First report – and first test – of the PBA

8 09 2010

We shall soon see who is more powerful in this country, the elected government or the civil service.

The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age today publishes its first detailed report on one way we can get better-for-less. This has been put together by some of the UK’s best thinkers on the subject, led by Liam Maxwell, IT specialist and Councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. It presents examples of where their approach has succeeded and a clear plan – a playbook – for implementation. But will government actually be able to put this into action, or will it be blocked?

The report – ‘Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings’  (iBook here)- investigates the quagmire of government IT.

The British government currently spends somewhere between £16 billion and £23 billion on IT every year. The astonishing lack of clarity over expenditure is symptomatic of appalling failures in IT strategy, procurement, and process. This cannot be allowed to continue, especially during a time of spending cuts in frontline services. The annual cost dwarfs some government departments. It is three times the amount we spend on the army, more than the Department for Transport. Worse, it has been designed badly and, unfortunately this time, the process has been built to last. The problems come from ineffective procurement – much of which is waste.

Each year about the same amount of money is spent on the procurement process (the jumping through hoops to secure contracts) as is used to run the Foreign Office. Savings just in the procurement process – without even counting the savings from better IT –  could finance the entire Sure Start programme, they could fund 50% more school building. And even when the form-filling is done only 30% of projects work. Indeed government productivity has actually declined since IT was introduced. At a time when dynamic change is required –  to reduce cost and deliver better services – one of the principle barriers to that change has become government IT.

Liam and his co-authors are dedicated to bringing government into the information age, and have looked in detail about what should be done to deliver government IT more effectively, and at a much lower cost to taxpayers. The paper spells out exactly how government can deliver a better service for less money – a very different proposition to proposing mere ‘cuts’, where less money means poorer service.

The full report is available at http://pbage.org, directly here and as an ibook here.

We would really appreciate any comments from anybody who reads the paper: one of the central tenets of the post-bureaucratic age is that knowledge and skills exist within informal networks, not just companies and departments. We recognise this and encourage anyone to comment below, regardless of their political affiliations.

Stephan Shakespeare

Note: Stephan Shakespeare chairs an informal network of people who are interested in the development of policy towards a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and has written about what this means  here and here

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Thoughts from our lunch with Clay Shirky

26 03 2010

Just back from a splendid nPBA lunch with Clay Shirky, hosted at the Taxpayers’ Alliance. A few highlights below.

Clay spoke about four aspects of the web: the personal (e.g. Lolcats); the communal (e.g. Yahoo Groups for cancer sufferers); the public (wikipedia, linux); and the civic (The Pink Chaddi Campaign against the Hindu Ram Sena).

He argued that the status of the first two groups, the personal and the communal, were least under threat. In these groups, the value is contained within the groups that use them, and it rarely permeates out. Public and civic value are much harder to achieve, especially when they attempt (as civic value does) to challenge and then to change well-established cultural norms.

What conditions need to exist to create public or civic value?

1. A platform which is appropriate to the audience and activity. Clay used the example of the crowdsourcing platform that The Guardian ‘assembled overnight’ to allow readers to trawl through the mass of MPs’ expenses data. The Guardian owns lots of technology structured to produce a national newspaper, but the platform needed a quick and easy way to comment, leaderboards of participation, and easy reporting.

2. Rhetorical norms. Internet stories which create civic or public value are framed as stories of interest and amusement – rather than treated as victories for civil rights or ‘serious’ issues. Clay argued that these stories are not ‘one-offs’, but part of meaningful change in the world.

3. Cultural norms. Clay claimed that he realised as a teenager that while it was ‘stupid’ to do anything productive in your free time, it was totally acceptable to watch TV  for an average of 20-30 hours per week. Free time is an important resource, and the cultural notion that is acceptable or even preferable to passively consume television as your main activity still stands as a blockade in the way of creating civic value.

A New Angle on Transparency and Open Data

Clay offered a couple of iconoclastic caveats about transparency in government. He cited the example of the ‘Sunshine Laws’ enacted after Nixon’s resignation. One of the unintended consequences of the laws was to cause the lobbying industry to mushroom. In the days of obscurity, politicians could take lobbyists’ money from all sides, and then claim that they had voted however they liked. When their votes were made a matter of public business, the lobbyists could check their ROI in an instant.

Another problem Clay identified was that of the use of open government data. He claimed that the technical problems of opening government datasets were easily surmountable, but that understanding and ‘creating stories’ out of the data was neither easy nor guaranteed. There is also the issue of scale in collaboration. Small-scale projects need as much collaboration as possible, whereas large projects often need ways to limit collaboration. The example used was of the ‘average’ wikipedia editor who only makes one edit, and does not want to become burdened by the system.

Recognizing Temporary Power

Clay also argued that the state will struggle to harness the utility of local collaborations, until it finds a means of recognizing that power has both a geographical and a temporal locality. Groups will come together to solve an issue, then disperse. The Coalition for a Passengers’ Bill of Rights in the US is a prime example.

These groups present some new challenges to government. First, they will not accept compromise in the manner that other stakeholders will. They exist to get a result, and their temporal status means that they cannot be placated by promises of future rewards and have little incentive to compromise.

The Role of Women

Clay proposed that involving women in both the design and implementation phases of projects is an important way of facilitating successful participation, both at a local community level and in large bureaucracies.

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)





Briefing note for Conference 1

23 02 2010

Why move beyond the bureaucratic age?

The past few decades may come to be seen as the testing to destruction of the centralised state. As the likes of Simon Jenkins have chronicled, power began to gather at the centre under the Thatcher government, and continued to do so under Labour. Much of this was well-intentioned: ministers were trying to push through economic reform against the bitterest resistance, or ensure that massive new public spending would lead to better services. But the Leviathan’s limitations are increasingly obvious:

  • The public services that citizens rely on (and pay for) are often unresponsive to their needs.
  • At the same time, the choice, openness and speed-of-access available in other areas has changed popular norms and expectations. People are less inclined to be grateful for whatever they’re given.
  • The fiscal crisis means there is no more money for public services. Improvements must come through reform, not added investment.
  • The anti-politics Zeitgeist, which was already discernable before last year’s expenses scandal, has diminished trust in the state. People are less willing than ever to defer to the judgement of politicians.
  • Individual responsibility and social capital have been crowded out by the expansion of the state.

The emergence of post-bureaucracy

Part of the answer to these problems lies in devolving power from central to local government, something all the major political parties are notionally keen to do. Britain, after all, is perhaps the most centralised polity in the democratic world. But a more profound change may be achieved by relinquishing various kinds of power – such as access to data or control over public money – from government at any level to individuals and communities. Such ideas have come to be known as post-bureaucratic.

In the pre-bureaucratic age, before the emergence of mass communications, power was held locally. The central state simply lacked the means to reach into distant communities. The invention of the telegraph helped to bring about the bureaucratic age, when power shifted to the centre. Government no longer merely fought wars and set strategic directions, but began to command and control broad aspects of daily life. The genesis of the post-bureaucratic age lies in another technological leap forward: the internet. Society has moved from no mass communications to centralised mass communications to decentralised mass communications. Citizens can access information once limited to a centralised political class, and enjoy a power to publish that was once confined to an equally centralised media.

However, the success of the PBA ultimately depends on the use of technology, not on technology itself. That is why the NPBA includes thinkers, entrepreneurs (of the social as well as commercial variety), journalists, campaigners and public-sector workers, as well as people with a technological expertise.

What PBA can do: More for less

Reviving social capital that has been crowded out by the state is perhaps the loftiest aim of post-bureaucracy. The bonds of trust and contact between people may grow if they collaborate to shape government, rather than just passively receive its services. For example, residents could get together to vote on exactly how public money is spent in their neighbourhood.

But the political reality of the moment is that any big idea must be judged ultimately by how it helps to ease the fiscal crisis. In the coming years, public services will only be improved through reform, not through extra investment. It is here that the PBA comes into its own.

Transparency by itself can eliminate waste. Last summer, Windsor and Maidenhead council began publishing real-time information on the internet about the energy consumption rates of some of their buildings. Local people could see how much energy was being used in the town hall or their nearest leisure centre. Energy bills in those buildings have since fallen by 15%.  The mere knowledge that they were being monitored was enough to get council workers to switch off unnecessary lighting and unused computers.

Transparency can also save money in less direct ways. Take procurement. At the moment, the government contracts with a handful of large companies to provide certain services. Small businesses, which may be more efficient, are locked out by the opacity of the tendering process. If, however, the full details of all government contracts were published online, entrepreneurs could examine them item-by-item to see whether they could undercut the established contractors. The potential for savings is enormous. If the government shaved just 5% from the cost of its procurement contracts, £7 billion would be saved every year. And few doubt that the savings are there to be made. Steria, a French company that contracts with government, says the operating margin it makes on its contracts with the British government is almost double that on its French contracts.

What PBA needs: Data, data, data

Post-bureaucratic success stories all comprise three chapters. First, data that was once withheld by the government is made available to all. Then, members of the public (including individuals, businesses and media organisations) seize upon it, sometimes adapting it to their own needs and using it to get actively involved in that particular area of government. Finally, the service in question is improved, either through innovative solutions provided by the newly informed citizens, or through better behaviour by the newly scrutinised public-sector workers. In short, information leads to participation, which leads to change.

The Parliamentary expenses scandal was, in a sense, a ‘beta’ version of this model. Data that had been assiduously guarded by the Commons authorities was finally released (albeit through a leak rather than a voluntary decision). Newspapers went through the thousands of pages of receipts and showcased the most egregious offences in presentable form. And the behaviour of MPs has, it is probably safe to assume, changed forever as a result, regardless of what new rules are adopted by the Commons. The mere fact of a watchful and angry public has ensured that much.

The foundation of all post-bureaucratic policies is, therefore, open data. Without it, the process cannot even get started. With it, not much more is required of the state. The NPBA is ultimately a campaign for see-through government.

The difference between data and information is critical. Data in its raw form can be ‘mashed’, ‘crunched’ and generally played around with by entrepreneurial citizens to produce useful online applications for other citizens. The release of official data by Kevin Rudd’s Australian government has led to lots of open-sourced applications, including crime maps and a website showing up-to-date information about faults in roads and other public infrastructure called “It’s Buggered, Mate”. In San Francisco – a locality hardly bereft of programming talent, admittedly – the release of official data sets has spawned applications offering directions based on real-time traffic information and a map that allows residents to check for drug offences that take place near schools. Closer to home, the likes of mysociety.org have turned data into applications such as fixmystreet and faxyourmp.

The lesson of all this creativity is that the government may not have to do much to foster post-bureaucracy beyond taking the strategic decision to release data. The resourcefulness of the public (or at least, motivated sections of the public) will take over. As some politicians and civil servants concede, it is often the state’s own interests to be open with its data. The government’s attempts to package and present information arouse suspicion, as the collapse of public trust in official statistics has shown. It also costs money and time. Above all, solutions to stubborn policy problems that are confounding politicians and civil servants can be ‘crowd-sourced’ from outside. ExpertLabs, an American non-profit, builds tools that allow government to tap into communities with specialist knowledge.

Indeed, these self-interested reasons may be why the campaign for open data enjoys a political tailwind, particularly strong in the English-speaking world. Barack Obama has signed an open-government directive. The governments of Australia and New Zealand have released lots of machine-readable official date. In Britain, the Labour government began publishing reams of data last year (and launched data.gov.uk last month) and the Conservatives have pledged to go further, promising to release all government contracts worth over £25,000.

Still, the NPBA should work towards a more radical ‘right to know’ than currently exists at national level in any country.  Britain’s Freedom of Information Act has given ordinary people greater access to official information, but it remains a half-hearted and essentially bureaucratic stab at openness. Citizens must apply to see specific bits of information (not, it should be noted, the raw data from which it has been derived) and wait patiently for a response. There are few consequences future for public-sector bodies that prove uncooperative.

A truly post-bureaucratic alternative may be to publish online all raw data produced with taxpayers’ money, apart from that which impinges on national security, personal privacy and other sensitive areas. This could be enshrined in a Freedom of Data Act. Citizens would no longer have to make a request; they would own all that they have paid for, and could access it online. Withholding data would be an act of theft.

The purpose of the NPBA conference

The weakness of PBA is its newness. As yet, practical examples of post-bureaucratic policies are few, minor, and spread throughout the world. We know what stronger local government would look like. We cannot say the same of post-bureaucratic government. The purpose of this conference is, in part, to give greater definition to the fuzziness of PBA – to furnish what is currently a compelling philosophy with practical policies. Questions for the sessions to answer include:

What should be the relationship of citizens, government, and business?

What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to improve public services?

How will PBA save money?

What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to encourage civic and political engagement?

How can people be helped to use the new power they will be given? Is it a matter of ‘training’ citizens, or should government simply let go?

Exactly how will government data be made open to the public? What kind of new legislation, if any, will be needed?

Where should transparency not be introduced? For example, should the advice given to ministers by civil servants be made public?

Please see the programme below for the organisation of sessions, which are intended to move from broader themes to implementation.

What is this Network?

In the ideal stage of the Post-Bureaucratic Age there is no ‘inside government’ and ‘outside government’ – everyone helps to govern. In his opening presentation to the conference, Bill Eggers says that building and managing these networks should become a core competency of government. This may be the future of government: creating structures that make use of the talent, experience and effort in the population. But can government actually do this? Or does it happen some other way – from the bottom up?

We think we should be pushing for the most radical versions of the ideas (while also understanding the practical first-step applications). So rather than call for more publishing of government-owned data-sets, we say citizens already own all data produced by government and that keeping it inaccessible is a form of theft. Where some say the government should reach out to the people, we say the people should just walk in. We want windows opened and doors removed. See-through government, walk-in government.

Among us attending this first conference of the NPBA are many related networks – of citizens, government, academia, business, media, and politics. The NPBA will be a network of these networks, to support, critique, oppose, and cajole those who occupy the formal seats of government.

Take part by emailing network@PBAge.org. And if you can, help us build the website PBAge.org into a major resource and platform for sharing ideas.

Our next event is a lunch meeting on the 26th March with Clay Shirky, author of ‘Here Comes Everybody’, and our next conference is scheduled for June 14th.

By Janan Ganesh and Stephan Shakespeare





22 Feb – The Conference for the Post-Bureaucratic Age

9 02 2010

Hi,

I’m writing to invite you to the conference launching the Network for the Post Bureaucratic Age.

It explores current trends in social, political and technological change, and what this means for a new government. We have an array of first-class speakers and panelists, including David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, Martha Lane Fox, the government’s digital inclusion champion, together with entrepreneurs and innovators from business, media, public services, campaigning, and government.

This isn’t just a showcase of new thinking, but includes active drafting of an innovations agenda and benchmarks for the next government (be it Labour or Conservative). It will seek to make progress towards a Freedom of Data Act. It launches a Network – conceived as a post-bureaucratic think tank working online and through events – to take these ideas forward. There will be a pre-conference briefing paper for participants from myself and Janan Ganesh (of The Economist).

If you would like to attend, please respond to RSVPtoPBA@yahoo.com

Spaces are strictly limited to please respond early.

Hope to get your involvement! All the best, Stephan

Event:                     Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age

Date & Time:         9am to 6pm, Monday 22nd February 2010

Purpose:                To set the agenda and benchmarks for a Post-Bureaucratic Government

Schedule:

9:00-10.00 Registration

10:00-10.15 Welcome and Introduction (Stephan Shakespeare, YouGov)

10.15-10:45 Keynote Address by The Rt Hon David Cameron MP

10-45-11:15 Coffee & Networking

11:15-12:45        Session 1: will focus on the themes of social, political and technological change, and what this means for a new government

Chair, Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman & Creative Director, Ogilvy Group)

Speakers: Bill Eggers (author of “If We Can Put A Man On The Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government”; “Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy”; “Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector”; Fellow, Manhattan Institute; Global Research Director, Deloitte)

Martha Lane Fox (Government Champion for Digital Inclusion, Co-founder lastminute.com and Antigone, a charitable fund)

Edward Wray (Chairman and Co-Founder, Betfair)

Kristian Segerstrale (CEO and Co-Founder, Playfish, Co-Founder Glu Mobile)

Sarah Beeny (Founder and CEO, MySingleFriend.com & Tepilo.com)

Eric Baker (Founder and CEO Viagogo)

Peter Bazalgette (TV Producer, Digital Investor, Chairman Sony Music TV)

William Heath (Founder MyDex, Ctrl-Shift, IdealGov blog)

12.45-1.45 Lunch & Networking

1.45-3:15                              Session 2: Post-Bureaucratic Government and the ‘More-For-Less’ agenda: how we drive innovation through the public sector

Chair, Neil O’Brien (Director, PolicyExchange)

Speakers: Skip Stitt (former Senior Deputy Mayor and Chief Operating Officer for the City of Indianapolis; COO of ACS Inc, Washington DC)

Liam Maxwell (Cabinet Member for Performance, Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Leading the Transparency Initiative and street-level Participatory Budget process)

Professor Mark McGurk (Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital Trust)

Toby Young (author of “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”, now creating a new type of ‘free’ school where access to a good education is not based on income)

Jonathan Kestenbaum (CEO, NESTA)

Adrian Ringrose, (Chief Executive of Interserve Plc, Chairman of the CBI’s Public Services Strategy Board)

Martin Brookes (Chief Executive, New Philanthropy Capital)

3.15-3.45 Coffee & Networking

3.45-5:15                              Session 3: Setting the Agenda and Benchmarks for a Post-Bureaucratic Government; towards a Freedom of Data Act

Chair, Stephan Shakespeare (YouGov)

Speakers: Heather Brooke (author and freedom-of-information activist who led the movement for the full disclosure of MP expenses)

Tom Steinberg (Founder of MySociety, TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow)

Matthew Elliot (founder, TaxPayer’s Alliance)

Peter Kellner (President, YouGov)

Peter Hoskin (Spectator Magazine)

Richard Allan (Director of Policy EU, Facebook; former LibDem MP)





The Post-Bureaucratic Age and Transparency

14 01 2010

How does ‘transparency’ fit in with the notion of an emerging post-bureaucratic age?

In the pre-bureaucratic age, the central government had no use for (or even concept of) ‘transparency’. Communication was slow, information sparse and obscure, and literacy rates low. The revolutionary impact of the printing press signifies the importance of the ownership of information; the telegraph system the power of swift communication.

As the bureaucratic state emerged, the government’s monopoly on information and (to a decreasing extent) mass communication functioned successfully. The central bureaucracy was the only body capable of collecting, collating, processing, and disseminating information on the scale required to make it useful. The necessities of the electoral cycle (in Britain, at least) meant that it was impossible to keep all governmental information away from the people. Some ‘transparency’ was inevitable, even desirable, if the bureaucracy was to retain authority. However, on the whole, central bureaucracies still operated from a highly-advantageous informational and communicative position.

The internet, computer processing,  mass-communication, mobile telephony, cheap travel, advances in education have combined to exacerbate the shift away from this model at an exponentially-increasing speed. The means of collecting, managing, and publishing information, have spread to the people. The bureaucratic state’s technological advantages, its overriding authority, and, most of all, its sheer manpower, no longer confer the presumption of information ownership that it formerly did. The justification for privileged state information (an inherent problem for a number of classical liberal thinkers) is fundamentally undermined. Transparency is now fundamental to any government wishing to call itself ‘democratic’ and really mean it.





School of Everything teams up with BIS

11 01 2010

The excellent School of Everything have just announced that they are teaming up with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in what looks like a huge coup for the startup. The new arrangement, will provide financial support to allow the School of Everything to offer the following:

  • You’ll be able to find free or low-cost venues to run classes or meet up with other people to learn stuff
  • You’ll be able to upload and find more resources related to the subjects you’re interested in (videos, documents, images… all that kind of thing)
  • You’ll be able to find courses near you as well as individual lessons and teachers for particular subjects
  • You’ll also be able to embed School of Everything search widgets on other websites

Partners in Learning

The School of Everything submitted a proposal to BIS to become its partner to implement its ‘learning revolution’ initiative, published in a White Paper last year. The government’s reason for choosing the School for Everything as a partner is interesting:

“School of Everything has already proved itself as a platform so we don’t need to start from scratch. It already has hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month and this is now set to get much bigger. It uses web 2.0 social tools, has access to the open source development community and will bring a simple, easy to use solution for everyone which is what The Learning Revolution is all about. At Becta we talk about Next Generation Learning – this is an excellent example of what you can do with technology to make a really big impact for learners.”

The long arm of the Prince of Darkness?

These reasons are all perfectly valid, but such moves do provide a headache for David Cameron. It is no surprise that BIS is Mandy’s own department. Could Labour be trying to eclipse the Tories as the champions of the PBA? It would be an ingenious strategy in some respects – say Cameron offered nothing concrete versus Labour achievements (data.gov.uk will be launched soon as well). It would leave the Tories lacking a distinct, positive agenda, and might force Cameron to drop the PBA as a campaign priority.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)





Labour and the Lib Dems underestimate Cameron’s commitment to the PBA at their peril

4 01 2010

Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Culture Secretary has announced that, if they are elected, the Conservatives will offer a £1,000,000 prize for a person or team who “harnesses the wisdom of the crowd” by producing an online platform to solve “common problems”.

£1,000,000 is a large amount of money, but perhaps more significantly, it is going to be funded by the taxpayer. In a flash, it seems that crowdsourcing has moved from a ‘neat idea’ lauded in Palo Alto to a potential building-block of government policy.

Hunt’s argument in support of the policy was robust and convincing:

“Conservatives believe that the collective wisdom of the British people is much greater than that of a bunch of politicians or so-called experts. And new technology now allows us to harness that wisdom like never before. So at this time of year, when families and friends are getting together, we’re announcing a new idea to help the British people get together to help solve the problems that matter to them.”

We saw something similar from David Cameron in his speech yesterday:

“We will create incentives and use the best technology to encourage and enable people to come together, solve their problems together, make this society stronger together. As we do this we will redistribute power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street. Within months of a Conservative victory there would start the most radical decentralisation of power this country has seen for generations.”

The Tories appear serious about making themselves the post-bureaucratic party, and the adoption of a high-profile, well-funded crowdsourcing initiative is to be welcomed.

The Labour and Lib Dem Responses

The Lib Dem spokesperson was dismissive of the idea (and one senses rather missed its significance):

“This prize is clearly a publicity stunt and a total waste of taxpayers’ money. There are already a multitude of ways to communicate with large numbers of people online, from Facebook to discussion groups.”

Tessa Jowell’s response was even more hopeless:

“Families want serious, thought-through policies that meet their aspirations, not short-term public relations stunts. Labour already makes full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult with people.”

What do these people think crowdsourcing, when undertaken properly, will provide? A million pound commitment is not a public relations stunt when you have set out your stall as the party who will make necessary public spending cuts to reduce the public deficit. The Conservatives must believe in the potential for improvement that the practices and activities of the post-bureaucratic age will bring.

Conclusion

It seems clear from the Labour and Lib Dem responses that they are hoping that the PBA will not emerge as an issue, as a detailed look at Labour’s “full use of collaboration and social networking technologies to consult will people” may find them rather lacking.

It seems a sensible (and laudable) Tory strategy to attempt to push such things onto the electoral, since they are far more credible than both Labour and the Lib Dems on the issues, and it provides an opportunity to speak about something more inspirational and attractive than spending cuts and Afghanistan.

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)