Imagine we could re-design democracy from scratch? What would it look like?

Paul Evans – Medium

People who work in the Whitehall tradition of government tend to think of democracy as a mildly intriguing thing which happens somewhere else. That’s an approach which has pretty severe weaknesses even in its own terms, but becomes markedly more significant in a world where the alignment of political divisions with electoral structures is severely weakened. So thinking about democracy not as some distinct feature, but as an integral characteristic of the polity is both counter-cultural and essential.

This post is an important challenge to that complacency, part of an emerging and more widespread view that the western tradition of representative democracy is under threat and needs to be replaced by something better before it is replaced by something worse. Those who work in the non-political parts of government may like to think that that is not really their problem. But it is.

Organisational change Systems

The purpose of organisations

Mark Foden

This is a short, perhaps even slightly cryptic, note on the purpose of organisations. Having had the unfair advantage of being part of the conversation which prompted it, my sense is that it captures two related, but distinct, issues.

The first is that not everything has a purpose at all, in any terribly useful or meaningful sense. We can observe and describe what elements of a system do, but that does not mean that each such element has a purpose, still less that any purpose it might have relates to the behaviour of the wider system of which it is part. Not being careful here can lead to spectacular errors of reverse causation – the purpose of noses is not, as Pangloss argued, to support the wearing of spectacles.

The second is that it is easy to look at human-made systems and assume that they have a purpose, and that that purpose can be both discerned and – should we wish it – amended. That’s an understandable hope, but not necessarily a realistic one. Organisations of any size are both complex systems in their own right and components of larger and yet more complex systems. What they do and how they do it cannot be reduced to a single simple proposition. That’s not, I take it, a nihilistic argument against trying to understand or influence; it is a recognition that we need to recognise and respect complexity, not wish it away.

Innovation Systems

Better Rules: a policy advisor’s perspective

Abbe Marks – NZ Digital government

The idea that it should be possible to capture legislative rules as code and that good things might result from doing so is not a new one. It sounds as though it should be simple: the re-expression of what has already been captured in one structured language in another. It turns out though not to be at all simple, partly because of what John Sheridan calls the intertwingling of law: the idea that law often takes effect through reference and amendment and that the precise effect of its doing so can be hard to discern.

There is interesting work going on in New Zealand experimenting with the idea of law and code in some limited domains, and this post is prompted by that work. What makes it distinctive is that it is written from a policy perspective, asking questions such as whether the discipline of producing machine consumable rules is a route to better policy development. It’s still unclear how far this approach might take us – but the developments in New Zealand are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Behavioural science

There Is More to Behavioral Economics Than Biases and Fallacies

Koen Smets – Behavioral Scientist

There are plenty of places you can find lists of biases, capturing human behaviour at the edge of human rationality. All too often they get used to reinforce a tendency to play cognitive bias I-spy, prompting us to spot the many ways in which actual messy humans fall short of tidy economic assumptions. This post gives a beautifully clear account of why interpreting them in that way risks missing the point, imposing a dangerously inaccurate determinism on human behaviour.

Armed with a sparkling new vocabulary of cognitive and behavioral effects, it’s easy to see examples of biases all around us, and we fool ourselves into believing that we have become experts. We risk falling prey to confirmation bias. The outcomes of experiments appear obvious to us because we overlook the intricate nature of the full picture (or fail to notice unsuccessful replications). By simplifying human behavior into a collection of easily identified, neatly separate irrationalities, we strengthen our misguided self-perception of expertise.

And as Carla Groom noted in drawing attention to the article, seductive science isn’t a good basis for effective policy making:


One Team Government Service design Systems

Technical Intuition

Alix Dunn – Medium

One of the unavoidable problems in curating a site like Strategic Reading is that lots of the posts and articles end up slightly blurring into one another. That’s a good thing in many ways: ideas build on each other, views of the world coalesce, but it can sometimes feel as though there isn’t much really new thinking.

This post is different. It is deliberately disruptive and challenging and provides some useful insights into a problem which has existed for a long time, but has been largely overlooked. What counts as the right kind of knowledge to understand and use technology effectively? It isn’t in itself technical knowledge – telling everybody to learn to code is no more effective than addressing transport management problems through the medium of car maintenance classes. And it isn’t stepping away, leaving such issues to the priesthood of the initiated. The limitations of that model are increasingly obvious in a world where big companies refuse to acknowledge or understand the sociology of technology.

The answer suggested here is something called ‘technical intuition’ (which is a slightly odd label, since it’s about being knowledgeable rather than intuitive), which allows people who are not technically expert to imagine, to inquire, to decide and to demand. That’s then brought to life in an example about an individual deciding whether to sign up for a supermarket loyalty card. That’s fair enough in its own terms. Personal understanding of the implications of technology related decisions is really important (and closely related to what Rachel Coldicutt calls digital understanding).

But that leaves us with two essential questions, which are left implied but not addressed. The first is where this intuition is to come from. If it is a body of knowledge, how is it to be assembled, conveyed and absorbed – all of which are preconditions to its being acted on. The second is how it then scales and aggregates – both in terms of where the social (as opposed to individual) acceptability of loyalty cards comes from, and, very differently, how that leads to confidence in other kinds of decision making. What is the technical intuition we should expect supermarket executives to display in designing loyalty cards in the first place? And in some ways, that is the most important question of all.


Leading Service Design: Posters

Ben Holliday

This is one to cut out and keep – two posters which are useful reminders of simple, but important, principles. Having recently seen some purported user needs which were anything but, a set of easily shared tests could be immensely valuable.

The second poster, on framing the problem, is also good though – reasonably enough for something produced for a service design conference – the framing suggested is very service focused. It’s a useful complement, though, to Lou Downe’s principles of good service design.

Future of work

Why automation is more than just a job killer

Benedict Dellot – RSA

You can find an estimate for the impact of automation on jobs to support more or less any prior opinion you happen to hold. Apparently sensible forecasts from apparently respectable organisations range from the benign to the apocalyptic. One reason why it can be hard to make sense of that is that different factors – some potentially with opposite effects – can get bundled together into an agglomeration of technologies in an agglomeration of sectors and contexts having an agglomeration of effects. Disentangling any of that then becomes next to impossible

This useful short post separates out four different forms of automation, briefly explaining the employment impact of each. That doesn’t magically give us a single number which is somehow better than all the other single numbers. But it does provide a framework for understanding and debating all the other single numbers.

Data and AI

7 Steps to Data Transformation

Edwina Dunn – Starcount

Edwina Dunn is one of the pioneers of data science and this short paper is the distillation of more than twenty years’ experience of using meticulous data analysis to understand and respond to customers – most famously in the form of the Tesco Clubcard. It is worth reading both for some pithy insights – data is art as well as science – and, more unexpectedly, for what feels like a slightly dated approach. “Data is the new oil” may be true in the sense that is a transformational opportunity, with Zuckerberg as the new Rockefeller, but data is not finite, it is not destroyed by use and it is not fungible. More tellingly she makes the point that ‘Owning the customer is not a junior or technical role; it’s one of the most important differentiators of future winners and losers.’ You can see what she means, but shopping at a supermarket is not supposed to be a form of slavery, still less so (if that were possible) is that a good way of thinking about the users of public services.

It doesn’t sound as though the Cluetrain Manifesto has been a major influence on this school of thought. Perhaps it should be.

Democracy Service design

Usable to Understandable to Responsible

Rachel Coldicutt – Doteveryone
This is a great set of slides which (among other things) teases out the idea of ‘needs’ in relation to public services, clearly and powerfully making the point that it is not enough just to consider the needs of individual end users.

The picture is in the presentation, but came originally from a post by Cassie Robinson a few months ago. The GDS admonition to start with user needs is not wrong (quite the contrary), but there will rarely, if ever, be a single set of answers. And as Tom Loosemore observed, prompted by that illustration and quoting Richard Pope, ‘sometimes the user need is democracy’.

But there is more to the presentation than just that insight, important though it is. Ease of use is not the same as depth of understanding, and the simplicity of a service design does not mean that it is simple or self-contained in the way people come to it and use it. Needs are important, but so are interests – which means that service design has to embrace much more than the transactional experience.

Social and economic change

Team Human – mastering the digital

Douglas Rushkoff

This video is twenty minutes of fireworks from Douglas Rushkoff, pushing back on the technocratic view of technology. He is speaking at the recent FutureFest, and starts by describing a long-ago talk he had given called ‘why futurists suck’, thereby establishing his credentials and biting the hand that was feeding him in one simple line.

Once he gets going though, he gets onto the very interesting idea that technological determinism has led to a view that describing the future is essentially an exercise in prediction (and watching him act out a two by two matrix is a joy in itself) – when instead we should see the future as a thing we are creating. The central line, on which much of his argument then hangs, is that ‘We have been trained to see humanity as the problem, and technology as the solution’ – and that that is precisely the wrong way round.

This was more barnstorming than developed argument – but there are some really interesting implications, and there was enough there to suggest that it will be worth looking out for the book of the talk – also called Team Human – when it comes out next year.

Government and politics Service design

Interview in Offscreen Magazine

Tom Loosemore

Behind this remarkably anodyne headline is some compelling reading. This interview tracks Tom’s working life over more than twenty years, but in doing so is hugely illuminating about the intellectual, moral, and political history of digital public services, up to and beyond the creation of the Government Digital Service. As ever, understanding how we got here is indispensable to a good understanding of where we are.

The interview very clearly brings out why it was important for GDS to be set up in the way that it was, needing to avoid the existential risk of getting trapped by the inertia of large organisations.

The idea was to build a bubble in which the main strategy was delivery: let’s deliver great stuff so quickly that bureaucracy can’t catch us.

It also shows how important it has been (and continues to be) to put creative effort into making things which had been obscure more visible, in ways which shift the balance of power away from institutions and towards individuals. That recognition may though have obscured the extent to which that can only be a part of what people need from government. – which is perhaps one reason why the original emphasis of GDS was so much on better information provision, with the recognition of the importance of government as service provider only coming later.

Then we realised that the real heart of public services isn’t just providing information, it’s transactional service […] It’s great to have a website that tells you what to do, but doing the thing, that’s the actual service. And that’s a much harder problem to solve.

Perhaps the most powerful point – and one still not sufficiently recognised – is the recognition that modern, effective and efficient government is not the same as uniform, self-service and largely invisible government.

In government the risk of ‘designing for people like us’ is much greater than for most businesses. Many of us are in a position from where we see anything government-related as a hassle. We want it to disappear or reduce the friction of government interaction to zero. I think that’s a dangerous over-simplification, because the people who really need government the most don’t want the government to disappear. Quite the opposite. For those who are really struggling – and it could be any one of us at some point in our lives – the government is a safety net, and that safety net cannot be invisible nor completely frictionless. We need to facilitate a proper relationship between someone with a difficult problem and a public servant.

Of course the reason why teams such as GDS and its comparators in governments around the world need to be set up to subvert the stodgy institutions of government is precisely that they are stodgy. No doubt influenced by the audience of the magazine in which the interview first appealed, the heroes of the battle against the stodge turn out to be tech people

We need people to go in there and ruffle some feathers, show good leadership, and inject a new culture. If the machine rejects you, fine, try another way in or do something else. As someone working in tech you’re not going to struggle to find a new job, really.

There is a very real danger of hubris in that attitude, not so much from Tom himself, but from many who have followed him into (and often back out of) government. The policy traditions of government undoubtedly need to absorb the shock of digital, but that won’t be successful on a sustainable basis unless those who embody the digital perspective also make the effort to understand government, politics, and public services.

Do you think an improvement in service delivery is enough to regain the public’s confidence in government and politics in general?

That’s our only bloody hope!

Government service delivery needs to improve, for all the reasons Tom argues for. But that is far from being our only hope, and seeing it as such risks missing something important about government – what it is, as well as what it does.


All design is strategic

Ben Holliday – Medium

In this post, Ben take the approach to strategy set out in Lingjing Yin’s post and applies it to design, making the argument that from that perspective, all design is strategic (though not only strategic), because it should always be in pursuit of the overall objective. That sounds right – though it does bring a risk of circularity (like any other word, as soon as it means everything, it means nothing).

The strong part of the argument is that no one aspect of design should be singled out as being strategic or not strategic. That’s a useful thought in part because it applies to more than just design: in a sense, the very point of strategy is to create something which provides a basis for decision makers of any kind to test their approach. The existence of a strategy is what allows all the individual decisions to be strategic without being regimented. And once that’s in place, it also becomes possible to zoom between levels of detail and perspective, as Matt Edgar observed, prompted by Ben’s post:

It is not possible in any kind of complex system to use strategy as a detailed control system; psychohistory is not real. It is possible to set principles which allow autonomous decisions and decision makers to converge on strategic goals. In that sense, at least, all design can be strategic.


What is strategy and the importance of strategic thinking

Lingjing Yin – Leading Service Design

This is a neat and simple exposition of what strategy is and why it matters. It earns a place here not so much for the description of what strategy is as for the reminder – too often missing from such descriptions – that strategy should have an impact, and that that impact should include driving choices about priorities and activities.

Ben Holliday has now used that post as a prompt for one of his own, which is picked up in the next post here.

Future of work

Open plan offices reduce collaboration? A powerful argument for measuring collaboration

Ben Proctor – Sartori Lab

The rather counter-intuitive idea that open-plan working might reduce the rate at which people talk to each other has been getting quite a lot of coverage recently, no doubt for man bites dog reasons. This post goes beyond that to ask a vital, but less obvious, point – that we can’t know what environments promote or detract from collaboration without a clearer sense of what we mean by it and how we might measure it. In other words, even – or perhaps especially – in the case of an apparently mundane issue such as office layout design, evidence-based iterative test and learn approaches really matter.

And in the week that the new UK Government Estate Strategy was published, that may be particularly pertinent.


Please do not adjust your set

It’s been three weeks since Strategic Reading was last updated and the last weekly summary sent out to email subscribers. If you had noticed the void in your reading life, apologies. As is well known, strategists are not always as gifted in predicting the future as they like to think, but the intention is now for normal service to be resumed.

Future of work

What does good work look like in the future – and how can we get there?

Benedict Dellot and Fabian Wallace-Stephens – the RSA

The RSA has established itself as a source of insight on the future of work and the intersection of technology and employment, avoiding the hyperbole and hysteria which all too often characterises work in this area. Now they are building on that by setting up a Future Work Centre to explore these issues systematically. That’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

The launch event at the RSA was recorded and can be watched here:

Organisational change

What makes a great leader, explained in eight counterintuitive charts

Shane Snow – Quartz

disagredable+altruistic=angelic troublemakersThe two by two matrix is perhaps the most overused tool in the history of management thinking and has come to symbolise slick and superficial consultancy advice. So it takes a certain amount of bravery – or perhaps foolhardiness – to attempt to explain leadership through eight of them.

It’s not a completely successful attempt – some of the axes feel a bit forced – but it packs a lot into a small space. And who, after all, would not want to be an angelic troublemaker?


Need a strategy? Let them grow like weeds in the garden

Henry Mintzberg

What counts as good strategy – and good strategy making – is a subject of endless debate, up to and including the limit argument that having a strategy at all is a sign of failure. This post is a good reminder to people with strategy in their job titles (and blog titles) that clarity and direction are not the only characteristics of a good strategy. It’s always possible to write a pithy description of an organisation’s future, but being easy doesn’t necessarily make it the best approach. Strategies can emerge from below, they don’t have to be imposed from above.

Strategies grow initially like weeds in a garden; they don’t need to be cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse