Young coders teach Cabinet Office a thing or two


In praise of Cabinet Office’s Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton and his team for breaking down the doors of the civil service – but will the big policy departments learn from their example?

No, he’s not paid me to write this and no, I’m not looking for a state contract either. The thing is, it’s not really the done thing for anyone to praise the civil service unless it’s at an awards ceremony. And such things rarely get outside the trade press anyway.

Good Law and Open Data

I was one of a fairly large group of people that contributed towards scoping the ‘Good Law’ programme – see here. Now for me, this programme is going to be historically significant. Or at least, it could be if everyone involved in it chooses to be radical enough about it – which was a challenge Richard threw at all of us. From a longterm historical perspective, the language and style of our laws have not really changed since Victorian times – when we moved away from manuscript laws to typescript laws. Yet the legislation we see online at in a nutshell is that Victorian style with a few hyperlinks thrown in here and there. Yet Richard’s view is that the law belongs to all of us – mirroring Professor Mary Beard’s view that politics belongs to all of us too. (I agree with both. The challenge is delivering on those principles).

With open data, part of the challenge here was having technically literate people able to understand the basics of data, as well as the potential associated with it. For me, the whole concept of ‘open data’ is a relatively new thing as far as the civil service is concerned. The first time I came across it as a concept was when Tom Watson was a minister. As I had a technically-competent and brilliant line manager at the time, she and Tom Watson had a significant impact my view of social and digital media in a public policy context. (Thank you Jaime Rose). The tragedy for the Labour Party of which Tom was a minister for, is that the regular reshuffles and the internal party warfare at the top of the party meant that some really sound ideas never really came to fruition. To be fair to the Coalition, it was only when it came into office in 2010 that all things open data got the sufficient high-level ministerial backing to make some real progress.

Bringing in young coders to mash up some data sets

There were two very interesting gatherings of late. The UK Parliament Hack 2013 (see here for some ***awesome*** ideas) was one. ‘Open Data Storm’ where students and young people – in particular from the University of Greenwich came along, was the second. Two ideas from the latter which stood out were ideas made by young people for an audience of young people familiar with the social issues they face as a generation. The first was a tool that dealt with the problem of too much choice in higher education courses. Using a series of very smart filters – far better than anything I had in my day – you can get much more personalised recommendations on courses and institutions. I commented that had I had such a tool in the late 1990s, my choice of universities and courses would have been very different.

The second tool was about matching people to careers based in part on regional economic data. Again, a significant leap forward from anything I have seen before, and one that helps people (not just young people) decide what skills they need to brush up on, or what training they need to undertake for specific careers.

The policy gap

This is Richard’s big challenge.

In one sense, being Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office he has huge influence to convene decision-makers in a manner that other senior civil servants may not have. But at the same time, not all of the people that he can bring around the table may have the same levels of social media and data literacy to understand the potential of what Richard is in the process of unleashing. The same also goes with ministers. There will be some ministers that ‘get’ what Richard is driving at, while there may be others that might be utterly clueless. The same goes for opposition shadow ministers, and backbenchers from all parties too. Some will realise the potential, while others may take the view that ‘they don’t do social media’.

The above paragraph is deliberately provocative and vague at the same time. Vague so as not to be libellous but provocative enough to motivate current & future holders of high public and shadow public office to get trained and familiarised with social media and all things open data.

Allowing your staff to engage widely

This is what Richard seems to have done – far more so compared to other senior civil servants I’ve seen. It’s as if he’s said to his staff: “Follow the talent and follow the potential”.

That’s what they have gone and done. The early results from what I have seen are more than impressive. Not only that, it actually looks like the civil servants concerned are also enjoying their work despite the overall gloom in the sector. Part of that enjoyment comes from being knowledgeable and passionate about the work area – and seeing the difference you are making. It was those sorts of days where I loved being in the civil service. But things like that don’t happen by accident. They require a huge amount of planning and also more than a fair degree of risk-taking. After all, allowing a group of people in their teens and early 20s to run riot with your data sets is something that would have scared the living daylights out of the last generation of senior civil servants. (Or as some cynics might say, these splendid chaps – any women in that list?)

Bringing your critical friends with you

This is the other challenge which Cabinet Office – and in particular the Government Digital Service are particularly good at in a number of fields. They have a number of people who are interested in (and were possibly once in) the civil service who they keep informed and involved. (Honourable mentions go to the DemSoc team, Steph Gray’s Helpful Technology, and Public-i – #localgov people I strongly recommend all three as critical friends). At the same time, they don’t try to micro-manage that relationship. We’re also realistic about what is a suitable level of involvement for us too – ie one that does not compromise our independence. Cabinet Office also knows that we also have links into diverse communities – geographical and online – that may be far beyond their normal reach. Two examples are the growing digital community in Brighton (Where I spent three years during my university days) to the growing public policy community in Cambridge – where I grew up and where I am now.

There are some gaps that I think the civil service needs to look at filling, or rather communities of interest that need to have their profiles raised a little more. I’m thinking in particular Wales, the South West of England and the North East of England. Ditto east of Cambridge with East Anglia.

How do we get the policy cross-over?

You have significant institutional barriers here. In terms of face-to-face events, I’ve found that you need to have a significant number of civil service policy staff at all levels -> especially those with an interest or a passion irrespective of grade. You then need to combine those with people from outside who are ***not the usual suspects*** to come along – especially if they have lots of energy, passion and ideas. (The challenge for organisers is how to channel and manage all of that). Regarding ‘not the usual suspects’, this is where as organisers you can challenge institutions to recommend someone who perhaps is not from a traditional background of that field. Embed diversity too. Ask them to come up with shortlists of people of all genders/ethnicities and so on, so that as the organiser you have the choice of who to select. (It forces other institutions to think harder about diversity automatically).

Talk about it, tweet about it, blog about it!

All too often in the civil service, policy conversations have been held behind closed doors. Hence making it easier for myths to arise. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve watched the news about some policy issue in Westminster being reported while shaking my head. Not because of my opinions about the policy, but because the journalist concerned displays far too much ignorance of how Whitehall functions. That’s the fault of both – the journalist not researching enough about how policy is made, and Whitehall not being transparent enough to make it easy to find out & learn.

The social media commentary makes it all the more likely that others will pick up on it, some of whom might be very interested. This may lead to much-needed scrutiny and/or positive contributions in improving the policy concerned. While the mainstream media likes to lead with disaster-p0rn, social media users tend to take a different view. We like to share good news and nice things – predominantly more than bad news anecdotally. If you’re doing something positive, exciting and new work-wise, chances are someone’s going to pick up on it and share it. With all things open policy, that’s not a bad thing. Quite the opposite.

Honourable mentions inside Cabinet Office go to…

So if you’re in the civil service. local government and/or are just interested in what’s in this blogpost, invite one of the above to your department or take your team down to the next Whitehall Teacamp gathering via Jane O’Loughlin.



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