It is not every post you will read which links the choice of web domain name to the results of the civil war, but it is characteristic of this one that that’s exactly what it does. If you are interested in the arcane minutiae of parliamentary structure, this post is for you. But behind the specific points, there is something much more generally significant which should interest everybody, including those who, inexplicably, are not fascinated by parliamentary minutiae.
Computers crystallise systems. That’s fine for as long as the crystallised form remains valuable – and sometimes that can be quite a long time. But it’s not at all fine for systems which need to retain flexibility and adapt to changing circumstances – and that’s quite a lot of systems.
The lack of a fixed, exhaustive ruleset means Parliament is open to exaptation and adaptation. It is evolutionary by design. It is not brittle. It can sway in winds. Computers on the other hand are really not like this. They tend to prefer defined rulesets. They are deterministic. They are dumb. They are brittle.
So the question becomes whether we can get brittle computers to support systems which are not brittle. And that’s a question which matters much more widely than just for parliament.
If designers can redistribute power, the choices they make are political – the distribution of power, and the choices it enables, being fundamentally what politics is about.
That is, of course, true regardless of whether designers recognise or acknowledge that that is what they are doing. This post does make – and celebrate – that acknowledgment, without perhaps fully following through the implications. The claim is a strong one:
As a designer in government my role is to give power to those people who often feel disempowered.
Giving power to the powerless is not a self-evidently neutral ambition. Digital is inescapably political.
That’s not to say that that ambition is wrong or is one that designers should not pursue – or even that expressing it in those terms is necessarily politically controversial. But “to redress the balance between the powerful and the disempowered in our society” is inescapably political – and so leaves us with the question of whose choice that is or should be.
David Eaves and Ben McGuire – digital HKS
This interesting post steps back from the detail of digital teams in governments around the world to ask in a more general way where to go next. Once the team has been established, once the early battles won, once the first examples of what better looks like have been produced, once at least some form of stable existence has been achieved – what then?
The post is partly a reflection on ways of embedding change in government – by exerting control, or by building consensus – and partly a recognition that some of these teams, including the GDS in the UK, are facing both the easiest and the hardest stage of their existence. Easiest because a degree of maturity has been established, delivery has been demonstrated, and the voices suggesting that the whole thing is a waste of time are quieter and fewer. But hardest because those early deliveries have a tendency to be superficial (which is not at all to say simple or easy): they sit on top of structures and functions of government which remain fundamentally unchanged. That’s been apparent from early on – this post, for example, argued six years ago that the superstructure cannot determine the base. That mattered less in the early days, because there were other things to do, but is critical to the future of government.
And that’s more or less where Eaves and McGuire end up too:
Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? A long slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.
It’s always frustrating seeing the slides from a presentation without the voice which goes with them. Indeed it is a sign of a good presentation that the slides are pretty much incomprehensible without the spoken words they illustrate. That frustration applies to these slides too, but is worth it almost for the title slide alone:
Open that isn’t digital doesn’t scale.
Digital that isn’t open doesn’t last.
There’s more to it than that, of course. But that framing of how to think about the role of government has important implications – most obviously on the weight placed on openness. There is no shortage of pundits describing the need for governments to be digital. Few of them think at all about how being digital (and being in a wider digital context) changes the nature of what government is. If openness is a necessary condition of being digital, digital is only the beginning of what will need to be different.
‘What is good service?’ is a question which is simultaneously very easy but remarkably difficult to answer. It’s easy because, as service users, we all have a strong sense of what is good and bad about our own experience – perhaps including those times when the best service is no service. But it’s very hard because those impressions don’t readily translate into a reliable way of telling whether a service is good, still less so whether a given design approach will result in one which will be good.
This post attempts to fill that gap with a set of principles of good service design. It’s presented as a first attempt, with an invitation to make comments and suggestions – but there is nothing sketchy or ill thought out about it and the list very much stands on its own merits. But in the spirit of that invitation, it’s perhaps worth asking a question and making a suggestion.
The question is about the intended scope of these principles. Reasonably enough, their starting point will have been the design of government services and more particularly their design in a modern digital context. But that’s not the only domain of service experience or service design. Are these universal principles, as applicable, say, to the service experience of going to a restaurant as to the service experience of getting a passport? Or is there something sufficiently different about them that different principles apply – and if there is, what is that difference, and what effect should it have?
The suggestion is rather simpler, a candidate additional principle, partly prompted by the idea of a thing avoided as well as of a thing experienced:
Be in the background whenever possible; be in the foreground whenever necessary
Eddie Copeland – NESTA
This simple and powerful set of slides does an extraordinarily good job of summarising the key issues in digital transformation, not least in being really clear about the extent to which all of this is a technology issue (not as much as it looks) as opposed to an everything else issue (much more than it first appears). The section on ‘deciding how you want to work’ gets twice as many slides as ‘thinking about your technology needs’, which is a pretty strong indicator of the approach being taken.
It’s certainly possible to challenge some of the details. The arresting assertion that ‘we can broadly take for granted that technology can do whatever we want it to do’ perhaps has more power than precision – though the slightly lesser claim the technology needed to support government processes already exists is indeed a useful reminder that appeals for technological exceptionalism are very likely to be misguided. The insistence that agile projects can’t succeed in organisations which retain traditional approaches to funding and governance is both wrong and unhelpful: wrong because there are plenty of example of where it has succeeded, and unhelpful because every organisation has to start somewhere, and if agile can’t work at all unless everything is agile, there is effectively no way of making that start.
Overall, though, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses – and this is a beautiful example of doing the hard work to make things simple. As a further bonus, the slides are open for comments, and have already sprouted a rich set of observations from Matthew Cain.
It’s probably not news to most readers that some of the leading creators of the Government Digital Service have written a book. Many have been swift to observe the apparent irony that the book in question has been published only on paper, with no digital version available. That’s a fairly major obstacle fort those of us with a strong preference for the latter.
But now an alternative solution presents itself, in the form of a thorough and balanced review by Matthew Cain. The creation of GDS by Mike Bracken and his team was an enormous achievement and, despite its detractors, much good continues to be done there well after the first generation of pioneers moved on. But the founders’ vision was a narrower one than they ever quite acknowledged and the government context in which they found themselves was more unusual than they realised – or as Matthew puts it, ‘The section on political sponsorship basically tells readers to have a political sponsor called Francis Maude.’
Update: 22 June 2018
The publisher have helpfully made contact to share the good news that the book is now available on kindle, and apparently is due to appear in other formats. But that leaves unanswered the perennial mystery of why publishers find it so much harder to produce electrons than paper.
Eddie Copeland – FutureFest
This is a session pitch for an event which has not yet happened, so it’s a tantalising paragraph rather than a developed argument. But it’s getting a mention because of the power of the thought experiment which lies behind it. Maybe the day will come when the design of public services for Mars will be an immediate and necessary question demanding answers. But we don’t need to wait for that day to ask what it would be like to design public services if we were not constrained by everything which has gone before – which ends up being very similar to Ben Hammersley’s provocation. Down here on old Earth we can’t wish away the installed base, which makes things harder (though we do have a breathable atmosphere, which balances things out a bit), but we don’t have to let our goals be constrained by it.
Cat Macaulay – Swimming in Stormy Weather
Strategy can easily be seen as a grand and abstract thing, considering people as components of a system if it considers them at all. Strategic change, on that view, involves doing big things, which typically take a long time.
That’s not the only way of thinking about strategy, of course. Human-level strategy can result in many small things being done – but which may eventually result in a degree and depth of change greater than any big change can produce (though it may well still take a long time).
That reflection is prompted by this post, which is both a very personal story and a description of the modern civil service. Nobody would pretend that the civil service is a paragon of every organisational virtue, but it is striking how far it has changed in composition, attitudes and priorities. That all matters a lot. It matters obviously because it shows an organisation at least striving to respect the diversity of the people who make it up. It matters less obviously – but very importantly – because strategic questions understood in the traditional grand way are answered by people who unavoidably bring the experience of their lives to doing so. Diversity is not a soft-edged slogan. It is not even just about respect for individuals. It is a dimension of strategic competence.
Dave Briggs – Digital Digest
Dave Briggs is starting a new weekly newsletter. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you like this, you’ll like that.
Hana Schank – Co.Design
Innovation is perhaps second only to transformation as a word to convey excitement and derring do to the messy business of getting things done in organisations – a view promoted not least by people whose derring may be rather stronger than their do.
The assumption that disruption and iconoclasm are the best – or even only – way of making significant and sustained change happen is a curiously pervasive one. The problem with it is not that it’s always wrong, but that there is good reason to think that it’s not always right. As this post argues, sometimes deep experience can be just as powerful, in part because intractable problems often respond better to sustained incremental efforts than to a single transformational solution.
This article suffers a little from a rather patronising view of government, and some of the examples used tend to the trivial. But the underlying point remains a good one: people who understand and care about the problem may be the people best placed to solve it – if they are given the licence to do so.
Matthew Hutson – Science
This article is an interesting complement to one from last week which argued that AI is harder than you think. It builds a related argument from a slightly different starting point: that big data driven approaches to artificial intelligence have been demonstrably powerful in the short term, but may never break through to produce general problem solving skills. That’s because there is no solution in sight to the problem of creating common sense – which turns out not to be very common at all. Humans possess some basic instincts which are hard coded into us and might need to be hard coded into AI as well – but to do so would be to cut across the self-learning approach to AI which now dominates. If there is reason to think that babies can make judgements and distinctions which elude current AI, perhaps AI has more to learn from babies than babies from AI.
Jacques Bughin, Tanguy Catlin, Martin Hirt, and Paul Willmott – McKinsey
This article will inform and irritate, with the balance between the two being a matter of individual taste. It’s good of its kind, but its kind is putting organisations to right through the perspective of high consultancy, and nobody does it higher than McKinsey. It is taken as a self-evident truth that
Few of us get around without the help of ridesharing and navigation apps such as Lyft and Waze. On vacation, novel marine-transport apps enable us to hitch a ride from local boat owners to reach an island.
The few of us who survive without novel marine-transport apps may find that veering on self-parody – or perhaps being unintentionally precise about who is intended to be encompassed by ‘us’ – but it is worth persisting. The five pitfalls which the article describes do cover some useful ground and there is recognition that different circumstances demand different responses.
But as we have seen in other contexts, there is a sense of breathlessness about the word ‘digital’ itself. Their definition isn’t a bad one, ‘the nearly instant, free, and flawless ability to connect people, devices, and physical objects anywhere,’ but the more the article goes one, the less adequate it seems in relation to the scope of what is being asserted for it. In the end, ‘digital’ becomes irrelevant – this is about strategy in the broadest and deepest organisational sense.
One telling point is the use of Tesla as an example of the power of first mover advantage. While it’s clear that they do have real advantages in electric power, it’s also increasingly clear that they have failed to establish such an advantage in autonomous driving and failed even to reach incumbent standards of vehicle mass manufacturing. Where that leaves its overall strategic position has still to play out, but it is far from clear that it is less vulnerable to incumbents than they are to it. In a very concrete sense, there is more to strategy than digital.
James Plunckett – Citizens Advice
The word ‘digital’ has long been both powerful and problematic. It’s powerful because new technologies and, in some ways even more so, new ways of developing and applying new technologies have made many things better, faster, cheaper – and often very different. And as Tom Loosemore, perhaps the leading proponent of using ‘digital’ in a sense which transcends a narrow, technical meaning puts it:
But it’s also problematic, because it stretches the meaning of ‘digital’ so far as to drain it of content. It has become a vague word, implying modernity and goodness and not much more. More seriously, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place: digital is a means, not an end, and there is always a risk that in focusing too much on means, we lose sight of the ends.
That’s not to say that ‘digital’ has not been a useful word. In many ways it has been. It’s more to say that the time has come – and is arguably long past – when we should move beyond it. That makes this post a really interesting sign of what may be to come: Citizens Advice has chosen to replace its Chief Digital Officer with a Director of Customer Journey, and its reasons for doing so are well worth reading.
A pithy but important reminder that the autonomy of AI is not what we should most worry about. Computers are ultimately controlled by humans and do what humans want them to do. Understanding the motivation of the humans will be more important than attempting to infer the motivation of the robots for a good while to come.
Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis – New York Times
Coverage of Google’s recent announcement of a conversational AI which can sort out your restaurant bookings for you has largely taken one of two lines. The first is about the mimicry of human speech patterns: is it ethical for computers to um and er in a way which can only be intended to deceive their interlocutors into thinking that they are dealing with a real human being, or should it always be made clear, by specific announcement or by robotic tones, that a computer is a computer? The second – which is where this article comes in – positions this as being on the verge of artificial general intelligence: today a conversation about organising a hair cut, tomorrow one about the meaning of life. That is almost completely fanciful, and this article is really good at explaining why.
It does so in part by returning to a much older argument about computer intelligence. For a long time, the problem of AI was treated as a problem of finding the right set of rules which would generate a level of behaviour we would recognise as intelligent. More recently that has been overtaken by approaches based on extracting and replicating patterns from big data sets. That approach has been more visibly successful – but those successes don’t in themselves tell us whether they are steps towards a universal solution or a brief flourishing within what turns out to be a dead end. Most of us can only be observers of that debate – but we can guard against getting distracted by potential not yet realised.
Giles Turnbull – DEFRA
Giles Turnbull knows how to write. More unusually, he knows how to write about writing. More unusually still, he knows how to write about writing in the context of a wider approach to communications. Most unusually of all, knowing all those things, he shares his knowledge in a way which is itself a great illustration of his own advice.
This is presented as advice to people involved in communicating the work of agile teams, but it’s application is much broader. There will be few who won’t find something useful in it.
Sometimes a simple tweet says all there is to say. Though in this case it’s well worth reading the replies as well.
At GDS’s Sprint 18 last week, the team from the Land Registry presenting their work on online registration of mortgage deeds made an arresting statement: while they could provide instant confirmation that a transaction had been successful, their customers expected there to be some processing time, and were much more reassured by a short delay while the system supposedly updated itself.
That prompted the re-circulation of this thoughtful post from a year ago. If you want to be pretentious you could say it’s about the ethics of form design. If you want to be pragmatic, you could say it’s about how to stick to the rule of thumb that users should only be asked the questions which are necessary to move the service on while also meeting their need for a sense of closure and completeness.
The post rather neatly resolves the tension – and makes an important point in its own right – by recognising that people have emotional as well as transactional needs, even of something as apparently straightforward as a simple form. That can result in a situation where a service can be made better by being less honest, which is not a comfortable place to be. Lots of good food for thought even for – perhaps especially for – those of us who don’t design forms for a living.
Clare Sherwood and Joanne Gillies
At a time when some are feeling a sense of government blogging getting more sanitised and homogenised, it’s good to come across a post so clearly connected to the real experience – good and bad – of people who, as a result, still sound like people.
This post is worth reading for the substance as well. The question of how we best bring together the skills and experience of people expert in government and policy making with the pace and perspective of people expert in service design and solution delivery is one which is still very much with us. The founding premise of the one team government movement was that those two groups each have much to learn from the other: this post illustrates both the power of that insight and how hard it is to act on it systematically.
One quibble with the argument is the way the word ‘digital’ is used. There is a sense that agile, customer-focused, design-led approaches are somehow digital while, by implication, not-digital things are based on different and inferior approaches. That’s not wholly wrong – but it’s not wholly right either, and doesn’t encourage the melding of approaches rightly being suggested here. Success is more likely if it is not ‘digital thinking’ which is dispersed across the organisation, but approaches to problem solving which are valuable in their own right.