Delivering public services that work depends on staff and public engagement – the same goes for public policy

John Seddon published his latest book yesterday on ‘delivering public services that work’. When all of the other fashionable ideas and theories have come and gone, hopefully we’ll recognise that John’s approach (described below) is one of the few practical and proven ways to produce more effective, and so more cost-effective, public services. But his approach also suggests something crucial about how we can reduce more practical and effective public policy as well.

John is, to put it mildly, no fan of performance targets and the ‘performance improvement’ agenda. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see better public services of course, rather that he thinks that setting targets from on high is completely the wrong way to go about it. Being critical of targets is not unusual. What’s important is that John demonstrates why targets (and all of the other apparatus that has dominated public service reform for years, such as ‘choice’, inspection, incentives and back-office ‘economies of scale’) actually lead to poorer performance, and how an entirely different approach can produce much better results.

The answer, according to John, lies in systems thinking – ditching the ‘command-and-control’ mentality that seeks to impose the same (usually largely unproven) ‘solution’ anywhere and everywhere, and replacing it with a method that analyses where waste and inefficiency come from in any system and so how services can be both improved and costs reduced at the same time. The answer is ‘design against demand’ – essentially, to meet the actual rather than the imagined demands that service users have, that is, to focus on doing better the things that add real value to people’s lives.

There are two points from this, in one sense a simple but also incredibly subtle approach, that I want to pull out here. The first is that this relies on putting to one side whatever the ‘latest thinking’ is in public service reform and focussing instead on the practical matter of what is actually going on in any particular service and how it could be improved – in a non-partisan and evidence-based way.

The second is that the process of doing this requires that public and voluntary sector service managers have to engage frontline staff and service users, because these are the people who know most of all where things are going wrong – they see it directly everyday. This helps to explain why targets are counter-productive. Imposing targets inadvertently creates a purpose for a service (to achieve the targets) and constrains the methods (the way the service is designed). In contrast, deriving any targets (or preferably just performance measures) based on the purpose of the service as seen from the customer’s point of view helps to ‘liberate’ the method, and from this improvement and innovation can flow in better designing the service.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know where I’m going. We make policy in much the same way – and indeed the ‘accepted wisdom’ about what needs to be done to save money and improve outcomes (shared services, social impact bonds etc) and the policy frameworks (funding, regulation, targets etc) established by central government are often related. Further, whether they want to or not, think tanks often reflect and reinforce this command-and-control approach. A relatively small group of people develop an idea that they (genuinely) believe – often on the basis of little evidence but with a seemingly compelling logic – will finally solve the problem that we’ve been grappling with for years. All we need to do is x, because the single underlying problem all along has been y. And off we go again.

In this way, think tanks too often inadvertently act as the intellectual equivalent of what John calls the ‘inspection industry’, with their lack of practical intelligence about what is actually happening on the ground and their lack of engagement with the people who deliver services and those who use them. In a Systems Thinking approach, individuals come first, waste is reduced and responsibility replaces blame. We need the same approach to delivering better policy as we do to delivering better public services.


Exit, voice or loyalty – what matters most in building online communities?

We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.

The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.

The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.

Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have  failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.

Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?

Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.

But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.


What think tanks can learn from experiments in open journalism

No sector or industry is immune from the ‘open revolution’ – from software development, scientific research and publishing, to how businesses innovate more generally. Here are three experiments in ‘open journalism’ which also suggest how think tanks could work more openly.

1. Open sourcing

The Guardian newspaper has embarked on a programme of open journalism. As Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, has noted: “Journalists are not the only experts in the world.” ‘Open journalism’ is the Guardian’s name for the way in which it is attempting to involve its readership not just in commenting on stories, but contributing to and even determining its news agenda, as a way of creating a two-way relationship between journalists and readers.

As the Creative Review notes, this reflects the changing nature of media. Given the competition that has emerged from other forms of media, especially social media, newspapers are having to be less about relating ‘the story’ (as they see it) and more about acting as a platform for a topic to be explored by multiple participants, including readers, in real-time.

At the moment, this mainly means that reporters keep readers informed as they develop stories (usually via Twitter). Every morning the paper also posts its ‘news list’, the usually closely held plan of stories it is working on for the following day, partly in the hope that greater openness about the paper’s agenda will prompt information from readers. The Guardian has cited the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London and the resignation of the defence minister Liam Fox as two examples where readers helped to substantiate stories.

2. Open editing

In February Wired magazine published an article about GitHub, a ‘version control’ website that allows programmers of open source software projects to upload code and share it with other developers but also keep track of who made what changes and to merge these changes together. What was interesting was that the writer used GitHub to invite and capture suggested edits and amendments to the article itself (the GitHub repository for the article can be found here).

GitHub was designed for software development rather than collaborative editing, but Wired’s experiment shows how mainstream media can engage informed readers to produce better written, better researched reports – a form of Wikipedia for journalism.

3. Open agenda-setting

OpenFile is a ‘community-powered’ news organisation which operates in seven Canadian cities. Its journalists cover stories which start out as suggestions from readers. OpenFile works with hundreds of freelance reporters across Canada; once its journalists are assigned to a story they collaborate with readers to deliver their reports, typically on local news and issues.

This is rather different from ‘citizen reporting’ (or ‘participatory journalism’ – see for example the Media Trust’s newsnet platform), since the main journalistic activity here is still being conducted by professional reporters. Nevertheless, this public direction of a news organisation represents a highly disruptive model – more like ‘media-as-a-service’ rather than the traditional industrial model of media production.

We’ve suggested here before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why traditional media is being disrupted by social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Journalism is increasingly recognising the need to reinvent itself, including by experimenting with mass collaboration (as in the MPs expenses scandal) and even crowdfunding (though not yet at the level of individual stories). So what could think tanks learn from these kinds of experiments in open journalism?

At the conceptual level, think tanks could also try to create more of a two-way relationship with their customers and audiences. This would mean less telling people what ‘the story’ is, but instead acting more as facilitators who offer a platform for collaboration between interested parties in real-time, including the policy and decision-making audiences they want to influence. As we’ve suggested before, this is probably why think tanks such as Chatham House, which seek to act as ‘meeting places‘ for a range of experts rather than presenting themselves as the ‘only experts’, have been so successful and why audiences like them so much.

More practically, think tanks could consider:

  • sourcing ideas, information and contributions more frequently using social media;
  • experimenting with open and collaborative drafting, reviewing and editing of reports;
  • microtasking their research (as in the MPs expenses scandal);
  • inviting audiences to set their agendas;
  • attempting to crowdfund their projects and programmes openly and transparently.

Economic and cultural changes have forced traditional media to respond with these experiments in openness. Faced with similar challenges, what will think tanks do?


What it is (nearly)

I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:

  • It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
  • It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
  • It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).

I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.

One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).

One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.

Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)

Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.

We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.


Good for charity

Here are four potential uses or scenarios for our new think tank. Remember that our approach is based on policy and research work being led by frontline public service practitioners and service users, primarily through an online community/social network. These scenarios are designed to give our potential partners and customers (starting with charities) a more tangible idea of the benefits that we think our approach could deliver. Some of the benefits derive from working much more closely with practitioners and the public, which is not something that think tanks do that often or that consistently. Other benefits stem from using an online community, social media etc to do research and policy work – and sometimes it’s a combination of the two. Let us know what you think.

Scenario #1 – A service provider charity wants to understand the gaps in provision in its sector. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a research report on unmet needs among users. Because the research is produced by and with users and practitioners, it includes genuine new insights. The research receives widespread media coverage and sparks ideas for a new service. The charity establishes a ‘virtual advisory board’ of service users to inform the development of the new service.

Scenario #2 – A campaigning charity wants to develop fresh ideas for a new strand of its policy work. The charity commissions new think tank to produce a ‘manifesto’ on what future policy should look like for its sector. The charity uses the new think tank platform to draft the manifesto collaboratively, with the participation of its operational and policy teams as well as service users and other campaigners. This provokes considerable public debate, and helps to promote the charity as a thought leader.

Scenario #3 – A charity wants to develop a response to a government consultation. The charity commissions new think tank to host a private, invite-only forum for its service users, stakeholders and peer organisations. This leads to ideas for a joint campaign. The charity is able to present itself with policymakers as a leading organisation in its sector, but also as a good collaborator.

Scenario #4 – A small charity is interested in commissioning research but lacks experience. The charity works with new think tank to scope its research project. Because it is based on ideas and suggestions from a large, knowledgeable community, the charity’s ITT is centred on a unique and interesting research question. The charity also receives suggestions for good researchers and partners for the project. The charity seeks support for the project through a crowd funding proposal on the new think tank site.

What other benefits do you think could be delivered through our approach? How else could our approach be used? Equally, what might be some of the downsides or problems of our approach – and how could we mitigate them?


Finding the One Thing

There’s an argument that really succesful businesses are successful because they have a single-minded and uncompromising obsession with One Thing. I read about this on Jason Cohen’s excellent A Smart Bear blog a while back and it struck me as pretty convincing at the time. Then I forgot about it – until this week.

Jason makes the point that what many businesses, especially start-ups, think is their competitive advantage usually isn’t. Virtually everything can be copied by competitors, and anything that can be copied will be copied. The only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. It requires unwavering devotion to the One Thing that is (a) hard, and (b) you refuse to lose, no matter what.

For example, Jason notes that Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their search algorithm and that this remains the single biggest focus of the company even today, a decade after they decided that was their One Thing. Their homepage continues to reinforce this message – it’s remarkably clean and clear, with the focus remaining absolutely on the central search box. The very first version of the homepage is pretty much identical, in fact today’s version is even cleaner than the original, despite everything else the company now provides.

Not only does this focus mean that your primary energy is always directed into your competitive advantage, the argument is that it makes pitching much stronger but also easier. We’ve been holding workshops with charities on this project to get their initial reactions to the idea (we’re targeting charities as our initial target customers). They haven’t been marketing seminars – they’ve been genuine customer insight workshops – but of course in introducing the idea we’ve presented a list of potential benefits of our proposed approach (having public service practitioners and service users lead policy and research work). These benefits have ranged from more credible and practical research, to more cost-effective projects, to better dissemination of outputs (because project participants will have a natural incentive to also help promote the results). But Jason makes the point that hanging your hat on just one advantage that you can own completely is stronger than diluting your message across many advantages. Also, why try to defend 10 points when you only need one or two to make your case?

I realise now that this is what we’ve been doing – albeit certainly not disastrously (I hope), just as a natural and inevitable part of the process of developing an idea from scratch in open dialogue with potential customers. But it’s meant that the offer hasn’t been as clear as it needs to be, and also that we’ve lacked a strong focus for the ‘product’ (or rather, that what we thought was the focus may not actually be the focus). It’s also meant that we’ve effectively been trying to appeal to everyone, and everyone has been telling us they like the idea (which is nice, of course) – but perhaps the definition of a successful One Thing product or service is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone, instead it appeals only to a section of the market but in a very strong way (that is, strongly enough to build a sustainable business from).

I knew we’d reached the stage in developing the idea that we had to make some important (albeit not irreversible) decisions, like what we were proposing specifically and so what the starting ‘product’ is. Then we got some useful challenge from a contact in local government who likes our idea but suggested we needed to simplify the offer a lot in order to make it explicable to customers, and he was right – and it was this that reminded me of Jason’s article and so here we are.

The result was that we had a really good discussion today where we may have begun to focus in on our One Thing. What’s interesting to me is that no-one mentioned this One Thing in any of the workshops, at least not explicitly. No-one said this was their greatest need or priority from policy and research work, and no-one said that they were being let down by their existing suppliers (including think tanks) because they weren’t delivering this One Thing. And yet it feels like it could be a unique competitive advantage that could position us nicely. And it’s not what we thought it might be either – it wasn’t on our list of potential benefits at all. But suddenly we can see how all of the other things we’ve been talking about could possibly hang off of this One Thing, and the way that it could play to our potential strengths and circumvent some of our weaknesses (or at least make them less important to the customer).

Of course, we need to kick it around a lot more – and that’s before we take it out to potential customers and partners to see what they think, and really begin to work on how it’s achievable and how we can deliver it. But that’s a decent and welcome conclusion to the first chapter of our project and, hopefully, a good start to the next chapter as well.