Beyond the Web

Doc Searls

Metaphors have power, they frame how we think about things, sometimes rather insidiously. We talk blithely about ‘the web’ as if it were a thing and as if that thing were well described as a web. But just as the cloud is somebody else’s computer, so the web is everybody else’s computers, and the connections between them are much less a web than a tangle or, as Searls puts it, a haystack.

Searls is one of the original cluetrainers, and so has been thinking about this for a long time. His metaphor is, of course, no more an accurate description of anything tangible than the conventional one we are all familiar with. But changing the metaphor changes some of the questions in some challenging and important ways, and eleven rather good ones are listed in his post.

The web we all currently experience is a set of points – points which may be linked together, but still points. It is driven by a client-server architecture which takes our data and scatters it around in ways were cannot control, but which is structurally incapable of delivering integrated experiences in return. That’s so normal that we barely recognise it – but it’s not the only possible way for systems to be connected and for data to flow.

So yes, the Web is wonderful, but not boundlessly so. It has limits. Thanks to the client-server architecture that prevails there, full personal agency is not a grace of life on the Web. For the thirty-plus years of the Web’s existence, and for its foreseeable future, we will never have more agency than its servers allow clients and users.

It’s time to think and build outside the haystack.

How Government Learned to Waste Your Time

Annie Lowrey – The Atlantic

Time is rarely the central measure of bureaucracy, and where it is considered at all the focus tend to be on total elapsed time rather than the time cost of complying with the process.

But time (which is also a proxy for complexity and cognitive load) is a massive, and sometimes deliberate, barrier to accessing services. That matters for the obvious reason that an impenetrable service is not a good service, and this article is a reminder that even now, as Lowrey puts it, ‘little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist.’

But there is also a more insidious effect, a dark pattern of dark patterns:

The time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work?

This article draws on US examples, but many of the points made are more general. As Vicky Teinaki has pointed out, in the UK the service standard at least has the intention of taking some account of the first problem, ensuring that things work as well as exist. But that doesn’t really address the underlying complexity of individual services, still less the fact that the interaction, or lack of one, between different services can be the greatest time sink of all.

Time always has a cost. But it is too often treated as an externality.

10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain

Anthony Finkelstein

This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.

It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.

Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.

Performing a Project Premortem

Gary Klein – Harvard Business Review

Projects of every kind go horribly wrong in a bewildering variety of ways. Despite that, the instinct to assume that the act of planning is sufficient to ensure that assumptions are borne out and that delivery follows a smooth path can be overwhelming. But there is great power in assuming the opposite: if we examine early on some of the ways in which the project might have gone horribly wrong, in time to think about how the risk might be mitigated, the chances of successful delivery are enhanced.

That’s the idea behind a premortem – not waiting until the project is dead before performing the autopsy. At root it’s a simple risk management technique, its power is in making it easier for people to liberate themselves from optimism bias.

This is not a new article, it is the definitive account of the method, and having tracked it down to share with a colleague, thought it worth sharing here too. I was first introduced to it by Naomi Stanford, who has an interesting blog post contrasting premortems with devil’s advocacy – the former is a distinctly (if curiously) more positive approach.

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.

Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part Three

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

This is the third of a trilogy of posts from a trio of authors, prompting three points in response (following some more general comments when the first in the series appeared).

This post (and the entire series) is the result of deep reflection and contains powerful insights. It challenges its readers to reflect and respond, and where the post offers answers, they are hard ones, not easy. This note makes no attempt to address that full breadth, but instead explores one part of the argument.

The starting point is the idea of cathedral thinking, the recognition that some forms of building can take generations to complete and that the original visionaries are anticipating a future they may not be part of. There is real power in challenging both the priority of short term delivery and more subtly, but perhaps still more importantly, the pressure to exclude approaches which take a longer term focus from being seen, let alone adopted.

But there is also a tension. Our cathedral thinking is for the long term, for the benefit of those who come after us. But what of the cathedral thinking of our predecessors, how should their ideas inform and constrain our present and our future? If we should build bridges to the future, should we not also respect the bridges built from the past? This doesn’t work if everybody is an architect and nobody is a mason, so there is some difficulty in immediately going on to assert that:

Old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive

There are two ways of responding to that apparent conflict. One is by recognising its reality. Past decisions do necessarily and unavoidably constrain what we can do and how we can do it, in ways which are obvious for engineering (and perhaps cathedrals), but are no less real for cultures, systems and organisations. Most design is not of cathedrals, which stand alone, dominant and largely unchangeable, but is of streetscapes and landscapes, where the new is unavoidably in a relationship with the old.

The other is to accept, as the authors of the post very clearly do, that machine metaphors can be less helpful than ecosystem metaphors. Both past generations’ half-built cathedrals and our own laying of foundations for cathedrals of the future are perhaps unhelpful ways of thinking, if what we are doing instead is nurturing a landscape. As they say, ‘the process of change in existing systems of government is slow, messy, and social work’.

It is always tempting to start designing the future with a blank sheet of paper. But there never is a blank sheet of paper. Nothing in government (or anywhere else much) starts from nowhere, there is always history. That history is not deterministic, but we have no hope of getting to where we might want to go without understanding where we are starting from.

That leads us on to the second point, prompted by this important insight:

In the Civil Service, we think of roles as fixed and people as movable. Civil Servants, in our myth, are cogs in a policy and delivery machine, roles to be fulfilled by interchangeable skilled professionals. Yet, in the centre of government almost the opposite dynamic can be seen: despite best efforts, reforms and change initiatives are rarely fully institutionalised. They tend to live and die on the power and presence of their champions, and when either reduces, the system moves quickly to cannibalise the remnants and adopt the next idea.

They are right about myth and reality. Indeed more than that, this is an issue not just about champions, but about system states. The champion themselves may be an agent of the system state, rather than the untrammelled change agent they are perceived to be – and often perceive themselves to be. They flourish for a period when a critical mass of system characteristics align and lose their way when entropy reasserts itself. So there is a critical but all too rarely asked question, how is the benign period best used to maximise the chances of positive change continuing when less benign circumstances inevitably follow on?

And so to the third and final point. The exploratory thinking captured in these three posts may be the beginning of an approach to answering that question. But if it is, that answer is not a comfortable one. The argument that personal and systematic change are inseparable is powerfully made – and if it is right, it must follow that systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.

Amended 1 June 2021 to add back a paragraph lost in editing

The (il)logic of legibility: why governments should stop simplifying complex systems

Thea Snow – Centre for Public Impact

The ability to abstract, to stand back, to see the large pattern obscured by the detail is an important and powerful one for any strategist. It is also a very dangerous one.

It is too easy to impose a pattern or to assert structure which is not really there. If we abstract from messy reality, we may be able to get rid of the messiness, but in doing so we are all too likely to lose contact with the reality as well.

To acknowledge that, to recognise complexity and accept the uncertainty which it brings, is not a sign of weakness or intellectual inadequacy. On the contrary, strength and resilience – in reality and in the understanding of reality – come from accepting and embracing messiness and the strengths it brings.

This post celebrates complexity and the constraints on knowledge it imposes, and a world in which ‘I don’t know’ can be the most powerful thing we can say.

Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part One

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

Organisations have structures. It is possible to operate within those structures. It is possible to operate between and around those structures.

Authority to operate within the structures comes from the structure itself. It is granted and it can be withheld, it can be used to do good, but what counts as good is not unconstrained. There are strengths in this approach as well as weaknesses.

Authority to act between and around the structures comes from nowhere. It is generated by behaving as if it were already there. Since it has not been granted, it cannot be withheld – which is very different from saying that it cannot be crushed or undermined. It can be used to do good, and what counts as good is itself part of what is contested. There are weaknesses in this approach, as well as strengths.

The authors of this post operate, as to an extent we all do, in both those worlds. Unlike most of us they are sensitive to the potential of the second world and bring some of the power of the first world to it. Position in the first world can be a form of currency in the second, though the exchange rate is uncertain and unstable. But the greater potential flows in the opposite direction: the second world can revolutionise the first and is perhaps the only thing that can, although that is a very long way from saying that it will or that the attempt will be in any way easy.

So how can a degree of safety be created, how can conditions be set in ways which maximise the chances of the informal catalysing the formal, of the formal embracing the informal? “Much of our work isn’t well understood and happens in places where we are uninvited,” they tell us. This post is, perhaps, an invitation from the uninvited to join them in those imprecise places, found between and around the structures of organisations.

CDO Chat – Kit Collingwood

Kit Collingwood and Dave Briggs

This video conversation is modestly billed as a CDO chat, but is actually a master class in strategy development and application. The approach is deceptively simple. Two people who bring both depth of experience and thoughtful reflection range over everything from rapid mobilisation in the face of a pandemic, through the vital importance of using data effectively, the challenges of dealing with dominant vendors, creating a team with the right balance of expertise and humility, and giving that team the support to design and build services which meet the needs of people outside and inside the organisation,

But what makes all that good strategic watching is the place of the strategy itself in bringing coherence and setting direction. Kit makes a powerful case for the place of simplicity and humility in strategy. This is strategy not as grand vision or teetering on the cutting edge of technological innovation, but as a clear exposition of things which need to work well and the steps to be taken to make that happen. Beyond that, it is a mechanism to bring focus to accountability, which is perhaps the greatest strength of this approach.

Kit claims in passing to possess but not to have read Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Similar ways of framing and addressing strategic questions are though apparent in her approach, which perfectly embodies his three characteristics of a good strategy.

To take the next step on digital, we dropped the word ‘digital’

James Plunkett – We are Citizens Advice

“Digital” is a powerful word, and that very power makes it vulnerable to mission creep. Slapping digital on the front of more or less anything makes it better – until we get to the point where that impedes understanding rather than adding to it. In some ways the digitalness of digital is the least interesting thing about it.

Citizens Advice is a place where smart thinking, leading to smart doing, has been going on for quite a while now. This post records the inflection point they have reached, recognising that the entanglement of digital and online risks getting in the way of what actually matters, which is delivering the services people need, in the way they are best able to receive them.

Joined-Up Thinking Requires Joined-Up Practice

Paula Downey

It’s not hard to recognise that the world and its problems and opportunities are a complex system and that linear thinking and mechanical metaphors are not good ways of understanding and responding to that complexity. It’s also not hard to ignore that recognition and carry on as if connections were simple and systems comprehensible (though as the previous post argued, storytelling is a powerful tool to help us through that).

This post powerfully argues that joined-up thinking can never be enough, unless it leads to and is informed by joined-up doing:

If we want to change whole systems we’ve got to think and work as whole systems. Nobody can think non-linearly. None of us is that clever. The only way to think in a systemic way is together. Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.

That of course poses an enormous challenge to the people, structures and processes of public policy making. This is not how problems are framed, still less is it how they are normally addressed. Changing the system of system changing without having already done it is not going to be easy.

How words shape our future

Adanna Shallowe – RSA

Language is the most powerful thing humans have ever invented, a tool of almost infinite power and flexibility. And in organisations, we tend to discard large parts of that power, falling into the trap of thinking that making communication arid and impersonal is somehow to demonstrate objectivity. It’s probably not a coincidence that as more mechanical models of organisations and change give way to more fluid and organic ones, recognition of the power of story telling is making a parallel resurgence. Telling each other stories is how humans share our understanding of the world, our thoughts, and our aspirations for a better future.

This short post is a celebration of the power of narrative, building towards the powerful claim that

Storytelling and the power of narrative is actually the most advanced technology we have.

Even overs: The prioritization tool that brings your strategy to life

Jurriaan Kamer – The Ready

It is a truism that if everything is a priority,nothing is a priority. It’s obvious when a ‘prioritisation’ meeting ends up with a longer list of things which it is essential to do than it started with, or when nobody is willing to make the decision to stop the activities which everybody has agreed are less urgent or less important.

But there is a more insidious failure to prioritise, which tends to sit a level below that. It’s less about which projects take priority over which other projects, much more about which characteristics we want to nurture and champion. This post applies a deceptively simple, but very powerful too test: would we want to do one thing even over another good thing – where it really matters that the second thing is genuinely desired and desirable, not just the first.

There are always trade off choices to be made. Forcing them to be explicit can be a real source of strategic power.

All first drafts are bad drafts (and that’s what makes them good)

Giles Turnbull

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.

Maps vs Lists

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.

Applying digital to everything

Janet Hughes

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.

A triangle labelled on its corners and sides: 'rules' on the side from 'now' to 'everywhere', 'discussions' on the side from 'everywhere' to 'by agreement' and 'experiments' on the side from 'by agreement' to 'now'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.

Hosni Mubarak – My Part In His Downfall

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.