Recommended reading… the quantified self, BBC’s multi-lingual websites and British attitudes towards UK’s international priorities

'On the platform, reading' by moriza
'On the platform, reading' by moriza

People still read, right?

‘The Measured Life’ by Emily Singer in Technology Review

Whether it is to get fitter, better or just to have a go at hacking the human condition, people are beginning to turn ‘big data’ technologies on their sleep, diets and productivity. Athletes and sufferers of certain medical conditions have been at it for years, but evidently the ‘quantified self’ is going mainstream and it’s bound to be big business.

‘BBC World Service Language Websites: user experience and typography’ by Kutlu Canlioglu on BBC Internet Blog

The FCO publishes in 50+ languages on our platform and in 20+ languages on the social web. We know a thing or two about multi-lingual publishing. But there is still an awful lot we can learn from the way the BBC Worldservice approaches publishing its non-English websites. What I find impressive is the way the Worldservice provides custom editorial in so many languages yet maintains consistency in user journeys and page layouts. This blog post is about how they do it.

‘British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities’ by Robin Niblett for Chatham House and YouGov

This is the second survey of British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities that Chatham House has developed with YouGov. The survey examined the attitudes of two groups – the first a representative sample of GB adults, and the second a group of ‘opinion-formers’. The differences between the two are fascinating but what is truly revealing are the discontinuities in the public’s thinking about foreign policy. The ultimate conclusion, for me, is that there is a lot of communication and engagement that needs to get a lot better.

Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?

Government’s use of digital media is undergoing radical change. As digital media use has become more mainstream  and critical – first to communications, then policy-making through engagement and more recently for transactions – so too has government steadily rationalised its digital operations. That trend is now coming to a head with the establishment of the Government Digital Service, which will provide centralised services, a single domain and web platform for all government departments and [most of] their agencies to use.

That each department and agency will no longer have its own, separate domain, CMS, hosting arrangement, support contract, analytics account and maybe central web team is genuinely radical. But could the delivery of government digital services be more radical still?

Frances Maude’s speech at Civil Service Live 2011 made me think so. In that speech he floated the idea of giving public sector staff the right to form new mutuals and bid to take over the services they deliver. Could government digital services be a candidate for mutualisation? In this post I suggest that it could.

Continue reading “Government digital service: is the feeling mutualised?”

Recommended reading… Google is a normal company, the most menancing malware in history and putting strategies to the test

'The Best Way to Read a Book' by pixelevangelist
'The Best Way to Read a Book' by pixelevangelist

A few good long reads that I think are well worth the time…

‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Evgeny Morozov in The New Republic

Evgeny Morozov uses a book review of two new studies of Google as a company to do an iconoclast job on the Silicon Valley behamoth. It’s cutting stuff. He calls Google ‘a for-profit American company that combines the simplistic worldview of George W. Bush with the cold rationality of Barack Obama’. Perhaps, the most painful accusation that Morozov makes is that Google is an not exceptional corporation and its inability to accept this is dangerous not just the company but for us all.

Morozov says ‘writing about Google presents an almost insurmountable challenge. To understand the company and its impact, one needs to have a handle on computer science, many branches of philosophy (from epistemology to ethics), information science, cyberlaw, media studies, sociology of knowledge, public policy, economics, and even complexity theory’; but in this article he gives it a good stab. May I suggest, as an apertif, Steven Levy’s Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social.

‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’ by Kim Zetter in Wired

A proper whodunit? for the cyber age. Expertly written by Agatha Christie of the cybersecurity genre (just made that up). I shall say no more.

Have you tested your strategy lately? by Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit in McKinsey Quarterly

The Office invited Charles Roxburgh in – over our lunch break – to tell us how McKinsey & Company approach strategy. There were lots of good insights from a man who really knows his business strategy (and the American Civil War) and amongst these one of the most useful, I thought, was the 10-point test McKinsey applies to the strategies of its clients to determine whether they are good or bad examples. Lots of useful further reading pegged off the article itself.

Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects

'Eden Project is 10' logo
'Eden Project is 10' logo

When you think of the Eden Project you think of plants. So the book about ‘Eden‘ by it’s founder, Tim Smit, is going to be about plants.

In fact, there are hardly any plants in ‘Eden’. There’s no room for them because on every page there are portraits and portrayals of the people who worked to bring us the Eden Project. There really are loads of them and their story is fascinating.

Harnessing people to a dream

We think of the Eden Project as being built of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene but it is in fact made from people. The people in ‘Eden’ swarm like a bivouac of worker ants, linking up to nurture and protect something truly unique and valuable, and at the centre of it all – holding the concept – is Tim Smit.

The Eden Project is about plants but the reason is people. It was launched to be an educational and social enterprise that would demand public attention on a superb scale. But such ambition does not deliver itself easily. ‘Eden’ captures and emphasises the depth of enterprise, teamwork and leadership that went into the realisation of an attraction that over 10 million people have travelled to experience, and which to all intents and purposes had its genesis in a Cornish pub.

Tim Smit uses the opportunity of ‘Eden’ to reel off his thanks to as many of the characters as he can who mucked in along the way. He gives each the stage and tells us about what they did, how they did it in their own unique way and how none of the Eden Project would have been possible without them. But the book is not just an extended acknowledgements page; it is a great story with as many vivid twists and turns and suspenses and feel-good endings as any classic of fiction.

Continue reading “Eden at 10 – What a disused clay mine taught us about good leadership of people and projects”

Crossover appeal… why we need to link GDS, GCC and ICT

'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett
'autocomplete3' by Paul Annett

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.

Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations

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.’

Continue reading “Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations”

All change – A new government, a new job and a new home

'Seedlings in peet pots' by Jackal of all trades

A lot has happened since my last post.

I’ve moved house, there’s been a general election (resulting in a new government) and I’ve changed job. That all happened in one week.

Now I’m almost a month into the new role. It’s a 2 year secondment to the FCO, where I am Head of Networks in the Digital Diplomacy Group.

Continue reading “All change – A new government, a new job and a new home”

Stuff what I has been reading: 17/02/10 – 24/02/10

'Reading the TV novels summary' by pedrosimoes7

Over the last seven days, I have become a richer and more-engaging person for having read:

1. ‘Evaluating our blogs‘ from Stephen Hale’s FCO blog

“Foreign Office bloggers should focus on making sure that their blogs are integrated, personal, real-time, and 2-way. These are the headline findings of our detailed evaluation of the impact and reach of our blog”

The latest in a strong series of evaluations by the FCO’s Digital Diplomacy Group of their digital media activities. A very useful, well set out contribution to the growing body of research on governments’ use of digital engagement.

2. ‘British Social Attitudes 25th Report‘ from the National Centre for Social Research

“Every year the British Social Attitudes survey asks around 3000 people what it’s like to live in Britain and how they think Britain is run. The survey tracks people’s changing social, political and moral attitudes and informs the development of public policy.”

Published back in January, this report and the short summary of findings provided online, are essential reading on the British social attitudes ahead of the General Election.

3. ‘How to handle and encourage trailblazers‘ by Laurence Jackson for Guardian Public

“The public sector is hardly renowned for taking risks, but leaders should be able to identify trailblazers in their organisation – employees with a creative spark or energy or vision – and encourage them to realise their potential”

An overview of a study – conducted by Manchester Business School and Wickland Westcott – of the characteristics, career history and ambitions of 30 public sector leaders, selected for their ability to drive transformation in public services.

Know Your Place – An Ideal Day In My Working Life

'Log Stock Contemplation' by dannymanic

Home-working can be lonely. Remote-working can be risky. Office-working can be stifling. In an ideal world I’d mix them up.

A number of factors – Perrin’s Blackhall concept and my new Android phone amongst them – have conspired to make me draw up this ‘ideal day in my working life’.

It’s based on my work in the Civil Service and is set in the not too distant future. I am well aware that all people in Palo Alto probably already work like this, as do many Londoners, but for Civil Servants it would be a major step. Continue reading “Know Your Place – An Ideal Day In My Working Life”

12 for 12 – Professional Resolutions for 2010

I’m not really one for personal New Year’s resolutions.

But seeing as this new year is the start of a new decade and I’ve been in the Civil Service for 12 months, I thought I’d make a sort-of-exception and come up with and share my New Year’s professional resolutions.

  1. Innovation is like love – easy to say, hard to define. Best just get on with it and let actions speak louder than words.
  2. Trust instinct. Much of work is about familiar fixed patterns.
  3. Look at everything we do through the framework of behaviour change.
  4. Look at everything we do through the framework of saving money.
  5. Realise that change can happen overnight.
  6. Don’t over engineer. Remember that it’s easier to add than take away.
  7. Be frank. Have more straight-up conversations with people.
  8. Remember that people who know the rules best, know how to get round them best.
  9. If I’m looking for adventure,  go out in search of truly strategic integrated communications.
  10. Be more honest which means being more creative.
  11. Comment on other people’s opinions and work more often. Appreciative inquiry is the way forward.
  12. Being optimistic is the catalyst for an open mind.

True – it’s a tightrope between cliche and mumbo-jumbo, but I’ve looked inside and those 12 really speak to me.

Have you made any professional resolutions for 2010?