This is my write up of the session that @pubstrat and I curated at UKGC12. Large apologies for the delay.

@pubstrat and I have been meaning to have coffee and general catchup ever since UKGC11 and I am hugely glad we finally managed it as it set my brain buzzing – will be stalking him for more regular meet-ups as a result.

The conversation built on earlier discussions about how we might apply agile principles outside of software development and into the wider project management process. The reasoning for this is twofold – firstly that coders have developed Agile in response to working in a shifting and boundary-less world which is the situation we are all faced with and secondly because of a need to harmonise project and software management practices if you want technology dependent projects to work. More on this background here.

The UKGC session focused more directly on how we might approach amending project management practice – the subtitle of the session could be ‘plan for the permanent eradication of PRINCE2’.

I’ve broken this post into sequential steps for project management. Apologies for the bullet points – I will expand on anything that doesn’t make sense if you ask…

**Scoping the project**
Scoping the project is about setting up the boundaries and ensuring that you have a clear vision as to what you are trying to achieve. This is even more important with respect to Agile projects in my opinion as they can, if not tightly managed, take off in unexpected directions and you end up with an outward focused spiral rather than a tight development process. The points we discussed with respect to this in the session were:

  • Be less obsessed with edge cases – agile is about focusing on the main body of the work and dealing with exceptions as exceptions rather than core functionality. Its interesting to reflect on exactly how that feels culturally in the public sector.
  • Understand the minimal viable product – This is not a limit on ambition but instead a clear description of what actual achievement that you can build on looks like
  • Don’t run away from it because it’s difficult – run towards it – problems are not reduced by hiding from them
  • Create a lean start up mentality – don’t try and plan for every eventuality instead get the basics in place and build as you need to.

**Creating the team**
Teams are created – they don’t just happen. I think too many project managers ignore this piece of the puzzle and then wonder why the developers seem to be masters of passive resistance. You need to set a context that all participants can work in.

  • Find emotional connection – stop imagining that you can get programmers and non-programmers to speak the same language. Instead focus on the emotional and narrative impacts of the project which is where these different skills and knowledge bases can come together
  • Bringing different cultures together – any large project is about blending internal and external cultures. Do this knowingly and create a new culture for the project.

**Project structure**
Agile relies on working forward in defined ‘sprints’ that move you closer towards your goal. We discussed the resonance that this has with action research or experiment based policy making and the fact that this would involve accepting a greater degree of uncertainty in the project process that a waterfall approach would (falsely) bring:

  • Base your project plan on iterations and experimentation – create iterations that involve testing parts of your core proposition and build in a formal review cycle to capture learning and actively use this to inform the definition of the next iteration
  • Focus on the impact and objective – ensure that you have a clear set of project metrics that will allow you to describe each of these iterations in terms of your overall objective
  • Positive byproducts – look for and design in positive byproducts – in terms of code or learning – that can mitigate the perceived risk from the agile approach

**Communication and Reporting**
A big part of the communication process was seen as both building internal and external confidence at the same time as helping with the ‘cultural integration’ from the first section. One of the ideas that Stefan suggested was getting non-coding participants to actually sit in on a scrum meeting to see how the process works. At Public-i we have a daily scrum for the whole company that works on this principle – though I think the frequency may dilute the impact a bit its really useful. More specifically we talked about:

  • Stronger informal feedback loops – if your process is iterative you want to be communicating more regularly so that the end of iteration review is not a horrible shock to people. You need to use this regular feedback to strengthen shared use of language and understanding and just embed the habit of conversation between different parts of the project team.
  • Making your reporting agile – critical path and milestones are both still important but they need to reflect the project iterations and milestones, the idea of minimum viable release and also be mutable in the future – we don’t write the whole plan in detail at the start – instead we fix on the next critical decision or delivery and sketch it out beyond there. This is very disconcerting for someone used to PRINCE2 but much more honest with respect to how project actually work….
  • Use new forms of feedback – we discussed how to include different feedback mechanisms – for example video or blogs – in order create a more consistent way of communicating

This is a bit barebones I’m afraid but I will follow this up as I am working with our project manager to design a project management template based on these principles which we will share when its done. In the meantime please shout if I have forgotten anything!

Thanks to all who participated.


This is by way of a short Action Research reflection so if you are not interested in that kind of thing then move along! Next post will be the write-up of the Agile session at #UKGC12 and much more practical I promise.

I have been mulling on the tension between co-production and Action Research and the need to separate one’s desire to keep the experiment intact at the same time as being open to other people’s views both with respect to the process but also the content within the process.

Action Research is about designing an experiment or project with sound reasoning as to why you think this is the best way to develop knowledge and improve practice – and then seeing if it does. In the case of ‘We Live Here’ for example we have designed an experiment which maps online and offline networks and then gathered them into a single online space which will be discussed with those networks in an open public meeting. The hypothesis that we are testing is that better networked communities are better able, and more likely, to participate in local decision making. This experiment was designed we a certain set of assumptions that we should probably state more overtly namely:

  1. Good decision making and effective democracy needs to be underpinned by civic conversation and the opportunity for deliberation and debate outside of the decision making process. The absence of this ‘public sphere’ is one of the things that has weakened democratic engagement over time
  2. That one of the reasons that people don’t participate in decision making – or deliberation — is that the process is unwieldy and inappropriate for their needs and needs redesigning to be relevant for modern life.
  3. That there are people that have other, deeper reasons for not participating but that we are not looking to deal with more complex issues of access within this project – our focus is creating an environment which is self maintaining and active that we can then help further people participate in over time.
  4. That the project needs to be digital by default but not solely digital.
  5. That networks – and networks of networks – will need different types of support and we can’t make assumptions about what this support might be.

However we also want to work co-productively both within the project team and also with the participants and we are actively looking for positive by-products – for example increased resilience or service access – within the areas that we are running pilots. One of the effects of this is that we have stakeholders (dreadful word) within the project who are not primarily motivated by the initial experiment design and who were not involved in creating it.

For the research to be useful we need to keep the experiment as intact as possible within each iteration at the same time as being open to challenge both on the nature of the underlying principles and also the design of the experiment itself. We also need to keep careful separation from the design of the process from the content and connections that are created within the bounds of the experiment.

This creates a tension – we are trying to keep the experiment intact at the same time as telling people we want to create the outcome with them.

I have been thinking about how to do this – and also how to separate my own twin desires to both defend the underlying context and assumptions (which is a bit defensive of me) at the same time as defending the need to keep the experiment intact (which is the inner researcher speaking).

The Agile project management approach that we are taking is one way of doing this and communicating these three elements to the project team:

1) Context
2) Experiment
3) Content

So I think this means I need to think about more formal project reporting and to start to structure feedback on it so that we can clearly seeing the different questions that we need to consider. I also need to consider how we are going to communicate the action research approach to a wider and not at all research focused audience – or indeed if this is a good idea.

I’ll be speaking to the rest of the project team on this and might be back with an update.

This is by way of a reflection on the creative councils programme and process rather than our specific project which I have covered off here.  I meant to post it last week but as ever events overtook me and I got distracted….

First off though – the team that NESTA put together was excellent and the event ran in a very open and collaborative way.  My thoughts here are really from the point of view of someone who designs these kind of open events in terms of what would I steal and what would I adjust rather than any criticism as I really think they did a great job.  However in the pursuit of perfection here are my thoughts.

Collaborate with the collaborators

What do I mean by open event?  I think open events events are a kind of coproduction with the participants taking responsibility for their experience within the event.  The first comment then is the fact that this one ran with a fixed agenda meant that it wasn’t completely co-productive – that’s understandable for the first one but might need adjusting for the next time we all meet (if we do) as the projects will start to diverge even more than they have in terms of progress and needs and will also want to build on the participative approach we saw in Birmingham.

Its worth noting that running a single open event is less challenging than running an open process and Creative Councils is no different (I am thinking specifically of what we are doing with both the CRIF project and also the CityCamp Brighton network when I say this).  At this end of the process its fairly easy to be open and collaborative and meet the needs of funder and potential fundee but as we get closer to a decision point about who NESTA will continue to work with the power in these relationships will shift and any kind of coproduction will be difficult to maintain – its interesting to reflect on whether that is necessarily a bad thing or whether we need to accept that processes need to become less open as they reach a conclusion.

However I think at this end of the programme – and in the interests of supporting the direction of travel for most of the projects I think NESTA should be thinking about how to involve the project teams in event and process design.  If this really is an open process then lets get this on the table as well – it also helps address one of the underlying questions here – how do you innovate with a group of innovators.  I know we can’t design by committee but I also think a standard of collaboration needs to be set by the organisers of something like this.

Who are the experts?

If I were to criticise one part of the design it was the involvement of an additional group of facilitators on the second day – because they hadn’t been with the teams the day before they didn’t, I feel, appreciate the fact that the event was already highly participative and there was a regression into a more conventional format.  Not sure you could anticipate this but I have certainly noted that I wouldn’t change the facilitation team part way through an event in the future – and I probably wouldn’t bring in a group of experts without having done more of a skills audit on what expert would mean in the context of the participants.  Live and learn I think….

All that being said – I was thinking afterwards that this was a classic case of there being an assumption that the expert was in the hotseat – and at an open event that is just not the right assumption.  I also think I owe a personal apology to a couple of the people whose sessions I sat in on as chose topics which fall within my doctoral research and sent me off the top of the wonk chart so I was probably not the kind of participant that they were expecting….and I am not sure that this helped my fellow participants either…sorry…

Within those second day sessions it was clear however that there are wildly different levels of knowledge about some of theoretical areas that are being referenced in the project teams and I think that it may help to do an overall skills audit so that future events can help people cover some of the basics at the same time as extracting the really innovative thinking that is going on in the programme.

Excitingly for someone like me who already has a research focus there is a lot of really great theoretical work here and I think that one of the things that should be considered is how we involve some academic researchers in the process.  Am thinking Gerry Stoker with respect to policy design through experimentation as well as his work on ‘nudge’ and also Tony Bouvaird with respect to co-production.  Have other references on this as well which I will add at some point.

Blog early blog often

While writing this article I considered whether or not to post here on the blog or if these comments were best as an email to the Creative Councils team at NESTA.  I decided on posting here because I think that one of the debates we need to have within the programme is exactly how public we want our experience of Creative Councils to be and my personal conclusion is that we want a default position of openness – so the only stuff that I not covering here is any feedback that could be seen as directed at one person rather than the process as a whole – which is my usual policy here on the blog.

That’s fairly easy for me to say – I have been blogging for a while about my research work and so this is not a big step.  I am also at one step removed from the Council which gives me a little more freedom – though as part of the project team I am of course bound to that wider purpose.  The fact is however that it is easier for most people to return to their default position of insularity which is a shame given the atmosphere of collaboration that the first event engendered.

In order for all the teams to be open with their learning and experiences – and this means the good and the bad – we need to create an environment where they all feel comfortable that this is not going to get them in trouble back within their organisations where the project may not yet be widely known – not to mention how the wider world is going to see this.  Councils are under such enormous scrutiny at the moment that this is a huge challenge.

This may mean NESTA publishing progress reports on behalf of teams (perhaps a job for point people?) where there isn’t anyone within the project who can do this.  I think it could also mean a conversation within the programme about action learning and research principles as I think this reflective mind set may be the best way of capturing experiential learning at this stage.  I also think this needs to be true of the process as well – this kind of programme design is very exciting for anyone interested in encouraging widescale innovation and so it would be good to capture process learning here as well.

The really important thing about this openness is to share both success and failure – there is not point in just a bunch of feel good stuff if one of our ambitions is to raise the sector’s tolerance for intelligent failure.

What can NESTA contribute

It was clear from the process that NESTA and the LG group don’t just want to throw money at this programme – they want to ensure the right resources are in place which I think is great.  There are a few areas where I think that they could lead the process from the centre and also lobby with the wider sector with respect to the challenges that all of the team face:

  1. There needs to be a persistent conversation about the new context which isn’t just a conversation about budget cuts.  All of the projects respond to a social change which will be there long after the structural deficit has been dealt with – we need some common language and concepts to give us the proverbial place to stand we need to move the world
  2. We need the LG group to be actively speaking to politicians about this change in context as this is arguably where the greatest change in process and attitude is needed.    Discuss.

On a more practical level all of the projects will need project management support and as we have said within our project this is not a PRINCE2 kind of process.  If we achieve nothing else can NESTA help share some of its learning and experience about you project manage innovation projects – I’m talking GANT chart templates, project board make up and all that kind of thing…personally am thinking about AGILE policy making but there may be better models out there.

Localism is….local

This is perhaps a small point but I was repeatably struck by the way in which we focus information sharing as being around ‘common problems’ and ‘shared issues’.  I think this may be underplaying the importance that place has in choosing the right solution.  I’m not saying that there will not be generic learning but I do think the kind of ideas that are being talked about in his programme would all need to be tailored and adjusted to work well in different places – and this is quite right – I just wonder if we need to get this fact embedded in our thinking really early on so that all the projects examine the local context as well as the generic one so that we understand the degree to which an idea might be portable and the extent to which the context has formed it.

What’s the point??

If its done well then a programme of the scale of Creative Councils has the potential to catalyze a lot of change in the public sector but it needs the kind of bold thinking that was there at the launch event to continue through the next few months and particularly as we transition from 17 to 5 councils at the end of this next stage (managing a collaborative yet competitive process being quite a feat).  I think this is possible if we can run this co-productively and also start to create and support the energy of sharing and collaboration which is a natural state for most local government organisations.

If we are thinking boldly then I think its useful to reflect as to what the end point is and so I close with a question that I jotted down in my notes on the second day:  do we want a transformed public sector or do we want transformed society?

As ever comments both positive and negative are very welcome.

So – this is the write up from the agile session I led at #localgovcamp. Much of the preamble I started off with can be found in other blog posts but the core of the session was trying to move the conversation that was had at UKGovCamp in January on a bit further – so am going to assume that you know a bit about the context and not cover earlier stuff again here. In terms of direction of travel I was particularly trying to focus not just on barriers but on the actual shape of a more agile organisation.

@LoulouK has written a really good response to the session which looks at this from the point of view of someone who is trying to be more innovative within her organisation so you should have a look at that as well. Not come across any other write ups – but please shout if you have.

I should say here – I think there is some crossover in terminology and often when I am talking about agile I could be talking about any kind of innovative structure – and I felt the group also moved between definitions. However there are two main reasons why I tend towards using agile as a personal shorthand for a more innovative and future proofed organisation approach:

  • the challenges that caused the software engineers to move towards agile style methods are similar to those faced by whole organisations now; absence of fixed context, speed of change, challenge from the environment to list a few
  • Many of our organisational structures are going to be technology faced – it helps to share thinking with the developers of these solutions

However as the session concluded (with some good thoughts from @harryharold on this) its important to accept the limits of the metaphor. Perhaps most specifically there is a limit around testing. Unit testing is a bug element of the software approach which is perhaps not replicable in an organisational context.

We also discussed another potential limitation which is the difficulty of operating in this way in a political context where the leadership have their eyes simultaneously on the next election and the next headline. We concluded that you would need strong alignment between political and officer leadership in order to deliver innovation on this kind of scale.

Its a guerilla war

In an agile organisation you should be able to push decision making out as close the project delivery frontier as possible – once again its about trust. We felt this implies an organisational structure which relies on small teams which are formed around the project requirement and then are dissolved back into a talent pool when the project is completed. These teams need to be trusted empowered and informed.

There are some ramifications to this statement:

  • You need to focus on people’s skills as much if not more than their experience or their grade
  • You need to spend time developing team working skills to give people the tools they need to be effective in this environment.

More than that you need to both recruit and performance manage to support these kinds of skills – this is potentially a long term change. The question is how you get it started – but imagine if you started creating these agile teams via 3 month secondments within your organisation.

There is also the question as to how you integrate innovation back into the organisation – this secondment idea could address this.

Our most important conclusion around how you create an agile organisation was the belief that we need leaders not managers – there is a big difference.

Failure – how interesting…..

We spent a while talking about failure. The mantra of agile software development is fail fast, fail cheaply. The fast project cycles mean you try things and rapidly discard them if they don’t work. We agreed this was one of the most difficult ‘values’ to put into place in the rest of the organisation with failure being seen as something with politically and organisationally difficult to accept.

There is no quick answer to this but we discussed a couple of useful tactics:

  • Take risk management seriously – have a proper conversation about what the level of acceptable risk is and stay within those boundaries. Over time you should be able to change this.
  • Create a body of evidence – we have a responsibility to show this approach works rather than expecting people to take it on blind faith but instead be open and honest about evaluation
  • More challengingly – don’t pretend everything is a success – but communicate failure as progress – because it is
  • Innovate at the edges – do the duller less risky stuff first. It may not be the most exciting stuff but it makes a big difference and it allows you to learn and build evidence in parts of the organisation where the issue of failure is less acute

We also talked about collective and individual responsibility – an reflected on the fact that a lot of lone innovators end up accepting organisational risks. We also talked about the more negative coping tactic of ‘consultant scapegoating’ where you get external contractors to do your failing, or innovation, for you. The issue here is a need for organisations to take responsibility for innovation but in the context of agile we are back at the question of trust – are you trusted to innovate?

Trust me – I’m an innovator

As ever with an open ended session we are left with questions:

  • Do we have enough trust in the people within our organisations?
  • How do we need to change not just the organisations but also the people within them to create a culture of innovation?
  • Do innovators do enough to earn trust?
  • Can we change attitudes around failure to embrace more learning and more innovation?

These are not unusual questions – the additional question is whether the agile metaphor is still useful in exploring and addressing them. My view of the session is that the answer is yes. We need to keep in mind the limitations that I stated at the beginning of this piece but I still think this is worth pursuing.

As ever – please let me know if you don’t think this reflects the session or if you have comments – thank you

I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively.  The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world.  The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?

You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring?  Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:

  • Real time information
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices.  ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.

Responding to a changing world

Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content.  The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy.  The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them.  Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release.  I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?

Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.

I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.

Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’.  We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings.  The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.

Transparency sits very closely with collaboration.  With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively.  You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.

I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state.  More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced.  I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way.  The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?

This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change.  These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world.  If the world is changing then we need to change as well.

Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective.  Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?

An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment.  Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point.  The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release.  Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.

How do you influence behaviour? 

I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this.  Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces.  Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it.  The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means.  It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.

Build relationships

Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally.  More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate.  This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.

Ultimately its all about making better decisions.

I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions.  However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge.  You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well.  You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.

But we’re not out of control yet

This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined.  Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work.  In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward?  If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.

Where do we go from here?

If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour

  • Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences.  The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game.  If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
  • Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes.  We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
  • Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well.  If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within

We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally.  There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives.  It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.

I’ve also put this up over at the Public-i Blog but in case you are interested this presentation is around social change and the network society and picks up on some of the agile theme from previous posts here.  Am working on something a little longer on this which I should get up later this weekend.  As ever am very grateful for feedback

Bit of an odd week with all this snow – sadly I ended up stranded in London rather than snowed in at home as our train line gave up completely – and am feeling a little cheated that as soon as I did make it home the snow all disappeared. In common with many other people I spent a lot of time cursing the lack of real time information about what was going on – and would recommend a read of Paul Clarke’s excellent reflection on the disruption.

Personally I think a little disruption now and again is very good for us.

I spent Thursday at the Future Democracy conference and just wanted to post of couple of reflections from this before getting on to the main task of the day which is finishing that post on civic architecture from last week. The conference was fairly disrupted itself by the snow as a number of speakers (and the chair) were snowed in and we had to hack the agenda to try and make things work – full honours to Andy Williamson from Hansard Society who stepped in to run things.

As a result of all this I ended up stepping in for Anthony as the DemSoc representative and debating the merits of crowdsourcing policy with the excellent Gez from Delib – not surprisingly with him taking the ‘for’ position (given that Delib ran the projects) and me arguing against. So many people asked me afterwards whether or not I really agreed with myself – as I tend to sound fairly certain no matter what I am saying this is a fair question – so I wanted to clarify here.

Crowdsourcing is a real buzz word – not surprisingly as it was coined in an article from Wired magazine: The Rise of Crowdsourcing and was explored further in Wikinomics. But basically what we are talking about is getting large groups of people to co-operate in an open process to carry out the kind of tasks which have previously been carried out by small groups of experts in a closed environment. We could be talking about the naming of a new product, the analysis of mining data to find oil, the search for alien intelligence or the #uksnow map.  Some of the most interesting stuff I have come across is around the social crowdsourcing of medical research data – but the basic idea is that many hands make light work – so now do you see why the democracy folks are so excited by it????

However with such a new and amorphous term one of the problems is that we don’t actually have a tight enough common definition of what we are talking about and one of the issues highlighted from the debate was that people are using the term crowdsourcing in two main ways:

  • Crowdsourcing the issues – ie one huge agenda setting exercise where as many people as possible put something on the list for consideration
  • Crowdsourcing the solution – a more co-productive process where the participant both as the questions and

The main cases we referenced were of course the two large scale central government examples from earlier in the year:

  • Your Freedom: Where the government asked the public which laws they want shot of
  • Spending Challenge:  Giving people the chance to point out where we could save money

And to be clear – neither of these are attempts to solve problems – these are agenda setting exercises at best.  And more worryingly – do we think the public realised that – will they be disappointed if their ideas are not adopted?  Not sure that the communication around that point was clear to be honest.

However the question is whether these were successful projects.  They certainly got attention – over 100,000 ideas on the spending challenge. But I am not sure that this is the measure of success that I want to use – just adding an idea may be participation but I’m not sure its democratic and what I want to see happening are good democratic experiences rather than more opportunities for the mob to say “I want”. Democratic participation for me means also being involved in the process of creating a compromise between competing ideas, or at least being aware that this is the next stage,  and that means we need to go further than just listing the ideas. Before judging the success of this exercise I want to know whether or not any of these ideas are going to actually have a policy impact and for that we will have to wait and see for a bit:

Answer from Hansard on the Freedom Bill

A couple of examples are mentioned from the spending challenge around ideas that were generated and adopted – but I have to say I find it really hard to believe that anything being actioned this quickly had not been floating around Whitehall in some form already as an idea.

And here comes my rather great cynicism around all this – my concern is that without reforming the rest of the of policy process all we are doing is inviting lots of people to a party, asking them to hand their coats up and then shutting the door in their face before they get into the the main event.

I wrote a piece the other week about the idea of agile policy making and this links in to this thought. Its not enough to get mass participation at the start of the process – the problem of participation is almost certainly not a lack of ideas – the issue for me is how do you get meaningful ongoing widescale participation not just in the act of documenting bright ideas but then with the arguably more difficult process of researching, refining and developing these ideas into something that can actually work.

And this is where I think we really need to consider what crowdsourcing means. Government is an age of enlightenment exercise that assumes a huge amount of rationality from its participants. Crowds are not rational. It may be a great idea to involve as many people as possible in setting the agenda but this is not going to work for policy formation which needs to actively involve experts – problem solvers as well as problem owners – in a process of design and reflection which is then democratically evaluated and adopted/rejected.

And just one other point – there is a tendency in the narrative around this stuff to ignore or discount the expertise of civil servants in favour of the knowledge of the crowd. I think this veers from shortsighted to insulting and I think we need to value our experts a little more.

Were these two projects a success? We will have to wait and see – but in the meantime the risk is that all those people who participated get turned away from further participation because the rest of the process has not been changed and there is no place for their further involvement as yet.

I think its great to see new ideas piloted and hats off to Gez and the team for delivering this as its not easy to get government to innovate. I am sure that the learning was immense which is important as we clearly need something to change if we are going to involve more people in decision making. We also need to lean on these computer mediated methods as we need to accept that we can’t afford mass participation without using digital as our main channel – at the same time as hoping we solve issues of digital inclusion in time to avoid this being an elitist decision.

However until I see what happens next with the ideas that these processes generated I am going to keep an open mind as to whether or not this was a crowd pleasing rather than a crowd sourcing exercise.