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.
Sam Villis – OneTeamGov
After 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?
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.
Successful strategy involves both the destination and the journey, and because of that (though not only that) successful strategy is inextricably linked with successful leadership. This text of a recent speech is not only a powerful account of one person’s development as a leader, but is also a manifesto for a kind of leadership which is very different from the norm of the civil service (which is the context for both Clare and her audience). Clare talks about conformity and rebellion – and about ‘tempered radicals’ who tread a fine line between the two. That’s a place occupied by strategists too: being as constructively disruptive as is humanly possible up to and beyond – but not too far beyond – the capacity of their organisation to manage change effectively.
Alix Dunn – Medium
One of the unavoidable problems in curating a site like Strategic Reading is that lots of the posts and articles end up slightly blurring into one another. That’s a good thing in many ways: ideas build on each other, views of the world coalesce, but it can sometimes feel as though there isn’t much really new thinking.
This post is different. It is deliberately disruptive and challenging and provides some useful insights into a problem which has existed for a long time, but has been largely overlooked. What counts as the right kind of knowledge to understand and use technology effectively? It isn’t in itself technical knowledge – telling everybody to learn to code is no more effective than addressing transport management problems through the medium of car maintenance classes. And it isn’t stepping away, leaving such issues to the priesthood of the initiated. The limitations of that model are increasingly obvious in a world where big companies refuse to acknowledge or understand the sociology of technology.
The answer suggested here is something called ‘technical intuition’ (which is a slightly odd label, since it’s about being knowledgeable rather than intuitive), which allows people who are not technically expert to imagine, to inquire, to decide and to demand. That’s then brought to life in an example about an individual deciding whether to sign up for a supermarket loyalty card. That’s fair enough in its own terms. Personal understanding of the implications of technology related decisions is really important (and closely related to what Rachel Coldicutt calls digital understanding).
But that leaves us with two essential questions, which are left implied but not addressed. The first is where this intuition is to come from. If it is a body of knowledge, how is it to be assembled, conveyed and absorbed – all of which are preconditions to its being acted on. The second is how it then scales and aggregates – both in terms of where the social (as opposed to individual) acceptability of loyalty cards comes from, and, very differently, how that leads to confidence in other kinds of decision making. What is the technical intuition we should expect supermarket executives to display in designing loyalty cards in the first place? And in some ways, that is the most important question of all.
Clare Sherwood and Joanne Gillies
At a time when some are feeling a sense of government blogging getting more sanitised and homogenised, it’s good to come across a post so clearly connected to the real experience – good and bad – of people who, as a result, still sound like people.
This post is worth reading for the substance as well. The question of how we best bring together the skills and experience of people expert in government and policy making with the pace and perspective of people expert in service design and solution delivery is one which is still very much with us. The founding premise of the one team government movement was that those two groups each have much to learn from the other: this post illustrates both the power of that insight and how hard it is to act on it systematically.
One quibble with the argument is the way the word ‘digital’ is used. There is a sense that agile, customer-focused, design-led approaches are somehow digital while, by implication, not-digital things are based on different and inferior approaches. That’s not wholly wrong – but it’s not wholly right either, and doesn’t encourage the melding of approaches rightly being suggested here. Success is more likely if it is not ‘digital thinking’ which is dispersed across the organisation, but approaches to problem solving which are valuable in their own right.
Tony Meggs – Civil Service Quarterly
A policy which cannot be – or is not – implemented is a pretty pointless thing. The value in policy and strategy is not in the creation of documents or legislation (essential though that might be), but in making something, somewhere better for someone. Good policy is designed with delivery very much in mind. Good delivery can trace a clear and direct line to the policy intention it is supporting.
That’s easily said, but as we all know, there is no shortage of examples where that’s not what has happened in practice. More positively, there is also no shortage of people and organisations focused on making it work better. Much of that has been catalysed – more or less directly – through digital and service design, with the idea now widely accepted (albeit still sometimes more in principle than in practice) that teams should be formed from the outset by bringing together a range of disciplines and perspectives. But as this post reminds us, there is another way of thinking about how to bring design and delivery together, focusing on implementation and programme management.
But perhaps most importantly, the post stresses the need to recognise and manage the pressures in a political system to express delivery confidence at an earlier stage and with greater precision than can be fully justified. Paradoxically (it might appear), embracing uncertainty is a powerful way of enhancing delivery confidence.
This is an energetic and challenging presentation on the state of digital government – or rather of
digital government in the UK. It’s available in various formats, the critical thing is to make sure you read the notes as well as look at the slides.
The first part of the argument is that digital government has got to a critical mass of inexorability. That doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t sometimes been slow and painful and it doesn’t mean that individual programmes and even organisations will survive, or even that today’s forecasts about the future of government will be any more accurate in their detail than those of twenty years ago. It does though mean that the questions then and now were basically the right ones even if it has been – and is – a struggle to work towards good answers.
The second part of the argument introduces a neat taxonomy of the stages of maturity of digital government, with the argument that the UK is now somewhere between the integrate and reboot phases. That’s clearly the direction of travel, but it’s perhaps more debatable how much of government even now is at that point of inflexion. The present, like the future, remains unevenly distributed.
Warren Fauvel – Medium
Another paired post – following the argument that policy should be deprecated, this is a much more positive – and remarkably concise – set of statements about what policy is (with some useful hints about what it might be).
Beatrice Karol Burks – Designing Good Things
This is a short polemic against the idea of policy, and by extension against the (self) importance of those who make it. It clearly and strongly makes an important point – but in doing so misses something important about policy and politics.
It is certainly true that starting with people and their needs is a good way of approaching problems. But it doesn’t follow that anything called policy is necessarily vacuous or redundant. Policy making, and indeed politics, is all about making choices, and those choices would still be there even if the options to be considered were better grounded.
None of that makes the practical suggestions in this post wrong. But if we forget policy, we forget something important.
James Reeves – OneTeamGov
This is clever. Deliver a one hour training session on agile for policy makers (or, presumably, others thought to be deficient in agility) in the form of a one hour long agile project. People often worry about whether agile is scalable, but they usually mean upwards – this really does seem to put the minimum into viable.
Peter Jackson – IDEO Stories
Not so many years ago, this would have been a very radical post. It is a measure of progress that the core message – services should be designed with an understanding of customers – now seems obvious. But it’s still well worth reading both for the overall clarity with which the case is made, and for some neat turns of phrase. Governments tend to start with a policy which may eventually be expressed as a service; customers experience a service and will discern dimly – if at all – the policy which ultimately drives it. And those two things are not only different in themselves, they can also have different cycle times: ‘just because a major new policy only comes around once in a lifetime, doesn’t mean you only have one chance to implement it.’
Zoe G – Medium
Some further reflections on the place of product management, building on Zoe’s post from a couple of months ago. This time the focus is on where product managers best sit organisationally – are they essential, digital, operational or policy people? The answer, of course, is that that’s not a terribly good question – not because it doesn’t matter, but because what matters doesn’t uniquely map to single organisational structures. Indeed, the question about where product managers (or, indeed, a number of other people) belong might better be asked as a question about whether the organisational structures of the last decade are optimal for the next. In the current way of doing things, the risk of losing strategic or policy intents feels like the one to be most concerned about – but, as so often, where you stand depends heavily on where you sit.
David Eaves – digitalHKS
This is the entry page for a series of posts about teaching digital at the Harvard Kennedy School (of government). This isn’t the course itself, but a series of reflections on designing and delivering it. It is though filled with insights about what it is useful to know and to think about, and how the various components fit together and reinforce each other to meet the needs of students with different backgrounds and interests in government.
If we can’t get discoveries right, we won’t get anything else right that builds on their findings. That becomes ever more important as the language – if not always the rigour – of agile expands beyond its original boundaries. This short post introduces three others which look at planning, starting and finishing a discovery. They aren’t a guide to the tasks and activities of a discovery; they are instead a very powerful and practical guide to thinking about how to make a discovery work. There is a lot here for people who know they are doing discoveries, there may be even more for people who don’t necessarily think of that as what they are doing at all
It is also, not at all incidentally, beautifully written with not a word wasted. These things matter.
Jack Collier – Medium
It’s all very well saying that policy and digital should be better integrated, but what, a policymaker might ask, has digital ever done for us? This post answers that question, describing five areas where digital perspectives can add value.
The quotation marks round ‘digital’ in the title seem significant. The transferable skills are indeed valuable, but their value does not come from their being intrinsically digital. These are approaches valuable to policymakers because they are, or more often should be, policymaking skills.
Meanwhile, there is the suggestion of a sixth area, in which digital approaches might offer fresh insights for policy challenges where legislation is not an option. The promised future post on that should be well worth reading.
Andrew Greenway – Civil Service World
Do you best transform government by importing disruption and disruptors to overwhelm the status quo, or by nurturing and encouraging deeper but slower change which more gradually displaces the status quo? Or do both methods fail, leaving government – and the civil service – to stagger on to the next crisis, all set to try again and fail again?
The argument of this post is that those attempts are doomed to failure because the civil service is not willing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis it faces, and until it is, it will never take the steps necessary to fix things. It’s a good and thought provoking polemic – and the questions above are very real ones. But it underplays two important factors. The first is to frame this as being about the civil service. Arguably, that’s too narrow a view: if you want to change the system, you have to change the system: the civil service is the way that it is in large part because of the wider political system of which it is part. The second is one the article rightly identifies, but then does not really pursue. One reason disruptive outsiders tend to fail is that by definition they are brought in at a time when they enjoy the strongest possible patronage – and it’s an understandable temptation to see that as a normal state of affairs. But the reality is that such patronage always fades. Disruptors tend to sprint; they might do better if they planned for a relay – and that is as true for those attempting to disrupt from within as for those brought in to disrupt from without.
Jack Collier – Medium
This is a really interesting perspective on when it is – and isn’t – sensible to bring digital approaches and expertise into government policy making. Digital has much to offer policy making, but the value of that offer is massively increased if it is made with some humility, recognising the need to understand and add value to the policy making process. There is a refreshing recognition that not all service design (and so even more so, not all policy) is digital and that the contexts and constraints of policy making can be very different from those assumed in agile development and delivery. That isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a return to the view that policy making is so arcane an art that only true initiates should be allowed to do it, or have an opinion on it. It is though a very welcome recognition of the value of an almost anthropological approach – the idea of sending product managers to be participant observers of the policy making world is a particularly good one.
Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab
This is an excellent reference post for two dimensions of policy design thinking.
The first part is a typology of government interventions (click on the image for a larger and more legible version), which prompts more rigorous thought about the nature of the design challenge in relation to the nature of the intended impact.
Slightly curiously, the vertical categories are described as being on a scale from ‘Low level intervention’ (stewardship) to ‘Large scale intervention’ (legislation). That’s a little simplistic. Some legislation is intended to have a very narrow effect; some attempts to influence – which look as though they belong in the ‘leader’ line – can have huge effects. But that’s a minor quibble, particularly as it is described as being still work in progress.
The second dimension is about the scale of design, from micro to macro. Thinking about it that way has the rather helpful effect of cutting off what has become a rather sterile debate about the place of service design in government. Service design is, of course, critically important, but it’s a dimension of a wider model of policy and design which doesn’t entail conflict between the layers.
Developing policy in government is hard; applying the perspectives and skills of service design can help. That’s the disarmingly simple premise of this post (and the new blog it comes from). If we understand where there are risks in developing policy, and understand the ways in which service design approaches can help mitigate those risks, then we should be able to get first to better policy and then, as a result, to more effective delivery. The aspiration is a good one and the potential benefit is large – but as Paul Maltby has described, there are some real obstacles to effective dialogue between the two perspectives which need to be overcome.
James Johnson – Design and Policy
Great practical advice on how to join policy and digital thinking together, applying the principle of going to where the user is – in this case the policy expert. Tracey writes with the empathy which comes from understanding both communities, and rightly reminds her digital audience of the merits of policy people – but also perpetuates two ideas, one tacit and one explicit, which risk hampering the ambition. The first is that policy people have much to learn from digital but digital people have little to learn from policy. The second is that the goal is for policy and digital to be recognised as being the same thing. Perhaps instead we can aim for inclusion while celebrating diversity.
Tracey Williams Allred – Medium