The MySociety Masters in Public Technology Idea..

Tom Steinberg from MySociety has posted an idea today about the need for a Masters (or equivalent) in Public Technology. I think it is a really interesting post and I agree with about 90% of it. The bit I don’t agree with is the focus on software engineers – probably because I’m not one! I agree whole heartedly that there are too few technology experts in the public sector but I think it is the ability;

..contract for larger IT solutions without getting ripped off or sold snake oil.

aspect that is the real opportunity. The idea that people;

can build small or medium sized solutions to an organisation’s problems with their bare hands, because they’re software engineers.

is all very well and good (and believe me I’d love to have someone in my team that could do that) but it assumes that the kind of technical infrastructure exists or is accessible to host and deploy anything that is built – in my experience it often isn’t. Also it assumes people will have time to do anything other than fire-fight and keep existing systems up and running – again in my experience they usually don’t.

What has amazed me over the years is the fact that people specifying and commissioning work often have no real depth of understanding of the technologies or environment they are dealing with. A course that could teach these, usually intelligent & interested, individuals things like Tom talks about below would have a real impact on the kind of technologies that the public sector can produce.

It would involve dissecting more and less impactful digital services and campaigns, like biology students dissect frogs, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It would involve teaching the basics of social science methodologies, such as how to look for statistical significance, and good practice in privacy management. It would encourage good practice in User Experience design, and challenge people to think about how serious problems could be solved playfully. It would involve an entire module on explaining the dos and don’t of digital technology to less-literate decision makers. And most important, it would end with a ‘thesis’ that would entail the construction of some meaningful tool, either alone or in collaboration with other students and external organisations.

I’ve never found it hard to find good designers or developers to implement projects – the problem is getting to that point and influencing the culture to a point where you can genuinely do interesting things. I can’t think of any of my talented developer friends and associates who would be willing to spend time doing the mundane while pushing the agenda internally just to get to the point where they can make a difference. Whereas that has been pretty much the mainstay of my career.

I’d love to see any version of this course happen if I’m honest – it seems like the sort of thing one of the smaller, ‘new’ universities might embrace (for the inevitable publicity as much as anything!). Maybe someone at JISC might be able to point Tom in the right direction.

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