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Technology good enough for work

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Organisational strategy

We all work better if we have the right tools for the job. Hammers are good for nails, but if you try hammering in a screw you lose two ways – it’s much harder work, and even then it’s still not very effective.

We still rely on the tools of ten years ago

Not so long ago, the core productivity tools of the civil service were the file, the fountain pen and the tea trolley.  Then the first and second waves of the computer revolution swept over the civil service as they did everywhere else. The file and the fountain pen were replaced by Microsoft Office  and a keyboard. The tea trolley wasn’t replaced at all.

Things have continued to change since then – the computers have got smaller and are more likely to be laptops, the internet arrived (and access to it arrived slightly grudgingly a while later) and collaboration tools and social media have started to have an effect, though still a very patchy one. But most people in Cabinet Office still use IT to do pretty much the same things that they were doing ten years or more ago, using only slightly updated versions of the same tools.

New technology gives us better tools

Meanwhile, three big trends are changing the range of tools available to help us work effectively and have already transformed the way many organisations work:

  • Networks Humans are social animals and work is a social activity. Finding people, sharing information and collaborating with them are all critical to getting things done. Over the last ten years, the power of technology networks has massively enhanced the power of human networks.
  • Mobility For a long time work has been a place. We talk about going to work, we don’t much talk about work coming to us. We have big expensive buildings where the work happens, because that’s where we used to keep the stuff we needed to work on. If you make physical things in a factory, you still need to be there. But we make things from information, ideas and communication, and those aren’t always tied to a location any more. Combine that with small and very portable computing devices and the constraint of location starts to fade away
  • Apps Traditional software is big and complicated, packed with features which most people don’t use most of the time. That has two consequences. The first is that they need training and support to be useful, the second is that it is difficult and expensive to change them. Modern software tends to be lighter, more focused, more flexible and more social. That makes it much easier to match the tool to the job.

Better tools will let us work better

The most visible part of this project will be about replacing technology. But the most important part will be about our finding ways of working differently.

That’s why it’s exciting and important that the GDS team is using the design approach described by Emily Webber in her post a few days ago, with the starting point being user needs.  With the rest of my team, I am going to be one of the alpha stage user testers, working with technology outside current Cabinet Office systems to identify ways in which we - and others across Cabinet Office - can work more smartly as individuals and teams.

But my main role - and my reason for blogging here - is to make sure that this project contributes to our wider ambition to make Cabinet Office more effective as an organisation. Part of my job is to be be the connection between this project and our wider organisational strategy - which is all part of a much wider ambition for transforming the way we work across the civil service.

Wanting to work differently means that we need to do some hard thinking outside the technology project. We want better IT to support a more effective organisation, but creating a more effective organisation is about a lot more than better IT.

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  1. Comment by David Durant posted on

    I'm really interested in hearing how this project continues to develop. I'm especially keen to read any ROI information that comes out of it so that it can be used to justify similar projects in other government organisations.

  2. Comment by william perrin posted on

    well, good luck with that Stefan. You have been kind enough in the past to refer to the widely ignored 2008 think piece i wrote with Alex Allan 'Blackhall' to help the civil service catch up. People can find the blog post and links to the work itself here

    but the guts of it is below.

    The bit i could never fathom was why no senior leaders ever focussed on the practical tools that their people used to do their jobs in Whitehall. And i do look forward to the day when the FCO is moved to an office building in Hounslow to be closer to the airport with a Regus office in South Ken for embassies and Charles Street becomes a museum, Ataturk style.

    Extract from summary of Blackhall follows
    Managerial focus on the tools civil servants use to work – how they do their job at their desks. Something the Civil Service College had dreadfully neglected.
    Modern knowledge tools – to speed up and make more accurate policy working from the ‘hand crafted morgan’ to the ‘BMW mini’
    Publishing by default within Whitehall – moving from email to internal publication on blogs or intranets, instead of condemning information to obscurity in Outlook PST folders. Thus opening information up to internal search. Why couldn’t I search through another Departments files?
    Simple pervasive electronic working environment using simple tools you can find for free or cheaply on the web.
    Universal mobile working over public wifi and 3g
    Better scheduling – Whitehall spends astonishing amounts of time setting up meetings – move to Doodle away from Outlook
    Opening up elderly buildings to all – large welcome zones where civil servants can work with external partners with wifi and coffee and very light touch security. Tiny red zones with standard security. Get rid of the worst old buildings, maybe turn them into museums or open public buildings, Ataturk-style.
    Finding people – it can be absurdly hard to find people who are responsible for stuff in other Departments (or even in your own) – get everyone on a social network like LinkedIn and move to a ‘if you aren’t on the network, you can’t play’ mentality
    Move to modern energy efficient buildings away from Whitehall, preferably close to the main train stations in the North of London to encourage easy working with civil servants scattered all over the North and West
    And obviously this only applies to 99.9% of Whitehall’s business not the 0.1% of highly classified stuff in the security tail that often wags the do

  3. Comment by Graeme posted on

    Although I wouldn't disagree with Mr Perrin that the vast majority of Civil servants work on unclassified or very low classification material. I work in the business of transferring under the Public Records Act to The National Archives, the overwhelming majority of material deemed worthy of permanent preservation at the point of creation held a classification of Confidential or above in the Cabinet Office and No10. I appreciate that those of us working on '1985' could easily be dismissed as living in the past so to bring it up to date something from last week that will pass selection is classified Confidential. So there must be an argument that the most important government information should lead the solutions rather than letting the ephemerral tail wag the important dog?

  4. Comment by Tim posted on

    This all sounds good but we are under constant and continued threat of cyber attack. We have seen the all too negative impact of social media; wiki leaks and Snowden. The reality is that we don't need to blog or blatter or whatever the latest phrase is. We need a basic system that we can write things on and do calculations. I will admit that Google for research is useful but we need to block facebook etc to stop people wasting time. There was nothing wrong with pen and paper;at least it worked!

  5. Comment by Nicola posted on

    I'm so pleased GDS is embracing this agenda. I work in Cabinet Office Communications supporting Civil Service reform - particularly re building CS capability. One of the priority areas is digital and if CS leadership aspirations on this are to come to fruition then CS should eventually expect to see digital savviness/delivery built in to the competencies of their job, so much so it will eventually impact on career progression - good eg here in DH and what they're trying to do - This of course takes time. But it will take MUCH longer if we don't open up some of the access/make improvements to IT/social media/apps/digi tools.

    As an example - we would like to run a campaign on digital capability across the CS, particularly promoting your alpha phase on Open Internet Tools - However, we know many of the major depts currently block most of these tools (security, policy, IT modernity or management decision being sited as the main barriers). But it's really difficult to unearth who may be unearthing how we bottom this all out - some of it seems quite simple to as a team we can see great value in using Trello as a proj mgt/collaborative working tool - we'd love to 'walk the talk' but we can't access it - this means we're sticking with traditional email routes and in the longer run it's inevitably a missed opportunity for our CVs...even enabling CS to know who they should challenge in their organisation about having team level access on useful tools etc would be a step in the right direction...?