“In Elizabethan amphitheatres, like the 1599 Globe Theatre, performances took place in ‘shared light’. Under such conditions, actors and audiences would be able to see each other… This attention to a key original playing condition of Shakespeare’s theatre enables the actors to play ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘at’ audiences. Actors therefore develop their ability to give and take focus using voice, gesture and movement.” — Emma Rice to Step Down From London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, Playbill, Oct 25, 2016
Early, too early, one morning I blunder into a railway station Starbucks for a coffee and croissant to take onto the train. I’m the only customer. I place my order and shuffle along to the end of the counter where the barista will hand down my drink.
What happens next in the customer experience is critically important. We know that Starbucks knows this too, because of a leaked 2007 memo from chairman Howard Schultz, in which he bemoaned the commoditisation of his brand:
“For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”
As I said, it was early, much too early for an intimate experience with a barista. And in any case, the barista was still learning the ropes. I guess first thing on a shift, when there’s one customer and no queue, is a great time for some coaching from the supervisor. This is what I heard him say:
“You have 23 seconds for the milk… Oh, and relax. You can’t concentrate when you’re stressed.”
23 seconds! That’s what removed the romance from my coffee.
“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanise them.” — John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
Some things in this carefully commodified service experience were never meant to be seen by the customer. When they do burst into view, it feels wrong, uncanny.
In this post I want to explore the reasons for that uncanniness, and how we might play with it to develop new service opportunities. Is it really so obvious what should and should not be visible to the user? What’s the impact on users when a component slips out of sight? And how might we make service better by keeping more things, more visible for longer?
The line of visibility
The line of visibility is a well-known concept in the fields of customer experience management and service design. To use, like Howard Schultz, a theatrical metaphor, it divides the service blueprint into front-stage activities seen by the customer, and back-stage ones unseen by the customer but nonetheless essential to the delivery of the service.
In the coffee shop:
Front-stage: the theatre and romance of taking the order, writing the customer’s name on a cup, grinding the beans, making the coffee, presenting the coffee to the customer
Back-stage: the operational efficiency of managing rosters, training staff, timing operations, replenishing stock, and so on.
At first glance, the allocation of activities to front or back-stage appears uncontroversial. In reality, it is much murkier, and deserves more critical attention:
A restaurant might make a show of fresh food preparation with an open kitchen on full view to the diners, but still have a room behind the scenes for the freezers and dishwashers.
Recently, after returning a hire car, I was given a lift by a new member of staff. The conversation we had about the rental company’s graduate scheme made me warm to the company and more likely to return.
I’ve been thinking about visibility in the context of whole value chain maps. In his mapping technique, Simon Wardley arranges components from the most visible user needs at the top to the unseen at the bottom:
In this interpretation, visibility is said to recede as we traverse the network – the more “hops” away from the customer, the less it needs to concern them. But is that really true?
Invisible things can have very visible effects. Amazon’s recommendation engine is deeply buried in the company’s infrastructure, yet customers experience its insights and biases every time they use the site.
Visible things may get up to all sorts of unseen activities. What if that camera or video recorder in the corner is participating in a distributed denial of service attack right now?
Invisibility and commodification
Why is it that some things naturally seem to merit visibility while others have to hide themselves from view?
I think it has to do with commodification. To turn something into a commodity is to take it out of its context, to make it fungible so that it can be substituted, traded and transferred. In an example by the philosopher Andrew Feenberg:
a tree is cut down and stripped of its branches and bark to be cut into lumber. All its connections to other elements of nature except those relevant to its place in construction are eliminated.
This is what people are doing when they commit metaphorical sleights of hand such as “data is the new oil“. They take something that has deep meaning to an individual and, by aggregation, transform it into something that can be traded without further challenge or debate.
The logic of commodification prohibits the end user from interest in, or influence over, anything but the surface-level components. Before we know it, any breach of the line of visibility feels illegitimate. From Fairtrade foodstuffs to the employment rights of Uber drivers, demands to deepen visibility into the supply chain come to be seen as “political” incursions in the supposedly rational domains of technological production and economics.
Unregulated, the behemoths of the attention economy would place all their tracking of users below the line of visibility. “Users don’t need to know about that stuff,” they’d say. “It’s technical detail. Nothing to worry about. Move along now.” The Jobsterbedunners might even hold up web users’ continued browsing of sites in such compromised circumstances as some kind of “revealed preference” for covert tracking.
But people who care about privacy have a different opinion on where the line should be drawn. Their only option is a “political” intervention to drag the publicity-shy cookie blinking over the line of visibility. Now Europe’s internautes can take back control, every time they visit a website. Say what you like about the implementation, but we Brits will miss those privacy protections when they’re gone.
What if there was another way to realise value? One that didn’t depend on enclosing the value chain by making it opaque to end users?
To Feenberg, decontextualisation is “primary instrumentalisation” the first part of a two-step process:
The primary instrumentalisation initiates the process of world making by de-worlding its objects in order to reveal affordances. It tears them out of their original contexts and exposes them to analysis and manipulation while positioning the technical subject for distanced control…
But the story doesn’t end there. There’s a crucial, secondary step where visibility has to be re-established:
At the secondary level, technical objects are integrated with each other as the basis of a way of life. The primary level simplifies objects for incorporation into a device, while the secondary level integrates the simplified objects to a social environment.
Through this secondary instrumentalisation, this resource integration, users tell us what they want technology to be. Think, for example, of the camera-phone as a concept worn smooth by countless buying and use decision over the course of a decade. This part of the value creation process cannot happen in strategy and planning; it can only happen in use.
Premature commodification would close down such possibilities just when we ought to be keeping our options open. Co-creation, on the other hand, places the service user, the service designer, and the service provider on the same side – and all of us play in all those positions at one time or another.
We maximise value when the interests of all the actors are aligned, when asymmetries of knowledge between them are reduced. To borrow another controversial theatrical analogy, co-creation flourishes in “shared light” when actors and audiences can see each other equally.
Not only do we see the coffee being made, we see the staff being trained.
We are no longer passive recipients of the recommendation algorithm, we can understand why and how it behaves.
Some service design patterns
Here are just some of the patterns that play with the line of visibility. By making things visible, they make things better.
Seeing over the next hill: We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us. Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey.
Provenance: People can take reflective pride in where their things come from – and be repulsed by a supply chain’s dirty secrets. Design like they’re watching. Document the journey and make it part of the service. My Fairphone may have been a little pricier than an equivalent smartphone, but it comes with a story of fair materials, good working conditions, reuse and recycling.
Individualisation: Service is intrinsically full of variation. When we treat its delivery like factory mass production, we make it inflexible, unresponsive, and ultimately destructive of value. Anticipate variation, embrace it and celebrate it. This will likely means fewer targets and processes, more self-organising, empowered teams. Be like homecare organisation Buurtzorg, which prioritises “humanity over bureaucracy” and “maximises patients’ independence through training in self-care and creation of networks of neighbourhood resources.”
A last word from actor-network theorist Michel Callon in his afterword to Feenberg’s ‘Between Reason and Experience’:
“Keeping the future open by refraining from making irrevocable decisions that one could eventually regret, requires vigilance, reflection, and sagacity at all times. Politics, as the art of preserving the possibility of choices and debate on those choices, is therefore at the heart of technological dynamics.”
Without exception, everyone I meet in the public sector wants to help make their service better. Most of them are in some way frustrated. The domain is massive and the activities disjointed. People engaged in any given service – from users and frontline workers down to managers and policymakers – can go for months on end without coming into contact with each other. On the rare occasions they do meet, they generally do so with mutual incomprehension.
This is not exclusively a government problem. I know from my time as a product manager in the private sector that a similar malaise affects all big organisations. But when it happens in government the impact of poor service is graver. This is service delivered with the authority of the state. As users we cannot take our government custom elsewhere. Neither can public service providers cherry pick their customers like the private sector does.
Whether we realise or not, most of government is mostly service design most of the time. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re doomed to short change our citizens and fall short of our policy goals. But when we wake up to the potential, we find proven tools and techniques for designing service. Applying them can and should be everyone’s business.
We only have to look at definitions of “government” and “service design” to find a naturally good fit.
Exhibit A: The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor summarises the business of government under the following headings:
the resources available to government (ministers, money, civil servants)
how government manages them (through arm’s-length bodies or contracting), what it does with them (passing legislation, answering requests for information) and how it measures what it does (major projects, permanent secretary objectives), and
what impact all of that has in the real world and how the public and international studies rate government effectiveness.
“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”
We may call it many things, but service design happens all the time at every level of the government stack. The problem is that when done unconsciously it’s just not very good. All of the following contain random acts of design by default…
Users work their way around complex government processes, even if it means hiring costly experts like lawyers or accountants to do it for them.
Frontline staff hack the process just so they can serve their customers better. Visit any contact centre to see tattered papers, sticky notes by screens, Dymo-labelled folders and trays put in place to expedite information from one part of the process to another.
Good managers manage with ingenuity to sort out shift patterns, holiday rotas and flexible working so that their people can do their best work – in spite of policies and processes that treat workers more as resources than as human beings.
Entire, organisations-within-organisations accrete with baroque titles such as “change management” to drive through discontinuous re-structures that fracture working relationships and frustrate any long-term organisational learning.
“Policy” is a Platonic conception perceived to exist on a higher plane where users are always rational, processes run smoothly and every day is a sunny one. By the time we descend to the grubby depths of “implementation” it’s already too late.
Our democracy itself still runs on rails laid in Victorian times, as if the population were barely literate onlookers and the parties the houses of a minor public school on a bad-tempered match day.
All 5 gaps are endemic in public service. Design shouldn’t just be used to paper over them: it can eliminate them altogether. As Tom Loosemore said in his Code for America talk last year describing the Government Digital Service’s approach:
“We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. Even thinking how you fix the gap is a category error. What we are doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”
(Disclosure: It’s my privilege to work as a contractor for GDS, though like everything on this blog I write this in a personal capacity.)
Let’s look at those gaps again.
Gap between what customers expect and what managers think they expect. We seek and expose user insights, not just at the start or end of the process, but throughout. There’s good evidence that everyone on the team should spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary, qualitative research. How about we make that a prerequisite for Permanent Secretaries, council CEOs, and everyone else not in direct day-to-day contact with service users?
Gap between management perception and service specification. Even when we understand what users need, we have to get better at translating that insight into a vision of the service. We can use powerful formats such as user stories to tie requirements back to users and their goals. The best specifications of all can be real working prototypes. Making prototypes is easier than ever.
Gap between specification and delivery. Alpha and beta versions are what we use to close this gap. They help us understand the ins and outs of delivery even as we refine our designs.
Gap between promise to customers and what’s actually delivered. Ever been sold a Tesla only to find it’s a Sinclair C5? In the words of this tweet, “how could we get Britain voting on prototypes rather than promises?”
Gap between what customers expect of service and how they actually perceive it. This yawning chasm is the cumulative effect of gaps 1 to 4. It is also the main driver of disappointment and distrust in public services. One bad experience loops back round and poisons our expectations of future interactions with government – a downward spiral that we need to disrupt.
How can we make government better? By accepting that first and foremost everyone’s a designer, and that we all need to develop a design thinking sensibility.
Besides relentless people-centricity – intellectually and empathetically understanding users, tasks and environments – service design practice has some distinctive characteristics:
Service design is visual. This doesn’t mean you have to be great at drawing – but it does demand working with more than words. When we draw pictures and diagrams we engage a different part of our brains and spot things we would miss through written specification alone. Making those assets visible can feel scary at first. That’s worth it though, because they change the conversation into something much more constructive than any amount of finessing verbal positions and semantics.
Service design is multidisciplinary.ISO 9241-210, the international standard for human-centred design acknowledges that no one discipline has a monopoly on design. Rather, “the design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This is a challenge to a silo-ed way of working, but small “two-pizza” teams in startups and internet giants like Amazon and Google prove it can be done.
Service design is holistic and integrative. Good designers of any stripe look at the big picture – what is the user need? what is the policy intent? – but they don’t stop there. They also dive down into the details and forge novel combinations of components. They hold multiple, potentially contradictory, strands in tension, zooming in and out between the reasons for doing something and the details of delivery that will make it succeed.
Service design is iterative. Whenever I read an account of Apple’s development process I am struck by the number of versions and iterations their products and services go through. They create and test many ideas before narrowing down on a handful to develop further. Just at the point when lesser companies would settle and launch they throw all the cards in the air and create yet more new combinations.
Finally, service design treats time as a material. There’s a place for thinking and working fast, and one for being slow and considered. A food bank user needs assistance before the next mealtime while a retiree of 60 needs to think what money they might need aged 100. Big service providers get stuck too easily in the middle of Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Service design helps them to be more supple.
Don’t believe me? Try this stuff out for yourself. In June I’m taking part in the Global GovJam. It’s not a ‘designers’ event, just people designing together. For 48 hours we break down silos between local and national government, the NHS and social care, public, private and third sectors. We challenge people to communicate their ideas through doing, not talking. They make prototypes and take them out to potential users when they still feel incomplete. And the buzz as people realise how much they can achieve in so little time is amazing. Come and join us in Leeds or in dozens of other cities around the world.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be designing services in the public sector. But it can still be a lonely existence – in any organisation, a small number of advocates may find themselves trying to shift a large mass with plenty of inertia. The Service Design in Government conference that I attended last week has an important role to play. It’s a place where people can share their triumphs and frustrations, and form a common view of what we should be aiming for in the design and redesign of public service.
Thanks again to all the speakers, the other participants, and the organisers at Software Acumen. I was delighted to be part of the programme committee. These are my notes and reflections…
Everyone’s a designer.
Jess McMullinandAlex MacLennan have been building service design practice in the government of British Columbia since 2010. Along the way they’ve developed an awe-inspiring array of interventions across the government’s many services, intensively training cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams and moving up the design maturity ladder – from no conscious design, through a focus on style, function and form, up to using design to solve already-identified problems and frame new ones. Recognising that their own team is small (“we are not the official designers for the BC government”) they focus on getting other people to think like designers. Now they have a UX library that all ministries can use.
Anna Whicher and Adrian O’Donoghue carried on the “public servant as designer” theme with the story of the trans-national SPIDER project, and its application in Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly. An ambitious peer learning platform between local governments across North-western Europe, it covered public service co-ordination, youth unemployment, ageing populations and culture change within authorities. The scale of the capacity building is impressive: 1478 people attending local workshops, working on issues where people will benefit. Stand-out quotes: “Co-production works. It scares the public sector” and “Hero designer is not suitable in this way of working.”
Several other talks picked up the same themes:
Housing manager Amanda Pujol worked with designer Kathryn Woolf under the Design Council’s leadership programme to prevent life-threatening trips and falls among older people in Teignbridge (and together they bubble wrapped a whole GP’s reception to dramatise the issue!)
Transport for London, with Ben Reason‘s Live|Work, seconded 20 station staff to facilitate workshops, bringing an honesty and credibility that could only come from frontline workers
Jean Mutton, an “inside-out service designer” at Derby University, brings students into her team on 12-month paid internships because “we get a much richer picture from students talking to students”
The Satori Lab‘s Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen got housing association staff across Wales into conversation with the world cafe method
For sexual health community interest company SH:24, Glyn Parry and Unboxed Consulting‘s Martyn Evans had to create a core team including clinicians, public health professionals, agile project managers, designers and developers.
It’s 90% archaeology.
@LouiseDowne "Service design in government is 90% archaeology". Finding out what we're doing and why #SDinGov
Louise Downe, service design lead at the Government Digital Service, outlined how service failure is still one of the biggest costs in government. Time is taken up with unnecessary processing – roughly 40% of people declaring medical conditions to DVLA have a condition they didn’t need to report – user contact, casework, and manual handling of exceptions in policy. Change needs to happen “in hearts and minds of everyone who works in government. It’s not sitting in a room and ideating, it’s finding out why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
On the SPIDER project, this became a kind of “double ethnography on the end users and the system to understand how you can make an impact”.
Gavin detailed his own learning curve at MoJ – all that paper, printing and cabling! “It’s not done until you follow the transaction all way through the court process… It’s not done until the user has finished paying their fine… Understand the context in which you’re operating, understand how to get all the way to the end.”
Jean told us the story of the bicycle books, dutifully filled out and filed for decades even though their purpose in administering wartime rationing was long since redundant.
Jess and Alex “unearthing the decisions of the people that came before us”, connecting with the experience and legislation cultures, norms, values and power structures: “There is no more powerful tool than the road trip.”
Glyn and Martyn working with NHS trust information governance boards to devise a better way of keeping personal information by anonymising it instead of sending it around the system in the mail.
For TfL, it was about how to improve the customer journey (literally!) in creaking, crowded stations on a 152-year-old network that last saw a full day of good service on all lines in April 2010. (and in heritage buildings to boot – Earl’s Court Station, “beautiful escalator!”)
Change is hard.
TfL used the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics to prove that things were possible. But to put this into practice, they used a design approach to engage staff, build readiness for further change and reduce potential conflict (avert just half a day of Tube strike and the initiative would pay for itself.) Covent Garden station supervisor Pele Bapere told a powerful story about his own role in the “reachback” communications to colleagues at the station: “I’ve worked for the Underground 16 years and I’ve seen many things brought in… This was the first time they’ve gone out in a systematic way and engaged staff.” Sure enough, staff repayed that investment by highlighting priorities and changes that could be put into action quickly, such as modernising the approach to lost property.
And there were loads of other great change tips from presenters:
“Make sure you have ‘Do-ers’, not strategists” – Amanda Pujol
“Design language to some is really not helpful” – Andrea Siodmok, Cabinet Office Policy Lab
“The Gov Whisperer: not a change manager, more empathetic and focused on the needs of government” – Jess and Alex
“Intelligent challenge: Can you help us understand?” – Gavin
“Epic failure: Using empathy tools with psychopathic organisations” – Jo and Esko
The work of people-centred change frequently starts by helping those who do only a small part of the process to see the whole picture from the end-user’s point of view. Shockingly this often doesn’t happen until designers get involved. That’s what Jean Mutton did at Derby when she issued Flip cameras to new first year students – she helped the university to move from a component process review to the holistic student experience. Her team found departments tripping over each other to send letters, each of which “wanted to be the first” to welcome the student. And they developed a 40-point action plan that covered everything from signage to staff awareness.
Perhaps the most compelling story of joined up service – not just between organisations but across sectors – was the story Pele told from Covent Garden Station. With the opening of Britain’s largest Apple Store just across the road, there was an increase in the number of blind and partially sighted people coming through the station. So tube workers made an arrangement to call Apple, who now send a staff-member to meet people at ground level and escort them through the crowds.
Now shift from actual, physical underground railway platforms to the digital metaphor of the moment, “government as a platform”. Imagine, as Louise is starting to, how we could work when it is easier and quicker to make better, more user-focused public services: “When services are easier to make we’ll probably have more of them, not less.” But they’ll be “made of the internet”, “small pieces loosely joined”. Rather than having one monolithic piece of the benefit system, we can create a customised user journey that meets people’s individual needs. The potential is massive, but we’ll have to up our game. We’ll need a new clarity of thinking, not just “if we can’t fix it with a form, we create a portal.”
Needs are diverse, complex and quirky.
TfL’s Pele: “This is not Singapore, this is not New York, this in London, we’re quirky.”
Here’s a “best of discovering user needs” compilation I jotted down at the conference:
A GP decided to go through the front door of his surgery as if a customer – and re-worked his reception area based on what he learned – Amanda
Some prisoners have complex love lives – the prison visit booking system can end up being the forum where their rivalries play out – Gavin
If the admissions department puts its address on letters, that’s where students will show up on their first day – not the campus 20 miles away – Jean
There’s a new digital divide – between people online with basic skills and the “next gen” users for whom internet is interwoven with life – Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council
Look for the verbs: “Bad services are nouns, good service are verbs.” – Louise
Everyone has tools, but prototyping is where it’s at.
I lost count of the number of toolkits, frameworks, canvases, cards, and variations on a process that showed up during the conference. (Top marks to Satori Labs for their “double diamond with knobs on”.) And there seemed to be general agreement that toolkits have their place.
But meeting up on the Thursday evening with a fifth column of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam hosts from around the world, I was reminded that for all the analysis we need to keep public service design real.
So it was great to hear references to prototyping – including one reportedly by Home Secretary Theresa May. Andrea: “If in a year people are talking about prototyping and they weren’t before, we’ve made an impact.”
In British Columbia, Alex runs a Public Services Dragon’s Den with a budget for creating prototypes and pilots
In Teignbridge, the bubble-wrapped reception was one of three alternatives tested for real in GP’s waiting rooms before settling on a single direction to raise older people’s awareness of trip and fall risks
Smeared and splattered iPhone screens made it bleeding obvious to the SH:24 team that video wasn’t the best way of showing people how to give a blood sample.
For context, Joel writes about “working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. ”
He floats the idea of a Target Customer Experience as counterpoint to that change management staple, the Target Operating Model.
I’ve had recent experience with a “TOM”, attempting to intercept with an agile, digital project. It left me puzzled, and I’m grateful to Joel’s post for helping me clarify my unease.
In case you haven’t come across one before, the TOM is a Thing in the world of “change management,” defined on Wikipedia as:
a description of the desired state of the operations of a business. Typically a TOM also includes the roadmap over time that specifies what the company needs to do to move from the “as is” to the “to be”.
As an aside on his nascent agile project, Joel writes about the toll it takes on participants:
someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.
… which immediately set me thinking that if people are using “agile” to mean doing the same process only faster, even at the risk of burning out their people, then they’re Doing It Wrong.
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
And that’s when I realised the real challenge to peddlers of TOMs and the like: agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B – it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement.
Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.
They are in touch with their actual customer experience (not just some brand fantasy). This is the dirty secret of much Target Operating Model work. A warts-and-all “as is” picture is far more valuable than any amount of “to be” prognostication – but even if that’s what executives secretly wish for, no consultant can afford to say out loud “I’ll tell you the time if you show me your watch”. Sadly the picture TOM processes do generate is often missing empathy, the key ingredient that spurs the organisation’s people on to make things better for their customers.
They truly understand their operating model (clue: it won’t look like a flow chart). Organisations are nothing more than systems made of, and by, people. They’re complex social constructs that operate on emotional as well as financial planes. This is what agile understands when it says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. To map an organisation by decomposition is to follow in the footsteps of the early Cartesians, dissecting a dog to prove it has no soul.
They have the capacity to make very frequent adaptations in response to their ever-growing understanding of customer needs. Being able to respond quickly to what you learn beats any amount of predicting and planning. Embracing diversity means pushing decision-making to the frontline. This in turn reduces the waste inherent in standardised processes. Let’s cultivate this as a core competency of every organisation. If we never get stuck in a rut, we’ll never require a “change programme” to jolt us out again – and that should come as a relief to all concerned.
All of this poses problems to an organisation addicted to discontinuous change. We’ll have to break down the Berlin Wall between the bits of an organisation that create “strategy” and the bits that do “operations”. Likely, product development can no longer be capitalised, so the balance sheet might appear worse before it gets better.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only sane way to run an organisation.
Learning by doing: it’s the Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™
2015 promises change in the way that Leeds, Yorkshire and England’s north are governed. Not before time, decision-making and funding are to be brought closer to us, to the cities and localities where we live, learn, play and work. This new settlement will arrive at a time when cities and governments everywhere are challenged to design and deliver service differently. It also comes just as, in Marc Andreessen’s words, software is eating the world.
Over my Christmas break I’ve been thinking about the malleability and abundance of software; what this looks like at the scale of a 200-year-old post-industrial city; and how it should shape the ways we decide and deliver things together. This is the first half of a 2-part ramble. Part 2 (still an outline in my drafts folder) will probably look at the structuring principles of the internet and the web, and how we might apply them at city scale. But before I can get to that story, I want to tell you this one: three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software…
1. The clue is in the name
The first thing to know about software is… it’s soft: the opposite of hardware, malleable, endlessly changeful. When we shift the dominant logic of a thing from the hard layers to the soft we open it up to unpredictable new uses and reuses. We move from a world where things must be finished before use to a swirl of beta versions, A/B tests and updates on the fly.
Google repurposes links between pages as votes to rank websites’ authority, and in so doing grows a multi-billion dollar business based on an algorithm tweaked constantly to stay a step ahead of the SEO industry it has spawned.
The half-finished world of Minecraft is released missing its game mechanics and becomes a sandbox for the imaginations of millions of children.
Strangers collaborate to make Wikipedia at a pace of 10 edits per second across 4.6 million articles in the English version alone.
Massive though these software-driven behemoths may seem, they exist only as long as people choose to interact with them: the moment they stop moving, they begin to wither away. Remember Friends Reunited? Microsoft Encarta? The Yahoo Directory? Software facilitates the delivery of service in the moment, with value created at the point of use. It does not produce assets that can be hoarded in a warehouse or on a balance sheet.
This service-dominant logic of software poses a special challenge to the traditional imaginings of the world’s first industrial cities, synonymous as they are with unprecedented accumulation of hard, fixed capital. Here, the newly rich industrialists staked their claims on history’s grand sweep with facades designed to endure for centuries. Victorian navvies raised 18 million red bricks high above the River Aire so that 21st Century trains could rumble right into Leeds city centre. Little wonder that when today’s businesspeople and politicians want to symbolise a northern revival they reach first for the nostalgia of industrial museums and commitments to big infrastructure projects. This is, however, a misdirection that we need to avoid.
I’m a sucker for steam engines, but there are other stories that we should surface if we are to make sense of the era of software. The history of city after city is that people settled first, and shaped the infrastructure around them afterwards. And while they were waiting for the mod cons to arrive, they had to figure out how to get along together, how to raise the next generation, how to look after the old, sick and poor. To organise service for so many people demanded new forms of social software. The first mutual societies, trade unions, public health boards, and even modern local government arose first in cities like Leeds. Keep hold of those stories. Seek out more of them.
Surrounded by very concrete ruins, we overlook the intangible skills and habits of service that remain intact here. Let no one tell us that service is a new concept for the formerly industrial cities – it’s what we were doing all along. Renewing our cities in the 21st century should be more about these things – the soft, changeful ones – than about hard, physical infrastructure projects.
2. There’s a lot of it about
The second thing about software is abundance. It is infinitely copiable, an embodiment of human knowledge. The more it is shared, the greater its utility. Every day, more is added to the store of freely available code. When the team behind GOV.UK released their code on Github they enabled the people of New Zealand to re-use it for their government website, at no cost to British taxpayers. Indeed we Brits may even benefit further, if the New Zealanders improve on our code and share it back with the world.
Not only is software plentiful, but so, increasingly, are the skills needed to create and use it. In Leeds alone there are thousands of people working in-house with organisations and across digital agencies and service providers. Our universities and colleges train hundreds of students in software disciplines. Moreover, in almost every office there are people without this formal training who can wrangle a spreadsheet or paste in some HTML formatting. There are people who go home from day jobs which have nothing to do with software and spend their evenings running websites for their football clubs or churches.
This is how platforms are made in the age of software, not by fiat of a central authority but emergently with layer built upon layer in response to the needs of users and the growing capabilities of makers. As platforms build they can raise everyone up to levels of attainment previously only available to a privileged few. They don’t so much lower the barriers to entry as help us to scramble over them – by wrapping up what used to be hard in easy-to-use packages.
Freeserve pioneered a pay as you go model that made dial-up internet accessible to millions of Britons.
Blogger, Typepad and WordPress made everyone a writer on the web.
Ebay and Paypal made everyone a seller who could accept card payments.
Satnav endowed everyone with the knowledge of a London cabbie.
Software in all its abundance can and should be made accessible to all in our city, without mystery – but this is not something that happens by default. There are players in the software world who don’t want you to know about abundance. They seek excess profits in the gaps where people haven’t yet cottoned on that something formerly hard and expensive has now been rendered easy and cheap. Before you know it, a major systems integrator is charging the government £30,000 to change a logo on a webpage.
At the height of the early noughties DotCom boom, I knew the game was almost up when I met a consultant whose business card proudly declared “Because It Really Is Rocket Science”. It wasn’t even then. It certainly isn’t now. As cities, we should demand platforms that raise the knowledge, confidence and capability of all our citizens, without leaving us in hock to snake oil salespeople.
3. Don’t ask if it will scale
“Yes, but will it scale?” is a common challenge when evaluating the commercial potential of a new service. I’ve come to believe this is the wrong question. Focusing too soon on scale leads us down the road of the lowest common denominator. In my private sector career I’ve seen multinational companies blow millions of euros and lose market share because of global “solutions” that were wholly inappropriate to the realities of business on the ground. I’ve seen the error compounded by bending good local services out of shape to spare the embarrassment of the people who specified the wrong things from the centre.
The so-called economies of scale claimed for big IT solutions turn out to be largely illusory. Their business cases begin with wrong-headed, goods-dominant accounting copied from the world of manufacturing, where buying stuff in bulk really can be cheaper. Wishful thinking by people remote from the frontline carries these projects forward unchallenged. But by the time complex shared services have been tailored to the needs of the people and teams who use them, they can actually increase costs substantially.
This is an important point to understand when thinking about efficiency at different levels of government. We should be suspicious of those who tell us that devolution will lead to duplication between cities. Given that software is cheap and abundant, duplication is the least of our worries. In fact, two neighbouring cities doing things in slightly different ways would present a wonderful way to learn what works in each context. We should resist pressure to merge IT services between neighbouring authorities – that would dilute quality as well as blur democratic accountability.
Instead of asking “will it scale”, ask a better question: “Does it gracefully handle massive diversity?” The old paper form to claim Carer’s Allowance handled the massive diversity of people’s caring needs and relationships, but it did so gracelessly – by asking many questions not relevant to all carers. By doing user research, and diving into the detail of the application process, the digital exemplar team were able to remove 170 questions from the application process and structure the service so that users are only asked things relevant to them.
This is not to say that scale doesn’t matter. Rather, understanding diversity is the better starting point. The diversity question accommodates scaling; the scaling question tramples all over diversity.
Our cities are havens of diversity (not that you’d know it from the white, male, middle-aged-dominated board of our local enterprise partnership). The only way to understand and serve diversity is to go and see the users, learn what really matters to them and start to meet their needs. The good news: with software eating the world, with its inherent malleability and abundance, there’s never been a better time to get out of the bubble and do just that.