On experts and amateurs

When Stephen Hale blogs about something, I usually stroke my chin and nod approvingly. But there’s something in his latest post – about favouring expert skill over gifted amateurs, the troubles me quite a lot.

In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.

What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.

That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

I understand the point: digital is mainstream, expectations have rightly risen since I was doing this stuff in government, and people who tinker with free online tools or small-scale projects don’t help overcome the damaging perception that digital engagement in particular is a bit of a waste of time compared to proper things like media relations and policy analysis. The civil service has historically had a culture of favouring generalists and something of a glass ceiling for specialists, and that’s what the Minister was taking a swipe at as he moved sideways into his next generalist job. (Yay for PPE!)

I worry that making content design, or user research or community management something specialist which requires ‘experts’ makes digital skills feel less core, less attainable and ultimately less impactful than if we encouraged a bit more enthusiastic amateurism.

Stephen’s at the leading edge of developing digital capability in the wider organisation, so I don’t want to put up a straw man: clearly, there are particular skills and sometimes formal training needed to practise some digital disciplines really well; and other things which it’s easier to do from a standing start. The best writers and researchers and developers have been at it for years and don’t stop learning. But there’s satisfaction, understanding and achievement to be had in having a go, in appreciating why things are as they are, in knowing enough to scratch your head while you explain a problem to someone more knowledgeable than you.

When Michael Gove recently and notoriously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, I don’t think he was simply being anti-intellectual. I wonder if he was arguing that too many ‘experts’ overstate their true power out of hubris and ego – and there’s been plenty of that in government IT before and since GDS. Even genuinely skilled folk can come across as condescending and tribal, and that’s not a good way to improve things at scale.

At my kids’ school, the focus is on ‘mastery’ of maths concepts – the ability to do something creatively, fluently and to a high standard. For me, I think achieving that kind of mastery or professional growth in the workplace needs opportunity, encouragement and feedback.

Effective feedback in particular is what big organisations like the civil service find hard. I’ve frequently avoided tackling poor performance around me as a manager and it’s easy to do that in larger teams. With some help, it’s something we’ve been focussing on as a small team over the last six months, both to help in the short term with how we feel about work and clients, but in the longer term as a way for us all to grow professionally. As a boss, I certainly don’t want things to be done badly, but I often find expertise and passion in unexpected places around the team and in our clients. We need to use the term expert carefully, to avoid missing out on some of that potential.

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And yes, it is the Helpful business model I suppose, as a place business and public sector organisations turn to for help with digital. But our big focus now – and how we’re swimming against the tide in a way – is on helping clients to do digital for themselves: demystifying what seems complex, building confidence amongst those far behind the cutting edge, trying to answer every ‘Please could you…’ Zendesk ticket we get with a ‘Sure, and here’s how to do it next time…’

So I suppose I’m saying I don’t have a problem with government of gifted amateurs, so much as with amateurs who don’t know it, don’t seek help and don’t get better. Organisations need specialists, and there’s plenty of specialist skills in digital. Let’s not build a wall around them.

Voices in the crowd

“Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.”
Lev Grossman, Time Magazine


Photo credit: Stephen McLeod

Guido Fawkes is switching to a reputation and content filtering system for comments.

Originally when this blog started and had readers numbering only in the tens, rather than the tens of thousands, some of the regular comment makers were very witty and brought gossip. In the last four years 200,000 comments have been made, the signal to noise ratio and average quality of the comments has declined.

[…] There will be incentives for those who produce better quality commentary based on a new element of co-conspirator community rating. Good comments will be more prominently displayed, disliked comments will be less prominent. The biggest innovation is that it will be possible for readers to set their own tolerance thresholds. Poorly rated comments will be invisible to those who set their preferences accordingly. If you only want to see comments judged by co-conspirators to be witty, amusing or illuminating, set your threshold to “Recommended”. Don’t want to read foul language? Set your threshold to “U”. Want to see all and any comments no matter how foul? Set your threshold to “XXX”.

It’s intriguing that bloggers like Guido are now looking at how to improve the signal to noise ratio in their user feedback. It’s the only way to go – I don’t even bother to read the vitriolic or simply tedious nonsense that is inevitably posted on virtually any commentable story on BBC News Online or popular YouTube video. And as more people start to see the web as place for self-expression in their own spaces and other people’s, hearing the interesting voices in the crowd is only going to become more important.

In ‘A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy’, Clay Shirky (available as part of Joel Spolsky’s collection of the Best Software Writing) he describes the phenomena of group behaviour online:

The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. This pulls against the libertarian view that’s quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.


eBay has done us all an enormous disservice, because eBay works in non-iterated atomic transactions, which are the opposite of social situations. eBay’s reputation system works incredibly well, because it starts with a linearizable transaction — “How much money for how many Smurfs?” — and turns that into a metric that’s equally linear. That doesn’t work well in social situations. If you want a good reputation system, just let me remember who you are. And if you do me a favor, I’ll remember it.

He concludes with four design principles for successful, large-scale online interactions:

  1. handles the user can invest in: strong online identities which people use and remember and associate with helpful and trollish interactions
  2. a way for there to be members in good standing: whether it’s reputation points, publicly-displayed length of membership or endorsement by other members
  3. barriers to participation: prioritising the functioning of the group, putting practical barriers in the way to dissuade casual contributions (like a login)
  4. a way to spare the group from scale: breaking the group into more manageable interactions (like Twitter @replies filters)

Tech sites have been here before, and had to solve these problems first. In ‘Social Software and the Politics of Groups‘, Shirky describes the evolution of the Slashdot approach:

Slashdot’s core principle, for example, is “No censorship”; anyone should be able to comment in any way on any article. Slashdot’s constitution (though it is not called that) specifies only three mechanisms for handling the tension between individual freedom to post irrelevant or offensive material, and the group’s desire to be able to find the interesting comments. The first is moderation, a way of convening a jury pool of members in good standing, whose function is to rank those posts by quality. The second is meta-moderation, a way of checking those moderators for bias, as a solution to the “Who will watch the watchers?” problem. And the third is karma, a way of defining who is a member in good standing. These three political concepts, lightweight as they are, allow Slashdot to grow without becoming unusable.

The same applies to answers to questions in technical forums – how do you sift the knowledgable, valuable answers from the flames, errors and meanderings of newbies? Again, through reputation. StackOverflow takes the importance of reputation to a new level:

Here’s how it works: if you post a good question or helpful answer, it will be voted up by your peers. If you post something that’s off topic or incorrect, it will be voted down. Each up vote adds 10 reputation points; each down vote removes 2. You can earn up to 200 reputation per day, but no more. Amass enough reputation points and Stack Overflow will allow you to do more things on the site, beyond simply asking and answering questions […] At the high end of this reputation spectrum there is little difference between users with high reputation and moderators. That is very much intentional. We don’t run Stack Overflow. The community does.

Social media thrives on feedback. For sites like this one, the volumes are manageable and the topics niche enough for readers to identify valuable comments. But on a larger scale, we’re going to have to start seeing and as readers, using, the paradigms of reputation and peer moderation to ensure that feedback itself continues to have any value at all.