“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. 

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 …?

Why I won’t be going to the Roman Colosseum again

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the way that as a society we tend to forget past horrors and end up glorifying things that we surely wouldn’t, if we could manage a little empathy for people who were basically no different to us.

A further experience in this vein happened recently when I went around the Colosseum in Rome. Some frankly pretty shitty stuff happened to people there. People who were sentenced to death “ad bestias” were killed by wild animals in front of 75,000 baying spectators. I suspect a significant number were crying for their mothers while it happened. Unarmed people pitted against gladiators, slaves forced to kill or be killed. Thousands of people put to death brutally and publicly; imagine being pulled from a dark cell into the bright sunlight of an arena and thousands of people shouting and cheering as you are chased by a starving animal, or as you have to decide whether you are going to attempt to stave off death for a few minutes, possibly at the cost of another person’s life.

So when visiting the place where these atrocities happened, what kind of demeanour would you expect from the visitors? Smiles and selfies, laughter and chatter wouldn’t be the main thing for me. And yet, times hundreds, people walking round, posing for photos, and even the ones who read the factual, non-glorifying information that set all of this out clearly, grinning like idiots.

This may seem like a small complaint – after all it was a long time ago wasn’t it? Well, no, it wasn’t really – in evolutionary terms the people were indistinguishable from us, and a couple of thousand years is a blink. The speed at which our system of ethics, culture and values has developed is astonishing by comparison, but it can clearly move quickly – in any direction.

This is a distasteful comparison, but I am going to make it – how many years will it be before visitors to Auschwitz are trooping around in laughing groups, deciding whether to be photographed with the guy in the SS Guard uniform or the one in the prison uniform? I hope: never, but I wouldn’t bet that it won’t be happening a couple of thousand years from now.

Then and Now

Originally a long facebook post I’ve decided to turn this into a short blog entry.

Walking in the rain tonight, cosy in my coat, I remembered a particular Saturday when I was about my son’s age. It had rained and rained all week with an intensity that followed as logically and as relentlessly as a mathematical proof, from our axiomatic valley position near the Atlantic coast. 

I got up on that particular soggy Saturday, and put my heavy, untrendy second hand tracksuit on over my pyjamas, then put on my gloves, and peaked cap, then my quilted brown anorak (gloves and cap first so that the ends of the gloves were inside the cuffs of the coat, and the cap was sealed in to the hood), socks over trousers, and then feet into my wellies. Then I went outside and I ran around like a delighted dervish in the pouring rain, protected by my layers of clothes.

The sunlight was pushing through the clouds giving the landscape an amber-grey hue and an other-world, dreamlike quality. I can see now the flickering and scratches on the Super8 of my memory. 

I rolled down a slope in our garden compressing hundreds of huge heavy drops from overburdened grass blades into the quilt of my anorak and the thick cotton of my trousers. I remember now the thick nature smell of freshly wetted earth and squashed grass. Then, before the water got through to my skin I ran inside to my mum, to towel my face, to dump the heavy wet clothes in the laundry basket, and fill my chilled red cheeks with hot buttered toast.

But I wouldn’t have done that if I’d had an iPad to play with.

Recruiting for Commercialism

This article, which appeared under the name of myself and Veredus colleague Evelyn Dougherty, was first published in the MJ

As we travel around the country visiting a diverse range of local authorities it is clear that “commercialism” is on the rise.  We are often asked about the practicalities and pitfalls of recruiting people with commercial backgrounds.  Cross-sector expertise can make a huge difference to authorities, but  fundamental questions need to be asked before the recruitment begins, not when the candidates are in front of a panel, and especially not when the shiny private sector implant has failed to live up to expectations.

Start by understanding why is commercialism important to you? We think there are (broadly) four reasons why authorities want to be more commercial – (1) to generate profit to offset the effect of cuts (2) to change the culture of the organisation in good ways (3) to support becoming a “commissioning council” and lastly (4) to be better able to understand and support business in your place

In terms of generating profit start by checking that everyone is really aligned with this – some authorities are even nervous about the word and use convoluted phrases like “net revenues” or just “income” because the P-word has corrosively negative connotations in the culture.  If this is you then your issues may go deeper than simply the absence of a commercial director type, and it is hard to imagine the whole organisation getting behind an initiative to take on other service providers and win.  Which brings us to another taboo subject – the notion of competition.  A lot of people really like the collaborative nature of public services and it can be deep in an organisation’s psyche, but if you are going to enter a traded service marketplace, say,  then you need to compete and win – there is no prize for second place, only wasted bidding costs.   This also has an impact on what you need to pay to get people – there is no point in recruiting someone to lead your profit generation if they simply get ticks in the person specification boxes but aren’t actually good enough to lead a win.  Moreover you will need to commit council tax-payers money to marketing and business development at a time when you are almost certainly making headline-worthy cuts elsewhere.  We think there is huge potential for authorities to become more commercial, but that aspiration needs to be more than one person deep.

The issue of cultural change is one that we hear quite a lot.  There are many admirable features of good commercial organisations – responsiveness to changing customer needs, quick decision-making, innovation – that many people, often especially elected members, contrast negatively with what they sometimes see in local authorities.   This one needs challenging, thoughtfully.  Public and private organisations exist in a completely different context – local authorities are regulated as monopoly providers of important publicly-funded services – they are hugely scrutinized and accountable, with very high requirements for consultation and with measured, transparent decision making.  There is no “private sector pixie dust” that can completely overcome this.  So the cultural aims are good ones, but realize that achieving them will require fundamental rethinking of the organisation, up to and including Overview and Scrutiny.  Councils that wish to be commercial have an interesting choice about whether to try to create the commercialism from within, or to place it in some kind of arms length body.  It would appear that the arms length route seems to be working better in terms of achieving the commercial objectives, and cultural change within the arms-length folk, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into culture change in the core.

Commercialism is undoubtedly important to commissioning councils.  This is most obviously true on the provider side – the parts of the organisation which are asked to behave as providers, and in many cases to compete and grow their business elsewhere.  However it is also important that the commissioner side is commercially strategic as there may not be well-developed markets for some of the services they wish to commission, so markets may need to be created.   Really smart commissioning will not only lead to service improvement but it can boost the prosperity of the place as a whole, which brings us on to the fourth benefit of commercialism.

Empathising with the needs of local business will be a useful side-effect of greater commercialism.  We often find that well-intentioned council officers don’t seem to understand the impact on small businesses of cashflow – we have seen big procurements split into small lot sizes in the hope that this will attract small local business – but the duration of the procurement and transition phases have such high up-front cost requirements against an uncertain return that no entrepreneur could risk it, and they might not be able to afford it even if they knew they were going to win.

Once you are clear about the nature of commercialism in your authority and what you are seeking to achieve the recruitment will become much easier.  In our experience there are many well qualified folk in the private sector who would actively enjoy working in the public sector (though there are also an annoying number of people who think it’ll be an easy life).  Recognise that you may need to find ways of being creative about salary, or finding other benefits that someone may value – many commercial folk live out of a suitcase so there is a huge family benefit in a council role.  Review your recruitment processes, especially early on in the cycle.  The private sector recruits differently.  One council had a standard application form which was a huge turn-off for private sector candidates, it confirmed all of their worst fears about penpushing bureaucracy.  We ran the initial process on a “letter and CV” basis and did the standard form only at the shortlist stage when we could explain the reasons for it.  Above all think about the induction and integration of people into the council.  Help them to succeed by pointing them at people who have made a successful transition.

The Birmingham Central Library

From summer 1978- summer 1980 I lived in Birmingham, so without the aid of a calculator I figure that I was 13 and 14 there.  As I look back now these seem like quite young ages, but of course at the time I felt borderline grown up.  Sentient, even.

It was an interesting time for me.  I had moved as a result of my father’s job to a new school, joining in what we used to call the third year but which in decimal currency these days is apparently (and appropriately) year 10.  It was a single sex grammar school. I elided the original 11+ by virtue of an interview, an ad-hoc exam and a reference from an inner London comp, but seemed to justify this by coming top of the class (and my gosh did they  measure the relative positions – to four decimal places).

So my weekdays were filled to sufficiency by Handsworth Grammar school and my education there was (I now see) based on some sycophantic attempt to ape public schools.  I was in “Stanford” house.  No sorting hats were involved.  And as far as I can tell the house system was nothing other than a galactic scale distraction from any sort of reality.

I saw boys who failed to perform well enough in their work (or be difficult) walloped – hard – with a dusty plimsoll in front of the whole class.  As I write this the name of the prinicipal plimsollist, a miserable c-swear of an RE teacher (and why is it only now that the supreme irony of this is occurring to me) has just slipped back into my brain, but it would be unfair to name Mr Fairbairn. Oops.

It was never me that was publicly whopped- a startlingly large proportion of my academic performance, as I look back on it, was motivated by fear.

I did learn some great stuff during those years though – Euclidean geometry and the concept of axioms remorselessly and inexorably flopping into truth once feeble brains had tetris-like aligned a suitable argument from happenstance and occasional inspiration. Quite Easily Done.

Committing to memory was definitely a thing.  I can still recite huge lumps of the periodic table.  Far better to expend hours on superficial knowledge than spend time actually understanding about electron shells…

We spent hours and hours performing multiplication with the aid of yellowed logarithm tables (note to younger readers – calculators had actually been invented by then).  That said it’s surprising how often since then it has been useful to know that the base 10 logarithm of 2 is 0.3010.  And that of of pi is 0.4971.

Michael Gove would be proud.

But the thing that I remember as a source of intellectual development far greater than that of my school was a building in the centre of Birmingham, a few stops (and I think, 8p) on a bus from my house.  It was … (soundtrack has drums rolling at this point) … the Central Library.

The Birmingham Central Library has recently taken a lot of stick for being a really bad building design-wise, and this entire blog is prompted by reading about the new library, which I am enormously keen to visit as soon as my travels pass me by the door.

I wanted to write this blog in an attempt to describe what the Birmingham Central library was for me.  I fear that I will fail … but I will try.

Facts first, then feelings:  It was huge. Floor after floor of knowledge.  Loads and loads of books, factual and fiction.  A reading room for hundreds of current periodicals, in hard perspex covers, a space that was silent and with chairs more comfy than we had at home, and newer smelling carpet.  The room ran along one edge of the building looking out over the square.  It was incredibly grown up.

Highly sophisticated library cards made of plastic with holes in, whose pattern could identify a person or a book and combine both, albeit temporarily. Computerised!  And let me tell you that my other experience of computers at that time was a teletype in a cupboard which connected us to the Maximop schools computer.  In those days computers had a smell, of ribbon and ink.  And they were slower than you could read.  Tacka tacka tacka.   Those holes were 2001, the Trigan Empire, Tomorrow’s World.

No child will ever experience this again.  The Birmingham Central Library was the internet.    But it was physical – you could visit it.  You could sit in it.  You could smell it.  The smell of ageing paper.  The smell of civilisation.  The epitome of the best of humanity.

I used to sit in the reading room and (erm) read.

To be entirely honest at this point I mostly read the satirical and comedic magazine called “Punch”.  I did also encounter New Scientist for the first time and subsequently subscribed to both.  But I most remember Punch.  It was funny and – wow – it was funny by being clever, a concept which was not at that point reflected by mainstream television.  In any way.

I later discovered “Week Ending”, but the sycophantic Radio 4 blog and my remote love affair with Sheila Steafel is yet to be written.  And may I just record for reference purposes that at this point the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy was  “only” a radio programme.

The Birmingham Central library had everything.  It had every copy of the Times ever published – on microfilm.  Microfilm.  Dum-diddy-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum-diddy, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM.  Totally James Bond.  You filled in a piece of paper stating the year and month for which you wanted the microfilm, handed it over at a counter, and a uniformed (uniformed!) guard went and got it for you.  Then you put it in a reader and wound through.

Sorry Google – you have yet to replicate that experience.  And you have yet to deliver me the content of a newspaper on the day that I was born.

I’ve just read a piece in the Observer which says that the new Birmingham Library is likely to be the last ever of its type.  Seems reasonable.  So why did that make me feel such a terrible sense of loss?