Is Estonia the Silicon Valley of digital government?

Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel – UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

The story of how Estonia became the most e of e-governments is often told, but often pretty superficially and often with an implied – or even explicit – challenge to everybody else to measure themselves and their governments against the standard set by Estonia and despair. This post provides exactly the context which is missing from such accounts: Estonia is certainly the result of visionary leadership, which at least in principle could be found anywhere, but it is also the result of some very particular circumstances which can’t simply be copied or assumed to be universal. There is also a hint of the question behind Solow’s paradox: the real test is not the implementation of technology, but the delivery of better outcomes.

None of that is to knock Estonia’s very real achievements, but yet again to make clear that the test of the effectiveness of technology is not a technological one.

Too Many Projects

Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins – Harvard Business Review

The hardest bit of strategy is not thinking up the goal and direction in the first place. It’s not even identifying the set of activities which will move things in the desired direction. The hardest bit is stopping all the things which aren’t heading in that direction or are a distraction of attention or energy from the most valuable activities. Stopping things is hard. Stopping things which aren’t necessarily failing to do the thing they were set up to do, but are nevertheless not the most important things to be doing, is harder. In principle, it’s easier to stop things before they have started than to rein them in once they have got going, but even that is pretty hard.

In all of that, ‘hard’ doesn’t mean hard in principle: the need, and often the intention, is clear enough. It means instead that observation of organisations, and particularly larger and older organisation, provides strong reason to think that it’s hard in practice. Finding ways of doing it better is important for many organisations.

This article clearly and systematically sets out what underlies the problem, what doesn’t work in trying to solve it – and offers some very practical suggestions for what does. Practical does not, of course, mean easy. But if we don’t start somewhere, project sclerosis will only get worse.

Spoiler alert – there are now 9 tribes of digital

Catherine Howe – Curious?

The eight tribes of digital (which were once seven) have become nine.

The real value of the tribes – other than that they are the distillation of four years of observation, reflection and synthesis – is not so much in whether they are definitively right (which pretty self-evidently they aren’t, and can’t be) but as a prompt for understanding why individuals and groups might behave as they do. And of course, the very fact that there can be nine kinds of digital is another way of saying that there is no such thing as digital

Using the 7 Lenses of Transformation

Billy Street – Transforming Together

This post provides a good introduction to The 7 Lenses of Transformation recently published by the UK government. Its power is in a form of modesty: there is no spurious promise that religiously following a methodology takes the risk and challenge out of transformational change, but instead provides a sensible framing of seven areas which need to be thought about and acted on to increase the chances of success. It is strewn with useful prompts, reminders and challenges. But it also prompts a couple of broader questions.

The first is what counts as transformation, as opposed to mere change. The definition in the guidance isn’t altogether satisfactory, as ‘reducing the costs of delivering services and improving our internal processes’ is sufficient to count. That’s not just a niggle about wording: if there is something distinctive about transformation, there needs to be some clarity about what it is. It’s tempting to fall back to simple scale – but some large scale changes aren’t particularly transformational, while some much smaller changes can have a really radical impact on the relationship between inputs, outputs and, most importantly, outcomes.

The second is an inherent problem with numbered lists, which is that they present themselves as self-contained. It’s worth reflecting on what an eighth item might be. One possible answer is that there is more – quite a lot more – to be said in expansion of the seventh lens, on people. The recognition that people need to be involved and enthused is a good start, but a communication campaign isn’t a sufficient means of achieving that: if change is transformational, it is almost certain that it expects – and depends on – people’s behaviour changing, and it is dangerous to assume that behavioural change is an automatic by-product of change programmes. And of course there will often be many more people affected than those in the programme team itself – a point the ‘red flags’ section seems to overlook.

And there is a small but subtly important issue in the title: the lens metaphor is an odd one, which doesn’t stand up to very much thought. That’s not to say that there is a single self-evidently better one, but moving away from language which implies inspection and distortion to language which hints more at engagement and multiple perspectives might be a stronger foundation for delivering real transformation.

The purpose of organisations

Mark Foden

This is a short, perhaps even slightly cryptic, note on the purpose of organisations. Having had the unfair advantage of being part of the conversation which prompted it, my sense is that it captures two related, but distinct, issues.

The first is that not everything has a purpose at all, in any terribly useful or meaningful sense. We can observe and describe what elements of a system do, but that does not mean that each such element has a purpose, still less that any purpose it might have relates to the behaviour of the wider system of which it is part. Not being careful here can lead to spectacular errors of reverse causation – the purpose of noses is not, as Pangloss argued, to support the wearing of spectacles.

The second is that it is easy to look at human-made systems and assume that they have a purpose, and that that purpose can be both discerned and – should we wish it – amended. That’s an understandable hope, but not necessarily a realistic one. Organisations of any size are both complex systems in their own right and components of larger and yet more complex systems. What they do and how they do it cannot be reduced to a single simple proposition. That’s not, I take it, a nihilistic argument against trying to understand or influence; it is a recognition that we need to recognise and respect complexity, not wish it away.

What makes a great leader, explained in eight counterintuitive charts

Shane Snow – Quartz

disagredable+altruistic=angelic troublemakersThe two by two matrix is perhaps the most overused tool in the history of management thinking and has come to symbolise slick and superficial consultancy advice. So it takes a certain amount of bravery – or perhaps foolhardiness – to attempt to explain leadership through eight of them.

It’s not a completely successful attempt – some of the axes feel a bit forced – but it packs a lot into a small space. And who, after all, would not want to be an angelic troublemaker?

The End of the Beginning of Digital Service Units

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – digital HKS

This interesting post steps back from the detail of digital teams in governments around the world to ask in a more general way where to go next. Once the team has been established, once the early battles won, once the first examples of what better looks like have been produced, once at least some form of stable existence has been achieved – what then?

The post is partly a reflection on ways of embedding change in government – by exerting control, or by building consensus – and partly a recognition that some of these teams, including the GDS in the UK, are facing both the easiest and the hardest stage of their existence. Easiest because a degree of maturity has been established, delivery has been demonstrated, and the voices suggesting that the whole thing is a waste of time are quieter and fewer. But hardest because those early deliveries have a tendency to be superficial (which is not at all to say simple or easy): they sit on top of structures and functions of government which remain fundamentally unchanged. That’s been apparent from early on – this post, for example, argued six years ago that the superstructure cannot determine the base. That mattered less in the early days, because there were other things to do, but is critical to the future of government.

And that’s more or less where Eaves and McGuire end up too:

Behind us is the hard part of starting up. Today is about building capital and capacity. What’s next in the mid term…? A long slow battle over what the structure and shape of government will look like. And making progress on that I fear will be infinitely more difficult and painful than improving services on a project by project basis.

Digital Government and Public Service Transformation

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

This simple and powerful set of slides does an extraordinarily good job of summarising the key issues in digital transformation, not least in being really clear about the extent to which all of this is a technology issue (not as much as it looks) as opposed to an everything else issue (much more than it first appears). The section on ‘deciding how you want to work’ gets twice as many slides as ‘thinking about your technology needs’, which is a pretty strong indicator of the approach being taken.

It’s certainly possible to challenge some of the details. The arresting assertion that ‘we can broadly take for granted that technology can do whatever we want it to do’ perhaps has more power than precision – though the slightly lesser claim the technology needed to support government processes already exists is indeed a useful reminder that appeals for technological exceptionalism are very likely to be misguided. The insistence that agile projects can’t succeed in organisations which retain traditional approaches to funding and governance is both wrong and unhelpful: wrong because there are plenty of example of where it has succeeded, and unhelpful because every organisation has to start somewhere, and if agile can’t work at all unless everything is agile, there is effectively no way of making that start.

Overall, though, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses – and this is a beautiful example of doing the hard work to make things simple. As a further bonus, the slides are open for comments, and have already sprouted a rich set of observations from Matthew Cain.

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.

Stages of resistance

Janet Hughes

Sometimes a simple tweet says all there is to say. Though in this case it’s well worth reading the replies as well.

Seven public sector trends

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking survey of the public policy landscape, examining trends setting the context for public sector reform ranging from reversing decline of trust, through rethinking the scope and nature of digital transformation, to blending policy, design and delivery. All of that is bound together by a recognition that these are all systems problems – or, arguably, all facets of a single systems problem – and the test of change in that wider system will be whether authority, money and power flow differently from the way they do today.

We all need governance

Richard McLean – Medium

If headlines are designed to excite the readers and entice them into the words which follow, this one would win no prizes. It is not fashionable to be excited about governance and indeed it often becomes one of those irregular verbs – I do agile; you do project management; they do governance. And who wants to be like them?

This post is a healthy challenge to that point of view, refreshingly written in human speak, which is something not always found in writing on this subject. It sets out some of the value governance provides in terms of setting direction, committing resources and assuring progress more form the perspective of the user of governance than of its imposer. That’s not of course to say that the current way of doing those things provides the optimal balance – and there is a tantalising promise of a second post on the biggest single thing we can do to improve governance. Presumably that one is still going through the approvals process.

Can government stop losing its mind?

Gavin Starks – NESTA
This is an interesting report which asks almost the right question. Government is at little risk of losing its mind, or its short term memory. The two better questions – which in practice are the ones this report starts to address – are whether government can stop losing its longer term memory, and how the power of the government’s mind can be enhanced by better ways of connecting and amplifying its component parts.

Those are important questions. It’s already all too easy to forget how long we have been worrying about the ease of forgetting things. Aspects of the problem have been recognised, and solutions attempted, since the earliest days of what we no longer call electronic government. None has been more than partially successful.

The two questions are also closely related. People are reluctant to incur even the smallest overhead in storing things for the benefit of posterity, so the benefit needs to come from improving the effectiveness of current work. Conversely, tools which facilitate collaboration, sharing and serendipity will often (though with some very important exceptions) also be tools which facilitate the storage and discovery of what has been created. That was one of the key themes of a series of blog posts I wrote a couple of years ago, which covered some (though by no means all) of the same ground – including the observation, echoed in this report, that the web was invented to be an intranet and knowledge management tool; the world wide bit came rather later.

Where this report adds to the debate is in its more explicit recognition not just that we need to be thinking about texts rather than documents, but that a lot of what we need to be thinking about isn’t conventional text in the first place, making the paginated document an even less useful starting point for thinking about all this.

And there is a delicious irony that this blog – and my blogging generally – exists in large part to serve as my outboard memory, now with well over a decade of material created in part as protection against the weaknesses of institutional knowledge preservation.

Management vs managerialism

Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling

And along comes another one, on similar lines to the previous post on strategies, this time decrying managerialism. Management is good, managerialism tends to unjustified and unbounded faith in management as a generic skill, to imposing direction and targets from above – and to abstract concepts of strategy and vision. As ever, Chris Dillow hits his targets with gusto.

Another way of putting that is that there is good management and bad management, and that there is not enough of the former and too much of the latter. That sounds trivial, but it’s actually rather important: is there a Gresham’s law of management where bad displaces good, and if there is, what would it take to break it?

What we’ve learned by being ‘DOTI’

Lucy – Snook

One of the reasons why large organisations find change hard is that inevitably new things are at first small in relation to established things. That’s not – in the short term – a problem for the established things: they can just ignore the new thing. It’s very much a problem for the new things: they need to find ways of operating in a system optimised for the old things.

This post is the distillation of a number of discussions about how to do design from the inside. It’s interesting in its own right in suggesting some responses to the challenge of making things happen from the inside. But it’s doubly interesting precisely because it is about making things happen: design on the inside is a very close relation of change on the inside.

How to Innovate on the Operating Model of Public Services

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

A recurrent criticism of governments’ approach to digital services has been that they have been over focused on the final stage of online interaction, leaving the fundamental organisation and operation of government services unchanged. More recently, design has more often gone deeper, looking at all elements of the service and the systems which support it, but still largely leaving the underlying concept of the service in question unchallenged and unchanged. This post takes that a stage further to look at options for the underlying operating model. Eight are set out in the post, but it is probably still true that most government service design and delivery happens under the first two heading. What are the prospects for the other six – and for all the others which haven’t made it onto this list?

A bit more on Coasian hells

The Yorkshire Ranter

This is a follow up to a post covered here a few days ago which looked critically at outsourcing, starting from the fundamental question first posed by Coase on what organisations should do and what they should buy. This second post is at one level a short summary of the first one, but it’s also rather more than that. It puts forward a slightly different way of framing the question, making the point that time and uncertainty are relevant to the decision, as well as pure transaction cost narrowly defined.

There are transactions, which are in the moment, and imply no further commitment or relationship. There are contracts, which are a commitment to future transactions, and depend on shared assumptions about the future conditions in which those transactions will happen. And there are organisations, which exist in the space beyond contractual precision and certainty.

To complete the hat trick, there is also a separate post applying this thinking to Capita. Even for those less interested in the company, it’s worth reading to the end to get to the punch in the punchline:

In important ways, this is the service that Capita provided and still provides: the ability to blame problems on computers and computer people, while ignoring the physical reality of policy

How the Organisation Subverts its Subversives

John Atkinson – Heart of the Art

Being a subversive is hard work. That’s partly because being the odd one out takes more energy than going with the flow, but it’s also because subversion decays: yesterday’s radicalism is today’s fashion and tomorrow’s received wisdom, to be challenged by the next round of subversion. If that sounds a bit like the innovator’s dilemma, that’s perhaps because it is, with some of the same consequences: you can ride the S-curve to the top, but if you don’t flip to the next curve, your subversion-fu will be lost.

The reciprocal effect – which is more the focus of this post – is the effect on the organisation being subverted. Just yesterday, I heard ‘minimum viable product’ being used to mean ‘best quick fix we can manage in the time’. The good intention was still there, as was an echo of the original meaning, but the hard edge of the concept had been lost, partly I suspect, because it had become dissociated from the conceptual context which gave the original meaning. That’s not deliberate degradation but – as the post notes – is the consequence of a virtuous attempt to bring in new thinking, only for it to get absorbed by the wider culture.

So the challenge for subversives remains: how to keep subverting themselves, how to stay one curve ahead.

In The Eternal Inferno, Fiends Torment Ronald Coase With The Fate Of His Ideas

The Yorkshire Ranter

Organisations, including governments, follow fashions. Some of those fashions change on short cycles, others move more slowly, sometimes creating the illusion of permanence. The fashion for outsourcing, for buying rather than making, has been in place in government for many years, but there are some interesting signs that change may be coming. One immediate cause and signal of that change is the collapse of Carillion, but that happened at point when the debate was already beginning to change.

This post goes back to the roots of the make or buy choice in the work of Ronald Coase on the nature of the firm. The principle is simple enough, that it makes sense to buy things when the overhead of creating and managing contracts is low and to make them when the overheads are high. The mistake, it is argued here, is that organisations, particularly governments, have systematically misunderstood the cost and complexity of contract management, resulting in the creation of large businesses and networks of businesses whose primary competence is the creation and management of contracts.

One consequence of that is that it becomes difficult or impossible to understand the true level of costs within a contractual system (because prices quickly stop carrying that information) or to understand how the system works (because tacit knowledge is not costed or paid for).

All very thought provoking, and apparently the first in a series of posts. It will be worth looking out for the others.