Audio Experience Design

Dr Lorenzo Picinali, Senior Lecturer in Audio Experience Design at Imperial College London, visited GOV.UK to talk about his work. He works on acoustic virtual and augmented reality. He’s recently worked on 3D binaural sound rendering, spatial hearing, interactive applications for visually impaired people, hearing aids technologies, audio and haptic interaction.

Vision contains much more information than sound. If there’s audio and visual input, our brains generally prioritise the visual.

e.g. the McGurk illusion: visual input shapes our understanding of sound.

Echo location. This blind man gets information on size, layout, texture and density by making a clicking noise and listening to the echoes. He trained his brain to better localise echoes.

(To learn more, check out this episode of the Invisibilia podcast)

In some contexts sound is better than vision:

  • It’s 360 degrees. You don’t have to be looking at it.
  • It’s always active. e.g. good for alarms.
  • Occlusions don’t make objects inaudible. (You can often hear things even if there’s another object in the way, whereas line of sight is generally blocked by other objects.)
  • Our brain is really good at comparing sound signals
  • We’re better at memorising tonal sequences than visual sequences.

Examples of good interfaces that use sound:

  • Sound can be useful to give people information in busy situations. e.g. a beeping noise to help you reverse park.
  • Music to help pilots fly level at night. With this interface, the left or right volume would change if the plane was tilting, and the pitch would go up or down if the plane was pointing up or down. This worked really well.
  • A drill for use in space. Artificial sound communicated speed and torque.

Acoustic augmented reality is a frontier that hasn’t been explored yet. We can match the real world and the virtual world more convincingly than with visual elements of augmented reality, where it’s quite clear that they aren’t real.

Our ears are good at making sense of differences in volume and the time that sound reaches them. This lets us work out where in space sounds are coming from. Our binaural audio processing skills mean that we can create artificial 3d soundscapes.

Plugsonic – a platform that lets you create 3d soundscapes on the web using your own sound file and pictures.

Open standards- a cross government technical architecture workshop

My notes from a cross-government Technical Architecture community workshop on 29 July, hosted at Government Digital Service.

Open Standards are publicly-available agreements on how technology will work to solve a particular problem, or meet a particular need.

The Open Data Institute has a useful definition of standards, open standards and open data.

Open Standards are good for laying the foundations for cooperation in technology, as they allow people to work in a consistent way. e.g. HTML is an open standard, which means that everyone can build and access web pages in the same way.

As technology develops, the standards can be updated, allowing innovation in a way that retains the benefits of interoperability.

How GDS works with Open Standards – Dr Ravinder Singh, Head of Open Standards, Government Digital Service

GDS outlines the Open Standards it supports. You can suggest standards that should exist. You’ll be asked 47 assessment questions. If a proposal comes out of that, GDS will take this to the Open Standards Board, which meets twice a year. The new Open Standard will be published on GOV.UK if it’s adopted. It’ll be incorporated into Service Assessments and the Technology Code of Practice.

PDFs are still the most frequently uploaded filetype on GOV.UK. So there’s a long way to go in making HTML and other open standards the default. (Why content should be published in HTML not PDF)

Supporting the adoption of open standards – Leigh Dodds, Open Data Institute (ODI)

CSVW lets you add metadata describing structure and schema

Open Standards for Data – ODI microsite

“Open standards for data are reusable agreements that make it easier for people and organisations to publish, access, share and use better quality data.”

ODI have produced a canvas to help you think about researching and designing a standard. The technical bit is the easy bit – the hard bit is getting people to agree on things.

Some advice if you’re building a new open standard:

  • Don’t just dive in to the technology rather than understanding the problem
  • Invest time in getting people to agree
  • Invest time in adoption. Don’t just do the specification. You need guidance training, tools, libraries.
  • Focus on the value you’re trying to bring – not, just the standard as an end in itself.
  • If you think you want a standard, be clear what type of standard you mean. Types of standard include:
    • Definitions
    • Models
    • Identifiers
    • Taxonomies
    • File formats
    • Schemas
    • Data transfer
    • code of practice
    • Data types
    • Units and measures
    • How we collect data

Opportunities for adopting open standards in government

Some thoughts from my group:

Schemas for consistent transparency publishing on Currently lots of datasets are published in a way that doesn’t allow you to compare between them. e.g. if you are comparing ‘spend above £25k’ data between councils, at the moment this isn’t interoperable because it’s structured in different ways. If all this data was published according to a consistent structure, it would be much easier to compare.

Shared standard for technical architecture documentation. This would make it easier for people to understand new things.

Do voice assistants have an associated standard? Rather than publishing different (meta-)data for each service – e.g. having a specific API for Alexa – it would be better for all of these assistants to consume content/data in a consistent way.

The (draft) future strategy for GOV.UK involves getting a better understanding of how services are performing across the whole journey, not just the part that is on GOV.UK. Could standards help here?

Kate Manne: Down Girl – Summary

Patriarchy is supported by misogyny and sexism

Misogyny is a system of hostile forces that polices and enforces patriarchal order.

Sexism: “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalises a patriarchal social order”
Belief in men’s superiority and dominance.

Misogyny: “the system that polices and enforces [patriarchy’s] governing norms and expectations”
Anxiety and desire to maintain patriarchal order, and commitment to restoring it when disrupted.

A reduction in sexism in a culture might lead to an increase in misogyny, as “women’s capabilities become more salient and hence demoralizing or threatening”

Women are expected to fulfil asymmetrical moral support roles

Women are supposed to provide these to men:

  • attention
  • affection
  • admiration
  • sympathy
  • sex
  • children
  • (social, domestic, reproductive and emotional labour
  • mixed goods, like safe haven, nurture, security, soothing and comfort

Goods that are seen as men’s prerogative:

  • power
  • prestige
  • public recognition
  • rank reputation
  • honor
  • ‘face’
  • respect
  • money and other forms of wealth
  • hierarchical status
  • upward mobility
  • the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion etc

If women try to take masculine-coded goods, they can be treated with suspicion and hostility.

There are lots of “social scripts, moral permissions, and material deprivations that work to extract feminine-coded goods from here” – such as:

  • anti-choice movement
  • cat-calling
  • rape culture

There are lots of mechanisms to stop women from taking masculine-coded statuses – such as:

  • testimonial injustice
  • mansplaining
  • victim-blaming

An example of this asymmetric moral economy:

“Imagine a person in a restaurant who expects not only to be treated deferentially – the customer always being right – but also to be served the food he ordered attentively, and with a smile. He expects to be made to feel cared for and special, as well as to have his meal brought to him (a somewhat vulnerable position, as well as a powerful one, for him to be in). Imagine now that this customer comes to be disappointed – his server is not serving him, though she is waiting on other tables. Or perhaps she appears to be lounging around lazily or just doing her own thing, inexplicably ignoring him. Worse, she might appear to be expecting service from him, in a baffling role reversal. Either way, she is not behaving in the manner to which he is accustomed in such settings. It is easy to imagine this person becoming confused, then resentful. It is easy to imagine him banging his spoon on the table. It is easy to imagine him exploding in frustration.”

Praise, as well as hostility, enforces patriarchy

“We should also be concerned with the rewarding and valorizing of women who conform to gendered norms and expectations, in being (e.g.) loving mothers, attentive wives, loyal secretaries, ‘cool’ girlfriends, or good waitresses.”

Misogyny is not psychological

Misogyny isn’t a psychological phenomenon. It’s a “systematic facet of social power relations and a predictable manifestation of the ideology that governs them: patriarchy.”

Misogyny is banal. (“to adapt a famous phrase of Hannah Arendt’s)

This understanding of misogyny is intersectional

Misogyny is mediated through other systems of privilege and vulnerability. Manne does not assume some universal experience of misogyny.

Shout out to “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” critiquing middle class heterosexual white women over-generalising on the basis of their experience.

A quick note on privilege

Privileged people “tend to be subject to fewer social, moral, and legal constraints on their actions than their less privileged counterparts”

What’s new in the new Service Standard

The Government Digital Service recently launched a new version of the Service Standard. What’s changed?

  • It’s now called the Service Standard, not the Digital Service Standard. This reflects the desire to create end-to-end services. This is better than creating digital services, and then (if you’re lucky) considering assisted digital as an afterthought. People are encouraged to provide a joined up experience across channels. What’s the user experience like if a user phones or emails you?
  • Removed the requirement to tell everyone to use the digital service. Because digital isn’t always the right channel. And there’s already a financial imperative encouraging service owners to encourage people to shift to digital. So we didn’t need to push that any more. Instead, we need to encourage people to think more broadly about the service, not just the digital part.
  • Focus on solving a whole problem for users, not just a part of it. The Standard encourages people to ask if the service is part of a wider journey. e.g. business tax registration is probably part of a broader journey of starting a business. So you should join up with those services too.
  • The team have added more information on why the Service Standard expects certain things, and the benefits of following the Standard. So it’s less doctrinaire and encourages people to do the right thing.
  • People are challenged to go beyond just thinking about accessibility, and to think about inclusion more generally: e.g. trans people and same sex relationships.
  • The type of approach to meeting user needs is challenged. Is the service the right way to deliver user needs? Or should you publish content or make data available via an API instead?
  • The scope of the service is questioned. If it’s too broad or too narrow it’s a problem.
  • Removed the requirement to test with the minister.

Being a Product Manager is good training for life

Being a product manager helps you live a good life:

You become confident in dealing with different domains of knowledge and different types of truth, and arbitrating between them.

You can imagine and weigh up possible futures, and sell and fight for the one that seems best.

You make decisions with imperfect information.

You lead from the intersection between optimism and pessimism. Seeing how things could be different and better, and helping others believe, but rooting your thinking in understanding of complexity, risk and assumptions.

You call out the risky assumptions underlying wishful thinking.

You take a rapid failure approach to your love life (perhaps not always intentionally 🤔)

You’re adventurous and humble and focus on value.

Innovation in Transport – TfL Access all Areas

Notes from a panel discussion I attended at an event on accessible transport, hosted by TfL. I attended because I wanted to learn about TfL’s strategic approach to innovation and accessibility.

Individual introductions

Mike Brown, Commissioner, TfL

The high-level vision for accessibility on London’s transport: Everyone needs to be able to travel across the capital easily, safely and spontaneously.

Alan Benson, Chair, Transport for All

Transport for All is a charity that works with TfL as a critical friend. Recent accessibility improvements include:

  • new trains, which made many more stations level access
  • ‘please offer me a seat’ badge. (The badge is a little controversial, but Alan’s happy with it as long as it’s optional and people don’t feel labelled.)
  • disability training programme for TfL managers. Disabled people are teaching people who commission and run the services so that they can better understand the impact of the choices they make. No one else in the British transport sector is doing this. Alan thinks this is the most important improvement.

Gareth Powell, MD, Surface Transport, TfL

Transport exists to get people to a place they want to go. But 84% of disabled Londoners say that transport is negatively affecting their ability to get around and live their lives.

We haven’t designed with everyone in mind. Designing for step-free access is one thing, but what about designing for people with autism? Hence the training of managers, and more involvement of people with disabilities in the design process.

Panel session

Chair: Joanna Wotton, Chair, TfL Independent Disability Advisory Group


  • Alan Benson, Chair, Transport for All.
  • Michael Hurwitz, Director of Transport Innovation, TfL. (Says that his job “mostly involves worrying and internal procurement processes.”)
  • Nick Tyler, Director of University College London’s Centre for Transport Studies.
  • Ed Warner, Founder and CEO Motionspot Ltd

What are the biggest challenges facing accessible transport in London, and how might innovation help?

Michael: TfL is more used to working with massive companies than small companies. He’s keen to pave out the route to market for these promising minimum viable products. The commercial and contractual discussion about innovation isn’t trendy, but is super-important.

Nick: We need a better ability to test out new ideas. (His research group’s shiny new lab should help with this.) He wants TfL to be braver in encouraging innovation. Hong Kong and Singapore are more innovative than this country.

Michael: Singapore introduced universal design principles – trying to institutionalise the right types of design considerations. But Hong Kong and Singapore are more top-down, whereas London is much more bottom-up. e.g. there are 34 highways authorities in London. TfL does have the benefit of London’s size – the city is big, so you can test things out in small parts of it.

Alan: Try new things faster. Health and Safety concerns often lead us to hold back from testing things until they’re 100% ready. We could follow the lead of other industries that will launch things that are 80% ready.

Ed: Interesting innovations include the use of colour in wayfinding. e.g. Barajas airport in Spain. Japanese train stations play 7 seconds of melody before announcing a train’s departure platform and it cut accidents by 25%. The music settles everyone down a little bit.

Nick: We should work to make transport more enjoyable. This will make it more accessible. So look at cafes or playgrounds, and see how you might make things better on transport. This changes your way of thinking from “we need to make this system work to the timetable” to focus more on enjoyment (and, implicitly, value to humans).

Michael: Innovation isn’t always about technology. A lot of the most powerful innovations are in behaviour change. e.g. Dementia Friends at TfL. Or more assertive messaging to encourage people in Priority Seats to look up for someone who might need their seat. (They’re trialling this shortly.)

Nick: To get parents to change their behaviour, teach their kids. Parents listen to their children much more than they listen to the government.

How might we have better interfaces between public transport and the rest of the world?

Cities are people and we build the infrastructure around them. If we concentrate on building for people, then everything will get better.

Rethinking Capitalism

Notes on a lecture by Eric Beinhocker on ‘The economy as a complex and evolving system’

The income of the bottom 90% of earners in the US has stagnated from 1973 onwards.

Pre-1973 growth was more inclusive – the bottom 90%’s income grew faster than the average. Now the reverse is true, with the top 1 and 0.1% growing much faster.

Productivity gains stopped following to workers and started flowing to owners of capital.

A shift from constructive to extractive capitalism.

This has weakened the post-war social contract.

Beinhocker sees this as caused by the rise of neoclassical economics and neoliberal ideology and the associated structural changes driven by this dominant way of thinking about the economy and society.

The breakdown of Western capitalism

The rise of neoclassical economics and neoliberal ideology led to these structural changes:

  1. Globalisation of finance
  2. Shareholder value revolution (focus on stakeholders as the only legitimate interest in a company)
  3. Neoliberal public policy agenda
  4. Shift from virtue ethics to selfish utility maximisation

This shifted power in the economy, increased power of capital versus labour, and shifted rents to the top of the system. These rents were used to capture the political system.

Rethinking economics

To change the system, we need to revisit the ideas and assumptions behind it.

Neoclassical economics assumes:

  • Micro – individual behaviour
    • People are rational utility maximisers
    • People are self-interested and atomistic
  • Meso – social structures
    • Markets are efficient in allocation
    • Markets are self-correcting
    • Firms are optimally run
    • State ‘interference’ causes welfare loss
  • Macro – system level behaviour
    • Macro is a linear adding up of macro
    • Natural state is full-employment equilibrium

But the underlying assumptions don’t match with reality:

Neoclassical Theory Assumptions Real World Empirical Data
Individuals maximise utility, preferences are consistent Utility functions are not stable; play no role in decision making
Individuals behave ‘rationally’ and deductively Individuals behave heuristically and indictively
Individuals have perfect information Individuals have highly limited and asymmetric information
Individuals are self-regarding and asocial Individuals are other-regarding and highly-social
Markets are complete Markets are incomplete
Micro adds linearly to macro Macro emerges from non-linear micro interactions
Markets always find equilibrium Markets can be out of equilibrium for significant periods of time

Hence the following incorrect policy memes:

  • Markets are always self-correcting
  • Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon
  • You can either have growth or equality
  • Trade is always welfare-increasing
  • Raising wages reduces the demand for labour (e.g. minimum wage)
  • The goal of business is maximising shareholder value
  • Tackling climate change will cost growth and jobs

… and the incorrect belief that equilibrium systems cannot:

  • endogenously grow
  • create novelty
  • generate spontaneous order
  • spontaneously crash

New thinking: the economy is a complex adaptive system

  • Complex: Many interacting agents and organisations of agents
  • Adaptive: Designs and strategies evolve over time
  • System: macro patterns emerge non-linearly from micro-behaviour

So in this way of thinking the economy is:

  • An unfolding process
  • Dynamic
  • Non-linear
  • Distributed
  • Heterogeneous
  • Networked
  • computational
  • Autopoetic (self-creating)
  • Self-organising
  • Evolutionary
  • Reflexive
  • A social phenomena
  • A cultural phenomena
  • A physical phenomena

Reimagining capitalism

Capitalism isn’t great at efficient allocation, but it’s good at getting people to cooperate at innovate and solve problems. Beinhocker is happy with capitalism in general, just not the current implementation.

Prosperity isn’t money – it’s the accumulation of, and access, to solutions to human problems.

So we can redefine capitalism:

  • The purpose of capitalism is to provide solutions to human problems.
  • Wealth is the accumulation of solutions to human problems
  • Growth is the rate at which new solutions are created and made available
  • Prosperity is the set of solutions plus access
  • Goal of business and investment is to create new, better solutions and make them more widely available
  • Markets and governments together create an interdependent evolutionary ecosystem for solution creation and access.

Traditionally we’ve assumed that price is the measure of value. But that doesn’t help us measure between good and bad economic activity. (e.g. cigarettes or polluting activities. Or creating a fancy derivative product that ultimately makes the economy more unstable.)

The redefinition of capitalism above helps us distinguish between good and bad economic activities. Ask these questions:

  • Is my solution creating a problem for someone else?
  • Is my solution creating problems for society (e.g. derivatives)
  • Is my solution today creating problems for the future?
  • Am I solving a real human problem or just rent seeking? (e.g. high-frequency trading isn’t)

Human cooperation is fundamental to problem solving.

To demonstrate this, Thomas Thwaites tried to build a toaster from scratch.

Because cooperation is crucial, and because capitalism exists to solve human problems, then inclusion and a fair social contract are fundamental to capitalist prosperity.

Fixing capitalism

We need to shift our thinking

From To
Left vs right How best to foster inclusion, fairness and trust
Market vs state Effectiveness of market and state ecosystem
GDP Solutions to human problems
Market efficiency in allocation Market effectiveness in innovation
Purpose of firms is to maximise shareholder value Purpose of firms is to make products and services that solve human problems
Labour is a cost to be minimised Employment is a key means of inclusion
Markets are amoral Moral fairness underpins capitalism
Economy is separate from society and environment Economy is embedded in larger complex system of society and environment

So we need a broad set of reforms to support:

  • Inclusion:
    • Economic
    • Social
    • Political
  • A fair, reciprocal social contracts
  • Effectiveness in problem-solving innovation
  • Demand for, and access to, new solutions
  • Problem-solving vs problem creating (e.g. the environment)

The value of opening up government data

I presented at the British Library’s event “Open and Engaged” as part of Open Access week on 22 October 2018, on the value of opening up government data. Here are the slides, which I’ve adapted into the following post, with a post-script of additions generously suggested by the ever-excellent Steve Messer.

Why has government opened up data?

Probably the first motivation for opening up government data was to increase transparency and trust.
The MP expenses scandal led to a political drive to make government and politics more transparent. was commissioned by Gordon Brown and overseen by Tim Berners-Lee, and built in in 2009/10.

In 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to government departments on plans to open up government data, promising “Greater transparency across government”. He wrote of a desire to
“enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account”, “deliver better value for money in public spending” and “realise significant economic benefits”.

What transparency data is published?

Theresa May published a letter in December 2017 clarifying what data departments and the Cabinet Office were expected to publish. This includes things like the pay of senior civil servants, and central government spending over £25,000. (Monitoring and enforcing this is an interesting challenge. Subsequent to this talk, I’ve been having some thoughts and conversations about how we might do this better.)

Transparency data around the world

In the USA you can track spend data back to policy commitments:

It will have taken a lot of political work to have consistent identifiers between different parts of government, so that this type of scrutiny is possible. Not glamorous, but very valuable – a trend you’ll see more of in data work.

My favourite example of transparency work in other countries is

Ukraine’s recent reform work is highlighted by its more open online public procurement system. An ecosystem of tools and an engaged community has emerged around this data. Citizen monitoring platform has been used to bring 22 criminal charges and 79 sanctions so far.

This open procurement data has also led to the creation of a tool for identifying corruption risks

It’s also led to the creation of a business intelligence tool

This takes us to the second big benefit of opening up government data.

Economic value of opening up government data

Open data improves data sharing within government. Previously, having to send a Freedom of Information request to someone else in your own department to access information was a thing that actually happened.

Looking at the datasets on that are used more, they generally have a clear economic use. These include datsets with information on land and property payments, or information on MOT testing stations. Other popular datasets are more related to understanding society, and are likely used by councils, third sector organisations and other agencies interested in planning service provision – e.g. English Indices of Deprivation 2010 and Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England.

Measuring value is hard

I don’t think the above section was compelling enough. This is because measuring the value of open data is hard. There are a number of different techniques you can use to measure value. None of them are great – either you have something cheap and broad, which doesn’t give deep insight, or you have to commission a deep and expensive study.

Johanna Walker, University of Southampton, is a great source on this type of thing. She presented on ‘Measuring the Impact of Open Data’, Paris, 14 September 2018. (Aside: Johanna Walker suggested semantically-augmented version control as a way of ensuring quality, consistency and giving a better idea of how a dataset is being used.)

This post has more thoughts about the value of open data.

International Leadership

The UK’s early work on opening up government data has helped set the direction internationally.

International rankings are a relative thing, and the rest of the world has been catching up.
The UK has been first in the Open Data Barometer for 5 years in a row. Now we’re joint first with Canada

Global Open Data Index

Some other countries are doing really good things with procurement data. This work is hard – it took Brazil 5 years to get consistent identifiers so that you can link policy to budget to spend.

Challenges highlighted by user research

International rankings are lovely, but what do we know about the use of open government data and the challenges associated with this?

Government data is hard to find and use. Working with government data is hard – even for users who know government:

  • Metadata is inconsistent and incomplete.
  • Titles are sometimes obscure.
  • Some datasets are published more than once.
  • Data users can only understand how useful the data is once they’ve downloaded it and not all data users have the capability to download and view certain types of data.

Competing catalogues, standards, technologies and propositions.

We don’t have consistent, reliable data:

  • Basic data skills and literacy aren’t strong enough to consistently produce data that is findable, usable, comparable and reliable.
  • This means that many of the solutions designed to make data easier to find are only theoretically possible.
  • It means that many services that need consistent, reliable data are also only theoretical

Where there is a relationship between the data publisher/producer and the data user, the quality of the data and metadata is better

Publishing is not enough

Publishing open data is a crucial start. But it isn’t enough.

We need to optimise for use and value.

“It is not enough to have open data; quality, reliability and accessibility are also required.”

Theresa May, December 2017

“Availability is only one aspect of openness, and the government also has a role to play in increasing the value of data, through structuring and linking datasets.

Treasury Discussion Paper – The Economic Value of Data, 2018

“If no-one can find and understand data it is not open.”

Laura Koesten

How to get more value from data

Some ideas by Elena Simperl and Johanna Walker (Analytical Report 8: The Future of Open Data Portals, 2017) on how we might get more value from open data portals. These actually apply more broadly. Some highlights to pick out:

  • Linking and interoperability, including consistent schemas. So that you can get network effects from combining datasets.
  • Colocation of documentation and tools to reduce barriers to entry.
  • Organisation for and promotion of use – thinking about how to get value out of the data rather than seeing the job as finished when the data has been published. So reflecting back the use that has been made of data to teach and inspire others, some level of fostering of a community around the data.

(Analytical Report 8: The Future of Open Data Portals, 2017, Elena Simperl and Johanna Walker)

Opening up the Geospatial frontier

There’s lots of excitement around the potential of geospatial data. In the UK there’s a newly-created Geospatial Commission looking into how to open up this data. One of its key early tasks is opening up some of the Ordnance Survey’s Master Map data. This looks likely to be on a tiered basis, so free up to a point but paid beyond that.

Some highlights of what this Master Map gives include: Building Height data, Water Network Layer.

Even here we have the question of linked identifiers. The Geo6 are looking at this. This is the kind of graft we need to get the most value from our data.

In summary

Transparency and economic value are the key drivers behind government publishing open data.

But publishing data is not enough – we need to work hard to understand user needs and maximise use and the value derived from data.

Bonus: Extra insights from Steve Messer


They opened up their data en masse and waited for people to use it before improving it. Here’s the original download page and a post by Chris Applegate on why the first release could be improved. It has since been improved thus proving your point about ‘optimise for use and value’. Optimise after you’ve opened it up. The MVP for opening up data is creating a good standard and putting it out there.

Economic value

I’ve tried to find some £figures to help you back this point up, as below:

Local government

I once made a timeline of notable events in local gov open data. It’s in this blog post.

Tom Loosemore on Digital Government at the Science and Technology Committee, 27 November 2018

Tom Loosemore was interviewed by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee on 27 November 2018. Tom was Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service 2011-15. He has a good reputation and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I found him an articulate, expert and passionate advocate of doing digital properly. I pulled out a few notes that struck me.

He described Martha Lane Fox’s report on digital government as “deliberately a very large stone thrown in a fetid pond”.

What is digital?

“It’s as much about a way of working… the notion of working in small teams, working in multi-disciplinary teams, bringing the technology and design skills back into government to be able to deliver in the same way that Google, Amazon, AirBnB and the best startups deliver.”

“Multi-disciplinary, iterative, incremental, constant improvement, feedback loops, embracing open source as a way forward, communicating openly.”

“Ownership by civil servants of the iterative multi-disicplinary design of services, embracing policy, operations and technology”, focusing on user needs not government convenience.

“We are still in the foothills as a government of adopting internet-era styles of delivery. The humility to start by accepting that you don’t understand what citizens actually need and want and that you iterate your way humbly towards getting the policy outcome you want, rather than pretending you know what the answer is upfront. That is a fundamental change.”

Spending and spend controls

Now that GDS doesn’t have spend control, the GDS service assesment process is like having some “birdwatchers” turn up. (Implicitly toothless and irrelevant.)

“There’s a bit of carrot in the Service Standard. There’s no stick. And you need a big stick”

Treasury doesn’t really understand spending:
“You’ve got a Treasury that likes to spend capex on big projects. It’s easy. This world isn’t about capex it’s about teams. Investing in teams who continually improve and develop.”

What would Tom do if he had the power?

  • Change the way that Treasury controls spend. Move from a capex to opex model. “Fund teams to deliver outcomes that minsters want, rather than big capex spend like we’re building a motorway. We’re not building a motorway, we’re building services.”
  • Champion non-stop the work of mid-level teams across government doing great things.
  • Reinstitute IT spend control

We need horizontal government. Ministers for things like payment or personal data. Platform-based, like internet-era companies, with individual services built on top of that.

Do we just need to get better at writing specifications?

“If you think you can write the answer in a specification and get the right answer, that’s the problem. It’s about my capex to opex point. I still think far too many bits of government think they can design the service upfront in a contract. And then your big suppliers are more than happy to deliver it to you. And when it doesn’t work they’ll charge you change control fees through the nose. That was the business model – you charge for change. You pretended for certainty upfront. I think there are still to many bits of government that would like to think that we can write a specification and get the answer we want, rather than take the harder path which is to start small, iterate, based on reality, with a team and accept the fact that we don’t know the answer upfront, we’re going to iterate our way towards it.”

Assisted Digital – what it is and how to do it well

What is Assisted Digital?

There will always be people who won’t or can’t use digital services:

  • Access
  • Confidence
  • Skill level
  • Language
  • Literacy

When government started creating new online transactions, digital services were created, with offline ‘Assisted Digital’ support, so that in theory no-one was left behind and unable to access services.

Why did I want to learn about Assisted Digital?

Assisted Digital is something that Product Managers are supposed to know about. The DDaT capability framework says that a good Product Manager “Understands the importance of assisted digital” and that a good Senior Product Manager is “Able to identify and implement solutions for assisted digital.” I didn’t know much about it and wanted to learn.

Assisted Digital is the 2nd most searched for content in the service manual. Not having a good Assisted Digital approach is a common reason for services to fail service assessment. Most importantly, it’s my responsibility to make sure that this is taken seriously. This fits with our design principles: “This is for everyone” and “Build digital services, not websites”. I’m not currently working on a service, but it’s likely that I will be at some point in the future so I want to be ready.

So I did some reading and spoke to some knowledgeable and smart people, including Roxanne Asadi and Ben Carpenter at GDS, who’ve both spent a lot of time working on and thinking about Assisted Digital.

How well is government doing with Assisted Digital?

In general we’re not doing a great job. Recent Inclusive Services research showed that Assisted Digital channels “are the most likely to be needed by the most vulnerable users, but are the least likely to be switched on or user-centred”.

The narrow language of “digital by default” and “digital transformation” often led to a narrow view of service design that saw Assisted Digital as of lesser importance.

Tom Loosemore, co-founder of the Government Digital Service, reflected on Assisted Digital recently:

“I could have avoided the need for using the phrase “assisted digital” by making it clear that we should be using Internet-era service design to reach all users, regardless of channel.”

“by separating out “assisted digital” as a different thing, and by handing responsibility for it over to a separate team, we as leaders of GDS created an artificial divide in both our language and our actions.”

“Rather than challenge the “one size fits all” approach to service design, the words “assisted digital” suggested that one size for all was just fine, and that people with additional needs could or should be “assisted” to navigate a single path, common to all.”

And Assisted Digital options are needed by lots of people. For Personal Independence Payments, 50% of users were using Assisted Digital.

How might we be better at Assisted Digital?

  • Refer to ‘Service Design’ rather than ‘Assisted Digital’. This makes it clear that this is integral to a holistic service, and not a bolt-on. Focus around the user’s needs and end-to-end problem, rather than the mechanics of the service that you’re offering. This seems like the single highest impact strategic move you can make.
  • Include Operations people in designing services – not just Digital people. Otherwise we prejudice ourselves towards digital only, and don’t think about the other channels and implicitly reprioritise them. In government departments, often the Operational people and the Digital people were/are separate teams and directorates. So it wasn’t/isn’t easy to get them to cooperate.
  • Include non-government interactions in your service design
  • Create and share design patterns for Assisted Digital. It should be as easy to reuse designs for a non-digital interaction as it should be to copy a front-end component like a button on a website.
  • Make sure you understand the needs of all your users deeply, including people who don’t have skills and access to digital. If you take this as your foundation you’ll likely do a good job.
  • Iterate and test your Assisted Digital offering just as much as you do your website.

Some changes that leaders can make:

  • Think more broadly about the goals behind our service design, and the metrics we use to measure the success of services. If we just judge services on how many people they’ve moved online, how much they’ve reduced the headcount in a call centre, and reduced costs, then we aren’t giving teams licence to take Assisted Digital seriously.
  • Don’t just build teams of digital specialists to build a digital service. You need operational people as well.
  • Accept that Assisted Digital has a cost. Plan to invest some of the money you save from channel shift to digital in Assisted Digital.

Examples of services with good Assisted Digital

Rural Payments. Offered drop-in sessions and home visits. These were cost-effective as they were for a small number of people.

Student Loan applications. They found out that about 5% of users needed support. They mapped out how the call centre would take calls and help people, and tested it. They triaged calls and offered a visiting service. The volume was very small so they could pay for this – they just had to retrain people at their existing contact centre.