Civil servants civilly serve

Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist

A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.

The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.

But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.

Just enough Internet

Rachel Coldicutt – doteveryone

This is a thoughtful and important piece which challenges one of the pervasive myths of digital services, and particularly digital government services. More, it argues, is not intrinsically better, for a number of overlapping reasons. Collecting more data than necessary carries costs – human and ecological, as well as financial and technical. In making that argument it challenges the naive equivalence between public and commercial services, and the assertion that the former are somehow failing if they do not ape the latter – summarised in the splendid line

The fact that neither NHSX or BBC R&D will send a rocket to Mars this year does not mean they are not innovative. It means they are not in the rocket business.

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowski – Idle Words

This is another piece which isn’t new but which provides some good provocative food for thought, on how applying a computer programming perspective to problems which are fundamentally social can – and does – lead to unfortunate results. It’s written by Maciej Cegłowski, who brings elegant erudition to an unlikely range of subjects, in this case how an approach based on controlling closed systems breaks down when confronted with messily indeterminate systems, with a scattering of provocative one liners which combine challenge and simplicity, such as

Machine learning is like money laundering for bias.

We have to stop treating computer technology as something unprecedented in human history. Not every year is Year Zero. This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.

Enabling collaboration across the public sector

Pia Andrews – The Mandarin

Pia Andrews has long been a powerful voice and a practical exponent of doing government better, not least doing government better in ways which confront and address the difficulties caused by the structures of governments themselves.

This article is a great summary of some of that thinking. Much of its power comes from the recognition that government is fundamentally about people and their relationships with each other, and that that is true as much of people within government as it is of the people that governments serve. Vertical organisational structures can easily be and often are barriers to collaboration and dampeners of motivation, reinforced by a concept of leadership derived from functional management. But none of those is immutable, and a combination of fresh approaches to teams and leadership internally with a readiness to look at the needs of the people governments serve more holistically has real power and potential (greater than either one considered in isolation).

Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Matt Edgar writes here

Unusually for Strategic Reading, this post earns its place not by being new and timely but because it has become an essential point of reference in an important debate. It makes a very powerful argument – but one that is slighly undermined by the conclusion it draws.

It is a measure of continuing progress in the four years since the post was written that the proposition that service design is important in government has become less surprising and less contentious, as well as much more widely practised. It is a measure of how much more needs to be done that the problems described are still very recognisable.

So it’s absolutely right to say that service design is critically important for government and that much of what happens in government is better illuminated by service design thinking. But to assert further that that is most of government most of the time is to miss something important. Much of government is not service design and much of what is service-related is an aspect of a wider public purpose. The function of many government services is only in part to deliver a service, even where there is a service being delivered at all. So the five gaps which are at the heart of this post are all real and all can and should be addressed by service design approaches – but they are not the only gaps, so a solution which addresses only those is at risk of missing something important.

Defining services

Kate Tarling and Matti Keltanen – Services and service organisations

The question of what a service is is both eminently straightforward and impossibly difficult to answer. This post does a great job of demonstrating the straightforwardness, in five pithy elements of a definition, but in fleshing out each of the five points, it also demonstrates the impossibility.

The problem is not that the definition being put forward is wrong or unhelpful. Quite the contrary. It is that drawing the boundaries of a service requires huge understanding, empathy and insight – and even then is unavoidably a matter of judgement rather than the consequence of the precise application of rules. It needs to be big enough to be clearly about satisfying a need rather than conducting a transaction; it needs to be small enough for it to be practically and organisationally possible to make it better. It needs to be sufficiently self-contained to be addressed as a single challenge, and sufficiently broadly based to avoid the construction or reinforcement of silos and the associated inefficiency of duplication. And across all of that – and more – we also need to be clear about the role of government and about whether that role is inherent or arbitrary. Back in the primordial dawn of digital government, a decision was made not to offer a government change of address service – on the grounds that when people move it’s never just government they need to notify, and that in any case the real service was something closer to ‘moving home’. And for that, government is not the service provider – but then nobody else is either. Perhaps we are driven to the slightly uncomforable conclusion that even with all possible understading, empathy and insight, a service is still defined, at least in part, by what a service provider says it is.