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.

Stuff that matters, done the right way

There are so many committed teams delivering digital services all over government, it feels unnatural to highlight just one – but when it comes to doing stuff that matters, at scale, and under pressure, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) team developing the Universal Credit (UC) Digital Service is impossible to ignore.

Here’s a video demonstrating the UC Digital proof of concept developed by DWP and GDS following the 2013 reset of UC:

Not an easy ride

Their mission is to simplify the welfare system, and to help more people to move into work, while supporting the vulnerable.

From the moment the UC Digital Service team was established in summer 2013, they’ve been at the sharpest of sharp ends. The entire UC programme was being reset. The UC Digital Service was given the herculean task of developing the strategic “end state” service, to support the full diversity of people who might claim UC at some point during their lives.

It hasn’t always been an easy ride.

And as the UC Digital Service scales up from a few hundred diverse claimants in South London to cover the whole of the UK, there will doubtless be more bumpy moments ahead. This stuff is hard.

Doing the hard work to make things better

But, when you spend time with this incredible team, it’s impossible not to be impressed with just how much they’re getting right in designing a service that will give this radical policy the very best chance of success.

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. They’re not building a website; they’re creating a new service to deliver new policy. That requires a new organisation, with new ways of working and a new culture, as much as it requires great user journeys or quality code.
  2. They have strong backing from the top of DWP, from Ministers and Permanent Secretary down. The Universal Credit SRO Neil Couling provides exemplary leadership (he’s at every show and tell), chair of the UC Programme Board Sir Robert Walmsley is applying appropriate governance with refreshing alacrity, and the digital support from Kevin Cunnington has been crucial.
  3. They make sure they really understand and meet the needs of UC’s users. All users. Even the most vulnerable. Especially the most vulnerable. And they never forget that DWP frontline staff are vital users too.
  4. They don’t pretend they get everything right first time. They watch how users interact with the service, and then they iterate the whole service to better meet the policy intent. Sometimes they iterate code, sometimes process, sometimes training, sometimes policy – it’s all one service.
  5. They’re not scared to deploy the real-world user insights they’re gaining to challenge policy decisions or existing custom and practice, sometimes long-standing. Doing the hard work to make things simple.
  6. They swiftly and cheaply prototype multiple different ways to meet the policy intent, ditching those that don’t work in practice in favour of continuing to iterate those that do. That’s the future of policymaking.
  7. They’re confident enough to start small, recognising that the value of early work often lies in learning about the reality of users and their needs, and testing the most important assumptions.
  8. They know that the unit of delivery is the team, and that each team must contain the right mix of specialist skills and experience. Those with deep frontline operational experience are highly prized for their often priceless insights.
  9. They scale up carefully and organically. They started with one team, and are now up to six, but have grown at a steady pace so their culture and quality hasn’t been compromised.
  10. They invest the time in hiring high-quality specialist skills, and are happy to seek support from the centre when they need it, be that from GDS, CESG or elsewhere. From its inception, the UC Digital team welcomed the support GDS can offer, a close collaboration which continues to this day.
  11. They make sure all those joining understand the intent behind the policy. Indeed, they constantly remind each other of the point of UC – to simplify welfare, help people gain sustainable employment, support the most vulnerable.
  12. They are agile. They update the service early and often. They are highly disciplined in their agile planning, they prioritise ruthlessly, and their testing and integration is continuous.
  13. But they’re not dogmatic. Where it makes sense, they’ll accommodate other project methodologies – for instance, when integrating with some parts of DWP’s legacy IT estate.
  14. They don’t try to do it all themselves. If they can use an existing tool or capability they will – though they know when not to compromise the coherence and quality of the service. They’re not afraid to do less.
  15. They know that security, like user experience, is the responsibility of the whole team, and requires defence in depth, awareness of emerging threats and agility to respond swiftly.
  16. Openness. They’re open with each other about what is and isn’t working, and honest with stakeholders about what is and isn’t possible. They know the value of such a culture, and fight tooth and nail to protect it and maintain it.

I could easily add more.

The challenges continue

It would be wrong to suggest that the UC Digital Service team is getting everything right – indeed the demonstrations they give during their regular cross-government show-and-tells rarely go unchallenged.

The challenges that lie ahead as they build on and replace the existing ‘live’ UC service remain profound; daunting even. It’s vital the team are given the time and space to iterate towards a mature operational service, able to support a reality that is often messier and more complex than appreciated.

But if anyone can do it, they can.

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via Government Digital Service » Tom Loosemore


The Wall of Done. Image courtesy of @psd

It’s five years since Martha Lane Fox tempted me into digital government. The mission: put the needs of users at the heart of the design of public services.

The report we wrote in 2010 was subtitled “Revolution, not evolution.”

Martha, we got that bit 100% right. And the conversation inside government has changed. It’s increasingly about the redesign of services centred on the needs of users, and the skills the civil service needs to deliver in the digital age.

Tom Watson was right, too. The zeal of the vanguard has been essential.

I’m leaving the civil service at the end of September.

I’ve done my turn manning the barricades. I’m keen to learn some new stuff.

I know I’ll miss the place horribly, but I’m confident that the Government Digital Service is in capable hands, under the wise leadership of Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

It’s grown up since its early, scrappy days in a grotty, now demolished office in Lambeth. Much of the culture and practice established back in 2011 has now become the new normal for governments. Good.

Yet, for all the world-class skills inside GDS, the Aviation House lot are now but part of a wide and deepening diaspora of digital talent stretching across Whitehall and beyond. And one that’s packed full of the next generation of HMG’s digital leaders.

Your turn, gang. Back yourselves; you’re awesome.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last five years. I owe so many people so much, not least those who looked out for me when times were tough. Mike Bracken’s post says “thank you” with more eloquence than my engineer-brain can muster, though I must re-iterate his recognition of the debt we owe to the digital gov pioneers who came before GDS, and upon whose shoulders we stood. Unlike us, they did not always have the backing of a totally committed Minister. On which note, thank you, Francis Maude.

Since 2010 I’ve worked all over HMG, one way and another. I’ve had a proper good rummage under the bonnet of the state.

And while criss-crossing the UK I’ve met amazing digital teams doing the hard work to make things simple. Incredible people, civil servants. Doing stuff that matters.

But I’ve also learned a crunchy lesson; in the 21st century, the public deserves better than the 19th century institutions of Whitehall are capable of delivering.

The first project I did as a civil servant was to re-imagine how government should present itself on the Internet.

The last project I’m doing as a civil servant is to re-imagine how government should institutionally reinvent itself to be of the Internet.

The latter offers a huge prize, there for the taking by any nation bold enough to reinvent its civil service institutions.

The first government to reinvent its institutions such that their role and values are native to the Internet era will find that it can transform both the efficiency and empathy of public services, whilst creating new digital infrastructure offering the private sector a global competitive advantage. And that’s even before we get onto the potential positive impact on trust, data security and democracy.

The best, most successful teams (Digital UC, I’m looking at you) have demanded and gained the freedom to completely redesign not just their services, but their entire organisation – its culture, operations, skills, location, kit, recruitment, procurement – the lot.

That this freedom is seemingly only ever gained after a crisis gets to the heart of the problem. Absent a crisis, the scale of institutional change demanded by this digital era is too scary. But, as Mike put it in his Institute for Government speech last autumn, “government is not immune to the seismic changes that digital technology has brought to bear.”

Transformed digital services require transformed digital institutions.

In the UK, the imperative of such a radical re-invention of the civil service is yet to be recognised. It will require bold, brave, reforming leadership from the centre; leadership with the conviction, commitment and authority required to successfully challenge the shape, the size and the dominant culture of Whitehall.

Come that revolution, I’ll be first in line to serve HMG again.

So, in October I’m off to pastures as-yet-unidentified-even-by-me.

Your ideas as to what I might do next are most welcome.

Safe to assume I’m up for trouble.

Digital UC FTW

Keynote at the Code For America Summit 2014

Code for America are a fantastic US not for profit, injecting digital thinking into all levels of the US Government through a range of initiatives. For example, they’ve been instrumental in the setting up of the nascent US Digital Service.

Last year Mike gave an overview of the UK Government Digital Service at their annual Summit in San Francisco. This year I had the pleasure of showing off some of the digital transformation going on across the UK government, both with and without the help of GDS.

Great to meet so many fine people; friends old and new. A long, rich conversation with the mayors of Miami and Sacramento was a particular highlight of the visit; they showed such awareness of the issues that mattered to their citizens, allied with a seriously crunchy clarity of accountability.

Scotland D14 Conference Talk: Reinvention, not repair

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at the D14 Conference in Glasgow.

I had a fine day, going to several interesting workshops, and catching up with old friends from my BBC and Channel 4 days. The speech itself seemed to go ok; the questions were excellent.

And in my talk I was invited by the organisers, Interactive Scotland, to do some gentle future gazing. So if you already know about GDS and GOV.UK, skip to about 19m30s in which is where the new stuff starts.