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.

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 2) – a cautionary tale

Johnny was a rebel. A real maverick of a man. Show him a system, and he’d find a way round it. All the little get-outs, he got out through. He opted out of all opt-in mailings, he had his number put on the list to avoid junk calls, he made sure as hell he wasn’t on that electoral roll that’s for sale. His email address was a miracle of concealment to fool the bots, and you’d be bloody lucky to get it. And almost nobody got anywhere near his ‘real’ online identity.

If he was a bit naughty in his car, he’d make a real song and dance about ’fessing up to who was actually driving. There had to be pictures. Of his face. If not, he’d write long letters inevitably quoting the Human Rights Act. Stopped by the coppers in Waterloo? Same thing, knowing all the right responses to give to stay just the right side of the law, and exactly what would press the frustration button of the guy in the yellow jacket.

Junk calls? He loved those – playing right into the hands of his call centre victim – baiting them further and further into revealing who they worked for, and where, while tapping away merrily on his 192.com account and his Google Maps (and other, darker sources). Until he could surprise them by telling them the name of their wife. And if really pissed off, that he was watching their house from across-Church-Street-right-at-this-minute-pal.

Always pushing things to the very edge to protect his data, and his rights. Because information was Johnny’s lifeblood. His belonged securely locked away. But others’? Especially ‘public’ information? Ah, that was a bit different. Everything had to be open. Without compromise. If the government had it (or he thought they had it) he wanted at it. If there was something out there about a corporation, he wanted it mashed-up, unpacked, aggregated, chopped every which way.

Consumer rights were a passion. He joined every pressure group he could. It was his duty to share with others, not about himself of course, but about his purchases, how he claimed his benefits, what he did to swing the right school place for his kids, and so on…

He delighted in sharing the things The Man didn’t really want you to find out. The uglier stories of corporate hell. The product reviews that told tales from inside the factory. The quicker routes to claiming from the state. Where the councillor lived, and what they got up to on the internet that they thought nobody could find out about…

He bloody loved saynoto0870.com.

He whiled away boring afternoons phoning companies to pester them into giving up geographical alternatives to those noxious money-making numbers. They hated it, he really knew they did, but he knew how to beat the scripts – where to find the weak spots. And when he struck gold, up on the site it went.

Johnny was liberating the system for the downtrodden: the people who actually lived in the same town as their bank and shouldn’t be paying national rate numbers. The bundled-mobile-minutes crowd, who were buggered if they were going to pay twice for the same call.

And so it went. Until the day the crushing pain gripped his chest. Late nights, junk food, way too much coffee – his heart was giving out. He reached for the phone. The local health practice’s 0870 number… nah, he had the ‘real’ one. – Sure, get here asap, they said. The ambulance came. On the trolley now, doctors coming and going. A bit blurry. Fading, fading. A machine – wires… something, something wrong. Shaking heads. Dark, dark, dark.

The back-up defibrillator had failed. Wouldn’t normally have been used, but the real one had gone away for repair. In the old days, when the budget allowed, they’d have got the engineer on site. But things were pared to the bone now, and there was a 24-hour turnaround contract.

Of course, the budget shortfall hadn’t been helped by the drop in all the little sources of income for the health centre. Those guys who’d found an inconsistency in the boundary records for the car park, and had clawed back all those parking charges. Oh, and the strange drop in the margin on the 08— numbers. Some clever arses had found out the local numbers and put them on the internet.

At the edge of every system, it’s the tiniest differences that swing things. Johnny had just slipped, irretrievably, over the edge. 

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 1)

Game Theory fascinates me. How one’s own choices interact with those of others – sometimes with quite perverse results. This isn’t the place to give an entire take on the theory; but let’s just work with one of the core concepts: cooperation and defection.

Cooperators work the way the system says they should work. Defectors don’t play by the rules. Cooperators follow conventions, patterns, structures. Defectors deliberately ride roughshod through them. Typically, the Defector’s short-term gain from ‘cheating’ can be shown – at least in theory – to be completely unsustainable. Very often it’s possible to create a sort of morality message which shows why the rules are the way they are. And yet Defectors very often do very well…

An example: heading east on the M40, about two miles before the M25 junction you notice something strange. The nearside (~slow) lane is a queue of very slow-moving cars. The other three lanes are moving rapidly. You want to join the M25. If you Cooperate, you pull over to the far left, join the queue and just take your turn. If you Defect, you listen to a dark voice in your ear… “Go on my son, just hang in there in Lane 2, or even 3. There’s always a gap, easily enough to slip in to. And if there isn’t a gap, just force yerself in, a flash of the lights, pick on a nervous-looking lady, away you go…”

And from years of experience of this route, you know that the gap is always there. So you Defect: you wait until the last minute and carry out what is known in traffic-management-land as a ‘swoop’. And you always do better than if you’d sat in the two mile queue.

Highways designers think up all sorts of crafty schemes to try and stop this (seen those strange ‘diamond’ lane dividers?) but no more detail needed on this example: the lesson here is, cheat and prosper.

The crowd usually cry out at this point “Ah, but if everybody did that, there would be total chaos and everybody would be held up even more. There’d be crashes, and rude gestures, and… erm… it’s just not… right!”

So there’s clearly more to Defecting than just having a whole load of empirical evidence that there’s always big gaps between 400 and 100 yards from the point of no return before the M25 turn-off. You have to be a bit of a git as well.

Aww, I’m kidding. It’s not always called gittishness. Sometimes it’s called “being a free spirit”, sometimes “playing your own game” and sometimes “righteous warrior against systems set up to subjugate the individual”.

Now go and have a look at saynoto0870.com. Have a think about Cooperation and Defection in the light of its wonderful, enlightened, citizen-centric proposition. And we’ll be back here shortly with a fable to drum home the point…