March 1, 2012

Having made a lot of ‘lean’ and ‘systems thinking’ on this blog, it was interesting to find another approach being proposed by academia. Professor Simon Collinson has stepped down from the ivory towers at Henley School of Business (if there are towers of ivory in Reading?) and with Melvin Jay, the founder of Simplicity, berated government for its complexity. This I quite accept, as it has been discussed often enough on this blog, especially when talking about the theories of Paul Henman, in that we (politicians, public servants, systems designers) make processes overly complex because the technology permits and enables this.

The publication that brought their work to my attention was the ‘Public Sector Complexity Review’ a 48 page PDF. I could then work my way back through other publications including The Complexity Challenge (36 page PDF), however I couldn’t find any academic papers supporting the topic by the author. The first report states on the first page that “public sector organisations were on average 30% more complex than their private sector counterparts”, which is no surprise when the private sector don’t contend with being directed by politicians. In the ICT context the authors state on page 9 that “the complex IT environment – a mix of large numbers of legacy systems, and new, sometimes inadequately or poorly implemented enterprise systems – can have a big impact on processes and service delivery”, which will come as no surprise either to anyone working in the arena. The authors’ answer to the dilemma is simple and is expressed on page 10 – “If the government is serious about increasing efficiency, our study shows that taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to identifying and reducing complexity and embedding a culture of simplicity throughout the public sector should be an essential part of their strategy”. I would argue that the solution to this complexity has already been found in “The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education” written by W.Edwards Deming in 1993 and is catered for by his ‘System of Profound Knowledge’.

Complexity as expressed by the authors of these two papers is an issue but its resolution is much more complex and requires a ‘whole of government’ solution.


Keep it stupid, simple

January 17, 2012

Whilst they may not be able to do much about it, at least some of the politicians in the UK have realised what a complex system we have around the claiming of various benefits. The conclusions from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published on the 12 January 2012, recognize the pickle we have got ourselves into:

  • No single body is responsible for coordinating means testing across government
  • At present there is no clear picture of how the entire benefit system affects claimants’ incentives to work
  • Departments do not understand the impact of administering more means-tested benefits locally
  • The benefit system is difficult to understand and places a high burden on claimants
  • administrative costs of means-tested benefits vary so significantly
  • Real-time information systems will be difficult to implement

So, if we have got an unmanageable set of legislation that makes life difficult and expensive for all levels of public service, who is going to sort it out? This self-induced complexity has been frequently discussed here, especially around the ‘New Conditionality’ covered by Paul Henman in Governing electronically – we make processes and systems complex because we believe that ICT will sort it all out for us – it may, but at an enormous cost, especially if the systems are outsourced or poorly designed. Let’s keep it simple or pay the stupid price!

Is government a platform?

October 18, 2011

An intriguing paper by Tim O’Reilly is published in Innovation, volume 6, number 1, following its original appearance in a book entitled Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice, published by O’Reilly Media in 2010 – the paper is entitled ‘Government as a Platform‘.

Early on we have a definition of Government 2.0 -“Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city,state, national, and international level.” Which is nice to know…

O’Reilly argues on page 18 that the best way for government to promote competition and more innovation is open standards. Further, the necessity is to “establish a simple framework that makes it possible for the nation – the citizens, not just the government – to create and share useful data”, reminding us on page 25 that ‘”open by default’ is the key to the breakaway success of many of the Internet’s most successful sites”.

There is then the description of “choice architecture” described by Sunstein & Thaler in ‘Nudge’. This is an important and frequently underrated role in government when so many opportunities for participation have been and can be ruined by poorly designed forms, surveys, questionnaires and similar exercises. O’Reilly is equally assured of the importance of the role of the choice architect, for as he says on page 27 “participation means true engagement with citizens in the business of government, and actual collaboration with citizens in the design of government programs”, and again on page 34 that “it is actually systems for harnessing implicit participation that offer some of the greatest opportunities for Government 2.0”.

Rather optimistically on page 35, O’Reilly states “a Government 2.0 approach would use open government data to enable innovative private sector participation to improve their products and services”, but this is reinforced a page further on by saying “Government 2.0 requires a new approach to the design of programs, not as finished products, perfected in a congressional bill, executive order, or procurement specification, but as ongoing experiments”. This bears similarity with the agile processes currently being promoted in UK government.

The paper ends with a useful list of ten ‘Practical Steps for Government Agencies’, that I won’t repeat but which are worth recycling! Please do.

It works both ways!

September 6, 2011

With the central government pressure on  local government to be transparent and provide open data (thank you Mr Pickles), it’s about time someone considered it the whole way around. If local government is providing data for people to do wizzy things with, as in Fixmystreet or Fixmytransport, shouldn’t this be reciprocated, and those taking data provide the feedback or reciprocal data in a suitably open format rather than emails. Similarly, if we are providing all this open data at the government’s behest shouldn’t that be an end to form-filling? Rather than endless submissions to government departments every year, can’t they just suck in a CSV or XML file living on a website?

When I was writing my dissertation there was lots of ways of looking at e-government for example G2C or government to citizen, C2G being the reverse. There was also G2G, in which case if we push out data for central government and they suck it in, we can then take back their data feeds in electronic form. Such a solution would prevent a lot of double keying across the country, once the schemas are agreed and developers have developed a single or very few sets of interfaces.

Lets see an end to open data as a one-way street and build up to at least it being bi-directional, if not a motorway!

Open, and better, data

August 7, 2011

Open data is frequently promoted as a ‘good thing’, rather in the sense of the Sellar & Yeatman classic “1066 and All That“, where something is either a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’. As is explained in “Open data is not enough” by Raka Banerjee from the World Bank in his July 2011 blog, open data that is inaccurate and biased is a ‘bad thing’ and rather than being of not much use, such data can actually cause harm when used by statisticians and researchers to inform policy.

Scientists are normally quite clear about data quality but when open data is becoming part of a demand culture, unless those supplying it are aware of and sensitive to the outcomes that may result by its use, the citizens are in more danger from the production of the data than from its absence. About a year I posted upon the topic of “Council Web Costs“, following a newspaper report employing Freedom of Information data, where the person requesting it had limited knowledge of either web development or local government. The resulting figures were unhelpful to say the least.

Imagine a similar context where health policy was being decided based upon data that had been extracted similarly, not only would money be wasted investing in the wrong places, but underinvestment might take place where support was urgently needed. Open data is only a ‘good thing’ when we are assured that the data is good, and that is the job of both the requestor and the supplier.