The myth of the perfect draft permeates bureaucracies. The elegantly phrased analysis, the perfect bon mot are badges of honour. But the final detailed expression of an idea or an argument is, in some ways, the least important thing about it – it is the idea and the argument which matter. A rich ecosystem of ideas is more powerful than an arid landscape of perfected prose.
This post is an elegantly drafted polemic against elegant drafting. It makes a powerful case that the process of editing and iterating – and of deleting and discarding – creates far more value both for the individual piece of writing and for supporting an environment in which good writing emerges than does the misguided attempt to jump directly to the finished product.
It’s an excellent and salutary post, but there is one important dimension which it skims over. Editing is a power relationship, in which HIPPOs often roam free. Authors can be offered suggestions but hear them (often rightly) as orders. The boundary between comment and instruction may be neither clear nor symmetrical.
All of which reinforces the conclusion in the post: creating a culture of drafting can unlock energy and value. The very necessary purpose of an editorial process is to improve on first drafts, not to crush them.
Matt Ballantine – mmitII
The tension between the appetite for clarity and certainty and the messy impact of the vicissitudes of life runs through every project, every programme and every strategy there has ever been. Some try to manage that through detailed precision, creating something very strong but potentially very brittle. Others embrace uncertainty, prioritising flexibility and responsiveness and eschewing the temptation to specify everything in advance.
This post expresses that tension by contrasting a map-based view of the world with a list-based view. It’s a simple but powerful way of illustrating something important, not least that many people have a clear preference for one or other of those ways of capturing their understanding of the world and the progress they want to make through it. As someone who, like Matt, has a strong liking for maps, it rang true for me, but the post might also help lovers of lists appreciate why not everybody shares their enthusiasm – and the core argument is that mappists and listists need to make sure that they have found ways of conveying information to each other.
And there’s a lovely point of detail about ‘roadmaps’, which are not maps of roads and are usually not maps at all.
The internet is a rich complex system. One of the side effects of that is that good things bubble to the surface of the information soup with apparent randomness, to be seized on before they sink back down again.
This video presentation from 2019 is just such a good thing. It is a bravura exposition of the power of user-centred design in a policy-dominated culture and environment. Its strength is not so much in the individual thoughts, powerful though those are, as in their weaving together into something which is both a rich picture and a powerful manifesto for change.
The original audience were clearly digital people who needed to understand that policy people were not weird, incompetent or malevolent, but this is perhaps even more powerful in explaining to policy people why user-centred design should be seen as a powerful and empowering way of doing things, rather than as an incomprehensible threat from uncomprehending digital people.
The whole thing is 30 minutes and well worth watching, but there are two gems which are worth pulling out. One is the best one liner from a presentation which isn’t short of them:
The medium of choice for communicating between policy people and delivery people is the hand grenade.
The other is a triangle, originally by Chris Yapp, about the implementation of change. We would all like change to happen now, everywhere and by agreement – but that’s not possible. Choices have to be made about which of those to prioritise, and those choices constrain (and are constrained by) choices about the means to use. It’s a lovely example of a very simple picture being a distillation of a very rich thought.
Richard Allen – regulate.tech
Social media gives voice to aggressive extremists, provides powerful tools for like-minded people to find each other and reinforce the thinking of the group, and allows lies and disinformation to be propagated at speed. Social media companies come under pressure to do something about all that and aren’t widely regarded as being sufficiently focused on their intent or sufficiently successful in their achievement.
This is an insider’s view of why that is harder than it looks and especially hard to scale, setting out clearly and logically how this can work and why it can’t. It’s very much worth reading for the clarity with which it does that. But it also aims to demonstrate support for the assertion that those working on this within the social media platforms are “good people making hard decisions as best they can.” The question for the rest of us is whether their doing the best they can is good enough – and the reassurance that Facebook knows best is perhaps not quite as reassuring as its supporters might hope.
This intriguing post starts from – and riffs off – the provocative observation (now, amazingly, more than five years old) that
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.
What then is the equivalent core asset of a government department that it might not need any more? Does a policy department need expertise in the policies for which it is responsible, or does it only need to create a market and attract the information and insights it needs from a pool of gig workers? It’s an entertaining idea. But it’s worth noting that there are other things the organisations we started with don’t do – adding to the original, one might say that:
Uber doesn’t care where you want to go. Facebook doesn’t care what you want to share. Alibaba doesn’t care what you want to buy. Airbnb doesn’t care where you want to spend the night.
So before turning a government department into a bundle of StackOverflow questions, perhaps we would need to understand what it was that that department didn’t care about. And whether, once we had taken that thing away, the thing which remained was a government department in any meaningful sense at all.
Charlotte Augst – Health Service Journal
There are three reasons for reading this article. The first is that it describes a health service stressed to its limits, which is very naturally a matter of wide concern. The second is that it is beautifully and perceptively written, as is everything which Charlotte Augst writes. And the third – which is what brings into the scope of strategic reading – is that it is a fascinating description of a failing system and thus of how systems fail. Failure of a machine or of a business is often obvious and binary. The engine starts, or it doesn’t; the shop is open, or it has closed. An organisation – or rather and entity – such as the NHS degrades to failure in a very different way. Understanding that difference, and recognising when it is happening is a necessary precondition to influencing its trajectory. Not all Cheshire cats end with a smile.
There is nothing special about the digital strategy for a London borough, which makes this one very special indeed. It is very easy for such strategies to be focused on technology and to see the world from the perspective of service providers – and as a result to be rather impenetrable to the reader who might just want to know how their life or their environment might be made better. This one pulls off the trick not just of approaching the problem the right way round, and of expressing the strategy intended to respond to it clearly and succinctly.
This post describes how that strategy came about, distilled and abstracted from the crucible of pandemic response, and more deeply human as a result. That too should not be very special – but of course it is.
This is a splendid – and splendidly acerbic – twenty tweet twitter thread on UK civil service reform in 2020, or rather on the absence of any effective change compared with other, generally more low key efforts over the past forty years.
(the title has been added, as twitter threads don’t have them)
Public bodies do many things, not all of them necessarily at the front of mind when we think about what governments do and how those things might be done better. One of those things is, broadly, inspection – checking to see that requirement which should be met are being met (and sometimes to see whether failures reflect inadequate requirements or poor compliance). The existence of regulation and inspection raise an important question about the attribution of responsibility: does the very existence of a regulatory system shift responsibility inappropriately, does it in effect create a form of moral hazard? And if the answer turns out in practice to be to fudge the issue, the consequences may turn out to be very bad.
Most of what appears in Strategic Reading is chosen because it makes an interesting argument well. Just occasionally something makes it in because while the argument may be interesting, it is not persuasively made. Perhaps the publisher of this piece had some doubts too – the original title, preserved in the URL, was ‘Cummings was right about our government’s failings’, softened to its current version a few hours later.
Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the machinery of UK government is well known. That that machinery has serious weaknesses is unarguable, but whether either his diagnosis or his prescription serve to address those weaknesses is quite another matter. This account of his thinking boldly asserts that “Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.” But his failure to get anything much done in government unavoidably brings into question whether his analysis should be taken at all seriously.
The core argument, borrowed from Cummings himself, but repeated and amplified here is based on a sleight of hand. The diagnosis is at a grand scale – it is the state capacity of liberal democracies, their systems of governance and their political institutions which are not up to the challenge of addressing crises, tested against the slightly unlikely standard set by the Chinese Communist Party. But the solution is a much narrower one: “drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall.” The problem with that is not that the civil services has already reached a state of perfection – it is very far from that. It is that the civil service, big and complex as it is, is only part of a much wider system, which Cummings and his apologists seem determined to ignore.
There is indeed a crisis of governance in the UK. If we address that crisis, we may end up with a better civil service. But if we try to fix the civil service, there is no chance that that will solve the crisis of governance.
This is not a post about operating systems, in the obvious sense. It might be better described as a post reflecting on Marx’s early view that the base determines the superstructure, so that to achieve deep change your intervention needs to bite deep into the system. Many of our component systems are deeply rooted in the circumstances of their creation and evolution, they are solutions to the problems of their time which may not be our problems. But they are neither easy to change nor perhaps even easy to recognise for what they are. This post describes a clear problem, a future post offers the promise of an approach to answering it.
Strategic Reading has been quiet for the last eight months. There was no particular reason why it stopped, and there is now no particular reason why it is starting again – but starting again it is, continuing much as it did when it left off. The one difference is that a very large backlog has built up of things flagged for inclusion during the hiatus, so for a while there may be a slightly more retrospective feel as some of the pieces which still seem fresh and pertinent get added to the mix of largely more current things.