Members, voters, people, mammals

How do we write digital strategies for collectivist organisations?

October 27, 2021

A few months ago the new General Secretary unveiled Labour’s new strategy to its staff. I’ve seen some of the slides and if you’ve been a part of any ‘digital transformation’ in the private or public sector in the last decade you will recognise these words contained: Agile, multi-disciplinary teams, matrix management, iterative improvement, rapid deployment etc.

It is easy to dismiss these as managerial buzzwords, but the words do have meaning, history and power and are worth exploring. They are mostly the same words we proposed in 2016, but with a subtle but important difference.

Private Sector Consumers

Orientated around maximising productivity in software development, these management strategies accompanied the huge wealth generated in Silicon Valley tech companies from the early 2000s, perhaps most absolutely by Jeff Bezos at Amazon. As software began to eat the world, so did these management practices. Startups shared and copied them, and incumbent companies began trying to ‘digitally transform’ themselves towards them. Barclays has been trying to reorganise itself around writing better software before Monzo eats too much of its lunch. One of the many triggers of the GameStop thing was its pledge that it would begin its own digital transformation.

Of course, while a certain portion of the tech industry’s outsized profits can be attributed to its ability to out-perform its competitors, a good-sized portion is due to its ability to out-manoeuvre government and political organisations.

Government Users

While the private sector is running riot with its new software powers, the state has been left looking distinctly antiquated and ineffective. But there have been movements in government to catch up. Over the last decade, digital transformation playbooks have been developed for governments in India, Estonia and most relevantly for us: the UK, which has then been copied by Australia, US and others.

Many of those who have contributed to the UK’s efforts (myself included) brought what we had learned from working in those silicon valley inspired startups. Most of it, from user research to rapid deployments, was relevant and much needed, but some things were subtly but fundamentally different.

Russell Davies’ blog post Consumers, users, people, mammals strikes at the heart of one of these differences. The UK Government doesn’t have customers or consumers, it has users. The relationship between a government service and its user is fundamentally different than between an FMCG brand and its customer. And so therefore Amazon’s ‘Customer Obsession’ becomes UK Gov’s ‘Start with user needs’.

The UK Government Digital Service has made world leading advances in transforming the UK Government, but it is certainly far from complete, and we are all learning as we go. There is a reasonable assumption that the next major step in the UK will require something as fundamental as a modern version of the Northcote–Trevelyan or Fulton Reports, but how that can happen and what it should recommend is open to reasonable debate. But these discussions are happening, and progress, however frustratingly slow, is being made.

Collective Members

But the benefit societies (for example trade unions, co-operatives and building societies) that can represent the needs of large groups of people have barely started this transition. Already hobbled politically since the 1980s, the digital revolution is leaving them administratively inert. While Uber has grown to an $86bn company in 10 years, your beleaguered trade union rep is using BCC from their personal email to conduct a strike ballot. Some of that sentence definitely doesn’t make sense and needs changing, but after 6 years I’m still not 100% certain which parts, let alone know what the replacement is. It is, however, a reasonable bet that it involves software.

And software probably means that Agile, multi-disciplinary etc etc is a good idea. We can copy-paste a lot of the ideas without too much fear. But we get stuck on how to translate ‘customer mindset’ again. As I explored in 2017: benefit societies do not have customers nor users, they have members. Although they are indeed all humans (and mammals), a member is more different than a government user is to a company’s customer. The lessons are less relevant here.

Labour voters?

This brings me back to the Labour Party’s strategy. It all roughly looks sensible to me, and not far off what I would advocate for. In fact, it is almost identical to what we were proposing in 2016 when I worked there. It was brutally rejected by Labour HQ that time. Maybe we didn’t make our argument well, or we were the wrong messengers, or (more flattering to myself) we were too early.

But there is one major difference between what we proposed in 2016 and what has been adopted by senior management now, and that is who we considered the primary users. We focussed on members, whereas the new strategy has ‘voter-centric’ as its first principle.

On the face of it, centering the voter over member is reasonable: The Labour Party is primarily for winning elections, and voters are crucial to that. I also think that the choice to focus on voters is just the easier option. Squint your eyes a bit, and a voter looks an awful lot like a consumer, and we know how to do that! But then so do the Conservative Party. And the Liberal Democrats. And everyone else.

It is hard to deny that a major part of what made the Labour Party historically successful in parliament was the relatively reliable support of its affiliated member organisations. Put somewhat brutally: Change UK and the SDP both found out that if you give up that collective support, you quickly discover that the Whigs/Liberals/Liberal Democrats already rightfully occupy the space you’re after.

I understand that it’s not Labour’s direct responsibility to solve the difficult problem of what digital collectivism looks like for its current or future affiliated organisations, but it greatly suffers if nobody does. I worry that now Labour has turned its back on the problem, we are even further from solving this critical problem for society before the end of the century.

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