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Showing a better way

In 2008 the UK government announced a competition for innovative ideas using (and reusing) public information: Show Us A Better Way (or SUABW, hereafter.)

The best of the new ideas would be picked for further development, as would a few existing, part-implemented ideas that showed promise.

At the time I had responsibilities for some of Directgov’s future development areas. Whatever came out of SUABW would have some interest, and possibly impact, for me professionally. There were two ways I could keep track of the competition’s progress – the hard way of remembering to check the blog from time to time, or the rather easier one of sticking in my own entry and getting on the update email list.

Fear not, I disclosed my day job throughout – and in any case I am assured the judging was done ‘blind’. (And I am writing this post firmly with my “external competition participant” hat on.)

To my surprise, a few weeks later I was told my idea was one of the winners. So, what was that idea? You can read the entry here. Prompted by a recent experience planning schooling for my own kids, I sketched it out in about two minutes and fired it in. A very simple concept…

We’ve all heard the estate agent babble. The neighbourhood chat. Oh, that house is just inside X catchment area – makes it worth much more. And would you believe that Y street isn’t, even though you’d think it is, as it’s only just a quick hop across the railway line on that footbridge – but they never think of these things do they?

So where does the horseshit stop and the horsetrading begin? Opening up this rather murky area of public information was the idea I submitted.

Let me elaborate on it a little; and in particular start with what the idea was not.

It was not a proposal for a new burden on schools, first and foremost (or indeed on local authorities). It was not a central government dictat to Do Something Entirely New. It was not an instruction to redefine catchment areas (or even to define them where they didn’t exist). It was not a proposal for a new website, or even for a new application per se.

It was merely a proposal for a centrally-sponsored (‘official’, if you like) map. Or more accurately, map layer, available freely to anyone who wanted to display it, or mash it up with other information to make something even more useful. With the map layer showing three things:

1. Those boundaries that had been declared by a local authority (or a school) as defining a catchment area they were prepared to publicise. Call this the ‘black’ on the map. And make sure it’s indexed with the relevant school(s), of course.

2. Those areas which – because of complex geography, allocation policy, local political decision (or any combination) of these – had no meaningful catchment area. Call this the ‘grey’ area. (I used the term ‘fuzzy-edges’ in my submission, in the rather optimistic hope that we’d end up using it to describe the difficult bits between the black areas.)

3. Leaving the ‘white’ zone: those areas where because of uncertainty, disempowerment, stubbornness or good old “lack of resources” – your schools and education authorities weren’t able or prepared to tell you either way.

See the trick there? This didn’t need to be a comprehensive information collection exercise. Right from the outset there would be benefits in seeing the bare facts of where information existed and where it didn’t. My take on the phrase “Power of Information”, if you like. And especially the power of “no information”.

It might be that, pushed hard enough by an engaged public and press, we’d end up with an entirely grey map of the UK. Fine. At least we’d have laid to rest some of the catchment mythology. But I knew that at least some areas were already publicly declared – here’s one example – so we’d definitely have some black areas on the map.

What wouldn’t be acceptable would be the white. Those yawning blank spaces that tell us that no one is prepared to say either that they do or do not operate the concept of a “catchment area”. Here, if there really is no authority prepared to make that commitment, we should be very concerned. And we should all be able to see the way things stand, plainly and publicly.

It’s not a resource-free idea, of course. Tracking down and supplying boundary data (or handling the management discussions that might be required to declare a ‘difficult’ position) would all take time. And therefore money. But it was an idea whose initial implementation could be very cheap – and then improve over time, with some official support, as its coverage became wider.

What happened?

The idea was well-received. I will let the judges speak for themselves if they want to comment here, but broadly I believe they thought: “mapping of catchment areas is a jolly good idea – lots of people would find that useful – let’s have it as one of the (half a dozen) winners”.

I had relatively little involvement in things from here on – fair enough – my role was to contribute the idea, but I did see that the very first fence – the re-presentation of those ‘black’ areas – wasn’t going to be jumped. Why on earth not? See our old friend, the derived data issue, for more on that. There are great complexities in the licensing required to reuse information on third-party mapping platforms if it has been based on information sourced from Ordnance Survey maps. Which in practical terms means pretty much all geographical data held by local authorities.

Instead, a tool was devised by which schools could (and I put a lot of weight on this word ‘could’) map their own catchment boundaries [if they chose], adding them to a map layer which could then be freely shared and used, etc. etc. The reuse of existing data wasn’t going to be attempted.

But that’s not the real reason why the idea died.

For that we have to look at the vexatious issue of how to follow-through service innovation in government. And the key word there is services. Ideas and services aren’t the same thing. An idea is something that can be hatched (or crowdsourced) centrally; but the centre isn’t the place from which services are actually operated and sustained. For that you need to engage the parts of government that look after the relevant service. For good, or bad, they are the ones in whose gift the implementation of ideas actually lies.

The team running SUABW did their absolute level best to run the competition and develop the ideas within the constraints they faced. But in moving the idea (as they inevitably had to) to the front-line, schools – under the oversight of another government department – the idea stopped being an innovation, and became a task.

I’d love to hear from that department about where they’ve got to with it, incidentally. I suspect it has joined a very long queue of higher service priorities. It is no longer an innovative idea, no longer part of a competition – just another candidate for limited resources. That’s reality. (If I’m wrong, and the idea is well on its way to being delivered, I will eat a suitably large chunk of humblecake.)

And as far as I’m aware, the fundamental problem with innovation in public services is this confusion between what constitutes ideas, and what constitutes service implementation. And why I’ve come up with some alternative approaches to crack the innovation problem; more on this later.

And why people so often misunderstand the difference between good ideas and things that actually work. For that you need to build bridges, and remove roadblocks – a metaphor which will be the subject of my next post.

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10 Responses

  1. Dave Briggs says:

    Thanks for writing this up, Paul, it’s an interesting story and helps cast some light on what might have happened to all the ideas submitted to SUABW and Building Democracy, which also seems to have been forgotten.

    You’ll be interested to know that James Gardner, CTO at DWP will be at UKGC10 this weekend. James has just had a book published on innovating within banks – the sector he worked in previously – and we are hoping to run a session on innovation in government. Please be a part of that!

  2. showusabetterwayt was a delight – surfacing some marvellous ideas of which yours was a gem.

    we ran the competition (i was working in cabinet office then and set it up) expecting maybe 50 entries and were astonished by the hundreds of ideas. it was then a first in the world for a government.

    it is always tricky to get innovation to stick in a bureacracy, especially innovation from the centre of government that needs to find a home in a busy delivery department. i moved out of cabinet office in spring last year so don’t know quite where the implementation of your idea has got to.

    but show us a better way’s legacy was strong validation for bureacrats that you could do something useful with free data – breaking out of geek corner. it was able to show conclusively that free data used by thirs parties could support the delivery of the government’s mainstream policy objectives. i don’t think government could have got quite as far as it has (see data.gov.uk tomorrow) without the avalanche of hard ideas such as yours generated by the competition.

    my hope is that the advances since then will ultimately allow others to implement your idea even if DCFS doesn’t.

  3. […] for Everyone. Paul Clarke shows how Show Us A Better Way ideas crowdsourced by government are difficult to make work in practice. Dave Briggs and Roland Harwood agree that Innovation and engagement depend on conversations […]

  4. Noel Hatch says:

    Paul, I share your pain. This is my world day in day out ;) Have you heard of what BIS are developing here http://transformedbyyou.blogspot.com/2009/12/smarter-or-sharper.html do you think it would help?

  5. prclarke says:

    A few comments, inspired by @lesteph and @alistairreid, on the topic of crowdsourcing catchment areas.

    I looked hard at this at the time of the original SUABW submission. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the best source of catchment areas will be from those that have been through the process?

    Perhaps not. Here are two problems:

    Firstly, would the catchment areas generated be of any use? It seems pretty clear, as a result of the numerous decision appeals, that the eventual outcome won’t show nice clear boundaries. One might mitigate this by more sophisticated crowdsourcing (differentiating between those who got straight in, and those via appeal) – but there are complications of siblings, and looked-after children, which also mean that outcome may not usefully reflect boundary.

    And this leads to another concern. That by taking individual point data from the crowd we are a) identifying where children live (I’m at the less paranoid end of the scale, but others will baulk at this – and any randomisation of location would blur the boundary) and b) showing, by inference, that outlier cases may involve personal issues such as special needs or complex family circumstances that lie behind the award of a place.

    What use would such information really be, in practice? I could just see a whole lot more confusion (and appeals) being generated by such a map; with its inevitably blurred and inconsistent boundaries. Hence my decision to focus on releasing those boundaries that were officially ‘confirmed’ (few as they may be), and exposing the “known uncertainty” of the rest. Seemed more honest. And real.

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