In a word, innovation

According to Wikipedia, Innovation is a new idea, more effective device or process.

I would go further and say that “casual innovation” is the root of the private sector. It’s everything from a boffin and her new material science process to a long-term unemployed fortysomething getting the idea to act as an agent for his labourer friends.

In the private sector, innovation is both the spark and the fuel. It’s what makes people start businesses and it’s what keeps businesses alive. There are precious few businesses who stop innovating as they age – it cold be in process, in business development or in marketing – but they all do something. If they don’t, they are in constant risk of being surpassed and replaced by another business who can do it better, cheaper or make customers happier. If a customer isn’t happy with the product, the price, the delivery or the service, then they move on. And its risky because if a new innovation isn’t popular, it could torpedo the company.

I went for a haircut this week and my usual barber was closed for holidays. Impatient as I was, I wasn’t going to wait with a massive mop of unruly hair for another week especially after making the journey down. So I went looking for another barber. The first I discounted because while the barber was functional, I had’t returned there due to a problem in the delivery and service. I went down a side street and found a new barber and once seated the barber asked me who my “usual” barber was. Upon hearing my reply, they asked what they needed to do to secure my future business. To be honest, the fact they had the initiative to ask was enough for me to consider them. And, the icing on the cake, it was a good haircut.

It’s not quite the same in the public sector.

If a public service or product isn’t great, we can’t choose a different government. You can’t shop around for a better deal. Even where government services are privatised, a poor product or service experience doesn’t mean you can change supplier. You’re already tied into a multi-year contract with the supplier. You don’t get a choice – so whether you’re unhappy with your tax office or your bin collection or your educational curriculum – you’re too far removed from the contract to be effective in changing anything. Short of literally moving countries, there’s usually no way a customer can change their government services (and usually even an election has no effect).

This breeds a natural complacency and complacency is the Achilles Heel of Innovation. Worse still – it’s possible to have a culture of conservative inaction, of risk-avoidance and, potentially worse than that, wilful ignorance and paranoia.

It’s incumbent of public sector service owners to defeat these notions, however. We cannot change our government easily, so public servants who are wilfully ignorant or paranoid in their defensiveness are an oxymoron by definition. If anything, the relative stability of government should free departments to be more innovative. They don’t have to worry about who’s paying the bills and they don’t have to worry about making salary. They don’t need to worry that their innovation could alienate past customers.

I am encouraged by the MVP/Agile approach I’ve seen with some GDS services but there needs to be constant iteration of services. There needs to be service improvement especially in ‘taxes’ that we cannot avoid paying.

The public sector must understand that innovation isn’t always about leaps, it’s not always about cost-saving and it’s not always obvious. It’s entirely likely that innovation in the Healthcare system will actually end up costing us more as more people use it. We have a massive issue with people not availing of the services we do have (cancer screening for instance). Finding new ways to save lives will not reduce costs (though it may extend the useful life of a taxpayer). We can work on reducing the cost of delivery per customer using digital services in many cases but the role of a public service or product is to get used more. The best we can hope for is that more people use it and then the cost of development and maintenance can be borne by many more people (reducing the cost per customer).

This year I taxed my car online which, after having to deal with humans in a queue, was an absolute relief. The problem I’m having right now is that the MVP hasn’t progressed and changing the bank account means cancelling a direct debit and starting a new one. And that, I was advised, came with a small risk that my car may not be taxed for a period. That’s kinda unacceptable in this day and age.

It’s necessary for public services to evolve. It’s necessary for them to “update” their services. We can’t afford to force our customers (citizens) to only use web browsers that are in decline. We can’t afford to force them to use Internet Explorer and Firefox. We have to assume that our customer may only have access to a smartphone and a slow, data-capped, 3G connection. We’re building services for people with fat broadband pipes on desktop PCs running monolithic Windows. By definition, the customers of the future will be mobile.

Re-think who the typical customer is. There will be customers of the public sector who don’t use “online” services but these are a vanishingly small percentage and it’s entirely likely their reasons lead to a need for bigger interventions.

Human Engineering

For as long as I’ve been aware, there has always been a sense of pride associated with German Engineering. The German auto industry is certainly the most dominant – Volkswagen owns Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Ducati, SEAT, Skoda, Ducati (motorcycles) and MAN (lorries).

The recent scandals about the “diesel dupe” by Volkswagen are not only damaging to the manufacturers environmental record but represents a company culture that cannot be ignored.

The revelations mean that Volkswagen cars may be producing forty (40) times the pollution they claim. People who own these cars may not have bought them for their environmental record but still have marvelled at the lower road tax at the same time as enjoying the pricing and the performance. But it would seem that was all a lie.

Diesels are already falling out of favour due to the toxicity of their fumes (the government can admit to being wrong about that) but this signals a death knell for the diesel industry.

Someone, a budget controller, signed off on producing software that would control emissions when subjected to test conditions. Then a team of engineers designed the software and accompanying hardware designed to defeat the tests. And not one of them thought to blow the whistle.

That is the very definition of toxic culture.

You get what you measure

From RTE:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that the use of technology in schools may be doing more harm than good.

It found that countries that have invested heavily in information and communications technology in schools show no appreciable improvement in student achievement.

  1. That’s not what they’re for.
  2. Seldom is the curriculum and support infrastructure present to exploit technology.
  3. Seldom does the teacher have the experience to exploit technology
  4. The examination infrastructure is weighted towards using paper and pencil (and, no, ticking multiple choice boxes on a computer doesn’t constitute exploiting technology)
  5. Who cares if they don’t raise results? Exam results are more about finding ways to write off sections of our population. We standardise exams because we can’t standardise children.
  6. Most schools provide 1-2 hours per week of computer access. Maybe they shouldn’t invest as most kids get plenty of access outside school. But if schools don’t invest, you’ve just created a digital divide. Well done.
  7. This is one of those moments where we train children to do one thing and then test them (measure their progress) using a completely different methodology. It’s like we are criticising a fish because it can’t climb a tree.


Our school system was designed during the industrial revolution. We need to think about what schools look like during the knowledge revolution.

As a special prize, some Ken Robinson.

Lack of remorse is the reason that rational people leave

It’s not respect between the traditions we need, it’s an iota of remorse.

I don’t respect the right of Republicans to name play parks after murderers nor do I respect the rights of Loyalists to parade anywhere they damn well please. Both of them can just "get off my lawn". Calls for the other to respect their culture is not only falling on deaf ears but it’s like a red rag to a bull. And those who bleat loudest for their culture to be respected are, unsurprisingly, the greatest perpetrators of exactly the same foul against their imagined opponents.

But both traditions need to express remorse not respect. We need to see some remorse from the "PUL" community for 50 years of Unionist domination and some remorse for thirty years of mayhem and murder from the Republicans would go a long way.

if you’ve chosen a side you owe the rest of us an apology

It doesn’t matter to me which side you’re from; if you’ve chosen a side you owe the rest of us an apology for being party to a dirty little skirmish that has left thousands dead, tens of thousands traumatised and despite the platitudes of a peace process, continues to inflict harm on the population.

Neither side is willing to accept they have ruined the lives of millions of people.

Neither side is willing to admit they continue to inflict their bile upon the young and create more victims of this dirty skirmish every day.

Neither side is prepared to admit they were wrong.

And that’s why my advice is to leave.