Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How Management Ratonale fails at IT (and what to do instead)

Apparently 70% of the Met Police's IT systems are obsolete, and it takes people half an hour to log in. But can the sustained, ongoing perspective of driving up "efficiency" by driving down costs bring a solution about? What does this quote, from the Chair of the Budget and Performance Committee, really mean:
The Met cannot afford to go on like this. Its forthcoming strategy must address these problems while focusing on the potential that new technology offers, to drive down costs while increasing productivity and boosting public confidence.
 As an engineer, it feels like none of these are particularly good primary reasons to improve the performance of a system.

For a start, potential is always around us, as the very nature of technology and progress. Making things worse is generally only done as an experiment in failure, in order to learn. Not as an end in itself. So duh, citing potential doesn't really mean much.

"Driving down costs", "Increasing productivity" and "Boosting confidence" - aren't these all just the effect of technology on other domains? As an engineer, there is no inherent economic value of making something "better" - but others may (and will) apply translations to turn change into measurement. Time is money, sure, but engineers focusing on saving money are not doing an engineering job.

Similarly, you wouldn't get a very useful system if you started out with "public confidence" as a primary use case.

So what does make a good rationale for planning an IT system? How can we bring about useful change without getting sidetracked into secondary effects? What model of management might encourage and reinforce this?

Sword and Shield

From a client-facing engineer's perspective, there are two key processes/perspectives needed, if engineering is to be a success. I'd say these are true of any engineering task, or project.

The first is having a clear goal - and if not, then deliberately specifying resources as experimental. Knowing what you want to achieve is the first key to getting a system running. Without this, how you get there becomes confused. As above, this needs to be a practical goal, not an abstract side effect. "Save me money" is not a technical goal. Nor is "Fix this problem". Users taking half an hour to log in is not a system problem, but just the way the system runs right now. It's only a problem if you're in a hurry.

The second is puzzle solving ability. If you're in a pickle, then you need a way to work out a solution, rather than wandering blindly around hoping for a solution based on luck. Puzzle solving is lacking in a world full of politics and plans. But without it, any attempt to change the system is worthless - even dangerous.

Problem solving is about analysing the system, and working out why it's doing what it's doing. It's about understanding, rather than wishful thinking. In fact, it's the opposite of wishful thinking. There are no wishes - and once you understand what's going on, there's not much thinking to do either.

Management as Spies

It seems amazing that management love plans, dashboards and reviews in order to find out what their people are doing. But have little in the way of understanding what the system that's being built by those people is doing. This is like an army general sending spies into their own camps to root out dissent, rather than finding out what the forces across the river are intending.

If management want to really improve productivity and cut costs etc etc, then it's not just a long term IT strategy they need, but a long term puzzle solving strategy. Costs are always relative, to both short and long term. Finding a solution that works isn't based on numbers though.

Tackling 400+ systems is an insane task, ie. it would send anyone insane. And having a crazy general leading you is fair grounds for becoming a Conscientous Objector. Any management looking to make real, sustainable changes needs to a) know what its "battles" are - ie. use the puzzle solving aspect to figure out just what the key problems affecting work are, and b) wield wisdom in choosing which battles to pick first - ie. which clear goals are the most important.

The second of these might well be based on other needs - deadlines, cash flow, etc. But in identifying such battles, one needs to be careful not to confuse needs with engineering process (that is, the two should be separate), and secondly to be clear on where that needs come from, to avoid confusion in the future (or during the work to unpick it).

Everything else will probably fail.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

"BBAs" et al: Do policy buzzwords attract or filter people?

I tweeted this after the recent elections:
Now I'm reading this speech on bus subsidy reform, and just realising why it's so hard to get my head into elections - or a lot of "reform" and "policy".

"Better Bus Areas". "Portas Pilots". "Big Society". "Pasty Tax". Oh God, the list of buzzwords uh, I mean hypewagons, uh I mean "policies" just goes on and on.

Democracy - or rather democratic discourse (which is a different thing, but includes speeches, media coverage, and general efforts to increase enthusiasm) - has become a boring hamster-wheel of phrases and symbols.

Taking a lead from the private sector, it feels like politicians are wont to sell society in more ways than one - not only in the practical terms of outsourcing, but also (and perhaps more irritatingly and dangerously) with regard to how customers citizens buy into engage with the process.

Yes, there's some kind of thought-process going on behing all of these, some kind of "actual" attempt to solve the real-world problems we do need to address. I appreciate that, really.

But by the time this thought-process has become a "programme", it's been so tarred with political context, existing decisions, and PR "acceptance" efforts ("What's the hashtag for this new policy?") that engaging is about as engaging as a Microsoft sales chat. (And sure, some people like that. Some people enjoy politics too.)

The interesting aspect of this is whether such a technique is to entice people in with a brushing of faux-simplicity, or to discourage them, leaving the nitty-gritty to people with the time and background to understand the real talk and consequence behind the symbols.

Should policy be a user-friendly, read-it-on-the-loo affair? Or an academic, know-what-you're-talking-about conversation? Both have advantages.

Maybe I'll just carry on grumbling when the price of a single bus ticket goes up again.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

UKGC13: Together we have the tools and guts to kill off antiquated democracies

This year's UKGovCamp was a week ago, but Kids and Side Projects have made it difficult to write it up. Here goes though.

I semi-deliberately didn't stand up to pitch a session this year - partly because I was coming out of a too-busy fortnight, and partly I wanted to spend this year worrying less about running a session, and listening more to what people wanted to talk about; over the years, govcamp has taken on a bit of a “zeitgeist” role for me, offering a chance to gauge the ongoing mood.

I think not pitching was actually a good decision - this year's event seemed (to me; YMMV) to be a bit less all over the shop, ideas-wise. Several main threads ended up stringing the day together, which I'll go through below.

For ref, the sessions I wandered into (ripped from the sweet Google Spreadsheet) were:
  1. Identity in general & philosophical + Managing personas and identities in personal and civi spaces, with @curiousc and @pubstrat
  2. Open data in 5 years time + structure in open data community, with @jenit and @hadeybeeman
  3. Real, grass roots collaboration, with @shortblue
  4. Open data skills in communities + taking council information out into communities, with @podnosh and @tiffanystjames
  5. Open Government and the National Action plan, with @timdavies
Notes on each session are gradually going up here.

Empty schedule

More than once it felt like the same conversation was taking place in more than one room at a time. As I said, several (really importantt) threads seemed to emerge as being stronger and differenter:

1. Open Data and Social Meda are converging

Gone are the days where it feels like “tech” types are in one set of rooms, and “social” types in another. Or maybe that was just me. But it’s often felt like sessions have fallen either into a “how to do conversation” camp, or “how to do tech” one.

This year, the two camps felt closer, like an estranged couple gradually getting to know each other again after being separated. At one point, I found myself - without shame using data and statistical models as an analogy for individual identity. And the idea of "personal data" (energy efficiency, money saved, etc) makes it even harder to separate figures from debate. Are we at a point where “the network” is becoming less niche about specialist subjects?

I can't work out if geeks are actually cool yet though.

2. Democracy is killing openness

A biggie this one, even worth a separate post. The discussion in the “Grass Roots Collaboration" session was small but fascinating, and delved into the contrast between how the private sector deal with failure, in comparison to the public sector, and what the latter could learn perhaps.

In fact, the theme of failure was the main thread running through the day for me, from social media crisis to how to spin Open Data case studies. And in particular, how failure interacts with democratic process, and vice versa. “Democracy”, often shied away from for being too big a target (too big to fail?), was really the elephant in the room(s).

Can it be a coincidence that “private” companies are often likely to say sorry for public cock-ups, while supposedly-transparent “public” bodies go to great lengths to sweep such events under the rug? Maybe (like yin and yang creating each other) closed groups tend towards (selective) openness, while open groups tend towards (selective) secrecy.


Which is basically to say, no wonder the "Open policy-making" / Gov 2.0 movement is an uphill struggle. No wonder that ideas of genuinely open debate or technology get spun into poor, PR-driven facsimiles. Right now, Democracy, in its Representative and Accountable form, is all about hiding failure instead of learning from it.

On the Open Data front (which is probably my main interest, it's telling - and, yes, extremely encouraging - that the debate at govcamp has moved on from choosing data and getting it in machine-readable formats, to how to embed date into debate, decision-making, and the wider world.

Coming back to theme 1 above, we are no longer having 'technical" discussions about what web services to use. We are talking about how to adapt to existing democratic processes.

Or if that doesn't cut it, how to change democracy itself.

3. Govcamp Got Guts

... which is where I waffle on about how, like every year, govcamp was unexpectedly not what I was expecting and how full of enthusiasm and renewed vigour I am again etc. (And also mention Podnosh and Delib (and all the other sponsors) for the awesome free bar. Please do go and listen to some Neutral Milk Hotel.)

But unlike previous years, the fallout seemed more... "constructive" this time. Maybe it's an effect of a post-recession economy, some inspiring central government work, the election cycle, Ant n Dec, or those mice.

But maybe it's finally enough years of everyone asking "so what (now)?" afterwards. Maybe it was IBM's pop-up plug-points and sci-fi projector screens, or the snazzy T- shirts, or the return to a one-day format, or the electronic session list or those Bytemark mugs with Your Name on.

A bit of guerrilla feminism at IBM

I’m not the only one. Do go and read this post from LouLouK too, where she writes:

“Are you happy sitting in a room, being brilliant [but] never letting anyone else actually benefit from that brilliance, or are you going to stick your head above the parapet?”

Whatever it was, it feels like the ideas and debates at govcamp now have much heavier implications outside its gathering. I wonder if what people saw, heard and discussed made them feel more able to challenge the status quo, at a time when new questions, new answers, and fundamentally new ways of doing "government" are correctly needed.

Maybe we’ll find out next year.