Dominic Cummings says …

“There really are vast improvements possible in Government that could save hundreds of billions and avoid many disasters.

Leaving the EU also requires the destruction of the normal Whitehall/Downing Street system and the development of new methods.

A dysfunctional broken system is hardly likely to achieve the most complex UK government project since beating Nazi Germany…”

It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment, putting to one side the tasteless comparison with WWII and, of course, individual feelings about Brexit.

But subtract Brexit for the changes required to deal with climate, or true artificial intelligence, with increased automation etc and I suspect we all agree more fervently.

Projects as Films

Today’s Financial Times notes

2% make it to the cinema and perhaps 1/3rd of those are profitable. Those are long odds.

There are likely 3 rules of cinema

1) Make something you, or someone else has already done (hence why we see so many remakes and sequels … Toy Story 4, endless Marvel movies)

2) Produce a film with people you’ve worked with before (which is why proven directors and actors get repeat work)

3) if you’re going to do something completely new, start small and don’t risk a lot (hence low budget independent films)

Projects, which have perhaps the same, or maybe even a worse, success rates, have the same rules

1) Do what someone else has already done and stick as closely to the script as possible (cloud technologies and configurable apps versus custom projects)

2) Keep the same team around you, as long as they have been successful, because you know how they work and they know how you work; trust the team to solve the problems they know how to solve … bring in new people to keep things fresh but don’t go for wholesale swaps

3) If you really want to do something novel and different, start small and don’t spend a lot of money … especially if you’re working with people you’ve never worked with before

Those 3 rules, a version of which I wrote on this blog many years ago, could massively boost your project success rate.

From Lithium to Hydrogen

A few years ago at a conference on Electric Vehicles I posed the following question

If we believe the following three things

1) EVs are the future and will quickly displace diesel and petrol cars

2) EVs will usher in autonomous cars but we don’t yet know when

3) The arrival of autonomous cars will accelerate an existing trend of lower car ownership and introduce broader car sharing and subscription models

Then

1) how much should we invest in wiring the U.K. to support widespread and local charging of EVs?

2) when should we switch our investment plan to cater for AVs that drive themselves to a charging spot (and so are in in use perhaps 70-80% of the time) and that don’t need to be parked outside a house (unused 90% of the time)

3) what would we do with the space that was freed up, particularly, say in the streets of South London where single lane roads with two lanes of parked cars would suddenly have wide streets, no longer need traffic control measures and would be safe for the young and the old to wander around in?

There is no easy answer to those questions. We are so early in the world of EV take up, not just in the U.K. but elsewhere (though other countries – Norway and China for instance are far ahead). There are plenty of scenarios, of course. My sense is that we are only really dealing with Q1 above as everything else likely falls into the top hard box.

There are lots of challenges with EVs. I’ve written here about some of them over the last 12-18 months.

One of the bigger challenges is around the ethics of the components that are used in EVs, particularly around where many of them come from and how they are mined or produced.

An EV needs nearly double the amount of copper a traditional car uses. Cobalt is physically mined by huge numbers of workers, often involving child labour; death rates are off the scale. Lithium is perhaps a little better, but not much, and if delivered at the volumes needed to put a battery into every car, would be worse. There are plenty of other rare earth materials involved – all of which are also used (in vastly different quantities at an individual level but huge quantities at a macro level) to make jet fighters, mobile phones, submarines and computers.

What then, if we asked a different question and said “what would it take to make hydrogen a viable fuel source?” and when could we, or should we, make the switch to backing that as the best option?

Norway is already trialling this. Japanese car makers have long been sceptical of EVs (notwithstanding the hybrid Prius and the Leaf EV) and have invested heavily.

The big cost is affordable extraction using solely renewable energy sources. The big challenge is likely erasing memories of the Hindenburg from the minds of potential customers.

But what if?

Exit Through The App

This sign greeted me earlier

Pay with the app … but only when you’re inside your car. Long ago it was thought that a mobile phone could cause a spark at a petrol station (one would imagine a far greater chance of that with vehicles moving through the petrol station of course).

Now it seems to be to avoid people being distracted – staring at their phone as another car bears down on them perhaps.

We don’t really need this sign in petrol stations – we need it at zebra crossings, on stairs to and from tube stations, on every pavement in the land etc.

But, of course, we would all ignore it in those places too.

When petrol and diesel pumps are replaced by EV chargers … will we still worry about mobile phones causing sparks and being a source of distraction?

The 10 Year Strategy

In May 2008, on this blog, I wrote about Chateau Palmer (a fine Bordeaux wine) and, specifically, about how making wine forces a long term strategy – vines take years before they produce a yield that is worth bottling (my friends in the business say that the way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one), more years can go by before the wine in the bottle is drunk by most consumers, and yet, every year the process repeats (with some variety, much caused by the weather).  It’s definitely a long game.

I wondered what would happen if you could only make decisions about your IT investment every 10 years, and them made a couple of predictions.  I said:
Cloud computing – This is going to be increasingly talked about until you can’t remember when people didn’t talk about and then, finally, people are going to do it. [If you read only this bit then perhaps I am a visionary strategist; if you read the whole of it, I got most of the rest wrong]
Application rationalisation – Taken across a single country’s government as a whole, the total number of applications will be a frightening number, as will the total cost to support them all. There are several layers of consolidation, ranging from declaring “end of life” for small systems and cutting their budgets to zero (and waiting for them to wither and die – this might take eons) to a more strategic, let’s use only one platform (SAP, Oracle etc) from here on in and migrate everything to that single platform (this too could take eons)
It feels, 11 years on, that we are still talking about cloud computing and that, whilst many are doing it, we are a long way from all in.  And the same for application rationalisation – many have rationalised, but key systems are still creaking, supported by an ever decreasing number of specialists, and handling workloads far beyond their original design principles.
Did we devise a strategy and stick to it? or did we bend with the wind and change year to year, rewrite as new people came and went? Perhaps we focused on business as usual and forgot the big levers of change? 

GDS Isn’t Working – Part 5 (No Vision, No Ambition)

Credit:  Roger Hooper

Efforts to transform government have been underway for more than 20 years.  Despite that, government has remained firmly as the catalyst – the part of the reaction that remains unchanged – throughout each iteration.    We need to understand that Government isn’t the subject of the transformation, it’s the object.   The citizen is the subject.  It’s their experience, their life, that we want to improve.

Whilst I have a strong disliking for the word “transformation” – because it implies a sudden, dramatic shift from what we used to call “as is” to “to be” and because it means different things to different people (one person’s transformation is another person’s incremental change) – it’s the word that is used to describe current change efforts in UK Government.

To get a sense of the level of ambition and vision for today’s programme,  I looked at the Beyond 2020 Strategy. It contains a couple of extraordinary statements.

Here’s the first:

“Nobody can predict what the world of 2020 will look like. Technology moves quickly and changes constantly. However we do expect what we call ‘digital’ currently to be largely mainstream by then”

This is both true and false.  More importantly, it’s entirely irrelevant in this context.

It’s true because we all know that there is a new iPhone coming out in a month or so and yet no one outside of Apple HQ knows how it’s all going to come together.    We don’t know what products will be released next year, let alone in 2019 and 2020.  So far so dull.

It’s false because we know how technology is moving and what there will be more of and less of.  In 2001, one of our first demos of the Gateway to the then Minister of the Cabinet Office, Ian McCartney (the original sponsor of the Gateway), showed a VAT form being completed on a Compaq iPaq, sent over GPRS and acknowledged by HM Customs as being complete and valid.  We didn’t know it would be 6 years before the iPhone would come along and that it would be longer still before mobile access to the Internet was common, but we could see it coming. We don’t need to know which products are coming along to set a direction for how we want our online government experience to look for the citizen.  Technology in government, once deployed, can stick around for decades – ask HMRC how long the CHIEF system has been around, or the Home Office about the Police National Computer, or Cabinet Office, for that matter, about the Gateway.  We don’t need to harness the latest and greatest product capability to make a difference.

And it’s irrelevant because:

In these days of driverless cars, missions to Mars, rocket stages that no longer fall uselessly into the sea, artificial intelligence engines that get the maximum score on Ms Pacman, augmented reality and more … 

… we are still talking about digital government as paving the cowpath, that is, putting forms online.

And here, in that context, is the second extraordinary statement:

“We want to make the best possible preparations for the post-2020 period. We will use current and emerging sources of data so that we can understand what is working well for the current transformation programmes and combine this learning with emerging macro-trends to make the best possible plans for the period after 2020.”

I challenge you to tell me, in simple words, what that means.  I suspect you can’t, so let me translate as best I can:

WE HAVE NO VISION

Instead, the so-called Transformation Plan for the period from 2017 to 2020 simply repeats the mistakes of the past, focusing on linear transactions, ticking them off one by one, without dates, ambition or any sense of rationale.  For instance, here are some of the “deliverables” picked at random from the document (I’d like to call it a “plan” but there are no dates or details):

  • continue to deliver world-class digital services and transform the way government operates, from front end to back office, in a modern and efficient way
  • make better use of data – not just for transparency, but to enable transformation across government and the private sector
  • broaden the definition of users, for example to reflect that some users will interact with government through third-party services that use government APIs (application programming interfaces
  • design and deliver joined-up, end-to-end services
  • we will build a framework for the best way to deliver transformation across government
  • building a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government) and ensuring they are secured appropriately
  • building shared components and platforms, extending the use of the ones that we have and onboarding more services

Are you any the wiser?  Do you see the vision?  Do you see the ambition? Do you know what’s coming and when and are you palpably excited for how it might change your life for the better?

I wasn’t quite being honest when I declared that there is no vision.  The document does state one.  It says:

We will transform the relationship between citizens and the state – putting more power in the hands of citizens and being more responsive to their needs.

Which to me is a lot like saying “Our washing powder will wash even whiter than the last one that washed whiter.”

We have forgotten about the citizen – the ones who we truly want to see changed for the better.  We have instead labelled them “users” and decided that if we work closely with them we will design better services.  That’s backwards.

The citizen’s interaction with government needs to be about them, not about government.  We need to think about what we want them to become, what power we truly want to put in their hands and how we will make that happen.  Going through the list, form by form, is not how that will come alive.

Here is an excerpt of the Transformation Programmes underway as of November 2016:

Those programmes, inevitably, translate into some online forms:

Transformation?  No.   Not even close.

All the way back when this began in the late 90s and early 00s, we declared that we wanted to harness the potential of the web, initially, to layer a veneer on top of government – to mask it’s complexity from the citizen by presenting a joined up and citizen focused front end; we knew that the transactions underneath that would start off point to point.  We thought that would buy us time to engineer some truly joined up capability and we designed the Gateway to allow that – it could take in a single schema, split it up and send to different parts of government, get the responses, join it all up and send it out again.  That capability remains unused.

A slide from a 2003 conference

It’s time to move away from the point to point nature of efforts so far and to imagine, instead, what we want our citizens to be able to do when we have delivered a successful digital capability.  For instance:

– We want to encourage new startups and make it easy to create a company with, say, 10 lines of information and 3 clicks?  Company registration, payroll, VAT, R&D credits etc. What will it take to achieve that?  How will we know we are doing it right? What will the impact be on accountants and other professionals as well as on potential startup founders?

– We want to make it so that there is no need for anyone to ever phone HMRC to resolve a problem?  How many people who could use the Internet make a phone call now?  How many problems could be moved to an Internet channel meaning a call wasn’t necessary?  How many result from mistakes made by HMRC that we could correct before the citizen knew and how many can we prevent from occurring at all?    How would we make all of those changes?  How can we move the entire relationship a company has with HMRC to online interactions?  How can we do the same for a company employee?  For a retiree?  Not everyone wants to be online all the time, but if they want to be, we should give them a way.

– We want to make the administration post loss of a loved one simple and effect, cutting by 80% the amount of paperwork and the time it takes to handle all of the different pieces – inheritance tax, pensions, council tax and so on.  Can Tell Us Once help?  Why is Tell Us Once not available everywhere?  What else would we need to do?

We need to flip the thinking away from what do our departments do and how do we put that online to the problems that our citizens have and how we can solve them through smart use of technology.

This isn’t about user needs. It’s about a vision of how we want our citizens to lead their lives in relation to government services.  This is Henry Ford territory, that is, it’s not about faster horses.

As Paul Shetler says, “we can’t kumbaya our way through this.”  We need to get concrete.  Assumptions, plans, deadlines, delivery focus.

To make this happen, we’ll want to lay out some assumptions

1) The shape of government isn’t going to change materially in any way that would help our efforts.  Departments are still going to be departments.  We aren’t going to split them into horizontal layers focused on citizens.  We aren’t going to join up the machinery itself, we’re going to have to do that through our own capabilities – we are going to have to pretend that it’s joined up through use of technology.

2) We have all the technology that we need.  We don’t need to wait for flying, driverless cars.  We don’t need to see what’s around the corner, or what’s going to launch in 2020.  The technology that we launched in 2001 and that we have today is all that we need to pull this off.

3) We have all of the capability and capacity today.  If it’s not already in the public sector, it’s in the private sector.  We shouldn’t bolster one at the expense of the other, in either direction.  It’s all there today and we need only to focus it.

So what we have is what we need and vice versa.  It’s time to lay out a true, specific vision and to back that up with plans.

We then need to be transparent – about those plans, about the financials and about our progress.  Delays will be forgiven if they are telegraphed early along with the true reason.  Whilst we have what we need, it won’t be easy to create this level of change and so we need to bring people along for the ride, explaining what is and isn’t happening and why. 

Rule #1 – No surprises

Rule #2 – See rule 1

Mind The Gaps – Nothing New Under The Sun

As we start 2015, a year when several big contracts are approaching their end dates and replacement solutions will need to be in place, here’s a presentation I gave a couple of times last year looking at the challenges of breaking up traditional, single prime IT contracts into potentially lots of smaller, shorter contracts: