Adam Greenfield – Longreads
Sometimes the best way of thinking about something completely familiar is to treat it as wholly alien. If you had to explain a smartphone to somebody recently arrived from the 1990s, how would you describe what it is and, even more importantly, what it does?
In a way, that’s what this article is doing, painstakingly describing both the very familiar, and the aspects of its circumstances we prefer not to know – cheap phones have a high human and environmental price. An arresting starting point is to consider what people routinely carried around with them in 2005, and how much of that is now subsumed in a single ubiquitous device.
That’s fascinating in its own right, but it’s also an essential perspective for any kind of strategic thinking about government (or any other) services, for reasons pithily explained by Benedict Evans:
Smartphones are technological marvels. But they are also powerful instruments of sociological change. Understanding them as both is fundamental to understanding them at all.
John Sheridan – The National Archives blog
This post works at two entirely different levels. It is a bold claim of right to the challenges of digital archiving, based on the longevity of the National Archives as an organisation, the trust it has earned and its commitment to its core mission – calling on a splendidly Bayesian historiography.
But it can be read another way, as an extended metaphor for government as a whole. There is the same challenge of managing modernity in long established institutions, the same need to sustain confidence during rapid systemic change. And there is the same need to grow new government services on the foundations of the old ones, drawing on the strength of old capabilities even as new ones are developed.
And that, of course, should be an unsurprising reading. Archival record keeping is changing because government itself is changing, and because archives and government both need to keep pace with the changing world.
It’s interesting to read this Economist editorial alongside Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. It focuses on the polarisation of political discourse driven by the persuasion architecture Tufekci describes, resulting in the politics of contempt. The argument is interesting, but perhaps doubly so when the Economist, which is not know for its histrionic rhetoric, concludes that ‘the stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher.’
That has implications well beyond politics and persuasion and supports the wider conclusion that algorithmic decision making needs to be understood, not just assumed to be neutral.
Zeynep Tufekci – TED
This TED talk is a little slow to get going, but increasingly catches fire. The power of algorithmically driven media may start with the crude presentation of adverts for the thing we have already just bought, but the same powers of tracking and micro-segmentation create the potential for social and political manipulation. Advertising-based social media platforms are based on persuasion architectures, and those architectures make no distinction between persuasion to buy and persuasion to vote.
That analysis leads – among other things – to a very different perception of the central risk of artificial intelligence: it is not that technology will develop a will of its own, but that it will embody, almost undetectably, the will of those in a position to use it. The technology itself may, in some senses, be neutral; the business models it supports may well not be.
Gerald Kane – MIT Sloan Management Review
The idea of digital disruption is familiar enough. Usually that’s seen as a consequence of rapid technological change. Clearly that’s part of the story, but this post argues that the more important challenge is not so much adopting the technology as adapting the people and organisations which use it – and that that is messier and harder to do well. It follows that to be successful digitally, organisations need to be effective at managing organisational change.
Chris Yiu – Institute for Global Change
This wide ranging and fast moving report hits the Strategic Reading jackpot. It provides a bravura tour of more of the topics covered here than is plausible in a single document, ticking almost every category box along the way. It moves at considerable speed, but without sacrificing coherence or clarity. That sets the context for a set of radical recommendations to government, based on the premise established at the outset that incremental change is a route to mediocrity, that ‘status quo plus’ is a grave mistake.
Not many people could pull that off with such aplomb. The pace and fluency sweep the reader along through the recommendations, which range from the almost obvious to the distinctly unexpected. There is a debate to be had about whether they are the best (or the right) ways forward, but it’s a debate well worth having, for which this is an excellent provocation.
Issie Lapowsky – Wired
An intriguing natural experiment on the impact of a universal income has been going on in North Carolina for the last twenty years. Nobody intended – or even noticed – it to begin with; it’s a slightly accidental by-product of a profitable casino. It’s not a universal basic income in the normal sense, in that the amounts involved aren’t enough actually to live on and so it’s not a substitute for employment. But that makes the observed effects even more interesting. Even relatively small amounts can have significant behavioural consequences, including improving health and education outcomes and reducing crime. Larger lump sums at key stages, such as supporting tertiary education, can be more dramatically life changing.
Kylie Havelock – Medium
Service design in government is hard not because it is intrinsically more complicated than any other kind of service design (though there are plenty in government who like to think it is), but partly because it is universal (we can’t design to exclude difficult or expensive to serve customers) and partly because often the need for a service comes at a time of crisis (which also means that those difficult or expensive to serve customers are those whose need is greatest).
This post makes a powerful case for that to underpin the whole approach to service design in government, and so to ‘aim not just for seamlessness, but for kindness’. And in an interesting gem of synchronicity, there are strong parallels with Kit Collingwood’s post on why civil servants should become experts on empathy, also published this morning.
Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose
The question in the title of this piece can be answered very simply: yes, overwhelmingly bureaucrats do care. The fact that such an answer is not obvious, or not credible, to many people who are not bureaucrats suggests that the better question might be, how is it that uncaringness is an emergent property of systems populated by caring people?
Two rather different groups of bureaucrats are considered here. The first is those furthest from the delivery of services, particularly policy makers, and of them particularly those who learned their penmanship while studying classics at Oxford. There are rather fewer of those than there once were. But there is overwhelming evidence that even those who do not neatly fit the stereotype can be far too distant from the people whose needs their policies are intended to address. The second group is those who deliver services directly to the people who use them, described drawing on the work of Bernardo Zacka, covered here a few weeks ago. They are not rules-applying automata, but subtle observers, judges and influencers of what is going on – and incorporating those perspectives and insights into policy making enhances it immeasurably. That is increasingly happening, but this post is a good reminder that too often the gap remains a wide one.
Zoe G – Medium
Product owners play a vital pivotal role in agile delivery, a role which is simple and clear (which is not at all to say easy) in some ways, but still much less clear in others, particularly in thinking about government services. This post uses the differences between public and private sector contexts to illustrate the complex balancing act that is required of product owners in government. That matters not just the product owners themselves, but to the other players in the wider systems of which they are a part. The underlying intent, the purpose for which a service is being developed won’t always be a straightforward response to a user need, and the articulation of goals and priorities needs to reflect that. This is a useful step towards building and sharing a common understanding.
Richard Pope – IF
Some simple but very powerful thoughts on the intersection of automation and design. The complexity of AI, as with any other kind of complexity, cannot be allowed to get in the way of making the experience of a service simple and comprehensible. Designers have an important role to play in avoiding that risk, reinforced as the post notes by the requirement under GDPR for people to be able to understand and challenge decisions which affect them.
There is a particularly important point – often overlooked – about the need to ensure that transparency and comprehension are attributes of wider social and community networks, not just of individuals’ interaction with automated systems.
Jack Collier – Medium
It’s all very well saying that policy and digital should be better integrated, but what, a policymaker might ask, has digital ever done for us? This post answers that question, describing five areas where digital perspectives can add value.
The quotation marks round ‘digital’ in the title seem significant. The transferable skills are indeed valuable, but their value does not come from their being intrinsically digital. These are approaches valuable to policymakers because they are, or more often should be, policymaking skills.
Meanwhile, there is the suggestion of a sixth area, in which digital approaches might offer fresh insights for policy challenges where legislation is not an option. The promised future post on that should be well worth reading.
Nicholas Tampio – Aeon
Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously observed, is the worst form of government except for all the others. So far, so good: few find it tactful to disagree. But the practical application of that ranges from infrequent voting to intense participatory involvement. There is, this post argues, an increasing tendency for real decisions to made by experts (or, at least, professional politicians), with citizens reduced to the role of an approving chorus. The claim implicitly made by those experts that they are just better at this is somewhat questionable; a better remedy is to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level.
In a way the post doesn’t quite seem to recognise, this moves the problem around, rather than solving it. That’s partly because everybody is in favour of devolved decision making (subsidiarity is after all a fundamental principle of EU decision making), but almost everybody sees the level they happen to be at as the most appropriate one. But even more importantly it’s because it fails to distinguish between different kinds of decisions. Politics is only surprisingly rarely about making self-contained decisions, straightforward choices between clear options. What makes politics – and democracy – hard is the interaction between decisions, the fact that every decision is constrained by and constrains every other one, that decisions are relative rather than absolute. On that, Catherine Howe’s approach, recently featured here, is a stronger one: the question is how to design for democracy, in the full recognition that decisions are political; it is not best answered by assuming that being local is itself adequate.
danah boyd – Point
This the transcript of a conference address, less about the weaknesses of big data a machine learning and more about its vulnerability to attack and to the encoding of systematic biases – and how everything is going to get worse. There are some worrying case studies – how easy will it turn out to be to game the software behind self-driving cars to confuse one road sign with another? – but also some hope, from turning the strength of machine learning against itself, using adversarial testing for models to probe each other’s limits. Her conclusion though is stark:
We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build. We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our systems to do harm and cause chaos.
(the preamble promises a link to a video of the whole thing, but what’s there is only one section of the piece, the rest is behind a paywall)
Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin – LSE British Politics and Policy
Public services – and specifically those of the Beveridge welfare state – are dead; long live services to the public. The argument here is essentially that monolithic, top-down solutions are no longer fit for purpose (though some element of the Beveridge welfare state have always fitted that description much better than others), and that we need to replace them with approaches which are more local and are designed more collaboratively. It is undeniably true that much has changed since Beveridge’s time, and the idea that the man from Whitehall (or, of course, in Beveridge’s case, the man from the LSE) knows best doesn’t have the force it once had, to put it mildly. There is much to be said for the three principles which the authors suggest should underpin the new services to the public – that welfare should be seen as a public good; that services should be designed collaboratively; and that they should be organised and led around places. Wishing for a different future is easy, and there is certainly a place of visionary alternatives. But this would be a more powerful post if it gave at least some account of what a transition might look like or how it might be triggered.
Mary Hamilton – Medium
This is a post about the impact of digital change on journalism in general and The Guardian in particular, but much of it is just as relevant to any other kind of organisation managing – or failing to manage – the transition. Of the thirteen things, the one which particularly won the piece an entry is here is the tenth – “it’s often better to improve a system than develop one brilliant thing.” Making new things is glamorous and exciting. Improving and fixing existing things is not. That seems to apply to everything from maintaining nuclear weapons to minor government processes. Fixing things is one of the things governments (and many other large organisations) need to be better at – being so would make more difference than almost any number of shiny new things.
The Centre for Effective Services
How long does it take to make cross-government collaboration work?
The slightly surprising answer from this Irish case study is 15 days – or more precisely, 15 days of work, as the elapsed time was rather greater. But even with that qualification, this is pretty impressive stuff. It is also interesting that most of the tools they used to make it work had been assembled in the UK civil service (specifically the Prime Minster’s Delivery Unit) some 15 years earlier – which suggests that this exercise had the potential to have been a wholly routine application of well-established methods. That was clearly not the case here – nor would it probably have been any more expected in a UK equivalent (where the PMDU is long gone).
Laura Gardiner – Resolution Foundation
This is a good post in both form and function: a complex and important policy area, neatly summarised in a set of well chosen charts, mixing objective and attitudinal data, and quietly prompting some very big strategic questions.
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.
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.