It’s OK to reinvent the wheel

Steph Gray – Postbureaucrat

A couple of weeks ago, Steph announced his return to front line blogging. That seemed promising; this post shows the promise too be real. Even wheels need to be improved and even wheelwrights need to get better at what they do (or, of course, to be supplanted by jetpackwrights). Doing that in a monoculture may be efficient in the short term, but there’s a price to be paid, and the price can turn out to be high. That is emphatically not let a thousand flowers bloom, and let the devil take the hindmost – the points in the post about how to shape and manage diverse approaches are as important as the recognition that there is value in the diversity. The goal is “inefficient short-term competition in pursuit of long-term optimisation” and there is plenty of good advice here about how to achieve both.

Help us start a data revolution for government

Kit Collingwood and Robin Linacre – Data in government

There is lots being written – a small subset of it captured on Strategic Reading – about data and its implications as a driver of new ways of doing things and new things which can be done. There’s a lot written about the strategic (and ethical and legal…) issues and of course there is a vast technical literature. What there seems to be less of is more practical approaches to making data useful and used. That’s a gap which this post starts to fill. it’s not only full of good sense in its own right, it’s also a pointer to an approach which it would be good to see more of: given a strategic opportunity or goal, what are the practical things which need to be done to enhance the probability of success? Strategising is the easy bit of strategy; getting things done to move towards the goal is a great deal harder.

The tech we use for remote working

Ben Proctor – The Satori Lab

This is an apparently mundane post about basic tools needed to support effective team working, regardless of location. At first sight, that’s not strategic at all. Actually though, it’s highly strategic, in both a direct and a metaphorical sense.

Doing a thing well requires the right tools and infrastructure for the job. It’s not good enough to have lofty ambitions for remote collaboration without being willing put in place the foundations that will allow it to succeed. That’s both a specific lesson and a more general metaphor for organisational change: you can’t get away with wishing for the end without committing to the means, and putting the means in place is serious work, without which strategic aspirations go nowhere.

Managing Innovation teams in complex environments

Simon Willis – Medium

Most people blog by collecting nuggets of experience and sharing them in short posts over time. After a while, the posts accumulate into a big enough corpus that you get some sense of an overall picture and approach. This essay takes a very different approach, distilling 25 years experience into 4000 words of powerful argument. In twenty crisply argued propositions, the insight which comes from having created and led innovation teams shines through – as does the level of challenge to host organisations whose systems and instincts will invariably be configured to undermine and enfeeble such teams.

Anybody with any aspiration to innovate in a large organisation will find much to recognise here. And pretty much anybody with such aspirations will find much to reflect on and learn from. Running through the whole piece is the idea that innovation is fundamentally about people and how they behave with each other, culminating in the two final points:

Treat all people with respect.

Understand that great innovations are rooted in relationships and that all real relationships are non-transactional relationships.

Why Data Is Never Raw

Nick Barrowman – New Atlantis 

There is increasing – if belated – recognition that analysis and inference built on on data is vulnerable to bias of many different kinds and levels of significance. But there is a lingering unspoken hope that data itself is somehow still pure: a fact is, after all, a fact. Except that of course it isn’t, and as this post neatly argues, while raw data may sound less underhand than cooked data, its apparent virtue can be illusory:

In the ordinary use of the term “raw data,” “raw” signifies that no processing was performed following data collection, but the term obscures the various forms of processing that necessarily occur before data collection.

Tired of the same old clichés about the future of work? You’re not alone

Benedict Dellot – RSA

There is no shortage of material on the future of work in general, or on its displacement by automation in particular, but much of it has a strong skew to the technocratically simplistic (though posts chosen for sharing here are selected in part with the aim of avoiding that trap).

There has been a steady stream of material from the RSA which takes a more subtle approach, of which this is the latest. It takes the form of a set of short essays from a variety of perspectives, the foreword to which is also the accompanying blog post. The questions they address arise from automation, but go far beyond the first order effects. What are the implications of the emergence of a global market for online casual labour? Does automation drive exploitation or provide the foundations for a leisured society? Given that automation will continue to destroy jobs (as it always has), will they get replaced in new areas of activity (as they always have – so far)?

Buried in the first essay is an arresting description of why imminent exponential change is hard to spot, even if things have been changing exponentially:

because each step in an exponential process is equal to the sum of all the previous steps, it always looks like you are the beginning, no matter how long it has been going on.

And that in many ways is the encapsulation of the uncertainty around this whole set of questions. There is a technological rate of change, driven by Moore’s law and its descendants, and there is a socio-economic rate of change, influenced by but distinct from the technological rate of change. It is in their respective rates and the relationship between them that much controversy lies.

On tribalism in politics

Jamie Susskind

Politicians are unusual people. One of the ways in which they are unusual is that they have a tendency to be very strongly tribal. Another is that that makes it easy for them to think that that is normal. Politicians of one tribe in some ways find it easier to understand (and in some ways respect) politicians of a competing tribe than they do people whose instincts are less tribal.

This post (originally a series of tweets) is a reflection by somebody once of one of the tribes who now sees political tribalism as a big problem. There’s food for thought here both for members of the tribes and for those who seek to understand and work with them. That latter category includes, of course, non-political public servants who work with politicians and in political systems. They (we) are the very opposite of tribal (in this category of tribes – there are of course many others). At its best, that’s a powerful symbiosis, at its worst it’s a recipe for deep confusion and mutual misunderstanding.

How to write a blog post

Jenny Vass

There are bloggers who are human beings. There are bloggers who are civil servants. It seems to come as a surprise to some people that there are bloggers who are both. Jenny Vass is simultaneously a shining example of how to operate at that intersection and a clear-sighted guide to others who might want to do the same. These are her top ten tips for government bloggers, which add up to a good starting point for anybody. I would only add an eleventh, taken from George Orwell, one of the great bloggers avant la lettre:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s also good to see the post opening with an attempt to sustain the heavily threatened distinction between blog and blog post, on which Meg Pickard’s advice remains essential.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Janet Hughes. Lauren Currie. and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Where to start if you want to start blogging

Janet Hughes

Where to start? Well, here is no bad place, with pointers both to advice on blogging and to a wide range of individual and organisational public sector blogs. The heyday of the blogroll as a means by which one blog could signal the value of others is long past but this is a really useful freestanding equivalent It’s a perennial struggle to know where the good stuff is as blogs and their bloggers appear and fade, so having a well-informed overview of the landscape is especially helpful.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass , Lauren Currie and Steph Gray. All three are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

How to start writing online

Lauren Currie – Redjotter

This is a post about blogging from a different perspective. Lauren Currie has long been a leader in giving voice to others, this post gives four ways of making the transition to a more public voice an easier one

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Steph Gray. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Blogging as thinking

Steph Gray – Postbureaucrat

There is much good advice to be had about how to blog, with excellent examples in the companion posts to this one. The related question of why blog tends to get less attention – or at least, the attention it gets tends to emphasise one set of reasons at the expense of another. Working in the open and being generous in sharing ideas and experience are all excellent things to do, but they are not the only value or necessarily the primary motivation.

This post sets out a different approach, to blogging as thinking, where the value is to the writer, with value to an audience a welcome bonus rather than a driving motivation. The delightful paradox is that very often that approach turns out to be the most powerful and resonant, with the greatest value to readers of all.

This is one of four posts related by content and timing – the others are by Jenny Vass, Janet Hughes and Lauren Currie. All four are well worth reading, with value to experienced bloggers as well as those new to blogging.

Beyond human-centred design, to?

Cassie Robinson – Medium

design approach iconsA year ago, Cassie Robinson wrote a great post on why the mantra of starting with user needs was too narrow an approach to understanding the wider context of service design. This post builds on that one to explore eight types of design, or rather eight approaches to design thinking.

They don’t flow from one to the next in a completely sequential way, but they do broadly represent a gradual zooming out from the simple base case of individual user needs, starting with relational design (thinking about those directly affected by a service, not just the individual service user) and going all the way to life-centred design, the recognition that design takes place in an ecological context, at every scale from local to global.

It’s pretty clear that these eight approaches aren’t discrete or sequential, and indeed that they blur into each other. So the response of the designer should not be to pick the one or two which seem most immediately relevant, but to reflect on how the presenting problem is best understood in the wider context. This post is a great starting point for framing that thought process.

Organisations are political systems

Naomi Stanford

Are organisations political systems? Yes, of course they are. Persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building are intrinsic to their operation; they are a cockpit for exit, voice and loyalty.

That’s using politics in the sense of the means by which collective choices get made rather than in the sense of the thing that politicians do. At one level that’s obvious, but at another it’s worth emphasising, because it’s all too easy to elide politics, bureaucracy and the public sector – they have much to do with each other, but they are very different.

Bureaucracy is fundamentally about being rules based. Rules are indeed constraining – that is their point – but they are also liberating (which is why estimates of the cost of bureaucracy can be more than a little tendentious). A society or polity without rules is hardly one at all and the more arbitrary and capricious the rules are, the worse the outcomes tend to be. So the question becomes whether it is useful to organisations to be rules based, or whether the associated costs of rigidity and hierarchy outweigh the benefits. That’s a pragmatic question, as is the consequential one of how best to minimise the costs and maximise the benefits of whatever level of bureucracy is appropriate for a given organisation and a given situation. That balance will be struck differently in different contexts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if public accountability and size were two relevant factors. That’s not to say that all organisations have the optimal level of bureaucracy (in a faint echo of Stafford Beer) – far from it – rather that it is not self-evident that the optimal level is zero.

All of that is prompted by this post on the politics of organisation design (the latest in a regular weekly series which is well worth following), which in turn draws heavily on a recent excoriation of organisational bureaucracy by Gary Hamel. That brings us full circle: organisations are political and assertions about their nature are intrinsically political too.

The Ipsos MORI Almanac 2018

Ben Page et al – Ipsos MORI

The starting point for the future is today. The chances of getting to where you want to go without knowing where you are starting from are not good.

This compendium of essays about the state of the [Uk] nation in 2018 is not a bad way of defining that starting point, covering everything from infrastructure to social care, gender-based violence to the sugar tax and from fake news to fizzy drinks.

There is no single conclusion to be drawn from so rich a range of evidence. Unsurprisingly, not everything is rosy, but Ben Page chooses in his foreword to emphasise the positive, concluding more soberly than exultantly that “in general things are better than we think they are”.

And on that cautious note, we move on to one more year of the future.

Machine Learning Meets Public Policy: What to Expect and How to Cope

Ed Felten

This is the video of a conference talk by Ed Felten, which is fascinating for a number of reason. He has been thinking hard about technology and the policy consequences of technology for a very long time, and doing so with deep technical expertise (on the explicability of algorithms, to take just one example).

But he also has been at the heart of the intersection of technology and public policy – a one man One Team Government – including a couple of years in the Obama White House. This talk is primarily about how machine learning lands in a public policy context and is immediately addressed to an audience at a big AI conference, whose perspective can be assumed to be technical.

Given that, the starting point is to underline a critical difference in perspective. At least in principle, science and engineering are about a search for truth. Democracy is not just not a search for truth, it is not really a search for anything. And that difference is simultaneously obvious, a strength and a source of deep confusion and misunderstanding

Democracy is not a search for truth; it is an algorithm for resolving disagreements

But this talk is interesting not just to an audience of technologist having the world of public policy explained by one of their own who has ventured into a strange and distant land. Given the importance of AI and machine learning – and indeed technology change more generally – to almost every aspect of policy, it is jut as important for policy makers and players in the democratic process to understand how their world is perceived. And from that perspective, this is a fascinating account of a strange world by a participant-observer who has retained his distance and brings a distinct professional perspective.

Toolkit Navigator

OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation

This rather mundane title is the gateway to a rich set of resources – a compendium of tools for public sector innovation and transformation, as the site’s subtitle has it. It’s a library organised by topics and actions, as well as supporting connections between people working on public sector innovation round the world. It’s very richness has the potential to be a bit overwhelming, so it’s well worth starting with a very clear blog post by Angela Hanson which introduces the approach OECD has taken.

Attempting to teach parliamentary procedure to machines

Michael Smethurst

There’s no getting away from the fact that parliamentary procedure is pretty arcane and that modelling that procedure adds a still more arcane overlay. But this is a beautifully reflective post which wears deep expertise very lightly to share thinking which is relevant well beyond the immediate parliamentary context.

Two points which should resonate far beyond the Palace of Westminster are worth pulling out. One is that parliamentary processes may have some extreme characteristics, but they also have some characteristics which people involved with other kinds of information flows will instantly recognise. It may or may not be possible to express definitively how the system should work; for different reasons it may or may not be possible to capture in detail how it does work, particularly if that is in some circumstances indeterminate. But taking an almost anthropological approach to understanding systems is both an art form and an investment which needs to be made.

The second is that for all the power of starting with user needs, that is necessarily limited if some kinds of needs come into being only as a result of building a system which satisfies them. In a nice nod to George Box, the post ends with a bold claim for the art of system modelling:

The models are only ever maps, but if they’re good enough to be useful they can be useful in ways the map designers never considered. No amount of requirements gathering or user research will ever compensate for omitting the work on modelling, because user needs are emergent from use and emergent from materials.

Too many projects, too much change

Naomi Stanford

Prioritisation is hard. One reason why it’s hard is that starting new things is always more attractive than stopping old ones. There are all sorts of reasons for that – many nicely set out in this post – which include the ease with which we overlook the opportunity cost: if we start this new thing, what do we no longer have the capacity or attention span to do? That of course is a problem for the organisation as a whole, not for the proponents of the new shiny thing, so it all too easily becomes one which is brushed aside, because there isn’t anybody whose job is to address it.

There is a closely related problem, pithily described, it appears, by Kurt Vonnegut:

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

That can have consequences from the irritatingly inefficient to the utterly terrifying, but all contributing to the wider problem, that the more change there is going on, the more likely it is that the changes will collide with each other unproductively, and the more it becomes important to understand and manage the dependencies and interactions between projects, as much as to understand and manage each of the contributing initiatives.

Government and digital technologies: the collision of two galaxies

Mark Foden

This is thinking at epic scale.

Consider the Milky Way crashing into Andromeda in about four billion years from now, taking another billion years to establish some form of stability.

Now consider the unstoppable force of technological (and social change) colliding with the established cultures and practices of government.

Now reflect on how good a metaphor the first is for the second. There’s probably less than four billions years to wait until we find out.

Ethics won’t make software engineering better

Rachel Coldicutt – Doteveryone

The subtitle of this post lays down a challenge:

Why a social scientist could be the most important person on your product team

Leaving aside the point that it might be an even better challenge if ‘philosopher’ were substituted for ‘social scientist’, this is an important issue. There is much talk (and much writing) about the need for ethics in data and software – though curiously rather less so in service design, where it is no less important.

But ethics is not some esoteric form of quality assurance added as a final overlay to activities otherwise devoid of any moral compass. It is perhaps better understood (in this context) as the encapsulation of a deep and pervasive view that technology should work for humanity, not the other way round.

What would computer science look like if it included the perspective of humanities and social sciences from the outset? And what if that perspective came not from some thinker in residence, but from people who brought a fusion of perspectives and understanding to problem solving?

And whatever the answers to those questions might be, there is a wider one still: where does that fusion not have a place? The Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries, and Other Professional Thinking Persons may be due for a resurgence.