Everything feels like failure in the middle.


I’ve been repeatedly asked why I still believe in the Government Digital Service’s ability to deliver on its mission.

This is the saddest, but possibly best example of why. It talks about Aaron, but also about Chris (for overseas readers, Aaron was the American Chris).

Many have spoken recently of a “fog of depression” that surrounds the activist community, both in technology and beyond. For those who spend all of their time in only one area, it hangs similarly in others. Sometimes marginally better, often times worse. The technical community has a power and agency to build tools that effect change. Others are not so lucky.

I dislike stop and search because of the superficial decisions that underlie it.

The one time I have been subject to “stop and search” was around a demo. You can imagine just how quickly the police’s attitude changed when I mentioned I was leaving to head to Whitehall for a meeting (it was easier than explaining what a teacamp was, and that it wasn’t in its usual venue). My friends were kettled on the pavement for the next few hours.

It was interesting at the teacamp, once the culture shock had passed, talking to staff from the Home Office, who flat out denied this could happen. I, of course, couldn’t prove otherwise, as the Police didn’t give me any stop and search paperwork. The nice people from the HO assured me that didn’t happen either, but didn’t seem entirely convinced.

The world needs more people crossing such boundaries, between issues that matter to technical communities (copyright), and the larger social issues that affect everyone. This has been talked about a lot recently.

In the UK, the system may be better right now, but it is still all transitory. Aaron was considering a Whitehouse job the year before he downloaded some documents. He was not someone without access to power. But such power was not helpful. But we have some, and the activist community are tool makers. Any tool (or even game) can be considered a threat in the eyes of power.

In the mind of a creator, the greatest ability to generate tools and campaigns, may lead to even greater frustration when the impact of such tools is futile in the world. The world doesn’t change when a new technology or approach is invented, it changes when such technology is everywhere. Throwing yourself into something, only to see it bounce off the edifice of power, at best unnoticed, or possibly all levers of vengeance pointed at you. The climate movement has people working on innovative and great solutions to a pressing problem. People full of hope. But when that hope dies, all too often, the people who lose that hope choose to die too.

Each community has a different manifestation of this despair. Failure in technology is expected, but the culture is faster. Others have suggested it’s more cutting, but I don’t actually think that’s true. We just hide it less. Arguments happen, but our environment is “ruled by working code”.

At present GDS is the flagship of this ethos in the public sector worldwide, and it is the most likely current long-term success. At some point, it too will fall. Everything does, eventually. However, something else will then be created to replace it. And the world will be in a much better place by then thanks to it having existed.

I hope that day is a very long way into the future, and it is if anyone working there has anything to do with it, but it will happen. Progress will always eventually outpace progressives, who slow down over time.

But then, I’m weird. I can let go. Some problems are insolvable by me, and as such, I move on, leaving the issue to others. It is a relay race, not a solo sprint. I see ‘better’ as enough (more is preferred, but any is good).

Perfect is as much an enemy when dealing with Government as incompetence, malice, or personal profit. There are enough examples of the latter three, and all too little of the former. Better is always enough. Small steps, loosely joined.

Government is made of humans. It should sometimes act more like it. And GDS does. It talks of citizens, but also talks of humans. Too much of the civil service doesn’t. If it did, certain decisions would never get made.For those who have argued there is little malice in Government, there is little, but some. There’s often all too little compassion, and that can be a toxic mixture. Good people get stuck in a system that can only create bad outcomes. Those outside need to help, but also need the internal knowledge. No one knows what they’re doing or how it’ll turn out, so everything feels like failure in the middle. What’s left is to try.

Whether you believe it’s the middle rather than the end, is a different question.

Jan 2013
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