Technology for the Many: A Public Policy Platform for a Better, Fairer Future

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.

 

Designing for crisis

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.

What do we mean when we talk about Product Management in Government?

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.

Five thoughts on design and AI

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.

From public services to “services to the public”: the three elements of contemporary welfare

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.

13 things I learned from six years at the Guardian

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.

‘15 Days’ – a story about collaborative problem solving in public services

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).

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.

Designing for democracy

Catherine Howe – Curious?

By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.

But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.

Mapping service design and policy design

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This is an excellent reference post for two dimensions of policy design thinking.

The first part is a typology of government interventions (click on the image for a larger and more legible version), which prompts more rigorous thought about the nature of the design challenge in relation to the nature of the intended impact.

Slightly curiously, the vertical categories are described as being on a scale from ‘Low level intervention’ (stewardship) to ‘Large scale intervention’ (legislation). That’s a little simplistic. Some legislation is intended to have a very narrow effect; some attempts to influence – which look as though they belong in the ‘leader’ line – can have huge effects. But that’s a minor quibble, particularly as it is described as being still work in progress.

The second dimension is about the scale of design, from micro to macro. Thinking about it that way has the rather helpful effect of cutting off what has become a rather sterile debate about the place of service design in government. Service design is, of course, critically important, but it’s a dimension of a wider model of policy and design which doesn’t entail conflict between the layers.

Let’s fund teams, not projects

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.

Hackers Are the Real Obstacle for Self-Driving Vehicles

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

Government doesn’t have needs

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

How can service design help us make better policy?

Developing policy in government is hard; applying the perspectives and skills of service design can help. That’s the disarmingly simple premise of this post (and the new blog it comes from). If we understand where there are risks in developing policy, and understand the ways in which service design approaches can help mitigate those risks, then we should be able to get first to better policy and then, as a result, to more effective delivery. The aspiration is a good one and the potential benefit is large – but as Paul Maltby has described, there are some real obstacles to effective dialogue between the two perspectives which need to be overcome.

James Johnson – Design and Policy

Why a Toaster Is a Design Triumph

The user interface of a toaster is an unlikely starting place for an essay about the nature of design, but it turns out to be a way into a discussion of some challenging questions, including whether design is an exercise in democracy, an act of genius, or something else altogether. The conclusion is that the purpose of design is to make things more the essence of themselves, and that in this example, at least, it is to identify an ‘obvious but still unseen problem’ and to solve that problem in ‘in an elegant way that is also delightful to use’.

That risks collapsing into triteness, but the underlying question is a good one. Toasters have been around – fundamentally unchanged – for a century. So radically changing how they work (while at the same time barely changing how they work at all) is not a trivial achievement. It’s worth reflecting both on what lessons that might have for the application of design to public services – and on what obvious but unseen problems are waiting to be found.

Ian Bogost – The Atlantic

No Deadlines For You! Software Dev Without Estimates, Specs or Other Lies

This is not a post which self-evidently belongs in Strategic Reading: it’s about how a software developer should work with her boss to get things done. But the suggested approach has two devastatingly simple elements which have much wider resonance, first that understanding the position and priorities of the organisation as a whole is important in addressing even what might appear to be quite small problems; secondly that based on that foundation, prioritisation can and should be a neat constant activity, driven by the need to manage down uncertainty. It’s worth reflecting on where else these ideas might provide and effective way of getting good things done.

Dan Milstein – Hut 8 Labs

Most of what appears on Strategic Reading is gleaned from social media in one way or another.  This is the first which comes from a direct reader suggestion – so thanks to Stephen Gill. Interesting links are welcome, either through the site itself or by tweeting to @StratRead.

Why Amazon is eating the world

The success of Amazon has been told many times and in many ways. This is one of the less obvious and more compelling versions, focusing on the power of treating its internal systems and relationships as if they were external  If they are good enough for other people to want to use them, that’s a good sign that they are good enough for Amazon to use for themselves.

It’s clearly worked pretty powerfully for Amazon. That’s interesting in its own right, but it also raises some important and difficult questions for organisations which are not Amazon, perhaps in particular for governments, which are quite heavily insulated from the consequences of customer satisfaction. Government is not the next Amazon, nor should it be, but it’s worth reflecting on whether there is a similar process by which a drive to quality improvement could be designed into processes and systems.

 

Zack Kanter – Tech Crunch

Eight ideas for tackling peak demand in public services

When demand fluctuates, the costs of meeting it can easily go up and its quality can quickly go down. Some public services seem designed to maximise peak demand, others need to be ready to respond to demand which fluctuates for external reasons. That’s an aspect of service design which is often overlooked: the need to optimise individual interactions and the system supporting them is much more obvious than the opportunity to influence (and in some cases directly manage) the pattern of activity over time. So it’s worth reflecting on the scope for improving both service quality and efficiency by better managing the flow of demand.

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

Why Even Bother With a User-Centered, Digital Gov’t?

There is lots of attention and activity around the question of how government should be made to work better, and in particular how it should be made to work better with modern technology.  There is much less attention given to the question of why doing that is a good thing. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap from somebody who has been thinking about these issues pretty much from the beginning. It’s an extremely good first answer, but it is, of course, not the only one possible. It will be interesting to see if others rise to the challenge Tom poses.

Tom Steinberg – Civic Hall

If I could tell you 3 things – notes from a brief career in the public service

This is highly distilled very uncommon sense from a sharp observer of government in both the UK and Australia. At one level it’s about user research, which is unsurprising as that’s the core of what Leisa does, but the implications are very much wider – which is equally unsurprising as that is the ever less hidden power of user research. 

As she observes, most people want to spend as little time as possible thinking about government services. Much follows from that simple insight.

Leisa Reichelt – disambiguity