s4e03: What next? 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m writing this around 2pm on Friday, 24th February when I’m supposed to be having lunch. On the one hand, this is good: eating lunch is good and writing is good. On the other hand: there are so many things that are not done and need to be done.On the final hand of course is the eventual recognition of am sort of deteriorating mental health over the last two months for which there are a number of causes, and it doesn’t really matter which one is more important than the other or which one I could have done something about: what’s done is done and, well, here we are, so let’s just take stock. It’s not a great place, especially not one which has been combined with getting over a shitty cold that came on a week ago.

There are some things that I’ve learned in the past that help. The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t feel like they will help now, but nonetheless, just writing them down and lip-reading the words, even if I don’t say them out loud, *does* something.

In group, they teach affirmations. Affirmations sound to people like me to be bullshit, the kind of magical thinking that standing in front of a mirror and saying “I’m Great!” makes you, well, feel great. But a point that I had to concede was that affirmations are merely repeated beliefs. Saying that you’re not good enough, or saying that you never get things done is as much an affirmation as saying that you’re worthy no matter what you do or, to put a more sharper edge on things, no matter what you make.

I suspect there are a bunch of people like me whom – for whatever reason – it’s hard to look at themselves in the mirror and say, with a straight face, that they love themselves, or that they are worthy, or that they don’t care about what other people think.

Anyway. Part of me knows that about 10 months ago, after repeating a whole bunch of statements to myself, they started to feel true, even I didn’t *think* they were true. And then a while after that, it didn’t even matter whether I *thought* they were true, because I just acted as if they were. Funny, that.

So, today, at 2:15pm? I’m just going to write down that today, I’m doing the best that I can.

Tomorrow can be another day.

1.0 Pull on a piece of string

I have realized that there’s a way of describing some of the work that I’ve been doing in California that shows a blind spot. Or, rather, that the way I’ve been approaching my work with California results in certain things happening.The problem I got presented with — help a department that’s in an agency improve the success of a particular technology project — was an opportunity to expose the environment. The artifact – a procurement document – was the best that could be produced in that environment. You pull the string on a procurement document, and if you’re being serious and if you have nothing to lose, you point to the territory and you say: this environment, this territory? Nothing can succeed here. Nothing will succeed here.

It doesn’t matter whether the environment was willed into being in a singular act or whether it accreted over time (say, thirty years worth of reactive policy and practices building up like some sort of regulatory ring of limescale scum in a student house bathtub), all that matters is that it’s there.

That environment, though, effectively implicates everyone who has a stake in that environment. On the one hand it doesn’t matter if you’re smack bang in the middle of Hills McMountainville, but it does matter if you’re the Chief Hill Officer.

In other words, it matters a Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer might not be historically responsible for the current topology of the landscape. But it should be in their power to declare (although not, strictly, politically correct) that the current topology is, more or less, bunk.

I get a lot of people saying that what’s happened in California with the creation of the Child Welfare Digital Service is a) incredibly impressive but simultaneously b) sounds deceptively easy, and what I think I have to underline is that the description was easy (do steps a, b and c), but the actual work involved was hard and difficult.

The politics were difficult.
Lining up all the stakeholders was difficult.
Getting the resources – people with the skills we needed – was difficult.
Getting the right people in the right room was difficult.
Persuading people that this was the right thing to do was difficult.
Breaking up the procurement document and choosing a place to start, with a rough idea of schedule was difficult.
Deciding what to focus on and what to ignore was difficult.
Deciding what needed to be done now, and what could be done later, was difficult.

The *easy* things were the big decisions.

The *hard* things were doing the work that put the big decisions into practice.

One of the reasons why all the above are hard to do is because the environment you’re trying to do them has been either implicitly or explicitly set up to *not do those things* because of policy and practice.

I started this out by saying that the type of problems I’d been working on, combined with the approaches I’ve been taking, had been inexorably moving toward certain shapes. The rough heuristic here is that if there’s a big government technology project, the first thing to do is to not do it the way you’d usually do a big government technology project, and that means needing to change the environment. The problem is, changing the environment for a big government technology project means you end up doing, well, megastructure engineering or terraforming for organizations.

Put it this way: you land on a planet that has hardly any free energy so the only type of life that can survive there is slow and large. The approach that I’m using right now is essentially nuking it so that quick, fast life can thrive, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument because you end up *nuking the entire planet*. Where a planet is a department or an agency, of course.

There is no “lab” here. And the struggle I’m dealing with is: how well do you want to solve this problem? Do you want to solve it properly, for ever? Does that inevitably, inexorably mean changing the entire organizational structure, and is the best way to do that top-down? Or, can you do it bottom-up? Can you start a couple cells and have them do a sort of reverse-takeover?

This is why I think innovation labs don’t work: they silo off the danger to the organization and they let all the different stuff happen elsewhere where they can’t affect the environment of the host organism. It’s as if you were able to deal with cancer by saying: okay cancer, come right in, you can have just my left foot, but I’m going to make sure you can’t get to the rest of my body.

In my naive understanding, when cancer wins, the host organism dies. You don’t just get big undifferentiated blobs of cancer or innovation. They don’t take over the organism in a useful parasitic way.

This isn’t to say that you can’t get good results by, say, embedding a small multi-disciplinary team inside a department and empowering them to get stuff done. But my worry is: so what? So they get some stuff done. Do you win the war? How do you get from that one small team and change the way *the entire department* works?

I’m more or less sure that at this stage of my so-called career, I haven’t seen any successful examples of cell or bottom-up based organizational change. They only ever come from the top. You can win small battles, but I worry about longevity.

What this says about government in the large doesn’t inspire me with confidence. At least, not in my lifetime.

On the contra, for what it’s worth, here’s an opportunity. Any time anyone’s going to upgrade or replace a legacy system and they’ve got money to do it (and in most government cases, it’s stupid money), the legacy system replacement is the best excuse you’ve got to do org and culture change.

Best,

Dan