It is a cliché for any manager to say that they are proud of their team, and mildly nausea-inducing to listen to anyone who goes on about it too long. However, the purpose of this post is to argue that the world would benefit from a new kind of post-graduate Masters programme – something that is hard to do without describing the virtues of the type of people who should come out of it. So please bear with me, and keep a sick bag to one hand.
mySociety’s core development team is very, very good. But they’re not just good at turning out code. Louise Crow, for example, has a keen eye for things that will and won’t make a difference in the offline world, as well as the skills to build virtually whatever she can think of. And the exact same thing is true of the whole coding team: Duncan, Matthew, Edmund and Dave in the current team, plus Francis, Chris and Angie before them.
mySociety didn’t give these people their raw talent, nor the passion to be involved with projects that make a difference. What it has given them, though, is the chance to spend a lot of time talking to each other, learning from their triumphs and their mistakes, and listening to users. This space and peer-contact made them into some of the world’s few genuine experts in the business of conceptualising and then delivering digital projects that deliver new kinds of civic and democratic benefits.
So, why am I sitting here unashamedly blowing my colleagues trumpets like this? (I don’t have these skills, after all!) Well, in order to point out that there are quite simply far too few people like this out there.
Too few experts
“Too few for what?” you may well ask. Too few for any country that wants to be a really great place to live in the 21st century, is my answer.
There is barely a not-for-profit, social enterprise or government body I can think of that wouldn’t benefit from a Duncan Parkes or a Matthew Somerville on the payroll, so long as they had the intelligence and self-discipline not to park them in the server room. Why? Because just one person with the skills, motivation and time spent learning can materially increase the amount of time that technology makes a positive contribution to almost any public or not-for-profit organisation.
What they can do for an organistion
Such people can tell the management which waves of technology are hype, and which bring real value, because they care more about results than this week’s craze, or a flashy presentation. They can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers. They can contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil. And they can tell the top management of organisations how those organisations look to a digital native population, because they come from that world themselves.
And why they don’t
Except such experts can’t do any of these things for not-for-profit or public institutions: they can’t help because they’re not currently being employed by such bodies. There are two reasons why not, reasons which just may remind you of a chicken and an egg.
First, such institutions don’t hire this kind of expert because they don’t know what they are missing – they’re completely outside of the known frame of reference. Before you get too snarky about dumb, insular institutions, can you honestly say you would try to phone a plumber if you had never heard that they existed? Or would you just treat the water pouring through the ceiling as normal?
Second, these institutions don’t hire such experts because there just aren’t enough on the market: mySociety is basically the main fostering ground in UK for new ones, and we greedily keep hold of as many of our people as possible. Hands off my Dave!
Which leads me to the proposal, a proposal to create more such experts for public and non-profit institutions, and to make me feel less guilty about mySociety hoarding the talent that does exist.
Describing the Masters in Public Technology
The proposal is this: there should be a new Masters level course at at least one university which would take people with the raw skill and the motivation and puts them on a path to becoming experts in the impactful use of digital technologies for social purposes. Here’s how I think it might work.
In the first instance, the course would only be for people who could already code well (if all went well, we could develop a sister course for non-coders later on). Over the course of a single year it would teach its students a widely varied curriculum, covering the structure and activities of government, campaigns, NGOs and companies. It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.
I would hope we could get great guest lecturers on a wide range of topics. My fantasy starter for 10 would include names as varied in their disciplines as Phil Gyford, David Halpern, Martha Lane Fox, Ben Goldacre, Roz Lemieux, William Perrin, Jane McGonigal, Denise Wilton, Ethan Zuckerman, as well as lots of people from in and around mySociety itself.
What would it take?
I don’t know the first thing about how universities go about creating new courses, so having someone who knew about that step up as a volunteer would be a brilliant start!
Next, it would presumably take some money to make it worth the university’s time. I would like to think that there might be some big IT company that would see the good will to be gleaned from educating a new generation of socially minded, organisation-reforming technologists.
Third, we’d actually need a university with a strong community of programmers attached, willing and ready to do something different. It wouldn’t have to be in the UK, either, necessarily.
Then it would need a curriculum, and teaching, which I would hope mySociety could lead on, but which would doubtless best be created and taught in conjunction with real academics. We’d need some money to cover our time doing this, too.
And finally it would need some students. But my hunch is that if we do this right, the problem will probably be fending people off with sticks.
I’m genuinely not sure – I hope this post sparks some debate, and I hope it provokes some people to go “Yeah, me too”. Maybe you could tell me what I should do next?
…so what of the future?
First, I am more convinced than ever that mySociety offers something quite unique, and something must survive if technology is going to be best applied on the side of the citizen. Despite the explosion of so called web 2.0 technologies being adapted by newspapers, government and other media companies, the tools mySociety builds remain unique. They don’t just involve repurposing generic new communications tools like blogs, they involve conceptualising how technology can empower people from first principles. Nobody else is in the UK even attempts to build services like WhatDoTheyKnow or TheyWorkForYou, they’re just too different from what’s out there to copy. And when we do build them, they get copied across the world – one of the things I didn’t expect five years ago is that I’d be celebrating tonight with Rob McKinnon, the man who took TheyWorkForYou and made it work in New Zealand, and being toasted from Australia via Twitter. But we know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.
To do this, however, we must do something about our funding. mySociety remains deeply financially insecure, and if we’re to celebrate our 6th birthday, let alone our 10th something urgent has to happen.
Next, we need to admit that we’ve shifted the culture of government internet usage less than we might have hoped over the last five years. Nevertheless, I honestly believe that a relatively minor shake-up at relatively low cost can see a massive step change in the way that government delivers services online, the way that it talks to citizens, and the way that it makes information available. But so long as the cult of outsourcing everything computer related continues to dominate in Whitehall, and so long as experts like Matthew and Francis are treated as suspicious just because they understand computers, little is going to change. Government in the UK once led the world in its own information systems, breaking Enigma, documenting an empire’s worth of trade. And then it fired everyone who could do those things, or employed them only via horribly expensive consultancies. It is time to start bringing them back into the corridors of power.
In one way that’s great for mySociety’s reputation that government progress has been so slow – even on a bankruptcy budget mySociety will continue to at least appear to out-innovate the entire UK government. But from a public welfare perspective it’s a tragic farce.
What we want from the government is technologies that empower and uplift, not depersonalise and degrade. mySociety wants to be part of this change, and I hope we don’t have to wait until a new government comes in to have a decent shot at slaying some of the shiboleths that stand in our way to decent reform.
Last, but not least, I want as many of you as possible to be part of making mySociety’s vision of easier, more accessible, more responsive democracy the minimum that people expect, not the best they can hope for. This will take lots of volunteers, and lots of funding funding and ideas and newspaper stories. It’ll take lots of brilliant coding and better design. It will take political leaders who understand that the internet is the big, unique chance their generation has to shake things up and get into the history books.
And, more than anything else, I want to do it with you people. I want to do it with mySociety.