Extending the UKGovcamp awesomeness all year round

Just cross-posting this update I’ve just posted to the UKGovcamp blog:

The coming UKGovcamp is going to be awesome: by far the biggest yet, with around 200 people attending. It’s also – amazingly – the fourth national event of its kind, attracting new people as well as becoming a bit of an annual pilgrimage for old-time barcampers.

For the past three events, we’ve had kind sponsors chipping in to cover food, drink and t-shirt costs, and providing some of their swag for the barcampers. But it’s clear that this year’s event is on a scale and with a incredibly generous host, that means that we think there’s a bigger opportunity here, to harness some of the enthusiasm from commercial organisations and use it to support the Govcamping community throughout the year, and across the country.

That man Neil Williams let the cat out of bag yesterday:

[blackbirdpie id=”15360715770564608″]

The idea behind MoreOpen is frankly somewhat ill-defined, probably because Dave and I are the people behind it. But in our vagueness, we’ve got a plan that by using some of the platforms available including the January event, this online community, and the govcamp chat in social media, we can help commercial organisations large and small to get involved in supporting the community and showing us what they can offer, without turning UKGovcamp into a cheesy, sponsor-packed conference.

In return, we’re aiming to build up some cash that we can use to help self-organised local govcamps or thematic events which aim to promote public sector collaboration, participation or transparency. We’re aiming to be able to offer some seed funds to help these events get off the ground, pay for food, venues and AV stuff, as belts continue to tighten within public sector organisations.

To answer some questions: no, it’s not a for-profit enterprise (at the moment it’s nothing at all legally-speaking, so we’re collecting sponsorship monies for UKGC11 via my limited company). No, we don’t have cash to help you run events yet, but we hope to in the New Year. Yes, it does sound a bit dodge, doesn’t it – hence our plan to recruit a small independent Board of Advisors from the Govcamp community to keep an eye on it, and us. By all means leave a comment or question below and we’ll do our best to answer it.

So we’ll see where it goes. But for now, if you’re a commercial organisation doing business with the public sector and you’d like to support the Govcamp community, and perhaps have an opportunity to demo your stuff at UKGovcamp on January 22nd, please take a look at our new supporters page, and give Dave or me a call about sponsoring the event.

Help us make the awesomeness last all year long.

You can find the supporters info pack including rates below, or download it here (PDF, 1.4mb)

24tips round up: days 9-16

Bounce rate diagramGulp – we’re two thirds of the way to Christmas! Here’s a reminder of the second 8 days’ worth of tips, in case you’ve missed them:

Remember, you can follow the rest of the month’s tips online, by email or by RSS.

How should you measure the success of a digital team?

Some things are a numbers game: retail sales, top-flight athletics, fund management. There are standard yardsticks, you can compare the players, and there’s intense competition.

Some things clearly aren’t like that: teaching, poetry, social care, research science, political lobbying maybe. That’s not to say that people don’t try, or that there aren’t measurable factors or reasonable proxies for some of those factors.

So where does digital communication in government sit? Traditionally, a marketing communications discipline, it’s been an awkward fit between those from commercial marketing backgrounds who expect a quantifiable return on investment; and those from a information, behavioural psychology or news backgrounds, who don’t, really. Throw in the fact that done well, it’s a highly innovative field of work with relatively few industry conventions, and you’ve got a real challenge for evaluating success.

calipers

Stephen Hale is in characteristically thoughtful and practical mode over on his new work blog, on the subject of how to evaluate how successful his team has been in its stated aim of becoming the most effective digital communication operation in government. Knowing that no measures are perfect but you have to gather some data in order to have an objective evaluation, his team have identified 13 measures to help them monitor their progress against that goal, and he’s blogged about them with impressive openness.

I’ve always struggled to find ways to articulate the goals for the teams I’ve been part of, and universally failed to define suitable KPIs. But Stephen’s post motivated me to try, and I think that’s partly because I’m not entirely comfortable with the conclusions he reached. What follows from me here, therefore, is a mixture of half-formed ideas and rank hypocrisy, as all good blog posts are.

Stephen’s indicators are as follows:

1. Comparison to peers. KPI: Mentions in government blogs

2. Digital hero. KPI: Sentiment of Twitter references for our digital engagement lead

3. Efficiency. KPI: Percentage reduction of cost-per-visit in the 2011 report on cost, quality and usage

4. Types of digital content. KPI: Number of relevant results for “Department of Health” and “blogs” in first page of google.co.uk search

5. Audience engagement. KPI: Volume of referrals to dh.gov.uk

6. Platform. KPI: Invitations to talk at conferences about our web platform

7. Social media engagement. KPI: Volume of retweets/mentions for our main Twitter channel

8. Personal development. KPI: Number of people in the digital communication team with “a broad range of digital communication skills” on their CV.

9. Internal campaign. KPI: Positive answer to the question: “Do you understand the role of the Digital communications team?”

10. Staff engagement. KPI: Referrals to homepage features (corporate messages) on the staff engagement channel

11. Solving policy problems. KPI: Number of completed case studies showing how digital communication has solved policy problems

12. News and press. KPI: Number of examples of press officers including digital communication in media handling notes

13. Strategic campaigns. KPI: Sentiment of comments about our priority campaign on target websites

Clearly, there’s more thinking behind this than just these KPIs, and I don’t want to  unfairly characterise this pretty decent list as a straw man or pick on the individual items. So I tried to frame this instead from asking a more basic question: what actually makes a government digital team effective? And for me, I think there are three key aspects:

Impact

  • how wide is the reach of the team’s work?
  • does it accurately engage the intended audiences?
  • what kind of change or action results from its work?

Productivity

  • how efficiently are goals achieved, in terms of staff time and budget?
  • how skilled and motivated is the team?
  • how successful is the team at maintaining quality and its compliance obligations?

Satisfaction

  • how satisfied are the target audiences with the usefulness of the team’s work?
  • how satisfied are internal clients with the contribution the team’s work makes to their own?
  • what reputation does the team have with external stakeholders and peers?

In terms of coverage, I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference between my list and Stephen’s. But the key challenge with my list is that I’d struggle to define meaningful KPIs for many of those criteria. To me, that’s a reason to find more valid ways of evaluating performance than KPIs, rather than to use the KPIs that are readily measurable.

In fact, I think I’d go as far as to argue that given the kind of innovative knowledge work a government digital team does, probably the majority of its approach to evaluation should be qualitative, getting the participants and customers to reflect on how things went and how they might be improved – and resist the pressure to generate numbers. Partly, I think that’s because those numbers often lack relevance, and are weak proxies at best for the often complex goals and audiences involved. Often, they are beyond the control of the team to influence. But more importantly, even as part of a really well balanced scorecard approach, they distort effort and incentives by providing intermediary goals which aren’t directly aligned with the real purpose of the team. There’s a great discussion of this in DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware – a real classic in how to manage technology teams.

One such qualitative review process I tried (somewhat half-heartedly) to introduce in one team I worked in was the idea of post-project reviews centred around a meeting to discuss three questions, looking not only at the outcomes of the project, but about how we felt about the process and what we could learn from it:

Reviewing performance

How do you gather this feedback? Well, collecting emails is one way. A simple, short internal client feedback form sent after big projects and to regular contacts is another. Review meetings focussed on projects are pretty important. And asking for freeform feedback from customers whether via comment forms, ratings, emails or Twitter replies is pretty vital too. By all means monitor the analytics and other quantitative indicators, but use them primarily as the basis for reflection and ideas for improvement. Then make the case aggressively to managers that it’s on the basis of improvement or value added that the team should really be judged.

Oddly, I think there is an exception to this qualitative approach, and that’s in quite a disciplined approach to measuring productivity. The civil service isn’t generally great at performance management (and many corporate organisations aren’t, to be fair). But in the current climate, being able to measure and demonstrate improvement in the efficiency of your team is really important. I’m in the odd minority who believe in the virtue of timesheets, as a way of tracking how clients and bureaucracy use up time, rather than as a way of incentivising excessive hours. If adding a consultation to your CMS takes a day, or publishing a new corporate tweet involves three people and an hour per tweet to draft and upload, it’s important to know that and tackle the underlying technological and process causes.

But productivity as I think about it is also about a happy, motivated team working at the edge of their capabilities, as part of a positive and supportive network. Keeping an eye on that is really about good day-to-day management rather than numbers.

Three cheers for Stephen and his team for demonstrating the scope of their work and identifying measurable aspects of their performance against it. I’m on uncertain ground here, as I’m not so naïve as to think that team performance in some organisations (not necessarily Stephen’s) isn’t often assessed on numbers and without demonstrable KPIs, they can be vulnerable.

But in designing yardsticks, let’s not underestimate the value of qualitative data and reflection in making valid assessments of success and actually improving the way government does digital.

24tips round-up: days 1-8

Color Scheme DesignerJust a quick one to alert you to the first 8 days of tips, in case you’ve missed them:

Remember, you can follow the rest of the month’s tips online, by email or by RSS.

Interview with a skunkworker

Simon Dickson has been asking where the government’s skunkworks project has got to. It sounds like there’s some interesting work going on, appropriately behind the scenes, though there is perhaps a chance to hear more from one of the people setting it up, Mark O’Neill, at the Institute for Government’s event on Tuesday.

In the meantime, I’ve been wondering how such a skunkworks might work, given the constraints and pressures of government. For those of you new to the concept, Wikipedia tells us that skunkworks are projects typically developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

silhouette in tunnel - gnackgnackgnack on Flickr

So a little while ago, I interviewed a couple of people who work in two separate skunkworks-style operations in the public sector to find out what we might learn from their experiences.

Q. So to check: I think of you both as working in team environments which others might describe as ‘skunkworks’: would you?

A1. I’ve certainly described what we do as “skunkworks” – but only to those I imagine might not read that negatively. That usually means we’re “skunkworks” to people outside the organisation, but something a little more palatable to those inside.

A2. Our team is a bit unusual.  We take on several projects a year to produce innovative tools that don’t yet exist (or to improve on tools that are either not good enough or have been abandoned). We also take on internal projects to replace tools & systems in order to reduce costs, or add in new features.

Q. You’ve talked in the past about working on projects ranging from the ‘semi-official to the extremely unofficial’. How do you decide on the projects you take on, and how much to talk about them to the outside world?

A1. We decide what we commit to on the basis of our capabilities, funding opportunities and speed of delivery. We do say no, in the nicest way, sometimes: we have to have the control and responsibility for delivery in the same place. We talk about the work we do as much as we are properly allowed to do at present – and we’d like to do a lot more of that.

A2. When we started out we filtered suggestions (collected through our website) based on a set criteria, e.g. does it already exist?  can we do it with our resources? can we add some sort of value? Most of our projects so far have been through this process. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, we’ve had to start justifying our decisions more and more, so we now have to go through a business case and approval process with our senior managers before we can start a project.  We also try to operate a 10% scheme, where we spend some time on our own projects.

Q. I’m interested in the conditions for success of a skunkworks, particularly the middle/senior managers who enable them to develop and prosper. What kind of manager does it take to support a skunkworks?

A1. A brave one! Where we’re visible, we stick out like a sore thumb. We only survive at all because we have the direct protection of senior staff within IT. Without that, we would have sunk within about a month. I’m assuming it’s a matter of personal trust.

A2. You need a manager that understands the premise of what the team is trying to do (they don’t need to understand every detail, but they need to grasp the concept).  Another important atribute is trust – having a manager looking over your shoulder all the time really isn’t conducive to work done quickly.  Finally, you need a facilitator – a manager who can keep obstacles, such as paperwork, out of your way.  We could quite easily spent 90% of our time putting together paperwork and get nothing done, so someone who can reduce or simplify this aspect is really iomportant.  Our team has had some trouble in this aspect – when we started we avoided doing any paperwork of any kind, then we got bogged down in it, and now we’ve got just about the right balance.

Q. What’s your team structure?

A1. The team structure we have is exactly that: a team. We’ve left our grades and job titles long ago. We still get paid different amounts, but that because of the way our ‘parent department’ hired us years back. As senior staffer, I take personal responsibility for the direction and output of the team – but that’s through choice. We don’t have strict dividing lines between skills – we can’t afford to maintain those sorts of illusions.

A2. Our team sits outside of all other functions within the organisation.  We are not part of any policy, communications or corporate services team.  We originally reported directly to the CEO, but now to one of the Senior Directors on the SMT group. To be honest,  I’m not sure what I’d call our team any more.  Our original function was purely to produce innovative tools for customers – no internal systems or developments for other teams.  If we came up with an idea to build something, or someone suggested it to us, we went ahead and did it.  These other ‘in house development’ elements have crept in to our work over the last year due to lack of provision elsewhere and shrinking budgets.

Q. Assuming there will be, as promised, a government skunkworks set up by the Cabinet Office with strong ministerial support, what advice would you give to the leaders of that project? And do you think it’s a viable idea, in that context and based on your experience of working in a public sector organisation?

A1. I certainly do think it’s a viable idea, though it’s not going to be straightforward. Not taking it further would certainly be a missed opportunity.

A2. I think it’s a great idea, and I really hope it is pushed forward.  It certainly is a viable idea, but it’s going to be hard work to begin with. In terms of advice:

  1. Just get on with it. The project leaders need to keep as much paperwork away from the developers as possible and not get tied up with it.  We could spend forever filling out business cases, risk assessments, balanced score cards etc. but it doesn’t get the team anywhere.
  2. Don’t be afraid to fail.  There is a huge fear of failure in public sector, but in a team like this, failure is really important.  You need to learn from mistakes to get better.  Failure should be met with open arms not avoided.  This is probably going to be a difficult lesson to swallow.
  3. It’s going to be difficult to start with. There will be resistance – some people will not understand what you are doing, some people will see it as a waste, others will be scared by the idea.  Educate them and don’t let yourself or the team get demoralised – some people just don’t like new things.

Postscript: the best write-up (long, but gripping) of life in skunkworks I’ve read is by the team who worked on Apple’s Graphing Calculator in the early 1990s. Their project cancelled, they sneaked into the building for months on end, and shipped their software by slipping it to the guy making the master installer discs.

How would you deal with a social media crisis?

We’ve heard the story of the Motrin Moms. Nestle on Facebook. Or YouTube-if-you-want-to. But how can Press Officers and marketers get to practice using social media and getting the tone right so that they can avoid disasters and deal with storms if they hit?

For quite a long time, I’ve daydreamed about a social media simulator, a training package incorporating:

  1. a tough but realistic public sector scenario with credible content
  2. an automated software platform that simulates the user experience of Twitter, blogs and forums, able to unleash angry blog posts or a hashtag campaign at the click of a button
  3. a facilitated training environment, with the opportunity to compare notes and approaches, and draw practical conclusions about what works in social media

Last week Tiffany and I delivered our first batch of courses for the Government Communications Network, the internal professional body for central government communications staff. Over two days, we delivered sessions on In-house PR using social media, Working with Online Communities and Digital Press Office skills.

As part of the latter, I attempted the first outing of The Social Simulator, which is my prototype of the vision above. Here’s the 60 second version:

As first outings of prototypes go, it was OK. We were short on time, big on numbers and a bit light on briefing, so the teams battled manfully to hang onto the fast moving scenario – ably assisted by my helpers Dan Slee, Jenny Brown, Alistair Reid and Tiffany. But I took away from the experiment a real appetite for this kind of practical session, and some encouragement to keep trying.

SocialSimulator.com- Mission ControlFor a start, the technology behaved beautifully, using PHP as a true scripting language, triggering blog posts and status updates using the WordPress and Status.Net APIs, and manipulating the database under a Vanillla Forum. Teams even had a Netvibes-like but entirely client-side dashboard to track feeds across the scenario. Even on a ropey internet connection, it all worked OK.

But more importantly, public sector teams are at the stage now of wanting to make their social media activities well-planned, engaging and effective – and to do that, you need to put the theory and case studies into practice. Learning on the job is a vital part of that, but it’s better to be able to take your first steps somewhere the tabloid press isn’t looking.

If you’d like to talk more about how the Social Simulator might help your team or your clients, please drop me a line.

24tips: hand-picked tools and techniques for doing web stuff cheaply

It’s holiday season, as our charming American friends would say, perhaps in a leaked diplomatic cable. To celebrate this Wintervalian festival of giving, I’m sharing one helpful web tool or technique every day from now to Christmas.

I won’t be cluttering up the blog with all these tips, so if you want them by RSS, follow the special 24tips feed or page.

24 helpful tools and techniques for doing web stuff cheaply

1 Dec: Been interested in how you might use QR codes (barcodes you can read with a smartphone)? 26 interesting ways to use QR codes shows you how. It’s a nice Google Doc by Paul Simbeck-Hampson designed for teachers showing 26 ways you could use QR codes to engage students, promote events, get people onto the wifi more easily and plenty of other ideas. There are lots of useful links to QR code generators and useful tools to track usage. Enjoy!

A window on the wormery

Once upon a time, I managed a team who were struggling to crack a tough problem. They needed to improve the dreadful user experience of a major online transaction, but the ‘owners’ of the transaction – a ‘partner’ organisation, in Government-speak – refused to let them have access. The ‘owners’ talked about the extensive user testing they had already done. My guys asked to see it. The Comms people said the IT people had it. The IT people were too busy building the transaction and frankly, digging out that email would put the project in jeopardy.

My guys would ask nicely if they could test the application. The offered to bring in the team nominally responsible at the heart of government. In a rare moment of weakness, the transaction owners offered a 60 minute demo in their far-flung office, but no hands-on access. The deadlines crept nearer and nearer. The emails became more colourful. Worried submissions started to make their way to ministers (who frankly had shorter-term horizons).

At this point in the story, I’d like to point to a dramatic denouement where the resistance crumbled and the heroes triumphed, but the truth is duller and more common. There was a lot of bad feeling, something a bit shit went live, and an unknown number of customers were annoyed or confused.

Directgov review

So when Martha Lane Fox recommends a single front end for transactional online services, giving Directgov the teeth to mandate standards and experiences, I say hurrah. That Directgov hasn’t been able to properly assimilate online transactions in terms of user experience and technology, as well as branding, is a critical weakness and a source of shame to those of us who were involve in its early development. Fixing that will take enormous political and administrative muscle, and tremendous technical talent, but it can and should be fixed. Opening up access to the underlying business logic and data through (secure) APIs and syndicating content to third party sites is similarly right, and probably quite a bit more challenging.

Where I think Martha’s wrong is in centralising content management and the user experience full stop. We’ve lived with web convergence and a single-domain (well, supersite domains) for a while now, and that works to a point. At best, it’s a seamless integration and quality check; at worst, it’s a pleasant fiction that does no harm.

But she’s gone further than Varney did (retyped from the published, scanned PDF):

Recommendation 3: The model of government online publishing should change radically, with a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments

The proposed model would see ‘Departmental experts’, presumably policy owners, producing content on commission from the central team, who would manage a ‘shared, agile, cost-effective suite of web services’ to publish it via a single domain, perhaps using departmental subdirectories for navigation.

Now, I’ve been proliferating government websites for some time,  it’s currently part of the way I make my living, and the recommendation above is likely to render many former colleagues and friends redundant in due course. None of which are valid reasons to reject a good idea, so I’m trying hard to manage the inevitable conflicts in my reactions.

It’s true that there’s plenty of bad practice across the government web estate, and plenty of opportunity to join up and adopt common infrastructures. Though government speaks to many audiences, it doesn’t do so consistently well. And there aren’t the meaningful incentives or threats to those who do it well or badly to lead them to improve.

It’s quite possible I’ve misinterpreted elements of the admirably concise report, but I’m struggling to see how this model will work in practice:

  1. Government online content, done right, is simply too big for a single site. I’m not sure what commercial sector examples might be relevant here, but perhaps the BBC comes closest, and it seems to have come to the view that closest you can come to harmonisation is in standards for content, common search and a basic unifying navigation bar. Directgov and BusinessLink pare down government content, which is essential for citizens and businesses, but useless for intermediaries, researchers and stakeholders. I hope that cleverer minds than mine will be put to the task, but I don’t see how a useful volume of government content for these audiences can be made navigable in one place, except through search.
  2. Centralising digital channels poses problems for integrating digital into other aspects of government’s work. Whether and how to devolve web publishing is a challenge every large organisation faces: a centralised model is generally more consistent and probably lower measurable cost, but less responsive, creative and integrated with the organisation’s work – and those are bigger challenges in large departments than somewhere more news-oriented like Number 10. Arguably, a central Cabinet Office team co-ordinating digital should really co-ordinate other communications channels too.
  3. By separating content commissioning, transactions and publishing from digital engagement, an opportunity is lost. Broadening engagement with policymaking really needs people to be involved in context, not in isolation. And I’m not clear what a digital engagement team in a department would do without a say over platforms from which they can form partnerships, except create sneaky blogs and microsites around the margins (and no, you can’t do everything on third party sites or within a government brand).
  4. It’s somewhat old-fashioned to view websites as a professionally-managed library: the truth is, stakeholders’ interactions with government often happen at an individual or team level, and professional audiences for policy content want human contact, latest news and full data rather than the high quality ‘guides’ developed by supersites like Business Link. Improving the responsiveness of government and its transparency needs to involve putting a window on the wormery, not laying neater turf over it.

There are definitely some opportunities, and it’s encouraging to see ideas from outside as bold as this, with an early indication of support from Ministers. What might well make sense would include:

  • Pooling capability: more sharing of the expertise and resources around government for multimedia production, user research, search optimisation, email marketing and so on
  • Shared infrastructures: a small but plural set of platforms for different organisations and different purposes, including low-cost open source social CMSes, heavyweight publishing-oriented platforms, community-oriented platforms and data/document repositories along with a menu of sensible hosting options
  • A common look and feel: as mandated in Canada, underpinned with clear, practical and concise guidance
  • Pan-government search and shared services for commoditised applications such as vacancies, news, speeches and formal consultation, learning from the best in-house work on API development within government, such as for civil service jobs
  • Co-ordinated news planning: integrating government platforms better to promote the big launches, combining the people, tools and partnerships to give big things a proper push online
  • A unifying vision: a digital strategy which brings together the various functions of digital and articulates its role, and the key direction for government online in supporting transparency, increasing participation, improving customer service and strengthening public sector collaboration

It’s easy to be critical from the sidelines, and I don’t want to fall into that trap. There’s much to like in Martha’s report, and a real opportunity to make things better. If it’s done right.

Update:

For ease of reference, I’ve uploaded OCRed versions of the two documents here to improve accessibility and quotability:

The Minister, the Entrepreneur and the Civil Servant: a cautionary tale

I’ve come across this little situation enough times now to make it worth a quick post here. It’s the story of the innovative SME, the minister, and the civil servant. And it’s not exactly a fairytale.

PM, DPM and Cab Sec

The story starts well enough: an enthusiastic entrepreneur develops something clever. They think it could have a great public policy application, so they or their well-connected guardian angel identify the relevant minister at an event. “Sounds great! Come and tell me more sometime” says the minister, over a glass of austerity orange juice. Or maybe the entrepreneur just phones up and gets lucky. Either way, the day comes, and they’re sitting in a Whitehall office, pitching their thing to the minister, his private secretary and the civil servant in the policy unit responsible.

“Well, this is great, we should do this,” says the minister “[Policy dude]: will you work with [Entrepreneur] to see how we can support this?”. Awkward nods and handshakes all round. Private Secretary sends round the email of action points. The Minister’s office move on to other things. Entrepreneur leaves the meeting with a spring in their step. Policy official bins the business cards.

Days pass, but the policy official doesn’t get in touch. Entrepreneur sends a ‘look forward to working with you!’ email. No reply. Tries calling, and gets some promises about a feasibility study. Months pass. In desperation, Entrepreneur emails the minister’s office, chasing progress. The system kicks into life, emails go back and forth, and eventually The Problem email gets sent. There are variations on The Problem: maybe it’s too expensive given current budgets or can’t be procured directly under Department rules. Maybe Department X is doing it already with Scheme Y. Maybe a pilot is in the field whose outcomes can’t be prejudiced. Maybe it’s already in hand within the forthcoming White Paper strategy. The idea dies with a whimper, not a bang: in a noose of noncommital emails in which nobody says ‘I’m out’ but everybody knows they are.

The lesson here is that ministers don’t spend money. They set priorities, they define targets, they set deadlines, they sign off on wordings and – to an extent – strategies. They front policy in Parliament and to the media. They reassure stakeholders, pacify opponents, negotiate with Treasury, visit pioneering projects, articulate the vision in speeches and articles, and chase progress on delivery. But they don’t spend money. Not really.

Ultimately, for something to be done or financially supported in central government, a civil servant has to do it. It’s odd to imagine it, but civil servants hold the budgets and decide what they get spent on (hopefully responding to the Minister’s priorities). They run the programmes, organise the procurement, choose the suppliers, manage the projects and report on the results. Very occasionally, ministers step into some of those decisions, but it’s rarer than you’d imagine as an SME more used to trading with powerful CEOs.

What does this mean for the innovative SME entrepreneur? Basically, find the civil servants who will have to work with you to deliver the idea, and be useful to them. That doesn’t mean hard sell or showering them with hospitality, which are almost entirely counterproductive. In the current climate, it’s quite possible that they can’t spend money with you at all, and procurement isn’t just an excuse: it’s a genuine barrier much of the time. But if they know what you do, in broad terms, and that you have a creative solution to problem X, that could slot brilliantly into next month’s White Paper, then you’ve already got a head start on the scenario above. It might be that they can work with you in another way: perhaps the recommendation of a ministerial visit, an invite to a high-level breakfast or trade mission, a reference to “innovative British firms such as Widgets Inc doing great work” in a big speech, or a case study in a strategy. They’ll know who does have money, which might be a quango or grants programme they can put you in touch with.

And that potential goodwill will hardly ever materialise if their first experience of you is the somewhat stressful experience of a Ministerial commission in an awkward meeting.

So, who you know does count. But it’s not always the guy in the Prius.

Photo credit: Number 10