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.