s07e12: Scaling Bureaucracy

Enter the Subtitle

0.0 Sitrep

Wednesday, October 9 2019. California is not burning (yet) because California is getting ready for, or already has had, its power turned off, ostensibly to mitigate the risk of aging powerline infrastructure sparking wildfires. The City of Oakland euphemistically called this “de-energizing”. In case it’s not clear, we’re now definitively in the Children of Men timeline (if not worse) because here, too, we can see how our children will have no future.

I’ve been in Sacramento since Monday (yes, my complicated contribution to our climate crisis is that I commute from Portland to Sacramento every few weeks. You know what? I can’t do everything. I’m comfortable that I’m doing good, valuable work.) and will be back to working remote for the remainder of the week - next week will be my fully remote week.

I like being in the office. I like being around people and having, as they say, the face time. It’s faster. Videoconferencing is good and fine, but especially in the stages of starting something up, it’s good to be in the same room as people. I’m lucky that the team I work with listen to feedback and act on it. We tried something for the first time yesterday, and… it could’ve been better. We had a pretty candid discussion about it. We did it again today, for the second time, and it was a lot better! I’m confident Friday will be better, too.

I’m also grateful to be able to work with leadership who I can talk with candidly, and who listen, too. It’s not lost on me that many of the people I work with in this way are women.

The past few days have also been a reminder to me. My job is easier when I just say what I need to say, when I feel safe enough and not threatened to offer candid feedback and not be worried about it. That doesn’t mean any feedback is mean, I need to concentrate to make sure it’s useful and, when thinking about what my issue is with something, and the associated slowing down that thinking comes with, I sometimes figure out that actually (unsurprisingly) it’s my problem and not their problem.

And, you know. Noticing and outing myself when I’m venting. Noticing when something is happening that I’m getting tense about because it’s not the way I’d do it. But it is the way someone else is doing it. How can I be helpful? Why don’t I like this? Knowing why I don’t like something turns out to be pretty valuable, because then I can think about why and talk about why and figure out whether it’s something I feel or need to be acted on.

Turns out, therapy isn’t just about your personal relationships. It’s about how you live in a world of other people.

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1.0 A thing that caught my attention

Just one thing today, I think, and this one has been bubbling around for a while. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if I can stick the landing on this one because I started it in the moment, and then had to put it aside to come back to later in some sort of new how can I write sustainably without burning myself out experiment which, frankly, got me a bunch of therapist points. Anyway:

1.1 Scaling Bureaucracy

I heard a story on NPR’s Here and Now the other day about the use of gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) in California. GVROs are part of California’s Red Flag law, a uniquely American thing due to the wholly American problem of gun violence. These Red Flag laws “let police or family members request a person’s guns be confiscated if that person poses a threat to themselves or others.”

The story covered a murder where a GVRO would have been warranted and, it sounds like, granted: (“a perfect spot for a GVRO to come into play”), but nothing happened. The story puts one of the reasons why a GVRO wasn’t sought down to a lack of education - “many in the law enforcement arena simply don’t know how to use them”. That’s used as an explanation as to why for the first three years of the Red Flag law’s implementation there were only 400 individual GVROs granted in California.

There’s another story that this is linked to in my mind, and in my head it feels pretty easy to join dots and create a narrative. (Disclaimer: There’s probably some bias here! Systems are complicated, and any human-understandable, easily grokkable attempt to explain one might not actually be correct, or even useful. But sometimes, I think, they might be right-enough to be helpful.)

Just over 3 years ago, a GQ story (Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns) came out about the ATF, the federal organization that’s supposed to trace gun ownership.

The short story was a mixture of confirming gut-feel nightmares (tracing guns is probably a mess and a disaster), and brand new nightmares (seriously, “it’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records.”) The GQ story helped people understand that there’s a federal law preventing a searchable (and thus computerised) database, which explains why tracing guns is a manual process involving microfilm (although, as of 2016, the ATF was allowed to use PDFs!)

Now, as a Brit in America, I’ve learned that guns are a pretty, um, sensitive topic here, but I’ll go with this one to think out loud (warning: unsubstantiated, barely-research reckons) about the question of designing and implementing a bureaucracy in the 21st century.

Note that there is an important piece of context here, which is that it’s all fine and well to design and implement a bureaucracy in the 21st century, but it’s an entirely different thing to do so alongside existing bureaucracy, inside or alongside existing systems. This is a cue, as ever, to go read (or at least skim) Donella Meadows’ Systems Thinking resources.

There are a few general thoughts going on here, and some of them are, for me, uncomfortably close to the Silicon Valley rhetoric of Disrupt All The Things! Blow Everything Up! Start Again! Externalize All The Costs! which makes me feel nervous, because I do not like those things, do not want to do those things and also think those things are dumb and, if not stupid, ill-advised and naive.

First, some general principles: the governments I’ve lived under (United Kingdom, United States of America) are old enough that the first one arguably invented the concept of a civil service bureaucracy (uh, citation needed, as I’m now more aware of questioning and getting confirmation of things that organizations say about themselves) and the second one, influenced by the first, went about saying that government is more or less a flawed concept and the less of it the better.

(There is an aside here, where I feel bound to point out that some of the people who are really into the idea of as little government as possible also happen to be the kind of people who are in favor of quite a lot of government in some other areas like, I don’t know, the bodily autonomy of people who have vaginas.)

Anyway, the general point again is that we’ve got states that are mired in 19th century concepts of bureaucracy, and I could go on again and think out loud about how industrialization, factory work, assembly lines and so on influenced the work of managing and administering things.

But, like Stephen Miller says, after three years of working in government, I feel like I have opinions about how these governments work, in general!

The easy observation is that these bureaucracies are still inherently and pretty much completely paper-based. Again, thinking out loud, you might even go far as to say that bureacracies are record-based. There is a record about You, and there are things that the government needs to know about You in order to variously Do Things To You or, if you’re lucky, Do Things For You. I’m also of the opinion that there’s nothing inherent about governments here - pretty much all private industry of a certain age is going to be acting this way too because: why not?

I am also aware here, that I am not a Librarian and my extent of knowledge about, say, information science is that there exists a discipline of information science. So, just to be clear to everyone, this is a prime case of a person having opinions about something.

Here’s the next observation: the three oldest IT systems in U.S. Federal Government are the IRS Individual Master File (59 years old), the IRS Business Master File, and the military system that runs on 8 inch floppy disks that you see in the news every now and then because the visual of 8 inch floppy disks is sticky and something journalists find attractive. I would not be surprised if the oldest UK government computer systems were similarly along the line of taxation and/or social service benefits (probably more the former, because they are required in order to have funds to administer the latter), and defence.

I am sure that I have a friends and colleagues with intimate and deep knowledge of these systems. My intuition is that when the underlying administrative systems of your government are record and essentially paper based, shifted to limited computer storage (an individual “record”), everything else is ultimately tied to and needs to link back to those systems.

(OMG, now I have the thought of an evolution of no taxation without representation, along the lines of no legacy modernization without taxation modernization.)

Anyway, paper.

People — I am being abstract and unspecific here, so what I probably more accurately mean is “recent technology industry trends and rhetoric” — have been excited about phrases like having bits of government act as APIs which makes sense at some grokkable level, but, I’d contend, is pretty much meaningless to an entire other class of people.

I realize that this is spiraling in my head and I should try to slow down and just list out the steps, so here goes. (And please bear in mind a) I have not had any formal . U.S. Civics classes; b) it has been at least ten years since I’ve watched I’m Just A Bill; c) I last studied constitutional/administrative law in England twenty one years ago oh my god do I feel old now)

  • Some sort of thing happens (people keep getting killed by guns by people who, on balance, should not have guns, because they have also been committing e.g. domestic violence)

  • Somebody comes up with a policy proposal (we should not let domestic violence offenders have guns)

  • This policy proposal attracts the attention of, say, a legislator, who sponsors some legislation

  • Legislation gets politicked and ultimately, voted upon, approved and then published.

I want to stop right there and just assume, for the sake of argument, that the substance of what is being done here is still predominantly occurring in, most likely, a Microsoft Word document, or, worst case, a series of PDFs.

Roughly speaking, I feel like the main innovation over the last 20 years, has been that the Word documents are now publicly available via the web with, perhaps in the best cases, tracked-changes metadata.

This is still all paper-based, right? Because what feels like the failure (and what my former boss would call delivery-driven government) is the bit that happens after writing the legislation and actually putting the legislation into effect. The analogy here is: what’s the point of doing something like legislating for gun violence restraining orders if your system of administration for government is incapable of following through? I mean, no wonder people are losing trust in government - never mind the politicking, concentrate on the lack of follow-through!

So, if you were designing in a vacuum, say, (we have to start from somewhere, so let’s start from a vacuum and then figure out what we need to change in order to apply to present circumstances and environment), how would you structure administration and delivery to… actually assure delivery?

What, in essence, are the steps involved? I’m not talking here about what you’d need to do to properly enact gun violence restraining orders so that California actually made use of them, and that there were more than 400 (I’m assuming here that there should have been more than 400), I’m talking and thinking about what kind of administrative infrastructure would need to exist.

There are a few things called out in the article:

  • There was no training

  • Police departments didn’t know about it

  • The courts did’t know about it, or know what to do

  • The anticipated use-cases weren’t automagically discovered - do we, does society intend for gun violence restraining orders to automatically be used in, e.g. documented cases of domestic violence?

  • Who else needs to know about it? How would a victim of domestic violence or abuse know about this in the first place?

  • Would lawyers know about it?

And that’s even before you get into the application process. What does that even look like? How paper-based is that process? Does it rely upon the collection of new data? Should the process be easy, and or should it be quick? Should it be easy to understand? What procedures are there if an order is issued in error?

The point I’m trying to make here is that a lot of what I see happening in government is still fire-fighting. I have colleagues at the Court Service who are working on making their forms better (I paraphrase) so that people can achieve the goals or purposes of those forms more easily. The forms are the means, remember, not the ends. Having someone “submit a form” is not the outcome.

But that’s tactical fire-fighting. I acknowledge this is my impulse to get distracted and fall for the allure of the Big Hairy Problem, but I do think there is a big hairy problem here! I want to solve for the general case, because if we do that, then my friends in the Court Service have a slightly easier job. I want to examine the larger process of the general administration of government and the infrastructure of the civil service because more things like a gun violence restraining order will happen, and they should be easier to implement and, frankly, better implemented.

I’m nearly 40 and I’m coming around to when it makes sense to blow everything up and start a new institution and when it makes sense to work with the institution you have. It’s a reasonable argument to say that you can’t just “disrupt the DMV” and throw away several tens of thousands of workers and drop in something that looks like a bunch of Apple Stores. But similarly, you need good examples. You need Known Goods and you need inspiration in the way I feel students need models. If I can see what a high-performing institution looks like, if I can inspect it and see how it works what it delivers or results in, then I have a better chance of understanding what I might need to change (or keep!) about my existing institution.

My worry is that there are not many opportunities to start such new institutions. They would come, I imagine, with new entitlements or new programs that would have the chance to exist outside existing infrastructure. So, I think, a program inside an existing department or agency is probably not the best opportunity. I keep coming back to the example at the U.S. Federal government level of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an effectively brand new program that was staffed with a whole bunch of people I admire, with the opportunity to put together infrastructure suited to the task of a thorny, present-day problem that didn’t exist (certainly not at the same scale) when the bulk of government administrative techniques were put in place.

I worry that the only major chance to do something like this at the Federal level would be something like the Green New Deal. The GND would come with - would need to come with - stupendous funding, but if the GND program doesn’t come with a new way of implementing and delivering government, then I fear it will all be for naught.

To my title, I guess my point was this: we don’t scale bureaucracy right now. The infrastructure to do so does not exist. And this is before we even get to the ethics of the damn thing - how do you scale bureaucracy reliant upon information about people in a responsible, ethical, way that preserves fundamental rights and freedoms? I mean, it seems clear to me that you cannot do so without clearly and deliberately making decisions about what you want to trade off, most likely in specific contexts. I look at initiatives now and I think: yes, people are right to be worried about government waste. At the same time, if we don’t do something, government will never be capable of following through on its promises anywhere near the level it should be.

There. Did I stick it? And, as ever, and I know for this one I have people directly working in the area: please, send notes!

1.2 It’s Supposed To Be Fun, Stupid

I was talking with my friends Laura Hall and Jey Biddulph over the weekend about videogames and at some point in the conversation, we got onto the concept of difficulty and cheat codes. Laura and Jey are both game designers, whereas I used to work at a couple of game design startup companies (I don’t think you can call Six to Start, the company I co-founded with my brother, a startup anymore, though!) and, occasionally, in my ad agency incarnation.

There is a thing that happens where you work in an area that lay people think is fun, and then the fun thing becomes not-fun because you have a qualitatively different relationship to it. This example is “working in games makes it hard to enjoy games” because there are always things to learn or there are always observations to be made. There are professional obligations. I feel like this sometimes happens to me when people who’re familiar with one facet of my work ask if I watch Black Mirror and I feel yes, I should probably watch Black Mirror because it is a cultural phenomenom dealing with issues I’m professionally involved in, but then I think: no, because it is tiring and I won’t be able to enjoy it and anyway, it isn’t supposed to be enjoyable.

But anyway, games. There is a school of thought that says that games should be easy to play and complete because they are supposed to be fun, and then there is another school that says: fuck you, games are art, making a game that is hard is a statement in and of itself. Both of these are valid! I also get to choose that I will not finish Limbo, for example, because I found it too hard and the designer explicitly said that he wanted to make it hard. Turns out, I can decide how I want to spend my time.

Now, I remember a bit more about how we came onto this topic of conversation. I remember that I’d read on Twitter somewhere some fantastic stats from a developer at Ubisoft who’d provided an update on how people are using subtitles in games like Assassin’s Creed. And it turns out lots of people do! They keep increasing! And as we talked about this, we agreed that a lot of the time, there’s no reason to turn the subtitles off. They make the game easier to play. This is the regular argument that accessibility features benefit everyone not just the disabled.

But then we got onto the concept of difficulty and my example was that I’d gotten a copy of Prey (2017) because I was interested in the environmental design, storytelling and game design. And I am! And it’s very interesting and it’s very good and it is in many ways a successor to games like Bioshock which (in its own way) experimented with environmental storytelling and meta-narratives about what it means to play a game. But, it turns out that for me, about half way through Prey, it gets a bit hard and, well, I just gave up. I remember saying to my friends: “You know what, I’d just like to have an option where I can say: look, just let me be invincible and let all enemies be defeated by three whacks with a crowbar”. I just want to have a look around and explore. I don’t want it to be this hard.

Jey had a great observation at this point which was: games used to have cheat codes. There’s a reason, I think, that so many people will know what I mean if I say IDDQD or that so many people still know what up down up down left right left right B A select means. It’s because games are hard and sometimes, you just want to get to the next bit.

But we don’t really have cheat codes anymore. We have walkthroughs on YouTube - which are great! - but walkthroughs then become frustrating in a different way, where now I know what I need to do, but I don’t have the timing or the manual dexterity to pull it off. I just want to finish the thing. But then I don’t. Because it was too hard.

A great point that Jey had was that it takes nothing away from games (e.g. from “core” gamers, the kind of people who say (and are entitled to their view) that games should and must be hard and it’s the mastery of a new skill and the challenge that is an essential part of “games”) to offer cheat codes if you want to use them. Sure, have the regular normal mode, but let me choose to make it easy. In fact, let me choose to make it ridiculously easy. I remember being excited when, I think in the Wii days, Nintendo came out with a patent that would let you pause and rewind gameplay to start again. Because, you know. I feel like games should be fun.

2.0 Some Things

Ha, fake-out. I’m on a plane and I’m tired and there are already lots of words in this episode, so no collection of small things for you today.

Oh wait, here’s just one and it’s not even a link, more of a prompt:

What would the technology equivalent of Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” be?

Anyway, would you look at that! 12 episodes and I’m still going! 14 if you count the extra ones for paid subscribers!

OK. I’m off to do some decompressing, maybe harass some villagers and make them hurt their thumbs or whatever.

I hope your week has been good so far, and I hope that when we wake up tomorrow there is more civilization, not less.

As ever, send me notes, I read every one and I do reply to most of them!



P.S. Again, if you’re liking what you’re reading and if you want to / are able to / feel like it, then you can help support this writing by subscribing: