User centred like a laser guided bomb in Faluja

There have been many recent events on the means of improving public sector project success rates but we have known the causes of failure and the pre-conditions for success for over thirty years. And still we make the same old boring mistakes.

The webcast of a recent seminar held in the Attlee Suite of the House of Commons on “Govt 2.0 or Truly Transformative Government” contains a lively recapitulation of what we have known for decades, leading in to some spectalure examples of we could be doing to make much better use of the technologies available today.

That first session, on improving success rates contained gems such as “Don’t reinvent the wheel: steal with pride”.

However, when the speakers moved on to the real causes of failure, (incoherent planning and people processes), some of the comments became rather more bitter:

“Mechanised compassion means discrimination, service denial, frustration and loss of dignity”,

“User centred like a laser guided bomb in Faluja”

There were also sharp comments on the spectacular waste of resources when technology sledge-hammers are used to address requirement nuts – “This is best viewed as a £50,000 project with a £100 million of consultancy on top”.

I was reminded of the multi-million pound Y2K “market transition” project that was ditched in favour of switching the dealing system off (the markets would be closed anyway) and allowing those who might have to do out of hours trading (always rare on New Years Eve) to do so manually. Such decisions could never happen in the public sector – or at least they could never happen after the Minister had announced the system and defended it in the House of Commons.

The seminar also heard one very interesting answer to the question of why we never learn. Failure by the rules is commonly well rewarded (promotion, cost-plus over runs, consultancy etc.). But the punishments for breaking the rules can be savage, however successful the results.

The event was chaired and attended by members of the EURIM Transformational Government team who acquired some interesting new questions for their next “hearing”: with John Suffolk.

I also found it very helpful in refining my thinking for an article that I have been asked to write for a civil service audience on “Why do we never learn?”. The article is based on an update of a presentation that I did for a similar audience just over five years ago and I have found it most interesting to see what has changed since then – and what has not.

The rich rewards for failure and the penalties for success are indeed a prime, and long standing, cause – but are they a cause or a symptom?

I will blog again on this when the article is finished and published.

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If a laser guided bomb was user centred then wouldn't it backfire on the person using it?

Depends who you judge to be the user. Often systems are developed with the commissioning user rather than the end user in mind, after all... So looking at it that way, it's like desiging for the person who presses the button to dispatch the bomb, but forgetting it'll also affect those at the other end. Mind you, designing products like that does tend to backfire on the one who's hit the button: the people at the other end tend to rebel. And in the end that costs the person who pressed the button. So I reckon both the original image and the comment are valid!

Dear Philip

I should have said customer-centric (maybe I did; the fillum will reveal all).

Many of us get cross and frustrated when public sector projects fall short of what we all fell people deserve by way of services. This is cause for a sense of urgency, but let us never be bitter.

I did try to say that there is a salvation at hand. Not technology or better, planning and people or procurement processes but DESIGN. I tried to stress we have a vibrant design community in the UK with the vocabulary and formal processes to ensure we create things that work and do what people want in a manner they're comfortable with. They're a complete joy to hang out with; it's great to see the world through their eyes (eg DOTT07 - see other references to design on IdealGov).