Government Transformation – what’s the deal with patterns?

The OASIS technical committee working on a “Transformational Government Framework” (and on which I serve as an editor), reached an important milestone today – the vote to approve its first formal draft (URL will be posted once published), an important step for any standardisation community, the point where it starts to get real and you sense that what is being done might actually have an impact one day.

So, this is also a good moment to ask: what is this framework intended to achieve? I can’t speak for the committee nor really as editor but here are a few personal musings based on the work of the last couple of months.

Our work started out with a valuable one day seminar hosted by the World Bank in December last where we looked at a series of successes in the “eGovernment” space around the world and took a cold hard look at several failings too.

One major concern, as outlined in the draft ‘Primer’ introducing the standard framework that we are building, is that governments across the world are faced with the challenge to “do more, for less” – whatever their particular priorities (from cutting taxes to fighting global warming) – but find it difficult to respond effectively. The time for ‘incremental’ changes has passed; but nobody wants to shoulder the burden, risk and responsibility for ‘big bang’ changes either.

Hence – ‘transformation’.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough already to know that ‘transformation’ can mean all things to all people and can spot the snake oil merchants. In the context of this committee’s work, we are talking about a process of change that puts public service users at the centre of service delivery concerns. That would seem to be obvious enough but even President Obama, in this year’s State of The Union speech called out a couple of examples as anecdotes for how government has gone wrong:

We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. (Laughter.) I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked. (Laughter and applause.)

The Transformational Government Framework (TGF) recognises this disconnect and thus has a much more radical focus on transforming the whole relationship between the public sector and users of public services – but with a twist.

In the last few years, attempts to adapt internal government departments and service ‘silos’ to align with customer needs (be they citizens or businesses) have gone for adapting the whole physical organisation of government.

But this is precisely where technology ought to help: surely it is possible to transform the customer’s experience of service delivery – through virtual services, or what the TGF calls a ‘Franchise Model’ – without having to change organisational structures. After all, and to offer a weak metaphor, we realise as computer users that we can ‘move’ our stuff and files around, copy them in different places, save multiple copies and versions even, without having to change a physical infrastructure, such as of a filing system, something impossible to envisage a couple of decades ago.

What is valuable about working with this group is the range of seasoned talent and innovation around the table, who share in this vision to deliver better public services and use IT more effectively. With different levels of engagement, the committee includes people from large and small, public or private, with expertise from Microsoft, Oracle, Fujitsu, the Governments of Canada, New Zealand, US and Belgium, and consultancy firms big and small.

In moving forward today, the committee agreed a basic draft ‘Primer’ that sets the scene for the work of the Framework and has committed to trying out a new approach to creating a formal standard in this area, something that presents its own challenges.

A high-level set of policy statements and commitments read fine for a senior policy maker but offers little traction for IT system developers and implementers. On the other hand, trying to express all of the core issues of government transformation as a series of schema, owl or rdf statements or other formal model may appeal to the developers but is likely to lose the senior policy makers and managers whose buy-in so critical to the success of such an approach.

With the committee’s go-ahead, I have now embarked on a two week ‘prrof of concept’ to see whether an approach using a ‘pattern language’ will satisfy all our target audiences and strike the right balance between policy goals and tractable, implementable code. I have been inspired for many years by the work of Christopher Alexander – whose works “A Timeless Way of Building” and “A Pattern Language” re-cast architects’ vision of what the ‘timeless’ essence of building and urban planning involves. In more recent times, his paradigm has been taken on board by some IT design communities, as can be seen by books such as ‘Design Patterns‘ and ‘Software Requirement Patterns‘. I believe we can use a similar approach for the current work. What particularly appeals to me in Alexander’s original texts (unlike, I confess, some of the more developer-centred design pattern books) is how the set of patterns (in his case for buildings), although expressed in a formal structure, read as – and engage the reader – as intelligent and intelligible prose. There could be a lesson there for the IT architect and design community as a whole who, with the exception of user interface and interaction design have yet to really set thinsg alight for the average punter.

Only the next couple of weeks will show whether I make a complete fool of myself, am an ambitious under-achiever, am slightly possessed or might actually have found something useful here. I’ll blog on my findings…

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