Welcome back to our Digital Heroes series – it’s been a while.
In the latest instalment, we hear from Andrew Greenway, a former civil servant turned independent consultant, who, in his own words does ‘a mixture of hacking bureaucracies and writing about them’.
Andrew has some fascinating insights on the future of digital democracy as well as some clear views on music tastes and biscuit dunking.
So, without further ado, let’s get on to the questions.
1. What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Andrew Greenway, and I live in London. I grew up in Huntingdon, a town that I wrote the entry for in the book ‘Crap Towns 3’. It wasn’t all that bad.
2. What do you do for a living?
I’ve never been very good at answering this question.
I help governments and other big organisations run in ways that respond better to our rising expectations of what’s possible. Usually that involves some combination of freelance strategy, governance, capability building and design.
In practice, I do a mixture of hacking bureaucracies and writing about them. In the not too distant past I was a civil servant, and worked in quite a few bits of the UK government, including the Government Digital Service, Government Office for Science and three other departments.
These days I work with international governments and some UK organisations. I also write about Whitehall in various places, trying to play the role of critical friend.
3. Who is your favourite band or artist?
I have a soft spot for Radiohead, Pink Floyd and John Lee Hooker, which I recognise as the tastes of someone twice my age.
I basically struggle with any music made after about 2004. My memory of anything made after that point is retained solely for the purposes of future pub quiz questions.
4. Android or iPhone?
iPhone – I am a fully-paid up member of the Apple cult.
5. PC or Mac?
6. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?
Context is all. I was told more than once by ex-colleagues: ‘you’re not a typical civil servant are you?’. The tragedy of it is that I probably am, but I was saved from going down the usual paths by good luck and working with a lot of brilliant people who showed me the value of openness, agility and actually getting stuff done.
I would say I’m a creature of habit, because it turns out that almost nothing that I’ve written about the reform of the civil service is radically different from what similarly-minded people have been saying for at least fifty years. It is quite deflating to think you’ve come up with something new, only to find someone like Peter Hennessy got there before I was born. He’s a Lord now, so there’s surely ermine in my future somewhere.
7. Your house is on fire, what do you save?
Assuming my fiancee is already long out the building, I’d grab a box of sentimental old letters, a laptop, and my passport. You may as well go and travel after something like that.
8. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?
Unsullied. Soggy biscuits? No.
9. Best project you’ve worked on and why?
During my time in the Cabinet Office I was product manager for the UK’s digital service standard and design manual. The idea was to set the bar not only for what digital public services should look and feel like, but how they were built too – the shape of the team, the data they cared about, and so on. The second challenge was to help teams around government meet that standard.
It was great fun for lots of reasons. Everyone on the team brought something different to the mix. We worked in the open, and iteratively – getting the chance to draw on expertise from hundreds of people within and outside government in a very short space of time. We knew our management and minister trusted us. That gave us the space to do the right thing, and politely ignore any unhelpful conventions.
The idea of government digital service standards and manuals have since been copied all over the place – Australia, the US and parts of Canada have something very similar, many others are dabbling with the idea. It directly helped make millions of online government experiences simpler and quicker for people. I’m proud of that.
10. Where do you hope the UK will be in 10 years in terms of online consultation/ digital democracy?
The gap between those thinking deeply about how the Internet-era is changing the role of government versus mainstream democratic debate seems to be getting wider. That’s a great pity, I think, and I would like to see it narrow.
A lot of political argument focuses on levers – spending more on x, y or z, regulating this or that, running public services via the state or private companies, leaving the EU – that actually have a debatable impact on the reality of our daily lives.
They all sound important, transformational. But I’m increasingly sceptical that turning the money taps left and right in our public services really makes an appreciable, long-term difference to outcomes. Ditto Brexit. The real structural challenges in democracies run much deeper, and the current level of public debate largely distracts from that. The civil service’s internal discussions are not that much better.
Failing to confront this kind of big, knotty problem is arguably making conventional politics and democracy more fragile. People can say with some justification, ‘What’s the point of all this? We always end up in the same place’. That is a worrying place to be.
Closing that gap will require a lot of things to happen. One is our political and official class becoming far more comfortable with technology and the digital age. Much of that world still thinks in paper, even when it operates through the web.
11. Any shout-outs?
There are lots – really, LOTS – of interesting and inspirational thinkers about civic tech, design and the like to be found on Twitter. A very small selection of them: Richard Pope, Kate Tarling, Janet Hughes, Sarah Gold, Ben Holliday, Matt Edgar, Kit Collingwood, Dan Sheldon. There are many more.
You should obviously follow me as well, but I’m rubbish at Twitter.
So, there you have it: a journey into the mind of Andrew Greenway. You can see more insights on his Twitter feed (he’s not rubbish). And if you do ever meet up over a cup of tea, just make sure your biscuits aren’t soggy.
Until next time…