The Oxford Internet Institute organised an intriguing sounding seminar under the title of  Gov 2.0, or Truly Transformative Government.  The implied raspberry in the subtitle was itself a promise of some entertainment while the main title implied radical realignment of boring government with the hyper trendy of Web 2.0.  The combination made it unmissable.

broken egg
I spent the first part of the event thinking I had been sold a pup.  Three speakers rehearsed the merits of something which sounded, at best, like Government 0.5.  Their essential refrain was that government was much worse than it needed to be or should be at delivering IT and that the application of engineering principles should make it possible to avoid failure.  Some of their risk indicators struck uncomfortably close to home – “setting timescales and budgets before finalising the project scope and the critical requirements” made me wince slightly.  As both the speakers and the audience recognised, though, there is very little that is new in this – in terms of symptoms, diagnosis or prophylactics.  With the partial exception of Ross Anderson, they then failed to draw a fairly obvious conclusion:  if we know the solutions and are consistently not applying them, that points very strongly to this being a sociological problem rather than an engineering problem.  Anderson had certainly spotted the problem, but his implied solution felt pretty much unattainable.

The second half was very different.  Not only did all the speakers look a few decades younger, they seemed to be much more focused on transformative government.  The contrast was not lost on those present:  Tom Steinberg started his presentation by observing that he fundamentally disagreed with almost everything that had been said in the first half – the solution to the problem of big blundering IT projects was to have small fleet of foot projects, not to find a cure for blundering.  In different ways, all three speakers emphasised the need to start with service users, to understand their needs and then to design systems to address those needs using techniques which built in speed and responsiveness.  Tom Steinberg was lyrical about his ability to develop a useful service with national coverage out of a grant of £10,000 – and still have £3,500 change for the next project.

And then the penny dropped.  The apparent gulf between the two parts of the seminar is itself the challenge.

We need to apply two different sets of disciplines (in both senses), in two separate domains:

  • An approach to the customer experience – both offline and online elements – which is flexible and responsive and which maximises its exposure to customer intelligence in order to do that
  • An approach to the supporting processes which is robust, consistent and correctly applies the full set of rules

The collective culture and skills of government are much more geared to the second than the first – and the risk is not just that we don’t do the first as well, but also that we can all too easily fail to spot the need to do it all.  The first is where there is the greatest need for change, flexibility and responsiveness – and where tools and approaches are available to deliver that responsiveness.  The second requires the hard grind of implementing big robust systems which do the transactional heavy lifting as invisibly as possible.

Of course the distinction isn’t an absolute one, and of course each domain needs to incorporate the key strengths of the other.  But if we confuse them, we are at risk of getting the worst of both worlds.  The reason why the speakers in the two parts of the seminar talked past each other is because they were each focusing primarily on one of the two domains.
eggAt least, I think they are two domains.  I am absolutely sure that the heavy engineering approach cannot deliver agile customer focus.  I strongly doubt that the pure version of customer driven permanent betas will deliver the back end resilience which remains a real requirement – though Dominic Campbell has a neat encapsulation of the alternative, Steinbergian, view.  Tom makes a virtue of not caring how local authorities pick up and deal with the information which FixMyStreet passes to them.  But the real value to the citizen is not the reporting but the resolution – so local authorities have no choice but to care how they efficiently translate reports of problems into activity planning and into the activity itself.  And I doubt that anybody is going to claim to have built one of those with change from ten grand.

Despite that, I am in no doubt that the balance needs to shift from a back endian to a front endian view.   But it is equally true that the assertion that either end should exclude the other is about as helpful as the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu.

Videos of the presentations are available here.  Well worth a look – for the semiotics as well as the substance.  Jerry Fishenden has provided his own take on the event, and there is an interesting exchange in the comments to William Heath’s note.


  1. “We need to apply two different sets of disciplines (in both senses), in two separate domains:
    *An approach to the customer experience – both offline and online elements – which is flexible and responsive and which maximises its exposure to customer intelligence in order to do that
    *An approach to the supporting processes which is robust, consistent and correctly applies the full set of rules”
    Yes. The problem is how to orchestrate several kinds of work at multiple scales and dimensions simultaneously. Narrowing discussion to just one scale and dimension may be interesting but never really engages with the whole, much knottier cultural and technical problem.
    Humble observation would suggest that very few make good conductors of orchestras while everyone in their own opinion is great with their own trumpet!

  2. The genius of Tom Steiberg, apart from his uncanny knack of managing to transform government on the smell of an oily rag, and still have oil left over, is his decision to put the radical power of transparency to work in disarmingly simple and effective ways.
    The only reason FixMyStreet is powerful is because it makes the transaction of pointing out a problem available for all to see. Putting the notice of a problem on a website simply and completely changes the rules of the game. Of course, the local council can continue to be incompetent and unresponsive (and it needn’t be a local council, it strikes me – why can’t the site be linked to a series of private of NGO/non-profit organisations whose job it is to fix the problem?)But when you incompentence, laziness, intransigence can’t be hidden by a private and opaque exchange of letters or the frustration of a thousand unanswered phone calls, the game has changed.
    I agree, by the way, with the observation that what matters to people is getting the problem fixed, not reporting it. I wonder too, though, whether part of the value inherent in a FixMyStreet type of experience lies in the more or less explicit sense of connectedness and solidarity you get when you engage with a process that clearly enjoys the support and participation of others in a very transparent (or favourite word of the day) way.

  3. There is an interesting perversity here, at least in the short term. A council which ignores FMS altogether will probably be fine – the incentive to post problems (apart from a tiny minority of 2.0 geeks) is the hope of resolution. If there is no resolution, what is the point of posting a problem. But if a council does start responding so that there is at least some perceived chance of FMS achieving an outcome, expectations and potentially popularity will go up too. There is a current problem a couple of streets from where I live. It was raised in June last year. The latest update was a couple of weeks ago:

    I have had 26 different promises of dates for action. since 23/7 Nothing has happened except further burglaries due to condition of wall. Council time spent by at least 11 officials must outweigh cost of just getting on and actually doing the job. Hard to imagine a less efficient process.

    None of that stops FMS being an entirely good thing, of course. But that’s precisely the point, and does underline still more clearly that both ends of the problem need to be fixed if we are actually going to get greater public value.

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