Transformation is not a programme

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Flow chart distinguishing hopeful thinking from transformationTransformation is one of those words which sounds good, without actually tying you down to meaning anything in particular. It sounds more daring than innovation, more glamorous than project management – and it’s got more syllables than change.

This useful post presents a view of transformation through six principles which together make it clear that it is fundamentally cultural in nature, and is only what is left once other kinds of change have been accounted for. And there is an interesting parallel between these ideas and Paul Taylor’s similar sense that transformation is too vague and self-serving a term to be useful, which he then addresses through a series of design principles.

Culture is our strategy

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Delivery is hard. Delivering consistently and with high quality is harder. Sustaining that over time without damage to individuals, teams and the wider organisation is very hard indeed.

In the short run it is often possible to over deliver, but there is a price to be paid. Getting that right is not, of course, about organisational structures or project plans, it is about people and the shared culture of their working environment – or about ‘trying hard to strike a balance between delivery now, and delivery tomorrow’.

This post approaches that question from the perspective of recognising and nurturing culture. But there is also a strong parallel with the concept of organisational debt (itself derived from technical debt), the recognition that failing to keep the organisation’s structures and processes in line both with its changing internal needs and with its external environment stores up problems which might be avoidable for a time, but cannot be avoided indefinitely. Or to put it differently again, culture as strategy is one of the ways in which teams and organisations can better manage strategic drift.

Introducing the Government Data Graveyard: the numbers we’ve stopped measuring

Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers

Counting things is boring and costs time and money which could be better spent on something less boring.

Having counted things – particularly having counted them for a long time – provides incalculable value in understanding what has been done and what might be done.

If you need a fifty year data series, you need collection to have started fifty years ago – starting now will do you no good at all (though it might cause your memory to be blessed half a century on).

It is of course easy to tell what we wish our predecessors of fifty (or ten, or five) years ago had done, rather less easy for them to know that then (or for us to know that for our successors now). That is in a way just a specialised version of a much more general problem of long term public investment, where there is a respectable argument that in undervaluing long term benefits, we end up with fewer long term assets being created than would be optimal – which applies as much, and perhaps more obviously, to investment in physical infrastructure

None of that is quite what this post is about – it’s based on a simple observation not only that some data which used to be collected is no longer collected, but that data on what data is no longer collected is itself not collected. Maybe that’s fine – nobody could seriously argue that data once having been collected must always be collected for ever more. But maybe the decisions on what to stop and what to continue have been driven more by short term expediency than long term value.

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet  missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

Jonathan Zittrain – New Yorker

Being understood is not a precondition to being useful. The history of medicine is a history over centuries and millennia of spotting efficacy without the least understanding of the mechanisms by which that efficacy is achieved. Nor is that limited to pre-scientific times. There are still drugs which are  prescribed because they work, without any understanding of how they work.

Zittrain calls that intellectual debt (by unspoken analogy with technical debt), where theoretical understanding lags behind pragmatic effectiveness. The problem is not that it exists, as the medical examples show, it is that machine learning takes it to a new level, that our understanding of links between cause and effect come to have more to do with association than with explanation. For any single  problem, that may be no bad thing: it can be more important for the connections to be accurate than to be understood. But the cumulative effect of the mounting intellectual debt has the potential to be rather less benign.

Russell Davies’s strategy advice

Anna Shipman – JFDI

A simple list of a dozen points about how to do better strategy making, from somebody with real insight and experience. They won’t all be right in every context, but they are all worth thinking about – to be treated more as provocations than as prescriptions. There’s also a plug for Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is an excellene book, though its ideas are even better expressed in the shorter, sharper article version

Design, Diversity and Tech: How to use your power

Vimla Appadoo – FutureGov

Vimla Appadoo speaking at a FutureGov branded lecternThese are the slides (and speaker notes) from an exceptionally powerful presentatation about diversity and inclusion given at FutureGov’s recent Designing 21st Century Government event – though alas without the energy and power brought to them on the day.

At the core of the argument is a challenge not to deny or elide bias, but to recognise and address it through five stages:

  1. Know your core (what ideas are most important)
  2. Show your flex (which ideas you can compromise on)
  3. Recognise your privilege
  4. Learn to disagree well
  5. Be a leader

The fourth is in some ways the most powerful: inclusion is not a reduction to a faint common denominator, it is a respectful integration of perspectives and challenges. Simple disagreement is easy and unproductive. Disagreeing well is how good ideas generate better ones.

 

Lets talk about plugs

Leigh Dodds – Lost Boy

The value and importance of data standards are explained by analogy with the value and importance of electrical standards. It’s a good choice – the analogy works well even at its simplest level, but is also a good way in to some of the complexities which lie not far below the surface. And the post asks by subtle implication – though understandably without answering – how standards are set for the setting of standards.

How the World Conceals its Secrets

Michael Blastland – the RSA

We like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers, using patterns of evidence to discern meaning and to understand and shape our environment. The case made in this video is that that is at best a half truth. The reality is that our powers of explanation are much weaker than we tend to recognise or care to admit and that in looking for patterns we are too ready to overlook random variation.

That’s not just an abstract or theoretical concern: the crisis of replication in science is a real and alarming symptom of the problem; the challenge to the very concept of statistical significance is closely related.

This video is a thirty minute summary by Michael Blastland of the ideas in his recent book, followed by a discussion with Matthew Taylor which is also well worth watching. That’s a rather bland description of a talk which was anything but – these are challenging ideas, powerfully presented, which anybody who creates or uses evidence for public policy needs to understand.

Taking the leap: getting staff and patients to use the NHS App

Tristan Stanton – NHS Digital

This post – and the app it is about – stands as a kind of metaphor for digital public services much more widely. The app has a mostly slick front end, with a visual design which is both distinctively of the NHS and a clear descendant of the earlier work of GDS. But it sits on top of chaos which it can obscure only to a limited extent. It is a front end veneer for different systems, supporting different sets of functions and so fundamentally is not in control of its own user experience.

The post does a good job of explaining why that is and why, despite that, there is still value in the app. There is a circle which needs to be virtuous where a well-designed front end and a growing user base both demonstrate and create value to GP practices in improving their systems which in turn stimulates adoption and use by patients. But there is a risk that the circle turns vicious, that the expectations set by the modernity of the immediate user is undermined by the clunkiness of what lies behind. The good needs to drive out the bad, but the bad will not give in easily.

The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power

Naomi Stanford

Speaking truth to power is often talked about as though it is a heroic endeavour, a point of challenge and catharsis, a showdown when either the message is heard or the messenger is shot. And of course if the norm is that power does not hear truth, none of that is surprising. But perhaps the more interesting approach is to ask why that is assumed to be the norm, and what might change it.

This post doesn’t – and couldn’t – answer that question, but it does shed some interesting light on it. If what is actually at issue is as much or more competing belief systems rather than competing realities, then solutions can’t be about piling up more facts, but might have to do with building relationships in a different way. The difficult bit in that, of course, is not the speaking of truth to power. That just takes bravery. The difficult bit is creating the conditions for power to listen, and that takes a much broader set of skills and approaches.

But as the post hints at, it would be better still to reverse the question. The real challenge is for leaders to show more clearly that they want to listen, not for courtiers to have to balance honesty and self-preservation.

Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent

Elizabeth Ayer – Medium

Strategy is a subversive activity. Both in development and application it is likely to have uncomfortable consequences. Some people will see the value of the consequences; others will focus more on the discomfort. But in either case, doing things as they are always done round here is unlikely to be the best way of making progress. And thus the widespread mantra, ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’.

It sounds like a licence for liberation, but as this post brings out, it is in fact anything but: it depends on a level of confidence and sense of inclusion which is far from universal. But the post is less about criticising it and more about making the positive case for ‘radiating intent’ as an alternative: not directly asking permission, but clearly signalling intentions in way which allows them to be supported – or challenged – ahead of time.

The power of that is not just in avoiding the need for forgiveness while not being caught up with permission, it is that important things can’t be done either in isolation or in secret. Radiating intent is a critical superpower for strategic subversives as well as a useful approach to getting things done in staid organisations.

Making what you do explicitly political

Alex Blandford – Medium

Technology is not politically neutral, nor can it be. So making technology choices is also making political choices – about who has power, who has agency, who gets to make choices and who has to act in a context set by choices made by others. Denying the politics of that – asserting that somehow technology is neutral or inevitable – is itself highly political. Digital is political not because there is something odd about digital, but because there is something ubiquitous about politics and political choices.

Given all that, there is a lot to be said for being explicit about it, in part because not being explicit means that some political positions – typically more technocratic ones – can be presented as neutral and beyond question when they are anything but. This post is an explicitly political post about being explicitly political, not in a partisan sense, but as a recognition that how choices are framed is a strong influence on how they get made.

Internet trends 2019

Mary Meeker

Another year of Mary Meeker’s internet trends has landed with a loud virtual thump – weighing in this year at 333 slides. In what it covers it is relentlessly detailed, though the framing of the story not surprisingly is influenced by a very particular west coast world view.  It is easy – perhaps inevitable – that eyes glaze over a bit on the way through, as yet another slide about yet another implausibly named company shows a chart rocketing to the near vertical. So rather than attempt any kind of summary, here are four slides which caught my attention.

There is an elegant simplicity about this chart of global internet users, delivering a powerful message that more than half the world’s population is now online, a proportion which has doubled in the last ten years.
Advertising moves to where people spend their time, with alignment of the two much stronger in 2018 than 2010. Though even after all that, print media get more than their ‘fair share’. Even ignoring the advertising dimension, the shift in how time and attention are spent is a dramatic story in itself.
This chart stands out from the crowd, if only for being speculation rather than quantification. There’s an argument to be had about the slope and relative position of all the lines on the chart. Is the rate of change of technology increasing relentlessly? Is it already outstripping human adaptability and is the gap going to get relentlessly bigger? And most fundamentally, to whatever extent the picture as a whole captures something real, is it describing what happens to be or what necessarily must be?
And this chart is a great – though in this case rather unsubtle – example of a local perspective being treated as universal. The descriptions and comparisons in table aren’t wrong (though some are a little tendentious), but the red amber green colouring gives a pretty unambiguous message about who is to be seen as getting it right.

What’s wrong with best practice?

Daniel Thornton

Best practice used to be best practice, but increasingly the argument is made that best practice isn’t necessarily best practice at all. This post does a through job of explaining why that might be.

It’s pretty clear that in complex real world systems, attempting to specify the steps towards an outcome with complete precision is unlikely to be helpful. It’s also pretty clear though, that many tasks and processes do have a substantial technical element for which there are best (or at least better) ways of doing things. The value of checklists – of structured compliance with a predetermined sequence of actions – has been clearly demonstrated for pilots and surgeons despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that there is substantial variation in the context in which tasks are performed.

There are also more subtle – but no less real – forms of best practice. The shift in many areas of activity from basic competence to real expertise comes from the acquisition of tacit knowledge. Best practice is thus what best practitioners do – which doesn’t mean that what they do can be readily codified and copied, both because distillation of that kind is hard, and because the subtlety of judgement which experts bring is almost certain to be lost in the attempt. So perhaps the problem with best practice is not that people try to find it and apply it, but that they conflate adaptivity to complex systems with process compliance.

The argument of this post is that it’s worse than that, that best practice is an intrinsically unhelpful concept. In the specific context of organisational change – which is the starting point for the post – that may be so (though even there it is not meaningless to talk of best practitioners). But perhaps a better conclusion would be that for all its risks and limitations the idea of best practice shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. There is best practice on best practice which is worth understanding and developing.

Nesta Radical Futures brief

Sam Villis – OneTeamGov

A picture of a One Team Gov T-Shirt on a stage with One Team Gov bannersAfter 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).

As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:

What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Or,
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?

It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?

Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.

Making the centre hold: what works?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam – Institute for Government

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.

It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.

New platforms for public imagination

Kathy Peach – Nesta

Who gets to think about – and so to define – the future? At one level, self-evidently, we all do. But doing it systematically and thoughtfully is a luxury generally restricted to a few specialists, and translating into democratic decision making happens spasmodically, if at all.

This post is a survey of approaches and initiatives aimed at ‘democratising futures’, ranging from games to citizens’ assemblies and from the wisdom of crowds to the opening of expertise. As the post recognises, there is little hard evidence of what works well either in process terms or, more fundamentally, in terms of real world consequences. But that is an argument for doing more, not less, and there are some useful pointers to how that might best be done.

The Other Half of the Truth: Staying human in an algorithmic world

Sandra Wachter – OECD Forum

The problem of AI bias, once ignored, then a minority concern, is now well into the stage of being popularised and more widely recognised. It’s a debate to which Sandra Wachter has herself been an thoughtful contributor. The fact that AI can replicate and reinforce human biases is of course critically important, but it risks obscuring the fact that the seed of the bias is unautomated human behaviour. So AI which is no more biased than humans should be seen as a pretty minimal target, rather than the ceiling of aspiration.

This post is a manifesto for doing better, for rejecting the idea that the new ways need only be no worse than the old. It’s not about specific solutions, but it is an important framing of the question.