Complexity

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.

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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!


Same old story

October 25, 2010

Mark Ballard blogging on ComputerWeekly.com following the Comprehensive Spending Review announces it as the death-knell of transformational and e-government, along with a comparison of the Blair Modernising Government programme and all it failed to deliver. In many ways I tend to agree and have blogged about the programme’s demise here before.

However, if project management has taught me one thing, it’s the need for a post-implementation review, and I would hope for an overall one to assess the programme. When did this occur? I’m afraid in the world of politically inspired initiatives they never happen, Ministers move on, people move on and the game continues, for as Ballard  notes “after all the Conservative hoopla about an end to Soviet-era IT projects, the Chancellor promised £2bn for the DWP to create a system of Universal Credit“. Has anybody ever basically assessed the difference between “rates”, “community charge (poll tax)” and  “council tax”, and whether the billions spent on them made life any better? Similarly the benefits systems that have to be applied to compensate for those that can’t pay?

Much of this type of bureaucracy revolves around what Paul Henman labelled the “New Conditionality” and whilst the technically challenged politicians may not recognise it, they are exploiting technology to the extreme to deliver their policies, which are so complex, the systems are unlikely to ever work without massive human intervention and great cost!

Whilst “New Labour” with its “Modernising Government” and e-government programmes largely carried on from its predecessors in control, this time the political will has overridden any rationality. Savings will be made, money will be wasted and thousands, in the wrong place and time, will lose their jobs.

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Don’t forget to vote for the Great E-mancipator

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A facelift for the pig

September 12, 2010

E-government will now be accepted by many as having provided “lipstick on the pig” (a favourite expression of mine indicating that whist you can apply lipstick to the pig, it still remained a pig), in other words sticking a web front-end on many government services has still left the applications and processes limping along in a back-office somewhere, without process or regulatory improvement.

However, the new 69 page report from the so-called Network for the Post-Bureaucratic* Age (nPBA) entitled “Better for Less – How to make Government IT deliver savings” is much more of an encouragement for a face-lift for the pig, and a cheap one at that! I’d mentioned another paper from Liam Maxwell in July 2009,where I  supported some of the proposals and  suggested that it might indicate a future government’s policy and similarly this document, in my opinion, is just as good again (in parts).

The paper has many good points, but despite Mr Maxwell’s exposure to local government ICT, this strategy still falls down where e-government did 13 years ago. A pig is still a pig, despite lipstick or facelift and the nominal attack on bureaucracy is not necessarily a good idea, as McSweeney explains in the paper* on the post-bureaucratic age. It’s the wasteful parts of service processes that need sorting out, and they are frequently as a result of legislation or central government demands.

As described by Paul Henman in his analysis of “New Conditionality”, ICT has facilitated complex and frequent changes to legislation and regulation, these in turn add to the complexity of the ICT solutions and the cycle continues ad infinitum developing the complexity of government ICT. This is where the change needs to occur – simpler regulation and legislation.

Rather than auditing ICT, what we need in reality is a proposal, by some authors with an understanding of what makes good services delivered by central and local government, of how we audit end-to-end government services and in the process identify areas of true regulated bureaucracy that can be removed. Further, any attempts at rationalization should account for multi-channel service delivery. Many of the applications in the “new conditional” world link together and off onto web sites or corporate applications, this could provide some of the open data desirable for the commonweal, which whilst not of general interest will still have value to the local community.

Further, in a couple of instances, Mr Maxwell examines and compares the costs of ICT in local and central government, which can be a very misleading practice. Even with the amount of regulation, financial accounting in government is a dark art with the use of on-costs and recharges varying from authority to authority to the extent that costing for IT services is not straightforward and one can easily be comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps, another area to standardize?

*If anyone wants to know what “post-bureacracy” is,  there’s  an excellent critique of the Cameronesque “post-bureaucratic age” concept in a recent revision of an earlier academic paper by Brendan McSweeney entitled “Is a post-bureaucratic age possible?” As a summary, Mc Sweeney states “as a reaction against the authoritarianism of the previous UK government’s (New Labour’s) neo-conservatism, David Camerson’s sentiment is a welcome one, but as a programme for comprehensive transformation it is not achievable.” Which I’d say applies to the nPBA’s report also.


The opening of Australia

July 18, 2010

Conveniently in time for the election, the Australian government has launched its Declaration of Open Government. A number of the comments below the posting are far more cynical than my linking it with the election announcement, although many are clearly supportive. However, as one commentator notes, what is the point in labelling it as an initiative of the Gillard government (which has only existed a matter of weeks) if the intention is to make it open and participative?

The declaration is to be applauded, but what are the next steps in increasing public involvement in government? The move from representative to participatory democracy is not an easy one, or is this just a gesture towards participation, without any real change? Australia has a history of being pro-active in e-government terms, although this may not have been for democratic purposes, if Paul Henman is to be believed.

The election result and follow through may prove interesting.


Smarter public services

February 25, 2010

Imagine my surprise at opening the latest New Statesman, 22 February 2010, and finding an advertisement for ‘Big Blue’ i.e. IBM, entitled “Smarter public services for a smarter planet.” I can’t imagine why IBM are targeting left-of-centre politicians, perhaps a rare breed in the 21st century?

Included on the advertisement  from IBM is a link to a website where there is a PDF of a report entitled “IBM’s response to “Digital Britain – Online Public Services are a proxy for Digital Britain” dated March 2009, promoting amongst other things, the South West One partnership that has suffered a few problems to date, as reported by Computer Weekly and others. Having been involved in a complex public- private partnership myself they have my sympathy, but isn’t it too early to crow?

In general, however, the eight-page report is pretty sensible including the statement – “Apply the 80/20 rule: build for 80% of the customer circumstances and ignore the minority of exceptions that create disproportionate complexity and cost. Target services and educate customers to minimise the likelihood of exceptions occurring. Handle exceptions through appropriate existing off-line channels.”

It appears we are starting to learn and that electronic channels aren’t the answer for everything and will have to retain the others for those who will not or cannot use them, or for the inappropriate services.

The topic of e-government and partnerships was one covered by my academic acquaintance Paul Henman in his 2004 paper: Henman, P. (2004). “E-government and the Electronic Transformation of Modes of Rule: The Case of Partnerships.” Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics 2(2): 19-24. where he concludes that “Partnerships require a lot of organisational, relationship and technical work to establish and maintain. They require that all partners continue to extract mutual benefits from the partnership and maintain levels of trust. As such partnerships constantly need to be made and re-made.” So remember as well, it’s not all down to ICT!


A new start

January 10, 2010

How can legislation create local government shared services? The proposal for legislation to enforce them is presented in a new report from Deloitte entitled “Stop, start, save – Shared service delivery in local government.” The report does admit that there are a lot of questions, it also admits sharing could initially focus around administrative systems like payroll and financial administration. However, overall, I don’t think there’s anything new in its twelve pages that I haven’t fallen over in the last ten years.

But what are the stumbling blocks in IT terms? I can add a few issues that Deloitte haven’t reported, that I don’t think can be resolved by legislation, only by concerted action by local authorities and government.

Even where common IT systems are employed, many software suppliers are obviously unwilling to lose revenue and hence don’t encourage sharing or don’t design their systems to permit easy sharing, unless of course, it is through some sort of additional shared services layer, that brings in greater revenue.

From my own experience of shared services there are a few minor points –

How are they delivered electronically so that citizens can still find them where they expect them to be? This may include branding or local data sharing issues. In other words, is the data split or can it be easily?

What about the politicians? Do they understand the implications and if so are they supportive?

What about the staff who behave like politicians? Do they really understand or just don’t want ‘change’? If they don’t want to change, what are you going to do?

The way forward is surely to align back office processes and align back office IT applications (it’s a lot easier if staff are used to seeing the same screens along with processing in the same way). It’s a big market out there and suppliers won’t like giving up to a competitor, so expect a fight.

Which of several applications to use? Surely go for the best in price and offering, but pull any three council’s out of a hat and they’ll all run a different application and won’t want to change. So there is a need to assess which really is the best application in the longer term (say five or ten years) for the three authorities. Which supplier will work best to get all three on the same quality platform for minimal costs in short and long term? The users need to be involved closely in this decision, they’re the ones that use it! This may even involve citizens, if there’s a web interface. But make sure that this is really researched. Imagine what happens if one authority uses Microsoft 200x and the other 200y, even if they run the same back office application, there’s yet another big cost and training budget to account for.

Instead, I suggest – start thinking ahead, stop buying different suppliers and start saving on procurement, support, training; in other words – get ready to start sharing.

This was all summed up my acquaintance Paul Henman in 2004 – E-government and the Electronic Transformation of Modes of Rule: The Case of Partnerships, The Journal on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics,  pp 19-24, where he concluded that: 

“the advent of the Internet has precipitated a growth in governing through partnerships. Materially, the Internet has made it technically more feasible to conduct extensive partnerships. But, arguably the Internet’s main contribution towards governing through partnerships is symbolic. It has been in helping to imagine what networked governing might look like, and thus contributed to the formation of rationalities of network governance.”

In other words, the IT only helps you think you can do partnerships, the real effort is on and from people and systems!