Do bureaucrats care? A take on talent in the public sector

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

The question in the title of this piece can be answered very simply: yes, overwhelmingly bureaucrats do care. The fact that such an answer is not obvious, or not credible, to many people who are not bureaucrats suggests that the better question might be, how is it that uncaringness is an emergent property of systems populated by caring people?

Two rather different groups of bureaucrats are considered here. The first is those furthest from the delivery of services, particularly policy makers, and of them particularly those who learned their penmanship while studying classics at Oxford. There are rather fewer of those than there once were. But there is overwhelming evidence that even those who do not neatly fit the stereotype can be far too distant from the people whose needs their policies are intended to address. The second group is those who deliver services directly to the people who use them, described drawing on the work of Bernardo Zacka, covered here a few weeks ago. They are not rules-applying automata, but subtle observers, judges and influencers of what is going on – and incorporating those perspectives and insights into policy making enhances it immeasurably. That is increasingly happening, but this post is a good reminder that too often the gap remains a wide one.

13 things I learned from six years at the Guardian

Mary Hamilton – Medium

This is a post about the impact of digital change on journalism in general and The Guardian in particular, but much of it is just as relevant to any other kind of organisation managing – or failing to manage – the transition. Of the thirteen things, the one which particularly won the piece an entry is here is the tenth – “it’s often better to improve a system than develop one brilliant thing.” Making new things is glamorous and exciting. Improving and fixing existing things is not. That seems to apply to everything from maintaining nuclear weapons to minor government processes. Fixing things is one of the things governments (and many other large organisations) need to be better at – being so would make more difference than almost any number of shiny new things.

The civil service is in crisis. This must not go to waste

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.

Using Design Principles to Describe What Transformation Means

Paul Taylor

“Transformation” is a dangerous word.  It is bold in ambition, but often very uncertain in precision. Instead of attempting yet another definition, as part of yet another attempt to tie the concept down, this post sets out eight powerful design principles which, if applied, would result in something which pretty unarguably would have delivered transformation. Perhaps transformation isn’t what you do, it’s how you tell what you’ve done.

But whatever the level of ambition, there is a lot in these apparently simple principles – well worth keeping close to hand.

Let’s fund teams, not projects

David Thomas – DEFRA Digital

Being agile in a small agile organisation is one thing. Being a pocket of agility in a large and not necessarily very agile organisation is quite another. One of the points of friction is between conventional approaches to budget setting, typically with a strong focus on detailed advance planning, and agile approaches which make a virtue of early uncertainty and an exploratory approach. It’s clear that that’s not an ideal state of affairs, it’s less clear what the best way is of moving on. This post puts forward the radical approach of not funding projects at all, but funding teams instead.

The thought behind it makes a lot of sense, with the approval process becoming some version of managing a high-level backlog and there being a real efficiency gain from sustained team activity rather than fragmented project team formation. But in focusing on funding as the key tension to be resolved, the post slightly skates over what might be the larger issue of planning, where the gap between the aspiration to be precise and accurate and the reality of underlying uncertainty tends to be large. It may be that following the approach suggested here moves, rather than resolves, the friction. But it may also be that that is a useful and necessary next step.

The Anti-Problem: Digital Transformation

Neil Tamplin – Technology Meets Culture

How would you organise to impede transformational modernisation? You might set your face against all things digital, you might add as much stultifying process as you could find, you might just do things the way they have always been done.

This post explores how best not to do digital transformation, which turns out to be rather an interesting way of thinking about what it takes to do it successfully. There is a risk though of its becoming a form of confirmation bias: of course all those old ways were bad; of course the new ways are good. The risk is not that that is untrue, it is that it is not the whole truth. So perhaps there is another, harder, exercise to do after this one: assuming that the people who came before were neither malign nor idiots, why are things the way they are? What about the current way things were done has genuinely outlived its usefulness, and what was there for a reason? That’s not an argument for just keeping things as they were, but it may be an argument for making sure that we don’t throw away solutions without being clear what problem they belong to.

How To Become A Disobedient Organisation

"You can't change the world by doing what you're told" - Joi ItoRules are made to be broken. That’s an idea with considerable support from those on the receiving end of rules, rather less so from those who set them. Rules are the very essence of the Weberian bureaucracy which infuses governments and there are good reasons – fairness, clarity, consistency – why that is so. But that also means that bureaucratic organisations are designed to frustrate evolution and thus innovation – which is perhaps one reason why bureaucracies rarely communicate a sense of being on the cutting edge of innovation.  And while bureaucracy is often used as a pejorative synonym for government, in this sense almost all organisations of any size are bureaucracies. Becoming adaptable and responsive isn’t just about breaking rules, it’s about adopting the expectation that rules are made to be broken.

Paul Taylor

What I Hear When You Tell Me Your Company Doesn’t Do Meetings

Governments are run by civil servants. Civil servants are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats like meetings. Meetings have very high costs but deliver very little value. So if there were fewer meetings, government would work better, and perhaps more people who are not bureaucrats would find it more congenial to work in government. And if there were no meetings at all, perhaps everything would work perfectly.

Or perhaps meetings survive because they have purpose and value. Perhaps we should focus on having better meetings, perhaps even fewer meetings. But to miss the value of meetings is to miss something really quite important.

Johnathan Nightingale – the co-pour

Why Amazon is eating the world

The success of Amazon has been told many times and in many ways. This is one of the less obvious and more compelling versions, focusing on the power of treating its internal systems and relationships as if they were external  If they are good enough for other people to want to use them, that’s a good sign that they are good enough for Amazon to use for themselves.

It’s clearly worked pretty powerfully for Amazon. That’s interesting in its own right, but it also raises some important and difficult questions for organisations which are not Amazon, perhaps in particular for governments, which are quite heavily insulated from the consequences of customer satisfaction. Government is not the next Amazon, nor should it be, but it’s worth reflecting on whether there is a similar process by which a drive to quality improvement could be designed into processes and systems.

 

Zack Kanter – Tech Crunch

How to make friends and winfluence people

The people with the shiny ideas and the shiny kit can see that change is essential and just know that their ideas are right as well as shiny. Unaccountably, the less shiny people with the unfashionable kit fail immediately to see the inherent rightness of the cause. This post has the superficial form of a rant, but it is a rant based on some important observations and a question without an easy answer: how do transformation teams understand and address the user needs of those whose fate is to be transformed?

Alex Blandford – Medium

Pioneering Organizational Transformation: Here’s What You Need to Know

Organisational transformation is a very big and very difficult problem. We tell each other stories of transformations which have failed, or fallen well short of their ambition, much more often that we find stories to tell of triumphant success. This post doesn’t attempt to contribute to the grand theory of organisational change, but presents a very simple (which is not at all the same as easy) list of ten practical ways of improving the chances of success.

Sue Visic – ThoughtWorks

Knowing when you’re at the tea party

How mad should you be to work here?

Ben Holliday is leaving the mad hatter’s tea party of government, worrying in his valedictory post about the risk that he was starting to go native, to see the madness as normality. That’s a good concern to have (and retaining a sense of alienness is a much underrated skill), but there is a reverse danger too: not being aware enough of the constraints and opportunities given by organisations (and their cultures and contexts) brings a real risk that even the best intended change fails to deliver its potential.

There is a sweet spot to be found – having enough experience and understanding to be effective in a particular environment, but not so much as to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is as it can only be. Alice may have left the tea party to save her own sanity – but the tea party went on unchanged without her. Perhaps if Alice joined up with Bob and stayed a little longer, the cycle might be broken.

Ben Holliday

Outdated public services must empower people to achieve change

“All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get” (Arthur Jones, probably)

What government organisations get is hierarchy, slow and often unresponsive decision cycles and a sense that government is done to people, rather than with them, still less by them. There are – or were – some very real strengths in a Weberian rationalist bureaucracy, but Weber was writing a century ago for a very different world. Adaptation is as crucial for organisational evolution as it is for natural evolution – without it, organisations become less and less well fitted to their environment and eventually fail. But that failure can be long drawn out and painful to all concerned.

This essay is about spotting – and encouraging – new approaches to public administration, better suited to new requirements and new contexts.

Ian Burbuidge – the RSA

‘I don’t know how to use a computer!’: the stories of our most dangerous public servants

What counts as minimum viable competence for public servants (or indeed anybody else) in the modern age? This post is a robust challenge to the false modesty of digital incompetence, which is heard much less often than it used to be, but is still too often not far below the surface – and still reinforced by working environments which have yet to break free of the twentieth century.

Leah Lockhart – Medium

Bridging the geek/policy wonk divide

Continuing the theme of how digital and policy people are more powerful when aligned than each is when operating separately, this post has lots of insights about how to make that happen in practice. Empathy, vulnerability and culture are as important as communication and collaboration. And as the company Harry leads has deservedly has just won an award for being the best digital SME workplace, his thoughts come with some authority.

Harry Metcalfe – DXW

Accountability holes? Desert spaces? Orphan ideas? Buy the tent, occupy the street.

Big organisations have things which aren’t quite anybody’s job to do, so they don’t get done. Small organisations tend to solve that problem partly by making everybody’s role much more fluid, and partly by reducing the overheads of the collective action problem. Big organisations find that hard because they manage complexity through structure – which is fine for things which go with the grain of the structure but can be very difficult for things which cut across it. That can lead to situations where – in a neat phrase from this post – ‘the indecision is final’. The solution advocated here is a simple one: if spaces are unoccupied, occupy them.

Leandro Herrero

User-centred digital government is an idea that cannot be put back in the bottle

Is user-centred digital government unstoppable? At one level the answer must be yes, we live in an increasingly digital environment and government is not and cannot be immune to that. Digital is well on the way to just being the substrate for how things get done. But just as twentieth century governments could be good at managing paper without necessarily being good at using it to communicate clearly and efficiently, so doing things digitally does not immediately imply doing them well. This post argues the positive case, that we are beyond the tipping point where ideas about rapid, responsive service design have a sufficient life – and strength – of their own to transcend the vagaries of individual leaders and services.

Tom Steinberg – Medium

One Team Government: What digital and policy can learn from each other

Following his post explaining policy people and processes to their digital equivalents, Paul Maltby has now written a deeply sympathetic but rightly challenging post about the frustrations digital has of policy and policy of digital – and what each side needs to learn from the other.

There is a core insight in each direction. Policy can learn much from the data driven, delivery focused model of digital service design and should be no less comfortable starting with the user need. Digital can gain from appreciating the need to understand and reconcile conflicting goals and interests and the basic principle that politics is our basic method for making public choices – and that digital is political too.

Paul Maltby – Medium

One Team Government: a short guide to policy for government digital professionals

Published to coincide with this week’s One Team Government event, this is an excellent short guide to policy making in government. My only quibble is with its title: it’s addressed to government digital professionals, but that shouldn’t suggest to anybody else – including the policy professionals who are its subject – that they have nothing to gain from reading it.

Perhaps the most important insight it contains is that policy isn’t a single specific thing: good policy (and good policymakers) bring together a wide range of skills and disciplines to address some very different kinds of problems. The synthesis of all that is what we call policy – but the boundary between that and other approaches (not least, in this context, digital) is an artefact of language as much as it is a division of substance.

Paul Maltby – Medium