Computer Files Are Going Extinct

Simon Pitt – OneZero

Files have been a unit of organisation for written information for generations. For a rather shorter period, they have been a unit of organisation for digital information. But after a few years in which the metaphor retained at least some connection with the underlying reality, computer files are abstracting themselves to vanishing point.

So what, who cares? Well at one level, none of us need care, that’s almost the point. At another level, those who have lived through the revolution in personalised computing can gently mourn – as the author of this post does – the loss of a way of organising and understanding information, and the sense of familiarity and control which comes with it. But as the author also recognises, all this starts to get really interesting when we recognise files are skeuomorphic (as is much of the language we use to talk about them).

But there is a more serious point too. However much we choose to abstract, in the end, the data is somewhere – and often in several somewheres. Nobody wants backups, as the old adage has it, but everybody wants restores. But the more our data becomes less apparent, less vulnerable to hard drive failures and laptop thefts, the more it becomes vulnerable to subscriptions not paid and services closed down.

This blog post has some characteristics which make it appear to be like a file. But it isn’t, it’s an entry in a database dressed up with some scripts. Its default state is not to exist, a state postponed by the application of money and electricity, but a state it will inexorably reach.

On being and doing in Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

What should government do? And, how should it do it? Those are two critically important questions, which fortunately get a lot of time and attention – even though it’s not hard to argue that they still don’t have good enough answers. But there is a third question which is at least as important, but which gets much less attention: what should governments be?

It is that question which is at the centre of this post. One reason why it has not had the attention it deserves is that a generation or two of public servants have been brought up not to notice it: the New Public Management paradigm that efficient delivery is pretty much all of what it’s about has become so pervasive as to be invisible. And that’s unfortunate in that it is neither value free (how could it be?) nor, as it turns out, is it a very good way of making governments work. NPM (and other strands of thought) are right that government does not exist for the benefit of people who work in it as politicians and officials. Its insights and methods have a place. But systems operated by and for humans need to have humans at their heart, and to recognise that it is the relationships and values those humans have which makes those systems work effectively – or even perhaps at all.

In which I am a bit over this digital transformation business.

Catherine Howe

It’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that whatever Catherine Howe is thinking about now, the rest of us will stumble onto at some point in the indefinite future. So if she is over the digital transformation business, we need to wonder where the zeitgeist will manifest next.

One of the more provocative definitions of technology is ‘everything which doesn’t work yet’. Similarly, we will know that mapping as a technique and transformation as a goal have become normal when we hardly need to talk about them, any more than we talk about the mature technology which is around us and so hardly needs to be spoken about. But that, as this post starts to explore, merely clears the ground for deeper and harder questions. The search is on for a theory of change to shape the search for answers.

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowski – Idle Words

This is another piece which isn’t new but which provides some good provocative food for thought, on how applying a computer programming perspective to problems which are fundamentally social can – and does – lead to unfortunate results. It’s written by Maciej Cegłowski, who brings elegant erudition to an unlikely range of subjects, in this case how an approach based on controlling closed systems breaks down when confronted with messily indeterminate systems, with a scattering of provocative one liners which combine challenge and simplicity, such as

Machine learning is like money laundering for bias.

We have to stop treating computer technology as something unprecedented in human history. Not every year is Year Zero. This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.

Complex systems thinking is being used for policymaking. Is it the future?

Sarah Quarmby – Apolitical

Metaphors evolve. The fashion for mechanical metaphors to explain social phenomena is no longer as dominant as it once was (though such metaphors are still often lurking a little below the surface); the fashion for more organic metaphors is in the ascendant. Systems thinking generally and complex systems more particularly fit nicely with that trend. So it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves whether talking more about complex systems in the context of politics and policy making is merely following fashion or is getting closer to some underlying reality. Or to put that slightly differently, are complex systems an interesting metaphor for social and political systems or an accurate encapsulation of them?

This post gives some helpful pointers to answering that question, without quite actually answering it. Coincidentally, a Gordian knot-cutting tweet pops up from David Henig:

If a problem seems to be simple to solve, yet hasn’t been over many years, it’s probably complex.

One of the subheadings in the post asks ‘Is it really a new approach?’ The answer to that is clearly ‘no’ – the basic ideas have been known about in government for a long time. It’s tempting to get a bit recursive at that point: the reason why complex systems approaches have not become more deeply rooted in social and political change is itself an interesting complex systems problem.

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet  missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

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.

Lets talk about plugs

Leigh Dodds – Lost Boy

The value and importance of data standards are explained by analogy with the value and importance of electrical standards. It’s a good choice – the analogy works well even at its simplest level, but is also a good way in to some of the complexities which lie not far below the surface. And the post asks by subtle implication – though understandably without answering – how standards are set for the setting of standards.

What’s wrong with best practice?

Daniel Thornton

Best practice used to be best practice, but increasingly the argument is made that best practice isn’t necessarily best practice at all. This post does a through job of explaining why that might be.

It’s pretty clear that in complex real world systems, attempting to specify the steps towards an outcome with complete precision is unlikely to be helpful. It’s also pretty clear though, that many tasks and processes do have a substantial technical element for which there are best (or at least better) ways of doing things. The value of checklists – of structured compliance with a predetermined sequence of actions – has been clearly demonstrated for pilots and surgeons despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that there is substantial variation in the context in which tasks are performed.

There are also more subtle – but no less real – forms of best practice. The shift in many areas of activity from basic competence to real expertise comes from the acquisition of tacit knowledge. Best practice is thus what best practitioners do – which doesn’t mean that what they do can be readily codified and copied, both because distillation of that kind is hard, and because the subtlety of judgement which experts bring is almost certain to be lost in the attempt. So perhaps the problem with best practice is not that people try to find it and apply it, but that they conflate adaptivity to complex systems with process compliance.

The argument of this post is that it’s worse than that, that best practice is an intrinsically unhelpful concept. In the specific context of organisational change – which is the starting point for the post – that may be so (though even there it is not meaningless to talk of best practitioners). But perhaps a better conclusion would be that for all its risks and limitations the idea of best practice shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. There is best practice on best practice which is worth understanding and developing.

#NextStageRadicals

Andy Brogan – Easier Inc

This post is a double winner. The post itself, by Andy Brogran, has some important insights, but it is prompted by a presentation by Mark Smith which is a compelling account of what happens when you think differently about the delivery of public services and is well worth watching in its own right.

Brogan’s post includes a particularly clear and succinct account of why a process standardisation model borrowed from manufacturing is particularly unhelpful when thinking about the design of services – manufacturing works to deliver standard outputs from standard inputs through a standard process. But public services do not start with standard inputs and so cannot create value by applying standard processes to deliver standard outputs – and indeed the attempt to do so risks making thing worse, not better.

That serves to frame an account by Mark Smith of the work he has led at Gateshead, breaking into established processes to work out needs and root causes. An overdue debt can be a trigger for enforcement action, at risk of triggering a further downward spiral, or it can be a signal of an underlying need which, if recognised can be addressed. This is a combination of powerful, human examples and pragmatic approaches to understanding and meeting needs:

‘How much of what we do can we do to you?’ That’s not a great question. ‘What does a good life for you look like, how might we help you with that?’ That’s a better question.

 

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.

Beyond human-centred design, to?

Cassie Robinson – Medium

design approach iconsA year ago, Cassie Robinson wrote a great post on why the mantra of starting with user needs was too narrow an approach to understanding the wider context of service design. This post builds on that one to explore eight types of design, or rather eight approaches to design thinking.

They don’t flow from one to the next in a completely sequential way, but they do broadly represent a gradual zooming out from the simple base case of individual user needs, starting with relational design (thinking about those directly affected by a service, not just the individual service user) and going all the way to life-centred design, the recognition that design takes place in an ecological context, at every scale from local to global.

It’s pretty clear that these eight approaches aren’t discrete or sequential, and indeed that they blur into each other. So the response of the designer should not be to pick the one or two which seem most immediately relevant, but to reflect on how the presenting problem is best understood in the wider context. This post is a great starting point for framing that thought process.

Machine Learning Meets Public Policy: What to Expect and How to Cope

Ed Felten

This is the video of a conference talk by Ed Felten, which is fascinating for a number of reason. He has been thinking hard about technology and the policy consequences of technology for a very long time, and doing so with deep technical expertise (on the explicability of algorithms, to take just one example).

But he also has been at the heart of the intersection of technology and public policy – a one man One Team Government – including a couple of years in the Obama White House. This talk is primarily about how machine learning lands in a public policy context and is immediately addressed to an audience at a big AI conference, whose perspective can be assumed to be technical.

Given that, the starting point is to underline a critical difference in perspective. At least in principle, science and engineering are about a search for truth. Democracy is not just not a search for truth, it is not really a search for anything. And that difference is simultaneously obvious, a strength and a source of deep confusion and misunderstanding

Democracy is not a search for truth; it is an algorithm for resolving disagreements

But this talk is interesting not just to an audience of technologist having the world of public policy explained by one of their own who has ventured into a strange and distant land. Given the importance of AI and machine learning – and indeed technology change more generally – to almost every aspect of policy, it is jut as important for policy makers and players in the democratic process to understand how their world is perceived. And from that perspective, this is a fascinating account of a strange world by a participant-observer who has retained his distance and brings a distinct professional perspective.

Attempting to teach parliamentary procedure to machines

Michael Smethurst

There’s no getting away from the fact that parliamentary procedure is pretty arcane and that modelling that procedure adds a still more arcane overlay. But this is a beautifully reflective post which wears deep expertise very lightly to share thinking which is relevant well beyond the immediate parliamentary context.

Two points which should resonate far beyond the Palace of Westminster are worth pulling out. One is that parliamentary processes may have some extreme characteristics, but they also have some characteristics which people involved with other kinds of information flows will instantly recognise. It may or may not be possible to express definitively how the system should work; for different reasons it may or may not be possible to capture in detail how it does work, particularly if that is in some circumstances indeterminate. But taking an almost anthropological approach to understanding systems is both an art form and an investment which needs to be made.

The second is that for all the power of starting with user needs, that is necessarily limited if some kinds of needs come into being only as a result of building a system which satisfies them. In a nice nod to George Box, the post ends with a bold claim for the art of system modelling:

The models are only ever maps, but if they’re good enough to be useful they can be useful in ways the map designers never considered. No amount of requirements gathering or user research will ever compensate for omitting the work on modelling, because user needs are emergent from use and emergent from materials.

Payday loans and the missed opportunity?

Jerry Fishenden – ntouk

Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t really a post about payday loans. Instead, it explores the fascinating contrast between the approaches HMRC (for tax) and DWP (for benefits) have taken to opening their services to third parties. The basic story is pretty simple: HMRC has a long pre-internet history of working with third party intermediaries which it carried forward into its thinking abuot online services (at one stage their ambition was not directly to offer an online tax return service at all); DWP’s history is much more about direct delivery, and that tradition similarly has been carried forward into the online world. The post makes no pretence to neutrality on the central question of which was the better choice, HMRC is clearly seen to have won that argument hands down.

The post is good on the advantages of the open method and the opportunities that could create (including the ethical payday loans of the title). But it doesn’t address the fairly central question of whether there is a reason for the difference. After all, HMRC’s administration of tax credits, which are a benefit in everything but name, didn’t get the same open treatment as their revenue-raising lines of business. The question of whether a version of HMRC’s trust model for taxpayers and their agents could be translated to the benefits system is one well worth further reflection.

All change is system change

Catherine Howe – Curious?

An odd thing about many large organisations is that change is seen as different from something called business as usual. That might make a kind of sense if change were an anomalous state, quickly reverting to the normality of stasis, but since it isn’t, it doesn’t.

If change is recognised as an essential element of business as usual, then lots of other ideas drop easily into place. One of the more important ones is that it allows and encourages better metaphors. The idea of change as something discrete which starts and stops, which has beginnings and ends, encourages mechanical parallels: like a machine, it can be turned on and off; like a machine, controlling the inputs will control the outputs. But if change permeates, if organisations and their environments are continually flexing, then metaphors naturally become more organic: the pace of change ebbs and flows; organisations adapt as a function of their place in a wider ecosystem; change is just part of what happens, not some special extra thing.

From that perspective, it’s a small step to recognising that there is real power in thinking about organisational change in terms of systems. But it’s a small step with big consequences, and those consequences are what this post is all about.

The world of system change provides a different framing of organisational change and a way of seeing it as part of an organic process and not something that is bolted onto an organisation.  The simple but powerful shift from process to purpose is something that can make a profound difference to how you go about engaging the networks that already exist within your organisation.  Once we acknowledge and bring to fore the networks that make up our organisations and the system they create can we ever really deny that all change is system change?

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.

Better Rules: a policy advisor’s perspective

Abbe Marks – NZ Digital government

The idea that it should be possible to capture legislative rules as code and that good things might result from doing so is not a new one. It sounds as though it should be simple: the re-expression of what has already been captured in one structured language in another. It turns out though not to be at all simple, partly because of what John Sheridan calls the intertwingling of law: the idea that law often takes effect through reference and amendment and that the precise effect of its doing so can be hard to discern.

There is interesting work going on in New Zealand experimenting with the idea of law and code in some limited domains, and this post is prompted by that work. What makes it distinctive is that it is written from a policy perspective, asking questions such as whether the discipline of producing machine consumable rules is a route to better policy development. It’s still unclear how far this approach might take us – but the developments in New Zealand are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Technical Intuition

Alix Dunn – Medium

One of the unavoidable problems in curating a site like Strategic Reading is that lots of the posts and articles end up slightly blurring into one another. That’s a good thing in many ways: ideas build on each other, views of the world coalesce, but it can sometimes feel as though there isn’t much really new thinking.

This post is different. It is deliberately disruptive and challenging and provides some useful insights into a problem which has existed for a long time, but has been largely overlooked. What counts as the right kind of knowledge to understand and use technology effectively? It isn’t in itself technical knowledge – telling everybody to learn to code is no more effective than addressing transport management problems through the medium of car maintenance classes. And it isn’t stepping away, leaving such issues to the priesthood of the initiated. The limitations of that model are increasingly obvious in a world where big companies refuse to acknowledge or understand the sociology of technology.

The answer suggested here is something called ‘technical intuition’ (which is a slightly odd label, since it’s about being knowledgeable rather than intuitive), which allows people who are not technically expert to imagine, to inquire, to decide and to demand. That’s then brought to life in an example about an individual deciding whether to sign up for a supermarket loyalty card. That’s fair enough in its own terms. Personal understanding of the implications of technology related decisions is really important (and closely related to what Rachel Coldicutt calls digital understanding).

But that leaves us with two essential questions, which are left implied but not addressed. The first is where this intuition is to come from. If it is a body of knowledge, how is it to be assembled, conveyed and absorbed – all of which are preconditions to its being acted on. The second is how it then scales and aggregates – both in terms of where the social (as opposed to individual) acceptability of loyalty cards comes from, and, very differently, how that leads to confidence in other kinds of decision making. What is the technical intuition we should expect supermarket executives to display in designing loyalty cards in the first place? And in some ways, that is the most important question of all.