Wanting to do the absolute best job I can, I jumped at the chance to tag along to Mind the Product 2012, where product managers from around Europe met up to learn how some of the best in the world go about their business.
Of the many pearls of wisdom shared, here is what stuck with me since…
It’s an overdue refresh. I actually transferred to the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service in December 2011, but I saw out the remainder of my two-year secondment to FCO which. But now I am full time at GDS and loving it.
There’s a proper, serious start-up culture here; it’s an atmosphere I’ve been craving to work in. Everyday feels like a mission to shake things up and everyone is pulling in the same direction with the aim of radically and rapidly changing the way Her Majesty’s Government thinks and does digital. Read More…
After the watershed – five reasons why nothing can be the same since the launch of Gov.uk/government
On February 28th the hangar door of Aviation House opened and gov.UK/government took it’s maiden flight. It might not be up there with what happened at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but this will go down as a decisive event in the way government publishes and engages – digitally or otherwise.
Inside government is the second part of the GovUK beta to go live and although in the history books it will all rightly be discussed as one and same, for me at this stage in the development /government is the most radical and exciting part.
Your best guide to the project and the site is Neil Williams, the gov.uk/government product manager. But before I lose you to him, you might spare me just a couple of minutes to share an unofficial insider’s view (someone who has worked with, for and now in digital teams in the government; a hard-boiled sceptic, now convinced through first-hand experience of the gov.UK project)
So here are five reasons why I think the release of the Inside government beta is a watershed moment:
March 2011 saw a bonanza for those of us with an interest in government information and communication technology marked as it was by the unveiling of the Government Digital Service, the publication of the ‘Review of COI and Government Communications‘ and the release of the new Government ICT strategy.
First came the Government Digital Service (GDS) which gave ‘Codename Martha‘ formal status, an official title, a boss, a timeline, and put money where before there were only words. Government will have its single domain and from this point onwards will be looking to deliver of all its services and communications through a digital lens. To prove as much, a crack (or SWAT for MLF Review afficiandos) team was introduced headed up by Tom Loosemore and a man close to my appraisal, Jimmy Leach, who are soon to unveil a proof-of-concept for the single domain, going by the nom de guerre, AlphaGov.
Next up was the ‘Review of Government Direct Communication and COI‘. This set of recommendations, pulled together in which the Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary Government Communication, called for the exiting of the COI and the creation of the Government Communication Centre (GCC) in its place. The GCC’s task will be to spend significantly less people and money delivering fewer but better marketing communications by amplifying cross-government themes over departmental campaigns. Propositions are to be sharper, ROI will be taken much more seriously and digital will underpin it all.
And last but not least we got sight of the Government ICT Strategy. And a very enlightened and on-trend ICT strategy it is too. In it are contained committments to open source, interoperability, green credentials, cloud, web, use of Agile and even democratic power shift (which is a boon for the likes of an old worthy like me). Another departure from the norm is that this document is mercifully brief, very clear on the actions required and very exact on when they should be done by.
Each release demanded attention in its own right. But the commonalities also ring out.
- Money… set against the backdrop of the deficit, each sets out to save billions of pounds. £1.3 billion for GDS. £54 million for GCC. And an unspecified figure for Government ICT but a stated ‘presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than £100 million‘.
- People… There will be fewer people and the staff remaining will work to new skill sets and efficiency and effectiveness goals.
- Digital… is an standout common theme but not one that is inevitable. Yes, you would expect the GDS to have lots of digital, but for the future of government marketing communications to be so acutely spearheaded by digital and then for the ICT strategy to talk in such ‘webby’ terms is a real watershed.
- Centralisation… At a time when even the US Military is restructuring itself as a network, each of these HMG developments seek to put more strategic and delivery capacity in the centre. That’s intriguing, and like the point on digital above, is a real step-change.
Each release appeared independently and has been picked up by different practitioner communities. Colleagues in digital may have read one release and not the others, and the same goes for communications and IT colleagues. But they must be conversant in all three.
The trick is to understand them not as three separate entities but as a trinity. None can achieve its ambitions in isolation of others.
Regardless of the new budgets, new team sizes or new technology, it is this blurring of lines between three previously separate disciplines that is the point and the most exciting challenge of the next 4 – 5 years.
1. Nomensa has suggested 7 tips and techniques for multi-lingual website accessibility on its Humanising Technology blog. Good practical advice and an excellent introductory note for anyone thinking about creating or managing a multi-lingual site. (via @neilfranklin)
2. Paul Harris writing in the Guardian accounts for the new wave of cyber-scepticism rushing through American academia, this time focussed on social networking. A well-weighted article on an increasingly mainstream debate about the sociological influences of increasingly mainstream communication tools.
3. Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech to the Munich Security Conference which set out Britain’s call for international norms in cybersecurity. For an international perspective on the risks, OECD‘s Reducing Systemic Cybersecurity Risks report explores the potential of cyber-related events to have the capacity to cause a global shock.
But since starting at the FCO I’ve had my head down. I don’t get out on work time as much as I used to; these days I rely far more on the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up on what’s what and who’s who. It works, but I miss the face-time with smart, creative people who are as passionate about digital as I am (my wonderful FCO colleagues excepted).
So it was I was really excited to attend UK GovCamp 2011. This was my first time along and tickets were hard to come by, so I thought to record my experiences and observations here to add to the other great commentary from the day and latterly.
It won’t be any surprise that it was a total geek-fest, but it was the number and range of geeks that was impressive.
There were about 200 people there, which I understand was the biggest UK GovCamp to date. Amongst the 200 were local government people, central government people, commercial sector types as well as a few academics and journos. There were developers, policy officials, site managers, CIOs and IT representatives. It was this mixing of the discipline pools that was one of the most interesting aspects of the day.
Format & Venue
I’ve been to one or two unconferences and to be honest attendees sometimes struggle with the participant-led facilitation. But the Barcamp approach was perfect for the attendees and there was no shortage of people stepping up with good ideas for sessions when the grid was opened up. From there it was relaxed and playful but always focussed and meaty.
Microsoft were the hosts, putting us up in their swank Victoria offices. What a place! Loads of room, airy, good meeting rooms and quality breakout areas. Plus a Kinect set up, although I didn’t get time to play.
What a choice! You could go to sessions on AGILE, open data, hyperlocality and an introduction to the new HMG CEO of Digital. Unkindly there were a lot of clashes, but such is the way with unconferences.
I made it to three…
In the spirit of openness and transparency, there is a section of some government websites that deserves more of the searchlight. It’s the digital team pages, and one in particular has come under my scrutiny lately – Digital @ BIS.
bis.gov.uk/bisdigital has just recently launched. It’s primarily for webbies in the department and in its agencies, but it also serves to inform the wider public about what BIS does digitally should that public be minded to know more.
Not many departments have such sites even though more or less all have digital teams. Those that do are practicing what they preach.
The BIS example should be considered ‘best of breed’. It knows exactly who its audiences are and in what order. It’s design balances form and function. And it provides the passing novice or the hardcore practitionner with a wealth of content that taken as a taster or as a full course represents a hearty insight into a core function within a key government department.
When I describe David Kilcullen to people I describe him as a ‘mash up’. In his look, Kilcullen is a cross between Steve Irwin and an American Football coach on R&R, replete with blazer and chinos. He’s an academic but he also spent 21 years in the army. He’s Australian but he worked for the American military.
He’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but in the States he’s revered as one of the architects of ‘The Surge in Iraq. His area of expertise, as an scholar and a soldier, is counter-insurgency. He’s a very good speaker and a talented writer, receiving plaudits from citizens and military-types alike for his 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Guerilla’, which packs essential reading on CT theory alongside explosive first-hand accounts of a hugely complex and dangerous area of warfare that most of us will thankfully only gawp at.
Having read ‘Accidental Guerilla’, I turned with interest to an earlier 2007 paper, ‘Twenty-Eight articles’ a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. One sentence early on stayed with me: ‘what does all the theory mean, at the company level?’ This tickled an idea in my head.
Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written in the 6th century BC, has been applied ad nauseam to the business world. Maybe in Kilcullen we’ve got a latter day strategist who’s lessons from modern wars can better guide us in the current day. What if we swap out the army’s ‘company’ for civvy-street’s ‘organisation’? And consider ‘out-moded ways of thinking’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ our ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgent’?
As I reread ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ through this lens, I started to think ‘yes, there is something to this’; especially for managers in my trade. Public sector managers are finding themselves working in alien conditions. There are new ambitious bosses demanding more results with less resources. Money is one thing, but staff numbers have taken a hammering, and managers are finding their feet in new teams and often with new management structures on top. That’s not a complaint, it is a fact of [working] life. At the same time as doing ‘more for less’, many of these managers are trying to embed new ways of working amongst their staff and, crucially, their colleagues working around them.
It’s essentially a bit of fun and it’s comparison I make advisedly but I do believe that there are attitudes, principles and even practical lessons to be gleaned from Kilcullen’s counter-insurgency teachings for those trying to manage and deliver in tough times while also trying to bring about change.
You’ll have to read ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ to make an informed judgement for yourself. You’ll see the limits (no.19 is a prime example) but I’ve picked out some quotes to give a sense of what I’m leaning at and will leave you to make the translations. As Kilcullen says himself in sign-off:
Like any folklore it needs interpretation, and contains seemingly contradictory advice. Over time, as you apply unremitting intellectual effort to study your sector, you will learn to apply these ideas in your own way, and will add to this store of wisdom from your own observations and experience.
1. Know your turf
‘Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance… Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.’
2. Diagnose the problem
‘…in theater, situations will arise too quickly for orders, or even commander’s intent. Corporals and privates will have to make snap judgments with strategic impact. The only way to help them is to give them a shared understanding, then trust them to think for themselves on the day.’
3. Organize for intelligence
‘Your operations will be intelligence driven, but intelligence will come mostly from your own operations, not as a ‘product’ prepared and served up by higher headquarters… put the smartest soldiers [on intelligence duty]… you will have one less rifle squad: but the intelligence section will pay for itself in lives and effort saved.’