I have had some great – and challenging – feedback to my recent post about thinking on paper, including a session at govcamp (and some rich conversations before and after it) and a discussion with a group of my work colleagues about our personal approaches to managing information at work.

Govcamp reflections

There was an energetic discussion at govcamp about managing information in government (or anywhere else still a bit trapped by the paper paradigm). My post about thinking on paper provided some of the context, as did Glyn Jones’ on helping civil servants help citizens. As ever at govcamp, the conversation quickly left those starting points far behind, but unusually, it’s possible to keep track of where it went to. This year the session note taking really worked for the first time – a great feat of co-ordination by the organising team, and a virtuoso display of keeping up with a fast moving conversation in the notes of this session taken by Harry Harrold and Sharon Dale.

One of the most helpful parts of the discussion for me was the one which didn’t happen. Nobody thought this was either an invented problem or a solved one. Even in a group heavily skewed to the technically adroit and self aware, there was a sense that coping with – and contributing to – organisational information was a continuing struggle.

Points from the discussion which particularly resonated with me included

  • We share information for a reason  Information sharing is not an abstract good (or at least, will not work if that is all that it is perceived to be). Being clear about both individual and organisational purposes in creating, storing, finding and archiving information is essential to finding more effective ways of doing it.
  • Information belongs to people and says something about them Do we as individuals have any right to control how we are presented and seen through our information or this (in this sense at least) a public space? Is there a right to be forgotten, and if so, what might it be?1 There was a pretty robust response from others in the group to the effect that we could not – and should not – hope to manage reputation in this way, but the challenge is not one we should forget.
  • We can avoid the cost of organising information by not organising it There is only any point in agonising about how best to organise information if we do actually need to organise it.  But that is, of course the key question. I had Benedict Evans’ thought rattling around in my mind, All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation.
  • Pages are not units of information We constrain our thinking if we let ourselves get trapped into thinking in terms of paper and pages. That was one of the main points of my first post, but a couple of powerful examples came out of the discussion. The first was the statute book: law is inherently intertwined, as John Sheridan has so often demonstrated, treating it as page-based documents makes it too easy to overlook the potential power of transclusion. More generally, it’s hard to think about small, linkable pieces of information when those small pieces are trapped in documents, and those documents are the units of information management.
  • A human guide can be more valuable than an index  There was a lovely example at govcamp of how human guidance could make a huge positive difference, a handover of work where the outgoing person had made a set of short videos explaining the structure and organisation – and above all, documentation – of the work, turning what could have been a painful transition into a simple and pleasant experience.
  • If everybody helps everybody else, everybody gets helped Much of the govcamp discussion touched in one way or another on the core point that information management is fundamentally human and social. As so often, the technology is not inherently complicated, the hard bit is to have a clear understanding of users’ needs and ambitions. Success requires reciprocal altruism: I get no benefit from helping you find the information I have created or understand. I get benefit from you helping me find what you know and understand. The challenge is in creating the culture and incentives to make that become the norm.

Working in the real world

Even before the beginning of govcamp, Catherine Howe had pointed out a gaping hole in the original blog post. As she quite rightly discerned, I had been thinking very much from the point of view of an organisation which wants and needs to have its information organised, and had missed the perspective of people faced with a deluge of information and needing to find coping structures which fitted their personal preferences and styles of working. Since I am one of those people just as much as anybody else, that really was a bit of an oversight. Rather than just write down my own prejudices though, I got a group of my very helpful colleagues to talk about how they manage information and how they feel about it.

It was another rich conversation, but three points struck me particularly forcefully:

  • People are different Some people feel disorder viscerally and are profoundly uncomfortable with anything but an empty in box. Others are comfortable treating their email as a swamp, with murky contents and an ever present risk of something unexpected floating up from the depths. No technology is going to induce either group to become the other, so any solution has to be capable of dealing with both – and everybody in between.
  • Systems create habits Not only does familiarity trump usability, but systems create assumptions of what is normal (and what becomes instinctive and apparently natural). An approach which fails to align with those assumptions risks rejection, regardless of whether on some supposedly objective measure the new thing is better.  So for some in the group, using personal email folders felt like a natural way of organising information, but using a shared folder structure did not. Knowing that something ‘should’ be done differently may be enough to induce a mild frisson of guilt, but it’s not enough to change behaviour.
  • Discouragement is easy Letting things pile up gets very quickly to a tipping point where they don’t get done at all. Filing one document when already working on it for other reasons is easy. Sorting out what to do with ten documents is a chore which organised people will do as part of their routine. Faced with a hundred – or the accumulation of a few weeks, or even a  few days – the overwhelming response is to do nothing.

That’s not the whole story, of course, or anything close to it, but it does provide the beginnings of some insights about why this is hard, and why monolithic system design will always tend to disappoint.

Update: This post is the second of four on closely related themes – the first was Thinking on Paper, this one is followed by Footnote on Paper and Joining the docs.

Picture by David Pearson

  1. In many cases the names of individuals will be redacted at the point records are released at the National Archives, so in one sense the concern may be misplaced. But there is also the potential for an emergent internal personal profile and reputation. That’s a good thing not a bad thing – it’s effectively one of the five principles in the previous post – but managing personal sensitivities will be an important part of getting it right.


  1. If you already know the sensitivities in a given document it will make it much easier to handle the redactions needed at the point of transfer to The National Archives, particularly since those who know the full original context may be better placed to understand why something innocuous seeming might actually be sensitive. The sensitivity review process for digital material is still a big hurdle at the moment

    1. That’s a very good point – more generally, the more that can be done when work is being done with the material anyway, the better. But as you say sensitivity is tricky, in part because what seems sensitive now may not be in 20 years time, and what seems entirely innocuous now may retrospectively become sensitive because of intervening events.

  2. Lots of useful stuff to think about here. Just to touch on a couple of points.

    Curation creates context, search doesn’t. Context may not matter very much to people whose interactions with government are occasional and unrelated. But for those whose engagement is dialogic and sustained, context is almost everything.

    It seems obvious that many documents should be created via transclusion. Benefits pages on .GOV.UK should not contain hard coded benefit rates – these should be imported from a reference document. But unless transclusion is carefully managaged we risk creating a Borgesian knot. Housing benefit guidance circulars, for instance, probably shouldn’t have benefit rates hard coded. Why? Because they generally pertain to a particular time – and in future we will often need to know what the guidance was at that time. In contrast, GOV.UK lives generally in the present.

    Successful use of transclusion requires us to think hard about:

    * attribution
    * responsible ownership
    * non-repudiability
    * versioning
    * forking and merging
    * archiving
    * publication status

    We should probably be thinking harder about these things anyway.

    1. You are absolutely right – the implications of transclusion are enormous, and even beyond your very good list of things to think about, there is the second order (but still enormous) question of the tools which would be needed to make it all work.

      I also agree that curation is valuable, I think the question is whether it needs a curator. If a computer can win at Go, it seems reasonable to ask whether good-enough machine curation is very far away. And of course these two issues are related – rich hyperlinking (to say nothing of transclusion) is one of the drivers of search quality and could be one driver of emergent curation.

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