Why aren’t we digitally transforming democracy? 

This post was written in Greece, the birthplace of democracy. It’s based on observing the workings of government during my time as a senior civil servant in the UK (Feb 2014-Jul 2016); wondering what the error rate must have been on the processing of millions of ballot papers during the 2015 General Election and 2016 referendum (2%? 4%?); and thinking about the opportunities presented by the Brexit vote. A health warning: I’m just an interested amateur, there are others far better informed than me.

The Government Digital Service is leading the digital transformation of the UK government. It’s great– a bold and unashamed leader of change. But does it go far enough? From what I have seen, there’s great front-end work, but not yet enough of the back-end heavy lifting– the deep business process re-engineering that digital transformation is about. For example, the digital voter registration service doesn’t actually register you; it just sends your application to your local Electoral Registration Office to be processed as it always was. As Prof Weerakkody pointed out, GDS is focused on the operational side of government – how services are delivered to citizens/users– so who’s looking at the digital transformation of the rest of government?

A few examples of how old-school the workings of government are. How ministers communicate: they write letters on headed notepaper,add scanned hand-written signatures, and then email the PDFs to each other. How Parliament works: it recently voted to keep writing legislation down on goat skin, rather than moving to paper –perish the thought of just publishing it digitally.  Mobile working? Maybe not, since MPs are up in arms about the idea of having to relocate whilst the Houses of Parliament are renovated at a cost of £5.7bn.  Shared services? Maybe not, as the Lords won’t even share a canteen with the Common(er)s.  I am sure the Parliamentary Digital Service is battling valiantly to make progress – it’s got to be an uphill struggle.

There are a few more positive signs of genuine digital transformation of democracy, such as e-petitions, opening up a new means of communication between citizens and government. E-petitions are good, but this is tinkering around the edges – understandably, because all these institutions (the civil service, Parliament, political parties) are very good at self-preservation through resistance to change. With legislation set like concrete around the vested interests.

Estonia is often cited as an example of good digital government
They had a great opportunity to design a digital government– because they were starting from scratch after their exit from the Soviet Union.  Designing a process to work digitally from Day 1 is easier than transforming a long-standing non-digital process.

Digital transformation starts with looking at key business processes, and how they can be done better (cheaper, faster, more accurately) using modern tools and techniques. Let’s pick one of the key processes in democracy: voting. How could we do that better?

The voting process

To vote, you potter along to a local community centre, past a big paper “polling station” sign. Inside, you’re greeted by teams of workers drafted in specially for the event, who manually cross your name off a list on a clipboard; hand you assorted pieces of paper, which you mark with a pencil and stuff into a makeshift metal/wooden/plastic box. nswballotThe boxes are driven to a sports hall somewhere, where more temporary workers rush around piling up ballot papers on trestle tables. The process could not be more non-digital.  Even Parliament has said we need to be able to vote digitally by the 2020 general election.

A good part of the ceremony and drama of elections derives from the manual nature and inefficiency of the process: from the need for exit polls, to the “race to be the first to report” results, to staying up all night as “the results come in”, to Swing-O-Meters, to hanging chads.

Even limited attempts to use more modern tools and techniques in the voting process are regarded with suspicion. For example, the “electronic counting machines”which scanned in paper votes in the recent London Mayoral election. This was a partial process re-engineering– always tricky, with glitches: cue Luddite cries of “we told you to stick to pencil and paper.”

Change-resisters will often pick holes in a proposed digital process, and cite lack of perfection as a reason for sticking with the status quo.  “What if it crashes?” What if it is hacked?” “We can’t change unless it is perfect.”  This ignores the facts:

  • Manual handling means higher error rates (lost ballot papers/boxes; miscounting)
  • Capturing data from paper means higher error rates (OCR or keying)
  • There is a risk of fraud in a paper process just as there is in a digital process; and electoral fraud comes in many shapes and sizes
  • Computers can count faster and more accurately than people
  • There is more risk of error when people are rushing

Why don’t we count it as a “system crash” when a Returning Officer orders a recount of manual ballot papers? In a world where we conduct our lives online– and trust the integrity of the online services we use – why is voting a special case, where the old ways are sacrosanct, which cannot be digitised?

It’s not like we’d need to build a digital voting service– there are options out there already in use around the world. And no-one seriously thinks that paper ballots are working brilliantly.

If voting was done online, and via mobile devices, we would save tens of millions of pounds: a paper election costs £85m to administer. We’d also be making the process much easier for citizens and those running the election.  Easier and cheaper means that, potentially, we could do it more often.

At the moment, under our supposed system of representative democracy, citizens elect a local MP for five years, based on a manifesto; a government is appointed from the ranks of MPs; and the ministers in the government instruct the public services (civil and military) what to do. Sovereignty flows from citizens to MPs to government to be implemented by the public services.  What are the odds that manifesto commitments remain valid for five years, in a fast-changing world of economic, political and technological development?

Representative vs direct democracy

Five year cycles and representative democracy isn’t how democracy started in Greece. atheniandemocracyThe Greeks had direct democracy: the citizens voted directly on policy initiatives, rather than giving power to a small group of representatives. Since the eighteenth century, conventional wisdom is that,whilst direct democracy was fine in a small city-state, it wasn’t practical in a nation of tens or hundreds of millions of citizens. During the time of, for example,the French Revolution, there was no effective means for each citizen, over a large geography,to have their say on every major decision a government needed to take. So, instead, the many (citizens) nominated the few (MPs) to take decisions on their behalf.

Does the UK really have a representative democracy – an assembly of the few? Nominally, we’re a monarchy – that is, sovereignty vested in one person’s hands – but that sovereignty is circumscribed, so we look like a lot more like a representative democracy, where sovereignty derives from the people and is vested in an assembly of the few. But, there’s another type of national governance – aristocracy – that is, a ruling class.

In Greece, the aristocracy originally meant the brave soldiers who led their troops from the front. People who put their money where their mouth is. The aristocracy evolved to be more about the hereditary principle – and then evolved further to be more about grace and favour than brave, noble warriors.  Doesn’t the UK have more power vested in a ruling class than in the monarch or the people? A ruling class who put their mouth where the money is.  And if so, doesn’t the UK operate more like an aristocracy than a democracy or a monarchy?  Whilst the word “aristocracy” sits uncomfortably with us, isn’t the reality that our free, democratic, western society is governed by a ruling class – the Establishment? That term is so toxic, that in classic doublespeak, the current US presidential candidates all define themselves as anti-establishment.

If we think “a ruling class that won’t admit it” is a bad thing, is there now a way to get closer to pure democracy – direct democracy, based on popular sovereignty – an assembly of the many?

Digital direct democracy

The Internet enables billions of people across the globe to communicate instantaneously. It’s now practical for citizens to have their say directly. E-petitions is a tiny step towards citizens having their say, often and online. By digitising the voting process – just one process in democracy – could we start to unlock digital transformation of our democracy?

Digital transformation is often about disintermediation. disintermediationThe delegation of authority in our nominal representative democracy is citizens->MP-> minister-> public servant.Why do we need the intermediate layers of MPs and ministers, if there’s a cheap, fast and accurate means for citizens to vote online? In business process re-engineering, the less hand-offs the better – the less scope for inefficiency, delays and confusion. Have the people directly tell the public servants what to do.

A scary thought? Not when you see that Switzerland’s had 131 referenda since the turn of the century and they don’t appear to be lurching from political crisis to economic disaster to knee-jerk populism.

Arguably,the “Brexit regret” syndrome we saw in the UK in late June is because we’re not used to our votes counting. We’re used to elections as drama and sideshow; disenfranchised citizens giving the ruling class a bloody nose; voting based on personality and sound bites. Our mature, western democracy seems quite immature really. Voting more often, connected more directly to the execution of those decisions, could change that.

swissreferendumSo why not a Swiss model, with frequent referenda for key decisions, all conducted online?

Professional civil service

If we did make the leap to digital direct democracy – what would it look like? There would be no MPs, no ministers, no Lords, no Houses of Parliament. Wouldn’t this mean an effective dictatorship by the heads of the public services (the departmental Permanent Secretaries, the armed forces Generals, the NHS leaders, etc.)?

There are lessons here in the corporate governance of large companies. The civil service runs a bit like a business already and those corporate titles and structures are more or less there already. The Cabinet Office = head office. Perm Secs = CEOs.  There is a C-suite in each department.  But the current set-up differs from the corporate sector in one key way.   Some civil servants, in my experience, do have the Sir Humphrey sense of permanence – governments come and go, we remain – jobs for life. Corporate leaders know they live and die by results, which is a good thing.  Under a new corporatised government, we would need to avoid concentrations of power: public servants (particularly at a senior level, but why not throughout?) would all be on fixed term contracts of 3 years’ maximum. GDS already do this quite a lot, and it is a good thing, that should be applied everywhere in the civil service.

Importantly, this change to the civil service contract would reflect the modern world–where workers now have many employers/jobs over a career. It would enable greater cross-fertilisation between the private and public sectors, greater skills transfer, and better accountability.

So, if the citizens are voting directly on major policy decisions; and the civil servants are corporatised; is that it?  What else do we need?

House of Representatives 

Under this imaginary digital direct democracy, we would need a House of Representatives to do the job that boards of directors do in large corporations. Setting strategic direction on advisement from shareholders/citizens; monitoring executive performance; oversight and scrutiny.  And, a side note, “House of Representatives” seems a bit more descriptive and respectful than “House of Common(er)s.”

Boards include non-executive directors. Strangely, there are thousands of NEDs already in the UK government. According to GOV.UK, there are 355 departments in central government – each with its own board and NEDs. Add in the NHS trusts, local government, and more. It must cost a fortune, and,weirdly, duplicates the role of both Parliament (such as, scrutiny via the Public Accounts Committee) and ministers (who set strategic direction).

The new House of Representatives would act as a large board, overseeing all public bodies – from the Bank of England to NHS trusts to the corporatised civil service.The House would formulate the wording of referenda questions; make decisions on how to implement the will of the people expressed in those referenda; and monitor the effectiveness of the public services in operational delivery.

Could the House of Representatives be concentrating power in the hands of the few again? After all, formulating the wording of a referendum can strongly influence the decision the people take (see John Howard).  And wouldn’t we just be electing these Representatives as we do now?

Fortunately there are answers in the legal system and corporate world.

Selection not election

Trial by jury is recognised as the fairest means of justice for citizens.  Why can’t our Representatives be selected in the same way that jurors are selected?  In other words, you don’t volunteer, you are volunteered. Serving as a juror is a social duty and public service– why not the same model for Representatives? You serve for a fixed term of, say, a year and then can’t be called again for another, say, 10 years. The obvious challenge is: what if we randomly pick people who aren’t up to the job or whose views we don’t like? Please take a look at the Houses of Parliament now – the same concerns apply. We could apply the same type of juror selection rules that already work well in the legal system.

As a side benefit, moving to this model solves the long-standing “snouts in the trough”/expenses/pay problem with our current Parliament. Representatives need receive no additional remuneration –we just compensate their employer for their salary, or continue to pay their benefits.

The corporate world gives us a refinement to the means of selecting Representatives.  Jury selection is random, based on the electoral register. We now have market research methodologies which enable us to pick representative samples in a far more sophisticated way.

Overall, we have 1 MP per 100,000 citizens, segmented by geographic boundaries. That hides major discrepancies – so the MP for Isle of Wight represents 108,804 electors whereas the MP for Na h-EileanananIar in Scotland represents 21,769 electors (Wikipedia).

More fundamentally, why is the idea of representation tied exclusively to geography? Why not select a representative sample based on a broad range of criteria? Those diverse criteria could include: age, gender, socio-economic group,religion – or even all the characteristics we protect under the Equality Act. Surely such a House of Representatives would feel more representative than a House of Commons where 26% of MPs went to Oxbridge and a Cabinet stacked with Old Etonians?

Digital direct democracy

Summing up, digitisation of the voting process enables a move to more frequent referenda. In turn, this enables disintermediation of MPs and ministers, replaced by a new non-executive House of Representatives, selected to be truly representative. It’s a more modern democracy, unshackled from the eighteenth century.  It’s fairer – citizens genuinely get a say.

How much money would it save?

If digital transformation is about doing things better and cheaper, how much cheaper would this fictional new model be?  It’s difficult to say, but here are some figures to take aim at: the cost of a pencil-and-paper election =£85m; the annual running cost of the Houses of Parliament =£229m; the renovation cost for Parliament = £5.7bn. How much more efficient would the civil service be without ministerial changes of tack and an arbitrary 5 year cycle?  The civil service administration budget is£11.7bn(just 1.7% percentage of total spend); based on my experience, at least half of that is wasted on inefficiency and politicking; so a potential saving of £5.8bn per year.

Could it happen?

It’s a flight of fancy to think this could happen – there are too many vested interests and too much institutional inertia. The civil service is very effective in its resistance to change and closed mindset.pieinthesky Parliament won’t even contemplate leaving the crumbling Palace of Westminster or moving away from legislation written on goat skin.  Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. And, even if it could happen, it would be the biggest project ever undertaken in the UK – changing hundreds of years of “how we do things round here” in a country with a strong respect for tradition.

But Parliament did say there should be digital voting in the 2020 general election. Citizens did just use a referendum to do something inconceivable and vote to leave the European Union.

Leaving the EU brings us full circle back to Estonia, which was able to become an exemplar of digital government, because of the clean slate presented by their exit from the Soviet Union.  Is the UK’s exit from the European Union our Estonian moment– our opportunity to lead the world by creating a digital direct democracy?

Do women write better code?

The BBC published an article Women Write Better Code a few days ago, based on some US research of GitHub statistics. It showed that, when no gender was known, code written by women was judged by the GitHub community to be better than code written by men.  One thing that struck me was the casual way that we accept the “when no gender was known” point – in other words, accepting that sexism is still alive and well in the developer community.    The next thing was this was the first time that I’d seen some evidence that achieving gender parity in IT could be as much about quality and productivity as about fairness.

The under-representation of women in IT has been a hot topic for me since my first IT Director role, when I witnessed the transformational effect of women joining an all-male IT team. Unsurprisingly, the team communicate better, have better ideas, behave better, etc when there’s gender diversity – just the same as when there is diversity in age/culture/background/nationality/experience/etc.

I was honoured to be on the judging panel for the Women in IT Awards 2016 recently – and looking through the brilliant nominations and talking to the fellow judges – it was great to see how the Iwomen in it awardsT world has moved on in the past 10 years.  But I was struck by one statistic presented by a nominee: that they are proud to have women comprising 25% of their IT workforce. It’s more or less the same statistic in my own team.  Which is great, but still a long way from the 51% that gender parity would mean.

There’s lots being written and done about STEM education and job opportunities for girls – and it is pretty obvious that this is the right solution.  My daughter was buzzing after attending the GDST Digital Leaders 2016 conference recently – a fantastic initiative.  But we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to change perceptions about who should do what jobs

isis_anchalee_engi_3398011b.jpg– it was a happy by-product of the last world war that we saw such a step-change in the role of women in the workforce.   For all the government and institutional initiatives, I suspect there’s as much impact from viral social media messages like the fantastic #ilooklikeanengineer campaign recently – they will do as much, if not more, to convince girls that jobs in technology are the way to go.

Putting that aside, is it really true that women write better code?  If so, why would that be? Is it that the women who do go into software engineering despite the sexism and the under-representation, have to strive harder to succeed? And would that “advantage” then dissipate as gender parity was achieved?  Or is there an inherent reason – such as, neurological differences like this news article a couple of years ago.

Whatever the reason, and whether women write better code than men (or just as good), then there’s still a big hill to climb to get to the equal representation of women in the IT workforce.  It would be brilliant, if, as well as being fairer, equal representation also delivered increased quality and productivity.

The data’s big, the data’s free

Today the Digital Services team at Companies House passes a major milestone. We officially go live with the “free data” version of our new search service. Just another project milestone? Actually, no. It’s a big deal: 170m company records are now available free of charge to the public, via both a whizzy web service and a RESTful API. (And while we’re at it, we’ve unified the search and filing services).

CHS Free DataWe had 300m data accesses last year. When other parts of our data went free, we saw a 700% increase in access. Imagine what the stats are going to look like now! Thank goodness we’ve got AWS on board to cope with peaks in demand. We’ve been tweaking the service during the private beta, and been getting some truly great user feedback.

What really interests me now is the massive opportunity for these free corporate data to improve the efficiency of the UK economy.  Why have your staff input company names, addresses, directors as free text into your sales or purchase ledger? Just pull the clean, structured data direct from our API, avoiding all those dirty, duplicated data. Link to the CH record so you instantly know about changes of name and address. Have a single verified instance of a customer/supplier rather than whatever free text happens to get entered. Why not get ahead of the game by checking daily on the trading status of companies on your debtors ledger? Just automatically pull their trading status and latest accounts from CH.  About to employ a builder or plumber? Check out their corporate credentials using our web service.  That’s all free of charge, courtesy of Companies House.


I’d love to take credit for the new service, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t. There’s a great in-house team at CH that have pulled together to deliver this, more than ever in recent months. Special mentions to Chris Smith, Andrew Maddaford, Ian Kent, Rachel Cooper, Nic Barnes, and of course Robbie McNeil as Product Owner.

The World Wide Web has massively enhanced the speed and frequency of communications, and the transparency of and access to data. Consumers led the charge, companies followed slowly, and governments even more slowly. But I think the UK government’s now setting the agenda – leading the charge for free, accessible data, for the benefit of citizens and companies alike. Mike Bracken‘s shouting about what we’re doing, my CEO’s happy, and I’m proud that Companies House is right at the front of the charge to government as a platform.

Stay tuned for what comes next (more exciting news soon).

Disruption of the online talent sourcing market by social networks

Here’s  a summary of the dissertation I wrote 5-6 months ago for the Strategy and Innovation Masters Level Diploma at Oxford Said.   I’m making it public for a few reasons. Firstly, I was pretty pleased to get a Distinction for it – which means it “demonstrates a total grasp of relevant concepts and frameworks.” Secondly, although events might have moved on somewhat in the past 6 months, I am not aware of anyone having dealt with the issues raised – and I think they (we?) should.

The PDF is available here: Disruption-online-talent-sourcing-market-social-networks_Public

It’s not the easiest read, nor the most polished text, and I resisted uploading the entire dissertation (this is an extract). But please do download it and take a read if you’re interested.

If you do use any ideas or quotes herein, please do credit me as the source.  Likewise, any comments or questions, feel free to contact me:

Interview with cio.co.uk

I was recently interviewed by cio.co.uk (Trinity Mirror Digital Recruitment completes transformation).  It’s always fun to see the angles that are interesting to journalists and industry commentators, and it gives me a chance to reflect on what’s important in what I am doing every day in my job.  The framework I am using to plan what we do is across 4 pillars (there are always 4):

  • Cloud – scale and speed of infrastructure
  • Social – recognising that the way communications happen is continuing to change
  • Mobile – usage of software in the post-PC (and Mac) world we are now in
  • Data/search – trying to personalise and be smarter with what we (our systems) know

This translates into roadmaps for the different web platforms and back office systems we have.  It is brilliant to have largely removed the millstone of legacy systems from our TMDR business – and now to be able to move forward so much faster.  As the article mentions, for me that is about improving the user experience in online recruitment –  using technology to replicate the personal, face to face experience – not putting technology barriers in the way of people hiring people.

My next mission is more process-based, and it centres on these 3 consecutive steps:

  1. Quality
  2. Visibility
  3. Innovation

This is a simple technique I came up with in my consulting days and it has stood me in good stead whenever I have been looking to take (technical, product and customer service) teams forward.

Firstly, Quality: invariably digital teams are trying to move at the speed of light and losing internal and external credibility by just not doing a high enough quality job.  Sure, you need to define what quality means,  and it definitely doesn’t mean bug-free software or months in QA, but on the whole – quality is king.  Too often, Quality is the accidental sacrificial lamb in projects where Iron Triangle* trade-offs have not been properly considered.  “Good enough” ends up meaning “pretty crappy really”.  Lean start-up is a trendy spin on this, which is basically saying Scope trade-offs are the right way to launch digital products – but that’s only giving part of the story of the Iron Triangle:

Secondly, when the building block of Quality delivery is in place, the focus moves to Visibility.  Visibility is pretty simple – it’s communication – ensuring everyone sees and hears about successes.  Technical teams can sometimes not be the best communicators within a business (my own excluded of course), and often the simple fact of increasing visibility and increasing communications can result in a virtuous circle of confidence, trust and delivery.

Thirdly, once we’re delivering Quality outcomes, and everyone has Visibility about those outcomes, we can move on to Innovation.  When we have the Quality and Visibility credits in the bank, and the trust and goodwill of our customers and colleagues, it is so much easier to persuade everyone that (a) it is worth investing time/money in developing something new and (b) it is worth changing to something new.  Quality and Visibility means the corporate antibodies don’t come to life, and Innovation has the opportunity to thrive and grow, or act as a learning experience.


* Please note the Iron Triangle is no longer a PMI approved concept. 

Intro to TMDR’s ART platform

ART YouTube Intro
ART YouTube Intro

Here’s the intro video for the new ART platform that we’ve been working on for a year at Trinity Mirror Digital Recruitment.

There are 4 key themes to the new platform, which will power some of the UK’s top jobsites, and over 100 sites in our portfolio – handling millions of job applications per month:

– Social:  we’re experimenting with more extensive social integration than most of our competitors. Bullhorn Reach has done some interesting stuff. We’re trying to take it one stage further.

– Mobile: mobile access is exploding in the recruitment market right now, and we’re taking this very seriously – ART has distinct UIs for classic/desktop; tablet; and phone.

– Search & Match: this is the fun bit, where we have spent a lot of time working out how to better match candidates and roles.  There’s some interesting new developments in the beta version, with more to come.

– Cloud: ART’s built on a Java stack, and hosted by AWS.  To my knowledge, the first 100% cloud-based platform in our sector (of any scale).  Being cloud-based gives us flexibility to try new stuff and not worry so much about capacity planning.