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.

What’s wrong with best practice?

Daniel Thornton

Best practice used to be best practice, but increasingly the argument is made that best practice isn’t necessarily best practice at all. This post does a through job of explaining why that might be.

It’s pretty clear that in complex real world systems, attempting to specify the steps towards an outcome with complete precision is unlikely to be helpful. It’s also pretty clear though, that many tasks and processes do have a substantial technical element for which there are best (or at least better) ways of doing things. The value of checklists – of structured compliance with a predetermined sequence of actions – has been clearly demonstrated for pilots and surgeons despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that there is substantial variation in the context in which tasks are performed.

There are also more subtle – but no less real – forms of best practice. The shift in many areas of activity from basic competence to real expertise comes from the acquisition of tacit knowledge. Best practice is thus what best practitioners do – which doesn’t mean that what they do can be readily codified and copied, both because distillation of that kind is hard, and because the subtlety of judgement which experts bring is almost certain to be lost in the attempt. So perhaps the problem with best practice is not that people try to find it and apply it, but that they conflate adaptivity to complex systems with process compliance.

The argument of this post is that it’s worse than that, that best practice is an intrinsically unhelpful concept. In the specific context of organisational change – which is the starting point for the post – that may be so (though even there it is not meaningless to talk of best practitioners). But perhaps a better conclusion would be that for all its risks and limitations the idea of best practice shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. There is best practice on best practice which is worth understanding and developing.

Nesta Radical Futures brief

Sam Villis – OneTeamGov

A picture of a One Team Gov T-Shirt on a stage with One Team Gov bannersAfter 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).

As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:

What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Or,
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?

It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?

Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.

Making the centre hold: what works?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam – Institute for Government

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.

It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.

New platforms for public imagination

Kathy Peach – Nesta

Who gets to think about – and so to define – the future? At one level, self-evidently, we all do. But doing it systematically and thoughtfully is a luxury generally restricted to a few specialists, and translating into democratic decision making happens spasmodically, if at all.

This post is a survey of approaches and initiatives aimed at ‘democratising futures’, ranging from games to citizens’ assemblies and from the wisdom of crowds to the opening of expertise. As the post recognises, there is little hard evidence of what works well either in process terms or, more fundamentally, in terms of real world consequences. But that is an argument for doing more, not less, and there are some useful pointers to how that might best be done.

The Other Half of the Truth: Staying human in an algorithmic world

Sandra Wachter – OECD Forum

The problem of AI bias, once ignored, then a minority concern, is now well into the stage of being popularised and more widely recognised. It’s a debate to which Sandra Wachter has herself been an thoughtful contributor. The fact that AI can replicate and reinforce human biases is of course critically important, but it risks obscuring the fact that the seed of the bias is unautomated human behaviour. So AI which is no more biased than humans should be seen as a pretty minimal target, rather than the ceiling of aspiration.

This post is a manifesto for doing better, for rejecting the idea that the new ways need only be no worse than the old. It’s not about specific solutions, but it is an important framing of the question.

Becoming Prime Minister

Catherine Haddon – Institute for Government

Ministerial time and attention is the scarcest resource in government, prime ministerial time and attention doubly so. An impossibly hard job is then made harder by the circumstances in which people come to it and by the absence of meaningful preparation. This paper is a wholly sensible – and rather timely – attempt to help make the transition easier and the assumption of power more effective. Potential prime ministers would do well to read and act on it.

At the same time, though, it is an implicit acknowledgment of despair. The paper shows a system which works perilously close to the margins of not working at all and a concentration of responsibility and expectations for which preparation is not just inadequate but which it is hard to see how it could be made adequate. None of that is going to change any time soon, of course, so the need for this kind of pragmatic incrementalism is very real. But there is a much bigger and much more difficult debate waiting in the shadows behind it.