Hardwired State

It’s easy to see why projects fail.

Why ‘open goals’ are so often missed trying to improve public services with new technologies.

Or is it?

What’s been happening in recent months?

Rewired State: generated 30+ ideas in one day for better use of public information to transform public services, many backed up by working prototypes.

Young Rewired State: yet more ideas, and real code, from 15-18 year olds.

Barcamps, Reboot Britain, Show Us A Better Way and many other initiatives: creativity, inspiration, passion, and even solutions.

The daily activities of hundreds of developers, policy enthusiasts, data specialists, lobbyists and real service users to make things better.

And through things like the proposal for a Rewired State-type event within government, we’ll no doubt see that the public sector already has many committed people with the skills to do amazing things with technology, processes and information.

Ideas and talent aren’t the issue, evidently.

Yet how many of these ideas are actually crossing the seemingly vast divide to become ‘production’ public services?

We have a few ideas about why this might be the case: not enough will to change; would it scale?; procurement never works like that in practice; sure, you can design smart new services but can you sustain them?… And so on…

And perhaps we’re right. We’re probably on the right track with some of these. But we don’t really know. And until we do know, we’re poorly armed to take on the systemic issues that really stand in the way of public service innovation. Only by having a well-structured agenda can the things that really need to change, be changed.

What we experience might be the consequences of perfectly rational decisions. Rational decisions that at a detailed level make perfect sense. But when combined into complex systems, such as those that procure and operate public services, can have very irrational consequences. It might be. But we don’t really know.

So how do we get to know?

Here’s a proposal.

Hardwired State?*

What it is

A small number of great ideas are taken on by a panel. Over a few weeks the panel meet regularly, virtually if necessary, and agree a series of steps which would, in theory, bring these ideas to life as real public services.

A small team follow this direction, and simulate the progress of this idea as it becomes a service. Any actual actions or financial commitments are simulations, but the decisions, and decision-makers involved, along the way are all real.

All progress is documented. As, perhaps more interestingly, are any blockages.

That’s it.

Who’s on the panel?

A minister, a senior civil servant, a journalist, an executive from a public services supplier, a developer, a community worker and an independent information management professional.

Facilitated very carefully, and with some clear rules.


Money is no barrier to progress. This is a simulation exercise. But it all gets counted along the way.

(Realistically, there will be some real costs involved even as a simulation. Questions of suppliers in particular will sometimes need funding to get an answer. This funding needs to be available, and recorded.)

Decisions are real: if something is agreed to, it’s agreed to as it if were actually going to be implemented, at a level of authority which would be required to do so, for real.

Behaviours: this is a potentially hard-hitting exercise. But it is intended to show systemic issues, not to show up individuals. Respect for the skills, talents and experience of all involved in designing and delivering public services will be upheld throughout.

This is “fantasy project management”, if you will. A one-off exercise to really demonstrate the art of the possible. And to inform an agenda for change that will unlock so much of the potential shown in the initiatives already mentioned.

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, early 2010 probably isn’t the time to do something like this. Other priorities may occupy the attention of the movers and shakers who’d have to get behind this.

But it’s an illustration of one way in which we could get away from generating innovative ideas that don’t actually go anywhere. And take a whole-life look at the real implementation issues that have to be tackled to make a difference in the real world.

    What do you think? Should we try it?

*The question mark is intentional, and fair. The outcomes of this exercise are not prejudged. The title is inspired by the paradox of unchangeable URLs (that serves as an excellent metaphor for making technology change happen in government). It’s almost as if the state has hardwired itself.

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10 Responses

  1. What do you think? Should we try it?

    In one word YES

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines for a while. But often I don’t talk about it hen I’m sober – lol

    We are getting to the point where people can and are self organizing. Where the government (local and central) is acting too slowly we will work around them – patch, rewire , fill and ignore…

    Life and Business has speeded up…

    They need to up their game.


  2. Dave Briggs says:

    Hi Paul

    Great sessions at ukgc10 and will be keen to be involved.

    The issue with innovation is that there are so few public sector organisations that have innovation processes or systems, which is why so many attempts to innovate get lost. Because there is no real workflow for ideas, innovation projects exist on the fringes of organisations and never become a part of business as usual.

    Hardwired State therefore has two potential opportunities. One is to shine a light on the reasons why innovation doesn’t tend to succeed in government. Second, it might provide an example of how innovation systems might work in public sector organisations, and to convince people that such processes are worth developing and embedding.

  3. Why is it not done already? Seems such an obvious, cost-effective, low-risk thing to do.
    Just one thing I wonder: are the suggested participants too high in hierarchies to see the potential blockages in implementation, maybe?

  4. Noel Hatch says:

    Excellent idea, something we’ve been thinking about after discovering the amazing http://bootcycle.com. Have you seen what BIS are developing around this area http://bit.ly/588AAj

  5. I’d certainly give that a go. Sounds promising.

    Plenty of people have been saying that management and policy types should be coming to Barcamps and getting involved, but that doesn’t seem to be happening in any major way. Perhaps this would work better.

  6. […] Reboot Britain, and Show Us a Better Way into the real world of public service production. In Hardwired State he suggests taking a few great ideas and playing through a simulation with a bunch of people who […]

  7. […] discussion in Paul Clarke’s excellent session about how to experiment with innovation in the hardwired state left me feeling more than a little uneasy.  It took me the best part of another day to work out […]

  8. alex says:


    If the avatars ( don’t know their names )came to Britain, would they build a government infra-structure like the one we have ?

    Will my children put up with the DVLA, HMRC and all that other irrelevant paper stuff ?

    If the answers are No, then

    a) do you need the causes of the problem in the room when you try to design a solution ?

    Lots of people I know simply don’t bother connecting with government. They include the 3 million without MOT or insurance for their car, the 500,000 who live here but leave no trace and the 50% of people who will not vote.

    How about a primary school class ( aged about 10 ) and a elderly care home group for your membership group.

    They could learn from each other – the old can describe their frustrations, and the young can solve them. IT and business people could observe.

  9. […] it’s a great project, Paul Clarke made the good point that a lot of these types of things don’t create long-term sustainable services that are […]

  10. […] constantly ground myself in the complex reality of public services. As Paul Clarke mentions in his blog lack of talent and creative ideas are not a problem. How do we get these ideas used? How do you […]

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