Category Archives: IT-enabled projects and waste

What Google looks for when hiring staff … traits Whitehall’s culture abhors?

By Tony Collins

The contrast between what Google looks for when hiring staff and what Whitehall looks for when making some of its top appointments, could give clues as to why many government IT-based projects and programmes fail.

First, the strengths Google looks for.  These were set out yesterday on BBC R4 by Laszlo Bock,  human resources chief at Google for 10 years.

Google was named “Best Company to Work For” more than 30 times around the world and received over 100 awards as a top employer during Bock’s time.

In 2010, he was named “Human Resources Executive of the Year”. Under him, Google changed its clunky, arduous recruitment processes that relied on gimmicks like maths puzzles to those that helped the company grow to about 60,000 employees in less than two decades.

In 2015 he  published his first book, The New York Times bestseller Work Rules!, a practical guide to help people find meaning in work and improve the way they live and lead. He resigned from Google in 2016.

On the BBC  “Analysis” programme on Monday evening – which looked at intelligence and talent and what they mean, if anything, in job interviews –  Bock said the least important attribute Google screens for is whether someone knows about the job they are taking on. Crunching the data on successful hiring led Google instead to look for these characteristics:

  • Humility
  • Conscientiousness
  • A sense of responsibility not to quit until the job is done well
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • A sense of fun
  • Courage

Why courage?

Bock said,

“It’s about the importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations. One of the things that happens is, when organisations get large, people stop raising their voices and really bad things happen as a result. That’s where you get whistleblowing, insider trading, all kinds of things.

“Human beings are evolved, biologically, as social, hierarchy-seeking animals. We tend to conform. So courage is important because the really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’ and the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.

“Without that you can’t do great things.”

Comment

It’s too easy to generalise about the hiring and appointment of senior civil servants. But it’s possible to understand a little about the hiring culture within Whitehall’s biggest department, the Department for Work and Pensions.

An insight into DWP culture and thinking can be gleaned from the many Lever arch folders of documents filed by the DWP as part of an FOI case in which it spent several years fighting to stop the release of documents about the Universal Credit IT programme.

The documents include DWP witness statements on the “harm” that would be caused if the IT documents in question were published.

The judge in the case, Chris Ryan, challenged most of the DWP’s arguments.

In one of his rulings, Judge Ryan described the DWP’s claims as:

  • alarming and surprising
  • overstated
  • unconvincing
  • close to fanciful

He said that public confidence in the Universal Credit IT programme had been maintained for some time “on a false basis”; and he raised the possibility that an “unhealthily collegiate relationship had developed” between the DWP and private sector IT suppliers. [Campaign4Change will publish a separate blog post on this ruling in the next few days.]

As well as the insight into DWP culture that one can gain from the FOI case, it’s possible to gauge culture and thinking within Whitehall departments from the talented, free-thinking IT individualists who have joined the top layer of the civil service, quit and returned to the private sector.

It would be invidious to pick out some names as there are so many.

What all this suggests is that Whitehall’s culture appreciates conformity and consensus and shuns boat-rocking.

When top IT professionals who joined HMRC and the DWP spoke publicly at conferences about institutional problems that needed to be tackled, mandarins reacted quickly – and such disclosures were never repeated.

And after a leak to the Guardian about the results of a DWP staff survey of morale on the Universal Credit IT programme, the department launched a formal leak inquiry headed by a senior member of the security services.

At the same time, Universal Credit IT programme documents were no longer emailed but transferred around in taxis.

This bout of nervous introspection (the judge described the DWP’s arguments in the FOI case as “defensive”) when taken together with what else we know, indicate that Whitehall’s culture is insular, distrustful and inimical to open challenge and problem-solving (though there are some within the senior Whitehall ranks who successfully defy that culture).

When Bock talks of conformity being a danger within large organisations he would not have had the DWP in mind – but he aptly describes its culture.

When he speaks about the “importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations” he was probably unaware of the extent to which Whitehall culture abhors raised voices.

As Bock says, when people don’t raise their voices “really bad things happen as a result”. Perhaps the lack of internal challenge was one reason the NHS IT programme – NPfIT – lost billions of pounds, and the DWP’s Universal Credit programme went badly awry for several years.

When Bock says the “really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’, he could have been describing the culture of the Government Digital Service. But that refreshing GDS culture is being slowly choked by the conservatism of traditional Whitehall departments.

As Bock says, “the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.”  But bad problems are things senior civil servants avoid talking about, even internally. A Disneyland”good news” culture pervades central departments.

A National Audit Office report on the Universal Credit programme referred to a “fortress mentality” within the DWP.

Maybe the consensus-seeking John Manzoni, head of the civil service, and his colleague Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, could seek to employ Bock as an adviser on appointments and recruitment.

Bock’s brief? To turn around the senior civil service’s culture of conformity, groupthink, denial, selective use of “good news” facts and a lack of open challenge.

Recognising the destructiveness within a big organisation of having the wrong culture – as Bock does – could be the start of a genuine Whitehall transformation.

BBC R4 “Analysis” on talent, intelligence and recruitment

Laszlo Bock steps down

Can Birmingham City Council afford this jargon-laden Big Data project?

By Tony Collins

Birmingham council’s “Big Data Corridor” commits multiple offences against the English language. Could its jargon-heavy justifications threaten the usefulness of the project?

Birmingham City Council is running a budget deficit expected to be £49m in 2016/17. That hasn’t stopped it from pushing forward with plans to invest in a “Big Data Corridor” that has left at least one leading councillor confused as to its purpose.

Councillor Jon Hunt, leader of he Lib-Dems on the Labour-run council,  told a cabinet meeting that the project was “potentially exciting” and he thanked Aston University for its involvement but he added,

“I was a bit confused about the purpose of it.”

Birmingham City Council will be contributing hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the research project – money that Hunt said the council cannot afford.

He said Birmingham City Council may be best placed as an “enabler” of such projects rather than “putting in money it doesn’t have”.

A report to the council’s cabinet said,

“The proposed Big Data Corridor (BDC) project at a total cost of £2.568m will support Small/Medium Enterprises (SME’s) to understand the benefits of using data to design new services and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham, as a demonstrator.”

Quite what that means is unclear in the report; and leading councillors gave no direct responses to Hunt’s points about the unclear purpose of the project and  whether the council can afford it.

Birmingham Council says the Big Data Corridor is a “new initiative led by Birmingham City Council in partnership with Aston University, Future Cities Catapult, Centro, Telensa, Innovation Birmingham, local SMEs and community groups of the Eastern Corridor Smart Demonstrator.

The project is part funded by its participants, including Birmingham council, and the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund.

A report to the council’s cabinet said the project would “address specific challenges such as creating a healthy happy city”.

Comment

Birmingham City Council’s Big Data Corridor may be a fun research project to work on – but what’s its point?

The council says the aim of the project is to

 “create an innovative, connected data marketplace – a new disruptive economy – where SMEs use data to create new applications, services and experiences to serve personalised demand for businesses and communities in the Corridor, generating social and environmental value alongside hard economic impacts”.

But what’s its purpose for the citizens of Birmingham?

“SMEs will be supported to use data and technologies to create new services, and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham to deliver to beneficiaries in the Corridor, generating social, environmental and economic value….”

How is that useful to residents?

“Working with the Smart City Commission, we are exploring how the wider deployment of smart city / future internet-based technologies and services can help drive innovation and accelerate delivery of city outcomes bringing together both needs of public services, community and private sector.”

Which means?

“The demonstrator will aim to tackle local problems in a more holistic, layered and integrated way.

” It will drive greater connectedness along urban clusters – connecting assets, data, talent, location, infrastructure to combine innovative design, use of community and social spaces and services with housing and infrastructure developments; new models of commissioning and service delivery enabled through civic and social enterprise.”

Actual uses please?

“The demonstrator which links into existing City development plans e.g. Birmingham Connected City (formerly the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan); Birmingham Development Plan; East Birmingham Prospectus for Growth will focus on:

  • Mobility & connectivity – Improving how people travel around across all modes and enabling access to employment opportunities;

  • Health – Healthy ageing; improve quality of life / mental health & wellbeing indicators;

  • Skills & Enterprise – Manage supply and demand; Upskill local population and talent for innovation; grow level of enterprise and sustainable start-up & business growth

  • Information Marketplaces – enabling programme of activity creating conditions for data to be extracted and /or exchanged by multiple partners & stakeholders prioritised around above themes; creating the supply chain that may include business / developers that can create value with this new data

Yes, but one specific purpose?

“The Big Data Corridor will utilise a data platform provided by Birmingham City University, which will act like an address book to access a range of public and commercial service data sets, which will enable Small/Medium Enterprises with support through this project, to create new products and services to help address challenges faced by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.”

Its benefits for Birmingham council tax payers who would help fund the project?

“[The Big Data Corridor] aims to accelerate the digital capabilities of businesses to capitalise on the exponential growth of the Internet Of Things and Data Economy by developing solutions with citizens to address city in the areas of health, mobility and sustainability. This will be enabled through 3 key strands. All support for SMEs will be provide free of charge based on meeting eligibility criteria.”

Yes but specific benefits?

“[The Big Data Corridor] will host technology and data rich demonstrator activities to enable GBSLEP SMEs to develop new services and products enabled by the new data streams and tested in East Birmingham in response to specific challenges identified through work with stakeholders and communities. Note that this project will not compile data sets, but accesses those available openly or if will purchase them if necessary through this project.”

Specifically?

“[The Big Corridor will] provide technical and business support utilising the Serendip Incubator (a space for businesses to collaborate) at Birmingham Science Park – Aston to engage SMEs, manage their involvement, support rapid prototyping and commercialisation of products and services.”

Yes, but …

“To address congestion …”

Aha! A specific purpose. In what way will the Big Data Corridor reduce congestion?

“[It] could be for SMEs to access Telensa’s smart lighting application network, Centro transport data, personal data such as schemes that are already operating to enable individuals to share data voluntarily, as well as social media data to develop new products to incentivise behaviour change of citizens from cars to public transport to reduce congestion.”

Rarely before have so many offences against plain English been committed within one IT project.

The serious point is that unclear, abstract English and unclear thinking go hand in hand.

Orwell said that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.  He would probably have described Birmingham council’s phrases such as “accelerate delivery of city outcomes” and “generating social, environmental and economic value” as avoidably ugly.

Such phrases suggest that their author was indifferent as to whether the words meant anything or not. They are easily written – because they don’t require any thought.

Orwell could have been looking at Birmingham Council’s words on its Big Data Corridor when he wrote,

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

Indeed it’s hard to see how Birmingham council found the money for the Big Data Corridor, based on the poor quality of information it has provided so far.

One explanation could be that finance councillors and officials watched in awe as the river of ostensibly worthy phrases flowed in front of them – phrases such as “greater connectedness along urban clusters”.

Possible big data uses

One possible specific use of the big data corridor would be to “develop a service to enable citizens to find the healthiest and safest walking routes to local chemist”.

How many Birmingham citizens will take the time to use such an app rather than get to the chemist in the shortest possible time?

Another potential app would show air quality in real-time. This would be useful.

Big data could also be used for street lighting – to allow for the manual brightening of lights when required – and for triggering CCTV and a local response when certain noises are detected.

But would such potential uses be forgotten while project professionals wriggle furiously to try and stop themselves sinking into the Big Data Corridor’s mudflats of jargon?

It’s possible the project will create 56 jobs, which would be one tangible benefit. But what the new recruits will do for local residents is unclear.

Ideally, perhaps, they’d have the skill to translate abstract words and phrases into jargon-free English so that Birmingham’s residents would know how their Big Data Corridor money is being spent.

Perhaps the project may even win an award. Campaign4Change nominates Birmingham’s Big Data Corridor for the Golden Bull award 2017. It’s an award for the year’s worst written tripe.

This is from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”,

“A speaker who uses that kind of [abstract] phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved …”

He added,

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

In a report on the use and abuse of official language, the House of Commons’ Public Administration Committee criticised  “unlovely” words and phrases such as “step changes”, “stakeholder engagements”, “win-wins”, “level playing fields” and “going forwards”.

It concluded that a poor use of language by officials can amount to “maladministration”. The committee said,

“In our view, using confusing or unclear language that is so bad that it results in people not getting the benefits or services to which they are entitled, or which prevents them from understanding their rights or the choices available to them, amounts to ‘maladaministration’.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman at that time agreed with this view.

She said,

“I think if it got to the point that it was actually incomprehensible, then it would be in contravention of my principles about providing information that’s clear, accurate and not misleading.”

Click here to generate gobbledygook similar to Birmingham Council’s (Plain English Campaign’s gobbledygook generator).

 

Use and abuse of official language – House of Commons Public Administration Committee

Big Data Corridor bid goes through to the next stage

Big Data Corridor report

Big Data case studies

Birmingham council savings too ambitious and too many uncertainties.

Birmingham blog

Digital Birmingham