The Filing Cabinet

Craig Robertson – Places

This is a wonderful essay, celebrating the filing cabinet in a way which will warm the heart of any paper-shuffling bureaucrat. Better still, the essay derives from a book which promises still greater riches.

The filing cabinet is the embodiment of two revolutionary improvements in bureaucratic practice. It stores paper more efficiently and it stores information more effectively. Those two revolutions are the subject of the essay, as are the counter revolutions which brought the century long dominance of the filing cabinet to an end.

But there is a third revolution, about which this essay has less to say, but which is arguably the most important at all, and the hidden driver behind much of the current debate about the organisation and location of work. The filing cabinet becomes one of the fundamental constraints on the organisation of work:

Paper documents live in files. The key to finding the document is to find the file. And if you might need the file, you need a filing cabinet reasonably close to hand where it can be safely stored with lots of other files, almost certainly on related subjects. That of course has enormous consequences for the organisation and physical structure of work: if the unit of work is a paper file and that file is a unique (and therefore precious) assembly of information, the location of work is driven by the organisation of information.

All three of those revolutions have played out of course – computerisation has done for them all. But two of the three have left traces that still influence how we work and how we think about working. The efficient storage of paper stops being a major concern when there is almost no paper to be stored, efficiently or otherwise. But the effectiveness of information storage still matters a lot. Filing cabinets are inherently inflexible – a piece of paper can only be in one place, and the set of places it is in can be sorted only in one direction. Digital storage sweeps those constraints away. But the impact – still – in many organisations is not that everything is to hand, but that nothing can be found. Removing filing cabinets removed the structure of information, and all too often nothing has replaced it.

And it was the filing cabinet which was one of the main reasons why office work needed to happen in offices. If the unit of work is the file, efficient access to the file is everything. The assumption that offices were good places for working remained solid long after that dependence on filed paper had gone away, reinforced by new reasons constructed in part to recognise other kinds of needs, but in part to fill the  vacuum of justification left by the removal of the filing cabinets. That shaky edifice remained – until one day, millions of office workers left their offices and discovered that there was no real need to return.

Any ideas Walker? I thought not. Keep up the good work!

Graham Walker

A lovely reflection on a civil service career, from someone who saw and helped shape the dawn of e-government (as it was once known).

In those early days, Graham was unusual in looking beyond the boundaries of government, recognising that people online had an importance independent of government online, at a time when internet access was a minority pursuit and smartphones far into an unforeseen future.

Being of a similar digital generation, and having shared some of those early years with him, I recognise his elegiac self-description – and see myself in it as well as him.

I’m now a digital dinosaur — a soon to be extinct breed of amateurs who saw change coming and tried to make it work for the government and the people that we serve.

But the digital dinosaurs did get some important things right, and there may be plenty of life in them yet – it’s an arresting thought that a Tyrannosaurus is chronologically closer to modern digital government than it is to a Stegosaurus.

Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024

Tom Read

Strategies always intend to say something about the future. They rarely intend to say much about the past, but almost invariably say more than they first appear to.

There are of course debates to be had about whether this is the right strategy for GDS to have for the next three years and about whether GDS is well positioned to deliver that strategy even if the strategy itself is the right one. But here it is worth reflecting on a slightly different question.

We now have a quarter of a century of experience of digital government. This strategy builds on foundations which are deep, if not always entirely solid. Or perhaps it is better to think of its being built on archaeological strata, history which shapes and informs the present, even if much of that history has been lost and forgotten.

From that perspective, one of the things which is most striking is how stable the strategy has been over decades. The five missions GDS has set itself for the next three years would have been recognised – and enthusiastically endorsed – by their predecessors of twenty years ago. That holds true to quite a surprising level of detail. Joined up ‘whole services’, such as having a baby or preparing to retire, are an aspiration for the future – just as having a baby and pensions and retirement were two one of the first ‘life episodes’ built for UK Online at the turn of the millennium.

That prompts two thoughts. One is to repeat some words I wrote as gov.uk was first being turned on. Another decade later, they still ring true:

The innovation of gov.uk does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago.

The second is to ask whether that tells us anything interesting. The point here is not to wallow in nostalgia or suggest that the past was a better place. It wasn’t – not in this respect, at least. Instead, it’s an opportunity to think over a longer timescale than we usually do, a kind of long now of digital government. And from that perspective, being agile suddenly looks fractal. That whole twenty year view can be seen as a single set of iterations, a minimum viable product becoming less minimal and more viable each time round – as ever, it’s not iterative if you only do it once.

That recognition should, perhaps, makes us both more ambitious and more humble. If it it is going to have taken us the best part of 25 years to create an effective, joined-up having a baby service, that is surely many years too long. Ten years from now, five years from now, there should be a more distinctive strategy because the current (and long standing) ambition should have been achieved. But since it has taken so long, it becomes the more important to be highly aware of the systemic constraints and enablers of change. There have been times in its past when GDS’s self-belief has outstripped its ability to operate in a complex and conservative system. It has to understand its environment if it is to maximise its effectiveness in changing it.

It is a pleasing curiosity that we got the strategy right a long time ago, but it matters more that the conditions of success for its implementation were far weaker then than they are now. The strategy is not delivery, but delivery is the test of strategy that matters. The strategic challenge for GDS is to make its strategy redundant.

Provocation: Redesigning Artificial Intelligence – From Australia Out

Ellen Broad

Ellen not only always has interesting things to say, she is also unusually effective in finding interesting ways of saying them. This latest piece defies categorisation. It is an essay about AI. It is a reflection on extreme utilitarianism. It is a call to action on the hidden costs of social harmony. It is about edge cases where the edges are sharp and cause harm to those whose lives place them there. It is a call to bring the messiness of cybernetics and systems to the delusional clarity of dehumanised AI. It is a discussion of issues not discussed. It is a challenge to do better.

We are more aware of the threads that bind us together. We have had a glimpse of the fragility of the foundations on which our lives of easy comfort are built. When the exchange for that comfort is the discomfort of others. And so in this space is room to imagine some place else.

And as well as all those things, it is an audio-visual experience, with a soundscape which drifts beyond music and imagery which is not quite illustration. The tone is neither soothing nor haranguing. But in its matter of factness there is great power.