A summary of an essay by Dominic Cummings on the problems of UK government.
Repost of an article written for Computer Weekly about the effects of mismanaging of complexity.
About an article in the New Statesman.
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 ...is it
The chap in this video is Tim O'Reilly. I was at this talk (3 years ago). It changed how I think and how I viewed the future of my work. I remember at the time being frustrated by the complexity of changing stuff in Government; and felt the lack of a cogent model for doing things differently. O'Reilly's ideas of Government as a Platform filled the vacuum. I wrote about it with boyish excitement at the time.
It's utterly brilliant this thinking (expressed pretty much in O'Reilly's terms) is finding its way into UK Government. See the Government as a Platform section of the new Government Service Design Manual. Here's the intro...
The government is implementing a platform-based operating model. Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, amongst many others, have all built their success on the back of platforms. They have developed a core technology infrastructure that others have then built upon, driving the success of the platform and meeting far more users’ needs than the original provider could have done on their own.
This is such an important idea. But, although enabled by IT, it is not an IT thing.
It is a way of thinking. A new doctrine.
It offers a way to handle the increasing, swamping complexity that confronts government; but it does mean government not doing everything itself and, crucially, not controlling everything. It means a change of mindset. It means senior folk, traditionally far removed from IT, understanding the new possibilities and fundamentally reframing their approach to the delivery of the services they are responsible for. They should watch this video.
Afternote - October 2014 The head of the UK Civil Service has supported Government as a Platform - see Good news (and a caution) about “Government as a platform”.
Following on from thinking in a few recent posts about the emerging nature of change in government (and after inspiration and help from Noah Raford... Governments are facing new, game-changing complexity. They are dealing with increasingly pressing and diverse problems: from improving public services, to ensuring national security, to dealing with the global financial crisis. Each problem has its own specific set of issues; but now, in a world of mounting complexity, these issues interact and it is near-impossible to manage them separately. A focus on applying the right technical solution for each problem in isolation is unlikely to work. The real challenge is to develop cultures that will enable people in government to make sense of, and deal with, complex situations in appropriate, holistic ways.
The new challenges
The new challenges of government can be considered in three areas: Complexity, Culture and Community…
The challenges of government are not just getting more complicated; they are getting Complex. Complexity is different. In Complicated situations, cause-and-effect can be predicted: in Complex ones, because these situations are too new, too dynamic or too uncertain, it can’t.
Complicated problems can be solved through clever analysis and the use of existing practice. Whilst we will still have Complicated challenges (best dealt with in traditional ways) the bulk of critically important ones now facing Government are Complex and need different treatment.
Crucially, applying Complicated solutions to Complex challenges is likely to be unfruitful and possibly counter-productive. A different approach is needed if government is to thrive in the 21st Century.
In the past when things were just Complicated, we were able to hire experts to think our way to a solution. This doesn’t work when things are complex. Why?
Look at a stark example from the UK National Health Service. The UK Department of Health spent billions on an IT project to manage patient health records, which has now been abandoned…
"The Department of Health is not going to achieve its original aim of a fully integrated care records system across the NHS. Trying to create a one-size-fits-all system in the NHS was a massive risk and has proven to be unworkable.” Chair of UK Government Public Accounts Committee
Complexity was at the heart of the failure. The programme was too ambitious, requirements were too diverse, suppliers were too hard to manage, stakeholders were too unsupportive (and so on). The approach was essentially a top-down, analytic one: hire some smart people to work out the answer and then build a system to implement it. But Complex problems don’t need more expertise or better answers; they need a culture of dealing with complexity. When things are Complex, Government has to be flexible. It must be able to design and build systems whilst, at the same time, trying to understand and change them: perhaps like learning a musical instrument whist trying to make a living from playing it.
Culture is important. Government organisations need to be more responsive to their operating environments; they need to be more agile. Sub-units, that were previously separated for efficiency reasons, must interact spontaneously and not because they have been told to. Individuals at all levels must take more responsibility and their managers must enable (rather than control) them as they do that. Organisations must think and operate more as networks and less as hierarchies. All this means a significant change in behaviour: a change that will feel as uncomfortable as writing with the wrong hand. This new approach will not be brought about by altering structure or processes or technology.
These ideas mostly run against the grain of the way governments are structured and managed: behaviours, beliefs and ways of doing things would feel very different. On top of this, whilst Complexity is turning things upside down, the Complicated stuff hasn’t gone away either. Everything needs to be juggled at the same time: Government needs to grow new ways around old ones and everyone involved must understand why different situations need different approaches.
A new culture is needed.
The make-up and functioning of government communities also presents a significant challenge. To create a culture of dealing with complexity it is necessary to nurture a community of staff that appreciates how to deal with complexity. It is often difficult for government cultures that have grown up with strict rules and complicated procedures to make this shift. In IT, for example, working in a complex way can bring significant, unexpected change. This can create headaches for security teams, support services, policy people and administrators. These problems cannot be designed away, since they are required by the nature of the complex situation themselves. So it is crucial to involve those likely to be affected right from the beginning. The distinction is that when it’s Complicated you need to build teams to solve problems: when it’s Complex you need to grow communities to improve situations.
What to do?
Encouragingly there are plenty of smart and influential people involved with Government who understand these issues and are pioneering new solutions. Take a look at Tim O’Reilly talking about his vision of Government as a Platform. O’Reilly sees a need to develop open infrastructures – particularly IT ones – to enable individuals, companies and social enterprises to participate much more in government and so provide the innovation, diversity and energy needed to deal with Complex situations. Of course this is not going to be a binary flip: governments will need to develop these collaborative ways and have them co-exist with the more traditional ones.
This approach has perhaps three components: Experimentation, Collaboration and Openness …
To create something big and Complicated - like a new road system – then of course the right thing to do is turn to engineers and other professionals who do this kind of thing for a living. To do something big and Complex - like changing the way an organisation works - don’t do the same thing. There is too much uncertainty, too much dynamism and too much complexity. Instead, focus on the Small - lots and lots of fast, iterative Small. The more experiments, the better, as long as open and non-punitive feedback is encouraged as well.
The point is to succeed or fail fast, and often, and do it in small ways that don’t have consequences should things go wrong. This way we can learn and progress quickly. If we don’t, we are prone to missing opportunities and making big, expensive mistakes.
In Complex situations traditional means of coordination, through organisational hierarchies, are not responsive enough. Organisations need to be more spontaneous; when faced with a problem or an opportunity, people need to be able to respond themselves rather than wait for managers. This means people must have the facility both to identify the others they need to work with and then to coordinate that work effectively. Tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WordPress are transforming interaction and cooperation in our private lives: there is a huge opportunity to use similar tools within organisations to transform our work lives.
Incorporating social capabilities into work tools and creating the culture to use them effectively will take time but is critical to future success: see the recent McKinsey report The rise of the networked enterprise or the Forbes article Social Power – The coming corporate revolution. There is currently huge emphasis on creating tools to store and distribute information but, in dealing with Complexity, it is more important to connect People with People than it is to connect People with Information.
Complexity creates enormous and pressing demand for new capabilities. It will not be possible for government departments to provide everything everyone wants. It is therefore essential that they reach out to both their “customers” and their partners to help understand and deliver novel ways of doing things. To do this effectively there is a need for both new infrastructure and a new culture of outward looking, collaborative staff.
The iPhone is an example of this kind of thing. Apple provide a robust technology infrastructure and facilities for anyone with the skills to create applications for it – there are now nearly 500,000 iPhone apps that Apple could never have created themselves. The same approach could be taken in government to empower partner organisations, internal teams or even gifted amateurs amongst the staff to bring innovative ideas to life.
This thinking is developing in the UK. For example, some local councils are partnering with a social enterprise called Fix My Street - a service that allows citizens to report on problems like holes in the road, graffiti and illegal dumping of waste using a website and associated mobile applications. The initiative is reducing clean-up times and increasing satisfaction of local residents.
Such initiatives have three important features: open technical infrastructure made available to all; open services that enable others to use that infrastructure; and, crucially, open behaviours that create a cohesive, helpful community around the infrastructure that will ensure it is used. And this openness starts with friendly, can-do, inclusive behaviours from everyone involved (and not really the technology): the culture thing again.
The right people
There’s no doubt that developing these new ways of doing things will be a challenge. Altering organisational behaviours takes subtle, thoughtful action by emotionally competent folks with a genuine knack for handling emergent change. Governments will need to look hard and think laterally to find them.
From the inside
People, both workers and managers, who have done well in typically procedural government environments, may not be ideally suited to guiding a transition to more emergent ways of working. New thinking will be needed.
There are people with the right mind-set already in government organisations. Some may not be visible because of the jobs they are in or because they are comparatively junior: they will need to be found, encouraged and perhaps offered different work. Some may be noticeably frustrated: with support and in a changed environment, perhaps their energies can be directed for the good. Those with the best potential may be mavericks or otherwise unusual: don’t ignore them.
It may also be necessary to find a few new people from the outside. The right ones may come from quite different backgrounds and have little experience of the work at hand. They will probably not be easily found through traditional recruitment methods.
From the outside
Many government organisations have established relationships with large providers of consultancy, and that is the natural place to look for help; but consultancies optimised for analysing complicated stuff, designing intricate things, delivering big projects or who are otherwise steeped in Complicated ways of working are likely to find it hard to adapt their approach to handling the Complex. It’s a little like expecting Olympic gold-medal-winning rowing crews to retrain and repeat their success in Synchronised-swimming. Whilst these organisations may have individuals with the right skills, the context in which they work and the way they are managed makes it hard for them to behave in, and support, the emergent ways of working needed to cope with complexity.
Since handling complexity is about organic changes rooted within the organisation there is much less scope for big set-piece technology implementations or organisational restructurings. There is much less money to be made. With big providers, there would always be an urge to convert help for the Complex into more profitable support for the Complicated; and this may not be the right thing. The DNA of these organisations is just not right: smaller organisations that focus specifically on supporting emergent change may be a better choice.
Complexity changes the game of government. To be successful in the future, governments must foster the emergence of a quite different working culture that simultaneously copes with the new complexity and continues to deliver existing services reliably and well. This new culture must combine: an experimental, iterative, holistic approach to tackling big challenges; intensive collaboration with colleagues, partners and citizens; and openness of infrastructure, technology and behaviours. Finding the right people to lead the development of these new ways of thinking and working will be absolutely critical.
In times of change the learners will inherit the earth while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer
I have just finished reading the Public Administration Select Committee's (PASC) recent report on Change in Government (pdf). Undoubtedly much effort has gone into it, with contributions from many wise people; but I can’t help feeling that it misses something very important, which makes the thrust of its conclusions …er …wrong. This thing is Complexity...
Everywhere things are getting more complex. I believe that (probably some time ago) we have crossed a sort of Rubicon to a place where the conventional wisdom of government is a lot less reliable. It’s as though the laws of physics have changed. To me the problems we face, such as the particularly acute ones in government IT, are arising because we are trying to make sense of this new place using old laws; and it's not working.
If you are not familiar with the concepts of complexity - take a look at David Snowden's Cynefin or Rittel & Webber's Wicked Problems. The essence (drawing on the language from Cynefin) is that there is a difference between the Complicated and the Complex. When things are Complicated, cause and effect can be predicted: when they are Complex, they cannot. In a Complicated world the way to do things is Sense>Analyse>Respond: collect information, analyse that information then take action on the basis of the analysis. In a Complex world things are different because the Analyse bit is just too hard to do. The right response is through iteration of Probe>Sense>Respond: take some action, see what happens and take some more action.
Up to now, we have built pretty much everything around us using the Complicated model; it has even put men on the moon. The model has served us very well and pervades the workings of government. Take a look at the Conclusion section of the PASC's report...
"The challenges facing Whitehall will require a Civil Service reform programme more extensive in size and scope than attempted for many years. We have received little evidence that the Government is engaging with the factors that determine the success of such reform programmes, namely establishing the appropriate scope for change, setting clear objectives and timescales for reforms, and ensuring central coordination and political support. Most importantly, we have no sense of what the Government thinks a reformed Civil Service will look like. Without a clear set of objectives, Civil Service reform and, therefore, the wider public service reform programme will fail.
Most Departments are aware of what they are seeking to achieve, but we have seen little evidence that many Departments have thought clearly about how they will make these changes or the nature of leadership required to implement them. We are concerned that any change to the Civil Service must overcome substantial inertia. A cultural change to accept new ideas, innovation, decentralisation, localism and the Big Society, necessary if these flagship government policies are to succeed, will only come with leadership and a clear plan.
We consider that in preparing for the necessary reform there is no substitute for the development of a centre for the operation of Government which is truly world-class and properly equipped to support delivery departments throughout the reform process and beyond. The scale of the challenges faced by the Civil Service call for the establishment of such a corporate centre, headed by someone with the authority to insist on delivery across the Civil Service. We propose to return to this issue in any future examination of the role of the Head of the Home Civil Service."
Summarising, this Conclusion says that, for reform to be successful, the Government needs a clearer vision, better planning, stronger leadership and enhanced central control: an archetypical Complicated approach. This thinking is further starkly highlighted in paragraph 64 of the report, which says...
"...but the Government’s approach lacks leadership. The Minister [Francis Maude] rejected the need for a central reform plan, preferring “doing stuff” instead. We have no faith in such an approach."
This instinct to follow the Complicated approach is deeply, deeply ingrained in Government culture, hence the reaction to Mr Maude's ideas. To the PASC, the ideas do not fit - they sound unprofessional - and, were this an essentially Complicated situation, I would think the same. But, if we are dealing with a mainly Complex one then Mr Maude is probably right: "doing stuff" is precisely what is needed; provided, of course, it is the right "stuff" and is properly part of a Probe>Sense>Respond approach. Going through months of analysing, visioning and planning would be a waste of time and resource. Whether Mr Maude is advocating "doing stuff" for the right reasons is another issue but I was encouraged by this exchange in a transcript of an evidence session in the report (Q214)...
Francis Maude: When we started talking about how we are going to support mutuals, the first response was: “Well, we need to have a plan, a programme, and devise rights and systems and processes.” And when I reflected on that, I thought, “I could not think of a better way of killing the idea dead.”
Chair: That may well be true, but that is not an argument against having a plan.
Francis Maude: Well no, it is, actually. The right approach is to find people who want to do this and support them, and as they try and set up their cooperatives and mutuals find out what the blocks are.
(Perhaps Mr Maude is becoming one of my Wicked Politicians?)
I should make it completely clear that I am not advocating a wholesale let-it-all-hang-out-Man approach to management across government. The Complicated stuff will still be there and will still need the Sense>Analyze>Respond approach; but it is crucial that we become good at spotting what is Complex and then handling it the right way because that's where the big problems are likely to be.
To me, Civil Service reform feels significantly Complex; and we should deal with it according to the appropriate laws of physics.
But maybe I have got this Complexity thing all out of proportion and it isn't as important as I make out. Let me know what you think.
I have just read - Public Service Entrepreneurs - a really good piece about public sector reform by Andrew Adonis. In it he talks about the need for radical reform of public sector delivery and, in particular, fostering an entrepreneurial approach...
... [an] entrepreneurial mindset will be essential. We need to break away from a view of public services that focuses on the efficient and effective distribution of state resources and instead focus on the opportunities to improve people’s lives, ...
...and goes on...
The reason many struggle with the concept [of the reforms] is that it often fails to translate into practical reality for people on the ground.
This makes great sense to me. Lately, there has been much written and discussed about new ways of doing things. A lot of it has focused on principles and governance and structure and process - all of which of course are important - but I have seen very little emphasis on the new behaviours that will be necessary to make it work.
Take a look at the new Government ICT Strategy. It is (genuinely) a sound document, but read the foreword: there is nothing about the human element of the change. To me it's just unthinkable that we could make such huge reforms without attending explicitly to culture, attitudes and behaviour.
If we are to make lasting change then it is really, really important that we have a simple behavioural model that can be expressed in a few words and that can be very easily understood and confidently adopted by everybody, wherever they are or at whatever level. I think that Andrew Adonis has picked just the right thing ("one ring to bind them all" perhaps). "Be entrepreneurial", is all the instruction that will be needed.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister discussed the forthcoming overhaul of the benefits system with Andrew Marr. A big-deal change challenge. The discussion was reported on the Guardian's website and the piece drew all manner of comment: some of it amusing and some of it useful (but hardly any of it both). I found myself somewhat agreeing with one of the commenters who, rather rudely in my view, doubted the achievability of Mr Cameron's ambitions. Wanting to be more constructive, I found myself mentally spooling through a list of advice that I would wish to share with Mr Cameron were he perched on my sofa with Sunday cake and tea. Dammit I wrote it down and stuck it there amongst the other 300 comments. I read it again on Monday night and, despite it only receiving 6 Recommends (the Guardian equivalent of Likes), I was pleased. The piece wasn't intended to be exhaustive or even useful: it was just what I felt at the time. Copied here...
In a statement about The driving purpose of the Coalition Government on 2 August 2010, Mr Cameron said,
"this government, unlike previous governments, will govern for the long term".
If he really means this, here's what he should do about welfare reform (and probably pretty much every other reform too)...
Acknowledge that in complex and dynamic economies like ours, solutions to the really big challenges can only be grown and not manufactured.
- Accept that genuinely radical welfare reform will take many, many years to achieve and forget the idea of doing something politically big in the short term.
- Completely forget any idea of using 'Big IT' to drive the change - this would cost loads and get nowhere.
- Get going - right now - on some small, localised experiments to model and learn about the long-term reform he wants to grow. Let the learning from these experiments inform more experiments. And so on.
- Put genuine collaboration with the citizen (supported by small and smart IT) at the heart of these experiments.
- Build a team of passionate, smart and emotionally intelligent people to promote these changes. If necessary ignore his recent public sector salary hair-shirtery (many big firms are in the market for these sort of folks again).
- Do not, under any circumstances, allow the intellectual centre of gravity of these experiments to reside in a consultancy.
- And last: let the answer come - don't force it and a solution with the right support, policies, laws, technology will emerge.