Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024
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.
We’re missing the point of digital government
Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper – Apolitical
‘The point about the digital transformation of government,’ the authors observe, ‘is that digital transformation isn’t the point.’ That apparently trite thought both unlocks some very important questions and also forces confrontation with the fact that some of those questions are very hard – which is perhaps why they have so often been wished away. It doesn’t help that ‘digital’ is used by many as a synonym for ‘technological’, so creating near limitless opportunities for mutual confusion. This article attempts to defuse that confusion by identifying four broad drivers of change, only one of which is directly about technology. It will perhaps be a mark of progress when we can get beyond calling the result digital transformation at all.
But once past that, this is a serious and important attempt to understand how governments – both the ones we have, and the ones they might become – are responding to changes in the environment in which they operate. Government is about service design, but it is also about democracy and engagement, about visibility and legitimacy. Too many technologists don’t understand how government works; too many people in government don’t understand what technology could and should be doing for them and for the people they serve – and both groups too often fail to realise that hard boundaries between them are themselves part of the problem.
The article is a teaser for the authors’ new book, Are we there yet? (spoiler: no). Its focus is on Australia, but that shouldn’t discourage readers from elsewhere, who will see issues they recognise and will have much to gain from the understanding and insight with which they are discussed.
Transformation is not a programme
Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation
Transformation 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.
What’s wrong with best practice?
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.
This post is a double winner. The post itself, by Andy Brogran, has some important insights, but it is prompted by a presentation by Mark Smith which is a compelling account of what happens when you think differently about the delivery of public services and is well worth watching in its own right.
Brogan’s post includes a particularly clear and succinct account of why a process standardisation model borrowed from manufacturing is particularly unhelpful when thinking about the design of services – manufacturing works to deliver standard outputs from standard inputs through a standard process. But public services do not start with standard inputs and so cannot create value by applying standard processes to deliver standard outputs – and indeed the attempt to do so risks making thing worse, not better.
That serves to frame an account by Mark Smith of the work he has led at Gateshead, breaking into established processes to work out needs and root causes. An overdue debt can be a trigger for enforcement action, at risk of triggering a further downward spiral, or it can be a signal of an underlying need which, if recognised can be addressed. This is a combination of powerful, human examples and pragmatic approaches to understanding and meeting needs:
‘How much of what we do can we do to you?’ That’s not a great question. ‘What does a good life for you look like, how might we help you with that?’ That’s a better question.
Four ideas to build more inclusive innovation systems
Innovation is often discussed as a very abstract process. People are, of course, involved, but they are slightly impersonal people, components of the innovation machine, not fully rounded agents. That’s a caricature, but not a wholly unfair one, and the caricature makes it less obvious than it might otherwise be that we need to look beyond the roles to the people who play them.
This post addresses that head on, focusing on the four specific ideas flagged in the title. None of them sound dramatic or revolutionary – and that is perhaps the point. They won’t solve the problem, but they are all useful ways of doing things better, and they are all well worth folding into approaches to innovation.
Fifty year old documentaries are not the staple of Strategic Reading, but this one is an intriguing insight into thinking about the future – a future which has of course become our past and present. It was made just a few months before the Boeing 747 went into service: the physical plane was very real, the implications for wider service design were very uncertain.
There’s an intriguing clip early on where the head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment observes that over the then half century of passenger flight, planes had doubled in size every ten years. The 747 fits that trend perfectly. Extrapolating to the next century, muses the Director, that would imply planes carrying 10,000 people. And you can hear in his voice both confidence in the trend and doubt about its implications, battling for dominance.
Half a century on, we know that it was right to doubt – the 747 was in some important ways on the inflection point of the growth curve. Planes haven’t got faster or higher or more comfortable since then, and they haven’t, with the brief and apparently aberrant exception of the Airbus 380, got any bigger.
That brings Herb Steins’ great line to mind, ‘If something cannot go on for ever, then it won’t’, and that in turn is an important reminder that in thinking about the future, it is unwise to assume that exponential change is unconstrained and indefinite.
Meanwhile, stay with the documentary to stumble across the world’s only vertical take off passenger plane, developed at the same time as the 747, but never quite attaining the same dominance of the skies.
Getting it right this time: Why the strategy is not about delivery for NHSX
Mark Thompson – Computer Weekly
This article starts with the strategy of an anonymous pharmaceutical company, or rather with a discussion of its weaknesses. Rather more promisingly, it then broadens out to look at the NHS and digital health information.
There is a long and largely unhappy history of bold claims for the application of information management to the health service, which have consumed a lot of money but have had proportionately little to show for it. NHSX is the latest attempt to bring it all together, and the argument here is that this still represents technology modernisation rather than digital radicalism.
That leads to a still more fundamental issue, a challenge to one of the great mantras of digital government, that the strategy is delivery. That’s always been a naive view – it’s fine to argue that a strategy which doesn’t result in delivery isn’t much of a strategy, but the argument that the strategy emerges from delivery doesn’t really hold up. Instead, the question here is whether government should be rethinking its role more radically, embracing the idea of government as a platform, rather than building another platform for government.
Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government
A history of street lighting in Croydon might not seem like immediately compelling reading. But both the history and the parallels with digital government are unexpectedly fascinating.
A few points stand out. The first is the retrospective inevitability of commoditisation. The parallel between electricity networks and data networks may seem obvious, how far that moves up the stack and with what consequences is rather less so (because less of that had happened yet).
The second is a different way of coming at a question which has arisen around digital public services pretty much from their first appearance: does a model of government drive the design of online services, or does the building of online services drive thinking about government?
And the third is a good reminder that changing and modernising can be much harder than building from scratch, and that for governments more than most, the new is almost invariably intertwined with the old.
Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 1 — Introduction
The idea of describing things in terms of stacks is a familiar one in the worlds of technology and of operating models. It’s not such a familiar way of describing government, though it’s an idea with an honourable history, including Mark Foden’s essential summary in his gubbins video.
This post is a trailer for a series of forthcoming posts under the banner of Platform Land, which promises to be compelling reading. That promise rests in part on the recognition in this introduction of the fact that governments are both organisations with much in common with other kinds of organisation and at the same time organisations with some very specific characteristics which go well beyond service delivery:
Considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.
The emergence of government platforms represents a new way of organizing the work of government. As such, the task at hand is not to understand how we patch existing systems of government, but of how we adapt to something new that will come with its own set of opportunities and challenges, risks and prizes.
Rewired State: 10 years on
Richard Pope and James Darling
What do you have to do to make government work better? People have been asking that question for a very long time (it’s over 150 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report asked a version of it for the UK government), but answers continue to be elusive.
Ten years ago, there was an attempt to approach the problem bottom up rather than top down: demonstrating better government by building some small pieces of it to demonstrate what could be – and should be – possible. It was an attempt which was small to vanishing in its direct effect, but was an influential precursor of much of what followed. That influence is still visible in the way things get designed and built across government, but something of the radical edge has got lost along the way.
This post both celebrates what was done in those heady days and poses the challenging question of where the equivalent radicalism needs to come from now. Gradual change is not enough, it argues, now is not a time for patching. Given that build up, the call to action falls a little flat – a resounding cry for a committee of enquiry into the civil service hardly sets the heart racing. But the fact that better answers may be needed emphasises rather than undermines the power of the question.
Arguments against the autonomous vehicle utopia
Alexis Madrigal – The Atlantic
It should by now be beyond obvious that technology is never just about the technology, but somehow the hype is always with us. This article is a useful counter, listing and briefly explaining seven reasons why autonomous vehicles may not happen and may not be an altogether good thing if they do.
It’s worth reading not only – perhaps even not mainly – for its specific insights as for its method: thinking about the sociology and economics of technology may give more useful insights than thinking just about the technology itself.
Proof of concept, prototype, pilot, MVP – what’s in a name?
Bas Leurs and Kelly Duggan – Nesta
Testing, piloting, prototyping and a few more words besides all mean something similar, but all mean something different – though whether we would all agree on quite what the differences are is another matter.
This post sets out to distinguish and to map the scope of four approaches and to argue for greater rigour in their usage. The distinction is definitely useful and the rigour is definitely desirable, though the quest for absolute rigour of specialist language in general usage tends to end in disappointment. But that’s not a reason not to be as clear as possible, and it’s certainly not a reason for practitioners to be anything other than precise both in their understanding of what they are doing and in how that understanding is shared.
It’s OK to reinvent the wheel
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.
Managing Innovation teams in complex environments
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.
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.
The art and practice of intelligence design
Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose
Geoff Mulgan has written a book about the power of collective intelligence. Martin Stewart-Weeks has amplified and added to Geoff’s work by writing a review. And now this note may spread attention and engagement a little further.
That is a ridiculously trite introduction to a deeply serious book. Spreading, amplifying, challenging and engaging with ideas and the application of those ideas are all critically important, and it’s hard to imagine serious disagreement with the proposition that it’s the right thing to do. But the doing of it is hard, to put it mildly. More importantly, that’s only one side of the driving problem: how do unavoidably collective problems get genuinely collective solutions? And in the end, that question is itself just such a problem, demanding just such a solution. Collectively, we need to find it. It’s well worth reading the book, but this review is a pretty good substitute.