James Plunckett – Citizens Advice
The word ‘digital’ has long been both powerful and problematic. It’s powerful because new technologies and, in some ways even more so, new ways of developing and applying new technologies have made many things better, faster, cheaper – and often very different. And as Tom Loosemore, perhaps the leading proponent of using ‘digital’ in a sense which transcends a narrow, technical meaning puts it:
But it’s also problematic, because it stretches the meaning of ‘digital’ so far as to drain it of content. It has become a vague word, implying modernity and goodness and not much more. More seriously, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place: digital is a means, not an end, and there is always a risk that in focusing too much on means, we lose sight of the ends.
That’s not to say that ‘digital’ has not been a useful word. In many ways it has been. It’s more to say that the time has come – and is arguably long past – when we should move beyond it. That makes this post a really interesting sign of what may be to come: Citizens Advice has chosen to replace its Chief Digital Officer with a Director of Customer Journey, and its reasons for doing so are well worth reading.
A pithy but important reminder that the autonomy of AI is not what we should most worry about. Computers are ultimately controlled by humans and do what humans want them to do. Understanding the motivation of the humans will be more important than attempting to infer the motivation of the robots for a good while to come.
Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis – New York Times
Coverage of Google’s recent announcement of a conversational AI which can sort out your restaurant bookings for you has largely taken one of two lines. The first is about the mimicry of human speech patterns: is it ethical for computers to um and er in a way which can only be intended to deceive their interlocutors into thinking that they are dealing with a real human being, or should it always be made clear, by specific announcement or by robotic tones, that a computer is a computer? The second – which is where this article comes in – positions this as being on the verge of artificial general intelligence: today a conversation about organising a hair cut, tomorrow one about the meaning of life. That is almost completely fanciful, and this article is really good at explaining why.
It does so in part by returning to a much older argument about computer intelligence. For a long time, the problem of AI was treated as a problem of finding the right set of rules which would generate a level of behaviour we would recognise as intelligent. More recently that has been overtaken by approaches based on extracting and replicating patterns from big data sets. That approach has been more visibly successful – but those successes don’t in themselves tell us whether they are steps towards a universal solution or a brief flourishing within what turns out to be a dead end. Most of us can only be observers of that debate – but we can guard against getting distracted by potential not yet realised.
Giles Turnbull – DEFRA
Giles Turnbull knows how to write. More unusually, he knows how to write about writing. More unusually still, he knows how to write about writing in the context of a wider approach to communications. Most unusually of all, knowing all those things, he shares his knowledge in a way which is itself a great illustration of his own advice.
This is presented as advice to people involved in communicating the work of agile teams, but it’s application is much broader. There will be few who won’t find something useful in it.
Sometimes a simple tweet says all there is to say. Though in this case it’s well worth reading the replies as well.
At GDS’s Sprint 18 last week, the team from the Land Registry presenting their work on online registration of mortgage deeds made an arresting statement: while they could provide instant confirmation that a transaction had been successful, their customers expected there to be some processing time, and were much more reassured by a short delay while the system supposedly updated itself.
That prompted the re-circulation of this thoughtful post from a year ago. If you want to be pretentious you could say it’s about the ethics of form design. If you want to be pragmatic, you could say it’s about how to stick to the rule of thumb that users should only be asked the questions which are necessary to move the service on while also meeting their need for a sense of closure and completeness.
The post rather neatly resolves the tension – and makes an important point in its own right – by recognising that people have emotional as well as transactional needs, even of something as apparently straightforward as a simple form. That can result in a situation where a service can be made better by being less honest, which is not a comfortable place to be. Lots of good food for thought even for – perhaps especially for – those of us who don’t design forms for a living.
Clare Sherwood and Joanne Gillies
At a time when some are feeling a sense of government blogging getting more sanitised and homogenised, it’s good to come across a post so clearly connected to the real experience – good and bad – of people who, as a result, still sound like people.
This post is worth reading for the substance as well. The question of how we best bring together the skills and experience of people expert in government and policy making with the pace and perspective of people expert in service design and solution delivery is one which is still very much with us. The founding premise of the one team government movement was that those two groups each have much to learn from the other: this post illustrates both the power of that insight and how hard it is to act on it systematically.
One quibble with the argument is the way the word ‘digital’ is used. There is a sense that agile, customer-focused, design-led approaches are somehow digital while, by implication, not-digital things are based on different and inferior approaches. That’s not wholly wrong – but it’s not wholly right either, and doesn’t encourage the melding of approaches rightly being suggested here. Success is more likely if it is not ‘digital thinking’ which is dispersed across the organisation, but approaches to problem solving which are valuable in their own right.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Richard McLean – Medium
While we are on the subject, this is a really useful compendium of reading on governance. Some of it is general, but much of it, one or another, is about how fast moving projects meet slow moving organisations, and how to dissipate the heat from the friction which results.
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.
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.