How Public Digital helped set up the Ontario Digital Service

A few weeks ago, the Ontario Digital Service published its Digital Action Plan, opening with this statement:

“We are redesigning government for a digital world. The goal is simpler, faster and better end-to-end services across a people-centered government.”

In her statement at the beginning, Chief Digital Officer Hillary Hartley added:

“How might we create simpler, faster, better services for Ontarians, together? By delivering. By being willing to try new approaches. By working out loud, and in the open, to share lessons learned and demonstrate change.”

 

That’s the strategy of delivery, right there.

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Thank you, Liam

I first met Liam Maxwell in February 2010. It was at a Tory-dominated event called “The Network for the Post Bureaucratic Age”.

Not one of my usual stamping grounds.

William Heath and Tom Steinberg had urged me to go, but it was only the chance to hear a keynote by my hero Heather Brooke that persuaded me to go.

I found myself standing at the back next to a man who joined me in nodding fiercely as William Heath launched into his familiar IdealGov rant about the abject failure of the civil service to embrace the opportunities of the internet age.

We got chatting. Once I’d got over the shock of his being the Head of IT at Eton, I was impressed.

Here was someone with a well-informed, and very healthy anger about the waste and inefficiency of government IT. He knew the scale of self-harm and wasn’t afraid to shout about it.

In 2016, the kind of ill-fated multi-year, single supplier  IT-led programmes which were the norm in 2010 are no longer acceptable within HMG.

Liam changed the weather.

That didn’t always involve making friends. Such change rarely does.

Liam and his IT spend approvals team coming to work for GDS in April 2013 was a crucial moment.

The joining up of those demonstrating new ways to transform services with those able to stop ‘bad’ IT spending provided a powerful carrot and stick with which to challenge and change behaviours across central government.

Liam does good stick.

And boy, from 2010 – 2015 did the government IT crowd need his stick.

Which is probably why now is good moment for him to move on from the role of CTO for government.

Digital government has entered a new phase.

Hundreds of teams all across government are learning to work in new ways: agile, iterative, user-centrered service design, supported by new platforms like GOV.UK Pay, properly managed data via registers, and using the 1000s of suppliers and cloud services available on a pay as you go basis through the Digital Marketplace (itself a legacy of Chris Chant & Denise McDonaugh’s stick and carrot double act) –

Those teams want to work this new way. They include some amazing people. But they need support from the centre. It’s a more collaborative time. As Stephen Foreshew-Cain (GDS’s new boss) says, GDS has got their back. Less stick needed.

Liam’s moving to a more political, special advisor-like role, to which he’s admirably suited – and I don’t say that with any sense of snark. Political savvy is vital to changing government.

Bringing someone with his knowledge into this more political court is long-overdue. The technology rhetoric coming from senior politicians is often embarrassingly ill-informed.

So I look forward to hearing Number 10 et al taking more practical and enlightened technology policy positions;

Less of the damaging ill-informed knee-jerking about encryption. (As any teacher knows, you can’t ban maths.)

More about the need to stop smooth-lobbying incumbents messing up the level playing field for disruptive tech innovation.

And much more about the importance of a level playing field to let *everyone* in UK gain full benefit from this digital revolution.

And I’m sure he’ll continue to support GDS from his new perch.

Good luck, Liam. And thank you.

The UK owes you one.

 

“Distribute power as widely and irretrievably as possible”

From Danny O’Brien’s 1997 email describing a trip to SF to meet Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired magazine. At the time Danny and Tony worked on Wired’s UK edition, as did I.

                                                                – * –

San Francisco is such an optimistic town, and, while Wired itself is actually a pretty mundane place to visit, its very ordinariness filled me, briefly, with the belief that Wired UK was possible. I loved meeting these people, loved the culture they sought to represent. It was only on the flight back that I got worried.

On that flight, I got into a blazing row with Tony Ageh; the only row that I've ever had with him. Tony isn't efficient. He's not really wired. But he's a very charismatic man, and I'd say a visionary too; he's easily a match for Louis in that.

We were talking about something that Louis had said, something that made Tony uncomfortable. Louis had talked about Wired being for 'the digerati' - 'guys who'd been teased at school for being geeks, and who are now earning millions while their schoolmates flip burgers'. Wired UK, Tony insisted, was going to be for everyone - even the burger flippers. I stuck to the Louis line. I said, these people are defining the future - you've got to write a magazine for them. So why, said, Tony, can't everyone define the future? Isn't that what it's really about - everyone at last, defining their own future? Can't this magazine help create a place where everyone can take these tools and use them for themselves?

What Louis is doing, he said, smacks of revenge - of comeuppance. He's turning a global change into a vengeance tale. And so it went on, me insisting the value of representing the thoughts of the wired, Tony claiming that the function of any magazine he produced was to distribute power as widely and irretrievably as possible. We almost literally came to blows, rocking and pushing on the plane even though we were only an armrest away. The argument was never resolved; eventually we fell asleep, awkward and furious.

Hours later, I woke up. We were above the Arctic, and through the frosted porthole, I watched the Northern Lights, something I had dreamed of seeing since I was a child. I didn't wake Tony. I made him miss it all.

                          - * -

 

Whenever I hear that most duplicitous of phrases “the sharing economy“, I think of Tony Ageh and his vision for digital technologies designed to distribute, not concentrate, power.

Sadly, he was right about the revenge of the West Coast digerati. Code and capital begat power. And power duly corrupted.

Ten rules to help design a digital, democratic government

The peerless Richard Pope has published 10 rules for anyone redesigning a democratic government to make the most of this digital era.

Richard’s 10 Rules for designing a digital, democratic government are:

  1. Split data from services. Hold it in organisations with appropriate accountability (central government, local government, professional bodies) and make the quality of the data independently verifiable.
  2. Services can be provided by any layer of government, and by commercial or third sector orgs. It’s OK when they overlap, complement and duplicate.
  3. It is possible to interact with multiple layers of government at once while respecting their organisational and democratic sovereignty.
  4. Build small services that can be loosely joined together however citizens like. Do not try and model the whole world in a single user experience, you will either fail or build a digital Vogon.
  5. Put users in control of their data. Millions of engaged curators are the best protection government has against fraud, and that citizens have against misuse.
  6. A user not having to understand government does not mean obfuscating the workings of the system.
  7. The system should actively educate people about how their democracy works and where power and accountability lie. Put transparency at the point of use.
  8. Be as vigilant against creating concentrations of power as you are in creating efficiency or bad user experiences.
  9. Understand that collecting data to personalise or means-testing a service comes at a cost to a users time and privacy.
  10. Sometimes the user need is ‘because democracy’.

They condense so much wisdom about good service design, accountability, democracy, security and platform thinking.

They were developed while Richard and others were designing a prototype of a natively digital government. I was lucky enough to demo this at Code for America in September (video below):

My sole quibble is with Rule 3:

3. It is possible to interact with multiple layers of government at once while respecting their organisational and democratic sovereignty.

I’d argue there’s often no such thing as “organisational sovereignty”; there is only “democratic sovereignty”.

For UK central government, civil service institutions such as government departments are not independent legal entities. Their existence is entirely in the gift of the democratically appointed Secretary of State, who is free to determine the shape/size/makeup of the institution(s) needed to execute her/his mandate.

Funnily enough, this is not something the UK civil service talks a lot about – not least to the Ministers it serves…

Blockchain vs Democracy (aka ‘software is politics, now’)

The Economist succinctly nails the issue I have with “federated trust” distributed ledgers such as Blockchain / Ethereum:

The idea of making trust a matter of coding, rather than of democratic politics, legitimacy and accountability, is not necessarily an appealing or empowering one.

To be clear, append-only, immutable, verifiable ledgers (distributed or otherwise) are properly exciting as a new form of digital civic infrastructure .

There are some good posts on the GDS blog exploring their potential.

It’s the ‘federated trust’ bit of Blockchain that worries me, more for reasons of democratic accountability than wasted electricity.

Democracy has evolved as the least bad way we know of managing the tensions between collective and individual needs. You mess with it glibly at your peril. Or rather, at our peril. Careful democratic thought required, as well as careful code.

As Richard Pope says, “Software is politics now“.

Update 14 Nov 2015 :  Jeni Tennison, Deputy Director of the Open Data Institute, has written a very fine blog post explaining far better than I can why using blockchain to store personal data is fraught with issues.

Keynote at Web Directions 2015, Sydney

Tom at Web Directions

Run by the wonderfully energetic John Allsopp, Web Directions 2015 is a cross-disciplinary conference for those blessed with living the Southern Hermisphere . It’s been going since 2004, and was held this year in Luna Park, a surreal 30s-era funfair in the shadow of Sydney Harbour bridge.

I was invited to give the closing keynote on digital transformation of public services, entitled “Enough Lipstick on Pigs“. I’ve put the presentation online; video to follow.

Presentation to Code for America Summit 2015

Here’s a link to the presentation I gave to this year’s Code for America Summit.

It explains why I believe a new institutional architecture is required to support a natively digital nation, and what form these new institutions might take.

It’s basically me presenting the ideas of Richard Pope.

The video of the talk will be more meaningful, but people afterwards were nagging me a url of the presentation, so this’ll do for now.

[update] Here’s the video of the talk and demo.