Been Kim – Quanta Magazine
The problem of the AI black box has been around for as long as AI itself: if we can’t trace how a decision has been made, how can we be confident that it has been made fairly and appropriately? There are arguments – for example by Ed Felten – that the apparent problem is not real, that such decisions are intrinsically no more or less explicable than decisions reached any other way. But that doesn’t seem to be an altogether satisfactory approach in a world where AI can mirror and even amplify the biases endemic in the data they draw on.
This interview describes a very different approach to the problem: building a tool which retrofits interpretability to a model which may not have been designed to be fully transparent. At one level this looks really promising: ‘is factor x significant in determining the output of the model?’ is a useful question to be able to answer. But of course real world problems throw up more complicated questions than that, and there must be a risk of infinite recursion: our model of how the first model reaches a conclusion itself becomes so complicated that we need a model to explain its conclusions…
But whether or not that is a real risk, there are some useful insights here into identifying materiality is assessing a model’s accuracy and utility.
David Birch – Wired
David Birch is one of a pretty small group of people who write sense about money and identity – and he is pretty much unique in doing so with wit and lightness of touch. This short article draws out the connection between identity and attribution. We will increasingly need to know and trust the attributes of robots and systems, we will increasingly be interested in what attributes people assert about themselves – and at the intersection of those needs there will be a particularly precious attribute:
In time, IS_A_PERSON will be the most valuable credential of all.
Emily Tulloh – Futuregov
This is a post about what’s involved in doing service design and, taken at face value, it’s a pretty good one. But it also works as an extended metaphor for other kinds of change development, and for strategy in particular. Figuring it out and making it real are presented here as the fundamental stages of service design – but pretty much everything said about them works in terms of strategy too.
One version of that parallel is drawn within the post itself, with figuring it out equated to strategy and making it real equated to delivery. But it also works – and arguably works better – to see strategy as the parallel to the whole service design process: a strategy which does not take account of its own approach to delivery is one with a pretty important gap.1216ethn
Successful strategy involves both the destination and the journey, and because of that (though not only that) successful strategy is inextricably linked with successful leadership. This text of a recent speech is not only a powerful account of one person’s development as a leader, but is also a manifesto for a kind of leadership which is very different from the norm of the civil service (which is the context for both Clare and her audience). Clare talks about conformity and rebellion – and about ‘tempered radicals’ who tread a fine line between the two. That’s a place occupied by strategists too: being as constructively disruptive as is humanly possible up to and beyond – but not too far beyond – the capacity of their organisation to manage change effectively.
Bas Leurs and Kelly Duggan – Nesta
Testing, piloting, prototyping and a few more words besides all mean something similar, but all mean something different – though whether we would all agree on quite what the differences are is another matter.
This post sets out to distinguish and to map the scope of four approaches and to argue for greater rigour in their usage. The distinction is definitely useful and the rigour is definitely desirable, though the quest for absolute rigour of specialist language in general usage tends to end in disappointment. But that’s not a reason not to be as clear as possible, and it’s certainly not a reason for practitioners to be anything other than precise both in their understanding of what they are doing and in how that understanding is shared.
Audree Fletcher – Medium
This is a short, elegant, epistolary post on how design and policy come together – or rather about how they might do so better. There often is a gap between policy thinking and design thinking, though one that’s more an accident of history and career paths than of underlying incompatibility. But the contrast sketched here perhaps over-emphasises aspects of the difference: many politicians are interested in more evidence-based and iterative policy development, the trick (as the post recognises) is doing that in a way which creates a space for things not to work without being labelled as failures. And that should be one of the ways in which more traditional policy making skills complement design-based approaches.
Of course it doesn’t always work in that relatively benign way, far from it. But there are great insights here into how it might work better more often.
Steph Gray – Postbureaucrat
A couple of weeks ago, Steph announced his return to front line blogging. That seemed promising; this post shows the promise too be real. Even wheels need to be improved and even wheelwrights need to get better at what they do (or, of course, to be supplanted by jetpackwrights). Doing that in a monoculture may be efficient in the short term, but there’s a price to be paid, and the price can turn out to be high. That is emphatically not let a thousand flowers bloom, and let the devil take the hindmost – the points in the post about how to shape and manage diverse approaches are as important as the recognition that there is value in the diversity. The goal is “inefficient short-term competition in pursuit of long-term optimisation” and there is plenty of good advice here about how to achieve both.
Kit Collingwood and Robin Linacre – Data in government
There is lots being written – a small subset of it captured on Strategic Reading – about data and its implications as a driver of new ways of doing things and new things which can be done. There’s a lot written about the strategic (and ethical and legal…) issues and of course there is a vast technical literature. What there seems to be less of is more practical approaches to making data useful and used. That’s a gap which this post starts to fill. it’s not only full of good sense in its own right, it’s also a pointer to an approach which it would be good to see more of: given a strategic opportunity or goal, what are the practical things which need to be done to enhance the probability of success? Strategising is the easy bit of strategy; getting things done to move towards the goal is a great deal harder.
Ben Proctor – The Satori Lab
This is an apparently mundane post about basic tools needed to support effective team working, regardless of location. At first sight, that’s not strategic at all. Actually though, it’s highly strategic, in both a direct and a metaphorical sense.
Doing a thing well requires the right tools and infrastructure for the job. It’s not good enough to have lofty ambitions for remote collaboration without being willing put in place the foundations that will allow it to succeed. That’s both a specific lesson and a more general metaphor for organisational change: you can’t get away with wishing for the end without committing to the means, and putting the means in place is serious work, without which strategic aspirations go nowhere.
Simon Willis – Medium
Most people blog by collecting nuggets of experience and sharing them in short posts over time. After a while, the posts accumulate into a big enough corpus that you get some sense of an overall picture and approach. This essay takes a very different approach, distilling 25 years experience into 4000 words of powerful argument. In twenty crisply argued propositions, the insight which comes from having created and led innovation teams shines through – as does the level of challenge to host organisations whose systems and instincts will invariably be configured to undermine and enfeeble such teams.
Anybody with any aspiration to innovate in a large organisation will find much to recognise here. And pretty much anybody with such aspirations will find much to reflect on and learn from. Running through the whole piece is the idea that innovation is fundamentally about people and how they behave with each other, culminating in the two final points:
Treat all people with respect.
Understand that great innovations are rooted in relationships and that all real relationships are non-transactional relationships.
Nick Barrowman – New Atlantis
There is increasing – if belated – recognition that analysis and inference built on on data is vulnerable to bias of many different kinds and levels of significance. But there is a lingering unspoken hope that data itself is somehow still pure: a fact is, after all, a fact. Except that of course it isn’t, and as this post neatly argues, while raw data may sound less underhand than cooked data, its apparent virtue can be illusory:
In the ordinary use of the term “raw data,” “raw” signifies that no processing was performed following data collection, but the term obscures the various forms of processing that necessarily occur before data collection.
Benedict Dellot – RSA
There is no shortage of material on the future of work in general, or on its displacement by automation in particular, but much of it has a strong skew to the technocratically simplistic (though posts chosen for sharing here are selected in part with the aim of avoiding that trap).
There has been a steady stream of material from the RSA which takes a more subtle approach, of which this is the latest. It takes the form of a set of short essays from a variety of perspectives, the foreword to which is also the accompanying blog post. The questions they address arise from automation, but go far beyond the first order effects. What are the implications of the emergence of a global market for online casual labour? Does automation drive exploitation or provide the foundations for a leisured society? Given that automation will continue to destroy jobs (as it always has), will they get replaced in new areas of activity (as they always have – so far)?
Buried in the first essay is an arresting description of why imminent exponential change is hard to spot, even if things have been changing exponentially:
because each step in an exponential process is equal to the sum of all the previous steps, it always looks like you are the beginning, no matter how long it has been going on.
And that in many ways is the encapsulation of the uncertainty around this whole set of questions. There is a technological rate of change, driven by Moore’s law and its descendants, and there is a socio-economic rate of change, influenced by but distinct from the technological rate of change. It is in their respective rates and the relationship between them that much controversy lies.
Politicians are unusual people. One of the ways in which they are unusual is that they have a tendency to be very strongly tribal. Another is that that makes it easy for them to think that that is normal. Politicians of one tribe in some ways find it easier to understand (and in some ways respect) politicians of a competing tribe than they do people whose instincts are less tribal.
This post (originally a series of tweets) is a reflection by somebody once of one of the tribes who now sees political tribalism as a big problem. There’s food for thought here both for members of the tribes and for those who seek to understand and work with them. That latter category includes, of course, non-political public servants who work with politicians and in political systems. They (we) are the very opposite of tribal (in this category of tribes – there are of course many others). At its best, that’s a powerful symbiosis, at its worst it’s a recipe for deep confusion and mutual misunderstanding.
There are bloggers who are human beings. There are bloggers who are civil servants. It seems to come as a surprise to some people that there are bloggers who are both. Jenny Vass is simultaneously a shining example of how to operate at that intersection and a clear-sighted guide to others who might want to do the same. These are her top ten tips for government bloggers, which add up to a good starting point for anybody. I would only add an eleventh, taken from George Orwell, one of the great bloggers avant la lettre:
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
It’s also good to see the post opening with an attempt to sustain the heavily threatened distinction between blog and blog post, on which Meg Pickard’s advice remains essential.
This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Janet Hughes. Lauren Currie. and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.
Where to start? Well, here is no bad place, with pointers both to advice on blogging and to a wide range of individual and organisational public sector blogs. The heyday of the blogroll as a means by which one blog could signal the value of others is long past but this is a really useful freestanding equivalent It’s a perennial struggle to know where the good stuff is as blogs and their bloggers appear and fade, so having a well-informed overview of the landscape is especially helpful.
This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass , Lauren Currie and Steph Gray. All three are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.
Lauren Currie – Redjotter
This is a post about blogging from a different perspective. Lauren Currie has long been a leader in giving voice to others, this post gives four ways of making the transition to a more public voice an easier one
This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.
Steph Gray – Postbureaucrat
There is much good advice to be had about how to blog, with excellent examples in the companion posts to this one. The related question of why blog tends to get less attention – or at least, the attention it gets tends to emphasise one set of reasons at the expense of another. Working in the open and being generous in sharing ideas and experience are all excellent things to do, but they are not the only value or necessarily the primary motivation.
This post sets out a different approach, to blogging as thinking, where the value is to the writer, with value to an audience a welcome bonus rather than a driving motivation. The delightful paradox is that very often that approach turns out to be the most powerful and resonant, with the greatest value to readers of all.
This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Lauren Currie. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.
Cassie Robinson – Medium
A year ago, Cassie Robinson wrote a great post on why the mantra of starting with user needs was too narrow an approach to understanding the wider context of service design. This post builds on that one to explore eight types of design, or rather eight approaches to design thinking.
They don’t flow from one to the next in a completely sequential way, but they do broadly represent a gradual zooming out from the simple base case of individual user needs, starting with relational design (thinking about those directly affected by a service, not just the individual service user) and going all the way to life-centred design, the recognition that design takes place in an ecological context, at every scale from local to global.
It’s pretty clear that these eight approaches aren’t discrete or sequential, and indeed that they blur into each other. So the response of the designer should not be to pick the one or two which seem most immediately relevant, but to reflect on how the presenting problem is best understood in the wider context. This post is a great starting point for framing that thought process.
Are organisations political systems? Yes, of course they are. Persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building are intrinsic to their operation; they are a cockpit for exit, voice and loyalty.
That’s using politics in the sense of the means by which collective choices get made rather than in the sense of the thing that politicians do. At one level that’s obvious, but at another it’s worth emphasising, because it’s all too easy to elide politics, bureaucracy and the public sector – they have much to do with each other, but they are very different.
Bureaucracy is fundamentally about being rules based. Rules are indeed constraining – that is their point – but they are also liberating (which is why estimates of the cost of bureaucracy can be more than a little tendentious). A society or polity without rules is hardly one at all and the more arbitrary and capricious the rules are, the worse the outcomes tend to be. So the question becomes whether it is useful to organisations to be rules based, or whether the associated costs of rigidity and hierarchy outweigh the benefits. That’s a pragmatic question, as is the consequential one of how best to minimise the costs and maximise the benefits of whatever level of bureucracy is appropriate for a given organisation and a given situation. That balance will be struck differently in different contexts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if public accountability and size were two relevant factors. That’s not to say that all organisations have the optimal level of bureaucracy (in a faint echo of Stafford Beer) – far from it – rather that it is not self-evident that the optimal level is zero.
All of that is prompted by this post on the politics of organisation design (the latest in a regular weekly series which is well worth following), which in turn draws heavily on a recent excoriation of organisational bureaucracy by Gary Hamel. That brings us full circle: organisations are political and assertions about their nature are intrinsically political too.
Ben Page et al – Ipsos MORI
The starting point for the future is today. The chances of getting to where you want to go without knowing where you are starting from are not good.
This compendium of essays about the state of the [Uk] nation in 2018 is not a bad way of defining that starting point, covering everything from infrastructure to social care, gender-based violence to the sugar tax and from fake news to fizzy drinks.
There is no single conclusion to be drawn from so rich a range of evidence. Unsurprisingly, not everything is rosy, but Ben Page chooses in his foreword to emphasise the positive, concluding more soberly than exultantly that “in general things are better than we think they are”.
And on that cautious note, we move on to one more year of the future.