Tales from three disruption “sherpas”

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

This is an artful piece – the first impression is of a slightly unstructured stream of consciousness, but underneath the beguilingly casual style, some great insights are pulled out, as if effortlessly. Halfway down, we are promised ‘three big ideas’, and the fulfilment does not disappoint. The one which struck home most strongly is that we design institutions not to change (or, going further still, the purpose of institutions is not to change). There is value in that – stability and persistence bring real benefits – but it’s then less surprising that those same institutions struggle to adapt to rapidly changing environments. A hint of an answer comes with the next idea: if everything is the product of a design choice, albeit sometimes an unspoken and unacknowledged one, then it is within the power of designers to make things differently.

The civil service is in crisis. This must not go to waste

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.

Good policy, badly implemented

Chris Dillow – Stumbling and Mumbling

The problem with good policies, badly implemented is not primarily the bad implementation, it is that the bad implementation strongly suggests they weren’t good policies to start with. That’s the proposition advanced by this post, (and one interesting to read in parallel with The Blunders of our Government).

There are few examples of good but badly implemented policies because, in this approach, policy making is not – or not just – the grand sweep of a speech, but is the grinding detail of working through real world implications. Failure of implementation is therefore a strong indicator of a bad policy – akin, perhaps, to the idea that if you can’t explain a complicated thing simply, you probably don’t understand it.

Who do you trust? How data is helping us decide

Rachel Botsman – The Guardian

A remarkable proportion of the infrastructure of a modern state is there to compensate for the absence of trust. We need to establish identity, establish creditworthiness, have a legal system to deal with broken promises, employ police officers, security guards and locksmiths, all because we don’t know whether we can trust one another. Most of us, as it happens, are pretty trustworthy. But a few of us aren’t, and it’s really hard to work out which category each of us fall into (to say nothing of the fact that it’s partly situational, so people don’t stay neatly in one or the other).

There are some pretty obvious opportunities for big data to be brought to bear on all that, and this article focuses on a startup trying to do exactly that. That could be a tremendous way of removing friction from the way in which strangers interact, or it could be the occasion for a form of intrusive and unregulated social control (it’s not enough actually to be trustworthy, it’s essential to be able to demonstrate trustworthiness to an algorithm, with all the potential biases that brings with it) – or it could, of course, be both.

Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services

Henrietta Moore, Andrew Percy, Jonathan Portes, Howard Reed – UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

This is an interesting variant of the idea of a universal basic income – to provide universal basic services instead. The argument is that taking a services-based approach makes it much easier to manage the fiscal impact, with the value of the services being only a fifth of the cost of even a pretty modest universal basic income.

The idea forces us to think a bit differently about the role of government. In the UK, healthcare and schools are provided as universal public services, and to most people that seem almost self-evidently right. But in the USA, that isn’t true at all – state-provided schooling is universal, state-provided healthcare emphatically isn’t. It’s not obvious, to put it mildly, that there is a set of services which intrinsically should be state provided and free at the point of use and another set which shouldn’t (there is also a question about whether all of the services proposed are in any normal sense ‘universal’).

But it’s important that questions such as these are asked. It’s easy to slide into the assumption that the way things are is the only way they can be. If patterns of work are changing, patterns of support to complement work will need to change too, and options less radical than full universal basic incomes need to be considered in that context.


In praise of those who serve. Yes, even under Trump. Especially under Trump.

Jennifer Pahlka – Code for America

Civil servants and civil services have ethical responsibilities for what they do. They can and must take account of the democratic mandate of the governments they serve, but that is a factor in the ethical judgements they make, it is not an exemption from the obligation to make them.

Usually when questions of this kind are discussed it is in the context of the limits beyond which government officials should not act, given that by strong implication politically neutral civil servants value the political, legal and civil system more highly than all the specific outcomes of that system. But this post is doubly interesting because it comes from the opposite direction: are there countervailing obligations, are there circumstances in which officials should continue in government despite fundamental disagreements with the policy and ethics of the political leaders they serve? The assertion here is that commitment to the values of public service can – and arguably should – lead people to stay in government both to sustain services to those who depend on them and to mitigate the worst consequences of bad policies and decisions. It’s a powerful argument. But it has the potential to be a profoundly undemocratic one. Democracies undoubtedly need checks and balances and in extremis, civil services can be such a check. But we should be worried – much more as citizens than as bureaucrats – when political and legal checks are insufficient to create an ethical balance.

Practical transformation: start by making things a bit less rubbish

Stephen Gill – Medium

Making things a bit less rubbish may sound a pale and uninspiring ambition. Set against the grand rhetoric of strategic change, it is certainly unassuming. But this post shouldn’t be overlooked because of its asserted modesty, for at least two important reasons.

The first is that making things a bit less rubbish is no small thing. Continuous attention to making things a bit less rubbish starts to make them a lot less rubbish and ultimately perhaps not rubbish at all. The second is that this is a wonderfully clear account of why mapping services from the perspective of users, rather than providers, is so powerful and so important. The ambition has been there for a long time, but the reality of actually doing it has lagged years behind, so it’s good to see real progress being made.

A few years ago, it looked as though joined up information might be as far as we would get: joined up information wouldn’t and couldn’t deliver a joined up government. With hindsight, that looks a little pessimistic in terms of the possibility of delivering better and more joined up services. But the thirty parts of government described in the post as being relevant to exports are all still there, and the question of how far service design can reality transcend those boundaries is still a very real one.

What does it take to work with Government Policy Officials?

Jack Collier – Medium

This is a really interesting perspective on when it is – and isn’t – sensible to bring digital approaches and expertise into government policy making. Digital has much to offer policy making, but the value of that offer is massively increased if it is made with some humility, recognising the need to understand and add value to the policy making process. There is a refreshing recognition that not all service design (and so even more so, not all policy) is digital and that the contexts and constraints of policy making can be very different from those assumed in agile development and delivery. That isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a return to the view that policy making is so arcane an art that only true initiates should be allowed to do it, or have an opinion on it. It is though a very welcome recognition of the value of an almost anthropological approach – the idea of sending product managers to be participant observers of the policy making world is a particularly good one.

Who gets held accountable when a facial recognition algorithm fails? And how?

Ellen Broad – Medium
Facial recognition is the next big area where questions about data ownership, data accuracy and algorithmic bias will arise – and indeed are arising. Some of those questions have very close parallels with their equivalents in other areas of personal data, others are more distinctive – for example, discrimination against black people is endemic in poor algorithm design, but there are some very specific ways in which that manifests itself in facial recognition. This short, sharp post uses the example of a decision just made in Australia to pool driving licence pictures to create a national face recognition database to explore some of the issues around ownership, control and accountability which are of much wider relevance.

The Ethnographic Lens: Perspectives and Opportunities for New Data Dialects

Elizabeth Churchill – EPIC

This is a long and detailed post, making two central points, one more radical and surprising than the other. The less surprising  – though it certainly bears repeating – is that qualitative understanding, and particularly ethnographic understanding, is vitally important in understanding people and thus in designing systems and services. The more distinctive point is that qualitative and quantitative data are not independent of each other and more particularly that quantitative data is not neutral. Or, in the line quoted by Leisa Reichelt which led me to read the article, ‘behind every quantitative measure is a qualitative judgement imbued with a set of situated agendae’. Behind the slightly tortured language of that statement there are some important insights. One is that the interpretation of data is always something we project onto it, it is never wholly latent within it. Another – in part a corollary to the first – is that data cannot be disentangled from ethics. Taken together, that’s a reminder that the spectrum from data to knowledge is one to be traversed carefully and consciously.

This is when robots will start beating humans at every task

Chris Weller – World Economic Forum

This is a beguiling timeline which has won a fair bit of attention for itself. It’s challenging stuff, particularly the point around 2060 when “all human tasks” will apparently be capable of being done by machines. But drawing an apparently precise timeline such as this obscures two massive sources of uncertainty. The first is the implication that people working on artificial intelligence have expertise in predicting the future of artificial intelligence. Their track record suggests that that is far from the case: like nuclear fusion, full blown AI has been twenty years in the future for decades (and the study underlying this short article strongly implies, though without ever acknowledging, that the results are as much driven by social context as by technical precision). The second is the implication that the nature of human tasks has been understood, and thus that we have some idea of what the automation of all human tasks might actually mean. There are some huge issues barely understood about that (though also something of a no true Scotsman argument – something is AI until it is achieved, at which point it is merely automation). Even if the details can be challenged, though, the trend looks clear: more activities will be more automated – and that has some critical implications, regardless of whether we choose to see it as beating humans.

Bureaucrats to the Rescue

Bernardo Zacka – Boston Review

Politicians make decisions, legitimised by their democratic mandate. Bureaucrats implement those decisions, based on the objective and standardised application of rules.

So at least goes the standard caricature. Reality is, of course, more complicated than that. That simplistic model breaks down for at last two kinds of reasons. First, the real world is just too big and varied to make it possible – or sensible – to specify everything in minute detail. Systems which attempt to do that tend to break. Secondly, bureaucrats and the consumers of public services are human beings (as indeed are politicians), and their interactions will inevitably be influenced by emotional as well rational responses. Bureaucrats always have faces, even if those faces are not always visible.

This article is a thoughtful exploration of the place of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in wider political systems, including the psychological toil which can be exacted on those trying to manage those intrinsic tensions between rules, complex reality, and humanity.