The Wicked Problems of Government

The dichotomy of our age is surely that as our machines become more and more intelligent the problems that we need them to solve are becoming ever more difficult and intractable. They are indeed truly wicked problems, no more so than in our offices of power where the addition of political and social ‘agendas’ would seem to make some of the problems we face even more difficult to address.

Poll Tax
A Demonstration Against the Infamous ‘Poll Tax’

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments the authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe recall some of the most costly mistakes made by British governments over the last three decades. These include policy blunders such as the so called poll tax introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 which led to rioting on the streets of many UK cities (above). Like the poll tax many, in fact most, of the blunders recounted are not IT related however the authors do devote a whole chapter (chapter 13 rather appropriately) to the more egregious examples of successive governments IT blunders. These include:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service, 1989 – A computerised system for tracking prosecutions. Meant to be up and running by 1993-94, abandoned in 1997 following a critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
  • The Department of Social Security, 1994 – A system to issue pensions and child benefits using swipe cards rather than the traditional books which were subject to fraud and also inefficient. The government cancelled the project in 1999 after repeated delays and disputes between the various stakeholders and following another critical report by the NAO.
  • The Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), 1996 – An integrated casework system to deal with asylum, refugee and citizenship applications. The system was meant to be live by October of 1998 but was cancelled in 1999 at a cost to the UK taxpayer of at least £77 million. The backlog of cases for asylum and citizenship which the system had meant to address had got worse not better.

Whilst the authors don’t offer any cast iron solutions to how to solve these problems they do highlight a number of factors these blunders had in common. Many of these were highlighted in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society report published 10 years ago this month called The Challenges of Complex IT Projects.The major reasons found for why complex IT projects fail included:

  • Lack of agreed measures of success.
  • Lack of clear senior management ownership.
  • Lack of effective stakeholder management.
  • Lack of project/risk management skills.
  • Evaluation of proposals driven by price rather than business benefits.
  • Projects not broken into manageable steps.

In an attempt to address at least some of the issues around the procurement and operation of government IT systems (which is not restricted to the UK of course), in particular those citizen facing services over the internet, the coalition government that came to power in May 2010 commissioned a strategic review of its online delivery of public services by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report published in November 2010 recommended:

  • Provision of a common look and feel for all government departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business.
  • The opening up of government services and content, using application programme interfaces (APIs), to third parties.
  • Putting a new central team in Cabinet Office that is in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels and that commissions all government online information from other departments.
  • Appointing a new CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services and the power to direct all government online spending.

Another government report, published in July of 2011, by the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs” – time for a new approach proposed 33 recommendations on how government could improve it’s woeful record for delivering IT. These included:

  • Developing a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • Contracts to be broken up to allow for more effective competition and to increase opportunities for SMEs.
  • The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • Having a small group within government with the skills to both procure and manage a contract in partnership
    with its suppliers.
  • Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) should stay in post to oversee the delivery of the benefits for which they are accountable and which the project was intended to deliver.

At least partly as a result of these reports and their recommendations the Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in April 2011 under the leadership of Mike Bracken (previously Director of Digital Development at The Guardian newspaper). GDS works in three core areas:

  • Transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services.
  • Building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website –  which brings government services together in one place.
  • Changing the way government procures IT services.

To the large corporates that have traditionally provided IT software, hardware and services to government GDS has had a big impact on how they do business. Not only does most business now have to be transacted through the governments own CloudStore but GDS also encourages a strong bias in favour of:

  • Software built on open source technology.
  • Systems that conform to open standards.
  • Using the cloud where it makes sense to do so.
  • Agile based development.
  • Working with small to medium enterprises (SME’s) rather than the large corporates seen as “an oligarchy that is ripping off the government“.

There can be no doubt that the sorry litany of public sector IT project failures, rightly or wrongly, have caused the pendulum to swing strongly in the direction that favours the above approach when procuring IT. However some argue that the pendulum has now swung a little too far. Indeed the UK Labour party has launched its own digital strategy review led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. She talks about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused saying that while the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual. Labour is also critical of the GDSs apparent hostility to large IT suppliers saying it is an “exaggeration” that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

The establishment of the GDS has certainly provided a wake up call for the large IT providers however, and here I agree with the views expressed by Ms Onwurah, context is crucial and it’s far too easy to take an overly simplistic approach to trying to solve government IT issues. A good example of this is that of open source software. Open source software is certainly not free and often not dramatically cheaper than proprietary software (which is often built using some elements of open source anyway) once support costs are taken into account. The more serious problem with open source is where the support from it comes from. As the recent Heartbleed security issue with OpenSSL has shown there are dangers in entrusting mission critical enterprise software to people who are not accountable (and even unknown).

One aspect to ‘solving’ wicked problems is to bring more of a multi-disciplinary approach to the table. I have blogged before about the importance of a versatilist approach in solving such problems. Like it or not, the world cannot be viewed in high contrast black and white terms. One of the attributes of a wicked problem is that there is often no right or wrong answer and addressing one aspect of the problem can often introduce other issues. Understanding context and making smart architecture decisions is one aspect to this. Another aspect is whether the so called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies can bring a radically new approach to the way government makes use of IT? This is something for discussion in future blog posts.

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“I’ll Send You the Deck”

Warning, this is a rant!

I’m sure we’ve all been here. You’re in a meeting or on a conference call or just having a conversation with a colleague discussing some interesting idea or proposal which he or she has previous experience of and at some point they issue the immortal words “I’ll send you the deck”. The “deck” in question is usually a (at least) 20 page presentation, maybe with lots of diagrams so quite large, of material some of which may, if you’re lucky, relate to what you were actually talking about but most of which won’t. Now, I’m not sure about you but I find this hugely annoying for several reasons. Here are some:

  1. A presentation is for, well presenting. It’s not for relaying information after the event with no speaker to justify its existence. That’s what documents are for. We need to make careful decisions about the tools we use for conveying information recognising that the choice of tool can equally well enhance as well as detract from the information being presented.
  2. Sending a presentation in an email just clogs up your inbox with useless megabytes of data. Not only that but you are then left with the dilemma of what to do with the presentation. Do you detach it and store it somewhere in the hope you will find it later or just leave it in the email to ultimately get lost or forgotten?
  3. Chances are that only a small part of the presentation is actually relevant to what was been discussed so you are left trying to find out what part of the presentation is important and what is largely irrelevant.

So, what is the alternative to “sending a deck”? In this age of social the alternatives are almost too overwhelming but here are a few.

  • If your presentation contains just a few core ideas then take the time to extract the relevant ones and place in the email itself.
  • If the information is actually elsewhere on the internet (or your company intranet) then send a link. If it’s not commercially sensitive and available externally to your organisation why not use Twitter? That way you can also socialize the message more widely.
  • Maybe the content you need to send is actually worth creating as a blog post for a wider, and more permanent distribution (I actually create a lot of my posts like that).
  • Many large organisations are now investing in enterprise social software. Technology such as IBM Connections provides on premise, hybrid and in the cloud based software that not only seamlessly integrates email, instant messaging, blogs, wikis and files but also delivers the information to virtually any mobile device. Enterprise social software allows people to share content and collaborate in new and more creative ways and avoids the loss of information in the ‘tar pits‘ of our hard drives and mail inboxes.

Finally, here’s the last word from Dilbert, who is spot on the money as usual.

Dilbert PowerPoint

(c) 2010 Scott Adams Inc

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

So sang Bob Dylan in The Times They Are a-Changin’ from his third album of the same name released in early 1964 which makes it 50 years old this year.

These are certainly epochal changing times as we all try to understand the combined forces that social, mobile, analytic and cloud computing are going to have on the world and how we as software architects react to them.

You may have noticed a lack of posts in this blog recently. This is partly due to my own general busyness but also due to the fact that I have been trying to understand and assimilate myself what impact these changes are likely to have on this profession of ours. Is it more of the same, just that the underlying technology is changing (again) or is it really a fundamental change in the way the world is going to work from now on? Whichever it is these are some of the themes I will be covering in upcoming posts in this (hopefully) reinvigorated blog.

I’d like to welcome you to my new place for Software Architecture Zen on the WordPress blogging platform. I’ve been running this blog over on Blogger for getting on five years now but have decided this year to gradually move over here. I hope my readers will follow me here but for now aim to put posts in both places.

The Art of the Possible

This is an edited version of a talk I recently gave to a client. The full talk used elements of my “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet” presentation which you can find starting here.

The author, entrepreneur, marketer, public speaker and blogger Seth Godin has a wonderful definition for what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways.

Software architects today have at their disposal a number of ‘large grain’ components, the elements of which we can assemble in a multitude of “interesting and important” ways to make fundamental changes to the world and truly build a smarter planet. These components are shown in the diagram below.

The authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in their book Age of Context describe the coming together of these components (actually their components are mobile, social, data, sensors and location) as a perfect storm comparing them with the forces of nature that occasionally converge to whip up a fierce tropical storm.

Of course, like any technological development, there is a down side to all this. As Scoble and Israel point out in their book:

The more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you…

I’ve taken a look at some of this myself here.

Predicting the future is of course a notoriously tricky business. As the late, great science fiction author Aurtur C. Clarke said:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

The future, even five years hence, is likely to be very different from what it is now and predicting what might be or not be, even that far ahead, is not an exact science. Despite the perils of making predictions such as this IBM Research’s so called 5 in 5 predictions for this year describe five innovations that will change the way we live, from classrooms that learn to cyber guardians, within the next five years. Here are five YouTube videos that describe these innovations. Further information of 5 in 5 can be found here.

  1. The classroom will learn you.
  2. Buying local will beat online.
  3. Doctors will routinely use your DNA to keep you well.
  4. The city will help you live in it.
  5. A digital guardian will protect you online.

We already have the technology to make our planet ‘smarter’. How we use that technology is limited only by our imagination…

Architecting and Social Media

The arguments for and against the rise of user generated content on the web continue to rage. Depending on which side of the debate you take we are either on an amoral downward spiral of increasingly meaningless content being generated by amateurs (for free) that is putting the professional writers, musicians, software developers, photographers etc out of work as well as ruining our brains or are entering a new age where the combination of an unbounded publishing engine and the cognitive surplus many people now have means we are able to build a better and more cooperative world.Like most things in life the truth will not be at one of these polar opposites but somewhere in between. Seth Godin makes an interesting point in a recent blog entry that “lifestyle media isn’t a fad it’s what human beings have been doing forever, with a brief, recent interruption for a hundred years of professional media along the way”. He goes on to say “we shouldn’t be surprised when someone chooses to publish their photos, their words, their art or their opinions. We should be surprised when they don’t.”

After all, given the precarious nature of the press in the UK at the moment with stories being obtained through all sorts of dubious means the professionals can hardly be seen as holding the ethical or moral high ground.

The possibilities for creativity, and building interesting and innovative solutions out of this mixed bag of social media self-publishing is going to be the place where architects are going to have a fertile ground over the coming years. A nice example of this is Flipboard which if you have an iPhone or iPad you should definitely download. This free app is a “social magazine” that extends links your friends and contacts are sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, 500px and others into beautifully packaged “articles”. It can also pull in content from a raft of other online content. It’s a great example of what architects should be doing, namely taking existing components and assembling them in interesting and innovative ways.

Architecture for a New Decade

Predicting the future, even 12 months ahead, is a notoriously tricky past-time. Arthur C. Clarke the English scientist and science fiction writer who sadly died in March 2008 said:

If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run – and often in the short one – the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.

As we move into a new year and a new decade the world, in my memory at least, has never seemed a more uncertain place. As the doom and gloom merchants predict an even more troubled economy and the ongoing threats from global warming, increasing pressure on dwindling natural resources and yet more wars do not make for a happy start to 2010.

Whilst solving these truly wicked problems is slightly beyond me I am left to wonder what this new year brings for us architects. According to Gartner the top 10 strategic technologies for 2010 include a number of things which we as an architect community need to be getting our heads around . Of the list of ten, there are three technologies in particular that interest me:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Advanced Analytics
  • Social Social Computing

Whilst it is easy to get consumed by the technology that these new architectural “styles” bring to the table I think the key things we as architects need to do is:

  1. Gain sufficient understanding of these architectural styles to be able to articulate their benefits (and of course their risks) to clients.
  2. Understand what the real difference between these technologies and the one that went before it are so we can build solutions that take advantage of these differences rather than more of the “same-old-architecture” in a slightly different guise.
  3. Figure out how we sell these benefits to the really important stakeholders (the RIS’s).

I reckon that in 2010 being able to identify the RIS’s and convincing them of the business benefits of going with solutions based on technology X is going to be the absolute number one priority. Most businesses in 2010 are going to be struggling to survive and not thinking about IT spends. However survival needs businesses to be both agile and also have the ability to swallow less fortunate companies as efficiently and quickly as possible. Thankfully I think the really good architects that can do this and span the business-IT gap will still be around this time next year. I’m not sure about the rest though?