Monday, 28 November 2011

Managing the minister

There's a right way of doing these things. And a wrong way. Whitehall got it right in November 2008. And all wrong in November 2011.

2008 – the right way
November 2008. You remember. Gordon Brown is sub-Prime Minister and is busy saving the world. The economy is in meltdown and Sir Gus O'Donnell is Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and Head of the home civil service, responsible for all senior appointments. Sir David Normington is Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. Bob Quick is Assistant Commissioner at the Met, Damian Green is Shadow Immigration Minister, Christopher Galley is chief Tory Mole at the Home Office, and Jacqui Smith is Home Secretary.

Information had been leaking from the Home Office for some time, allowing Damian Green to ask embarrassing questions in the House. How, for example, had 11,000 illegal immigrants been licensed by the Security Industry Authority to work as security guards?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

PerishTheThought: the public interest 2

In view of the impending retirement of Sir Gus O'Donnell, Sir Richard Mottram conducted a review of Whitehall and identified seven abiding problems, problems which existed before the advent of Sir Gus and which persist still.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

PerishTheThought: the public interest 1

Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and Head of the home civil service, gave evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee on 23 November 2011. No transcript available yet but, according to the Guardian:
The Freedom of Information act is a mistake, and is having a negative effect on governing, Britain's top civil servant said. Sir Gus O'Donnell told the Commons public administration select committee that it had stymied full and frank discussion of options by ministers and others in government. The 2001 act gives members of the public and journalists the right to ask for publication of official documents.

"The problem is, virtually everything [in such documents] is subject to a public interest test. If asked to give advice, I'd say I can't guarantee they can say without fear or favour if they disagree with something, and that information will remain private. Because there could be an FoI request.

"It's having a very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions."
What possible interest could we the public have in how the unelected Sir Gus, or his unaccountable office, spends £710 billion of our money for us this year?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Your Money And How They Spend It – interim report

Episode 1 of this Nick Robinson programme went out last night. Let's wait until we've seen episode 2 before making a final judgement.

In the interim, there are a few questions:
  • Who is "they"? After watching Mr Robinson's programme, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an unnamed politician who spent our money on a new regional network of control centres for the fire brigade. It wasn't. It was Dame Mavis McDonald and Sir Peter Housden who had control of the cheque book. They were somehow omitted from the tale.
  • Who gets "your money"? There was no mention of PA Consulting, who picked up £42 million for project management and no mention of Cassidian, who built the useless control centres.
  • And we weren't told "how" they spend it. The indefatigable Tony Collins has another story today about how public money is actually spent, Officials pay supplier invoices – then raise purchase orders, based on another report from the equally indefatigable Amyas Morse at the National Audit Office: "the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in up to 35% of cases, raises its purchase order after it gets the invoice from suppliers".
Explaining why this is the wrong way round would presumably have detracted from the agreeably chummy atmosphere of Mr Robinson's interviews with Alan Johnson et al. But it might have been a more helpful use of a whole hour of airtime.

Tony Collins has remembered another example of the scandalous insouciance with which our money is spent: "On the C-Nomis IT project for prisons, the National Offender Management Service paid £161m without keeping any record of what the payments were for".

There's a lot for him to fit into episode 2. Will Mr Robinson do his job?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Technology securing the border

Poor ... inefficient ... over-hyped ... real risk to the integrity of the control ... immature ... poor quality ... unreliable ... completely fails ... not joined up ... comical ... erroneous ... laughable ... these are just some of the words of praise heaped on the electronic face recognition gates used for passport control at Heathrow Airport, and on the eBorders scheme in general, in Nicola Stanbridge's eulogy broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning.

Hat tip: JGM

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Your Money And How They Spend It – BBC2 9pm 23 & 30 November

Could be worth a watch.

The programme is made by Nick Robinson, Political Editor at the BBC, who trailed it in the Telegraph.

Will Mr Robinson observe polite convention and pretend that politicians are responsible? He might. He says:
Keeping old hospitals open is popular ... So too is building expensive new developments in the regions. Take fire control centres, which it was promised would use the latest technology to track emergency vehicles by satellite to keep us all safer in the event not just of fire, but floods and terrorist attacks. Just one problem: the technology didn’t work. Eight centres are open but empty. Just one will be costing not far short of £100,000 a month for the next 24 years.
Does he really believe that FiReControl, the disastrous project he alludes to, was all John Prescott's fault and nothing to do with officials?

Or will Mr Robinson spread the blame a little wider and recommend more openness?
We can all hope, though, that once this crisis is over we will have learnt to have a more honest, more open, more realistic debate about your money and how they spend it. 

WrinklesInTheMatrix: Boris Johnson 1

Telegraph, 21 October 2011:
Boris Johnson rebuked over use of dodgy statistics
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has been rebuked by the head of Britain’s statistics watchdog for repeatedly using questionable figures to overstate his claims of cutting reoffending rates.

Sir Michael Scholar, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, which scrutinises all official figures, singled out some of Mr Johnson’s comments to the Home Affairs Select Committee last month ...
Guardian, 16 November 2011:
Boris Johnson says UK Statistics Authority chair is 'Labour stooge'
Boris Johnson has accused the chair of the UK Statistics Authority of being a "Labour stooge".

The London mayor's attack came after he was put on the rack over misleading statistics he had given to a Commons committee to highlight the success of an initiative to cut crime ...
Now here's a wrinkle – three of them, actually:
  • Statistics are pre-party political, they don't "know" about Labour and Conservative
  • If doctors used statistics the way politicians do, we'd all be dead
  • Sir Michael was Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher 1981-83
Sir Michael is a Good Thing. Boris please note, Sir Michael says:
... having good statistics is like having clean water and clean air. It’s the fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate.

Friday, 18 November 2011

BBC Radio Scotland – Sassenach border incursion

Tomorrow morning's Newsweek Scotland, 19 November 2011 8 a.m., presented by Derek Bateman, includes a discussion of border control, with background briefing by someone. Mr Bateman's good-humoured parting shot was that by the time someone's contributions have been edited, they'll all imply the opposite of what was said.

Three long talks with BBC producers in a week. One programme to show for it.

We'll see.

Or hear.


On Derek Bateman's blog:
I suggest you turn the volume down when I speak to David Moss
On iPlayer, starting at 47'18", available for the next week or so.

Whitehall – SNAFU

Sir Richard Mottram will be famous in some people's minds as the Permanent Secretary at the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when 9/11, Stephen Byers, Jo "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?" Moore and Martin Sixsmith all happened at the same time, leading Sir Richard to deliver himself of his numinous SitRep:
We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked.

Whitehall – misfeasance in public office

Dame Helen Ghosh has been Permanent Secretary at the Home Office since 1 January 2011. Before her, it was Sir David Normington. And before him, it was Sir John Gieve who signed the accounts.

On 21 July 2006, the Times published Accounts for Home Office adrift by trillions:
A National Audit Office review of transactions carried out on the Home’s Office’s financial IT system found problems with the data. “When the gross transaction value of debits and credits within this data was totalled, they each amounted to £26,527,108,436,994: almost 2,000 times higher than the Home Office’s gross expenditure for 2004-05 and approximately one and a half times higher than the estimated gross domestic product of the entire planet,” a note from the National Audit Office said.

“This suggests something has gone seriously awry. We have yet to receive an explanation for what has happened,” the note added.

Last night Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the [Public Accounts Committee], said: “In any parish council or cricket club the person responsible would have been out on his ear. What actually happened was that Sir John was promoted to become Deputy Governor of the Bank of England in charge of financial stability in the banking system.

“You might reasonably expect to see this in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but not in real life.”
Make the most of any smile that brought to your lips.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Brodie Clark's evidence 2

In the opinion of this blog:
For 10 years the Home Office have been investing public money unwisely in projects which depend for their success on mass consumer biometrics technology being reliable – it isn't.
Brodie Clark gave evidence yesterday to the Home Affairs Committee. According to Public Servant magazine's report he said:
"The warnings index had not been compromised at Heathrow ... it must never be compromised. There are nine checks, the fingerprint check is the least reliable, it is a secondary and additional check to the face against document match. The policy required me to suspend watch list checking, the manager at Heathrow decided to suspend the lower level of checking and I approved."

GreenInk 2 – bringing the Home Office's use of biometrics under statistical control

From: David Moss
Sent: 15 November 2011 17:54
To: ''
Subject: Jenny Booth and Philippe Naughton, 15 November 2011, Theresa May ‘destroyed my reputation’


In the matter of Brodie Clark, the public learn for the first time that "fingerprint matching ... was the lowest level of nine identity checks".

Ministers have given the impression for ten years since 9/11 that these biometrics are reliable. No statistics have ever been published to support this impression. There are no such statistics.

We have also learnt through the UK Statistics Authority that the Home Office have been misusing statistics, not for the first time, to improve the impression of their performance.

The UK Statistics Authority's stance in this matter is exemplary. I recommend that they should also be given the chance to review the statistics available on the biometrics used by the Home Office. If this technology turns out to be too unreliable, then the projects which rely on it should be discontinued to avoid any further waste of public money.

David Moss

GreenInk 1 – an alternative target for DfID's billions

From: David Moss
Sent: 13 November 2011 12:55
To: ''
Subject: UKBA and DfID


While the UK Border Agency are clearly short of money, the Department for International Development are said to be concerned at how hard it is to find worthy causes to spend their our money on. If we re-classify the activities of UKBA as international development, perhaps ...

David Moss

Ed Davey, problem-solver – midata

In 1621, King James I directed the Privy Council to establish a temporary committee to investigate the causes of a decline in trade and consequent financial difficulties. The Board's formal title remains The Lords of the Committee of Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations.
That's what it says on Wikipedia, under Board of Trade.

400 years later and not a foreign plantation in sight, this temporary committee is thriving and we still have a President of the Board of Trade – Vince Cable, Secretary of State at BIS, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

What with him ruling by divine right (James, not Vince), it's unlikely that James would have seen the need for a team of no less than five ministers of state, but that's what Vince has got, plus Ed Davey, Lib Dem MP for Kingston and Surbiton, minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs.

And thank goodness for Ed Davey with his PPE from Oxford and his masters in economics from the LSE because, 400 years later, here we are again with a decline in trade and consequent financial difficulties. But not for long. Mr Davey has the answer.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Whitehall waste – official statistics

From today's BBC News website:
Home Office drug seizure figures were 'highly selective'
The UK Border Agency has been "highly selective" in its use of drugs seizure figures, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority has said.

Sir Michael Scholar has written to the Home Office to seek reassurances that figures were not released to generate positive news coverage.

He said if this was the case it would be "highly corrosive and damaging" ...
Sir Michael is Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority. He is a Good Thing.

Brodie Clark's evidence 1

In the opinion of this blog:
For 10 years the Home Office have been investing public money unwisely in projects which depend for their success on mass consumer biometrics technology being reliable – it isn't.
Brodie Clark gave evidence today to the Home Affairs Committee. According to the Guardian's live coverage:
Clark says there are nine checks. The fingerprint check is the most recent, and the least reliable. It was a lower-level check.
Lifting that check was a "sensible" thing do to.

Monday, 14 November 2011

WrinklesInTheMatrix: ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken 1

The Cabinet Office want everyone to transact with government over the web.

In order to do so, the government must know who everyone is. That means everyone needs an electronic identity.

Mindful of the humiliating failure of the Home Office's identity cards scheme, the Cabinet Office have asked the private sector to devise an identity assurance service. An identity assurance service that is absolutely nothing like the Home Office scheme with its national identity register and its biometrics.

Someone has been spoiling the Cabinet Office's fun by pointing out that we already have a way to transact with government over the web, using the UK Government Gateway.

Too old-fashioned, they say, we must have a modern gateway.

And as if to prove it, the Cabinet Office have hired ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken to be executive director of government digital services and SRO of the identity assurance programme. (Keep up at the back – senior responsible owner.)

Boy. Is he ever modern. He ran the Guardian website until six months ago. He uses Apple laptops. And Google Apps. Which means Google, Julian Assange and the Chinese will all know about the identity assurance programme before we the public do.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Q1 What is the probability that Brodie Clark woke up one morning, fancied a change, and decided to throw the borders open?

Q2 Pillorying Brodie Clark and forcing him out of UKBA is bad politics, bad management and bad manners. What is the probability that all this pillorying and forcing was Theresa May's idea?

Hint Since 2005, we have had three Prime Ministers, five Home Secretaries and only one head of the home civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell.

Background reading

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Whitehall on trials

Home Secretary, somewhat late in the day, herewith the appendix promised in my open letter to you dated 8 November 2011.

The fourth enquiry – into the efficacy of the biometrics used by UKBA and the Home Office generally – has at its disposal a lot of evidence in the form of correspondence with the Home Office, the UK Border Agency, the Identity & Passport Service, the Home Office Scientific Development Branch, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal available here, herehere and here. The enquiry may also be assisted by reading the reports on biometrics here, here and here.

The hypothesis that the enquiry needs to test is that:
For 10 years the Home Office have been investing public money unwisely in projects which depend for their success on mass consumer biometrics technology being reliable – it isn't.

Oborneiana – Theresa May and Brodie Clark

Peter Oborne had an article published on the Daily Telegraph website dated 9 November 2011, 'Theresa May’s attempts to pass the buck make for a distressing spectacle'. The article provoked a strong desire to help him.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Brodie Clark alone

Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Open letter
Secretary of State for the Home Department
Marsham St
London W1 SW1
8 November 2011

Dear Home Secretary

Brodie Clark alone
I write to suggest the right course of action to follow now.

You have started three enquiries. You must start a fourth.

Without that fourth enquiry, although you may keep your job, your name will be tarnished.

With it, even if you lose your job, your reputation will be enhanced. You will eventually be recognised as having struck a blow in favour of the businesslike investment of public money and against the present practice of Whitehall wasting it by the lorryload. And you will eventually be recognised as having struck a blow in favour of democracy and against the present practice of rule by an unelected and unaccountable Whitehall.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

494 years later ...

... a profitable 22 minutes and 53 seconds may be spent by all, listening to the audio of Chris Chant's talk, given to the Institute for Government on 20 October 2011, available here and here:

In the first nine minutes, Mr Chant declares war on the Whitehall dispensation under Pope Augustine.

The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum), commonly known as The Ninety-Five Theses, was written by Martin Luther in 1517 and is widely regarded as the primary catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially the sale of indulgences …

On the eve of All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, according to university custom.
OK, we don’t call it “reformation” now, we call it “transformational government”. But that’s what Mr Chant’s talking about, isn’t it. He didn’t nail his theses to the door, they were posted as an audio stream. But it comes to the same. And we don't buy indulgences any more, but we might as well, it might be more effective than paying PA Consulting and Computer Sciences Corporation.

What chance did Luther stand, with the powers ranged against him? To any sensible observer at the time, none. Ditto Mr Chant. But Luther won. Mr Chant (and we) might, too.