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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Rules 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.