Document standards and the rankling print presumption

My heart sinks when I get a document by email. My work being mostly with government, this happens quite a lot. It takes time to load the document software, time to orient myself to the layout and time to scroll through the meta-lettuce that often precedes the meat. (Many of these documents also look horrid, but that's a separate issue.)

When I get a link to something on the web, I don't get that feeling. There's a reasonable chance that the text will be readily readable, whatever device I am using. It maybe a page of nonsense, but it will take me only a second or two to judge.

Documents are, at heart, designed around the printed paper page. I've nothing against printing, printing is lovely, if I press a print button I definitely want a pretty and properly-paginated document; but only then. It's the print presumption that rankles. If I am reading on my phone, which I do a lot, I don't want the faff that comes with an A4 pdf.

Word-processors are typewriters. The operator is responsible for the both the authoring and the formatting. It seems that many of the features of the modern word-processor are to do with printing. Soon most text will be read on a screen, formatting for which is largely out of the hands of writers. We will need text authoring tools, perhaps like the beautiful (and £6) IAWriter that I am using to write this: most of us just won't need word-processors.

I was encouraged to read Digital Strategy as a website, rather than on one about how a government policy was designed first as a website rather than a document. It was drafted in plain text, agreed using the collaboration features of Google Docs, stored on Github (a cloud repository for managing software) and published on No Word or PDF. Yes please.

There are better ways to collaborate on text. As tools like wikis become mainstream, the day of sending round a document for others to revise or comment on must surely be done. Having seen a wiki make a significant difference to ways of working in one government department, I am convinced that the benefits of having a text with all of its versions and all of the conversation about it in one place are huge.

Maybe that one place could even be a single wiki/google docs/github-like repository for the whole of government? The awkward and expensive problem of document and records management would look quite different (and possibly even soluble). There are issues to do with security, FOI and that; but these need dealing with, not working around - even if it means changing the law. It is time to move from circulating documents to visiting texts.

As I write, I am conscious that thousands of government folk, in offices across the nation, are firing up Word ready for another day of document production. This is a super-tanker that will be hard to turn. We must take every opportunity to change the mindset and - the point of this post - there is a good one now...

The government is currently consulting on standards for future formats of electronic documents. The consultation is in two parts: viewing and collaborating on documents. The main issue is about Microsoft's dominant position in the provision of office software (see Simon Wardley's post Cloud Standards and Governments that brilliantly explains the issues).

I feel uncomfortable that the requirement in the consultation is expressed in terms of documents:

"Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing editable documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents."

There is certainly an immediate, pressing need to define (open) standards for documents; but, in this consultation, I think it would help to replace the word 'document' with 'information'. There is a discontinuous change at hand and it is important to recognise that the future will not be the same as the past. For instance, if teleporting looked possible in the next twenty years, the London runway and the HS2 debates would be quite different ones. And I do think that the information tools becoming available now are potentially as revolutionary.

Our mental model for handling textual information is based on the printed paper created by a typewriter, distributed by post and kept in a folder. It got us over the introduction of personal computing but it's time we moved on.

[See this post on Github]

There is a summary of the reaction to this post on Storify

Video - The future of local government services

A new video... The future of local government services

It was made with Anthony Kemp of London Borough of Hounslow and Mark Thompson of Methods to support an event - called "#HashHounslow" - which was a discussion between local and central government managers about shifting to more customer-centric services using cloud technologies. See the Computer Weekly write-up.


Right! Here we go: 4 minutes on future of local government services

Meet Martin Gaffer, Chief Executive, Citytown Council.

He and his team have been jolly busy lately. “Gosh we’ve been jolly busy lately”, says Martin

And they have been. Councils have been working hard to improve services. But this is a slog. Technology is a big part of the problem and frankly the council piggy bank has been taking a bit of a pasting.

I’ll explain Here is Citytown Council Delivering services to local people It’s one of hundreds in the country All doing the same kinds of things

Look inside Here’s are Citytown’s major services Housing, Children, Adults, Environment, Public Health

Let’s wind back to Environment... It is itself a collection of services, say: Development, Waste, Parks, Cleaning

In one way or another these all depend on technology Usually separate, proprietary technologies that are not very flexible and not easy to join up.

Looking at just one of these services. It’s made up of components... doing very similar things to the components of the other services. Things like Case Management, Mapping, Addresses, Payments and so on.

Usually only a small part is specific to the council’s own way of doing things.

Look at it all together. There’s quite a lot of costly stuff that could be more effective.

Now, Martin’s been thinking. Here’s a picture of Martin thinking.

What if were possible somehow to group the common tasks together. Putting all the red bits - lets say case management - one technology. Then the blue stuff - maybe mapping. Similarly with the green bits and the yellow bits.

Not only that, what if it were possible to group these, not just across a single council’s services but across all councils.

And perhaps we could find ways to put those specific, unique bits of the councils service together too.

So, this is where Martin’s Head of IT comes in. Meet Steve Techyman. Yes he does look a bit potty, but he knows his stuff; and he’s got good ideas.

“I think I know how to do this”, says Steve

And I think he’s right. It’s now becoming possible to access computing capabilities over the internet and to knit them together to create better services without many of the restrictions of traditional technology.

“Cloud”, shouts Steve

Which is quite a popular thing to shout nowadays. Many technology companies are getting involved. All of the big ones. lots of medium-sized ones and gazillions of small ones.

Together providing a rainbow of capabilities and funky new ways of doing things. At - much - lower - cost, than now.

Councils can package together whatever combination of these technologies they need Steve cos he’s a tech bloke, gives this a name - “platform”.

Whatever, the good thing is - this could make a huge difference for residents..

Here’s a Cynthia a Citytown resident.

Using Steve’s platform thingy the council can knit her just the services she needs

And knit different services for Cynthia’s son Cyril And also for Cyril’s mate Aziz And Aziz’s cousin Issi And Issi’s friend Lizzy And perhaps even knit a bobble hat for Steve

And there’s another thing... says Steve

This will change what council staff do. Because they will be less burdened with running the council machine and gluing its non-joined up bits together, they will be able to focus more on providing vital people-facing services that machines just can’t.

And there’s another another-thing... says Steve

This doesn’t have to be restricted to the council - It will be possible to knit in other services like... Health, Police, Charities, and Third Sector organisations

So… ...Councils all over the country could turn from deliverers of a standard set of services for all residents to providers of exactly what each resident needs.

All this enabled by new technology platforms made from bits of cloud.

OK. Hands up. All this does mean big changes in technology and in ways of working; and it certainly won’t happen overnight. But there are big prizes...

Better, more responsive, services, more openness, people more connected, increased growth, maybe even improved democracy.

Which is nice... Martin is showing signs of making friends with his piggbank. And steve’s so chuffed... he’s phoned his Mum

And that… as they say it

"Creative Facilitation" - A very good book about facilitating... creatively

I was going to write a book about facilitation. "Yeah, yeah, yeah", you say.

I have done a fair bit of facilitating over the past 20 years and not come across a book on the subject that scratched my workshop itch (so to speak). The good thing is, I am now excused writing one cos someone else has got the job done. In some style. Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters' book "Creative Facilitation" is really good.

I covers everything I would have said; and being honest, loads more. It made me think hard about some things I know I don't do so well and identified others I haven't thought of at all. It is hugely practical and covers both the basics and more advanced stuff. It is short, easy to read and free. Nothing not to like. Get it here.

How to change the future

This is worth a serious listening to... How to change the future is a recording of a talk about resolving important, complex social problems given at the RSA last Tuesday (2 Oct 12) by Adam Kahane.  The introduction to the talk says...

People who are attempting to tackle these huge global problems often find themselves frustratingly stuck. They can’t solve their problems in their current context, which is too unstable or unfair or unsustainable. They can’t transform this context on their own — it’s too complex to be grasped or shifted by any one person or organization or sector. And the people whose cooperation they need don’t understand or agree with or trust them or each other.

Kahane explains his approach - called Transformative Scenario Planning - which is a way of tackling Complex (or Wicked problems).  I am probably going to butcher things horribly here but the essence is... get a bunch of folks together who represent the entire problem in question (for a long time - days); and then, with sensitive facilitation, help them to work collaboratively and thoughtfully to develop stories of possible futures (the scenarios) and go on to describe ways these might be brought about. With the right people, at the right time, working in the right way, building the right relationships, some magic happens and stuff begins to change. This makes a lot of sense to me and I am impressed by Kahane's track record; he was, for example, involved with the transition to the end of apartheid.

I thought about how these ideas might be applied in the context of the big problems of Government IT (with which my work is mostly concerned). My sense is that, at heart, these are essentially social issues and not at all dissimilar to those Kahane talks about. I wonder if anything like his approach has been tried?  I am suspecting not: there has been a wind of change in Government  IT lately but, on the face of it, the approach has been rather more analytic than collaborative.  Perhaps it is time to give ideas like these a shot?

What do you think?

In praise of the Post-it

This very nearly caused a serious tea-spill this morning...

Analyst: Government’s digital leaders’ network shouldn’t be using post-it notes

It's a story about an analyst who, having read a post on the Government Digital Service blog - First Digital Leaders’ meeting, said this...

“Why did they have a physical meeting? This could have been done far more effectively using digital tools – communication and collaboration tools that would have taken ideas and automatically captured them, rather than the joys of Post It notes and pens,”

Earlier in the day, having read the same post, I had tweeted this...

  So how was it that we came to such different views?

Here's what I think happens when we get involved with a Post-it exercise at a meeting...

  • We get engaged, immediately, in the task.
  • We get to focus on the things we personally care about, which lets us get things off our chest and makes us feel involved.
  • We get to stand up to stick the Post-its on the wall (or wherever), which is always better than sitting motionless on our bottoms.
  • We bump into other people, randomly, which starts conversations that will perhaps develop into useful relationships.
  • We experience hugely valuable, non-verbal communication.
  • We get to connect, first hand in a very personal way, with people and their ideas.
  • We can move Post-its around readily, which means themes can be identified quickly.
  • We take away with us a colourful, unique and memorable image that represents the contribution of everyone.
  • We become part of a shared experience.
  • And probably a load of other stuff too.

Some of this is possible using digital tools, but not all and certainly not in the 20 minutes or so that Post-it exercises take. Doing this kind of thing, particularly in the early stages of forming a new group, is enormously valuable. Of course the conversation will continue online afterwards but it will be a very different one because of the experience of the physical meeting.

I am a HUGE FAN of digital tools but the suggestion of using them in lieu of the useful meeting these folks clearly had is, to me, unutterably daft.

Never underestimate the power of the Post-it.