‘Two hands are a lot’ — Elseworlds Edition

Jan 6 · 5 min read

I was thinking about that Classic Dom post over the weekend. Yes I should get a life. No it isn’t on the cards anytime soon. One little thought experiment I kept coming back to was what would I do if I found myself as an internet-age Cardinal Richelieu and was looking to build a team to make some big, sweeping changes to the ways things are done.

Basically in this Elseworlds I replace Dom but the world is otherwise relatively unchanged.

Who would I be hiring and how would I be doing it?

In the original post Mr Cummings was seeking unusual;

  • Data scientists and software developers
  • Economists
  • Policy experts
  • Project managers
  • Communication experts
  • Junior researchers one of whom will also be my personal assistant
  • Weirdos and misfits with odd skills

My list would be a bit different..

Unusual data infrastructure specialists

So lets start with ‘data’. There is clearly an opportunity here but as I said elsewhere any current ambitions “fails to acknowledge just how messy the underlying data is.” I mean this is no secret. The NAO wrote a report about it. Dawn wrote a great post about the state of the data science nation in Government over a year ago;

While there’s interest in artificial intelligence and emerging innovation, not as many want to fix the underlying data infrastructure challenges because, let’s face it, metadata will never be ‘sexy’.

Thanks to JAMES HERBERT I also came across this article in the Economist that talks about the huge amount of manual work that goes on in Chinese ‘data farms’ to label and ‘clean’ the data that underpins their emerging AI dominance.

I’m not going to be going to call for an army of ‘data wranglers’ (though maybe that is the reality that is needed) but we need to make the ‘data infrastructure’ a priority — I suspect Dawn is right and we’ll never make it ‘sexy’ — but if I was in this kind of ‘benevolent dictator’ role I would be forcing it up the agenda everywhere and hiring (and empowering) the people what needs doing. The answers are out there as are the skills — what has been lacking is political will.

Unusual lawyers

While Mr Cummings is busy fetishing scientists and economists I’d be poaching lawyers. Not just any lawyers but those rare birds that understand the internet-era. Whether they come from the Open Rights Group or EFF networks, or Linklaters or the bloody Facebook policy team I’d want to hire real, deep expertise in privacy, data sharing, copyright and basically the world we live in today. Experts who understand the nuances of things like GDPR and the Data Protection Act. Who are able to articulate things clearly and broadly (backed by the Cardinal) and who are able to turn the dial a bit on the risk appetite of so many in the Civil Service. FUD has crippled so many opportunities because the advice is so often lowest common denominator stuff.

Unusual HR people

If you want to make real change you need to bring in different types of people but to be honest to do that I believe there would need to be radical changes to the way people are hired into Gov. Now Dom clearly thinks that as well but I think something a bit more constructive is needed than a HR ‘bonfire’.

I’d want people who can get creative about things — without breaking employment laws. Who can look at things like the Presidential Innovation Fellows and other initiatives elsewhere and assess what worked and what just made for good press. Who can design programs that can be piloted and tested and either scaled or scrapped.

I suspect many of these people are already in public service but they are scattered and need bringing together, given resources and given the opportunity free of naysayers.

Unusual communicators

Actually I’m not a million miles away from agreeing with the original post here when it comes to comms. The world is moving so fast in this space and the old models are failing all over the place. People who really understand games design and interactive/immersive storytelling, robo-reporting, who understand the changing relationship between audiences and platforms are going to be increasingly important.

Rather than for propaganda purposes though I’m more interested in utilising these skills for education and openness. The trust between politicians and the people seems intrinsically damaged these days (and the press has its own problems) and using new (and old) communications techniques to be more open could maybe help rebuild that relationship.

That is one of the reasons I liked this from Mark O’Neill so much;

On communications, I have long been of the belief that every major project needs what we would call a seanchaí, a combination of an oral historian and a story teller who captures the narrative and the lessons learned.

I always liked the idea of (non compromised) embedded ‘journalists’ in big projects — independent chroniclers of the work warts and all.

Fund teams not projects

This is a bit different but I think rather than try to bring in ‘unusual project managers’ I’d get to the route of the problem and just break the whole project/programme funding approach entirely. Andrew once wrote ‘Fix the finances, fix the organisation’ and I agree. This is something I think would become my mission in this Elseworlds universe. Taking something like this about ‘Products over Projects’ as a starting point but making it work for the public sector properly would have a huge impact. Talented, settled teams getting the opportunity to see things through, to improve together without the looming, arbitrary programme end date hanging over them. That is the dream.

I wouldn’t need an assistant and I’m not indulging in any Silicon Valley hustle-porn so I’ll skip the junior researcher roles entirely, I am pretty much in agreement around the Policy Experts approach and for the avoidance of doubt I think we have great software developers all over Government and a growing band of talented data scientists. They just need the data.

So that is that. Much longer than I planned. Apparently his writing style catches! Oh god.

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