Weeknote 1.0

Welcome!

Welcome to both a new Institute for Government research project, and an experiment in how we do things a bit more openly.

We — Gavin, Marcus Shepheard, Lewis Lloyd and Pritesh Mistry— are embarking on a new project looking at future technology in government. You’ll have heard and seen various things about future technology, such as artificial intelligence and automation, could have a significant impact on the future of government. But what will those changes look like, when will they happen, which technologies will dominate and how far will this technology change government?

Obligatory zeros and ones image screaming ‘digital’! (This one’s from here)

We’re planning to answer these questions (and more) in a few different phases.

We’ll start with some scene-setting, asking:

1. What do we mean by future technology?

2. How well are the likely impacts of future technology currently understood?

3. Where are new technologies already being used in government?

4. How are other countries approaching this issue?

We’ll have a strand looking at the public sector workforce, asking:

1. How might new technology change the way public servants do their work?

2. What steps should the leaders of government organisations take, and what skills will leaders need, to assess:

  • The likely impacts of new technology on their workforce
  • How new technology will create new workforce demands in the future

3. How can the civil service leadership take a strategic approach to maximise the benefits of new technology while also meeting other obligations?

And another looking at technology for policy-making, asking:

1. What new opportunities does technology offer policy makers?

2. What are the barriers to realising those opportunities, and how could they be overcome?

3. Where is new technology already being used in the policy making process, in the UK and beyond? How successful has this been, and what lessons can we learn?

We’re also thinking about future technology and public services, and a blue-sky future of government module, asking what government should look like in 2050.

Are we asking the right questions? Do you have any answers — or know where we should be looking for them? Might you be interested in funding some of our work? Please get in touch — you can email the team on digital@instituteforgovernment.org.uk, or find us on Twitter here, here, here and here. The IfG’s previous digital government work is here.

We’re also experimenting with being a bit more open as we conduct the project. As well as these Weeknotes, we’ll aim to share some draft thinking and other bits and pieces, which we hope will generate conversation, comments and even some new contacts.

Three things that happened this week

Aleks Bobrowska from DWP presents at the second #IfGDataBites event.

1. Data obviously underpins a lot of the promised advances from future technology. We held our second Data Bites event — four quickfire presentations on interesting government data projects — this week, covering a new digital service, ethics, personal data and citizen science. Tweets here, video of the first one here. Data Bites is great fun as well as informative — the next one will be on Tuesday 4 June, and we already have a number of exciting speakers lined up. If you or anyone you know would be keen to present at editions 4 and beyond — or fund future events — hit us up at digital@instituteforgovernment.org.uk.

2. Definitions! Future technology is a topic riddled with buzzwords and jargon (Blockchain anyone?). To help get ourselves and our readers all on the same page we’ve started writing our own set of handy definitions for this project. We’re drafting an explainer of some of the key technologies, and where they’re currently being used in government, and keeping a glossary of various terms which we’re hoping to publish next week (and you can flag anything that still isn’t clear or any other definitions you think would be useful).

3. Gavin’s been drafting a response to the Treasury’s recent review into how to make government financial reporting better. Might not sound like the most obvious future technology-related of things, but it’s interesting to think about how better systems could make recording, publishing and analysing this sort of data much, much easier.

People we chatted to

What we’re reading and thinking about

Halt and Catch Fire: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” (Image: from here)
  • Amidst all the policy reports and news stories, it’s actually an old TV series that Gavin’s been thinking about: Halt and Catch Fire. It’s about the US tech industry between 1983 and 1994 (think the birth of personal computers, online gaming, the World Wide Web and search engines). The Mad Men-esque opening (enter charismatic and mysterious male salesman) gives way to something much more multifaceted, interesting and human. You should watch it. But also ponder one of its most notable quotes in the light of our future technology project: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
  • Marcus is learning all about bias, thanks to Caroline Criado Perez’s fantastic Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. He’s also been reading the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Concept Note on Human-Machine Teaming which offers a fascinating account of how robots and AI may change the armed forces.
  • Lewis has been devouring Jaron Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything: half memoir (interesting on the early days of Silicon Valley, so perhaps to be read alongside Gavin’s recommendation), half scientific/philosophical investigation of virtual reality — what it is and could/should be. It’s particularly intriguing on different ways of ‘doing’ computer science. There was nothing inevitable about ‘coding’, after all, and there are lots of problems with it. More open-ended, creative ways of allowing humans to control computers could completely change our relationship with technology (see Appendix 2 of the book, or check this for a quick overview).

What’s coming up next week?

Any last thoughts?

  • Tell us what you think — all thoughts very welcome!