A civil servant for 6 years, Andrew Greenway has worked in a lot of different areas of government, most notably at the Government Digital Service (GDS) in its early days. He’s now a partner at Public Digital, a small consultancy which helps governments and large companies with digital transformation and adapting to the internet era.
A man of many talents, Andrew has also recently turned his hand to writing books. Public Digital have literally written the playbook on how to do digital transformation at scale which has been widely circulated in government circles. In his latest book, Bluffocracy, Andrew and his university friend James Ball take a tongue-in-cheek look at how politics, journalism and the civil service are made up of ‘bluffers’ and generalists, often Oxford graduates of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE).
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down in an edgy Shoreditch cafe for a coffee and a chat with Andrew about Bluffocracy. Having read it over the course of a couple of train journeys we agreed it is definitely a good train book; small enough to fit in any bag for a quick, punchy and insightful read. Here’s what he had to say…
KO: Is it a bit controversial that you’ve written this? To go from writing Digital Transformation at Scale which is a playbook to then, not an exposé as such, because you guys are self-confessed bluffers, but is there an element of it raising eyebrows slightly?
AG: There was no way of writing Bluffocracy without it being extremely front and centre that we were part of the problem. It isn’t that generalist skills aren’t required, but that they have to be complementary to a whole bunch of other skills and some specialists.
If you leave leadership and management and an organisation’s strategy to just the specialists then you’ll get a different kind of problem, but you’ll still have problems. For too long we’ve brought too many generalists around the table and drowned out a lot of the other voices.
No one has personally said to me “how can you reconcile those two things?” There’s definitely an element of having my cake and eating it, but I actually think they’re two sides of a fairly similar coin.
KO: So you’re obviously pretty good at outing bad practice in government: it’s clear from your book that the degree that you studied can filter into those practices in many cases.
AG: Certainly if you’ve been taught at university how to talk crap in a fairly eloquent way, you do get a feel for it. It’s a dangerous skill to have really! It wasn’t just the degree by any means, I got very lucky with some of the bosses I had as a civil servant, one of whom was actually a PPE-ist funnily enough.
You become more aware of the rules of the game. To thrive as a civil servant is to hang around with a load of senior servants and ministers. Quite a lot of it comes down to empathy and realising that nobody at those levels has any stronger clue about what’s going on than the people below, they could only admit it to a smaller group of peers. That was what pulled the curtain back for me.
One of the most impressive things about the Civil Service is that the quality of people, of individuals, is really quite high a lot of the time, they just seem to be made a lot less of than in other organisations. I moved around quite a lot and saw the same story happening in different places, so I guess that’s why I’m quite good at spotting bad practice – it takes one to know one in terms of bluffing, which is partly down to my degree and partly because I did get to see lots of senior officials and ministers early enough in my career to know that they were making it up most of the time.
The Civil Service has almost become too good at looking like it knows what it’s on about that it thinks that’s enough – but at some point it probably should know what it’s talking about; at some point you do need the expert. And without that you end up having quite circular conversations where a senior official and a minister might sit in front of a committee and they won’t know much more than what is in their briefing notes but nor will the ‘interrogator’. The measure of whether either side of that conversation has performed well is the ability of the interrogator to ask a clever question and on the other side of the table, the ability to deflect difficult questions, which is a skill but it’s got nothing to do with being able to deliver stuff on the ground. Having genuine expertise and frontline insight in that conversation should change the conversation. As it is it’s just generalists playing a game.
KO: In your current work, how do you encourage people to avoid those bad habits? You guys advise governments around the world so how do you make sure that bad practice isn’t repeated elsewhere?
AG: A lot of it is about the value of teams, making sure you have that blend of skills to be able to deliver something. You need people like me who can negotiate their way around a large complex organisation that has a lot of unwritten rules, but you also need people who can design, you need people who can do ethnographic user research, people who can code, and you need people with product/delivery management skills to knit those things together and keep the team focused. We spend a lot of time helping governments and companies to create those teams.
We also spend a lot of time skipping a few levels up from the delivery layer to the minister or the very senior officials and explaining to them that their responsibility is to make sure that the team is protected and allowed to work in conditions whereby they can get on and deliver something that’s good and can be iterated on and meets user needs and so on.
We try to help with those two layers of the organisation; expanding over time and doing that at scale.
KO: You used to work at GDS and I just wonder what you think of it as it is now? It’s gone through so much change, with Neil Williams recently leaving and loads of adjustment since it began.
AG: It was the right time for me to go when I did, but Neil’s a great example of somebody who has been there from the start to now and seen it evolve a massive amount and he’s a great example of the people who are in there; there are still some absolutely incredible people working at GDS delivering stuff in really difficult circumstances. When I was there, we didn’t have Brexit to deal with!
I think it’s a different institution to what it was when I was in it; it’s much bigger, it’s much more expensive, and it’s changed its approach from what was once relatively abrasive and disruptive (quite consciously so in the early days) which it had to be to shake things up initially. It seems to have pivoted a little bit away from that but that’s probably appropriate as something grows and changes and gets bigger. It has to think much more about scaling what it does through things like training and the academy.
So, it has changed, and so it should have done – it would be weird if it stayed the same – but there are a couple of things around delivery and power that I think it’s important to keep an eye on.
GDS was founded on delivery, actually getting stuff shipped and out the door and having the people within the building who had that ability to just keep improving platforms, services and products, week in week out. It’s concerning when it becomes less about delivery and more about purely enabling others to do stuff.
In the early days, GDS had powers in terms of spending and what could go on GOV.UK and was very firm about stopping certain things from happening as well as celebrating stuff that was good. Both of those things were really important.
We were lucky at the time to have Francis Maude who was very well-respected in his party, a senior figure and really passionate about the agenda and all of that made it possible to get into some quite difficult conversations with other people in government to say “well actually, that’s not on anymore”. I think that has become harder at GDS over time, for lots of reasons: politics being one, the fact that Brexit and other things have reduced the bandwidth to focus on this agenda but also I think it’s easy to forget how useful those powers are until they’ve gone.
KO: When I was talking to Neil he was talking about that first phase of GDS when everyone was scrambling around for office furniture because they just wanted to get going and it sounded so exciting but I guess that exciting time can’t last forever, eventually the disrupting becomes the norm…
AG: It can be hard to strike a balance between trying to drive quite fundamental, institutional reform while not irritating everybody.
Actually what GDS was good at was being willing to take a risk about annoying the right people at the right time. Sometimes you just have to have a bit of confidence to move things on. In those early days we had licence to do quite a lot of that and as you become bigger, it’s harder to keep that going and you become part of the furniture.
KO: Yeah I guess it’s got to settle down at some point, it can’t be exciting all the time!
AG: GDS is not new either, in the sense that there have been disruptive central teams in government of various flavours right back into the 60s and 70s really. They all follow the same trajectory really which is disruptive, noisy, irritating to their colleagues for the first two or three years but get quite a lot done, then over time their influence tends to shallow a bit and quite often they disappear entirely.
So that’s the other thing that will be worth watching out for in the next year or two with GDS. It could be diluted or broken up and the spending review will be a moment that could herald the next phase of it.
KO: It’s interesting speaking to people like you and Neil Williams because at Delib, we’re such a small team, stuff mostly just happens and gets done. It’s hard to imagine a team could be made up of loads of generalists – if I sat in one of our developers chairs for the day I wouldn’t have a clue where to start! It’s interesting to hear from the other side.
AG: One of the things we talk a lot about at a senior leadership level is giving teams trust, letting them get on with stuff. That stuff is hard in big organisations. Staying small generally makes that easier.
KO: And I guess keeping that small team feeling at a massive scale is really hard isn’t it.
AG: Yeah, there’s no easy answer to this. I’m interested to see over time whether the shape of government departments changes, whether they’ll be smaller and more fluid, what ministers will be accountable for. I don’t think you can build sustainable internet-era public services in department models. I don’t think a new set of monoliths is likely to get you much further either. Smaller chunks probably makes sense, but how do you make those accountable? Accountable to whom? All of that stuff is really hard and quite fundamentally big democratic change.
The other way of looking at it though, is when that government model performs well. Some of the strongest work I saw in government was done on the very short-term crisis situations. That’s when government seems to break out of its conventional structures and say “ok, we need to put together a specific team to tackle this problem/crisis and we need to do it now” but once that crisis management is done, it can slip back into the old ways, the day-to-day. It may be that that crisis-shaped team, which arguably GDS evolved out of, is fundamentally unsustainable because it takes an enormous amount of human energy which can’t be kept up over time but I do think government can do it, just in fits and starts.
KO: My dad has just retired from the police and I told him about your book. He was really interested in it and said that in his later years as a police officer he could really relate to people bluffing their way around – do you think that perhaps it’s a problem not just in government but also other closely related sectors such as policing and the NHS and perhaps beyond that too?
AG: 100%. It’s not specific to the three fields we talk about in the book (politics, journalism, the civil service). Just looking at some of the reaction to it on Twitter and forums, there’s been more chat from the police and other forces than anywhere else saying “it’s exactly like that here” so I have no doubt that it’s universal to a certain extent which is interesting. The reason we picked on the three that we did was because we know them. We didn’t want to presume about other disciplines, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was recognised elsewhere.
The reason to pick on the three we did is the damage that the lack of diversity brings within those three institutions seems to be particularly deep to the trust in democracy.
KO: What are you currently working on?
AG: Well I’ve got an agreement with my wife that I won’t write any more books for a while! Public Digital is working with a bunch of different governments around the world in different places helping them set up GDS-like institutions and helping develop digital platforms. There’s some amazing work going on in the world of digital transformation, but it’s hard yards and there’s never going to be an easy trajectory. It’s not easy and we were really lucky in the UK in terms of the conditions we had in place that allowed us to get started. A lot of it is timing and luck, and making the most of the opportunity when you get it.
Until the next one.