The last few weeks since the US election have seen an explosion in articles and blog posts about how Obama’s tech team pulled out the stops in their race against the Republicans. It’s been an exciting time to learn about the new techniques dreamed up, and the old ones put to the test.
For those of us who develop non-partisan services to help people report broken street lights or make Freedom of Information Requests, such stories certainly seem unimaginably glamorous: I don’t think any of my colleagues will ever get hugged by Barack Obama!
But it has also been an interesting time to reflect on the difference between choosing to use tech skills to win a particular fight, versus trying to improve the workings of the democratic system, or helping people to self-organise and take some control of their own lives.
At one level there’s no competition at all: the partisan tech community is big and economically healthy. It raises vast amounts of cold hard cash through credit card payments (taking a cut to pay its own bills) and produces squillons of donors, signers, visitors, tweeters, video watchers and so on. The non-partisan tech community is much smaller – has fewer sustainable organisations, and with the exception of some big online petitions, doesn’t get the same sort of traffic spikes. By these metrics there’s absolutely no doubt which use of tech is the most important: the partisan kind where technology is used to beat your opponent, whether they are a political candidate, a policy, company, or an idea.
But I am still filled with an excitement about the prospects for non-partisan technologies that I can’t muster for even the coolest uses of randomized control trial-driven political messaging. The reason why all comes down to the fact that major partisan digital campaigns change the world, but they don’t do it in the way that services like eBay, TripAdvisor and Match.com do.
What all these sites have in common – helping people sell stuff they own, find a hotel, or a life partner – is that they represent a positive change in the lives of millions of people that is not directly opposed by a counter-shift. These sites have improved the experience of selling stuff, finding hotels and finding life partners in ways that don’t attract equal and opposite forces, driven by similar technologies.
This is different from the case of campaigning tech: here a huge mailing list is pitted against another even huger mailing list. Epic fund-raising tools are pitched against even more epic fund-raising tools. Orca vs Narwhal. Right now, in US politics, the Democrats have a clear edge over the technology lined up against them, and I totally understand why that must feel amazing to be part of. But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it. There is something inate to the nature of partisanship which means that one camp using a technology will ultimately attract counter-usage by an opposing camp.
This automatic-counterweighting doesn’t happen with services that shift whole sectors – like TripAdvisor did. In the hotel-finding world, the customer has been made stronger, the hotel sector weaker, and the net simply doesn’t provide tools to the hotel industry to counter what TripAdvisor does.
It is this model – the model of scaleable, popular technology platforms that help people to live their lives better – that I aspire to bring to the civic, democratic and community spheres in my work. Neither I nor mySociety has yet come up with anything even remotely on the scale of a TripAdvisor, but there remains the tantalising possibility that someone might manage it – a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems*. Our sites are probably about as big as it gets so far, and that’s not big enough by far.
If someone does manage to find and deliver the dream – some sort of hugely scalable, impactful non-partisan civic or democratic app & website, it is unlikely that the net will instantly throw up an equal and opposite counterweight. There is a real possibility that the whole experience of being a citizen, the whole task of trying to govern a country well will be given a shot in the arm that won’t go away as soon as someone figures out how to oppose it. I’m not talking Utopia, I’m just talking better. But what motivates me is that it could be better for good, not just until the Other Team matches your skills.
And that – in rather more words than I meant to use – is why I am still excited by non-partisan tech, and why I really hope that some of the awesome technologists who worked in the political campaigns of 2012 get involved in our scene.
I’m on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about this more.
* You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled. But some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.
“It’s rare to find people who can piece together the strategy and the technology – you usually get one or the other.” – Helen Milner, Chief Executive at UK Online
Across the UK council officers are facing the same problem – the audience has rapidly turned to mobile devices, but council sites are resolutely stuck in the desktop era. What to do?
mySociety are experts in the processes required to convert traditional local council websites to mobile websites and apps. We understand the challenges that come with presenting complex council information on a mobile interface, and the problems of getting old systems to catch up. We can help you with both aspects.
Contact us now to talk about a mobile version of your council website.
Mobile strategy for councils
Have you recently checked what proportion of your residents are visiting your council website via a mobile phone? The figure is almost certainly high, and growing by the day.
Residents increasingly expect to access council services from a mobile: you only have think about finding a car park, reporting vandalism, or checking bus timetables to see that mobile access needs to be an integral part of a council’s online strategy. Your reputation will depend on it.
Most council websites were built long before we envisaged such widespread mobile usage. As a result, adapting council websites to mobile can seem a daunting task – but it’s an essential part of your switch to digital by default.
It requires experience and patience to understand how user behaviours differ on mobile websites and on desktops. It also means prioritising the kind of content that your users will need on-the-go, and creating simple user journeys that enable them to get things done.
“We’ve had an incredibly positive relationship.” – Chris Palmer, Assistant Director of Communications at Barnet Council
Mobile Web Development Too
At mySociety, we can do much more than just strategy. We offer a full service web development service, and we can deliver everything between wire frames and full working websites. Many councils with existing CMSes, for example, may need updated HTML and CSS, and mySociety can provide this in a mobile optimised way.
Mobile council website or council app?
The most common question we get from councils who are considering their mobile strategy is whether they should build a mobile-optimised council website, or build a council app.
There are pros and cons for each, which we’ll be happy to explore with you.
mySociety have extensive experience in building both mobile sites and apps, and we can also offer packages that include both.
Talk to us about mobile strategy for council websites
Contact us now – we’re always happy to talk.
mySociety are a trusted supplier to several local governments, including Barnet, Blackburn, Bromley, Hounslow, Lichfield, Nottinghamshire, Southampton, Surrey, Westminster – and we’ve also worked for No 10 Downing Street and even given advice to the White House.
Image credit: KG Nixer
Recruiting a Head of Digital or an experienced CIO is not a task to be taken lightly. But the right skills in the right positions can revolutionise the way you offer your services online – and potentially the way the entire organisation works.
Contact mySociety now to talk about our high level digital recruitment consultancy.
Finding senior digital staff, capable of folding a whole organisation around digital possibilities, is a tall order. It’s especially tough when you’re caught in a Catch 22 – your organisation needs good digital skills in order to hire good digital skills. And classical recruitment agencies are not themselves famed for their understanding of what makes for strong or weak digital skills, especially not at the most senior levels.
mySociety is different. We are not a recruitment agency. We are a not-for-profit organisation which happens to have a unique, in-depth knowledge of the internet and experience in how it can best be used in organisations of all sizes.
That’s because we spend a lot of time researching and discussing best practice in the ever-changing field that is digital technology. We offer you our hard-won knowledge as a consultancy package specifically tailored to help you find and hire the right person to move your organisation forward.
“The consultation was very valuable. The breadth and level of experience, plus a preference for simple solutions, was really refreshing” Anthony Smith, Chief Executive at Passenger Focus
Blue Chip Clients
mySociety have worked with clients as wide-ranging as Channel 4, Passenger Focus, No 10 Downing Street, East Midlands Trains, and many UK local councils.
We have been building innovative, usable websites and online tools for over a decade, and providing advice to CEOs and senior managers for years. We are ruthless in our prioritisation of usability, simplicity and user-centred design, and we’ll ask the right questions to ensure that the person you hire has a similar outlook.
Contact us now to talk about hiring a CIO or Digital Head.
mySociety is a not-for-profit organisation: revenue from our commercial work goes towards our charitable projects.
Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?
At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.
But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.
Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.
The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.
Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?
Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?
Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.
Heartless Bourgeois Pig
Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.
I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.
And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.
The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.
To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.
Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.
This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility. As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?
It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.
Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future
I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.
The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.
The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.
Getting digital people to the top table
The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.
Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?
The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plug – we can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.
If you live anywhere in Britain, it won’t have escaped your attention that it’s been raining a bit, recently.
This has been causing quite a bit of flooding. And when flooding happens, people need to know if it is going to affect them.
Unfortunately, the Environment Agency flood warning website leaves something to be desired. It is, quite frankly, a usability dogs’ breakfast, with problems including:
- It doesn’t answer the main question: Most users arriving at this page simply want to know if they might be in danger. The page should be all about answering that question.
- It is trying to serve national and local needs: Information about flooding across the whole country might be useful to journalists or civil servants, but it shouldn’t be the main element.
- Clutter, clutter: A massive grid of numbers which don’t really mean anything, plus lots of sidebar links.
- Confusing graphics: The page contains a national map which doesn’t actually make it clear that the colours relate to the seriousness of flooding, or that it provides links to further content.
There are also some non-design problems with the postcode lookup, but today we want to stick to just the design issues.
Not just moaning minnies
At mySociety we try to be constructive in our criticism, and so whilst the flood waters are still draining from many people’s homes, we thought that we could do something positive. We want to show that a flood warning page could be an exemplar of clear, user-centered information design. So we made a mockup.
Some of the improvements we’d like to point out are:
- A big page title that makes it obvious what this page is, and the fact that it is official information.
- All the main elements on the page are now focussed on the most likely needs of potential flood victims – journalists can follow a link to a different page for their needs.
- We’ve removed roughly 90% of the links on the page for clarity.
- We’ve removed all numerical data because it wasn’t adding value. Nobody can know if ’5 warnings’ is a lot or a little without some context. As a nod to the overall context we’ve put in a simple graph, similar to a sparkline.
- It presents a clear button to click on if you’re actually endangered by a flood.
- It gives you a way to find out if other people near you are talking about local flooding via social media.
We hope you like this. It’s just the product of a couple of hours’ work, so if you have any suggestions on how it could be better, please let us know.
And, of course, we’re always happy to do similar work for other people.
As you may already be aware, mySociety is putting considerable effort into making it super-easy to set up versions of our websites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow in other countries.
These ‘websites in a box’ are a key part of our strategy to help people develop more successful civic and democratic websites around the world, but they are only the first half of our plan. Today I wanted to talk about the other half.
There are some use-cases for software in which most people are entirely happy to take some software off the shelf, press ‘Go’, and start using it. WordPress is a good example, and so is Microsoft Office.
However, there are some kinds of social issues that vary so much between different countries and regions that we believe one-size-fits-all tools for attacking them are impracticable.
This problem is particularly acute in the arena of sites and apps that allow people to track the activities of politicians. In this area there are several dozen different sites globally, almost all of which are powered by software that was written bespoke for that particular usage.
What drives this pattern of people re-writing every site from scratch is that people in different places care about different aspects of politics. In some countries what really counts is how politicians vote, in others the crux is campaign finance contributions, in others it is information on who has criminal records, and in others still it is whether public money has been vanishing suspiciously.
To build an off-the-shelf software platform that could handle all this data equally well in every country would be an immense coding task. And more important than that, we believe that it would create a codebase so huge and complex that most potential reusers would run away screaming. Or at least ignore it and start from scratch.
In short – we don’t believe there can be a WordPress for sites that monitor politicians, nor for a variety of other purposes that relate to good governance and stronger democracies.
We believe that the wrong answer to this challenge is to just say “Well then, everyone should build their own sites from scratch.” Over the years we at mySociety have been witness to the truly sad sight of people and organisations around the world wearing themselves out and blowing their budgets just trying to get the first version of a transparency website out the door. All too often they fail to create popular, long lasting sites because the birthing process is just so exhausting and resource-consuming that there’s nothing left to drive the sites to success. Often they don’t even get to launch.
A painful aspect of this problem is that the people who work on such sites are genuine altruists who are trying to solve serious problems in their part of the world; too much of their passion and energy is used up on building tools, when there’s still so much work beyond that that’s needed to make such sites successful. However, as we pointed out above, giving them a complete package on a plate isn’t an option. So what can we do?
Our Proposed Answer – The Components
We start from the following observation: coders and non-coders like simple, minimal, attractive tools that help them achieve bigger goals. Simple tools don’t make anyone run away screaming – they encourage exploration and deliver little sparkles of satisfaction almost immediately. But simple tools have to be highly interoperable and reliable to form the foundation of complex systems.
Our plan is to collaborate with international friends to build a series of components that deliver quite narrow little pieces of the functionality that make up bigger websites. These include:
- PopIt – A Component to store and share the names of politicians, and the jobs they have.
- MapIt – A Component to store and share information on the locations of administrative boundaries, like counties, regions or cities.
- SayIt – A Component to store and share information on the words that public figures say or put out in writing.
There will be more, possibly many more. Our goal is to radically collapse the time it takes to build new civic and democratic (and possibly governmental) websites and apps, without putting constraints on creativity.
Characteristics of each Component
There are some crucial architecture decisions that have been baked into the Components, to truly make them ‘small pieces loosely joined’.
- Each Component is fundamentally a tool for storing and sharing one or two kinds of common data – they’re intentionally minimalist.
- As a developer, you just use the Components that make sense for your goals – you simply don’t have to look at or learn about the Components that contain functionality that doesn’t matter to you.
- You don’t have to install anything to get started – you can always begin by playing with a hosted Component.
- We won’t impose our taste in programming languages on you. You can code your website in whatever language you want. The Components are not ‘modules’ - they don’t plug into some overarching framework like Drupal or WordPress. They are stand-alone tools which just present you data over REST APIs, and which you can write data into using REST APIs.
- Each Component’s data structures will offer as much flexibility as makes sense given the goal of keeping each Component really good at one or two tasks. We’ll listen to feedback carefully to get this right.
- Each Component has a clean, simple web front end so you can explore the data held in a store without having to write lots of SQL queries. Often you will be able to edit the data this way, too.
- Get started in seconds – each Component offers at least some functionality which is available inside a minute after getting involved.
- Non coders are welcome – we are building the Components so that non-coders can start gathering, editing and sharing data straight away, possibly long before they are in a position to launch a ‘real site’.
- Data can be added to the Components both through write APIs and through manual editing interfaces, suitable for non-coders.
- Learn from our mistakes – it is really easy to get the wrong data structure for civic, democratic or governmental data. Good practice data structures are baked into the Components, to save you pain later.
- Use our hosted versions, or install open source code locally. It will normally be quicker to get started in using the Components in a hosted environment, but if you want to run them locally, you’re entirely welcome. The code will be open source, and we’ll work hard to make sure it’s attractive and easy to install.
- The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.
What the Components Aren’t
Sometimes in life it can be easier to describe things by what they aren’t:
- The Components are definitively not modules in a framework or platform. Each one is totally independent, and they will frequently be written in different languages – partly to force us to ensure that the APIs are truly excellent.
- The Components aren’t either Hosted or Local, they’re both. We’ll always offer a hosted version and a downloadable version, and you’ll always be able to move any data you have stored on the hosted versions down to your local copies.
- The Components aren’t all about mySociety. We’re planning to build the first ones in conjunction with some friends, and we’ll be announcing more about this soon. We want the family of Components to be jointly owned by a group of loving parents.
When can I see some of the Components in Action?
We’ll be blogging more about that tomorrow…
Footnote – To see the provenance of the extremely useful ’small pieces loosely joined’ concept, see this.
One of the most common grumbles heard within the political and governmental classes is that the public doesn’t understand the need for compromise.
The argument goes something like this: left to themselves the public will vote for low tax and high public spending, resulting in eventual bankruptcy and collapse. The State of California is usually wheeled out as exhibit A here.
Assuming that this is even true, I find it hard to blame the public for a general lack of awareness about the compromises involved in running a functional government.
This is not because big budgets are complicated (although they are) but because most governments waste hundreds of thousands of opportunities a day to explain the nature of compromises. They waste them because they’re still thinking about the world from a paper-centric mindset.
Linking to explanations
My argument is this: key compromises or decisions should be linked to from the points where people obtain a service, or at the points where they learn about one. If my bins are only collected once a fortnight, the reason why should be one click away from the page that describes the collection times.
Currently, in order to obtain an explanation for why a service functions as it does, I’d probably have to pick up the phone to my local councillor, or use this handy service to make a few FOI requests. In terms of effort and clicks, these explanations describing why a service is like it is are so far away from the service itself that they might as well be on Mars.
Here are some of the wasted opportunities to explain which I would like to see seized upon:
- A “Why aren’t there more bin collections?” link on local government waste pages, linking through to an explanation about council budgets, what would have to be sacrificed to have more bin collections, and who made the decision to adopt the current compromise.
- Updates by local governments on FixMyStreet that say “We’re not going to fix this problem because it wouldn’t be good value for money”, linking through to an appropriate analysis about money spent on street fixing, versus other things.
- On the NHS’s ‘Choose and Book’ website, I’d like to see links saying “Why can’t I get an appointment sooner?” These would then be linked to data on NHS waiting lists, budget constraints and specific decisions that set the current availability.
Obviously cynics out there will say that governments don’t want people to know that they can’t solve all the world’s ills – and that they want to preserve a mystique of omnipotence, so that people will be miserably grateful to them for the bounty bestowed. In this model, governments don’t offer explanations lest citizens see them as merely mortal, and boot them out.
Now, I don’t know about you, but servile gratitude and illusions of infinite power doesn’t sound much like the current attitude to government from most people I know. We live in politically disillusioned times where many people worry if the government can actually fix anything, never mind everything.
If ever there was a time to start routinely explaining to citizens that government is a process of ceaseless compromises it is now, in the hard times. There are plenty of those around the world right now.
I believe that citizens could be both more forgiving of governments, and more empowered to demand change if services were closely connected to explanations of why compromises have been made. I think that the reason it hasn’t happened before isn’t really politics: it’s simply because it wouldn’t have been possible on paper. On paper you can’t link through to an animated narrative, or a set of votes, or a transcript of a key decision. I think the main reason we don’t connect services with explanations is because governments haven’t really grokked the meaning of simple linking yet – not really. I’m looking for the first government, national or local, willing to give it a shot.
Governments, companies and large organisations of all kinds regularly spend astonishing amounts of money on computer systems that are either completely broken, or which are instances of what I call Hateware – software that appears to have been designed by people who actually hate users.
Why does this happen? Obviously there are multiple, terribly complicated factors. But I’m going to boil down one of the biggest problems to a little story.
[Dreamy fade sequence]
Imagine you have been made responsible for replacing the desk chairs in your office. The old ones have gone all sweat coloured, and you’re worried one might collapse.
So you put out a competitive tender for furniture companies. You wait, vet and score all their bids, and finally you invite the finalists in to make their pitch.
In they come: smart, sober, dressed in a way that suggests success whilst avoiding ostentation. They set up their presentation, and start to tell you about the range of office furniture they have. The pitch is fantastic. They’ve already thought about all your concerns. They have an impressive array of happy clients who are just like you. Their slides are polished and focussed. They’ve brought fabric swatches to flick through. The chairs are handsome, with just the right number of pleasing gizmos. And they can ship next week.
The presentation draws to a close – any questions?
“Well, that was fantastic – I particularly like your X1 basic office chair. Just one question, what’s the cost?”
A few minutes pass as they reflect on the wide range of maintenance contract options, chair customisations and bulk purchasing reductions. Eventually, with a little nudging, you get the price for one chair.
“The base price of the X1 office chair is currently one millions pounds, with a £500,000 yearly licensing contract. Plus tax.”
Moments later the presenters, laptops, suits and fabric swatches bump to earth on the pavement outside the office door. Security is instructed never to let anyone from the company in, ever again.
How does this little story explain anything about ICT?
Well, re-read the story above, but replace ‘chair’ with ‘payroll system’. And replace ‘fabric swatch’ with ‘lovingly photoshopped mockups, customised for your company branding’. Go on – I’ll wait.
The pitch no longer seems so crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t kick someone out when they announce the price. Why? Because you don’t know what is a sane price for a payroll system, and what’s an absurd, insulting price.
The moral here is quite simple: you can’t make good decisions if you are lacking even the most basic frame of reference about what something should cost, or how it works.
The problem is that when it comes to identifying technology needs, and procuring successfully to fill them, you can’t simply rely on general life experience to save you. It’s a specialist skill, and one that requires knowledge to be constantly relearned and unlearned as technologies change.
Too few large organisations understand this. They see buying a new computer system as very much like buying new furniture – it’s just ‘all stuff the office needs’, along with car parks, printer paper or tea bags. This attitude fails to see that many modern organisations don’t have IT systems and websites, they are IT systems and websites. They can no more delegate this to some junior staffer than they can delegate the strategy of the whole business.
Almost all large organisations today need at least one person right up at the top level of the company who can spot the million pound chairs without the help of subordinates.
Once organisations understand that they are regularly buying million pound chairs, their CEOs and boards face another problem: how do they know which of their staff can actually spot the million pound chair, if any?
Unfortunately, the solution isn’t obvious.
As of right now there are no professional qualifications that would guarantee the right skills set. Worse, there’s even an unfortunate association in my mind between people with lots of qualifications like ‘MSCE’ and ‘SAP Certified Associate’ and projects that are triply gold plated, entirely missing user-centered design, and inevitably compromised by a tribal loyalty to one vendor.
So what’s a CEO to do? The answer, for now, unfortunately has to be to hire through trust and reputation networks. Find people who appear to have delivered nimble, popular user-centred projects on limited budgets, and get them to help you hire and restructure.
Trust networks, of course, can backfire: trust the wrong person and you can be in trouble. But the Enterprise computing world has backfired into the laps of leaders and managers enough times in the last two decades.
It is time for leaders to bring some people who have got their hands dirty in the guts of digital projects into the decision making rooms, and onto the decision making boards.
Tom Steinberg is the director of mySociety, a social enterprise which provides consultation services and software development to a range of clients in the public and private sectors.
Tom will be talking more on this theme at the Local Government Association Conference next week.
At mySociety we take some pride in knowing that FixMyStreet has helped rid the world of thousands of potholes over the years, but of course our contribution to unbroken roads is merely the start of the process. Certainly, reporting a hole on FixMyStreet is easy (we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that is the case), but we do appreciate that a hole remains a hole until somebody takes the trouble to actually fill it in. So really it is all the inspectors, despatchers, logistic and supply teams, fleet mechanics, and repair crews who make the world a smoother, less perforated place.
We’re currently working on a pilot project in the city of Cebu (the “second city” of the Philippines) with the World Bank and transport experts ITP that will implement a FixMyStreet-based reporting service as part of the ongoing battle to keep its roads and streetlights in good repair. Later in the year we will have more to report, but for now—before anything is up and running—we can start by saluting the work of some of the remarkable people who fix the roads (and replace the bulbs) there.
My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.
To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDS, Code For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.
The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English’: he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.
Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun? The answer is trivial.
That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.
What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.
Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*
Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift. What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.
This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.
What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies. Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.
Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.
This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.
There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:
“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”
* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.