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.
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.
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.
Helen Margetts and Cosmina Dorobantu – Nature
Much of what is written about the use of new and emerging technologies in government fails the faster horse test. It is based on the tacit assumption that technology can be different, but the structure of the problems, services and organisations that it is applied to remain fundamentally the same.
This article avoids that trap and is clear that the opportunities (and risks) from AI in particular look rather different – and of course that they are about policy and organisations, not just about technology. But arguably even this is just scratching the surface of the longer term potential. Individualisation of services, identification of patterns, and modelling of alternative realities all introduce new power and potential to governments and public services. Beyond that, though, it becomes possible to discern the questions that those developments will prompt in turn. The institutions of government and representative democracy are shaped by the information and communications technologies of past centuries and the more those technologies change, the greater the challenge to the institutional structures they support. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but it does start to show why those bigger questions will need to be answered.
Theo Bass – Nesta
Discussions of the application of digital to democracy tend to get bogged down quite quickly in the (limited) merits and (extensive) risks of online voting. A more promising approach is to look at ways in which digital technologies can support and amplify democratic processes, more to do with deliberation and engagement than with quantification. This is still new territory, so experimental approaches still make good sense, but as this post brings out, there are now enough of those experiments around the world to start to group them and to see common opportunities and challenges.
This is the recording of an event at the Institute for Government this week, in which Jamie Susskind starts by briefly introducing the arguments of his book, Future Politics, and then discusses them with Gavin Freeguard – and as the book weighs in at over 500 pages, this might be a gentler way in. Susskind approaches the question of the title from the perspective of politics and law, coming back to the question, how much democracy is the right amount? That’s a harder – and more important – question than it first appears. Answers to it have been evolving for several thousand years, but digital technology gives it a new urgency, for reasons which range from the manipulative power of social media, the elimination of leeway, to bot-driven perpetual voting.
In the last century the fundamental question was, what should be done by the state and what should be left to the market and to civil society? … In our time, the key question will be this, to what extent should our lives be governed by powerful digital systems, and on what terms?
Yuval Noah Harari – The Atlantic
The really interesting effects of technology are often the second and third order ones. The invention of electricity changed the design of factories. The invention of the internal combustion engine changed the design of cities. The invention of social media shows signs of changing the design of democracy.
This essay is a broader and bolder exploration of the consequences of today’s new technologies. That AI will destroy jobs is a common argument, that it might destroy human judgement and ability to make decisions is a rather bolder one (apparently a really creative human chess move is now seen as an indicator of potential cheating, since creativity in chess is now overwhelmingly the province of computers).
The most intriguing argument is that new technologies destroy the comparative advantage of democracy over dictatorship. The important difference between the two, it asserts, is not between their ethics but between their data processing models. Centralised data and decision making used to be a weakness; increasingly it is a strength.
There is much to debate in all that, of course. But the underlying point, that those later order effects are important to recognise, understand and address, is powerfully made.
Rachel Coldicutt – Doteveryone
This is a great set of slides which (among other things) teases out the idea of ‘needs’ in relation to public services, clearly and powerfully making the point that it is not enough just to consider the needs of individual end users.
The picture is in the presentation, but came originally from a post by Cassie Robinson a few months ago. The GDS admonition to start with user needs is not wrong (quite the contrary), but there will rarely, if ever, be a single set of answers. And as Tom Loosemore observed, prompted by that illustration and quoting Richard Pope, ‘sometimes the user need is democracy’.
But there is more to the presentation than just that insight, important though it is. Ease of use is not the same as depth of understanding, and the simplicity of a service design does not mean that it is simple or self-contained in the way people come to it and use it. Needs are important, but so are interests – which means that service design has to embrace much more than the transactional experience.
Alex Blandford – Medium
The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.
There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.
This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.
David Weinberger – Los Angeles Review of Books
At one level, this is an entertainingly polite but damning book review. At another, it is a case study in how profound expertise in one academic domain does not automatically translate into the distillation of wisdom in another. But beyond both of those, the real value of this piece is in drawing out the point that in the realm of ideas, as with so many others, the internet is a place where new things are happening, not just the old things being done a bit better. We need to get better not just at knowing things, but at how to know things. How, in this new world, do we take advantage of its strengths to come at knowledge in different ways?
I had got to the end of reading this before noticing that it was by David Weinberger. That would have been endorsement enough – he has been sharing deep insights about how all this works for many years and is always a name to look out for.
Tom Steinberg – Medium
In dealing with digital services – indeed in dealing with organisations generally – power is very asymmetric. Amazon does not invite you to negotiate the terms on which it is prepared to sell you things (though of course you retain the power not to buy). Digital services and apps give the illusion of control (let’s think about whether to accept these cookies…) but have developed a habit and a reputation or helping themselves to data and making their own judgement about what to do with it. That’s not necessarily because individual consumers can’t control permissions, but is also because the cost and complexity of doing so make it burdensome. Tom Steinberg brings a potential solution to that problem: what if we had somebody negotiating all that on our behalf, could that asymmetry be addressed? Typically, he recognises the difficulties as well as the potential, but even if the answers are hard, the question is important.
It’s interesting to read this Economist editorial alongside Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. It focuses on the polarisation of political discourse driven by the persuasion architecture Tufekci describes, resulting in the politics of contempt. The argument is interesting, but perhaps doubly so when the Economist, which is not know for its histrionic rhetoric, concludes that ‘the stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.’
That has implications well beyond politics and persuasion and supports the wider conclusion that algorithmic decision making needs to be understood, not just assumed to be neutral.
Zeynep Tufekci – TED
This TED talk is a little slow to get going, but increasingly catches fire. The power of algorithmically driven media may start with the crude presentation of adverts for the thing we have already just bought, but the same powers of tracking and micro-segmentation create the potential for social and political manipulation. Advertising-based social media platforms are based on persuasion architectures, and those architectures make no distinction between persuasion to buy and persuasion to vote.
That analysis leads – among other things – to a very different perception of the central risk of artificial intelligence: it is not that technology will develop a will of its own, but that it will embody, almost undetectably, the will of those in a position to use it. The technology itself may, in some senses, be neutral; the business models it supports may well not be.
Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change
This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.
Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.
Nicholas Tampio – Aeon
Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government except for all the others. So far, so good: few find it tactful to disagree. But the practical application of that ranges from infrequent voting to intense participatory involvement. There is, this post argues, an increasing tendency for real decisions to made by experts (or, at least, professional politicians), with citizens reduced to the role of an approving chorus. The claim implicitly made by those experts that they are just better at this is somewhat questionable; a better remedy is to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level.
In a way the post doesn’t quite seem to recognise, this moves the problem around, rather than solving it. That’s partly because everybody is in favour of devolved decision making (subsidiarity is after all a fundamental principle of EU decision making), but almost everybody sees the level they happen to be at as the most appropriate one. But even more importantly it’s because it fails to distinguish between different kinds of decisions. Politics is only surprisingly rarely about making self-contained decisions, straightforward choices between clear options. What makes politics – and democracy – hard is the interaction between decisions, the fact that every decision is constrained by and constrains every other one, that decisions are relative rather than absolute. On that, Catherine Howe’s approach, recently featured here, is a stronger one: the question is how to design for democracy, in the full recognition that decisions are political; it is not best answered by assuming that being local is itself adequate.
Rachel Coldicutt – doteveryone
It is increasingly obvious that ways of regulating and controlling digital technologies struggle to keep pace with the technologies themselves. Not only are they ever more pervasive, but their control is ever more consolidated. Regulations – such as the EU cookie consent rules – deal with real problems, but in ways which somehow fail to get to the heart of the issue, and which are circumvented or superseded by fast-moving developments.
This post takes a radical approach to the problem: rather than focusing on specific regulations, might we get to a better place if we take a systems approach, identifying (and nurturing) a number of approaches, rather than relying on a single, brittle, rules based approach? Optimistically, that’s a good way of creating a more flexible and responsive way of integrating technology regulation into wider social and political change. More pessimistically, the coalition of approaches required may be hard to sustain, and is itself very vulnerable to the influence of the technology providers. So this isn’t a panacea – but it is a welcome attempt to ask some of the right questions.
Catherine Howe – Curious?
By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.
But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.
Dirk Helbing, Bruno S. Frey, Gerd Gigerenzer, Ernst Hafen, Michael Hagner, Yvonne Hofstetter, Jeroen van den Hoven, Roberto V. Zicari, Andrej Zwitter – Scientific American
There is plenty of evidence that data-driven political manipulation is on the increase, with issues getting recent coverage ranging from secretively targeted Facebook ads, bulk twitterbots and wholesale data manipulation. As with so much else, what is now possible online is an amplification of political chicanery which long pre-dates the internet – but as with so much else, the extreme difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. This portmanteau article comes at the question of whether that itself puts democracy itself under threat from a number of directions, giving it a pretty thorough examination. But there is a slight sense of technological determinism, which leads both to some sensible suggestions about how to ensure continuing personal, social and democratic control – but also to some slightly hyperbolic ideas about the threat to jobs and the imminence of super-intelligent machines,
This is a powerful challenge to everybody who works in any part of government. The system is fundamentally broken because its components were never designed or intended to act coherently and effectively as a system – and they don’t. There is considerable power in that diagnosis, implying if not quite drawing the conclusion that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system. The problem, of course, is that that is both intrinsically very hard to do and never seems to be as important or urgent as addressing specific policy problems – which is where we came in. So the hard question is not whether a better system could be devised (because there can be little doubt that it could be); it is whether the current system has the capability to make the changes needed. It is hard to stop and start again from scratch. That’s not just true of the UK – it has been argued that the most needed amendment to the US constitution is to make it easier to make constitutional amendments, which is probably impossible. None of that makes Straw’s diagnosis wrong, but it does underline that the route to change is as critical as the destination.
“All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get” (Arthur Jones, probably)
What government organisations get is hierarchy, slow and often unresponsive decision cycles and a sense that government is done to people, rather than with them, still less by them. There are – or were – some very real strengths in a Weberian rationalist bureaucracy, but Weber was writing a century ago for a very different world. Adaptation is as crucial for organisational evolution as it is for natural evolution – without it, organisations become less and less well fitted to their environment and eventually fail. But that failure can be long drawn out and painful to all concerned.
This essay is about spotting – and encouraging – new approaches to public administration, better suited to new requirements and new contexts.
Ian Burbuidge – the RSA