UK Government IT

Good news (and a caution) about "Government as a platform"

I wrote about my enthusiasm for the idea of "Government as a platform" in 2010 and again in 2013. It's (genuinely) great that Sir Jeremy Heywood - the recently-appointed head of the UK Civil Service - has just done the same in the post - More than just websites. He says...

We do not want to continue running government as a series of disjointed silos ... we are increasingly focusing on an idea called “Government as a platform“.

The idea of "Government as a Platform" is a huge thing that could fundamentally change the performance of Government. Necessarily, with this improvement would come an equally huge change in the shape of government (see the Gubbins of Government). There will be inertia: Sir Jeremy should not let the focus lapse.

Alpha-Beta-Live is not enough

For me, this picture of the Alpha-Beta-Live model for implementing a service is one of the enduring images of the government's 'digital transformation'. I see it presented often.

When do I see it, I often think that - although it works well for starting services up - it leaves much unsaid about what happens afterwards. I know it's not meant to; but I just think that.

Last month, I talked with some people managing a digital transformation in a government department and found they felt much the same. They needed a clear way to explain how their transformation would work at a macro scale; in particular to show how new services might mature and replace existing ones over time.

I thought and I came up with the picture at the foot of the post - which they liked. It combines two ideas from my past work:

First, a model of the future structure of government services - a transition from vertical silos to a horizontally-layered services-oriented structure - explained in my Gubbins of Government video and represented in this picture (by Paul Downey)...

Transition to the Gubbins model
Transition to the Gubbins model

Second, a capability maturity model - the 4Ex Model - that I developed for a digital change programme I worked on. This is a screenshot from a Prezi that explains it...

4Ex Model
4Ex Model

The 4Ex Model shows four stages of the maturity of a capability. These are linked to the current and future business benefit the capability creates. I named the stages: Experiment, Explore, Exploit and Exhaust according to the management/delivery culture appropriate to each. I put everything not yet delivering benefit (even though well developed technology might exist) in a box bluntly called Idea. This model was, for some years, the dominant concept of agile working in the department I developed it for.

Stealing an (excellent) idea from Simon Wardley, I put the Gubbins 'stack' on the y-axis and the 4Ex maturity scale on the x-axis; and (using Paul Downey's symbols) ended up with this diagram of the current state of progress...

Gubbins Transformation Model
Gubbins Transformation Model

I’ve not tried to beautify it. It is an incomplete and crude thought-in-progress but it meant something to those I shared it with. If you struggle with what I mean by it, take a look at the Gubbins and the 4Ex models.

Capabilities in each of the layers of the Gubbins model advance left to right, like chess men across a board, as they mature - each move being one or more Alpha-Beta-Live-like cycles.

The exemplars are in the Idea and Experiment ranks. Although the services work well, the organisation has still to learn from and adapt around them. It is as much a reflection of the 'digital maturity' of the department as of the services themselves.

The Alpha-Beta-Live model is used across government and is a great way to envisage a single service implementation. There is also a need for a simple, commonly-accepted macro-level view of the state of progress of a particular transformation. Maybe this is the beginnings of one.

I'd be interested to hear what you think.

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

In praise of the unloaded question

Yesterday, I watched a video of a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee questioning a team of senior folk from the Department for Work and Pensions. The session was about problems with a government IT programme - Universal Credit - brought to light in a recent NAO report (which was widely reported in the press with some hoo-hah). As I watched, I found myself riled. I have not been at all supportive of the approach taken to Universal Credit, but oddly it was more the nature of the committee's questioning that got to me. I woke up this morning realising that the cause was mostly the repeated use of loaded questions.

Wikipedia says that a loaded question is one that, “contains a controversial or unjustified assumption”, viz… “Oi Foden, have you stopped playing with yourself, yes or no?” a playground jibe I remember from my childhood; an answer either way bringing hoots of laughter.

Here are a couple of examples from the session (see transcript p18 & p21) when the committee were questioning a civil servant about the problems with the programme:

Questioner: “...When did you personally, as accounting officer, have your first indication that you … had not set a proper policy framework and business strategy for this programme?...”

Whether there was a lack of ‘a proper policy framework and business strategy’ had not been established with the respondent and so asking him when he realised he hadn’t set one, was bound to lead him to respond as he did…

Respondent: “I think it is worth walking through what we were doing and when, because it did not feel to me as if the entire thing was happening without a plan. If I quote—”

At which point he was interrupted…

Questioner: “...I would be really grateful if you would answer the question .. when were you, the accounting officer with the biggest project in your Department, first alerted to something going wrong?”.

He would have been crazy to respond with a date.


Later there was the question...

Questioner: “Do you think the pilot was fit for purpose? Yes or no?”

This took me back to the school playground. It seemed to me that it had not been established with the respondent what the purpose actually was. Answering Yes or No would have again been daft. It went on...

Respondent: The (pilot) is testing useful things as we speak. Questioner: Was it fit for purpose? Respondent: It is testing useful things. Questioner: Was it fit for the purpose? Respondent: What purpose did you have in mind? Questioner: No, you— Respondent: For my purpose, it has worked fine, thank you.

It seems to me that the original question was poorly framed. Rather than repeating it when the answer was unsatisfactory, it would have been much better to pick up on what the respondent said and ask something like, “What is the pilot testing?”. This may have led to a better understanding of the purpose of the pilot and the respondent’s understanding of it. Clarity or good quality hanging-rope: opportunity was missed either way.


There were several other similar exchanges later on.

I wondered why this was happening. Were the questions: born of a poor grasp of the topic; the result of genuine annoyance; a means to unsettle the respondent into revealing things he otherwise wouldn’t; a way of being seen to put on the frighteners; or political rhetoric with some more subtle aim? Perhaps it’s all of the above.  Whatever, I ended up feeling that this emotive questioning was excessive and got in the way.

I can’t help comparing it with John Humphrys’ interview with the BBC ex-Director General George Entwhistle about the McAlpine accusations. Humphrys did a consummate job of quickly exposing the issues, which probably precipitated Entwhistle’s resignation later that day. Humphrys started the interview with the plain question, “What went wrong?”

Use rhetoric to get juices flowing by all means, but understanding will come from asking simple questions; and by listening and responding carefully to the answers.