Avoid learning too many lessons from these ‘unprecedented times’

Matt Jukes – Digital by Default

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post makes the simple and powerful point that it is rash to assume that changes made under pressure in the particular circumstances of a crisis will survive once those immediate pressures have lessened. The much-touted “new normal” may well turn out to be surprising like the old one. So it’s a good idea to read this against the accidentally parallel piece by Matt Ballantine.

Is there any way of reconciling these points of view, beyond the trite observation that opinions differ?None that is certain, of course, it is genuinely too early to tell. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too early to think about what the answer might be. And in reflecting on that, it’s worth starting with Charlie Stross’s adage for thinking about the future:

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.

Are all offices, are some offices, is your office in the 90%, the 9% – or the 1%?

The world turned upside down?

Matt Ballantine

When things get back to normal (whatever that might mean), will everything have changed, or not very much at all?

This post argues that the office ion its current form can’t and won’t survive an era of social distancing. As long as physical distancing is required, no part of modern office design can work effectively, reversing its social value as well as its physical utility;

The “corner office”, blocked off in an open-plan space for senior bod, no longer has social capital when the main reason people work in an office is because they haven’t got the space at home to work remotely.

The post stresses how little physical change there has been to offices in the last half century, though in doing so perhaps understates the degree of social change which those physical structures have absorbed. But the more immediate question is whether the current hiatus in office life will be a driver for more radical change and the argument here is that it will be, both by choice and by inexorability.

All that makes it interesting to read alongside Matt Juke’s post which argues to an opposite conclusion.

The path from crisis

Matthew Taylor – RSA

A matrix to help distinguish between one-off crisis actions and interventions that have longer-term potential, and between innovations resulting from new activities and those enabled by putting a hold on business and bureaucracy as usual.It is easy, but not in the end very productive, to worry about how we got into a crisis and to pin the blame as we choose. It is harder, and very much more productive, to look at what the crisis has forced us to do and to ask how we can discard that which was of only short term utility while keeping and developing that which shows promise of longer term value.

This post provides a really useful framework not just for thinking about the difference between what we have needed to do in the crisis and what we may be able to do beyond it – neatly summarised in the matrix. But it goes beyond that to reflect on what is capable of making potentially radical change more robustly sustainable. The answers to that come not just in institutional change and adaptation, important though those opportunities are, but also from an approach to public engagement and participation which has the potential to provide the foundations necessary for better decision making more generally.

Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric. […]

The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.

How to Make Better Decisions About Coronavirus

Thomas Davenport – MIT Sloan Management Review

It’s generally far easier to make decisions badly than to make them well, even at the best of times. Knowing that is the first step towards countering it, and this post gives a pretty standard account of a range of cognitive biases which may be relevant in the context of COVID-19.

Nine biases are covered in the post, some more obviously of particular relevance to present circumstances than others. The last two are perhaps most pertinent. Neglect of probability is essentially the same point made in Scott Alexander’s much more detailed argument, that structuring thinking in terms of probabilities is harder than the attractive simplicity of binary choices. And perhaps the most challenging of all, normalcy bias. What is normal is a really useful guide to what is to come, until it isn’t. There is a lot of rhetoric around at present about things not going back to the way things were and about the need for and desirability of a new normal. But we have seen from other crises that the sense of what is normal, the sense of there being a natural order of things (often reinforced, as it happens, by a poor grasp of probability) can too easily overwhelm the sense of opportunity and possibility which the crisis itself has created. Normalcy bias is part of what made the crisis what it is, but it is also part of how we will manage the aftermath, with the risk of becoming part of why fewer lessons will have been learned and applied when we come to look back at this period in the years to come.

‘Government as a system’ for COVID-19

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This post takes the government as a system approach which the Policy Lab has been developing and applies it to the policy challenges created by COVID-19, less in terms of the immediate response, more in terms of emphasising three areas where modern policy approaches are likely to be critical.

The first is thinking about the future in conditions of particular uncertainty. Doing that creatively, radically, realistically and usefully is hard enough at the best of times, and these are not they. The more self-consciously and the more collaboratively that is done, the better the chance that the results will survive contact with developing reality.

Policy Lab’s Analytics ladder diagram for COVID-19: what happened? what is happening? why did it happen? what will happen? how can we make it happen?The second is data, critically recognising that it is not just a matter of collecting updated answers to existing questions, but of identifying new questions and the data needed to answer them. The Policy Lab analytics ladder provides a really useful framework for thinking not just about how approaches relate to high level questions, but how their relative emphasis will change as we go through the crisis.

The third is relating all that and more back to the whole system and providing leadership and direction – a reminder that policy is an approach and an activity for those who want to change the world, not for those who wish merely to observe it.

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Paul Taylor

For many of us, the most obvious and immediate forced experiment we are taking part in is doing office work without an office. At some point the constraints which forced that to happen will start to relax and at that point we will have a choice. We can do our best to re-establish the old familiar patterns of work which seemed to work well enough, but which in any case needed to change. Or we can attempt a better synthesis of tools and places, of concentration and dispersion, of work and home – and of how we add value collectively to what we do individually.

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal’.

As an experiment, it has severe limitations: every other aspect of the crisis means that for many this is a forced coping strategy rather than a bold experiment to uncover a better future, but that doesn’t mean that there is no value in it, it simply means that we need to be careful in interpreting what it is telling us. But there should be no mistaking the strength of the message or the scale of the opportunity.

This post does not prescribe what we should do with that opportunity, but it is a characteristically powerful call to arms to take it and to make something of it.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

Digital Cubicles

Simon Terry

Sometimes things are worth reading because they pose good questions, rather than because of the answers which are offered. This may be one of those. It starts with a tweet:

At one level, that’s a simple – but important – restatement of the classic analysis of technology adoption from 1989, The Dynamo and the Computer, which showed that the transition from steam to electric power in factories a century and more ago had parallels with the adoption of technology-supported working practices today: the benefit comes not from the technological breakthrough, but from the subsequent – sometimes long subsequent – transformation it supports in the way work gets done.

The suggestions made in the post for adding back transformation are sensible, but not especially radical or distinctive. But it comes into its own again at the peroration:

None of this digital transformation has anything to do with how many video images your videoconferencing platform shows on screen in meetings. What matter is how organisations and individuals work, learn and adapt. The real value is not to work on digital tools. The value creation occurs when we work, learn and adapt in new ways.

Contact Tracing in the Real World

Ross Anderson – Light Blue Touchpaper

This post is interesting at three levels. It is a meticulous case study of why contact tracing, and particularly pseudonymous contact tracing, and particularly app-based pseudonymous contact tracing is a hard problem (maybe even a wicked problem). It is an example of a more general phenomenon that describing a policy aspiration generally turns out to be much easier than describing, let alone implementing, a way of meeting that aspiration. And it illustrates the adage (distorted from an original by Mencken) that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

And there is a fourth, which is perhaps most pertinent of all, which is that for problems of any complexity, technology cannot wish away human behaviour. Even if a contact tracing app were to work perfectly in technical terms (whatever that might mean), the individual and social behavioural responses may be far from what is desired. Or as Anderson puts it:

We cannot field an app that will cause more worried well people to phone 999.

That’s an insight relevant to many more problems than this one.

How should government manage big risks – pandemics to financial shocks?

Geoff Mulgan

Another Geoff Mulgan post, but a very different one from his reflections on the imaginary crisis, which spanned continents, philosophies and centuries. This one is a rigorously pragmatic account of how governments should manage risk effectively, using the UK as a case study and drawing on Geoff’s own experience of working in government.

There is much to reflect on in the post, but one of the points which comes through very clearly is the need to accept apparent short-term inefficiency, in the form of many kinds of excess capacity, in order to maximise overall long-term efficiency and effectiveness. There is of course an important debate to be had about how much of what kinds of capacity is worth paying for, but if that debate takes place in a political environment in which short-term cost efficiency is valued above all else, it is not likely to end in the optimal place.

Governments can’t avoid being the insurer of last resort for high impact risks. It matter to all of us that the premiums are kept paid up.

Preparing for risks is costly. It takes people and resources away from immediate priorities. But ultimately protecting people from risk is the heart of what government is for, and good bureaucracy manages risk systematically. Indeed, times like this remind us why boring, competent, reliable and forward-looking bureaucracy is so vital to helping us live our lives freely.  They worry so that we don’t have to.

A Failure, But Not Of Prediction

Scott Alexander – Slate Star Codex

At one level, this is about why we didn’t see COVID-19 coming. At another, it is using that as a case study of a whole class of decisions which depend on making judgements about uncertain futures – which is to say most of the ones that matter. The problem is not a shortfall in prediction skills, which is just as well because prediction is a tricky game. It is instead presented as a shortfall in probabilistic reasoning skills, which in turn relates to the classic risk management scales of likelihood and impact. Low likelihood, high impact events matter a great deal – which is why the insurance industry exists. If there is a 10% chance of an imminent global pandemic, it is well worth investing in mitigation, even if it turns out that the pandemic fizzles out – which is why it made sense to stockpile large quantities of flu vaccine in 2009 which turned out not to be needed.

But, slightly less explicitly in the article, there is another step which is essential before any of this becomes useful, as opposed to merely interesting. Probabilistic reasoning can be a good pointer to action, but it has succeeded only if appropriate action is in fact taken. So perhaps those showing greatest wisdom back in January and February were not either those who dismissed what was happening in Wuhan as far away and unimportant, or those who jumped immediately to proclaiming imminent global catastrophe – but those who saw from an apparently moderate risk, an immediate need to take precautionary actions.

There is, of course, a political dimension to this as well. Back in 2009, the then French Health Minister was heavily criticised for the money spent – money apparently wasted – on one of those vaccine stockpiles. She is quite rightly unapologetic, but it’s another reason why understanding the concept of risk and its mitigation is important. As Alexander observes,

Uncertainty about the world doesn’t imply uncertainty about the best course of action!

Principles of leadership

Clare Moriarty

The link is to a valedictory interview with Clare as she leaves the civil services. It includes her own encapsulation of her principles of leadership – and since she is one of the finest leaders I have had the privilege of seeing in action, they are principles which it well worth taking seriously.

  • Leadership is making it possible for other people to do their best work.
  • Only do what only you can do.
  • Ask yourself what, in six months’ time, you’ll wish you’d done six months ago – and do it now.
  • The currency of leadership is attention – spend it wisely.
  • It’s OK to feel what you feel.

Clare gave a a fuller account of her thoughts on leadership in a speech last year.

There will be no ‘back to normal’

Christopher Haley, Jack Orlik, Eszter Czibor, Hugo Cuello, Teo Firpo, Marieke Goettsch, Lou-Davina Stouffs and Laurie Smith – NESTA

What will the world look like when we are beyond COVID-19? It’s an obvious question, and one attracting increasing attention, with a first flowering of answers appearing, doubtless with many more to come. This is an example of the approach, demonstrating both the importance of posing the question and the potential traps in attempting to answer it.

The strongest assertion in the post comes in its very first sentence:

The pandemic will change the world permanently and profoundly.

Some might choose to debate even that of course, but if the premise is accepted, it is possible to reflect on what those permanent and profound changes might be. The difficulty comes quickly afterwards, as this post both recognises and demonstrates: the more that there is potential for the changes to be profound, the less it is possible to identify what they might be with any degree of confidence or rigour, and the more there is a risk of generating long lists of what might be possible without being able to say much of consequence about what is probable. More subtly, that approach also gives little room to questions about how those probabilities might be influenced – and by whom.

The lists in this post are wide ranging and provocative. They are a good reminder of the need to be alert to change and to be on the lookout for leading indicators. But they don’t and can’t (and don’t aspire to)describe the new normal we may someday reach.

COVID and forced experiments

Benedict Evans

Many organisations, and many people who work in those organisations, have just discovered that their work is less bound to physical space and to being in the physical presence of other people than they used to think. For the moment, there is no alternative to working in a new way, however imperfect that new way might be or be thought to be. But at some point this long moment will be over. What then?

This post explores that question and others like it, where the intersection of technology, need and perceived possibility has changed. There are at least two levels to the answer. The first is relatively straightforward technology adoption: lots of people are suddenly doing things differently – the surge in video conferencing in both work and family lives is the most obvious, but far from the only one. The level of use will no doubt fall back in a post-COVID world, but it would be surprising if it were to fall back to the levels of a few weeks ago.

The second question is more interesting and much more difficult to answer: how do the existence and acceptance of different tools lead to different ways of interacting and different ways of getting things done? Moving a conversation from a meeting room to video conference is more than just a channel switch – moving one from a coffee shop even more so:

Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making the new thing fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. […] We’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations

We have been forced to do things differently. We will have choices about how – and whether – to use that experience to do things better.

Slowdown Papers

Dan Hill – Medium

Diagram showing Corona efforts absorbed and overtaken by more systematic improvements to resilenceMost writing on strategy is brisk, terse, focused. It tends to the abstract and the impersonal. The author is a creature of intellect but not of imagination – and sometimes is an institution or a group rather than being an individual at all.

So this collection of essays is striking in form as well as content. They are highly personal, they are expansive, at times even meandering. At one level, they are a series of personal reflections, starting with the Australian bush fires, moving through the coronavirus epidemic, to the greater challenge of climate change and on to the social and economic state of the world – and the language we use to describe all that, which itself powerfully constrains how we think about it. But this is also – and above all – systems thinking on a grand scale.

The existence of the coronavirus and its direct impact on human health are matters of biology. But pretty much everything else about the virus and its consequences, both immediate and for the longer term, are social and economic – and so intensely political – issues. It is always true that we have choices about how we think about those kinds of issues, but it is a choice rarely exercised in the practical world of public policy making.

Government agencies in almost all countries tend to use only one or two models with which to formulate policy. Further, they rarely gather evidence and analyses on different competing assumptions, or contradictory models, and then tend to build capabilities around the existing underlying models, rather than cultivate new approaches, potentially exposing previous judgements. This would tend to suppress nuance, but also inhibit the exploration of new trajectories.

In that, of course, there will continue to be much uncertainty, bringing to mind the line that:

Democracy is the form of society devised and maintained by those who know they don’t know everything.

But to know we don’t know everything is to know something very important, and is an opportunity – even an obligation – to examine and seek to understand the wider system as a step towards influencing its direction. These papers demonstrate some of the breadth which will be required and some of the opportunities for positive change we could collectively choose to take.

The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination)

Geoff Mulgan – Demos Helsinki

If we cannot imagine a better future, we cannot hope to be able to create one. And that’s a problem if

few in politics can articulate in any detail a world in the not-too-distant future where society would be better. There are policies; soundbites; vague aspirations: but nothing remotely at the level of ambition of the past.

This post and the much more detailed paper which sits behind it tackle the problem – or the crisis – of insufficient social imagination. Social imagination – variously abstract, practical, theoretical and tangible – has been a dimension of human thought and activity throughout history. But somehow our collective ability to sustain and such feats of of imagination fall short or what they once were and now need to be.

As many of the examples cited in the paper clearly show, it can take a very long time for ideas to permeate from imagination to reality and many never make it. We do not read More’s Utopia as either a description of the society he lived in or as a prescient account of the times which were to follow. Hari Seldon has no place in this story (though the world-building techniques of science fiction writers may do). The recognition that ideas which subsequently become central and powerful start on the periphery certainly shouldn’t surprise us and probably shouldn’t worry us either. There may be a need for greater concern that the mechanisms by which those ideas get closer to power and are adopted and incorporated have somehow become attenuating as a by-product of wider political and institutional changes.

But the positive message here is a really important one. Imagination is at once a powerful tool and part of the essence of what it means to be human. We should cherish it, nourish it and respect it.

Introducing a ‘Government as a System’ toolkit

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This is the framework for Policy Lab's new Government as a System toolkit.

It’s been fascinating to watch the iterative development of Policy Lab’s synthesis of how governments get things done. It has now mutated into something bigger and more ambitious, nothing less than a toolkit for developing and managing government as a system

Its centrepiece is a grid of 56 actions, mapped by approach to power and by position in the design cycle, There’s a huge amount of thought and experience baked into it, giving the potential to be a really valuable tool for framing issues in systems thinking terms.

This is an image showing how the Double Diamond innovation process maps across the whole system of government action.

From that perspective, there may be almost equal value in a second diagram, which expands the double diamond model into a chain of gems which map to the columns of the action grid.

But it’s important to recognise what this isn’t as well as what it is. It is a toolkit which is helpful in thinking about government as a system, it is not itself a depiction of that system. The grid is not a map, as the post at one point implies; rather it is a key to system maps as yet largely undrawn. An atlas of those maps, of various scales, complexity and precision would be a thing of wonder, but it is not an atlas we yet have – or probably could ever have, bringing to mind as it does Borges’ one paragraph short story, On Exactitude in Science. That’s not to diminish the power of the key and the approach, but it does very much reinforce the point that this is a toolkit, not a solution.

It will more interesting still to see where this might go next. This version is government as a system. The direction of travel points to a view which will increasingly be more about government in a system.

Taking a systems view of democratic design

Catherine Howe

Catherine Howe applies systems thinking to democracy in seven short sharp minutes. Don’t watch this for the production values – there aren’t any – but for a lot of thought neatly packed into a rather small space.

Democracy is

us figuring out as humans how to make the least worst decisions collectively

That definition combines extreme modesty with extraordinary ambitions, and very deliberately says nothing about democracy as representation. This is the broader, systemic view, built round three themes – networks of different scales (and so the network of those networks, and how people participate in them); design, of processes and structures; and the central importance of power and how it is distributed.

There’s no attempt to offer a solution. But better questions are always a good step towards better answers.

A catalogue of things that are stopping change

James Reeve and Rose Mortada

Following Simon Parker’s challenge that nothing can change until we change the rules inhibiting change, along come James Reeve and Rose Mortada drilling down a level to explore how policy, politics and delivery come together in fundamentally unproductive ways to make change harder. The intermediate output of policy is neither good policy (because it hasn’t been tested against reality) nor a good input for delivery planning, because too often the elements which make policy work good – not least imprecision and uncertainty – are stripped out before a delivery team is asked to make sense of them.

This post focuses on the civil service, but the issues are much wider ones (though the political yearnings for certainty do tend to make things harder). And in one sense the answer is trivial: blend policy and delivery together, build shared respect for different skills appropriate to different problem spaces, resist the temptation to wish away politics, and perhaps above all:

the policy should never be considered done until the outcome has been achieved

Trivial does not mean easy, of course. There’s nothing new about the problems described here and there are no glib solutions on offer. But there are great insights from the lived experience of trying to do it better infused with realism about the scope and pace of change.

This is the first of a three part series – part 2 and part 3 are well worth reading as well (with an interesting difference of tone between the first two, written pre-COVID-19 and the third written while it is in full spate).

Nothing can change

Simon Parker

Nothing can change. We have huge systemic problems, but many things are as they are, and it is foolish to assume that intentional change will deliver intended effects.

But of course that’s not true. Things can and do change. Things are as they are because it suits enough people, with enough power, for them to be that way. Change is fundamentally a political enterprise.

What’s inadvertently interesting about this post is that it was written at the beginning of March and already feels like something from another age. If anything, the assumption in public discourse has flipped. If it is possible to create a hospital in days, if it is possible to change patterns of work and life radically and rapidly, if it is possible to bring national and international focus on a common overriding goal – what then can there be which is not possible?

But the answer is still fundamentally the one underpinning this post. We can do those things. We could do many other things which are radical changes to the way things have been done – but only if the assumption of insurmountable complexity is broken. A month on, that suddenly seems much more possible. But so it has seemed in other crises, there have been other dawns beyond other darkest hours. There will be unprecedented opportunities ahead, but they will need to be seized if they are not to fade away.