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.

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.

#NextStageRadicals

Andy Brogan – Easier Inc

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

Alex Glennie – Nesta

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.

Jumbo

BBC

pilots looking and pointing at a 747Fifty 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

Richard Pope – Platform Land

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

Richard Pope – Platform Land

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

Poster advertising Rewired State, 2009What 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

Matrix mapping development approaches against maturity and scaleTesting, 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

One Small Step for the Web…

Tim Berners-Lee – Medium

Time Berners-Lee didn’t invent the internet. But he did invent the world wide web, and he does not altogether like what it has become. This post is his manifesto for reversing one of the central power relationships of the web, the giving and taking of data. Instead of giving data to other organisations and having to watch them abuse it, lose it and compromise it, people should keep control of their personal data and allow third parties to see and use it only under their control.

This is not a new idea. Under the names ‘vendor relationship management’ (horrible) and ‘volunteered personal information’ (considerably better but not perfect), the thinking stretches back a decade and more, developing steadily, but without getting much traction. If nothing else, attaching Berners-Lee’s name to it could start to change that, but more substantively it’s clear that there is money and engineering behind this, as well as thoughts and words.

But one of the central problems of this approach from a decade ago also feels just as real today, perhaps more so. As so often with better futures, it’s fairly easy to describe what they should look like, but remarkably difficult to work out how to get there from here. This post briefly acknowledges the problem, but says nothing about how to address it. The web itself is, of course, a brilliant example of how a clear and powerful idea can transform the world without the ghost of an implementation plan, so this may not feel as big a challenge to Berners-Lee as it would to any more normal person. But the web filled what was in many ways a void, while the data driven business models of the modern internet are anything but, and those who have accumulated wealth and power through those models will not go quietly.

It’s nearly ten years since Tim Wu wrote The Master Switch, a meticulous account of how every wave of communications technology has started with dispersed creativity and ended with centralised industrial scale. In 2010, it was possible to treat the question of whether that was also the fate of the internet as still open, though with a tipping point visible ahead. The final sentence of the book sets out the challenge:

If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a way history has foretold

A decade on, the path dependence is massively stronger and will need to be recognised if it is to be addressed. technological creativity based on simple views of data ownership is unlikely to be enough by itself.

Table of Disruptive Technologies

Richard Watson and Anna Cupani – Imperial Tech Foresight

table of disruptove technologiesHere are a hundred disruptive technologies, set out in waves of innovation, with time to ubiquity on one axis and potential for disruption on the other. On that basis, smart nappies appear in the bottom left corner, as imminent and not particularly disruptive (though perhaps that depends on just how smart they are and on who is being disrupted), while towards the other end of the diagonal we get to transhuman technologies – and then who knows what beyond.

The authors are firm that this is scientific foresight, not idle futurism, though that’s an assertion which doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny. Planetary colonisation is further into the future than implantable phones, but will apparently be less disruptive when it comes. Dream recording falls in to the distant future category (rather than fringe science, where it might appear more at home), rather oddly on the same time scale but three levels of disruption higher than fusion power.

The table itself demonstrates that dreams are powerful. But perhaps not quite that powerful. And it’s a useful reminder, yet again, that technology change is only ever partly about the technology, and is always about a host of other things as well.

The Fast-Follower Strategy for Technology in Government

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – Governing

Governments should move slowly and try not to break things. That’s a suggestion slightly contrary to the fashionable wisdom in some quarters, but has some solid reasoning behind it. There are good reasons for governments not to be leading edge adopters – government services should work; innovation is not normally a necessary counter to existential threats; service users are not able to trade stability for excitement.

That’s not an argument against innovation, but it is an argument for setting pace and risk appropriately. As a result, this post argues, the skills government needs are less to do cutting edge novelty, and much more to do with identifying and adopting innovations from elsewhere.

Better Rules: a policy advisor’s perspective

Abbe Marks – NZ Digital government

The idea that it should be possible to capture legislative rules as code and that good things might result from doing so is not a new one. It sounds as though it should be simple: the re-expression of what has already been captured in one structured language in another. It turns out though not to be at all simple, partly because of what John Sheridan calls the intertwingling of law: the idea that law often takes effect through reference and amendment and that the precise effect of its doing so can be hard to discern.

There is interesting work going on in New Zealand experimenting with the idea of law and code in some limited domains, and this post is prompted by that work. What makes it distinctive is that it is written from a policy perspective, asking questions such as whether the discipline of producing machine consumable rules is a route to better policy development. It’s still unclear how far this approach might take us – but the developments in New Zealand are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

The enduring mythology of the whiz kid

Hana Schank – Co.Design

Innovation is perhaps second only to transformation as a word to convey excitement and derring do to the messy business of getting things done in organisations – a view promoted not least by people whose derring may be rather stronger than their do.

The assumption that disruption and iconoclasm are the best – or even only – way of making significant and sustained change happen is a curiously pervasive one. The problem with it is not that it’s always wrong, but that there is good reason to think that it’s not always right. As this post argues, sometimes deep experience can be just as powerful, in part because intractable problems often respond better to sustained incremental efforts than to a single transformational solution.

This article suffers a little from a rather patronising view of government, and some of the examples used tend to the trivial. But the underlying point remains a good one: people who understand and care about the problem may be the people best placed to solve it – if they are given the licence to do so.