Weeknote 7th May: The Prelude

5 min readMay 7, 2021

I’m back on this again. In more ways than one. Notion has some sort of weird twitter embedding bug:

So until that’s fixed, I’m back on Medium (the medium place) for a bit. “Putting words on the internet is a solved problem” I always used to say. How the internet words mock me back.

Anyway, I’m writing these again for a few reasons. One, I’m starting a new job soon and I want to write regularly about the job (from my viewpoint) to keep me honest, and to prevent that bunker mentality that can creep in when you’re trying to do hard things in big institutions. I don’t really know anyone in the university (aside from the museums where they’re all grand), so talking out loud and hoping I get feedback is useful. I’m going to be heading into an institution that I kind of understand, but that has lots of specificities.

I found this recently with a lot of the gigs I’ve done. There’s always something fiendishly complicated under the hood. With NHSx, for me, it was the strictures of ISO 62304 and the licencing of medical software, with Land Registry it was some of the edge cases of what land can do: the transformations of paperwork that it can generate.

Inductive reasoning

I’ve been doing a few induction talks with people in University Information Services. Everyone has been so friendly and thoughtful, they’re really trying to get at the heart of the problem. The thing that I have been thinking about though is what they have talked about so far with testing. As in, it is going to be difficult to test with current applicants because the process of applying for Cambridge is so contested. Any sniff of competitive advantage (prior knowledge of procedure/being part of an A/B test or a prototype site, having not been part of a prototype site (if that is better)) and people appeal, or SAR/FOI their records. Looking at the page for Cambridge on What Do They Know you can see it is busy.

One part of me is thinking about this in the famous Pete Herlihy way. Keep asking “why” until you find the person that set the policy and then actually check/make the rules with them. I love the blog post about this with Register To Vote but I wonder how many of these things I’m going to find and which battles you pick to fight and which you think might have been fought to a status quo already. I’ve experienced the shit end of the stick (and written about it) before when you try and be Digital Jesus, so anxious to understand the terrain as much as trying to transform it. More on that in the next bit.


Another reason to get back on this is that the DPhil is chugging along. It’s been a rough couple of years for the research (slipped disc, ulcerative colitis, baby, lockdown, shielding) so I’m really happy to be making progress at last.

I’ve been doing two things: interviewing people about what they think “neutrality” is in civic tech, and especially how similar it is to either civil service neutrality or to NGOization. And then I’m trying to write the chapter. It might be a journal article, but it will probably just be the chapter.

Detailed top secret plan

So, I made a structural outline of the chapter and I am chipping away at it. It’s been a tough time for that. Baby had a night of vomiting and I’ve just felt knackered since 2019. But I’m getting there slowly. A long way from the imagined target of 15,000 words though.

The space between work and DPhil has been thinking about power in institutions and how you use university learning (which has a whiff of “secret knowledge” to it) to make things better. I had a chat with Ben Worthy about power in anthropology and the way that it can feel like ethnography paints people with power as Skeletor-like cackling caricatures, when power is really complicated and both good and bad using it is not some sort of horrible complicity, it’s how you get shit done. Anthropology can feel like a really critical and unconstructive back seat driving “oh, if I were you I wouldn’t do it like that” thing. And it doesn’t need to be. To be a bit Bourdieu about it: every move in the game re-iterates the game, denying participation with power, especially state power does not make you free of the system: you can never be non-complicit (especially when you look at the institutional power that universities wield).

Open Government

I’ve been trying to get some stuff done with the Open Government national action plan process that’s happening at the moment. I’m on the civil society steering group, and I’ve been trying to get people involved in our thematic groups to help draft government commitments, but takeup has been really low. It’s frustrating as it is a bona fide policy making space that people who spend their actual lives talking, pressuring or writing books about an issue are just going “nah”. I’m also frustrated I haven’t got invites to more groups outside the usual suspects. I simultaneously feel like the process has deep limitations and won’t actually change the world (so why get het up?) or to actually go full balls to the wall on it and take it seriously and inevitably get upset when I don’t get the progress I think is needed. I’m also ending up going to all the meetings, partly from curiosity, partly because with so many years on the clock as a generalist, I have a policy ask from time in a lot of departments and it’s almost like getting a chance to apply for the opportunity for small, very policy wonk things to be fixed.


Bruce meets his inspiration on a recent trip to Bury St Edmunds (St Edmund was apparently venerated with wolf skulls).




Public sector specialist. Anthropologist on the internet.