Things I want to write about post PHD

I usually spend the first week of the New Year hibernating and this year was no different.  I like to spend the time at home doing various forms of domestic organisation and getting projects started and ready for the year.  This year I have been spending most of the time of the edits of the final version of my thesis as I seem to be nearly ready to submit it (whoop!) which I can hardly believe.  In fact I won’t until it’s done so no more of that.

As part of my mental spring cleaning I have been thinking about some of the things I want to help make happen this year and this sort of leads into thoughts about UKGovCamp  and also Councillor Camp  – both of which I’m looking forward to being in the next few weeks.  It also feeds into the prep for the Master of Networks event   I’m off to with @Demsoc and some folks from GDS later in the month.

There are four main themes that are buzzing around in my head at the moment:

  • Collaborating as the new normal – not just when its easy:  I touched on this with the post I wrote before Christmas (Networks and Culture Change) but I want to spend some energy thinking about how both internal and external collaboration can work better.  Part of this is the old chestnut of breaking down silos – but I think we need to understand this in terms of dismantling and amending mental models and changing people’s relationships with their colleagues – not just blowing up the storm shelter.  We also need to think of this in terms of mutual respect.  If we are moving to an asset based model for community engagement then we need to do the same with colleagues and respect what people do know rather than criticising them from the POV of our own expertise – we need to be open.  Is also involves having the ability to be both single minded at the same time as being authentically open and inclusive.  Tricky.
  • Being clear that we do expect our politicians to be effective online:  I also want to spend time developing the work we are doing in the east of England researching what a networked councillor might look like and how we can better support them.  It ties in with the councillor camp event next week but also with the work we have been doing on PCCs (I’m off to catch up with some of the new PCCs in the next couple of months so I will report back!).  I think we have to be more demanding of our democratic relationships but that means supporting them more effectively.
  • Using networks to effect behaviour change:  I am fascinated by the work we are doing with Leicestershire Police and others to look at how we move social media from a communication to a more operational basis within the force and I can’t wait to get into some of the ideas that we came up with the workshop before Christmas and also to see how these might translate for other parts of government.  Once you have started to use network effects then looking at their ability to influence behaviour is the next step as long as we remember that that influence has to be two way – we have to be open to being influenced.
  • Digital as culture change: These all link to a bigger theme which is the framing of the digital channel shift as a cultural rather than simply a technological one.  We’ve just started a couple of projects which I think get right to the heart of this so more on that later this month.

Digital Civic Spaces

I’m really excited about the fact that we have been making huge progress with Citizenscape over the last few months and we have some exciting things planned to push this further.  I also want to circulate my research findings around Digital Civic Spaces a bit more (now they are finished!) and start to connect this to some of the conversations we see happening about Smart Cities – I want to make sure we are building a social element into this thinking.  And more generally research wise – once I actually push the submit button and start stressing about my viva – I want to look at two different areas.  One is to pick up on some of the thinking about digital identity and to poke how ‘fit for purpose’ some of the thinking/doing is when we consider democratic not just transactional needs.  Happily we are part of an EU research project on this so lots of opportunity to get into this.  Secondly I want to expand some of the network theory work I have started in the thesis and see if it can be operationalised more systematically   This connects both to the @Leicspolice work but also to the Master of Networks event where we are going to be looking at how you model content ingress from multiple civic sources.
So – interested in hearing if other people think these themes resonate with them as well – and also if anyone thinks these look like a #ukgov13 session – or not!

Happy New Year folks

PS  Re-reading this is seems like a set of New Year’s Resolutions – we’ll have to see how that goes!

I’ve been mentally hibernating for the last couple of weeks after some rather robust feedback from my supervisor on the latest draft of my thesis which means that I have some large rewrites to do – this post is an action research note reflecting on some of these rewrites. As I have been thinking about the implications of this work, as often happens, a couple of the things I have been doing this week have come together to help me answer the question. The first of these was taking part on “a curated conversation” organised by Fred Garnett and held at BIS – talking about social innovation and the network society. The second was a research workshop with a group of Inspectors and others at Susssex Police which was intended to help shape the next phase of the virtual policing work which I will write up properly next week (I hope).

With both of these my interest was focused on how you manage the points of tension and connection between new networked and agile behvaiours and traditional hierarchial and more process driven organisations. Within the thesis I have been perhaps too focused on showing that there is no real point of connection between new digital civic spaces and the representative democratic function. My belief in this lack of connection has made me rather didactic on the subject and has stopped me looking at where there is the potential for the blurring and shifting of these boundaries and has also meant that I have not really engaged with the wider debate about some of these issues (am fairly sure my supervisor thinks I write like a rampant egomanic). So humble pie digested and redraft underway but I wanted to capture some of these connections and tensions here as a response to the weeks activity – and yes it is still a bit of a polemic but I promise its cleaned up before it goes in the thesis…..

I have an underlying belief, and often unstated, belief that there is need to look at how we transition large organisations within the public sector towards a more networked state and that this transition does need happen in the form of positive distuption within these organisations as much as in the form of of external pressure to change. This involve compromise and an evolution towards a goal rather than a ‘big bang’ solution.

One of the reasons why I argue for greater use of both Agile and Experimental methods (as discussed by Gerry Stoker) to explore new policies and process as well as to build technology is that these allow us to describe our destination without having to also define the whole journey plan. The Virtual Policing work is a good example of this – we know that we want to see social media embedded in a useful operational role within neighbourhood policing teams but we are open with respect to exactly what ‘useful’ means in this context and it is one of the objectives of the next phase of the project to try and describe this usefulness with respect to the current processes within the teams. These will almost certainly need to evolve these processes to accomodate the effects of wider engagement using the social web but its clearly impossible to consider greater operational use of social media in operational policing without referencing the processes and outcomes that form the core of neighbourhood policing today. We will use disruptive change where necessary but experiment based policy making is also a valid way of moving forward.

The work with the Police, but also the curated conversation at BIS, is partly about trying to address the difficulty of reconciling the idea of hierarchy with the network society. Networks don’t have hierarchies (though they do have power) and the behaviors that are rewarded are different from the behaviours which we currently associate with authority. Leaders in hierarchial organisations are going to hang on to those sources of power and if we want to make systemic change then we perhaps need to start exploring with senior staff how they become more networked themselves in order to help them encourage that behaviour in their own organisations.

Emphasising the role of mavericks and disruptors is useful but only if they can set up a creative rather than distructive tension with the current power structures – because lets face it as this point no government organisations is in a state which means it will be overwhelmed by a networked change – the State is still too rooted in hierarchy and we are not yet in a place of such disatisfaction as a society that we have the will to overwhelm it. However I am consistently and increasingly coming across individuals within the Public Sector who are discovering the power that is latent within their networks and deciding to exploit this rather than relying on the usual decision making process – but we don’t yet know how to make this systemic as opposed to exceptional behaviour.

Part of this discussion is practical – we just don’t understand how we can deliberately create large projects in a networked way – how we both create a singular vision and also deliver this vision in a networked when we know that this vision has been created outside of the network. This links very much to the thoughts on networked leadership and the need for a persistent conversatation around vision that I posted here.

I am a pragmatist and looking at changing the process by which we manage these projects – with adopting agile or experimental approaches – is one way in which we can start to address this need to create and manage more networked projects and learn about creating projects which can flourish within a network without losing their coherence.

We also need to appreciate that there is the difference between the social web and the network society and start to discuss behaviours and not technologies. I am all for trying out Yammer but lets start to examine the friction it creates with traditional structures within a large organisation and start to learn from this.

Much of the difficulty of creating a public service that is fit for purpose in the network society is actually deep rooted in some of the underlying design assumptions that live within public service. Perhaps the most important one of these to address is, in my view, the need to create a default position of ‘open’ within all organisations at the same time as creating an appetitie for evidence based decision making that demands a higher standard of information and scrutiny than is currently the case. How many of us have worked on pilots which become policy just because we need to bank a ‘success’ rather than learn from evidence?

Greater openness and ‘publicness’ is a natural state for the network society which is as Castell’s describes it a ‘space of flows’ where information is the currency that creates and binds networks. Boyd’s depiction of ‘networked publics’ describes an arena of open public discourse. We can expect nothing less I believe from our public services in a networked world than a default state of openness.

However, there is one other area where the need to consider openness and publicity and one other important design assumption for public service. We design our public services to be open and accountable to the democratic process – whether we achieve this is entirely another story but this is the aspiration. This is a different kind of openness.

With respect to the architecture and infrastructure on which the network society is manifest we are currently building our online world on a largely unregulated and propriatory infrastructure – if code is law as Lessig suggests then our current law makers are the mamagement of companies such as Facebook and Google.

If the social web is the manifestation and delivery mechanism for the network society then the fact we are building it on closed systems at the mercy of what is surely a flawed financial system is a disgrace which will continue to stunt the potential of a systemic change away from a failing post-industrial environment.

There is a conflict here with the nature of public service which deserves to be highlighted and discussed and not just swept away with our understandable frustration with the public sectors glacial movement with respect to technological change – this is about principle not just code.

There are good as well as bad reasons as to why there is institutional resistence to using something like Facebook even if this is not well or even accurately articulated and if we are trying to help the State wrestle with this then we have to acknowledge and not rubbish the valid concern.

Social change doesn’t happens instantly – we really do need to address tranisiton as well as dreaming about the future.

I was one of 5 facilitators at the Solace Summit a couple of weeks ago and I have been mulling the experience ever since. The event was unusual in that rather having what has always been a perfectly good but rather traditional conference the Solace team (with some I have to confess provocation from myself and others) decided to try to create a more open process which enabled participating to co-produce a communinique around key issues for Solace to address over the coming months. You can read the output here. My first reflection is one of relief – last year it made me positively twitchy to see a group talented and influential people sit passively in a room instead of actually actively participating. Its so rare that you can convene this kind of group it always struck me as a horrible waste to then keep them quiet for most of the event. Happily the audience were hugely positive about the change in format and I think that we will see more of these kinds of events from Solace. Ultimately this is really good news for those of us who attend event such as LocalGovCamp and the like and who want to see better senior support for this kind of open space event – next time just ask them if they went to Solace this year.

I was responsible for the Economic Growth conversation – which was fascinating as its not my core field and made me learn and think about loads of interesting things which I won’t bore you with here. The question that has stuck with me for the last couple of weeks is what do we mean by a networked leader?

As is usually the case when you start talking with senior managers we all concluded that we needed leadership and not management if we were to see Local Government play a significant role in local economic growth. However the group was also convinced that the leadership for local government in this context was as a convenor and a facilitator and not as the person necessarily delivering the outcomes.

I have been thinking about networked leadership ever since and this post is a first attempt to start to put thoughts in order – next up will be doing some more reading around the subject and so any recommendations would be very welcome. I start from the position that leadership in a networked organisation is going to need very different qualities to those of a hierarchal leader – and that we need to explore these qualities if we want to create more networked organisations.

The first quality I think is the ability to create a vision and narrative of that vision which at the time as being focused enough to give direction is open enough to enable others to contribute to it. The organisational vision needs to be an ongoing – and public – conversation.

However to be credible in setting this vision it is essential that you have knowledge of your own place in the network and the value that you bring – and that this evident to the rest of the network. You cannot, in my view, be a leader in a networked organisation just by dint of job title – you need a strong place to stand and an arena in which you contribute to the overall information and activity exchange of the network. The social web is at heart a meritocracy and I believe that the network society has as similar emphasis on personal contribution and exchange.

At the same time as having a clear view of their own contribution the networked leader also needs to be an effective talent spotter – they need to be able to quickly find and amplify activities which contribute to the vision.

In doing this there is a need to be transparent with respect to decisions and to be able to explain these as being coherent with respect to vision and values.

In terms of activity – a lot of time will be spent giving feedback and amplifying activity from within the network – acting a curator as much as content creator.

But the single aspect that is at the same time a byproduct of the above and perhaps the most immediately realisable aspect of the networked leader within local government is the power that hierarchical based leaders have to convene people and conversations. This was the anchor point for the SOLACE conversation with general agreement that though local government is not necessarily going to lead local economic growth it can and should convene the networks which will make this possible and take a leading role in the curation of the conversation around the local economic narrative.

These are certainly qualities that I aspire to as I try to lead my own organisation – though I am also certain that I don’t consistently achieve them. The bigger question may be however whether or not this style of leadership is possibly in organisations made up of thousands of people in multiple overlapping networks and this is a question not just for organisations but perhaps for political parties – its certainly a question that the Occupy folks are concerning themselves with. I am sure that there is a lot of thinking already out there on this and I will start hunting for it.

Hierarchy is not always bad – I have been thinking about this with respect to the Virtual Policing project we’ve been working on with Sussex Police and frankly I am rather relieved that the Police have a command structure as in some situations you do need clear lines of control. However the question for me is whether you can retain the useful aspects of command and control hierarchy without comprising on the benefits and behaviours of the network society. That is definitely something I want to explore.

PS Please note that this has been filed in the ‘things I want to write about post PHD’ category – we’ll see how far I get in the meantime!!

I’m not going to try and comment on what has been happening in London and beyond over the last few nights – I don’t feel qualified apart from to express the outrage and sympathy that so many people thankfully share – I do want to add my view though as I think the wider the debate about the causes and solutions the better.  The first step to a good solution is a good analysis of the problem – and the idea that social media is part of the problem that seems to be the implication from the debate in the Commons yesterday is very flawed – I want to explore that here.

There is no single answer to a situation like this and one of the things that strikes me about the news coverage is the way in which commentators are grasping at ideas in order to try and create some kind of understandable narrative – each expert being convinced that its their field that has the answer but not being able to fit their story neatly on the situation.  I think what is being revealed is a narrative of two completely distinct cultures within the same society.  The point is the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups – and if you listen to the youth and community  workers who are being interviewed this is the most important point they are trying to get across – we can’t possibly solve anything without a more real understanding of the other group’s position.

If we are going to use the frankly insulting metaphor of a sick society then lets at least use it properly.  These riots have been a symptom and not a cause and medicine moved on from just treating symptoms a 100 years ago – you would hope that politics could reflect a similar modernity.  People need to be punished, symptoms need to be treated, but we also need to change the context and remove the causes.

You always view these events through the lens of your own preoccupations and experience and so hopefully its not surprising that I am looking at this with respect to the networks and the network behaviours that it reflects.  This analysis is one contribution as to how we address the issues that the last few days have revealed.  That’s right – revealed and not created – these issues were there already but have been made unavoidable with the speed and violence with which they erupted.

I think what is needed at this point is not for all of use to speak from our individual perspectives but that different experts and people with real knowledge of real communities can come together and create some solutions that don’t just work well when we say them in the media but work well on the messy, difficult human ground within communities.

Network one of two:  Technology

Its been much quoted in the media that the rioters and looters have been using the Blackberry instant message network – BBM – to communicate and organise.  This is significant because the BBM is a technologically closed space.  The security on the network is excellent and has been built with an assumption of security and privacy which is a marked contrast social media tools like twitter which have a diametrically opposite set of design assumptions.  It was built with enterprise business use in mind – bankers with secrets – and so its designed to keep messages within the audience you send them to.  This has been of major concern to governments in the middle east and you may recall the reports about Saudi Arabia and India wanting some assurances that they could extract messages and intercept messages before Blackberry’s owner RIM got permission to trade there.

Blackberrys have been the dominant handset in the 16-24 demographic for a while now with 96% of 16-24 year olds having a mobile, half of them having a smartphone and 37% of those smartphones users having a Blackberry (Source:  Ofcom 2011 Marketing report).  Overall take up of mobiles is similar in the 25-34 and 35-54 groups but with a lower percentage of smartphones.

There are a number of reasons for this and the main one is probably the fact that the Blackberry was one of the first smartphones to offer a pay as you go option – but its difficult to imagine that  RIM expected this to be the outcome – its an odd brand situation to say the least with the devices being used at the top and the bottom of the market (in terms of spend).  The thing to note however is that its unlikely that, given phone replacement cycles, this will change over the next few years without intervention.  And the implication of those same phone replacement cycles will be that parents and grandparents will then get these handsets handed on.

The fact that these message exchanges are free at point of use means that they are obviously going to be a channel of choice for a young and low income group.  We know this is also a demographic that is less likely to have access to the internet in other ways and so we have to accept that this closed communication circuit may be in place for some time.

Network two of two:  Social

Why does this matter?  Apart from the obvious implications of an anti-social crowd being able to mobilise quickly and secretly which is probably enough of a concern to anyone trying to police increasingly agile crowds of course….lets not forget there is a practical problem here as well and acknowledge this difficulty.

All of the work by practitioners around the use of social media for community engagement- and much of the optimism that many of us feel – is really predicated on the open and collaborative culture of the social web.  Where we talk about the use of mobiles it around the use of mobiles for internet access and SMS.  We know that young people engage with Facebook and other tools from their phones and we see this as a route to engage with them in turn.

The use of BBM explodes this paradigm – the culture is not the same and the network is closed and not open – the optimism that many of us feel with respect to the possibilities of the social web to engage people in constructive and deliberative debate is less founded with this technology.

The strength of weak ties

Cultures will always form sub-cultures and groups need and should have some degree of privacy.  I think the issue here is more that there is no connection with the BBM using younger demographic and a great portion of society.  We really have no idea of how this sub-culture functions online and we have few points of connection to it – to the extent that it was notable that a Guardian journalist actually made any connections at all.

Contrast this with way in which twitter was being used to organise the cleanup and to dispel rumours.  Even when you step out of the cosy intellectual, middle class bubble that many of us live in online there was outrage and anger about the rioting.  We can’t forget about the idiots who posted their loot on their Facebook pages – but we can note that this is also perhaps a cultural stupidity with them being more used to the closed systems of the BBM and text messages.

The problem here is so obviously not the technology – to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet.  You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners (or are we planning that?).  Yes – shutting down technologies will slow the spread of information – but that means good and bad information.  It would of course make us new friends in the form of all kinds of oppressive regimes who we have been criticising for just these reasons.  The revolution in the middle east has not been tweeted but it has surely been helped (read Gladwell and Shirky on this).

We need a culture of openness and we need to make connections across all of the networks in our society if we are going to build communities to live in that we can trust and feel safe in.  Networks are not the only analysis here but one small way forward could be to consider how we become part, or at least known to, the networks and groups that have been organising violence and looting over the last few nights.

This isn’t an online issue – the technology is not the problem – but the underlying lack of connection between two segments of society which is illuminated by the technology is I think a root cause and could give us an entry point to try and make things better.

This is a write up of a session that I facilitated at the excellent LocalGovCamp yesterday. I wanted to run the session as an extension of some work I am doing around identity that you can read about here – and luckily a bunch of people where also interested in discussing the topic and provided some real insights. As ever its a huge pleasure at these things to talk with knowledgeable and informed people who can challenge your own thinking. No real conclusions but that’s fine – its going to be a while before we can possibility understand what it means to have a digital wrapper around our lives.

The session really focused on two key themes:

  • Can we control our online identity?
  • What are the requirements of identity with respect to civic and democratic participation possible

There were a couple of overarching thoughts however, one was the importance of trust and reputation with respect to being effective online and the other was the need for audiences and organisations to reconcile with the fact that it is perfectly possible for your personal opinions to differ from that of your employer and for you still to be effective in your job. This last point is perhaps the greatest tension resulting from the fact that the different parts of our lives tend to blend into one online.

Who am I anyway?

There was a general agreement that online identity creation is a conscious act with us producing a more polished version of ourselves. However there was also agreement that it is extremely difficult boarding on the impossible to keep personal and professional identities separate online. One participant who is recently redundant talked about the need to consciously clean up and re-manage his online identity to reflect his new state and a number of people in the room agreed that they would need to do the same

The place where this seems to be most difficult is twitter where only one person was successfully managing more than one identity (and no suprises that @reinikainen also may or may not engage in some mischievous trolling as well). Its possibly not surprising – twitter is the most conversational of the social media spaces and for many people the effort of conversing in two different styles was too much bother. Its different to something like blogging where people spend more time considering tone and audience (this is reflected in my survey data so far as well). However the consequence of this was a hastening the the ‘life leak’ that has people answering work queries from personal accounts.

My own view on this that its a reflection of the fact that these tools are not yet mainstream in many organisations and in many cases corporate accounts become the responsibility of a single user. If we had more effective cover and clearer responsibilities then people would not feel so compelled to answer in their own time – but that’s perhaps for debate. This will also be an issue as organisations start to take account of the social capital value of twitter and other networks – but again possibly a 2012 rather than 2011 problem.

Facebook was another environment where people have just one presence but with greater attention to privacy settings – however this is a problem when using Facebook for work purposes. Blogging was seen as a much easier space to control online identity – again echoing what people are telling me in the questionnaire.

Carrie Bishop brought up the excellent point that we also need to think about the ‘secret data’ that organisations such as Amazon, Tesco and even the NHS have on us. At some point we may need to consider what these data sets say about is when we consider that digital wrapper.

Overall the conclusion here is not surprising – we all felt that we need to be more sophisticated in the way in which we manage online identity – the problem perhaps is that we are not yet sure what that means as we need to do so in the context of huge amounts of social change around this issue. As people who are probably already more sophisticated than most about this as a group this probably means that when we train and evangelise about the social web we need to include a section on digital identity and teach awareness of some of the risks as well as the opportunities. There are clearly shifting norms of behaviour around what is acceptable but we still need to be aware that the blending of the different parts of your life online means some that it needs some degree of awareness and active management.

We talked for a while about the important of context and also the way in which we judge the provenance – these are also skills that need teaching as we encourage more people online.

Who are you and why should I listen to you?

We moved on to talk about what this means in a democratic and civic context – what do you need to know about someone in order for them to be an active participant is online debate about local (or national) issues.

The thing I took away from the session (again thanks to an insight from Carrie Bishop) was the fact that debate and decision making need thinking about separately with decision making processes (such as voting) being legitimately anonymous at times where debate and more general participation benefiting from having knowledge of who you are talking to.

The conclusion was that for any kind of decision making, or to support a decision making process, the important fact is that you are able to apply a test of representativeness to the opinions that you are seeing.

There was again a discussion of how, when you live and work within the same local authority of any part of government, you reconcile your citizenship with your professional role. The conclusion here was that we need to see a shift in public (and media) perceptions to accept firstly that people are more than just their job and secondly that organisations are made up of people and not a single faceless entity. This is a peculiarly public sector problem – until we link it to a social capital evaluation of brand and realise that once we are in a social and conversational sphere then we are all the custodians of brand value.

I started the session with a bias towards a need for accountability and transparency around identity – as well as a recognition that this will be a challenge until we have a better cultural understanding of the implications of the ‘publicness’ online. Carrie again brought up an important counter to that position which we formed as follows: How do we allow space and discussion of more extreme positions in an environment where we need to show a polished and perhaps more bland overall self?

Intriguing – its another sense of the word open and also a counter to what can be a tendency to homogeneity online. Can we be open and exploratory with debate online when even our whimsical or transitional views become part of our identity?

Context matters

Identity online is about content – its meritocratic – this means we make conscious decisions about what we create. At the same time we are unguarded in the face of the publicness of the social web and we do not yet understand the consequences of this.

However if we can’t separate our different personas online what we can do is to create an appropriate context for our comments that allow people to see that we are – and we can help to develop context clues that will help readers and viewers form accurate pictures of who we are and what we mean. Who knew the future was all about better emoticons?

I hope this reflects the session for everyone else – very happy to update / correct if people remember it differently or if I have missed something. Thanks to all for their contributions.

PS  Would also be very grateful for more survey responses – if you have a moment…..

I should be writing my research methods chapter at the moment but to be honest I am finding that a combination of dull and demoralising so am just quickly putting this together instead. I am trying to resist the urge to write about the policy making cycle as part of my thesis because I really need to focus at this point and my focus is around that formal / informal transition that turns civic activity into democratic participation. However – there is clearly a huge need for reform around the policy making process – mainly with respect to transparency and speed. That post on transparency is still on the todo list so this is more a post about speed and process.

This is not a fully formed thought but the similarity between the evolution in software development methodologies and the needs of government keep occurring to me. After all – software developers have been adjusting to the pressures of the network society for some time now so they may well have something to teach us. But firstly – unusually – a picture:

Look familiar? This is the waterfall model of development (thanks to Conrad Huang for the picture) See how we have a nice tidy progress from the requirements to the delivery – with no change of context on the way? No new information is allowed to intrude on the sanitised process of development. This is how I think of our current policy process – though of course we don’t actually use it like that as we give it little political nudges enroute as per my last post. Look instead at this agile model of development:

Thanks to Neil Perkin for this one The thing that strikes me is that the idea of iteration is central to the Agile model (as is the idea of continuous testing and constant progress against a larger goal) and this is where it differs so much from the waterfall model. Instead of assuming that we can write the omnipotent specification document Agile (and associated methodologies such as RAD for example) assume that there is some kind of learning during the building process and that we can adjust to accommodate this without some kind of weighty change control process – we build the idea of change and learning into the process. There are many reasons why software developers have adopted this kind of approach but the main one is that the speed of web development means that its quicker to try things out and see what happens rather that fully describe them first. This may not be what we want from the people who are building roads and hospitals but as digital simulation technology improves it will become easier and easier to model policy before implementing it and the network society means that we can get more and more detailed reactions from the public before committing.

One of the byproducts of this kind of approach is also a shift in the attitude to failure as it becomes a learning enroute to our destination rather than an insurmountable problem. Isn’t this what we need to do with political decision making? Build a little more humility in and ask people as we go along? The risk here is that of never delivering anything as we constantly creep the mission – and its a mistake to think of Agile as a less disciplined approach than the command and control style of the waterfall approach.

If we were to translate this to government then we would need far better decision support tools and also a more transparent discussion as to our destination – our shared vision. There are some really strong parallels between the pressures that have moved software development from an engineering / waterfall type model to a RAD or Agile method that could be used to discuss the changes need to the policy forming process to both involve citizens more directly and also to speed up the process. One big barrier to this is the get popular acceptance for the idea of a non-perfect policy enroute to a good one – ie that mistakes can happen – but as people grow up with a digital footprint of youth indiscretions we will have to get more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ on public life generally.

Anyway – this is a rather wide ranging and undisciplined post – but its really a marker for a larger piece of work that needs to wait for the thesis to be a little bit more formed. Oddly it does also relate to the reading I am doing at the moment on action research methods so perhaps I will try and join this up as well.