understood, and thus that we have some idea of what the automation of all human tasks might actually mean. There are some huge issues barely understood about that (though also something of a no true Scotsman argument – something is AI until it is achieved, at which point it is merely automation). Even if the details can be challenged, though, the trend looks clear: more activities will be more automated – and that has some critical implications, regardless of whether we choose to see it as beating humans.
Bernardo Zacka – Boston Review
Politicians make decisions, legitimised by their democratic mandate. Bureaucrats implement those decisions, based on the objective and standardised application of rules.
So at least goes the standard caricature. Reality is, of course, more complicated than that. That simplistic model breaks down for at last two kinds of reasons. First, the real world is just too big and varied to make it possible – or sensible – to specify everything in minute detail. Systems which attempt to do that tend to break. Secondly, bureaucrats and the consumers of public services are human beings (as indeed are politicians), and their interactions will inevitably be influenced by emotional as well rational responses. Bureaucrats always have faces, even if those faces are not always visible.
This article is a thoughtful exploration of the place of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in wider political systems, including the psychological toil which can be exacted on those trying to manage those intrinsic tensions between rules, complex reality, and humanity.