Abrading the Death Star

A renewed hope

I wanted to write something positive, because 2016.

In the tiny filter bubble that I knowingly inhabit, there is uncertainty about public sector digital work.

There are lots of people leaving organisations at home and abroad. There is concern about whether new regimes will continue to support the work of transforming the public sector for the internet age. I also perceive a degree of schadenfreude in the press [1] and elsewhere, with a tone suggesting that this ‘digital’ experiment has failed.

There’s an atmosphere of something being ‘over’, or close to it.

I have a few thoughts [2]. I hope they will make people feel better in case they’re feeling down.

Organisational change makes terrible fiction

This is not a linear narrative.

The plucky band of digital rebels don’t have a one in a million shot to destroy the government Death Star against all odds (roll credits).

They are our only hope. CAN THEY DO IT!?!?

I expect journalists must find this non-linear narrative annoying [3].


This change is an iterative process, over timescales that are longer than the amount of time most people will spend in a role, or within an organisation.

Understand the scale

So this change is going to take a long time.

Part of the problem is understanding how long, or how big the change is.

Personally, I find it hard to even feel the edges of it. When I listen to Paul Downey talk about registers, particularly descriptions of the current state of affairs for ‘authoritative lists’ of data all over the country, I get a sense of the scale of just one aspect of the necessary change.

I was struck by a line in Paul Shetler’s recent blog post after 16 months working on digital transformation in Australia

When it comes to service delivery, the transaction volumes of government services are small compared to the wider world.

I totally understand this, and in my own, smaller context I have been involved in projects that hysterically over-engineered systems to cater for transaction volumes that were totally inappropriate for the task at hand.

Still, I suggest that the sheer variety of services, offices, staff, locations etc. make this digital transformation of the public sector a very big and very complex thing indeed.

Add to that the fact that, as a citizen, you will have needs that traverse organisational boundaries.

In my opinion, it is wrong for those boundaries to result in a poor service for people with needs often fundamental to their lives.

So, it is really big.

My favourite description of something really big that’s going to take a long time is in the lyrics of the song ‘Randy Described Eternity’ by Built to Spill [4]

Every thousand years, this metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter floats just a few yards past the Earth. You climb on your roof and take a swipe at it with a single feather. Hit it once every thousand years.
Until you’ve worn it down to the size of a pea.

If you don’t like indie rock from the 1990s, there’s the Doctor Who episode ‘Heaven Sent’. It is essentially the same.


I promise that thinking about something abstract that is really big will help. Maybe do that for a moment, and then…

Forget about the scale

There is no point trying to get your head around something this big. If you are mapping- or trying to manage this then I politely suggest that you stop [5].

Unlike the person on the roof in the Built to Spill song (or Doctor Who), you are not alone. You will never be alone, because...

There will always be a plucky band of rebels

I’ve had the pioneers / settlers / town planners concept put to me several times in the past year. I’m not sure of the provenance of this [6] (the link is to a blog post by Simon Wardley).

Maybe the ‘pioneers’ will sit inside the public sector. Maybe they won’t. It could very well be cyclical. Again in my own small world, mySociety held up a picture of ‘what good looks like’ for the UK Parliament ~10 years ago.

If a concentration of ‘digital’ skills and expertise is diluted and disseminated across the public sector for a while maybe that will work. In time, maybe it will revert to a central location with a more substantial remit.

It doesn’t matter. Keep sanding. There will always be a plucky band of rebels, somewhere. Pay attention to them, because…

You are not Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the person cursed by the gods to push a rock up a hill only to watch it come back to down, for eternity. If you work in the public sector then chances are you are familiar with him.

Transforming the public sector for the internet age is not a Sisyphean task.

Every day, that rock is getting a bit smaller. The gods [7] haven’t cursed you: sympathise with them. Maybe they don’t quite understand, or they don’t know how best to help.

Anything you do to make it better is amazing.

If you built a service that makes citizens lives better that’s amazing. Or you just played a part in that. Maybe you made that service better through research. Or maybe you just saved some public money. Amazing.

Maybe you did a 5 year stint, transforming multiple services, and it’s enough now. Amazing.

The problem is bigger than any individual, their career, or their expertise. So any aspect of this change that you address is amazing.

It will get faster

I’m pretty sure the development of technology is accelerating (even adjusting for the fact that I am getting old).

I have several thoughts here. Some of them are negative and dismantle this whole piece. But let’s be positive instead!

There’s an opportunity to harness the rapid development of technology for the purpose of the transformation of the public sector for the internet age, and we risk missing this opportunity.

You could bring a jackhammer to work.

So, in my terrible movie pitch, a diverse cast of thousands descend on the government Death Star over the course of 20 years. They sand away at the surface. Some of them have a small piece of sandpaper. Some of them bring a belt sander. Now and again somebody comes with the aforementioned jackhammer.

Throughout, this diverse cast of thousands scrupulously collect the dust and debris in bags and buckets.

Then they take away the dust and debris and turn it into something better.

[1] The press within this filter bubble. Not front page national news.

[2] Just thoughts. No data. No cake. No data about cake.

[3] I speculate.

[4] Other music is available.

[5] If this is your job right now I’m really sorry. Let’s talk.

[6] I am a terrible Head of Data, but I’m ok on Search.

[7] By which I mean ‘really important people’.