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.

Collective Intelligence Can Change the World

Geoff Mulgan – Bloomberg

Geoff Mulgan comes at the power of collective intelligence in this article from an interestingly different direction from that taken by Tim Harford. The underlying thought is the same: that individuals are subject to false confidence and confirmation bias, and that tempering that through more collective approaches leads to better results. This article though is more interested in the systems which embody that intelligence than in diluting individuality through diverse teams. Regulation and audit are examples of ways which are intended to discourage aberrant behaviour by encapsulating shared wisdom about ways of doing things in ways which are both efficient and effective in themselves and also counter illusion and self-deception.

This is an extract from Geoff’s new book, Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World.

True diversity means looking for the knife in a drawer of spoons

Tim Harford – The Undercover Economist

Teams with diverse capabilities perform better than teams which are too homogeneous. That much isn’t – or shouldn’t be – controversial. But this post adds two succinct insights to that starting point. The first is that despite the known value of diversity, recruitment and team formation tends to optimise for convergence rather than divergence – and that’s got a lot to do with the fact that diversity is a property of teams, not of individuals. So the more people are recruited in groups, the easier it should be to ensure that between them the successful candidates cover the full range of the needed skills and experience. The second is that homogeneous teams tend to think they are performing better but actually to be performing worse than teams which include a divergent outsider. A degree of social discomfort is a price which turns out to be well worth paying for better performance.

This is one of two articles worth reading together – the other is Geoff Mulgan’s on collective intelligence – as they cover some closely related ground from quite a different starting point.

The Cost Center Trap

Mary Poppendieck – LeanEssays

IT projects used to be about – or at least were perceived to be about – building things. That determined not just how the work was done, but also how it was managed and accounted for. That leads to a focus on the production of assets, which in turn depreciate. And treating software as a capital asset has consequences not just in arcane accounting treatments, but in how digital can be measured and managed – and those ways are, this post argues, counter-productive if we want to see sustained continuous agile improvement.

That’s not just an interesting argument in its own right, it’s also a great example of how understanding ‘the way things are done round here’ requires several layers of digging and goes well beyond ‘culture’ as some amorphous driver of perverse behaviour.

Digital archiving: disrupt or be disrupted?

John Sheridan – The National Archives blog

This post works at two entirely different levels. It is a bold claim of right to the challenges of digital archiving, based on the longevity of the National Archives as an organisation, the trust it has earned and its commitment to its core mission – calling on a splendidly Bayesian historiography.

But it can be read another way, as an extended metaphor for government as a whole. There is the same challenge of managing modernity in long established institutions, the same need to sustain confidence during rapid systemic change. And there is the same need to grow new government services on the foundations of the old ones, drawing on the strength of old capabilities even as new ones are developed.

And that, of course, should be an unsurprising reading. Archival record keeping is changing because government itself is changing, and because archives and government both need to keep pace with the changing world.

Digital Disruption Is a People Problem

Gerald Kane – MIT Sloan Management Review

The idea of digital disruption is familiar enough. Usually that’s seen as a consequence of rapid technological change. Clearly that’s part of the story, but this post argues that the more important challenge is not so much adopting the technology as adapting the people and organisations which use it – and that that is messier and harder to do well. It follows that to be successful digitally, organisations need to be effective at managing organisational change.

Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

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.