“A wet tissue of pipedreams” and other things: on Party manifesto(e)s

for war manifestoThe most interesting thing about Party manifestos is whether the plural of “manifesto” has an “e” in it or not.

A while ago I was following an exciting event unfold on Twitter: whether the faithful party membership at a Lib Dem conference voted favourably to amend one of its policy positions regarding the changes to Employment & Support Allowance. After the amendment was successfully passed, a supporter of the move tweeted something along the lines of “YES!” (a fuller reaction is here).

It was highly uncharitable of me I know, but the idea that that motion would then be taken on by the Party’s leadership, reflected in its wider policy position, used to inform debate within the Coalition, would be in any way influential on that debate, be adopted by the Coalition, transmitted through Secretary of State and Junior Ministerial priorities, reflected in senior civil service policy drafting and implemented through administrative bodies was, I felt, unlikely – perhaps even naïve.

And yet, at a larger scale, the amount of effort expended to specifically seek to influence Party manifestos remains considerable.

For me, the idea that any political party currently has any strategic and unwavering view of what they want to do and so can reflect and represent this in a manifesto is, frankly, laughable.

As a friend of mine put it, manifestos are:

a wet tissue of pipedreams, thinktankery, sops, obfuscation and outright deception.

Most times I hate myself for being so pessimistic and not offering solutions to this malaise as often as I should.

In this case, though, I hope I’ve at least got you wondering about whether to include that “e” or not.

Why Alexander Hamilton would have celebrated the #barkercomm

Alexander Hamilton was the most precocious of the United States’ founding fathers, and was a man who commanded vision, strategy, policy, administration and pragmatism, as well as fierce and compelling rhetoric.

I was put in mind of Hamilton very early into my reading of the final report of the Barker Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care. Of Hamilton, it was said he “placed political realism at the service of a larger ethical framework”, and that he

Operated in the realm of the possible taking the world as it was, not as he wished it to be, and he often inveighed against a dogmatic insistence upon perfection.

He himself said:

It is perhaps always better that partial evils should be submitted to than that principles should be violated.

Because of these sentiments expressed by and about Alexander Hamilton, above, I think he would have – rightly, in my view – celebrated the publication of the Barker Commission yesterday. I suspect he would have been impressed by the way it straddled vital principles of equity and fairness with a pragmatism of how to get to a new health and social care settlement and the compromises needed along the way.

Why Thomas More thought the #barkercomm was needed

UtopiaSir Thomas More’s years of power were in the early 16th Century. The Barker Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care (#barkercomm) reported yesterday.

Nevertheless, the latter certainly addresses a need and injustice that the former identified when writing “Utopia” in 1516:

“I’m damned if I can see the slightest trace of justice or fairness. For what sort of justice do you call this? People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury. But labourers, coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they’d bring any country to a standstill within twelve months – what happens to them? … They’re not only ground down by unrewarding toil in the present, but also worried to death by the prospect of a poverty-stricken old age – since their daily wages aren’t enough to support them for one day, let alone leave anything over to be saved up for when they’re old.

“Can you see any fairness or gratitude in a societal system which lavishes such great rewards on so-called noblemen, goldsmiths, and people like that[,] but makes no such kind provision for farm-hands, coal-heavers, labourers, carters or carpenters, without whom society couldn’t exist at all?

“And the climax of ingratitude comes when they’re old and ill and completely destitute. Having taken advantage of them throughout the best years of their lives, society now forgets all the sleepless hours they’ve spent in its service, and repays them for all the vital work they’ve done, by letting them die in misery. What’s more, the wretched earnings of the poor are daily whittle away by the rich, not only through private dishonesty, but through public legislation. As if it weren’t unjust enough already that the man who contributes most to society should get the least in return, they make it even worse, and then arrange for injustice to be legally described as justice.”

(“Utopia” by Thomas More, tr. Paul Turner – 1965, 2003 edition)

Path dependency and boring stuff

The Path by Camil Tulcan, on Flickr under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Disabusing the tendency of people to think only of innovation in public service reform was the focus of two posts last week (“The future is already here” and “An innovation scale”, and will be the subject of at least one more next week.

In the meantime, though, here are two excellent, old-ish posts I’ve re-read recently that are as good as anything on how to actually make change happen.

First, this from Stefan / @pubstrat highlights the importance of “path dependency”:

Every decision and every context in which those decisions are made is the product of what has gone before, even when in another sense they may be radical and innovative. The past is deeply embedded in the present. The choices available today are heavily constrained by the choices made by those who went before us – sometimes a very long time before us. That sometimes makes things complicated which seem as though they should be much simpler, and sometimes means that there is no practical solution even when it seems obvious that one should be possible.

Second, this from Rick at Flip Chart Fairy Tales: In praise of the “boring stuff”:

From what I’ve seen, organisations are rarely short of ideas. It’s the execution of those ideas that’s the problem. Thought leadership is all very well but if there is no-one capable of getting those thoughts off the flip-charts and into reality, they become just another interesting discussion. That’s where [middle managers] come in.

If you have chance, they’re posts certainly worth reading in full.

Trust, ego and Twitter

The first time I came across @paul_clarke was when there were some problems on the attribution of the #uksnow hashtag: who had come up with it first? The answer, as Paul repeatedly said, was that it didn’t matter: the point was that it was very useful.

For some people, though, this sort of thing really matters.

It’s understandable, of course, because as humans we crave recognition; there are also sometimes matters of livelihood associated with knowing who ‘owns’ what.

For me, I’ve never been that interested in or motivated by having credit attributed to me; what matters is the difference things make, then how those things were done and, lastly, who does it.

Matthew Taylor recently shared a quote attributed to Harry Truman on this topic, which captures nicely my feeling on this:

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

This reconfirmed something I’ve been introduced to recently, which is the formula for being a trusted adviser:

Image from Systems Rock. http://systemsrock.com/5-ways-follow-up-grows-your-business/ The equation originally appeared in The Trusted Adviser, by Maister, Green and Galford
Image from Systems Rock. The equation originally appeared in “The Trusted Adviser”, by Maister, Green & Galford

It’s no surprise that “self” is in the denominator; the more you think of yourself, the less others can trust or rely on you.

Thinking to Twitter, the folks I’ve always found hardest to follow are those who are more egocentric than most. It manifests itself in many ways; the most injurious is “forgetting” on a regular basis to attribute when tweeting things that are other people’s, or came via them.

It’s hardly an insight, but I find the Truman quote and the formula for trustworthiness useful. In the context of Twitter, I’ll always find it a better experience if there’s a little more “we” and a little less “me”.

An innovation scale


My last post was about a more honest approach to degrees of innovation in public service reform, and so about what it ultimately can deliver and achieve.

In this post I’m sharing some initial thoughts about some sort of innovation scale, particularly in the context of public service reform [1 – important footnote: please read!].

Why a scale?

I think it’s useful to know the degree to which something is innovative or whether it is, for example, something that actually replicates practice in another area; or is something that is supposed to be done anyway; or perhaps something using a different mechanism to what is found in other places.

In ascertaining the extent to which something is innovative, it helps us to identify the approaches, tools and techniques that might be useful to take the innovation from its current “degree” to the next, higher “degree”.

For example (and using more familiar language from the literature on change management) one way of increasing the degree of innovation is “geographical transfer”: if we know that something already exists in one area but want to introduce it to a new geographical area, there are certain things we can do that are more likely to make that transfer a success. Another way of increasing the degree of innovation is by “scaling up”: taking something that already exists in one area but making it bigger is likely to require different actions.

By differentiating between the degrees of innovation we can achieve three things: (1) a more honest appraisal of what the “innovation” is; (2) the extent to which the “innovation” might achieve change; and (3) an indication of the practical things needed to increase the chances of that “innovation” being successful.

The innovation scale

Particularly for public service reform, it feels to me an “innovation scale” needs three dimensions:

Innovation Scale
Innovation Scale

Absolute Zero: The (0,0,0) point would be something truly new, original and innovative: it simply wouldn’t have existed before.

Scale: The Scale (x) axis captures the extent to which the innovation has achieved scale. The nature of the scale could vary depending on the nature of the innovation. For example, it could be numbers of people or the geographic coverage of something.

Known: The Known (y) axis captures the extent to which relevant audiences/people are aware of or know the innovation exists. Who the audiences are would probably need to be interpreted in the context of the innovation and what it seeks to do.

Sector: The Sector (z) axis captures the extent to which the innovation has passed between different sectors of public services, e.g. the extent to which something that exists in social care has been adopted in health, education or employment.

This scale feels like it gives a good enough framework to be able to estimate different degrees of innovation. Broadly, the closer something is to the (0,0,0) point (i.e. the bottom left-hand front corner in the cube the graph creates) the more innovative it is. The further it moves within the cube to the top right-hand back corner the less innovative it is.

In the next post, I’ll apply this innovation scale to some examples. In the meantime, any thoughts you have on this – especially including references to other frameworks relating to innovation that already exist and no doubt are much better! – are very welcome.


[1] – From the start it’s important to be clear, and with a finely-honed sense of irony, that it’s entirely possible that something like this has been developed before. In a by-no-means comprehensive look at various other posts and reports on this topic I haven’t found anything that quite conveys what I was looking for. The closest is probably Marty Neumeier’s Originality Scale. Whilst this post therefore shares my own thoughts, I’d be very keen to hear from people about other, probably far better versions of an “Innovation Scale” or equivalent.

The future is already here: on degrees of innovation in public service reform

Ben Hammersley has written an excellent reflection piece for Native, the magazine from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. My own main interest is in public service reform, but it doesn’t matter that Ben’s piece is about the possibilities that technology brings to the arts because its arguments extend to any sphere in which there’s a need for progress and development.

The central point of Ben’s argument is as follows:

It’s easy to break out the toys[.] I could be forgiven for pimping out my favourite new thing. But I’d be wrong to do that. Instead, I’ve grown to learn that the greatest innovations are not always with the new ways to tell stories, or the new ways to make a noise. Instead, the truly revolutionary are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so.

Ben goes on to give an example of a banal innovation (an oxymoron?), which is worth quoting at length:

Take ticketing as an example. Many major locations offer online ticket purchases, some of which you can print at home. An online ticket purchase requires a credit card, and that in turn requires your home address. It’s a matter of simple automation to take that address and augment the ticket or email with useful information. Here’s how to get to and from the venue from your address; here’s how long it will take given various public transport routes; here’s some recommended restaurants on the way (and here’s 10% off the bill of the pre-show fixed menu); here’s a local venue you might also like. It’s the day of the show, and the tubes are delayed, so here’s an email in the morning warning you of a slower than usual commute.

The number of places that do this in practice is probably not very many, which is why Ben quotes William Gibson at the start of his piece: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

We know Gibson is right, and can see this by thinking about other things we think are already here but are actually not evenly distributed.

Take the internet itself. It has obviously been revolutionary, but think of the 6.4m adults (13% of the British population, though the number is falling) who have never used the internet[1]. That’s not just people who don’t regularly use it, but people who have never used it. And it’s not just older people who make up these numbers; they disproportionately include people who are disabled or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The internet is relatively recent, though. What about railway travel? Access to railway travel is not evenly distributed either: there is an estimated gap of approximately 100 million passenger journeys between the actual journeys made by disabled train passengers and what proportion of train journeys we would expect disabled people to make[2].

And what of clean drinking water – less something “future” and more “fundamental”? Currently 748 million people in the world don’t have access to safe water, and 2.5 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation[3].

So, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed, and this is true at quite basic levels. (And by “evenly” we don’t mean just in terms of availability but also in terms of access. Inequality, though, isn’t the focus of this post.)

What I loved most about Ben’s post is the honesty in his starting point, which is to acknowledge that most new-fangled things are already here.

Of course, someone somewhere has to be doing something that is new in the absolute sense of the word. To move from a world in which there was no railway or internet to a world in which there are railways and the internet we had to create something new. But the rate at which these truly new things occur is nowhere near the rate at which people claim to create new things[4].

In the area of public service reform, when people talk of “innovation”, “new” or the need for “new ideas”, my sense is that, more often than not, what they think they’re talking about is what’s new in an absolute sense, i.e. doing something that has never been done before. This typically manifests itself through an organisation or a person offering a new solution, product or way of doing things that will solve a problem heretofore never been solved before.

In reality, though, what people are claiming as “new” is something that actually replicates practice in another area; or they are doing something that is supposed to be done anyway; or perhaps they’re doing something using a different mechanism to what is found in other places.

All of this in and of itself is valuable, but is rarely presented in this more honest way. Instead, developments are often unthinkingly labelled “new”, “innovative” or a “solution”. Such presentations – such pretentions – could be a consequence of the way in which funding is awarded, or indeed the focus on awards themselves, or could be something that is fundamental to the way in which we as humans want recognition.

This, of course, could all just be a question of defining what we mean by “innovation”: should we just stop people calling things “innovative” when they’re anything but? Well, yes, that would help. In this vein, I think there are three things that follow from this often unthinking use of “innovation”.

The first is a direct consequence of public service reforms being presented as “innovative”: it creates an easy target. Situations often arise in which we have strong advocates for change coming up against other forces as a result of the way in which they choose to present what they think is “innovative”. “That’s not new” or “We’ve tried that before” are responses you might typically hear in such a situation. A corollary is that it can then be difficult for strong advocates of the “innovative” to distinguish amongst the “other forces” those who agree with the need for something different and those who defend the status quo. The overall effect is to distract and detract from the first order problem for which a solution is sought.

The second implication is to recognise there are different degress of innovation[5]: it isn’t just about the new, but can also be, for example, the connections between things or the scale at which it happens where innovation lies. So, in Ben’s given example, the automated processes that flow from people providing a postal address when buying a ticket online could be thought of as a degree of innovation. By admitting to the possibility of degrees of innovation, we can start to ask when an “improvement” becomes an “innovation”, and act and present accordingly.

And this concept of degrees of innovation feeds into the third and final point. It’s worth introducing it by repeating a segment from Ben’s article:

[T]he truly revolutionary [innovations] are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so. It’s easy to hand-wave at such new features to an existing ticketing system, of course, but what I just described is genuinely not technically hard. It’s not showstoppingly impressive, but it’s good and thoughtful and useful.

Being “good and thoughtful and useful” strikes me as excellent guides for the sorts of improvements we need at all scales in public service reform. So the final reflection is that innovation doesn’t have to be big and bold and announce itself – it doesn’t have to be a “showstopper”; instead it can be small and subtle.

As such, Ben’s article for me prompted a range of thoughts, centering on a more honest approach to degrees of innovation in public service reform, and so about what it ultimately can deliver and achieve.

I’ll pick up other thoughts on degrees of innovation and being honest about what it can achieve through other posts to follow in due course.


[1] – Internet access quarterly update, Q1 2014, ONS

[2] – 1.5billion train journeys were made in 2012/13 (source, pdf). If these were evenly distributed across the British population we could expect around 11.6% of them to be made by disabled people, or around 174m journeys. In 2012/13, around 72m train journeys were made by disabled passengers (source), resulting in a gap of approximately 100m journeys.

[3] – Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2014 update, WHO/UNICEF (pdf)

[4] – For those interested in what could be considered “new” in the most absolute sense, Richard Lipsey’s book on General Purpose Technologies – technologies that affect entire economies and societies – is fascinating. Lipsey argues there have only been 24 General Purpose Technologies, including printing, railways, electricity, the internet and nanotechnology.

[5] – Marty Neumeier begins to get at this with his Originality Scale. I think “original” is binary, as is “new”, which is why the language throughout the post above is a bit sloppy when it comes to the use of “new” and “innovative” in a fairly interchangeable way.