Tuesday 7 May 2013

The war of independence

Here in the UK, the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) state benefit is in the process of being replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), worth between £21 and £134.40 per week. "PIP helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or a disability", which is good, but the whole point is that many claimants will be dependent on this benefit which makes it very odd to call it a "Personal Independence Payment". Something odd is happening to the concept of independence here.

The same odd thing is happening to the concept of control. Mr Andrew Dilnot, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, argues that there should be a limit of £35,000 on the amount old people pay for their social care. That limit should apply even if an old person owns a house, say, worth £2 million, say. They shouldn't have to sell the house to pay for their care.

Why not?

So that they can leave the house to their children? No, says Mr Dilnot, that's not the point. The point is, he says, that with the state paying for all their care after the first £35,000, old people will have "control over their lives at a time when they're vulnerable and need that control".


Far from granting control, Mr Dilnot's proposal will take it away. If someone else is paying for your care home, they have control and you don't. Yield that control, and your independence goes with it.

That's not the case just for care homes, of course. You don't pay to use Google or Facebook, do you. You don't have any control over what they do with all the personal information about you that they collect. You're in no position to complain. You take what you get. Because you're dependent on them.

Google, by contrast, dispose of considerable power. Just ask Interflora UK. They displeased Google by trying to "game" the search engine's PageRanking system. So Google just omitted them from any search results. With its on-line sales threatened, a contrite Interflora UK swore obedience and was subsequently readmitted to the fold.

That's real power. Power that some web evangelists ignore. Douglas Carswell, for example, and his curate's egg of a book, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. Our politicians and our civil servants here in the UK might be ever so useless, yes, but to believe that we could be returned to some prelapsarian iDemocratic idyll if only the government were replaced by the web is to ignore the power of the Googles of this world.

Taking a holiday some years ago from their normal diet of heavy-handed legislation and irritating regulation, so much of it ineffectual, look at the banking world, our politicians got the idea that perhaps they could exert power using the wily tricks of the marketing world. Thus was born Whitehall's Behavioural Insights Team, who were meant to "nudge" us into doing certain things, no legislation required, just clever psychology.

Fat chance.

The Behavioural Insights Team worked with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the midata project. The idea was to nudge retailers into releasing data back to consumers so that we would all be "empowered". Result? No cigar, so BIS asked parliament for statutory powers to underpin midata. And with that resounding failure to nudge, the Behavioural Insights team have been kicked out of Whitehall and adopted by Capita. Good luck, Capita.

BIS got their statutory powers the other day, with the passing of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. "Regulatory reform" in the UK is supposed to imply the reduction of government regulation. midata is dealt with at clauses 85-87 of the Act and what do we find at 86(1)?
Regulations may make provision for the enforcement of regulations under section 85 (“customer data regulations”) by the Information Commissioner or any other person specified in the regulations (and, in this section, “enforcer” means a person on whom functions of enforcement are conferred by the regulations).
Far from reducing regulation, the Act will increase it.

We should have known.

In the midata consultation document last year BIS and the Behavioural Insights Team said, para.4, p.11:
Increased data transparency and greater consumer choice will help promote innovation and competition and could also have a deregulatory effect. By giving people access to their data in a format which is machine readable it may be possible to avoid the need for some types of regulation, for example, specifying product characteristics.
In what sense can this new regulation have a deregulatory effect? Grant us this power to regulate data access by consumers, BIS answered, otherwise we'll make your life hell with a lot of other regulations about product specification – the logic of the protection racket.

Responses to that consultation had to be returned to a Mr Craig Belsham at BIS by 10 September 2012. He popped up again the other day:
Welcome to my new blog about midata

2 May 2013 Craig Belsham

I’m Craig Belsham from BIS, where I head up the midata programme. This blog is designed to give some insight into that programme, help people and business understand it and hopefully encourage both to start to get involved.
It's not really a blog. You can't submit comments. And there's no feed – you can't add http://blogs.bis.gov.uk/midata/ to a blogroll.

The Government Digital Service heaped praise on themselves last month for completing the project to bring all central government departmental websites into one single government domain, the award-winning GOV.UK. http://blogs.bis.gov.uk/midata/ shouldn't exist. But it does, and there's Mr Belsham to prove it.

And does Mr Belsham really "head up" the midata programme?
  • What's happened to Kirstin Green, the deputy director at BIS who led the open forums on midata?
  • What's happened to Professor Nigel Shadbolt, chair of the midata programme?
  • And what's happened to William Heath, member of the midata strategy board and chairman of Mydex, the only system ever mentioned in connection with the personal data stores BIS want us all to maintain?
As to the last question, Mr Heath continues to promise that "Mydex gives individuals back control over their personal data" although when asked to explain how, in public, he doesn't.

It's not in Mydex's power to grant that control. It's an odd view of control anyway. You get control of your data back, so goes the Mydex argument, by storing it all with them, complete strangers, in a personal data store, out of your control, on the web, in the cloud, the Wild West where – so Symantec tell us – 250,000 cyber-attacks take place every year.

Normally that wouldn't make sense.

But if you're surrounded
  • by people who call a personal dependence payment a "personal independence payment"
  • and who argue that you stay in control of your personal care by giving up control of it
  • and who write that politics has ended when clearly it hasn't
  • and who conclude that the way to nudge people is to legislate
  • and who claim that regulation can have a deregulatory effect
  • and who operate a blog that isn't a blog on a website that doesn't exist
  • and who represent themselves as the head of a programme when perhaps they're not
  • and who congratulate themselves on the completion of a project which is manifestly incomplete
then perhaps it does make some sort of sense
  • to take back control of your personal data by giving it away.
You might fall for it. But Google won't. They'll win the war. Because they still understand what power and regulation and control and independence are.


Anonymous said...

If you want to follow the midata blog this seems to work with blogtrottr: http://blogs.bis.gov.uk/midata/feed/

David Moss said...

Thank you for that comment, Anonymous. Adding "/feed" works and Mr Belsham's blog is now in the blogroll.

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