William Heath has written a characteristically thoughtful piece about VRM.  Equally characteristically, he sent round an email (starting ‘Dear enlightened public-sector loving friends…’ – who could possibly resist?) seeking comments and responses.  I feel a bit apologetic, therefore, that this is not such a response.  Although perhaps it will turn out that it is.

Enough obscurantism.  Let’s start at the beginning.  VRM is hardly a term in common use (and William kindly points us to to Wikipedia’s explanation).  It stands for Vendor Relationship Management, conceived of as an opposite, the reciprocal of Customer Relationship Management.  CRM is what big organisations do to us; VRM turns the tables and allows us to manage our relationships with them.  So instead of them having lots of detailed (but potentially outdated and inaccurate) data about us, we hold our own data and choose to supply it where and when and to the extent that it creates value for us.  Apart from much else, that, arguably, puts some of incentives in the right place to work effectively:  if I control my name record, it will always be spelled right; if they do, repeated experience is that that they will often spell it consistently and relentlessly inaccurately.  Not only is that a better world for me, it is arguably a better world for them:  large organisations will be liberated from the need for large and cumbersome databases, which cost a great deal of money to build and maintain without ever quite working as well as one might hope.

That’s not a small matter.  William says that ‘VRM will allow a transformation that is living, human, and compassionate’.  It will cut costs, improve the quality of public services, de-tox the database state, and be the basis for co-creation (moving us from being customers to being participants).  That’s great – and the fact that I am rushing over all of this isn’t because I don’t see the force and attraction of VRM:  given a choice between a VRM world and a CRM world, VRM has a lot going for it.  But particularly because William is interested in the public sector, there are two critical questions to address, not just one.  And what this post is really about is those two questions, using VRM as an interesting and thought provoking example, rather than focusing on the substance of VRM as such.

The first question is the obvious one:  where do we want to go?  That is a critically important question and it can look like a hard question, sometimes an impossibly hard question, which is not the same thing.  But it is often a great deal easier than the second question:  how do we get there from here?

The reason why the second question is hard usually doesn’t have much to do with whatever is being proposed in isolation, it has to do with dealing with the installed base and with the consequence of decisions made in the past, sometimes a long time in the past.  To take a very different example, the reason why it is impossible to fit air conditioning on London’s deep tube lines is that all the design decisions were made a hundred years ago on the basis of the technology then available, the requirements then understood and, critically, the absence of anything to learn from  as they were the first of their kind anywhere in the world.   The result is that there simply isn’t room in the tunnels for anything more than the current trains, the cross sections of which are necessarily pretty much identical to those of a century ago.

So the VRM challenge is not just that vendors/service providers/government departments hold information in big databases and that many things might work better if instead the data were distributed, held and managed by individuals, or even that there would need to be some means of getting data from one set of places to another.  It is that every bit of process – human, clerical, IT system, legal framework, behavioural expectations – is currently designed, or rather has grown up over the years without very much overall design, on the assumption that data is to be found in databases.  That is an enormous challenge, dwarfing any kind of transformation programme I am aware of anywhere in government (or anywhere else for that matter).

That’s where the lobster pots come in.  They are easy enough to get into, but hellish difficult to reverse back out of, as any number of unhappy lobsters could testify.  They account for an awful lot of things:  electoral systems tend to be like that – they evolve in a particular direction, but having done so can be very hard to change if the direction stops being the most useful one.  That’s not the fault of the people wanting the new direction – their entire aim in life is to provide us with a better way forward which avoid the problems of the past.  But although it’s not in any way their fault, they are still stuck with the challenge, because if they don’t have an account of what the trap door looks like in their particular lobster pot which would allow us to swim away, their concern risks seeming very abstract.  Or in other words, what you have to say about how to get there from here is one of things which can add to the weight of what you have to say about where we should be going.

None of that is intended as a recipe of despair.  Just because change is hard, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying to do it.  But it is an argument that if we don’t think as carefully about the change process as about the desired change outcome, there is little point in worrying too much about the outcome because we aren’t going to get there.

So I suggest there are two things which the advocates of VRM need to do.  The first is to recognise that data and the control of data are components of much larger and more complex systems and to start to think aloud about the implications of one for the other.  The second – as a matter of some urgency – is to find a better name.  VRM is a very smart formulation, but it’s not one that will ever easily go mainstream.  It is a negative definition in being coined as the opposite of CRM, which makes a neat point but will never catch on with people who don’t have any idea what CRM is in the first place; it is a definition which points in the wrong direction – the whole point is that the focus is not on the vendor; it is a definition which is too narrow – you can describe government services in many ways, but vendor is not generally one of them; and it’s a TLA in a world already considerably over-populated with such things.  It’s also a tiny example of the lobster pot challenge:  it will be much easier to change the name now than in the future once it has become part of the installed base of language.  And if it feels hard to change the name now, how much harder will it be to change the substance of our approach to managing data for the future?


  1. Good questions posed, Stefan. I’d like to go back to your first one though – in bold: where do we want to go? At the time of the publication of Transformational Government, William was one of the few voices which contended ‘But they haven’t yet asked us what we want from e-enabled government!’. Notwithstanding the additional challenge posed by the need to make changes to a pre-existing landscape, it is unlikely that any of the new developments in databases or other technologically-enhanced methods of public service delivery will provide William’s compassion, dignity, humanity. No-one has ever specified that those are required outcomes.
    This links a lot to the whole concept of user-centric DESIGN of public services, a concept which is making – despite the best efforts of Michael Bichard and others – unbelievably slow progress into the hearts and minds of key Whitehall strategists and policy makers. The Design Council’s fabulous Emily THomas, who runs the Public Services By Design programme presents with clarity how the application of the design discipline works (see http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/en/About-Design/managingdesign/The-Study-of-the-Design-Process/). She contends, rightly I think, that too often there is a rush to DEFINE the problem (or requirement), before sufficient DISCOVERY has taken place. Many of our database-run public services do actually work ok – in terms of basic functionality. But because no-one spent time thinking about the people who would use the services, no-one specified (defined) the challenge to include things like ‘make the service user feel valued’ or ‘make our automated service feel personal’.
    So whilst I think you hint at two helpful questions for the movers and shakers behind VRM to contend with, I think the bigger question as to where we want to go (what type of public services do we want to have? what should the relationship between citizen and state look and feel like?) is the one that we should all be pressing each other to start answering. And I’m not sure I agree that this one is easier to answer than ‘How do we get there from here’. The new web-enabled world and ethos of collaboration etc suggests to me that once the desired outcome has been identified there will be no end of volunteers queuing up to play their part in getting us there. Look at the number of global experts who are prepared to explain how the UK government COULD have their ID card scheme without jeopardizing the security of people’s data. The key problem is that government is all too often too quick to leap to problem definition, before they’ve discovered what the world they want to create is all about.

  2. When you are inside the walled fortress, you tend to look down on the commoners outside, and suggest how difficult it will be to make the changes.
    When you are inside Westminster, you tend to forget that the citizen for whom you designed the tax credit is in that Ipswich job centre super-glueing their hand to the desk in order to get money from the DWP.
    Government is like the lobster – cumbersome, continually trapped because it acts alone, and extremely poorly equipped with talent. Its crushing jaws however are good at deigning expense claim largesse, and IT project disaster after disaster.
    The problem for the citizen is that government is so useless that we spend our lives avoiding it. We do not vote, we do not attend its schools, we try not to use its road or rail unless we have to.
    The attraction for the individual to manage their own data is because they care. Government does not do care, compassion or contain an ounce of human goodness. Some of its humans may ; but not the government. The government is the dead hand of the State, and the UK is well ahead in deadness.
    So, let’s hope the original author reads some of the stuff around collaboration. Linux ?
    Please let the citizen in to design their services. If you shut the DWP tomorrow, and allowed us self-service on Amazon, we would do it a thousand times better than your call centre in Sheffield. Why ? Because we care.
    Because the likes of DWP do not care, I know that in Basingstoke I will be told 16 hours, in Aberdeen 2, in Cardiff up to £ 20 and in Norwich £ 92. If it was on-line and self-service, I would select what I knew was mine.
    Then the employees might get a real job working in care, renewables or social work where they are needed.
    Come on, government – get a life with some enterprise.

  3. Very Interesting and well considered points Stefan.
    I think a conversation with the CRM companies will make interesting input into how we get there from here, perhpas you’d like to be part of such a conversation. I can not believe that CRM is a one way trap, this is especially so for government as in my opinion they haven’t actually managed to ‘do’ CRM. At best they have managed to create databases that help at initial contact at worst they’ve just created a record of interaction used to monitor. Most of these databases are costing the tax payer a fortune and giving us no or at best limited value, once again one has to ask who are the public servants serving?
    Even more important is that just because it looks hard ‘from here’ for government doesn’t mean that the general public aren’t getting on with it. The bigger worry is that the public are already in the midst of collating this data in rudimentary forms in social networking sites and on the personal computers, and with the development of Personal Datastores such as Google Health, Microsoft’s Health Vault and many many more the culture change is already happening and if government dont grasp the implications of this they will find themselves way off track, and guess who will be paying to dig us back out of that hole.
    I think you’ll find the Ctrl-Shift research report, published at the end of June, interesting and useful. It’s snappily named Volunteered Personal Information (VPI) (obviously we need help from a branding agency!) which takes a detailed look at the data issues of VRM and a specific look at the cost implications of the installed base and the VRM and VPI approach.
    On the name front I couldn’t agree more – it’s at best uncomfortable but having spent 3 years debating the name which at the time was Buyer Centric Commerce in the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum with Alan Mitchell and the like, I’d be really pleased if someone else would take on that challenge.

  4. Stefan: thank you for the lobster-pot invention.
    But I think this
    – large organisations will be liberated from the need for large and cumbersome databases –
    is a fallacy. The large org still needs the database. But it is able with VRM to avail itself of a new rich source of data feeds. Ultimately those feeds may be reliable enough to update the cumbersome database directly. And the organisation may decide it’s worth accepting the user’s terms and conditions to save it the burden of updating the basics plus to compensate for its inability to source more intimate and forward-looking info.
    Furthermore, this is not a change which will be centrally planned and executed. It is, as John Thakara puts it, a revolution which starts at the edge. We – individuals – need to get on with it. The rest will become clear in due course.
    Quite agree about the name.

  5. I think these are great comments. The good news is that I think there is more commonality of thought here than may first appear. The challenge is that different ways of framing the question risk obscuring that.
    I agree with Ruth that the bigger question is working out what we are trying to do (and with others that the answers will to some degree be emergent), but I am not sure that that makes it harder. That may be because we are seeing the boundary between the two questions slightly differently – the alternative ID card scheme is saying that we want (or should want) a different thing. We still need the beginnings of some idea of how that fits with what we currently have or, alternatively, how we change the wider system of which they will form a part.
    And that, it seems to me, is even more important if you accept Alex’s view of the world. If government in its present form is part of the problem, then it needs to change or get out of the way (which itself would be no small change). But that’s where the lobster pot comes in: nobody sat down and invented government to be this way, but the fact that it is the way it is part of the context in which VRM (or anything else) will need to be applied. Perhaps Alex is right that government is a thing of evil which only needs to get out of the way – but getting it out of the way would be no small challenge. Maybe DWP should be closed down, but it couldn’t be done tomorrow, not because of bureaucratic self-preservation, but because millions of people depend on it to do what it does and will continue to do so until there is some other way of meeting their needs.
    Liz is clearly right that people are getting on with it, but that doesn’t in itself change the bits which look difficult from this particular ‘here’, it just makes them more urgent, precisely because government is at risk of not seeing this one coming.
    William has, I think, homed in on the nub of this. Government – and other ‘vendors’ – is going to get data in new ways if this model works. It is going to have to decide what it is going to accept, what counts as being verified and reliable. Changing that in isolation doesn’t work though: it has repercussions for every other aspect of the operation of the transaction processing bits of government. My argument is that the need to manage those repercussions is an important element of the whole programme. I make that point not to say that it’s the responsibility of VRM advocates to work through those repercussions (that would be one of the standard defensive moves – “we can’t take your idea seriously unless you can show the precise nature of the third order effects five years from now and have detailed plans for addressing them”), but to say that recognising the challenge and building the need to address it into the approach would be to add to its power.

  6. I’d add…there’s huge value in just getting on with it without waiting for the VRM proponents to work out how they will succeed in reforming the machinery of government where so many others, despite power, budget and brains the size of planets, have failed.
    1. Having the personal information manager (for which I gather BSI agreed standards last week) will help individuals a lot anyway.
    2. Being able to interact with new businesses and the nimbler existing businesses (eg media, travel, financial) will help them further.
    3. Being able to “ping” a growing range of online sources of authentication adds hugely to the capability they will enjoy.
    While all that gets under way let’s keep an eye or take stock of where the machinery of government has got to.
    Running out of money does focus the mind. But my own feeling is there’s too much inertia, too much cultural introspection and groupthink to make it worthwhile consciously planning to tackle this from the outside. It’s a thankless task, and no-one’s asking for this sort of help.
    Of course if anyone DOES ask for help then instinct, public duty, compassion and the invisible hand all point us in the direction of responding as constructively as possible.

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