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The power of the disinterested

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One of the criticisms of the 'Alphagov' project I’m most aware of is the ‘who do they think they are’ approach to the team itself. The bulk of the team were recruited from outside government so it might be that resistance will come from those who will respond to the prototype with a ‘It’s all very well for them to do that but...’

I’m perhaps most sensitive to that criticism as I do have a day job in government but am supposed to be ‘editorial lead’ and I was supposed to be the one who every now and again pops up and says things like ‘I’m not awfully sure that’s wise’. The fact that I didn’t say that very often (and never in quite that language) was partly because I popped back to the day job too often but mostly because I think ‘legacy issues’ will be a brake on progress in this.

Government digital has evolved in a manner most kindly described as ‘organic’ but even the gentlest of critics will admit that the federated nature of government web, the different content management systems, the duplication, the different approaches to the same problems and so on are confusing, expensive, and most of all unhelpful to the end user, the citizen.

A project whose stated outcome is to deliver the ‘revolution not evolution’ demanded by Martha Lane Fox could not and should not start from where government web is right now. A revolution demands fresh eyes. So the recruitment of some high class talent - developers, designers, project managers and content deliverers - has come from, mostly a different pool, from outside of government web circles. The idea is to give a blank sheet of paper (as others have said) to people who are approaching the conundrum, not the situation. The whole approach to the project was not ‘how do departments and agencies do this and how can we make it better?’ but ‘what is the problem we are trying to solve?’. And that disinterested approach (not uninterested, note, this team are a committed bunch) is the key to coming up with something that is a fresh way of doing things.

The outcome of the project will be to show how a different approach can come up with different answers. That doesn’t mean those answers and approach will be adopted wholesale. The other side of the coin of having these new faces on this process is that there are elephant traps ahead - issues that the team didn’t spot, or didn’t think are important and which, in the glare of constructive criticism will become clear. However this project goes forward, things will change and compromises will be made. The next step is to discover what those compromises might be.

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  1. Comment by william perrin posted on

    incrementalism in the civil service is at times important to ensure good custody of public money, not taking undue risks on big issues etc etc

    but few have ever squared it with innovation, let alone in fast moving areas. that's when you need to get in some people from outside the system, often in the time-honoured 'review'.

    however, after the reviewer has left the building, and gone to the palace for their gong the incumbent experts can then capture the review and reduce it's implementation to incrementalism, possibly having jumped a couple of increments. directgov suffered from being at the centre of a Venn set of many bureaucracies, making it incredibly hard to innovate. for all it's strangled prose it was often a wonder directgov got anything out at all.

    this isn't a particular criticism of the civil service (i was one for 15 years) but an established behaviour of public sector and commercial bureaucracies the world over, practically throughout time.

    alphagov seems to be breaking out of incremental improvement in implementing a review. for i expect the cost of only a couple of Directgov RFCs. the web is one of the few areas where this can be done, but it is worth studying by others who try to get reviews to stick.

    Declaration - I was once a cabinet office civil servant, worked on the 2005 transformational government strategy that cemented in directgov. My company was once funded by Tom Loosemore who is running alphagov, but i stopped being nice to him years ago.