W is for government

Tom Steinberg is a clever man, of course. When he says “Governments don’t have websites: governments are websites”, I think he’s wrong – but he’s a clever man, so at least he’s wrong in interesting ways.

“Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website.”

Really? When was the last time you looked at the Army’s website? Did you drive home tonight seeing only HTML, or did you keep your eyes on the road? Do you feel some confidence that a plane won’t crash on your head because you’ve checked on caa.co.uk?  Is the first thing you do in the morning is have a look on police.uk to see if you’ve been murdered in the night? No, Tom, your main interface to government is not through a web browser: it’s through something called everyday life, through the environment in which you live and breathe, in which you transact business, through the rules you observe or ignore.

“To [most] people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon.”

OK, so the key point is that word “interacting”. You’ve reduced all the stuff government does to create and sustain a great part of the environment you inhabit to a question of what it feels like, essentially, when you want something – either because something has gone wrong (you’re sick, the bins haven’t been emptied, the road has a pothole) or because you’re obliged to (you owe them money). If you only look at the aspect of government that is a little bit  like Amazon then it’s not a surprise if it looks like Amazon.

Now of course the slogan “governments are websites” is just a slogan, as the rest of Steinberg’s piece makes clear. What he say is that he doesn’t like government websites and he thinks public sector organisations don’t worry enough about the fact that their websites – particularly the transactional bits of their websites – are horrible. Fair enough. Or nearly fair enough. When I saw the slogan being repeated and retweeted (Steinberg said it first at SOCITM’s Building Perfect Council Websites 2012 event), it had an oddly nostalgic air to it. Its language reminded me of dotcom boomery and clicks not bricks and those heady days of e-everything. Do we even use websites any more? We use web pages and web services and bits of web functionality – but we experience them through searches, in apps, from links or QR codes. And yet public sector bodies, according to Steinberg, should be thinking more about  “their” websites.

There’s a whole lot of thinking about finding services against finding websites that’s really fascinating (and which Amazon, on the whole, doesn’t have to bother its pretty little head about). I don’t want to go to my local authority’s (hideous) website to check the bin delivery day: I want to Google “bin delivery day” and for my device, the apps, Google, and whoever else is needed all to get together to tell me when my bins will be emptied – full stop. Yet when the service goes horribly wrong and I want to know the names of the buggers who’ve been failing to empty my bins properly for the last year, I absolutely want to know the name of my councillor, her address, and how I can vote the lazy bugger out. In the former transaction, branding only gets in the way of telling me what I need to know. In the latter case, branding does something that it will probably never do for Jeff Bezos (no matter how good his politics may be): it enables democratic accountability. Weirdly, for the man behind “MySociety”, Steinberg’s article doesn’t even hint at the existence of democracy. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit into a slogan very well.

In the last part of his piece, Steinberg makes some very good points about governments (and agencies and local authorities). Essentially he is saying “The public sector should think more about its digital services and in order to do that they should have some senior people who understand the first thing about it”. That’s not a very snappy slogan, but at least it’s kind of reasonable. But please let’s not, by overselling the point and indulging in slogans, give space to the claim that Amazon has the answer to running the public sector.

Are we for responsibility?

I spent a day last week at The Guardian’s Managing Public Sector Information conference in London (hashtag #psi2011), and came away with head buzzing about transparency and open data.

It’s probably fair to say that the mood of the conference was a combination of vague approval – “transparency” is a little like apple pie, you can’t really argue with it as an idea – mingled with worry. Actually, perhaps that was only my mood. But it’s prompted me to think more about the worries.

Mike Martin led a session which I think probably had most attendees a little baffled. Well OK, it left me a little baffled. But what I took from it was one key message (and my apologies to Mike if I misrepresent him at all here).

Technology changes in the promulgation of ideas – from the invention of moveable type to typesetting to web publication – have involved constant renegotiation of the roles that we describe as “author”, “editor” and “publisher”. This negotiation has taken place within the marketplace, the law, and popular understanding, and each time leads to different views of the value those roles contribute (financial, social, etc), of their liabilities and responsibilities, and of their their role in giving authority to content.

So what does it mean when we talk about public bodies “publishing” data? What responsibilities and liabilities are involved? What authority does the name of the body as “publisher” bestow on the data? To whom does the data belong once it is published?

Do these questions matter? Well, I suspect they do, partly because of two thoughts that came up during the day.

The first related to that idea of “authority”. Does the emphasis on publishing data as an end in itself reflect a rather naive belief in the objectivity and authority of data against other kinds of information? Do we really believe the figures for exam passes at a college represent a better way of selecting a college, as against the anecdotal and experience-based views we come across in conversations at the school gates (or on FaceBook)? Do we really think that crime maps give us a better picture of the experience of crime in our area than local gossip and maybe a local news-sheet does? I realise that these questions don’t imply that we shouldn’t have access to*both the data and the anecdotal, of course. But will the weight carried by each of the two words “government data” overpower other voices?

The second point came in a presentation from Pat Ellison of Barnardo’s. Barnardo’s work is frequently paid for under contract to local authorities. Pat explained how voluntary sector organisations like hers work with people who are frequently vulnerable and almost always facing hugely difficult situations. So there needs to be a high level of trust by clients of the voluntary organisation involved, trust which must sometimes be built on precisely the fact that they are not state agents. Pat explained that Barnardo’s and others have no issue with the principle that they must account to the authority for the work which they have funded: this is not completely unproblematic, but can be managed. It’s when that data is to be made public that things change somewhat. It’s not that there’s a threat to individual privacy – at least, one hopes and assumes not. The question is, is this a case where transparency, far from encouraging trust, actually erodes it? Will people have quite the same trustful approach to sharing very sensitive personal information with an organisation when they know that their data (however well anonymised) is to be put in the public domain? Do we have the right to re-use the personal information of people who, by the nature of things, are unlikely themselves to be able to access or take advantage of the neatly-packaged CSV files which document their misery? (Please note that I am paraphrasing Pat’s presentation wildly; don’t blame her if I’m exaggerating for effect.)

Of course, these are edge-cases. I’m not suggesting that they throw the whole transparency project into doubt. But they do suggest to me that we need some kind of classification scheme by which to distinguish different kinds of “public data” and the differing degrees of authority they carry – and that we in the public sector need to recognise our responsibilities as a publisher as we push the data out there.

Which is the idea I’ll explore, I hope, in another blog.

Seeing through transparency?

So the UK Government has published Departmental spend reports, amid much fanfare over the unprecedented opening up of government and so on (the Scottish Government got there first , as it happens).

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude set out the purpose of the exercise: “I want the public to hold us to account for what we do“, and the Government has conjured up an image of a nation of “armchair auditors” who will probe and analyse this data until every story is unearthed and every scrap of waste is excised.

I’m sure that some of said auditors are beavering away. I’m sure that some stories will emerge. So far, all I’ve seen is a few sniggers at the “revelation” of a £26k training bill for training Cabinet Office staff to have “difficult conversations”, and some similar fluff.

Am I alone in being sceptical about the consequences – intended or unintended – of this kind of “transparency”?

There’s something in that term “armchair auditors” that rings alarm bells. Because these spend figures are available to real, professional auditors who regularly expose the (perhaps relatively few) instances of poor judgement, gross inefficiency and downright fraud that goes on in Government. And since they have access to much more than the raw data that is being pumped out, they probably have a better understanding of what value is being delivered by the spend in question. Indeed, I know of no organisation, public or private, in which scrutiny of detailed spend reports by senior managers, still less by shareholders, is held to be a model of good governance. Even at my pretty abject level in the Great Chain of Being,  transaction reports are a small part of the picture that allows me to manage my unit’s work.

So the result is more likely to be the kind of “story” that the press seemed to find in the “difficult conversations” workshop (even the Guardian couldn’t resist, referring to that workshop as “lingering waste”, as though it was something nasty and smelly left in a desk drawer that Gordon Brown should have emptied on his way out). Lacking context, and caring less, the media can focus on anything that looks wacky, creative, “politically-correct”, and most especially on anything that looks even remotely fun, and “hold Ministers’ feet to the fire” until they use those same feet to stamp on any such activity. The most “difficult conversations” Cabinet Office civil servants may be having is trying to explain to Mr Maude why £26k may actually have been pretty good value in the circumstances…

This makes me think of last weekend’s furore over the outing of civil servant Sarah Baskerville (@baskers) for tweeting at and about her work in Whitehall. The twitterati were outraged. Bloggers (there were quite a few) argued that this kind of attack will, and is probably designed to, scare public servants away from revealing themselves to be human beings with feelings and hangovers, and discourage them from using social media for fear of ending up pilloried in the Mail.

Will the release of spend data produce the same kind of self-defensive caution among public servants? A civil service paralysed at the thought that anything but the most rigorous and explicit orthodoxy in their spending habits will leave them exposed and hung out to dry? Yes, almost certainly. After all, civil servants are a pretty cautious lot at the best of times. Will this be good for public services, the public purse, or the public generally? Doubtful.

Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that transparency is important. The point is, though, that transparency can be dangerous without engagement. If the processes, conversations and decisions of our public services are really to become transparent, then public servants need to have the tools (and that means the technical resources, the skills, and the backing) to contextualise, to consult, to explain, and at the end of the day to defend, their own actions. Otherwise the release of post hoc data will only encourage witch-hunts and scare stories which reinforce the view that public servants are, literally, a bunch of wasters.

But perhaps that’s the point?

Information overload: it’s not just filter failure

I posted previously on Clay Shirkey’s assertion that there is no information overload, just filter failure. I pointed out that filtering is only half of the attention management picture (pulling information forward is the other part).

It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in … And this is why Email Overload is a problem and RSS feed overload is much less so: there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox; there is no such expectation for an RSS reader.

Read more at knowledgeforward.wordpress.com


Complexity and management

We talk too easily about “tools and techniques” as though we have the answers in our wee bag of tools… and then we’re baffled as to why they don’t work. Ralph Stacy argues that despite all the “science” of management, “managers, consultants, politicians and policy makers simply do not know what is currently going on, let alone what might happen as the consequence of their action and inaction” – and we therefore need to think about management in new ways.

The Demand for Management Tools and Techniques

Some of the responses to previous postings on this blog reflect the widespread insistence on providing managers with a set of tools and techniques that will produce success. I think it is widely believed that there is a received body of knowledge on management concerned with the ‘big picture’ over the ‘long term’ for the ‘whole organisation’. What people usually mean when they talk about the long term, big picture for a whole organisation is a clear view of the purpose of that organisation and the direction in which ‘it’ is intended to ‘move’, ‘going forward into the future’, so that its ‘resources’, ‘capabilities’ and ‘competences’ are ‘optimally’ ‘aligned’ to the sources of competitive advantage in its environment as ‘the way’ to achieve ‘successful’ performance. It is also widely believed that there is a set of ‘tools and techniques’ which can be ‘applied’ to an organisation to yield ‘success’ and that there is ‘evidence’ that these tools and techniques actually do the job required of them. The tools and techniques are persuasive if ‘case studies’ can be presented of major organisations which have achieved success through applying them. When anyone critiques or dismisses accepted its tools and techniques then there is a powerful expectation that the critic will replace them with new ones in the belief that if managers do not have tools and techniques they will simply have to muddle through in ways that are completely unacceptable in a modern world. The expectation is that we need to focus on what decision makers ‘should’ be doing to make decisions in certain kinds of problem situations in order to ‘improve’ their organisation’s performance. This is taken for granted as obvious common sense and if a critic fails to comply then the critique is dismissed as impractical and so useless.

Read more at complexityandmanagement.wordpress.com


N is for…news

Properly and interestingly challenged by @iainmhepburn for being casually (and childishly) critical of The Times’ decision to move behind a paywall, which forced me to try to put down here why I think Murdoch’s strategy is wrong. Iain suggests that the anti-paywall approach condemns newspapers to “unsustainable losses in pursuit of some idealistic ‘all is free online’ belief”, thereby threatening the existence of quality journalism.

I don’t agree – at least, not long-term. The paywall approach is trying to protect a brand: a brand that packages a whole lot of disparate content into something called “a newspaper”. But this model simply references the idea of that package of content we called a newspaper – a concept that only makes sense in reference to the physical print world. Hence my view that the paywall approach is trying to protect a brand for the sake of it – and the danger is that the brand becomes in effect an empty one.

The dangers, it seems to me, are twofold. First, that by the operation of Gresham’s Law, the bad coinage of free content drives out the good coinage of quality journalism: that is, that we simply stop paying attention to paid-for content on the grounds that what is free is “good enough”. This is essentially the same view as the argument (which I have spent years opposing!) “Why do we need a library when we’ve all got access to Google?”. And this danger will be the greater if journalistic content, protected behind its paywalls, ceases to engage with the blogosphere. I would have doubts about tweeting or blogging a link that required my reader to pay to view the content I was referencing: and journalists, possibly contractually limited to writing behind the paywall, will themselves effectively be excluded from responding to the untrue with the truth, because the truth will be chargeable content.

Second, there is the danger that the paywall actually doesn’t protect quality in journalism. It is probably a cheap shot to ask whether we should trust the founder of Fox News to defend quality journalism, but it seems to me entirely possible that proprietors will prefer to rely on the brand’s reputation rather than investing in any actual quality standards to stake their claim to truthfulness – a reliance that may work short-term but which will inevitably erode standards over time.

In fact, these issues aren’t entirely new. The concept of “a newspaper” – a package of content bundled together under a single masthead – is determined by the means of production and distribution in a paper world rather than by its inherent logic. People have always taken what they want from that bundle, according to taste and leaning. There was a time when a surprising number of people outside the financial world took the Financial Times simply because, if I remember right, it had a well-regarded racing tipster. Personally, I rather resent paying for a Sports Supplement with every paper I buy. In other words, we already have preferences about what content we are willing to take from within the package called a “newspaper”. The brand itself is not enough to guarantee quality or interest, and if the brand, through its paywall, locks me out of finding the content that might interest me then why should I bother with it at all?

The second point about the newspaper as a package of content is that cover prices have never covered the cost of quality journalism. Print newspapers adapted to this fact in a number of ways – some by dumbing down content, or by seeking new advertising streams, or by fostering reader loyalty, or usually by some combination of these approaches. They worked, more or less, because there was a (physical) product that readers and advertisers could buy into, knowing exactly what they were going to get. But with a paywall in place, I don’t know what I’m going to get – or at least I won’t once the memory of the print product fades. And because I will lose connection to the brand, so the advertisers will lose interest in it as a space.

So no: it’s not an idealistic belief that content must be free that makes me think Murdoch’s strategy is wrong. It’s that I think in the longer-term (and perhaps not too much longer-term), it’s self-defeating: and more important (to me, though not perhaps to the Murdochs) it threatens to weaken, not strengthen, the voice of professional quality journalists among the cacophony of the blogosphere. Iain is right that I don’t have a ready answer. I’m sure the answer lies in redefining what it is to be “a newspaper”, rather than clinging to an identity that is defined by print production methods – but that’s about as far as I’m able to go. It’s a fascinating discussion to be involved in, though!

(Late note: On the “idealism” of free content, see the lovely, down-to-earth and spot-on post by @Danossira – “Get over yourselves”!)