Continuing the theme of how digital and policy people are more powerful when aligned than each is when operating separately, this post has lots of insights about how to make that happen in practice. Empathy, vulnerability and culture are as important as communication and collaboration. And as the company Harry leads has deservedly has just won an award for being the best digital SME workplace, his thoughts come with some authority.
Big organisations have things which aren’t quite anybody’s job to do, so they don’t get done. Small organisations tend to solve that problem partly by making everybody’s role much more fluid, and partly by reducing the overheads of the collective action problem. Big organisations find that hard because they manage complexity through structure – which is fine for things which go with the grain of the structure but can be very difficult for things which cut across it. That can lead to situations where – in a neat phrase from this post – ‘the indecision is final’. The solution advocated here is a simple one: if spaces are unoccupied, occupy them.
If we are going to get smarter about how things get done in government, and in particular are serious about melding the strengths of the different tribes into a whole which is stronger than its parts, how do we make that happen.
This post lists seven principles for building a one team government community – and then invites people to sign up to join that community.
Is user-centred digital government unstoppable? At one level the answer must be yes, we live in an increasingly digital environment and government is not and cannot be immune to that. Digital is well on the way to just being the substrate for how things get done. But just as twentieth century governments could be good at managing paper without necessarily being good at using it to communicate clearly and efficiently, so doing things digitally does not immediately imply doing them well. This post argues the positive case, that we are beyond the tipping point where ideas about rapid, responsive service design have a sufficient life – and strength – of their own to transcend the vagaries of individual leaders and services.
Following his post explaining policy people and processes to their digital equivalents, Paul Maltby has now written a deeply sympathetic but rightly challenging post about the frustrations digital has of policy and policy of digital – and what each side needs to learn from the other.
There is a core insight in each direction. Policy can learn much from the data driven, delivery focused model of digital service design and should be no less comfortable starting with the user need. Digital can gain from appreciating the need to understand and reconcile conflicting goals and interests and the basic principle that politics is our basic method for making public choices – and that digital is political too.
Published to coincide with this week’s One Team Government event, this is an excellent short guide to policy making in government. My only quibble is with its title: it’s addressed to government digital professionals, but that shouldn’t suggest to anybody else – including the policy professionals who are its subject – that they have nothing to gain from reading it.
Perhaps the most important insight it contains is that policy isn’t a single specific thing: good policy (and good policymakers) bring together a wide range of skills and disciplines to address some very different kinds of problems. The synthesis of all that is what we call policy – but the boundary between that and other approaches (not least, in this context, digital) is an artefact of language as much as it is a division of substance.
This is a post about black elephants: events widely predicted by those in a position to know, but found totally surprising when they actually happen, or elephants in the room retrospectively declared to be black swans. The Grenfell Tower fire was surprising and shocking – and at the same time, predictable. That puts it in a category of things which human institutions seem particularly bad at dealing with, where a problem builds up slowly and almost asymptomatically until suddenly a tipping point is reached, by which time addressing it has become massively more difficult. At one level, the solution to that is obvious – but that doesn’t seem to make it any easier to do in practice.
And it’s perhaps worth saying that this quite abstract way of thinking about disasters is not an attempt to distract from the human tragedy, but on the contrary is a way of recognising and understanding that we need to deal with structural as well as particular issues if we are to see fewer black elephants in future.
Organisations are essentially a solution to communication problems. In a market economy, firms exist when and to the extent that the costs of communicating and co-ordinating internally are lower than the costs of using market signals – that’s the classic make or buy decision. But the way we communicate has changed fundamentally since the era in which large integrated firms flourished (and since the heyday of Weberian bureaucracies), which suggests at the very least that we should ask whether organisations in the form we know them are still the solution – or are now themselves part of the problem.
This post argues that managers are an expensive and unnecessary overhead, if certain conditions hold (the fact that they generally don’t is presumably an argument for applying them, rather than a counter to the conclusion that management is waste). As ever with Paul Taylor’s posts, the insight is powerful and the writing persuasive. But there is also an element of sleight of hand. Bad kinds of co-ordination are management and to be decried (but if the specific example is approving annual leave, that’s pretty low level), good kinds of co-ordination are leadership, which it seems we need more of, not less.
‘Digital’ risks becoming ever more shapeless as a word – as it increasingly means everything, it necessarily means nothing. In a post three years ago, Catherine Howe brought some rigour to at least one aspect of the issue, identifying seven tribes of digital. Now she has felt the need to add an eighth – the robot army, reflecting the shift she see from large scale automation being an interesting theory to becoming a practical reality.
There is no reason to think that governments as organisations are any less vulnerable to the disruptive effects of automation than other kinds of organisations. As process delivery organisations, they are not fundamentally different from other process delivery organisations, and are certainly not immune to the pressures which are reshaping them (though they may be slower to respond to changing expectations). How far, though, might AI take over the policy development functions of government? More than you might think, is the argument here, asserting that governments have a moral obligation to make the best use of AI.
The word ‘bureaucrat’ was once a descriptive term, it is now a word used primarily as abuse. ‘Hierarchy’ – one of the characteristics of bureaucracy – gets a similarly poor press. Confucius, who was a hierarchical bureaucrat has done rather better, but at the price of having his name largely decoupled from what he thought. A group of philosophers attempt to rescue the high calling of hierarchy and bureaucracy as critical elements of a modern state, though find it easier to do that for an ideal form of hierarchy than one visible in the real world.
Transforming everything at once doesn’t work, so it’s important to be both continuous and incremental and discontinuous and dramatic.
A new report from the Institute for Government on policy churn – the perennial question of why government policy seems to be replaced and reinvented with what is sometimes extraordinary rapidity. There are some sensible ideas on how to do this better, though the idea that strengthening the centre will slow down the churn, rather than accelerate it, might be seen as rather optimistic by some. But it’s essentially looking at the symptoms rather than offering ways of addressing the underlying causes, with little obvious reason to expect much to change.
Is government organised so as to make innovation difficult? That’s not a new question (to put it mildly), but this post approaches the question through the lens of organisational debt, which produces some slightly newer answers. Not surprisingly, though, there is nothing very surprising about those answers: large, cumbersome organisations with a conservative approach to change need more than just simple ambition to become something else.
The idea of ‘technical debt’ has been around for a long time. It’s all the things you should have done to write clean code and clear documentation, to have tested everything in combination with everything else – but never quite got round to doing. The thing you built may well work, but at some point somebody is going to have to clear up the mess – so you have a debt until the time and cost of doing that have been met. There’s a clear parallel with organisations: the way they do things has all too often got disconnected from what the organisation wants and needs to get done.. So there’s a constant drag on delivery until the organisation can get itself better aligned to its current needs. That’s organisational debt – and it isn’t cheap or easy to pay it off.
Two bonus Dilbert cartoons included which make the point all too clearly.
A good summary of the people and methods bringing design thinking into government, with mini case studies of where it’s starting to make a difference. The provocative question in the title never quite gets answered, but there is a bit of a flavour that while there’s been a lot of progress in some areas, the vacuum cleaner of government itself hasn’t moved far beyond version 1.0.
Public services should be designed around the needs of users and to make best use of technology. The result will be improved productivity, the opportunity to break away from traditonal mindsets – and a quarter of a million fewer administrative jobs.