The enduring mythology of the whiz kid

Hana Schank – Co.Design

Innovation is perhaps second only to transformation as a word to convey excitement and derring do to the messy business of getting things done in organisations – a view promoted not least by people whose derring may be rather stronger than their do.

The assumption that disruption and iconoclasm are the best – or even only – way of making significant and sustained change happen is a curiously pervasive one. The problem with it is not that it’s always wrong, but that there is good reason to think that it’s not always right. As this post argues, sometimes deep experience can be just as powerful, in part because intractable problems often respond better to sustained incremental efforts than to a single transformational solution.

This article suffers a little from a rather patronising view of government, and some of the examples used tend to the trivial. But the underlying point remains a good one: people who understand and care about the problem may be the people best placed to solve it – if they are given the licence to do so.

Basic instincts

Matthew Hutson – Science

This article is an interesting complement to one from last week which argued that AI is harder than you think. It builds a related argument from a slightly different starting point: that big data driven approaches to artificial intelligence have been demonstrably powerful in the short term, but may never break through to produce general problem solving skills. That’s because there is no solution in sight to the problem of creating common sense – which turns out not to be very common at all. Humans possess some basic instincts which are hard coded into us and might need to be hard coded into AI as well – but to do so would be to cut across the self-learning approach to AI which now dominates. If there is reason to think that babies can make judgements and distinctions which elude current AI, perhaps AI has more to learn from babies than babies from AI.

Why digital strategies fail

Jacques Bughin, Tanguy Catlin, Martin Hirt, and Paul Willmott – McKinsey

This article will inform and irritate, with the balance between the two being a matter of individual taste. It’s good of its kind, but its kind is putting organisations to right through the perspective of high consultancy, and nobody does it higher than McKinsey. It is taken as a self-evident truth that

Few of us get around without the help of ridesharing and navigation apps such as Lyft and Waze. On vacation, novel marine-transport apps enable us to hitch a ride from local boat owners to reach an island.

The few of us who survive without novel marine-transport apps may find that veering on self-parody – or perhaps being unintentionally precise about who is intended to be encompassed by ‘us’ – but it is worth persisting. The five pitfalls which the article describes do cover some useful ground and there is recognition that different circumstances demand different responses.

But as we have seen in other contexts, there is a sense of breathlessness about the word ‘digital’ itself. Their definition isn’t a bad one, ‘the nearly instant, free, and flawless ability to connect people, devices, and physical objects anywhere,’ but the more the article goes one, the less adequate it seems in relation to the scope of what is being asserted for it. In the end, ‘digital’ becomes irrelevant – this is about strategy in the broadest and deepest organisational sense.

One telling point is the use of Tesla as an example of the power of first mover advantage. While it’s clear that they do have real advantages in electric power, it’s also increasingly clear that they have failed to establish such an advantage in autonomous driving and failed even to reach incumbent standards of vehicle mass manufacturing. Where that leaves its overall strategic position has still to play out, but it is far from clear that it is less vulnerable to incumbents than they are to it. In a very concrete sense, there is more to strategy than digital.

To take the next step on digital, we dropped the word ‘digital’

James Plunckett – Citizens Advice

The word ‘digital’ has long been both powerful and problematic. It’s powerful because new technologies and, in some ways even more so, new ways of developing and applying new technologies have made many things better, faster, cheaper – and often very different. And as Tom Loosemore, perhaps the leading proponent of using ‘digital’ in a sense which transcends a narrow, technical meaning puts it:

But it’s also problematic, because it stretches the meaning of ‘digital’ so far as to drain it of content. It has become a vague word, implying modernity and goodness and not much more. More seriously, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place: digital is a means, not an end, and there is always a risk that in focusing too much on means, we lose sight of the ends.

That’s not to say that ‘digital’ has not been a useful word. In many ways it has been. It’s more to say that the time has come – and is arguably long past – when we should move beyond it. That makes this post a really interesting sign of what may be to come: Citizens Advice has chosen to replace its Chief Digital Officer with a Director of Customer Journey, and its reasons for doing so are well worth reading.

Robot Future


A pithy but important reminder that the autonomy of AI is not what we should most worry about. Computers are ultimately controlled by humans and do what humans want them to do. Understanding the motivation of the humans will be more important than attempting to infer the motivation of the robots for a good while to come.

A.I. Is Harder Than You Think

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis – New York Times

Coverage of Google’s recent announcement of a conversational AI which can sort out your restaurant bookings for you has largely taken one of two lines. The first is about the mimicry of human speech patterns: is it ethical for computers to um and er in a way which can only be intended to deceive their interlocutors into thinking that they are dealing with a real human being, or should it always be made clear, by specific announcement or by robotic tones, that a computer is a computer? The second – which is where this article comes in – positions this as being on the verge of artificial general intelligence: today a conversation about organising a hair cut, tomorrow one about the meaning of life. That is almost completely fanciful, and this article is really good at explaining why.

It does so in part by returning to a much older argument about computer intelligence. For a long time, the problem of AI was treated as a problem of finding the right set of rules which would generate a level of behaviour we would recognise as intelligent. More recently that has been overtaken by approaches based on extracting and replicating patterns from big data sets. That approach has been more visibly successful – but those successes don’t in themselves tell us whether they are steps towards a universal solution or a brief flourishing within what turns out to be a dead end. Most of us can only be observers of that debate – but we can guard against getting distracted by potential not yet realised.

A guide to agile communication

Giles Turnbull – DEFRA

Giles Turnbull knows how to write. More unusually, he knows how to write about writing. More unusually still, he knows how to write about writing in the context of a wider approach to communications. Most unusually of all, knowing all those things, he shares his knowledge in a way which is itself a great illustration of his own advice.

This is presented as advice to people involved in communicating the work of agile teams, but it’s application is much broader. There will be few who won’t find something useful in it.

Stages of resistance

Janet Hughes

Sometimes a simple tweet says all there is to say. Though in this case it’s well worth reading the replies as well.

The role of truth in designing interfaces to public services

Joshua Mouldey

At GDS’s Sprint 18 last week, the team from the Land Registry presenting their work on online registration of mortgage deeds made an arresting statement: while they could provide instant confirmation that a transaction had been successful, their customers expected there to be some processing time, and were much more reassured by a short delay while the system supposedly updated itself.

That prompted the re-circulation of this thoughtful post from a year ago. If you want to be pretentious you could say it’s about the ethics of form design. If you want to be pragmatic, you could say it’s about how to stick to the rule of thumb that users should only be asked the questions which are necessary to move the service on while also meeting their need for a sense of closure and completeness.

The post rather neatly resolves the tension – and makes an important point in its own right – by recognising that people have emotional as well as transactional needs, even of something as apparently straightforward as a simple form. That can result in a situation where a service can be made better by being less honest, which is not a comfortable place to be. Lots of good food for thought even for – perhaps especially for – those of us who don’t design forms for a living.

Digital means learning and iterating as you go

Clare Sherwood and Joanne Gillies

At a time when some are feeling a sense of government blogging getting more sanitised and homogenised, it’s good to come across a post so clearly connected to the real experience – good and bad – of people who, as a result, still sound like people.

This post is worth reading for the substance as well. The question of how we best bring together the skills and experience of people expert in government and policy making with the pace and perspective of people expert in service design and solution delivery is one which is still very much with us. The founding premise of the one team government movement was that those two groups each have much to learn from the other: this post illustrates both the power of that insight and how hard it is to act on it systematically.

One quibble with the argument is the way the word ‘digital’ is used. There is a sense that agile, customer-focused, design-led approaches are somehow digital while, by implication, not-digital things are based on different and inferior approaches. That’s not wholly wrong – but it’s not wholly right either, and doesn’t encourage the melding of approaches rightly being suggested here. Success is more likely if it is not ‘digital thinking’ which is dispersed across the organisation, but approaches to problem solving which are valuable in their own right.

Electric woks or eating together? Time for human-centred designers to care about the community

Matt Edgar

There are exciting new technologies which can improve – and indeed transform – the quality of services. There are many services crying out for better design, to be better attuned to meeting the needs of users of the services. It is tempting – and all too easy – to let those two statements collapse into each other. The risk of that happening becomes greater the more that disciplines such as user research and service design are seen as elements of doing digital, rather than digital being seen as one set of approaches for responding to them.

The general problem with that is that it becomes possible to slip into thinking that the solution people need is the one we happen to have. A more specific consequence is an insidious tendency to assume that the focus of service design should be on the experience of a single, self-contained, individual user. Sometimes that might be the right approach, but often it will miss something important about the wider social context and the wider set of human needs.

This post neatly illustrates that and asks some important questions about moving service design beyond the purely transactional. And you probably don’t need an electric wok.

Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Making public policy in the digital age

Richard Pope and Andrew Greenway – digital HKS

It’s worth looking out for things written by either of these authors, something written by both of them should be doubly worthwhile. There is indeed lots of extremely sensible advice in this piece – and that is so despite all that advice being built on a slightly questionable assumption. Good digital services, they tell us, are iterated daily, or better still hourly. Bad policy development, by contrast, is a long and painful process. The solution is obvious: if policy making were more like digital service iteration, the world would be a better place.

That thought is not wholly wrong. Smarter, faster, better policy making should indeed be everybody’s aim, and the suggestions made here are generally good ones. But it doesn’t follow that policy and service design are somehow interchangeable, or as they put it, “the policy is the service is the institution”. Designing policy to be deliverable and adaptable is indeed important, but so is designing policy to be socially and politically effective. Evidence gathering, consultation, legislation and evaluation can be frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean that they are best dispensed with. Policy is about service design, but the set of users of a policy is often much broader than the set of users of the service through which it is expressed, and both those perspectives matter.

We can’t have nice things (yet)

Alex Blandford – Medium

Data is a word which conjures up images of objectivity and clarity. It lives in computers and supports precise binary decisions.

Except, of course, none of that is true, or at least none of it is reliably true, especially the bit about supporting decisions. Decisions are framed by humans, and the data which supports them is as much social construct as it is an emergent property of reality. That means that the role of people in curating data and the decision making it supports is vital, not just in constructing the technology, but in managing the psychology, sociology and anthropology which frame them. Perhaps that’s not a surprising conclusion in a post written by an anthropologist, but that doesn’t make it any less right.

Understanding Algorithms

Tim Harford

Tim Harford recommends some books about algorithms. There’s not much more to be said than that – except perhaps to follow up on one of the implications of Prediction Machines, the book which is the main focus of the post.

One way of looking at artificial intelligence is as a tool for making predictions. Good predictions reduce uncertainty. Really good predictions may change the nature of a problem altogether. In a different sense, the purpose of strategy can also be seen as a way of reducing uncertainty: by making some choices (or bets), other choices drop out of the problem space. Putting those two thoughts together suggests that better AI may be a tool to support better strategies.

Designing better organisations: Why internal user experience matters to delivering better services

Ben Holliday – FutureGov

The quality of internal user experience is a good indicator of an organisation’s underlying attitude to user experience and thus of the service the organisation delivers. And of course the more distracting and time consuming internal services are, the less time and energy are available for the organisation’s real purpose.

That’s the core argument of this post and it is one which will resonate with many on the receiving end of such services. The conclusion it draws, that in seeking to transform an organisation, transforming its internal processes is a good place to start, may be less obvious, but is certainly worth thinking about.

Seven public sector trends

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking survey of the public policy landscape, examining trends setting the context for public sector reform ranging from reversing decline of trust, through rethinking the scope and nature of digital transformation, to blending policy, design and delivery. All of that is bound together by a recognition that these are all systems problems – or, arguably, all facets of a single systems problem – and the test of change in that wider system will be whether authority, money and power flow differently from the way they do today.

Introducing the Minimum Political Product (MPP)

Joy Bonaguro – GovLoop

Some things you read provide value by giving you facts or ideas or examples that you didn’t know before. There is a very special – and all too rare – category of writing which provides value by making sense of things you knew already, which provides a clear and concise encapsulation of something which it is hard to explain easily. This post is firmly in that latter category, doing some hard work to make a useful concept simple.

The concept concerned is the ‘minimum political product’, which is quite like a minimum viable product except for being driven by a political need rather than a user need. They are a reality of life and it makes sense to understand them and to create them in a way which maximises the value they provide – and the fact that the genesis of the requirement, or some of the delivery characteristics it needs to demonstrate, is political doesn’t change that. That’s not to say that the first response to every minister wanting an MPP should be to build it. But it is a recognition that politics is both the art of making decisions and the context in which those decisions stand and fall, and that a solution which does not meet political needs may well not survive long enough to meet any needs at all.