Informed Government

Photo by W N Bishop (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I recently responded to Our Civil Service – Shaping our future together, the consultation launched in July at Civil Service Live (the consultation is now closed, but you can still read the prospectus).

Shaping our Future suggests that, if we improve the way we work, embrace new technologies and improve our culture, we can make a significant difference for people across the country. It talks of creating a “movement for change, shaped by the views of civil servants.” It is in that spirit that I’m sharing the main part of my personal response: please let me know what you think (civil servant or not). Then we can find common ground and “help build a movement for change.”

After the first couple of questions about motivations and frustrations in the Civil Service the ‘one thing’ question appeared: “What is the one big change that would improve the Civil Service as a whole?” If you’ve read previous posts or follow me on Twitter my answer is unlikely to surprise:

A conscious and sustained effort to change the culture, behaviours, processes and technologies associated with how we manage and use our knowledge, information and data.

I’ve been thinking hard about the knowledge and information parts of this and working at it for a good few years now: initially in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (see Changing the way Dstl thinks, connects and acts) and latterly when I led the Better Information for Better Government programme (see A regular job).

So I have opinions which generate ideas. Lots of them. I decided to focus on just five:

We need interoperable systems which support a ‘Web 2.0’ approach to working: truly collaborative rather than transactional exchange of emails and documents. This will build a cross-department, interconnected, non-hierarchical, network of ideas, information, knowledge and people. In Andrew McAfee’s words from Enterprise 2.0, “a collaborative platform that reflects the way work really gets done, in a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers.”

We should use the advantages available from the advance of natural language processing to automatically identify named entities. This can be applied to content (now mainly email and documents, but this will change over time) at the point of receipt or creation. This in turn enhances search and allows for the semi-automated creation of links between related work. We can create a knowledge graph that could ‘supercharge’ the Civil Service.

To make this easier and more effective we must to be willing to invest in some essential, but not very exciting, ‘plumbing’. This includes a more concerted effort to manage formal terms – recognising for example that ‘school dinners’ is an alternative to the preferred term ‘school meals’ in DfE, or that ‘LBHF’ is almost certainly a reference to The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. A properly supported service (like Registers – authoritative lists you can trust) to maintain lists of things like Local Authority names is another essential component of the ‘plumbing’.

We need to provide collaboration support services through a combination of three activities: strategic work to improve interoperability between core platforms; central support to departmental collaboration approaches (in particular nurturing new skillsets for digital collaboration: enterprise community management and network leadership); and centrally provided collaboration systems that work across government (at minimum a cross government wiki, a federated ‘people finder’ and a Civil Service / Public Sector blogging platform). These services will make it easier for civil servants to work together, find expertise and learn from each other; regardless of which department they work in.

We should develop common digital services for common tasks. This would have two advantages. It will make it easier for civil servants to do such tasks (like drafting minutes of a meeting or an answer to a PQ) if they have properly designed services that are the same across departmental boundaries. It will also start to surface the myriad useful data structures we unconsciously bury in the documents we write. This paves the way for more intelligent systems to start supporting such tasks in future.

Most of these ideas have been around for a good while. Back in January 2016 I wrote Helping Civil Servants help Citizens in response to the consultation on the UK’s Digital Strategy. I said then “It’s nearly a decade since Andrew McAfee published Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration, and longer since D. Calvin Andrus wrote The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.” Well now it’s around 15 years. Yet still, in the Civil Service, we don’t seem to ‘get it.’ There is a lot of emphasis on being smarter with data, but we still seem to think that email and documents are the pinnacle of modern working.

And it’s not as if most of these ideas haven’t been explored before in the context of Government. There’s a history of discussion and documents that goes back decades. But that’s for another post, so for now I’ll just finish this one with a nod back to two people whose writing on this topic had a big impact on me in the latter part of my time in Dstl.

The first is Mark Foden with his 2014 post Document standards and the rankling print presumption. A great read in which he observes “Our mental model for handling textual information is based on the printed paper created by a typewriter, distributed by post and kept in a folder. It got us over the introduction of personal computing but it’s time we moved on.”

Then in early 2016 Stefan Czerniawski (aka @pubstrat) produced an excellent series of four posts – still very relevant today:

Thinking on paper  – A comprehensive and broad overview of why we need to think differently about information in the digital era, as opposed to information printed on paper. The alternative is we “risk getting stuck in thinking about the new world as if it shared the weaknesses of the old.” And stuck in that way of thinking, we limit our ability to take advantage of the benefits of new technology and ways of working.

Stefan had written Thinking on Paper in the same week I’d written Helping Civil Servants help Citizens and at the end of that week we jointly ran a session at UK GovCamp 2016 with the snappy title Paper stops us working and thinking – break the paradigm and help individuals cope with information overload. Stefan’s write up, together with some valuable thoughts from other folk in response to his first post, was published in Paper cutouts.

Post three was a more focussed coda (Footnote on paper) on the nature of record keeping in the digital era, prompted (in part) by a seminar convened by The Mile End Institute on Contemporary Political History in the Digital Age.

Finally, the “fourth in a loosely linked series” was the wonderfully titled Joining the docs. This started with a reminder that “a vital reason for storing information is to be able to find it and use it – and to connect it with related information.” A short summary can’t do this post justice, but (spoiler) I’ll mention the nice reveal where Stefan reminds us that Tim Berners-Lee’s aim when he invented the web was to develop an information management system.

Joining the docs finishes with a challenging provocation:

“One of the things the experience of large information management systems has taught us is that users are intolerant of friction, that tagging and metadata are seen as burdens not as investment… As a result, a lot of thought has been given to identifying the absolute minimum users can be asked to do to make a useful contribution to the management of shared information, with the fear that any request to do more than that absolute minimum will result in nothing being done at all.

We may not be able to make that question go away completely and immediately, but perhaps we can find a better question to replace it. How might we better write text in a way which lets the information manage itself?

I have put a lot of effort in recent years into promoting the use of modern data science, in particular natural language processing and semantic mark-up, as an approach to information management and exploitation. I am convinced this is a viable route to a future whereby the information might not manage itself, but our information systems may finally manage our information for us.

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