Strategic Reading

Strategic Reading - Weekly Summary

This week's summary of new posts published on Strategic Reading.

Culture is our strategy

Emma Stace – DfE Digital and Transformation

Delivery is hard. Delivering consistently and with high quality is harder. Sustaining that over time without damage to individuals, teams and the wider organisation is very hard indeed.

In the short run it is often possible to over deliver, but there is a price to be paid. Getting that right is not, of course, about organisational structures or project plans, it is about people and the shared culture of their working environment – or about ‘trying hard to strike a balance between delivery now, and delivery tomorrow’.

This post approaches that question from the perspective of recognising and nurturing culture. But there is also a strong parallel with the concept of organisational debt (itself derived from technical debt), the recognition that failing to keep the organisation’s structures and processes in line both with its changing internal needs and with its external environment stores up problems which might be avoidable for a time, but cannot be avoided indefinitely. Or to put it differently again, culture as strategy is one of the ways in which teams and organisations can better manage strategic drift.

Introducing the Government Data Graveyard: the numbers we’ve stopped measuring

Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers

Counting things is boring and costs time and money which could be better spent on something less boring.

Having counted things – particularly having counted them for a long time – provides incalculable value in understanding what has been done and what might be done.

If you need a fifty year data series, you need collection to have started fifty years ago – starting now will do you no good at all (though it might cause your memory to be blessed half a century on).

It is of course easy to tell what we wish our predecessors of fifty (or ten, or five) years ago had done, rather less easy for them to know that then (or for us to know that for our successors now). That is in a way just a specialised version of a much more general problem of long term public investment, where there is a respectable argument that in undervaluing long term benefits, we end up with fewer long term assets being created than would be optimal – which applies as much, and perhaps more obviously, to investment in physical infrastructure

None of that is quite what this post is about – it’s based on a simple observation not only that some data which used to be collected is no longer collected, but that data on what data is no longer collected is itself not collected. Maybe that’s fine – nobody could seriously argue that data once having been collected must always be collected for ever more. But maybe the decisions on what to stop and what to continue have been driven more by short term expediency than long term value.

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking

Jonathan Zittrain – New Yorker

Being understood is not a precondition to being useful. The history of medicine is a history over centuries and millennia of spotting efficacy without the least understanding of the mechanisms by which that efficacy is achieved. Nor is that limited to pre-scientific times. There are still drugs which are prescribed because they work, without any understanding of how they work.

Zittrain calls that intellectual debt (by unspoken analogy with technical debt), where theoretical understanding lags behind pragmatic effectiveness. The problem is not that it exists, as the medical examples show, it is that machine learning takes it to a new level, that our understanding of links between cause and effect come to have more to do with association than with explanation. For any single problem, that may be no bad thing: it can be more important for the connections to be accurate than to be understood. But the cumulative effect of the mounting intellectual debt has the potential to be rather less benign.

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