Electric woks or eating together? Time for human-centred designers to care about the community

Matt Edgar

There are exciting new technologies which can improve – and indeed transform – the quality of services. There are many services crying out for better design, to be better attuned to meeting the needs of users of the services. It is tempting – and all too easy – to let those two statements collapse into each other. The risk of that happening becomes greater the more that disciplines such as user research and service design are seen as elements of doing digital, rather than digital being seen as one set of approaches for responding to them.

The general problem with that is that it becomes possible to slip into thinking that the solution people need is the one we happen to have. A more specific consequence is an insidious tendency to assume that the focus of service design should be on the experience of a single, self-contained, individual user. Sometimes that might be the right approach, but often it will miss something important about the wider social context and the wider set of human needs.

This post neatly illustrates that and asks some important questions about moving service design beyond the purely transactional. And you probably don’t need an electric wok.

Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Making public policy in the digital age

Richard Pope and Andrew Greenway – digital HKS

It’s worth looking out for things written by either of these authors, something written by both of them should be doubly worthwhile. There is indeed lots of extremely sensible advice in this piece – and that is so despite all that advice being built on a slightly questionable assumption. Good digital services, they tell us, are iterated daily, or better still hourly. Bad policy development, by contrast, is a long and painful process. The solution is obvious: if policy making were more like digital service iteration, the world would be a better place.

That thought is not wholly wrong. Smarter, faster, better policy making should indeed be everybody’s aim, and the suggestions made here are generally good ones. But it doesn’t follow that policy and service design are somehow interchangeable, or as they put it, “the policy is the service is the institution”. Designing policy to be deliverable and adaptable is indeed important, but so is designing policy to be socially and politically effective. Evidence gathering, consultation, legislation and evaluation can be frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean that they are best dispensed with. Policy is about service design, but the set of users of a policy is often much broader than the set of users of the service through which it is expressed, and both those perspectives matter.

We can’t have nice things (yet)

Alex Blandford – Medium

Data is a word which conjures up images of objectivity and clarity. It lives in computers and supports precise binary decisions.

Except, of course, none of that is true, or at least none of it is reliably true, especially the bit about supporting decisions. Decisions are framed by humans, and the data which supports them is as much social construct as it is an emergent property of reality. That means that the role of people in curating data and the decision making it supports is vital, not just in constructing the technology, but in managing the psychology, sociology and anthropology which frame them. Perhaps that’s not a surprising conclusion in a post written by an anthropologist, but that doesn’t make it any less right.

Understanding Algorithms

Tim Harford

Tim Harford recommends some books about algorithms. There’s not much more to be said than that – except perhaps to follow up on one of the implications of Prediction Machines, the book which is the main focus of the post.

One way of looking at artificial intelligence is as a tool for making predictions. Good predictions reduce uncertainty. Really good predictions may change the nature of a problem altogether. In a different sense, the purpose of strategy can also be seen as a way of reducing uncertainty: by making some choices (or bets), other choices drop out of the problem space. Putting those two thoughts together suggests that better AI may be a tool to support better strategies.

Designing better organisations: Why internal user experience matters to delivering better services

Ben Holliday – FutureGov

The quality of internal user experience is a good indicator of an organisation’s underlying attitude to user experience and thus of the service the organisation delivers. And of course the more distracting and time consuming internal services are, the less time and energy are available for the organisation’s real purpose.

That’s the core argument of this post and it is one which will resonate with many on the receiving end of such services. The conclusion it draws, that in seeking to transform an organisation, transforming its internal processes is a good place to start, may be less obvious, but is certainly worth thinking about.

Seven public sector trends

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking survey of the public policy landscape, examining trends setting the context for public sector reform ranging from reversing decline of trust, through rethinking the scope and nature of digital transformation, to blending policy, design and delivery. All of that is bound together by a recognition that these are all systems problems – or, arguably, all facets of a single systems problem – and the test of change in that wider system will be whether authority, money and power flow differently from the way they do today.

Introducing the Minimum Political Product (MPP)

Joy Bonaguro – GovLoop

Some things you read provide value by giving you facts or ideas or examples that you didn’t know before. There is a very special – and all too rare – category of writing which provides value by making sense of things you knew already, which provides a clear and concise encapsulation of something which it is hard to explain easily. This post is firmly in that latter category, doing some hard work to make a useful concept simple.

The concept concerned is the ‘minimum political product’, which is quite like a minimum viable product except for being driven by a political need rather than a user need. They are a reality of life and it makes sense to understand them and to create them in a way which maximises the value they provide – and the fact that the genesis of the requirement, or some of the delivery characteristics it needs to demonstrate, is political doesn’t change that. That’s not to say that the first response to every minister wanting an MPP should be to build it. But it is a recognition that politics is both the art of making decisions and the context in which those decisions stand and fall, and that a solution which does not meet political needs may well not survive long enough to meet any needs at all.

Contradictions of government and its impossible standards

Martin Stewart-Weeks – The Mandarin

If it is hard to think and act systemically about the long term, it’s also worth reflecting on patterns of behaviour which get in the way even of the attempt. The rhetoric of innovation, of openness, of fearless honesty runs into a reality which seems designed to punish and constrain precisely those behaviours. And of course ‘design’ is precisely the wrong word here: these characteristics are emergent rather than intended (which does not, of course, mean that it would be impossible to design them to be different). There are many reasons why that is an unfortunate state of affairs, one which is rightly given some emphasis is that it risks crowding out the strategic and the systemic:

The real dilemma is that we’re so busy honing the efficiency of the pieces that we’ve failed to work out how to put the puzzle together or work out what the puzzle is or should be.

Exploring change and how to scale it

Pia Waugh – Pipka

This is a characteristically excellent post, examining in some detail both what it takes for change to succeed and, perhaps even more importantly, how to scale it.

The short answer is that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system. And to do that on the fifty plus year scale which is the level of ambition behind this post, requires rigour and discipline. Five questions are set out, including the two which are the most critical: what future do you want? And what are you going to do today?

Scaling from an idea of the future to systematic government and national level change can’t be done by exhortation – and simple observation suggests can only with the greatest difficulty be done at all. The recommendations here are an intriguing mixture of the very slow burn (supporting long term varied career development, to reduce aversion to new thinking) to the much more immediate (mandating the use of user research in funding bids).

All that still leaves the question of how best to start this whole process, but this is a manifesto of what should be done, or rather how it should be done; it doesn’t purport to be a set of instructions for making it happen.

We all need governance

Richard McLean – Medium

If headlines are designed to excite the readers and entice them into the words which follow, this one would win no prizes. It is not fashionable to be excited about governance and indeed it often becomes one of those irregular verbs – I do agile; you do project management; they do governance. And who wants to be like them?

This post is a healthy challenge to that point of view, refreshingly written in human speak, which is something not always found in writing on this subject. It sets out some of the value governance provides in terms of setting direction, committing resources and assuring progress more form the perspective of the user of governance than of its imposer. That’s not of course to say that the current way of doing those things provides the optimal balance – and there is a tantalising promise of a second post on the biggest single thing we can do to improve governance. Presumably that one is still going through the approvals process.

Can government stop losing its mind?

Gavin Starks – NESTA
This is an interesting report which asks almost the right question. Government is at little risk of losing its mind, or its short term memory. The two better questions – which in practice are the ones this report starts to address – are whether government can stop losing its longer term memory, and how the power of the government’s mind can be enhanced by better ways of connecting and amplifying its component parts.

Those are important questions. It’s already all too easy to forget how long we have been worrying about the ease of forgetting things. Aspects of the problem have been recognised, and solutions attempted, since the earliest days of what we no longer call electronic government. None has been more than partially successful.

The two questions are also closely related. People are reluctant to incur even the smallest overhead in storing things for the benefit of posterity, so the benefit needs to come from improving the effectiveness of current work. Conversely, tools which facilitate collaboration, sharing and serendipity will often (though with some very important exceptions) also be tools which facilitate the storage and discovery of what has been created. That was one of the key themes of a series of blog posts I wrote a couple of years ago, which covered some (though by no means all) of the same ground – including the observation, echoed in this report, that the web was invented to be an intranet and knowledge management tool; the world wide bit came rather later.

Where this report adds to the debate is in its more explicit recognition not just that we need to be thinking about texts rather than documents, but that a lot of what we need to be thinking about isn’t conventional text in the first place, making the paginated document an even less useful starting point for thinking about all this.

And there is a delicious irony that this blog – and my blogging generally – exists in large part to serve as my outboard memory, now with well over a decade of material created in part as protection against the weaknesses of institutional knowledge preservation.

AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?

House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence

There is something slightly disconcerting about reading a robust and comprehensive account of public policy issues in relation to artificial intelligence in the stately prose style of a parliamentary report. But the slightly antique structure shouldn’t get in the way of seeing this as a very useful and systematic compendium.

The strength of this approach is that it covers the ground systematically and is very open about the sources of the opinions and evidence it uses. The drawback, oddly, is that the result is an curiously unpolitical document – mostly sensible recommendations are fired off in all directions, but there is little recognition, still less assessment, of the forces in play which might result in the recommendations being acted on. The question of what needs to be done is important, but the question of what it would take to get it done is in some ways even more important – and is one a House of Lords committee might be expected to be well placed to answer.

One of the more interesting chapters is a case study of the use of AI in the NHS. What comes through very clearly is that there is a fundamental misalignment betweeen the current organisational structure of the NHS and any kind of sensible and coherent use – or even understanding- of the data it holds and of the range of uses, from helpful to dangerous, to which it could be put. That’s important not just in its own right, but as an illustration of a much wider issue of institutional design noted by Geoff Mulgan.

Deeply intertwingled laws

John Sheridan

Beyond even the bonus points for talking about laws being ‘intertwingled’, this is an important and interesting post at the intersection of law, policy and automation. It neatly illustrates why the goal of machine-interpretable legislation,such as the recent work by the New Zealand government, is a much harder challenge than it first appears – law can have tacit external interpretation rules, which means that the highly structured interpretation which is normal, and indeed necessary, for software just doesn’t work. Which is why legal systems have judges and programming languages generally don’t – and why the New Zealand project is so interesting.

LabPlus: Better Rules for Government Discovery Report

Nadia Webster – NZ Digital Government

The rather dry title of this post belies the importance and interest of its content. Lots of people have spotted that laws are systems of rules, computer code is systems of rules and that somehow these two fact should illuminate each other. Quite how that should happen is much less clear. Ideas have ranged from developing systems to turn law into code to adapting software testing tools to check legislative compliance. This post records an experiment with a different approach again, exploring the possibility of creating legislative rules in a way which is designed to make them machine consumable. That’s an approach with some really interesting possibilities, but also some very deep challenges. As John Sheridan has put it, law is deeply intertwingled: the meaning of legislation is only partly conveyed by the words of a specific measure, which means that transcoding the literal letter of the law will never be enough. And beyond that again, the process of delivering and experiencing a service based on a particular set of legal rules will include a whole set of rules and norms which are not themselves captured in law.

That makes it sensible to start, as the work by the New Zealand government reported here has done, with exploratory thinking, rather than jumping too quickly to assumptions about the best approach.  The recommendations for areas to investigate further set out in their full report are an excellent set of questions, which will be of interest to governments round the world.

Usability of Key Distribution in BlockChain Backed Electronic Voting

Terence Eden

This is a good post on the very practical difficulties in establishing secure digital identity, in this case for the purpose of voting in elections. It’s included here mainly as a timely but inadvertent illustration of the point in the previous post that even technology fixes are harder than they look. Implementing some form of online voting wouldn’t be too difficult; implementing a secure and trustworthy electoral system would be very hard indeed.

A New Approach to Digital Identity

Chris Yiu and Harvey Redgrave – Institute for Global Change

Digital identity (like digital voting) sounds as though it ought to be a problem with a reasonably straightforward solution, but which looks a lot more complicated when it comes to actually doing it. Like everything with the word ‘digital’ attached to it, that’s partly a problem of technical implementation. But also like everything with the word ‘digital’ attached to it, particularly in the public and political space, it’s a problem with many social aspects too.

This post makes a brave attempt at offering a solution to some of the technical challenges. But the reason why the introduction of identity cards has been highly politically contentious in the UK, but not in other countries, has a lot to do with history and politics and very little to do with technology. So better technology may indeed to be better, but that doesn’t in itself constitute a new approach to identity. Even if the better technology is in fact better (and as Paul Clarke spotted, ‘attestation’ is doing a lot more work as a word than it first appears), there are some much wider issues (some flagged by Peter Wells) which would also need to be addressed as part of an overall approach.

What do we mean when we talk about services?

Stephanie Marsh – GDS

A service is not an interaction on a website; it is not an immediate transaction. A service has a beginning, a middle and an end. The problem is that the service designer is at risk of only seeing the middle, and while a well designed middle is a good thing, it is not the whole thing. From the point of view of the person who has a need they want to resolve, the starting point may come much earlier and the resolution much later.

So it’s very encouraging to see GDS recognising this and making it clear that service design should be seen broadly, not narrowly. There’s room for debate about where the lines are drawn from the supply side perspective (the difference between ‘supporting content’ and ‘things which support’ is lost on me, for example) and perhaps more significantly a definition of a user journey which is too producer focused. But the underlying approach is very much the right one.

The perils of bad strategy

Richard Rumelt – McKinsey Quarterly

If we want to create a good strategy, there is some value in understanding what makeas a bad one. This paper sets out to do exactly that and ends even more helpfully by reversing that into three key characteristics of a good strategy – understanding the problem; describing a guiding approach to addressing it; and setting out a coherent set of actions to deliver the approach. This is a classic article – which is a way of saying both that it’s a few years old, while also being pretty timeless. It derives from a book, but as is not uncommon, the book is very much longer without adding value in proportion.