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.
Theo Bass – DECODE
The internet runs on personal data. It is the price we pay for apparently free services and for seamless integration. That’s a bargain most have been willing to make – or at least one which we feel we have no choice but to consent to. But the consequences of personal data powering the internet reverberate ever more widely, and much of the value has been captured by a small number of large companies.
That doesn’t just have the effect of making Google and Facebook very rich, it means that other potential approaches to managing – and getting value from – personal data are made harder, or even impossible. This post explores some of the challenges and opportunities that creates – and perhaps more importantly serves as an introduction to a much longer document – Me, my data and I:The future of the personal data economy – which does an excellent job both of surveying the current landscape and of telling a story about how the world might be in 2035 if ideas about decentralisation and personal control were to take hold – and what it might take to get there.
Dirk Helbing, Bruno S. Frey, Gerd Gigerenzer, Ernst Hafen, Michael Hagner, Yvonne Hofstetter, Jeroen van den Hoven, Roberto V. Zicari, Andrej Zwitter – Scientific American
There is plenty of evidence that data-driven political manipulation is on the increase, with issues getting recent coverage ranging from secretively targeted Facebook ads, bulk twitterbots and wholesale data manipulation. As with so much else, what is now possible online is an amplification of political chicanery which long pre-dates the internet – but as with so much else, the extreme difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. This portmanteau article comes at the question of whether that itself puts democracy itself under threat from a number of directions, giving it a pretty thorough examination. But there is a slight sense of technological determinism, which leads both to some sensible suggestions about how to ensure continuing personal, social and democratic control – but also to some slightly hyperbolic ideas about the threat to jobs and the imminence of super-intelligent machines,
Hila Mehr – Harvard: ASH Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation [pdf]
The first half of this paper is a slightly breathless and primarily US-focused survey of the application of AI to government – concentrating more on the present and near future, than on more distant and more speculative developments.
The second half sets out six “strategies” for making it happen, starting with the admirably dry observation that, “For many systemic reasons, government has much room for improvement when it comes to technological advancement, and AI will not solve those problems.” It’s not a bad checklist of things to keep in mind and the paper as a whole is a good straightforward introduction to the subject, but is very much an overview, not a detailed exploration.
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.
It’s tempting to try to understand social change in terms of generations – and it is a temptation widely succumbed to. Millennials are pitted against baby boomers, generation X is succeeded by generation Y, lost generations are found again, and stereotypes abound. This article and an earlier more detailed one are an attempt to challenge that framing. A part of that is recognising that people criticise younger generations for the same faults which their elders once ascribed to them; the more interesting part is challenging the idea that there are shared experiences which are best understood in terms of generations. That’s not to say of course that there are no social and economic changes to which governments and others need to respond. But it is a useful reminder that focusing on differences between generations tends to obscure differences within them (and differences which aren’t generational at all).
John Quiggin – Inside Story
It’s a surprisingly common mistake to design things on the assumption that they will always operate in a benign environment. But the real world is messier and more hostile than that. This is an article about why self-driving vehicles will be slower to arrive and more vulnerable once they are here than it might seem from focusing just on the enabling technology.
But it’s also an example of a much more general point. ‘What might an ill-intentioned person do to break this?’ is a question which needs to be asked early enough in designing a product or service that the answers can be addressed in the design itself, rather than, for example, ending up with medical devices which lack any kind of authentication at all. Getting the balance right between making things easy for the right people and as close to impossible as can be managed for the wrong people is never straightforward. But there is no chance of getting it right if the problem isn’t acknowledged in the first place.
And as an aside, there is still the question of whether vehicles are anywhere close to be becoming autonomous in the first place.
Simson Garfinkel – MIT Technology Review
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.
A short and powerful polemic on why government doesn’t have needs (and thus why governments are different from users, which do). It’s a powerful argument, but a narrower one than the author seems to recognise. To the extent that government is a provider of services, there is much to be said for a strong focus on meeting user needs, and there is certainly good reason to think that behaving as if that were true has some powerful positive benefits, not least in that using the language of needs gives the best possible chance of not getting prematurely tied up with solutions. There’s a risk, though, that the consumers of a service are seen as the only relevant people, and their needs the only relevant needs. That’s sometimes true (or as nearly true that we don’t need to worry about it), but often there are social and collective interests in how a service operates as well as the individual one – which is one reason they are government services in the first place.
The post is also dismissive of describing the users of government services as ‘customers’. That’s a view which is more rigid than sensible – but that’s a debate for another day.
Charles Reynolds-Talbot – Medium
This is a long, but fast moving and very readable, essay on why AI will arrive more slowly and do less than some of its more starry-eyed proponents assert. It’s littered with thought-provoking examples and weaves together a number of themes touched on here before – the inertial power of the installed base, the risk of confusing task completion with intelligence (and still more so general intelligence), the difference between tasks and jobs, and just how long it takes to get from proof of concept to anything close to real world practicality. There are some interesting second order thoughts as well. There is a tendency, for example, to assume that technologies (particularly digital technologies) will keep improving. But though that may well be true over a period, it’s very unlikely to be true indefinitely: in the real world, S-curves are more common than exponential growth.
It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions. But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’. From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core.
Colin Talbot – Cambridge Policy Lab
Continuing the down to earth practicality which is its hallmark, this Doing Presentations post offers lots of good advice for people who are far from sure that they ever wanted to be doing a presentation in the first place – all of it equally good advice for the less reluctant.
Ella Fitzsimmons – Doing Presentations
Government is mostly about making choices, most of the time. Or more precisely, that’s what politics is. The reason politics is hard is because those choices are often hard in their own right, and harder still when put in the context of all the other choices which need to be made.
This post is a cartoon which starts with the question – apparently the final hurdle in White House job interviews – about your readiness to microwave a puppy. It ends with the assertion that the White House – and, by extension, politics generally – is a place where impossible choices are made everyday. The two are more connected than they might first appear.
How do changing patterns of employment affect not just the nature of people’s work in the short term, but their ability to progress and to have careers? This article attempts an answer to that question by looking at two tech giants of different generations, Kodak and Apple, and their very different employment models. It is unashamedly a powerful story rather than a deep analysis – but interesting read as an illustration of Simon Caulkin’s recent article, which covers closely related ground in a very different way.
Neil Irwin – New York Times
Governments are run by civil servants. Civil servants are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats like meetings. Meetings have very high costs but deliver very little value. So if there were fewer meetings, government would work better, and perhaps more people who are not bureaucrats would find it more congenial to work in government. And if there were no meetings at all, perhaps everything would work perfectly.
Or perhaps meetings survive because they have purpose and value. Perhaps we should focus on having better meetings, perhaps even fewer meetings. But to miss the value of meetings is to miss something really quite important.
Johnathan Nightingale – the co-pour