Tag Archives: transformation

Using agriculture and the ooda loop to help stakeholders understand Internet-era public services

Last week I was very privileged to deliver a keynote to the annual SOCITM President’s conference. The last time I did so was in 2013, I’m hopefully a bit wiser since then. Also I was delighted to see the conference’s attendance grow both in numbers and diversity since my last visit.

This blog isn’t the presentation I gave last week, nor a transcript of it. It’s the distillation and iteration of those ideas.

How can we bring stakeholders with us into the Internet era for public services?

People in an old office sitting at mechanical calculator machines
Computing in days gone past. The ‘computers’ were the people.

I’ve been a council leader, I’ve run a digital agency and I’ve been a senior council officer. In all cases I’ve seen the huge difficulties good people and important work can face when struggling with stakeholders who “just don’t get it”.

For those of us impatient for change, it’s something we have often wrestled with. In many ways it’s an age old issue that goes to the heart of organisational renewal. But, and I know this is (justifiable) exceptionalism, I do think the Internet era we are now in brings a new flavour to this challenge. The conversations we need to have aren’t “out with the old, in with the new” and it would be wrong if they were. What I think we often experience is a fundamental disconnect over what the Internet era means and why it changes things.

An important public service announcement:

We break for a reminder that this isn’t a breathless Wired article where “just add tech” techno-utopias will be entertained. Sadly I think that too often when there is fear or misunderstanding of the Internet era people can revert to simplistic “just be more like Amazon” talk, sprinkling tech as they go. That’s one of the reasons I try to avoid using the term digital without being sure I’m with people who all agree we mean something like Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital. Too often ‘digital’ becomes a hand waving phrase to avoid precision about what we are actually talking about.

Let’s also be clear that “not getting it” doesn’t mean people are bad, it means we’ve got work to do. Now some will be stubborn, lacking curiosity and hard to budge. But in my experience most aren’t. We don’t need 100% understanding from all stakeholders. We just need enough to swing the pendulum.

The end of the heroic leadership paradigm

Superheroes flying with a big red cross over them
No heroic leaders please (superhero movies are fine though)

I didn’t know what it was called until I saw Barbara Kellerman speak at Harvard, but now I can proudly declare that I’m a passionate student of collaborative leadership. That is to say that the heroic model of a super-CEO type leader is not one I subscribe to and I don’t think is sustainable in our modern world.

In public services I think that means breaking down the Victorian, militaristic hierarchies in our organisations. It also means helping our leaders to recognise that a mechanistic mental model of how to bring about change is deeply flawed. There may be some levers to pull on, but they aren’t connected to anything at the other end, so won’t achieve the desired outcomes. Quite simply, just because someone has a position high up a hierarchy, Prime Minister even, doesn’t mean the outcomes they desire will happen on their say-so.

Moustachioed man at old fashioned exercise machine with a big lever
“Minister, you may think this lever reforms public services, but it isn’t connected to anything”

Rather I think an agricultural model of thinking and leading is more appropriate. We can’t make a seed germinate. We can’t know what’s going on inside a seed without destroying it. But we know the conditions it needs to give it the best chance of successfully germinating and growing: Fertile soil, water, warmth, sunshine and so on. Creating the conditions for success, in the knowledge that we can’t control for everything is vital to the mind shift we need to achieve. This means nurturing teams, valuing staff happiness and engagement are all even more vital.

Gardener planing a new seedling

How does this help me with stakeholders?

It does. Because there are lots of excellent people, associations, companies and agencies supporting leaders on such journeys to collaboration and systems thinking without explicitly talking about technology. I think that can be an incredibly helpful trojan horse to shifting the thinking.

Secondly, this mindset really can be shifted by a small group of people. It needs resilience and some supporters at or near the top, but this journey  doesn’t require your whole organisation to agree or understand before the tide will start to turn with positive outcomes. The Margaret Mead quote hits the spot on this:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
“Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

So what?

I took the time to set out some of my underlying assumptions about styles of leadership and thinking because they’re important. Launching into why the Internet era is different without first being clear on the necessary common ground is, in my experience, risking a high chance of early failure.

We urgently need stakeholders to think about, decide on and support work in different ways. We need them to fund teams, not projects. We need patient supportive leaders to allow the hard work of discovery, user research and service design to actually bear fruit. We need to bin business cases: They give false comfort with lies about how much will be saved or earned in 4 years if we spend X now. As public servants we need to focus on the wicked problems which, by their very nature, can never offer certainty on costs nor returns in a fixed timescale.

Cover of the book "Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war" by Robert Coram

So I turn to US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the Korean War and considered one of the top strategists in modern US military history, who still has academic conferences held in his honour. In the 1950s Boyd developed the concept of the OODA loop. This describes a loop beginning with Observe, then Orient, then Decide, then Act before returning to Observe and so on.

Diagram of the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

He originated this thinking with reference to aerial dogfights. He suggested that the winner in a dogfight was the pilot who could get ‘inside’ the enemy’s OODA loop – in other words do each of the steps faster than their opponent. The simplicity of the idea, and it’s easy application to much in modern life, has given it a life well beyond aerial combat tactics.

Public sector bodies have their own OODA loops as expressed through their formal and informal decision-making. Too often they are top-down, deterministic and slow. How often have we heard the tragic “I know what the problem is, just find me solutions” guaranteeing that the speaker has no idea of what the problem really is.

In my view we desperately need to change the public sector to have rapid OODA loops which are driven by a focus on outcomes, using analytics and rapid iteration.

And this is exactly what the Internet-era enables. It makes the OODA loops much smaller. Thanks to the low costs and connectivity of modern tools we can build and iterate products and services more quickly than ever before. Whereas a trial service might once have taken 2 years to get the first meaningful feedback to know if it was worth pursuing, we can now achieve the same in weeks.

Diagram showing large OODA lop with four small OODA loops inside it.

Not only does this offer us more speed and flexibility, it also reduces our costs and risks. How so?

Usually business cases are built for multi-year programmes of work. The inflexibility of the governance and the resources means it’s only worth mobilising such decisions for big programmes. Yet too often it’s impossible to know if they will really work as intended, so the costs get baked in. So we end up with big price tags, or bigger than absolutely necessary, because of governance and lag. Little and often minimal viable services are a much cheaper and faster way of figuring out what works.

Graph with one line showing 5% a year gains on £100 for 5 years and the other showing a single 25% growth for the final year of 5.

With an agile, iterative approach which funds a team and not a project we can stop or course correct at any time. There’s no shame in it and so we can avoid years of spend if something isn’t working out, we just move onto something else. But if it is working, by going out with the minimal viable service we can gain benefits much earlier. I liken it to the compounding of interest. Would you rather get 5% a year for 5 years or 25% once at the end of 5 years? The right answer is 5% a year as not only is that spreading your risk – you get some return now regardless of what happens in the future – but also you get more overall as you earn interest on the interest.

Example: Monzo

Monzo promotional image showing app on an iPhone and their distinctive coral coloured debit card
The Monzo app and card

Interest rates are good link to an example I like to use at the moment: Monzo Bank. Other banks are available, but thanks to their culture of being really open about how they work, it’s easy to use Monzo as an example. As an online-only challenger bank lots of people think they’re a tech company, but they’re not. They say it repeatedly themselves: technology is an enabler – a means to an end – not their purpose.

They launched with a real minimum viable product, a pre-paid debit card issued by another financial institution which gave a current account-like experience with their beta app. It was a long way from a real bank account service. Still this helped them to build up a client base, and insight, which they used to start building a real current account and other features as they went on. They also genuinely co-produce their services through their community which should be the norm for public services. If a bank, a trendy new one I know, can do it then so can we.

Screenshot of the Monzo online community forum
The Monzo community, explore it in full at community.monzo.com

Making it real

Maybe the agricultural metaphor and the OODA loop are useful for working with your stakeholders? Please let me know.

I’ve considered and tried many, many ways to attempt explaining why things are different in the Internet era, and why public service leaders need to do things differently as a result. Based on years of working in this sector this is my latest, best effort. Your feedback is very welcome as I know there’s so much more room for improvement.

In my experience there are some key values and capabilities needed to go on this journey, and make it last in public services. They are worthy of several blog posts more of discussion, but I’m just going to put them out there for now. They shouldn’t be outrageous, I hope!

Culture and values:

  • Curiosity
  • Openness
  • Trust
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • ‘Safe uncertainty’ aka risk appetite

Capabilities:

  • Service Design
  • User Research
  • Technology
  • Data Science & Analytics
  • Citizen Engagement
  • Communications
  • Organisational Design

Finally it’s really worth remembering why we need to do this. It’s because we’re not making enough of a difference to the citizens who depend on us, those who have nowhere else to go. Yes there’s austerity, but we still have huge resources and our outcomes need to be much better. Just shunting transactions ‘online’ is a start, not the end goal. This is about resolving the wicked issues and making a difference for those who have nowhere else to turn.

Image credits

Local Government’s challenge: Digital Transformation

I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.

I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.

Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:

As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training.  It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.