Nothing can change

Simon Parker

Nothing can change. We have huge systemic problems, but many things are as they are, and it is foolish to assume that intentional change will deliver intended effects.

But of course that’s not true. Things can and do change. Things are as they are because it suits enough people, with enough power, for them to be that way. Change is fundamentally a political enterprise.

What’s inadvertently interesting about this post is that it was written at the beginning of March and already feels like something from another age. If anything, the assumption in public discourse has flipped. If it is possible to create a hospital in days, if it is possible to change patterns of work and life radically and rapidly, if it is possible to bring national and international focus on a common overriding goal – what then can there be which is not possible?

But the answer is still fundamentally the one underpinning this post. We can do those things. We could do many other things which are radical changes to the way things have been done – but only if the assumption of insurmountable complexity is broken. A month on, that suddenly seems much more possible. But so it has seemed in other crises, there have been other dawns beyond other darkest hours. There will be unprecedented opportunities ahead, but they will need to be seized if they are not to fade away.

Computer Files Are Going Extinct

Simon Pitt – OneZero

Files have been a unit of organisation for written information for generations. For a rather shorter period, they have been a unit of organisation for digital information. But after a few years in which the metaphor retained at least some connection with the underlying reality, computer files are abstracting themselves to vanishing point.

So what, who cares? Well at one level, none of us need care, that’s almost the point. At another level, those who have lived through the revolution in personalised computing can gently mourn – as the author of this post does – the loss of a way of organising and understanding information, and the sense of familiarity and control which comes with it. But as the author also recognises, all this starts to get really interesting when we recognise files are skeuomorphic (as is much of the language we use to talk about them).

But there is a more serious point too. However much we choose to abstract, in the end, the data is somewhere – and often in several somewheres. Nobody wants backups, as the old adage has it, but everybody wants restores. But the more our data becomes less apparent, less vulnerable to hard drive failures and laptop thefts, the more it becomes vulnerable to subscriptions not paid and services closed down.

This blog post has some characteristics which make it appear to be like a file. But it isn’t, it’s an entry in a database dressed up with some scripts. Its default state is not to exist, a state postponed by the application of money and electricity, but a state it will inexorably reach.

Things Fall Apart

Mark O’Neill

There is an almost universal belief, no less strong for being almost as universally unspoken, that the UK political system is an exemplar of stability and moderation. There is a related belief, near universal among those most affected by it, that being a non-political civil servant is unproblematic, precisely because of those characteristics of the wider political system.

Those beliefs have been pretty resistant to evidence. Reflections on civil service ethics generate little interest. The remarkable resignation letter of a British diplomat in the USA cracked the facade, but the crack is already healing. This post takes that resignation as its starting point for a deeper examination of the fragility of civil society. It is short and pointed; alarmed but not alarmist. It sets a challenge. It is not clear where an effective response to that challenge will come from.

A Manifesto for Better Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.

Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.

It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.

On being and doing in Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

What should government do? And, how should it do it? Those are two critically important questions, which fortunately get a lot of time and attention – even though it’s not hard to argue that they still don’t have good enough answers. But there is a third question which is at least as important, but which gets much less attention: what should governments be?

It is that question which is at the centre of this post. One reason why it has not had the attention it deserves is that a generation or two of public servants have been brought up not to notice it: the New Public Management paradigm that efficient delivery is pretty much all of what it’s about has become so pervasive as to be invisible. And that’s unfortunate in that it is neither value free (how could it be?) nor, as it turns out, is it a very good way of making governments work. NPM (and other strands of thought) are right that government does not exist for the benefit of people who work in it as politicians and officials. Its insights and methods have a place. But systems operated by and for humans need to have humans at their heart, and to recognise that it is the relationships and values those humans have which makes those systems work effectively – or even perhaps at all.

Data as institutional memory

Adam Locker – Medium

There’s more to this deceptively self-deprecating piece than meets the eye. Fragmented data cannot support integrated services, still less integrated organisations. Deep understanding and effective management of data are therefore not a minor issue for techie obsessives, but are fundamental to organisational success.

As so often, the diagnosis is simple (which of course doesn’t stop it being hard), acting on that diagnosis is complicated, and even harder. This post brings the two together through an account of making it work on one part of government.

MoJ digital and technology strategy

Tom Read – MOJ Digital & Technology

The Ministry of Justice digital team has long exemplified many of the best characteristics of digital in government, getting on with doing good things without making a song and dance about it.

So it’s no surprise that their approach to creating a strategy embodies those same characteristics. In about a thousand words, this post makes clear what is to be done, why it matters, and how they will make it happen. Your strategy is probably longer, but it’s worth asking whether it’s better.

In which I am a bit over this digital transformation business.

Catherine Howe

It’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that whatever Catherine Howe is thinking about now, the rest of us will stumble onto at some point in the indefinite future. So if she is over the digital transformation business, we need to wonder where the zeitgeist will manifest next.

One of the more provocative definitions of technology is ‘everything which doesn’t work yet’. Similarly, we will know that mapping as a technique and transformation as a goal have become normal when we hardly need to talk about them, any more than we talk about the mature technology which is around us and so hardly needs to be spoken about. But that, as this post starts to explore, merely clears the ground for deeper and harder questions. The search is on for a theory of change to shape the search for answers.

What is a Customer?

Bob Marshall – Think Different

The question of what a customer is (if anything) in the context of public services is one to be approached with trepidation. The bigendian battle has been rumbling for decades, occasionally flaring up into active skirmishing, without ever quite being resolved. One of the main reasons for that is that all the relevant words – customer, user, client, and so on – have a range of connotations, with proponents tending to focus on one set and opponents on another.

Yet another definition won’t solve that, though this one might have a better chance in the fight than most. A customer, this short post suggests, is:

Anyone who receives or anticipates receiving something (e.g. a good or a service) from someone else.

Perhaps the time has come to turn the problem round. Instead of picking a word and arguing about its definition, perhaps we should pick a definition and argue about which word best encapsulates it.

Civil servants civilly serve

Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist

A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.

The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.

But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.

Just enough Internet

Rachel Coldicutt – doteveryone

This is a thoughtful and important piece which challenges one of the pervasive myths of digital services, and particularly digital government services. More, it argues, is not intrinsically better, for a number of overlapping reasons. Collecting more data than necessary carries costs – human and ecological, as well as financial and technical. In making that argument it challenges the naive equivalence between public and commercial services, and the assertion that the former are somehow failing if they do not ape the latter – summarised in the splendid line

The fact that neither NHSX or BBC R&D will send a rocket to Mars this year does not mean they are not innovative. It means they are not in the rocket business.

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowski – Idle Words

This is another piece which isn’t new but which provides some good provocative food for thought, on how applying a computer programming perspective to problems which are fundamentally social can – and does – lead to unfortunate results. It’s written by Maciej Cegłowski, who brings elegant erudition to an unlikely range of subjects, in this case how an approach based on controlling closed systems breaks down when confronted with messily indeterminate systems, with a scattering of provocative one liners which combine challenge and simplicity, such as

Machine learning is like money laundering for bias.

We have to stop treating computer technology as something unprecedented in human history. Not every year is Year Zero. This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.

Enabling collaboration across the public sector

Pia Andrews – The Mandarin

Pia Andrews has long been a powerful voice and a practical exponent of doing government better, not least doing government better in ways which confront and address the difficulties caused by the structures of governments themselves.

This article is a great summary of some of that thinking. Much of its power comes from the recognition that government is fundamentally about people and their relationships with each other, and that that is true as much of people within government as it is of the people that governments serve. Vertical organisational structures can easily be and often are barriers to collaboration and dampeners of motivation, reinforced by a concept of leadership derived from functional management. But none of those is immutable, and a combination of fresh approaches to teams and leadership internally with a readiness to look at the needs of the people governments serve more holistically has real power and potential (greater than either one considered in isolation).

Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Matt Edgar writes here

Unusually for Strategic Reading, this post earns its place not by being new and timely but because it has become an essential point of reference in an important debate. It makes a very powerful argument – but one that is slighly undermined by the conclusion it draws.

It is a measure of continuing progress in the four years since the post was written that the proposition that service design is important in government has become less surprising and less contentious, as well as much more widely practised. It is a measure of how much more needs to be done that the problems described are still very recognisable.

So it’s absolutely right to say that service design is critically important for government and that much of what happens in government is better illuminated by service design thinking. But to assert further that that is most of government most of the time is to miss something important. Much of government is not service design and much of what is service-related is an aspect of a wider public purpose. The function of many government services is only in part to deliver a service, even where there is a service being delivered at all. So the five gaps which are at the heart of this post are all real and all can and should be addressed by service design approaches – but they are not the only gaps, so a solution which addresses only those is at risk of missing something important.

Defining services

Kate Tarling and Matti Keltanen – Services and service organisations

The question of what a service is is both eminently straightforward and impossibly difficult to answer. This post does a great job of demonstrating the straightforwardness, in five pithy elements of a definition, but in fleshing out each of the five points, it also demonstrates the impossibility.

The problem is not that the definition being put forward is wrong or unhelpful. Quite the contrary. It is that drawing the boundaries of a service requires huge understanding, empathy and insight – and even then is unavoidably a matter of judgement rather than the consequence of the precise application of rules. It needs to be big enough to be clearly about satisfying a need rather than conducting a transaction; it needs to be small enough for it to be practically and organisationally possible to make it better. It needs to be sufficiently self-contained to be addressed as a single challenge, and sufficiently broadly based to avoid the construction or reinforcement of silos and the associated inefficiency of duplication. And across all of that – and more – we also need to be clear about the role of government and about whether that role is inherent or arbitrary. Back in the primordial dawn of digital government, a decision was made not to offer a government change of address service – on the grounds that when people move it’s never just government they need to notify, and that in any case the real service was something closer to ‘moving home’. And for that, government is not the service provider – but then nobody else is either. Perhaps we are driven to the slightly uncomforable conclusion that even with all possible understading, empathy and insight, a service is still defined, at least in part, by what a service provider says it is.


Warning: Graphic Content

Gavin Freeguard – Warning: Graphic Content

Link blogs come in two different flavours: more links and less commentary or fewer links and more commentary. Strategic Reading is an example of the second kind; Warning: Graphic Content of the first.

And of that first kind, it is impresssively – almost dauntingly thorough – a weekly post which starts with the intersection of data visualisation and government and expands rapidly from there. You won’t want to click on every link, but if you like Strategic Reading you’ll want to click on more of them than you can find the time for.

The only downside is that it’s hosted on Tumblr, which in turn uses Oath, which runs a particularly obfuscatory approach to personal data consent, so approach with proper caution.

You didn’t hear it here first…

The Tangled and the Trapped

This post neatly captures and crystallises ideas which – as the title acknowledges – aren’t themselves new but have been overshadowed by the dominance of a transaction-focused mentality in much government service design. Sometimes, of course, a transaction is exactly what we are talking about and making them simple and effective is the right thing to do. But often the underlying need is not for the (still necessary) transaction but for something deeper and better connected. Getting closer to that involves

learning when to transact, when to intervene and when to do the thing in the middle, support.

As the original emphasis suggest, the middle category, support, is the key to this. Examples such as Mark Smith’s work at Gateshead and the wider set in Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help show the value – in both effectivness and efficency – from looking at people and the support then need before looking at services and tests for eligibility.

There’s a lot or richness in this post about identifying and applying some simple principles for doing that effectively. But it brings out very clearly that however much the design of single services is improved, the impact will be severely attenuated if there is insufficient focus on the wider context.

The Double Diamond, 15 years on…

Cat Drew – Design Council

The double diamond is simple, elegant and intuitive – so much so that is has the feel of something which must always have existed, of being so well designed that it doesn’t feel designed at all. But of course the double diamond is as it is precisely because it is the result of design processes as well as a tool in many, many more.

It comes as a slight shock to be discover that it took form only 15 years ago, not least because if I were asked when I first became aware of it, I would have guessed longer ago than that, perhaps because I came to it from established ideas around divergent and convergent thinking. But it’s a good moment to step back and reflect on those 15 years and the value and variety the double diamond has offered.

Even better, it’s an invitation to look forward, to recognise that the double diamond has constantly evolved and mutated and that it will and should continue to do so – so if you have a double diamond story to tell or a double diamond prediction to make, this is the place to share it.


Time for a tactical withdrawal

Matt Jukes – Medium

The UK government design principles – last updated only a few days ago – still unambiguously assert:

10. Make things open: it makes things better

We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets – howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.

But of course the clarity of the principle is no guarantee of the consistency of its observation – and this post argues strongly both that the principle is now less observed than in the headier times of recent years and that this is a very bad thing.

That prompts the question of whether openness is – or can be  – an independent variable, separate from the wider political context. I have argued elsewhere that it is far easier for civil servants to be open about some kinds of activity than others, and that in particular that it is easier to be open about process than about substance. So it is possible that what has changed is the balance of activity; it’s possible that overall levels of political sensitivity have gone up – but it is also possible that openness is still seen as a slightly maverick activity, and that it will tend to decline unless it is actively nurtured.

The rhetoric of openness – not just in the design principles but, for example in the availability of tools for open policy making (to say nothing of broader initiatives such as OECD’s observatory of public sector innovation) – is still alive and well. If the substance is fading, this post should be read as much as a call to arms as an acknowledgement of retreat.

Revisiting the study of policy failures

Mark Bovens & Paul ‘t Hart – Journal of European Public Policy

What is a policy success? What is a policy failure? It feels as though that ought to be straightforward question, but the answer looks more uncertain the more closely we look. There is a gung ho – but still very valuable – approach of finding fairly big and fairly obvious blunders, but that’s a way of avoiding the question, rather than answering it.

This paper takes a more reflective approach, distinguishing between ‘programmatic’ and ‘political’ success and failure, arguing that neither determines the other and that the subject attract analytical confusion as much as clarity. None of that may sound helpful to the jobbing policymaker, struggling to find practically and politically effective solutions to complicated problems, but there is a clear conclusion (even though, perhaps in parallel with some of the policies used as examples, it is not entirely clear how the conclusion follows from the evidence): that open policy making is better than closed, that the messiness of democratic challenge is more effective than the apparent virtues of pure analytical precision.

But it also follows that policy failure is a political construct, as much as it is anything:

there is no ‘just world’ of policy assessment in which reputation naturally reflects performance. The nexus between the two is constructed, negotiated and therefore contingent, and often variable over time

It further follows, perhaps, that that jobbing policymaker needs have a political sensibility well beyond what a more managerialist approach might think necessary, being ready to recognise and operate in ‘the world of impressions: lived experiences, stories, frames, counter-frames, heroes and villains’.