Seeing Like A State, and metis

[I]t has happened that so many of the twentieth century’s political tragedies have flown the banner of progress, emancipation, and reform… If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.

– James C. Scott, in his conclusion to Seeing Like A State (pdf)

A nice summary of Scott’s overall argument is given here by Brettany Shannon.

I like the word metis, meaning knowledge that comes only through practical experience and/or local understanding, that Scott uses. Handy for capturing the importance of, for example, users in public service design and delivery.

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Out of Office

The consistently thoughtful Stefan Czerniawski (also known as @pubstrat) posted an excellent set of reflections on Remote: Office not required yesterday, itself a book which “shows both employers and employees how they can work together, remotely, from any desk, in any space, in any place, anytime, anywhere.”

I thoroughly recommend you read the whole of Stefan’s post and the excellent discussion in the comments that follow [not often you say that – ed]. Of many excellent parts, how about:

Although few like to admit it explicitly, many managers do not have that trust or, more generously, have not needed to develop a management style which is based on trust.

Stefan also points to an excellent video from the RSA on Re-Imagining Work, which animates a talk from Dave Coplin (we won’t hold the fact he’s from Microsoft against him). It’s well worth 9 minutes of your time.

I’m not quite sure where I am on this. Drawing on my own experiences I’ve worked in places that are the extremes of both office-based working and remote working. Neither really worked for me. Then again, when I worked in a place that was generally trusting and so had a flexible approach to where you based yourself on any given day or week, this didn’t really work for me either. In this case there were different reasons at play: it was less the location of people’s working but more other organisational cultures (grappling with silos, funny enough) which made things difficult.

Inevitably, I don’t think there’s a general conclusion we can draw on where people should work. I know the balance is currently too far in the direction of traditional work models, but equally think the correction shouldn’t be taken too far in the other direction. Let’s work first on trust and approaches to management that are appropriate and relevant to the function of an organisation, and then figure out the form that follows.

Addendum: The opening of Dave Coplin’s talk really hit home with me about people who get the collaborative, networked approach we are moving to now, and how this differs from traditional views of management and work. My (admittedly silly) working theory is both that (a) those people who are more naturally collaborative will more often attribute where their tweets, references or thinking cites others, and (b) they will cite in less traditional ways, using @usernames and links rather than referencing according to the Harvard system or using footnotes.

(George Julian had some interesting reflections on an associated topic – the Modified Tweet – which you can read here and here.)

The Silence of Sisyphus

John Gray’s writing is challenging. It makes difficult points about doctrines we as humans hold of humankind – our progress, our religion, our place in the universe – and does so in a straightforward way.

For example, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals, we have:

Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.

Gray’s main point in this and his other books is that we are bound by our nature to repeat mistakes of the past. What’s worse, we think we have the capacity to get better, to improve, to progress, when history shows we have no such capacity.

Human progress is no such thing.

His argument has developed a little since Straw Dogs, in recognising that some forms of progress have indeed happened – in science and technology, for example. But he notes that the knowledge we gain from the recurring dilemmas of ethics and politics is not cumulative in the way it is in science. Instead, we are not capable of learning from past experiences of previously attempted solutions.

Gray concludes that we will not be different in future from how we have always been. Further, he argues that to think of progress as leading towards a future, attainable goal is wrong:

History shows history to have no goal.

But in this there is the possibility of freedom – a freedom that comes from the world having, in fact, no meaning. Thus, if there is nothing it “opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, and that we can be “liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made”.

This is a similar point to the one made by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. He concludes we must find Sisyphus, a man “condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight”, happy. Camus says:

Sisyphus’s passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing… I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Many find John Gray’s writing pessimistic. I find it redemptive, and recommend to you his work.

Why are there so many e-petition platforms?

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve noted what I think are pretty interesting examples of markets developing in the public services space – one in social care comparison sites, another in crowdfunding platforms.

To these two examples there’s a third to add: platforms for e-petitions. A traipse through the tweets of the Generally Annoyed of Twitter quickly reveals the different petition platforms that people use, as follows:

I’ve been pretty selective in what e-petition sites are included above. For example, they don’t include US petition sites (such as MoveOn.org or Causes.com); nor does the list include businesses that offer petition platforms for public bodies, or the dedicated petition sites that local councils and others themselves have.

Of course, I haven’t just discovered that such “competition” exists, but I do find it fascinating there are so many e-petition platforms.

When it comes to an e-petition, I’d have thought the point would be to (a) get as many signatures as possible; and (b) have something happen as a result of the amount of support. To increase the number of e-petition platforms people can use is to potentially divide the number of signatures any one e-petition could get by the number of platforms. And to not use the e-petition platform which guarantees debate by elected politicians if an e-petition does get the required number of signatures seems bizarre.

So why are there so many e-petition platforms? Here are 3 reasons to start the discussion:

  1. Ego: someone or some organisation sets up a new e-petition platform because they think they can do it better (see also the amount of duplication generally in the voluntary and community sector)
  2. Money: someone or some organisation spots a business opportunity to make some cash, and so pursues it
  3. Conspiracy: why would any government promote their e-petition platform when people do such a good job and dividing and conquering themselves?

*This post isn’t intended to worry about the effectiveness of online petitions. I modestly direct you to some recent analysis on this to draw your own conclusion.

 

Sharing #dpulo data

Earlier on this week during the excellent #dpulo Twitter chat, there were lots of requests for Disabled People’s User-Led Organisation data.

I’m therefore pleased to say that below is embedded a public Google spreadsheet which contains the names, websites and locations of all DPULOs that the Strengthening DPULOs Programme is currently aware of.

A few points:

  • This is publicly available information. (In fact, this public spreadsheet is a version of a more substantial spreadsheet we have, which does (potentially) contain data that might not be publicly available.)
  • I would never claim this is a full list of DPULOs. As such, if you know of a DPULO that isn’t on the list, please (a) add it to the list (making it obvious you have!), and (b) tell me about the DPULO in the comments below or by emailing richard.watts1@dwp.gsi.gov.uk or tweeting me @rich_w
  • If you do anything interesting with this information, please let me know (using the details above)
  • I’ve created a map of DPULOs, which I can’t quite get to embed below. However, you can view the map here: Map of DPULOs
  • If you are so inclined, any help you can give with the income/expenditure columns of the spreadsheet (using the Charity Commission website or Open Charities) would be much appreciated
  • I am by no means an expert in all this fancy Google stuff. If anyone out there (a) is, (b) is mortally offended by the amateur-ish nature of my attempts above and below, and (c) fancies spending some time with me to help, then all assistance would be warmly received and appropriate praise lavished upon you.

The Google spreadsheet is here: Mapping Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations v2 – public. It is fully shared so you can edit and add to it as you see fit. The same spreadsheet is embedded below.

Have fun!

Disabled people and gadgets: assistive technology in action

Earlier this month I wrote about how iPads (and touchpad devices more generally) have the potential to “change the lives of disabled people”.

The Oxford and Oldham ACE Centres have created a set of amazing films showing how assistive technology supports and enables disabled people to access things like education, work and leisure, and so achieve their potential.

Two of my favourite examples are below: Tiago and Darren

If you have a spare 30 minutes and have even a passing interest in tech, disability and the possibilities when those two things come together, I can’t recommend highly enough watching these videos.

iPads, accessibility and disability

Experience and evidence would suggest that when great leaps forward are made – in the form of transport, education or the internet, for example – disabled people often don’t have equal chance to benefit from the progress the leaps represent.

Insofar as generalisations across all impairment groups can be made (for example, for people with learning disabilities, hearing impairments or visual impairments), I’m inclined to think that iPads and apps* are, unfortunately, in much the same category of great leaps forward.

This article, though, suggests at least some room for optimism, even if it is from Mashable.

It suggests there are four main ways in which touch devices such as iPads are “changing the lives of disabled people”:

  1. As a communicator – touch devices are making text-to-speech or touch-to-speech technology more affordable
  2. As a therapeutic device – touch devices are both motivating and enabling disabled young people to develop or use their motor skills
  3. As an educational tool – touch devices can act as very useful supplements to (or replacements for) traditional education tools
  4. As a behaviour monitor – touch devices can quantify behavioural progress, either through recording notes / videos etc. and/or charting graphs. Similarly, apps can remind people to take medication.

There is undeniably a medical model focus in these benefits: they tend to focus on what “deficits” someone’s impairment represents and how these can be addressed. This is rather than highlighting, for example, how technology can be used to overcome the barriers that society puts up for disabled people (a great example of this is the Hills are Evil app, which enables people to identify inclines, raised kerbs and impassable streets).

Nevertheless, it’s good to see tech so widely known and appreciated as an iPad being seen in the context of what good it can provide for disabled people too.

*I’m not sure, though, if social media is in the same category. I’m not aware of any work that has been done on this particular topic – i.e. disabled people, social media and accessibility. If it has, please let me know.