Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part Three

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

This is the third of a trilogy of posts from a trio of authors, prompting three points in response (following some more general comments when the first in the series appeared).

This post (and the entire series) is the result of deep reflection and contains powerful insights. It challenges its readers to reflect and respond, and where the post offers answers, they are hard ones, not easy. This note makes no attempt to address that full breadth, but instead explores one part of the argument.

The starting point is the idea of cathedral thinking, the recognition that some forms of building can take generations to complete and that the original visionaries are anticipating a future they may not be part of. There is real power in challenging both the priority of short term delivery and more subtly, but perhaps still more importantly, the pressure to exclude approaches which take a longer term focus from being seen, let alone adopted.

But there is also a tension. Our cathedral thinking is for the long term, for the benefit of those who come after us. But what of the cathedral thinking of our predecessors, how should their ideas inform and constrain our present and our future? If we should build bridges to the future, should we not also respect the bridges built from the past? This doesn’t work if everybody is an architect and nobody is a mason, so there is some difficulty in immediately going on to assert that:

Old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive

There are two ways of responding to that apparent conflict. One is by recognising its reality. Past decisions do necessarily and unavoidably constrain what we can do and how we can do it, in ways which are obvious for engineering (and perhaps cathedrals), but are no less real for cultures, systems and organisations. Most design is not of cathedrals, which stand alone, dominant and largely unchangeable, but is of streetscapes and landscapes, where the new is unavoidably in a relationship with the old.

The other is to accept, as the authors of the post very clearly do, that machine metaphors can be less helpful than ecosystem metaphors. Both past generations’ half-built cathedrals and our own laying of foundations for cathedrals of the future are perhaps unhelpful ways of thinking, if what we are doing instead is nurturing a landscape. As they say, ‘the process of change in existing systems of government is slow, messy, and social work’.

It is always tempting to start designing the future with a blank sheet of paper. But there never is a blank sheet of paper. Nothing in government (or anywhere else much) starts from nowhere, there is always history. That history is not deterministic, but we have no hope of getting to where we might want to go without understanding where we are starting from.

That leads us on to the second point, prompted by this important insight:

In the Civil Service, we think of roles as fixed and people as movable. Civil Servants, in our myth, are cogs in a policy and delivery machine, roles to be fulfilled by interchangeable skilled professionals. Yet, in the centre of government almost the opposite dynamic can be seen: despite best efforts, reforms and change initiatives are rarely fully institutionalised. They tend to live and die on the power and presence of their champions, and when either reduces, the system moves quickly to cannibalise the remnants and adopt the next idea.

They are right about myth and reality. Indeed more than that, this is an issue not just about champions, but about system states. The champion themselves may be an agent of the system state, rather than the untrammelled change agent they are perceived to be – and often perceive themselves to be. They flourish for a period when a critical mass of system characteristics align and lose their way when entropy reasserts itself. So there is a critical but all too rarely asked question, how is the benign period best used to maximise the chances of positive change continuing when less benign circumstances inevitably follow on?

And so to the third and final point. The exploratory thinking captured in these three posts may be the beginning of an approach to answering that question. But if it is, that answer is not a comfortable one. The argument that personal and systematic change are inseparable is powerfully made – and if it is right, it must follow that systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.

Amended 1 June 2021 to add back a paragraph lost in editing

Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part One

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

Organisations have structures. It is possible to operate within those structures. It is possible to operate between and around those structures.

Authority to operate within the structures comes from the structure itself. It is granted and it can be withheld, it can be used to do good, but what counts as good is not unconstrained. There are strengths in this approach as well as weaknesses.

Authority to act between and around the structures comes from nowhere. It is generated by behaving as if it were already there. Since it has not been granted, it cannot be withheld – which is very different from saying that it cannot be crushed or undermined. It can be used to do good, and what counts as good is itself part of what is contested. There are weaknesses in this approach, as well as strengths.

The authors of this post operate, as to an extent we all do, in both those worlds. Unlike most of us they are sensitive to the potential of the second world and bring some of the power of the first world to it. Position in the first world can be a form of currency in the second, though the exchange rate is uncertain and unstable. But the greater potential flows in the opposite direction: the second world can revolutionise the first and is perhaps the only thing that can, although that is a very long way from saying that it will or that the attempt will be in any way easy.

So how can a degree of safety be created, how can conditions be set in ways which maximise the chances of the informal catalysing the formal, of the formal embracing the informal? “Much of our work isn’t well understood and happens in places where we are uninvited,” they tell us. This post is, perhaps, an invitation from the uninvited to join them in those imprecise places, found between and around the structures of organisations.

CDO Chat – Kit Collingwood

Kit Collingwood and Dave Briggs

This video conversation is modestly billed as a CDO chat, but is actually a master class in strategy development and application. The approach is deceptively simple. Two people who bring both depth of experience and thoughtful reflection range over everything from rapid mobilisation in the face of a pandemic, through the vital importance of using data effectively, the challenges of dealing with dominant vendors, creating a team with the right balance of expertise and humility, and giving that team the support to design and build services which meet the needs of people outside and inside the organisation,

But what makes all that good strategic watching is the place of the strategy itself in bringing coherence and setting direction. Kit makes a powerful case for the place of simplicity and humility in strategy. This is strategy not as grand vision or teetering on the cutting edge of technological innovation, but as a clear exposition of things which need to work well and the steps to be taken to make that happen. Beyond that, it is a mechanism to bring focus to accountability, which is perhaps the greatest strength of this approach.

Kit claims in passing to possess but not to have read Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Similar ways of framing and addressing strategic questions are though apparent in her approach, which perfectly embodies his three characteristics of a good strategy.

What’s the “Uber” of the Civil Service?

Terence Eden

This intriguing post starts from – and riffs off – the provocative observation (now, amazingly, more than five years old) that

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

What then is the equivalent core asset of a government department that it might not need any more? Does a policy department need expertise in the policies for which it is responsible, or does it only need to create a market and attract the information and insights it needs from a pool of gig workers? It’s an entertaining idea. But it’s worth noting that there are other things the organisations we started with don’t do – adding to the original, one might say that:

Uber doesn’t care where you want to go. Facebook doesn’t care what you want to share. Alibaba doesn’t care what you want to buy. Airbnb doesn’t care where you want to spend the night.

So before turning a government department into a bundle of StackOverflow questions, perhaps we would need to understand what it was that that department didn’t care about. And whether, once we had taken that thing away, the thing which remained was a government department in any meaningful sense at all.

The pandemic has broken the promise of universal healthcare

Charlotte Augst – Health Service Journal

There are three reasons for reading this article. The first is that it describes a health service stressed to its limits, which is very naturally a matter of wide concern. The second is that it is beautifully and perceptively written, as is everything which Charlotte Augst writes. And the third – which is what brings into the scope of strategic reading – is that it is a fascinating description of a failing system and thus of how systems fail. Failure of a machine or of a business is often obvious and binary. The engine starts, or it doesn’t; the shop is open, or it has closed. An organisation – or rather and entity – such as the NHS degrades to failure in a very different way. Understanding that difference, and recognising when it is happening is a necessary precondition to influencing its trajectory. Not all Cheshire cats end with a smile.

A Manifesto for Better Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.

Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.

It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.

Enabling collaboration across the public sector

Pia Andrews – The Mandarin

Pia Andrews has long been a powerful voice and a practical exponent of doing government better, not least doing government better in ways which confront and address the difficulties caused by the structures of governments themselves.

This article is a great summary of some of that thinking. Much of its power comes from the recognition that government is fundamentally about people and their relationships with each other, and that that is true as much of people within government as it is of the people that governments serve. Vertical organisational structures can easily be and often are barriers to collaboration and dampeners of motivation, reinforced by a concept of leadership derived from functional management. But none of those is immutable, and a combination of fresh approaches to teams and leadership internally with a readiness to look at the needs of the people governments serve more holistically has real power and potential (greater than either one considered in isolation).

Transformation is not a programme

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Flow chart distinguishing hopeful thinking from transformationTransformation 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.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

The (im)possibility of speaking truth to power

Naomi Stanford

Speaking truth to power is often talked about as though it is a heroic endeavour, a point of challenge and catharsis, a showdown when either the message is heard or the messenger is shot. And of course if the norm is that power does not hear truth, none of that is surprising. But perhaps the more interesting approach is to ask why that is assumed to be the norm, and what might change it.

This post doesn’t – and couldn’t – answer that question, but it does shed some interesting light on it. If what is actually at issue is as much or more competing belief systems rather than competing realities, then solutions can’t be about piling up more facts, but might have to do with building relationships in a different way. The difficult bit in that, of course, is not the speaking of truth to power. That just takes bravery. The difficult bit is creating the conditions for power to listen, and that takes a much broader set of skills and approaches.

But as the post hints at, it would be better still to reverse the question. The real challenge is for leaders to show more clearly that they want to listen, not for courtiers to have to balance honesty and self-preservation.

Where system change meets agile practice; the multidisciplinary primordial soup

Catherine Howe – Curious?

alt="diagram showing circles of influence and control in a system" It’s been clear for a good while that the boundary zone between an agile project and a less than agile host organisation is often rife with friction, incomprehension and frustration. The value of reducing the friction is obvious; the nature of the best lubricant rather less so.

There are various more or less mechanical ways of approaching this – treating it essentially as the alignment of two models of governance. This post comes at it at a rather different angle, with a strong emphasis on finding approaches which deliver psychological safety for those involved and which recognise the different (and ideally complementary) value of different perspectives. Agile projects should carry on being agile, but the right way of thinking about systems is systems thinking. That sounds ludicrously trite, but is both less obvious and much harder than it sounds. As ever, Catherine Howe provides thoughtful guidance through the complexity.

Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 3 – shared components and APIs

Richard Pope – Platform Land

The third part of Richard Pope’s strategic musings is as thought provoking a reflection as the earlier two, though this post is perhaps making a rather different point from the one the headline suggests.

It opens with the idea of small pieces loosely joined, which remains one best descriptions of the web and of quite a few other things besides and leads smoothly into the idea of shared components and services across different governmental organisations. On the face of it, that makes a lot of sense in terms both of system efficiency and of delivering coherent services. Institutional and power dynamics within governments don’t make that easy. The level of trust within governments can be surprisingly low to those who look from the outside and see something monolithic. There’s a whole host of reasons for that, but one of them is the lack of recourse if things do go wrong, with an understandable reluctance to place reputation and service quality on a foundation which is not itself robust. And so the post arrives at the fundamental question, which is not to do with components or APIs at all, other than as the visible symptom of a much deeper issue:

The question governments therefore need to answer is this: what are the appropriate characteristics of institutions capable of operating shared infrastructure for the greater good rather than the priorities of a thematic agency, while remaining accountable?

One answer is to create new institutions whose job is to do that – GDS in the UK is an example. But if, as this post suggests, that model is under threat, that may be a sign it might not be the optimal approach either. So the problem remains very real, the search for solutions continues. Networked government – of small pieces, loosely joined – remains elusive.

What we’re learning about how the sector understands “digital”

Cassie Robinson

Hard on the heels of Mike Bracken’s pithy definition of digital transformation comes this longer post, exploring multiple meanings of digital through an extended metaphor of running a café. The two don’t contradict each other, but what this longer account draws out is that what counts as digital improvement is different at different stages of organisational and technical development. It offers nine questions to which digital is the answer, or is at least part of it. The eighth is organisational design and transition:

If I were to design the organisation again today, from scratch, how would I design it, based on the new needs and expectations people have, and how the wider context we are in is also changing?”

That comes pretty close to Mike’s one liner – which is a reminder both that digital change isn’t necessarily transformational and that digital as an unqualified descriptor doesn’t describe anything very precisely, a point further emphasised by Anthony Zacharzewski’s tongue in cheek tweet in response:

Digital is Facebook, right?

Digital transformation is a leadership problem

Mike Bracken – UCL IIPP Blog

‘Digital’ is an increasingly problematic word, ‘digital transformation’ a doubly problematic phrase – in both cases because they are used as much to obscure as to illuminate. One of the difficulties is that ‘digital’ is slapped on as a random qualifier of all sorts of things, to the point where it doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) add much meaning at all. Arguably the underlying problem comes from the fact that ‘digital’ started by being a word which said something about technology, and has become a word which says something about it’s not quite clear what.

Mike Bracken has neatly sidestepped all that with a definition which might actually be useful:

digital transformation is the act of radically changing how your organisation works, so that it can survive and thrive in the internet era

As the post goes on to note, transformation may deliver some technology change; technology change does not deliver transformation. But confusion on that point is understandable, because it is often the case that transformation becomes visible externally precisely as a technology based changed – and there is some faint irony in the fact that GDS and its first flagship product, gov.uk provide an example of how that confusion can be created.

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.

Organisations are political systems

Naomi Stanford

Are organisations political systems? Yes, of course they are. Persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building are intrinsic to their operation; they are a cockpit for exit, voice and loyalty.

That’s using politics in the sense of the means by which collective choices get made rather than in the sense of the thing that politicians do. At one level that’s obvious, but at another it’s worth emphasising, because it’s all too easy to elide politics, bureaucracy and the public sector – they have much to do with each other, but they are very different.

Bureaucracy is fundamentally about being rules based. Rules are indeed constraining – that is their point – but they are also liberating (which is why estimates of the cost of bureaucracy can be more than a little tendentious). A society or polity without rules is hardly one at all and the more arbitrary and capricious the rules are, the worse the outcomes tend to be. So the question becomes whether it is useful to organisations to be rules based, or whether the associated costs of rigidity and hierarchy outweigh the benefits. That’s a pragmatic question, as is the consequential one of how best to minimise the costs and maximise the benefits of whatever level of bureucracy is appropriate for a given organisation and a given situation. That balance will be struck differently in different contexts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if public accountability and size were two relevant factors. That’s not to say that all organisations have the optimal level of bureaucracy (in a faint echo of Stafford Beer) – far from it – rather that it is not self-evident that the optimal level is zero.

All of that is prompted by this post on the politics of organisation design (the latest in a regular weekly series which is well worth following), which in turn draws heavily on a recent excoriation of organisational bureaucracy by Gary Hamel. That brings us full circle: organisations are political and assertions about their nature are intrinsically political too.

Too many projects, too much change

Naomi Stanford

Prioritisation is hard. One reason why it’s hard is that starting new things is always more attractive than stopping old ones. There are all sorts of reasons for that – many nicely set out in this post – which include the ease with which we overlook the opportunity cost: if we start this new thing, what do we no longer have the capacity or attention span to do? That of course is a problem for the organisation as a whole, not for the proponents of the new shiny thing, so it all too easily becomes one which is brushed aside, because there isn’t anybody whose job is to address it.

There is a closely related problem, pithily described, it appears, by Kurt Vonnegut:

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

That can have consequences from the irritatingly inefficient to the utterly terrifying, but all contributing to the wider problem, that the more change there is going on, the more likely it is that the changes will collide with each other unproductively, and the more it becomes important to understand and manage the dependencies and interactions between projects, as much as to understand and manage each of the contributing initiatives.