Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trying to get the government to take up a good idea

Gee it's hard!

Nicholas Gruen knows how hard.

The government might have changed but attitude of the bureaucracy has not.

Shortly after the government changed I and others put forward a whole range of no-brainer good ideas.

Nothing much happened.

Nick Gruen (speaking from experience I fear) has a theory about why:

The Theory of SPIN: Serial Professional Innovation Negation

"I’ll call it my theory of Serial Professional Innovation Negation or SPIN. Here’s how it works.

When you get something done in the public service – or in any large organisation – the work is done in stages and different professions have their input. For this example, let’s say there are lawyers, and IT guys and communications people involved in the establishment of some new initiative.

One of the important things each of these professions do is to control risk. They control risk in a complex environment which (the uncomfortable truth is) nobody understands particularly well. Nevertheless the relevant professionals are immersed in and generally understand the system better than most (or are taken to understand better than most). Because the systems are not fully understood, things go wrong in them, and professions spend a lot of their time trying to prevent them going wrong. They also gain a kind of force in and of themselves. Thus lawyers provide templates for agreements, IT guys platforms for IT and so on.

So they develop procedures, ways of doing things that have been done before and which seem not to go wrong....

A lawyer repeats a phrase in a test case in a contract he’s drafting, puts a copyright declaration on the Budget Papers which one would have thought the Government would want to see spread as far and as wide as possible.

Then people come along and say “why don’t we do something different”, or “why do we have that clause that says that the contractor can’t get any work done overseas? Since this government is supposed to be reducing red tape, can’t we take it out?” At this stage a virtually impossibly heavy burden of proof can descend on even slight novelty. The professional might be a bit miffed that their usual approach isn’t being followed. They might be irritated. What’s wrong with the way we normally do this? But the other thing that’s looming large is something like this “I can’t tell you exactly what might go wrong, I might not even be quite sure exactly why we do it the way we do. But even if it looks silly, there’s a chance that it’s not. I guess it went in there for some reason. And when we do it the normal way things don’t usually go wrong” and it’s my job to try to stop things going wrong.

The other thing about this is that it’s often extremely difficult for outsiders to gainsay the professionals. If one gets pages of legal analysis as to why something really shouldn’t be released in creative commons that will be enough for a lot of people just to do what the professionals recommend. And if they don’t, will the Secretary of the Department who is a busy person really want to delve into all the detail to satisfy themself that all of the four pages of contrary advice and warning can be dismissed?

I have personally experienced the way in which this works so that the smallest, seemingly most commonsensical change can be resisted. Then one might be pleased that some progress is made, but alas, that’s with the professionals in one agency. Say it’s a line department. Then professionals from some coordinating agency will come along and veto progress. I’ve heard similar stories from several Taskforce members.

And this happens not just in layers – as in this case there were layers of people from the same profession in different departments – but also in layers of different professionals. The Cutler Reportrecommended (Recommendation 7.8) that

Australian governments should adopt international standards of open publishing as far as possible. Material released for public information by Australian governments should be released under a creative commons licence.

Beacuse of that recommendation we spent considerable time seeking the blessing of officials of the Australian Government to release our report under such a licence. After considerable perseverence we persuaded one group of officials that this would be a sensible course only to have lawyers (I believe) from another agency object later on. With further perseverence after the report was published the report was ultimately released under a creative commons licence, together with a disclaimer that this was not a decision of the Australian Government but rather the accession to a request from our Chairman.

All this when all we thought we were trying to do was release a report and get out of the way of anyone who wanted to copy it and propagate it further.

When hearing this story, one Taskforce member said it was just like IT professionals. They don’t like to deviate from what they know either. And I can appreciate why. IT systems in my experience from my own personal computing are always a wing and a prayer from something nasty happening – will it be a crash, a corruption, a virus or some other security threat?

So though I’m not an IT coder, I can well imagine that if I were, I’d be pretty unenthusiastic about doing things in new ways, because who knows what could go wrong? And if I was a communications advisor, I could think of all the PR hazards produced by some new practice – like staff taking to official blogs to explain what they were doing and why and opening themselves up to challenge, debate and ridicule from anyone who cared to post a comment.

So there’s my theory of Serial Professional Innovation Negation or SPIN. Every profession is risk averse in its own often different way, and it’s risk averse in ways that it’s difficult for outsiders to really gainsay. And if one layer of one profession doesn’t stop you doing something new, then another layer of the same profession might. And if it doesn’t then a quite different profession might.

All of which takes me back to the quote from the first post I put up on this blog.

Working with front-line professionals in local government over the last couple of months, I’ve been coming to see that:

The big challenges are not about technology – they are about the content and the process of mobilisation and communication.

When it comes to technology we’ve not got one big challenge we’ve got 100s of small challenges – and we’ve got no systematic way of dealing with them.

When all these small challenges stack up – the chance of staff members or teams in local or national government organisations and agencies being able to effectively engage with online-enabled policy making shrinks and shrinks.

Care to help me out? Is my analysis wrong and if so how? If it’s right how do we counter SPIN?

Nick's chairing Lindsay Tanner's Government 2.0 Taskforce.

Image: Uncyclopedea