“Dark Value” in Public Services?

We are used to the idea of “dark matter” as the name of the precisely quantified but undetectable proportion of the universe that has to be there for current physics theories to make sense.  By analogy* Geoff McCracken writes in a book of the same name about “Dark Value” – the hidden value –  that is created by various digital offerings.  He gives examples of current digital developments and shows that extra value is generated which was unintentional, but which often leads to success or failure.  And I think it will be interesting to apply this concept to public services and see what happens…

A key aspect of Dark Value is that it wasn’t what was in the business plan – the original value proposition.  Airbnb as a cheaper place to stay, Uber as a cheaper more convenient taxi ride – McCracken argues that some of the more enduring value – the Dark Value – comes from an opportunity through Airbnb to examine and engage with a place more closely than can happen from a hermetically sealed identikit hotel room; that the certainty of the journey and the (in New York at least) need not to fight with your fellow human beings for a cab – that these things offer additional value that even Airbnb and Uber have not yet learned to price in.  Netflix, by giving people more control over their viewing, drives up better quality programming, gives people more cultural reference points to bond around (see this as a digressory example), and helps people to test out friends and even mates by reference to those points.  In the “Big Iron” computer industry there was a swing away from buying IBM as lower-cost commoditised competitors displaced them, only for many of them to swing back again and pay premium prices.  Delighted but perplexed, IBM called in McCracken to find out why this was and he discovered that there was Dark Value in the conversations that people would have with IBM’s expert (expensive) sales and technical people – it was a way of keeping in touch with the industry, technical developments, the bigger picture, that they didn’t know they missed until they had it no longer – and which IBM didn’t consciously realise it was offering as value in the first place.

Understanding how and why people get additional value out of these different models is seen as great work for anthropologists, says McCracken (an anthropologist) and goes on to describe a process that would be very familiar to those who know how the good folk at Participle did some of the early ethnographic work that led to the Troubled Families programme, or that others might recognise as really good user-centred design.

And that brings me on to the question I want to think about – is the concept of Dark Value useful in Public Services?  We’ve had the concept of social value around for a long time in theory, if not always in practice, recognising that e.g. procurement decisions need to take account of more than just monetary value – the impact on the local society and local economy is allowed (indeed now required) to be important too.

Dark Value may be a useful way of describing some intangible sorts of value that don’t easily sit even within a social value framework.  We all intuit that the 15 minute visits by home care workers are functionally “on spec” but miss so much in terms of human interaction (with potentially adverse impacts for the individual and prosaically for public finances too, as they need earlier admission to more expensive levels of care).  I wonder whether there is “dark value” when people interact across public services, the value coming from an unstated belief in a shared value system, that is perceived as missing (sometimes unjustifiably) from interactions with private sector suppliers?

Part of what the concept of “dark value” allows you to do is to recognise that it is real value.  It may be that the post-hoc agonising over whether GovCamps are useful (which is as much a part of the tradition as the recitation of the rule of two feet) could be simplified if we recognise that there is “dark value” from fellowship and energy exchange that doesn’t need quantification.

The McCracken book is written from a private sector perspective – how can we understand dark value better in order to produce more if it and find ways of charging people for it.  Applying this to public services would suggest that we need better to understand and acknowledge – and then promote – the role of intangibles, in order that people appreciate some of the value that they get from public services, and so that public services can adapt accordingly.  If it turns out that a significant part of the “dark value” in libraries is that it’s an opportunity for parents with young children to get out of the house for a free activity – if that is how they are used in practice rather than according to their functional specification – then that will help us understand why “but we could give books away for less than the cost of the library service” is not a valid response.  If the “dark value” in schools is that they create strong self-supporting communities of parents in their locality, then that might affect how we wish to think about governance of those schools.  Is there “dark value” in the shared activity of everyone in the street putting out their bins on the same day – a sense of collective belonging, if there is, how could we tap into that, and help it grow?  (An exercise for the reader!).

It may be hard to acknowledge Dark Value politically.  Some of the aspects of dark value will be a bit touchy-feely and will be experienced by different people to different extents.  It is easier to say that “schools shouldn’t have to worry about community value, they are there to educate children” than to make a more complex argument about intangible benefits if there is a greater sense of community engagement with and around the school.  In public procurement it seems likely that as we strive to quantify the more obvious aspects of social value that there will be ever-deeper tranches of dark value systematically to overlook!  Will people be prepared to pay for ‘dark value” – will it be easier to get elected by ignoring it and focusing on functional outputs?  An acknowledgment and appreciation of Dark Value needs good story-telling skills – that doesn’t come easily to everyone, “cut the crap and keep it simple” is always a very powerful counter-narrative.

So even after all of this I’m not sure whether “Dark value” is a particularly useful concept for public services – I think public-sector types are ahead of the game here.  However it may be a useful label from time to time; it’s a good “stretch” definition of Social Value (I may pitch a session about it at Localgovcamp and see what we find); and as ever, if we can point to it as a leading-edge private sector concept there are some people who will, at last, take it a bit more seriously!


* It’s actually a really bad science analogy because in direct contrast to Dark Matter, Dark Value (a) is detectable; (b) is unquantifiable; (c) is not required in order to make sense of current theories – in fact it challenges them!  However apart from being completely different in every key way to Dark Matter, it sounds cool, seems vaguely evocative of the concept, and gets peoples’ attention which is the usual reason why people use science language in marketing.

Future Visions – St Albans 2030

I recently had the pleasure of contributing to a document, along with a number of other residents of the St Albans and District area – a report “Future Visions 2030” which was inspired by the LGIU 2043 Town Hall and was a part of the truly magnificent Sustainable St Albans Week.  Various people gave short accounts of life in 2030, and of steps that are being taken on the journey to a sustainable future, now.

My piece – in the style of my LGiU thing – was a conversation between two people and had to be cut down to fit the publication.  (I also did an extended version of my LGiU piece, here.)  

Here’s the full Future Vision thing anyway:

It’s a Big Lunch street party in July 2030 and two neighbours are chatting as they shelter from the inevitable rain … let’s listen in …

“I think you’re new aren’t you?”

“Yes, we moved in two months ago.”

“Welcome to the street! So why did you move here?”

“Well the usual I suppose – move out of London but quick in for work, get an extra bedroom for the same money, good schools for the kids, and the carbon thing, obviously.”

“Same with us.”

“Did you know about carboneutral when you moved here?”

“Well, we’ve been here since 2016, and it was just starting to come in then, it was just a thing with some of the local shops and the markets, when they all put a carbon price on things so that we could see what it was costing.  Then the hackers at Silicon Abbey created the Carboncounter app, and people could see where they were on the league table of carbon counted products.”

“A league table?”

“Yes, it started as a league table for people to see how much they could buy that was carbon counted – pretty soon we had people who made sure that they carbon counted everything, which is when Waitrose and Morrison’s got in on the act.”

“They were the first were they?”

“Yes, well, every supermarket does it now, but those two were the first, putting carbon prices on everything in the store – they did really well, and the others had to follow.”

“When did the Carboncap come in?”

“Well it started experimentally; a few people said that now they were counting everything they should try to stay under the sustainable fair share of Carbon for the year.  And it kind of took off from there, now almost everyone does it, especially since the Snorbens payment card keeps track of what you spend on petrol, and outside the District, and converts it into a carbon estimate.”

“The amount of carbon neutral stuff in the shops really helps”

“Well we’re the obviously place for companies to try out their new carbon neutral products.  Like this local beer ‘Greenhouse Guardian’ we’re drinking!”

“Cheers! And it’s great the way so many people and businesses have come to the area because of Carboneutral – it really seems to work for them too”

“You’d be amazed how many people have stopped doing the commute because there are great local jobs now – and that saves carbon too.”

“Not to mention blood pressure – last week I got stuck at St Pancras for two hours because of a signal failure at Radlett.”

“That’s nothing I once had to …”

(I think we’ll let the voices fade away now).

Jonathan Flowers

A Harpenden resident, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Greenhouse Guardian ale. 

Immediate Reflections on the 2015 Solace Summit

I shared my immediate reflections on this year’s Solace summit in the following tweets which, to be clear, contain my personal views and are framed partly as provocations, the provocative nature often enhanced by the character limit!

Reflection 1: Devo will give birth to people-place-changing awesome 21st C Municipalism (except where it miserably doesn’t)

Reflection 2: *Evidence* is an emerging must-have (for deals, for a slice of the 36% pie, for being better at what we do)

Reflection 3: We urgently need to scrap the word Digital because the word itself is obstructing progress – say what you mean

Reflection 4: We’ve not figured out how we will handle LA failure yet, partly because the first ones to go weren’t in the room

Reflection 5: LG needs to get more factional to make meaningful cases (and drive economy), without fundamentally falling out

Reflection 6: We must rethink the nature of engagement between LG & its private sector arm (a) at the summit (b) in life!

I’ll be taking these reflections – especially 6(b) – with me to a Harvard Kennedy School week on Creating Collaborative Solutions later this month.

Take-Aways from #LocalGovCamp 2015

Consolidating my thinking and in a spirit of sharing …

The Right Conditions for Digital

Paul Brewer (@pdbrewer) pitched a session about the Right Conditions for Digital (see his blogpost) based on his experience at Director of Digital and Resources at the very interesting Adur and Worthing.  This could have been a longer session.  Paul is clearly enjoying the extent to which he is making progress in his new role, but knows enough to realize that some of this progress is down to some untypical circumstances which apply there.  This is in contrast to common trait in local government which is to assume that “the good results I am achieving are because I’ve got my stuff together and if only people would just have the sense to copy me all would be well”.  Some of the Beacon thinking and indeed some of the Awards schemes potentially fall into that trap.

Paul is smart enough to reflect on what is going on, and to tease apart the ingredients for success.  That he adopts that kind of reflective approach is almost certainly one of the reasons he is being successful, it seems to me, and not something he himself mentioned – so I am saying it here.

Paul’s blog hints at some of the unusual circumstances at A&W, and in the discussion we reflected on the fact that the new Chief Executive at A&W early on created a very compelling vision for the council encapsulated in a document Catching the Wave – I think that anyone wanting to make change happen in local government should read this.  It’s a masterpiece.  And by securing agreement to it a space has been created that is the right shape for innovation.

I was interested to know whether the fact that Adur and Worthing are two separate councils with one shared management team acted as a brake on innovation and it seems not – the level of integration between the teams is very high.

I’m always keen to put the level of innovation which a council exhibits in the context of the resources it has and the financial pressures it is under – and I have some data from an external source which gives a rating for the level of stress that councils are under.  Both Adur and Worthing are around about the middle of the pack in terms of financial pressure – their success is not (for example) because they have loads of spare cash and are burning it up!

There was also a bit of a discussion about how it is possible to make the case for IT – which is perceived as a back office cost to be minimized especially when front-line services are being cut.  The back office/front line language really doesn’t help – it is far better to use language that reflects that the right “back office” spend – eg on the right sort of “digital” multiplies the effectiveness of the front line, and multiplies the effectiveness of the council in the community.  The Resources Directors Network, of which I am a part, wrote a report about the Future of the Corporate Centre which uses the language that is used in the army for support functions to the front line.  They are referred to as “force multipliers” which you have to admit is a better name than “overhead costs”.

Governance Challenges of Devolution

Ed Hammond (@cfps_ed) led a discussion about the governance challenges of devolution.  In great Localgovcamp style that brought together people with diverse perspectives and interests, including some insights into Amazon anthropology (the place not the online retailer) as well as knowledge of a range of devolved models an devolution bids.  It’s interesting how unconsidered this all is – there is a lot of detail still to be filled in about how the deals (which have been hammered out behind closed doors due to the speed imperative) will be governed, scrutinized, and how they will engaged with their relevant populations.  It is a blank sheet.

It was interesting to reflect that while there is a central government preference for an elected mayor, with the success of the London model in mind, no-one is requiring the scrutiny and accountability mechanisms which London has – ie the Greater London Assembly, Mayor’s question time etc.  In a way that’s not surprising – it’s a costly operation and repeated referenda have shown that there is little public appetite for a new layer of politicians – but it does mean that we need to think through the accountability mechanisms, and I am pleased that Ed and the fabulous Centre for Public Scrutiny are going to be doing some work on this.

The local media can be a mechanism for holding to account, and it’s interesting to spot that whilst some of the combined authority areas have a “natural” local paper (eg the Manchester Evening News in Greater Manchester) there are others that do not.  It will be interesting to see how the practice of different Combined Authorities is affected by different levels of coherent press scrutiny.

Uberising Rural Travel

Adam Walther (@adamwalther) from FutureGov led a session about rural transport – whilst there is much excitement about app-driven  disruptive entry in terms of things like Uber, and more gently with things like CityMapper, these focus on urban areas and relatively wealthy people.

There’s an interesting set of issues around whether the technologies can support different models of transport – eg a dial-a-ride that takes someone to a bus stop rather than to the ultimate destination.  There may be scope for deploying community resources – eg minibuses with volunteer drivers, car sharing – if there can be some way of surfacing the currently hidden demand for services.  We see what people do, not what they would ideally want to do.

The FutureGov work is clearly at an early stage but I was fascinated to hear about the transport systems in Helsinki where there is a deliberate design intent to make car ownership irrational.  “Mobility as a service”.  Thought provoking stuff.  There’s a Guardian piece about this, and it’s one of my main takeways from the day.

An Open Data Session that I Enjoyed

Simon Redding (@simonredding) from the Environment Agency did a session engaging a select but enthusiastic band of folk around discussing how Defra should prioritise making all of its datasets available.  I really enjoyed a session about Open data that was about thinking about creative uses of data, and thinking about where to land the ideas, rather than … the usual session that seems to happen about Open Data!  For those interested a jumping off point to find out more is on GOV.UK here  though there is clearly an opportunity missed to put an advert for analytics software on that page*.

*(An on the day in-joke).

The Internet of Things (Parent edition)

Child’s electronic devices go off automatically when the table detects food on it and the chairs detect that the parents are sat down.

Toys that politely but increasingly insistently demand to be tidied back into their box, after they are left still, when the child is nearby.

Child permitted screen time is aggregated across all devices and is inversely proportional to sugar intake.

Toothbrush says “you missed a bit – this bit”.

Automatically raising toilet seats when gait analysis shows a boy has entered the bathroom (with option to put it down again, obv).

Towels that whimper softly but tragically if left on the floor.

RFID reader at school exit/entrance – makes sure that you bring everything back that you took in.

What else …?

Devolution: The end of Localism?

(This is a bit of thinking out loud in an entirely personal capacity)

In future times as we look back on the process of devolution now beginning, we may see that this was the point at which localism came to an end.

This may seem contradictory – surely devolution is a decentralising force and therefore utterly consistent with localism?

Localism is in the eye of the beholder.

Because I did some work a couple of years ago on a scenario planning exercise called “The Four Futures of Local Government”, and because a number of local authorities and their senior teams were kind enough to invite me in for a discussion about it, I have had the chance to discuss localism with very bright and committed people in a range of different contexts, and to confront with them:

  • the natural tendency to see the optimal point to which power should be ceded to be coincidentally exactly “my” level, wherever “I” happen to be
  • the apparent simplification of issues the lower something is cascaded – for those to whom the cascading is happening – but the tremendous fears of loss of control and accountability to those further up the chain, with an explosion in aggregate apparent complexity and non-standardisation as issues are cascaded lower.

It’s all about managing complexity.  If we are thinking about devolving health to meet social care, for example, (which is something I’m thinking about for a variation of the four futures exercise, currently), the complexities (and natural footprint) of a health economy appear to be something which needs a larger area than that of many local authorities.  The devolution of health is welcome, but I feel that as health comes down to sub-national areas, that social care may have to aggregate to meet it.

I am becoming aware of some smaller authorities who are seriously considering a degree of aggregation of their child and adult social care services with neighbours, in order to achieve the scale that is needed, and this feels like a more powerful force than the pressures to take health to an even lower level than, say the current CCG level.

If this is true, and we’re going to see the combined authorities, with their elected mayors, becoming superpower-authorities with significant sway over economy, health and social care – and possibly benefits and local taxation, over time, then the complexities at that level will be hard to push down further – not because the vision will be lacking, or because the concept isn’t appealing, but simply because the practical politics, and the sheer administrative/organisational burden, will be so high.

Will this be better than the current system?  I believe it could be – I am a localist, I am willing to simplify at the sharp end and accept the ambiguity and complexity which this will bring to the higher-ups.  But I am disappointed that we may find the decentralisation getting stuck at such a high level.

A possible solution which might break through that will be a focus on personalisation, and/or user centred design.  If the process of achieving joined up solutions can do an “end run” from the combined authority to the individual, or to the individual family, skipping over the intermediate layers of local government and other local administration, then this may give us what we need, overall: remorselessly efficient and highly relevant, joined up public services for the individual.  Combined authorities will, I hope, have the scale and firepower to undertake proper user-centred work, collaboratively with the user community, and coproduced with them, in order to achieve this in a way that steadily denuded local authorities may not.

These thoughts are what I am hoping to test through observation, and hands-on where I can, as Devo rolls on.

What do you think?

Why do we Reinvent the Wheel – The #UKGC15 write-up

I pitched a session at UKGC15 to try to explore the issue of why some innovation happens from scratch rather than being a case of adopting and adapting viable solutions developed elsewhere.

I was motivated to do this from my experience as a member of the Service Transformation Challenge Panel where we saw quite a lot of reinvention going on – quite frustratingly sometimes, and we mentioned this in the #ChallengePanel report.  We recommended the setting up of a “What Works Centre” for Transformation, to provide accessible, and evidence-based insight that could accelerate change.

So I pitched a session and a good number of people turned up – about 25-30.  My cunning plan was to brainstorm the things that tend to lead to wheel reinvention, then brainstorm the things that contributed to adapting and adopting, then think about how we could mitigate the reinvention forces, and strengthen the adaptation forces.  In the end we spent almost all of the 45 minutes coming up with examples of reinvention and understanding their underlying causes.

Rather than just copy out the flipcharts I’m going to an impose an order on the points that is my subjective judgement.  I am going to list reasons for wheel reinvention that are potentially “good” reasons and then reasons which are “bad” reasons, as would be judged by an informed citizen concerned about how public money was being spent (the context of UK GovCamp being about public money). My own comments about these things are in italic. I have combined similar points.

Good Reasons to Start from Scratch

Creating something from new ensures that you understand the underlying principles of why the solution works.  This came up in the context of writing code from scratch but I think has some relevance more generally.  If you are slavishly copying something someone else has done it may work for a while but if some of the fundamental underpinnings change and you don’t understand them, then you may not realise it is time to change.

You can bring people along with you, as they co-develop and co-own the solution.  I find this very persuasive.  It suggests to me that where an organisation is going for Adapt and Adopt the users etc need to still be involved in problem specification and finding the solution.

Monocultures are dangerous.  Competition drives further reinvention.  If everyone is doing something exactly the same way then flaws can bring the whole system down.  Moreover if (say) there are a handful of vendors developing solutions then competition between them results in new relevant innovation and continuous improvement.

Search costs exceed cost of creation from scratch.  If the thing you have to do is relatively straightforward, but it will be difficult to find a standardised solution, or if you fear there is a significant likelihood that search time will be wasted because a solution may not exist, then it could be rational to invent.

Fear of “over-selling”.  People with good ideas tend to be enthusiastic about them and there’s a human instinct to assume that they have cracked it  and that everyone can achieve the same results as them, despite the fact that some of the underlying circumstances (eg senior buy-in) may be different.  People (literally) “selling” an idea may have an incentive to exaggerate efficacy and ease of implementation.

Bad Reasons

Not knowing that a solution exists.  Failure to identify that the presenting problem is an instance of an already solved problem.  Shouldn’t professionals in an area be aware of good practice?  The Local Government Digital Pipeline and similar initiatives, including the What Works Centre if we get it, can be key here.

Fear of replacement/losing job if there’s a better way of doing this that doesn’t need me, so I’ll build a solution around me.

Money to buy in a solution is “real” and would require a budget but my time whilst reinventing is “free”.

Government grants to support innovation emphasise the importance of novelty, indeed they require it.  I will get funding for inventing from scratch but if I want to adapt and adopt I have to pay for it myself.  Beyond this I personally think there is a huge scope for results grants of this type to be made more replicable and scaleable if provider organisations of whatever sector are included – provider organisations have an obvious incentive to take ideas that work in one place and sell them in to others.  A public sector organisation typically doesn’t have as clear an incentive to spread the word.

I believe that my organisation is unique and special and therefore nothing done elsewhere can be relevant.  For me this just starts to specify the required “adaptation” that is likely.

The “technology” must always be fitted and bespoked to the business process.  Actually, sometimes it’s easier to change the business process to fit the standard technology.

Professional self-justification.  Someone pointed out that every council website has text with advice in dealing with pests. This text is invariably written by a pest control officer at the council.  To what extent do we say “hey – this text is great, let’s copy it (with acknowledgement)”.

Creating something new is stronger for my reputation, and more likely to attract kudos, awards etc.  Maybe we need the LGC “stolen with pride” award?  But who would want it?

So What?

What I take away from this is that the cultural and personal obstacles, which not “good” reasons are even stronger than I had thought.  Significant effort – significant leadership – is going to be needed to create a new culture.  As the saying goes “culture is the behaviour that worked in the past” and persual of these lists show that reinvention “works” well at the moment.  I am more concerned about this issue after the session than I was at the beginning.

This also gives a number of pointers for any mechanism that seeks to support the process of identifying prior working solutions.  I don’t think a database will ever cut it.  There does need to be a repository of material, but I think there will need to be a collaborative human “interface” to it, to encompass the inevitable tacit knowledge that exists in a situation of this type.