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Preaching to the unconverted

I’ve been getting this blogging thing all wrong. Three years of grinding out thoughts about public services and technology, generally pointed towards an audience already versed in the issues, have all been for nothing.

I’ve been missing the real audience. The one that truly needs to understand more about this stuff.

A spirited discussion on Tuesday with a doughty advocate for public transparency convinced me that I need a change of approach.

Our debate arose from his astonishment that it wasn’t possible for “government” to say at any one time how many people it employed. Despite this being an “obvious” factual issue in his eyes, no amount of requests seemed to be able to produce a meaningful answer.

My response “well, it’s not really a meaningful question” – didn’t go down too well. Even having navigated the complexities of what “being employed” might mean, with all its colour and texture of vacant posts, secondments, part-funded posts, long-term absentees and part-timers, I felt there were still problems with the concept of such a broad question.

If asked by an economist with a specialism in operational research or organisational productivity, I could possibly, possibly see some sort of tangible purpose to a question, but more likely a version targeted at a more specific organisation or sector than just “all of government”. Possibly.

I know this is heresy: information should be free, yadayadayada, and the motivation of the questioner unimportant. But open your mind just for a moment to the possibility that context may have some value, in light of what came next in our debate.

The moment when I realised I’d got all my public service technology blogging pointing in completely the wrong direction was when my interlocutor said “you technical guys – you can sort all this out – surely the systems know how many people are on each payroll? Just add them up every night. You could if you wanted to.”

Here was an acclaimed expert in transparency of information, someone who’d spent much of his professional life pursuing the dark corners of government’s secrecy and intransigence. And he thought that a few lines of code and a dictat to “just f-ing report it daily” would meet this requirement.

(A spurious requirement, I’d say, as the journalist asking the question would be likely to write the same story whatever the actual number they got in response to their question. Any Big Number would do the job – and hey, if no meaningful answer came forth, that would be an even better story. “How stupid are they! They don’t even know…” Win, whichever way you look at it.)

I blame the Daily Mail, of course (shorthand for any form of lazy, populist, press). As with most difficult public policy issues, from asylum seekers to disability claimants to identity, there’s always an easy, quick answer that will get heads nodding in the pub and taxi.

But which is almost always utterly, hopelessly, WRONG. Who wouldn’t like an easy answer to a hard question? To avoid any deeper thinking about the subject. Or acknowledgement of history, personal responsibility or sense of others? To gloss past the difficulties that arise when something that looks (from a huge distance) a tiny bit like a simple, familiar, backyard activity is attempted on a scale of tens of millions of people and transactions.

So here’s the plan: a post, or small series of posts, called “The Daily Mail Reader’s Guide to Public Services Technology”.

Taking some of the favourite old chestnuts (Why can’t they count X? Surely if everyone just had one ID number? Why so many different systems essentially doing the same job?) and really, anything else that begins with: “I don’t see why they can’t just…”

And writing them up in language that DM folk may identify with. Analogies from golf clubs, caravan parks, tea shops. You get the drift.

I’ll make a start, but do please add your suggestions here for topics that you’d like to see given the treatment.

Category: Other

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9 Responses

  1. Ben Smith says:

    It’s a great idea and I share the frustration… the trigger phrase for me has, for a long time, been…

    “How hard can it be?”On hearing this the red mist descends and I make polite excuses to exit the conversation before I get all ranty. It’s the same short-hand as you point at above for “I don’t understand the issue but presume everyone else is too dumb or too incompetent for the current system to be the best option”.

    The challenge with what you’ve suggested though is that most issues can’t be simplified down to a DM level – they’re complex, nuanced and required an appreciation of the context. If you can nail that in DM-speak then I shall be first in line with a Nobel nomination form… I don’t know which category… probably all of them.

  2. Nice idea Paul. Very nice. OK – not certain I understand how this will work, but what about this as a starter for ten: I don’t see why they can’t just cut the cost of government by sacking the poorest performing 10% of employees each year? It worked for Jack Welch at GE in the 1980s and 90s!

  3. Perhaps if the Daily Mail complain about use of their name you can title the posts “Questions containing the words ‘just’ or ‘simply’.”

    Normally amounts to the same thing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Can you name a single problem that can’t be solved with good old-fashioned common sense?

  5. John Popham says:

    But, what are the implications for house prices?

  6. […] Paul Clarke has an excellent post in which he talks about the importance of having a purpose when trying to measure things. That’s not quite the point of his post, but it does nevertheless provide a really telling concrete example of why it can be meaningless to try to measure something if there isn’t a concrete objective to the measurement. […]

  7. Nik Silver says:

    Based on this I’ve put together some examples to try to show how having a concrete purpose to a question influences how you answer it: http://niksilver.com/2011/05/11/measuring-with-purpose/ — no Daily Mail language, but perhaps a start.

  8. […] Preaching to the unconverted « honestlyreal As with most difficult public policy issues, from asylum seekers to disability claimants to identity, there’s always an easy, quick answer that will get heads nodding in the pub and taxi. But which is almost always utterly, hopelessly, WRONG. Who wouldn’t like an easy answer to a hard question? To avoid any deeper thinking about the subject. Or acknowledgement of history, personal responsibility or sense of others? To gloss past the difficulties that arise when something that looks (from a huge distance) a tiny bit like a simple, familiar, backyard activity is attempted on a scale of tens of millions of people and transactions. […]

  9. Chris Baker says:

    Paul, I think I have an example of the kind of homely analogy that you want – see what you think.

    You should ask the bloke who wants to know how many people are employed by the government to first tell you how many people there are in his family. There’s the same problem that an apparently simple question explodes into complicated decisions about definitions.

    Let’s try it – How many people are in my family?
    Well for starters I live with my wife and 2 kids. (By the way you did mean Family , not Household, didn’t you? We don’t have any lodgers or non-relations living under our roof, but many folks do. If you did mean Household – do I count anyone staying for a particular day, like the National Census, or are there other rules about when to include someone?). Then I need to count my Mum and my sister and her family. And my aunt. And my brother in law and sister in law on my wife’s side (we ARE counting in-laws, right?). And my mother in law. Then my cousins – getting harder now. Do we count stepchildren? Kids by previous or subsequent marriages (or unmarried relationships)? Divorcees? How about unmarried girlfriends and boyfriends – not until there is a marriage certificate, or as soon as the relationship has reached a certain degree of seriousness stability or duration (what would that be?). Same-sex partners count, right? Or not? Second cousins? More distant relations?

    Not only is this a lot harder than you might think, but good luck in getting people to accept that this annoying explosion of bothersome questions is a fair or useful part part of the process of answering their question (Rather than scheming to get the answer to come out a certain way, or “blinding people with science”.).

    Our homely, everyday lives don’t prepare us for frenzies of definition
    and analysis in response to a “simple” question (unless you spend time with IT
    folks of course :-) ). If you ask me which is the best pub in my home town, you would think me odd if I promptly asked you to define “home town” (parish? x miles radius from my house?) and then launched into a lot of questions about what exactly constituted a pub, and the basis of a scorecard for the premises we decide to include.  You just want a recommendation for the White Hart over the Queen’s Head, and don’t care whether it is likely to be very un-rigorous. And you might say “I don’t see why you can’t just answer my question…”
     

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