Monday, 30 September 2013

GDS – next month is Identity Assurance Month

Here we are at the end of September.

Next month is Identity Assurance Month.

How often have you said that before?

The answer to Mr Miliband's prayer

Why freeze energy prices? Why not halve them?

Gas and electricity prices rising fast? More and more people having to choose between keeping warm and eating?

Freeze 'em! (The prices, that is, not the people.)

That's the solution recommended by Ed Miliband, the leader of her Majesty's loyal opposition here in the UK.

Everyone knows that this solution won't work. Not if that's all there is to it. You just need to look at what's happening in Venezuela today to see that.

But that isn't all there is to it. Mr Miliband's recommendation in full is to freeze energy prices for 20 months, during which he would do something, if he was in government, to solve the fuel poverty problem sustainably. He's not relying exclusively on a price freeze.

What is that something? What is his sustainable solution?

He hasn't told us.

Look again at the problem. There are at least three elements:
  • Energy consumers have no autonomy when it comes to prices. We are in no position to negotiate with the suppliers. If that's the price they set, that's the price we pay. Either that, or we freeze.
  • Prices are rising fast despite the existence of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and OFGEM.
  • The economy is suffering at the moment from high energy prices. If prices are frozen, the economy will  still suffer, Venezuela-style. Either way, the economy suffers.
What options are available to Mr Miliband? What values of something are available?

The energy sector is currently privatised. Competition doesn't seem to be keeping prices down. Not even with regulation. Mr Miliband could instigate an antitrust investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority or maybe by the EU. That's one option. Or the sector could be re-nationalised. That's another. And there are intermediate states in addition, the energy sector could be part-nationalised and part-privatised.

20 months might just be long enough to complete the investigation or to complete the partial or complete re-nationalisation.

Would any of these options work?

It would be a political decision. Ministers would be advised by officials but it would be their decision – the ministers'. They would face a number of awkward questions:
  • Why wait until 2015 to start tackling the problem?
  • Why have the price freeze at all? That is, why not go straight for the proposed solution, the something?
  • Why freeze prices? Why not halve them?
  • If the proposed solution involves re-nationalisation, what happens to the national debt? We are led to believe that the national debt will stand at £1.5 trillion by the time of the next election. Nationalisation of the energy sector can only increase it. At some point, people are going to stop lending to us at today's low rates. Higher interest payments, allied to quantitative easing, are going to send inflation through the roof and the exchange rate through the floor.
  • And what happens to the budget deficit? The present government is trying to reduce it by 1% p.a. at the moment. That microscopic reduction will be reversed if the state takes the energy sector onto its books.
  • Trickiest of all, politically, Mr Miliband happens to be the Energy Secretary who, in the last government, saddled us all with levies to pay for alternative energy and with carbon taxes. Why would anyone believe that he now knows how to reduce the bills that he increased?
The option that ministers choose would have to have economic support. Government economists would provide some supporting arguments and the think tanks would provide a few more.

That risks being unconvincing. After all, there were economic arguments in favour of nationalisation after the war and there were economic arguments in favour of privatisation during the 1980s – ask enough economists, and you'll always find one in the end who will provide the supporting arguments you need for whatever bee there is in your bonnet.

Sometimes that will be a very senior economist indeed, with a global reputation. Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell, for example:
In 2002, he co-edited a book with Ed Balls, congratulating Gordon Brown on eliminating boom and bust, Reforming Britain's Economic and Financial Policy: Towards Greater Economic Stability. A year later saw another book edited by the two of them and Joe Grice, again congratulating Gordon Brown, this time for Microeconomic Reform in Britain: Delivering Opportunities for All.
As we now know, Sir Gus was spectacularly wrong. Following the 2008 bust Sir Gus claimed to have abolished everyone has become their own economist. Instant economists are a dime a dozen.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

G-Cloud and lavatory paper

There are lots of utilities but let's concentrate to start with on gas and electricity.

The gas and electricity markets in the UK are in turmoil. British Gas has just announced an 8% price increase, against a background where the rate of energy poverty has already been rising steeply for years. The regulators don't seem to be able to do anything, and neither does the Prime Minister.

The problem is exacerbated by subsidies given to the alternative energy sector in the name of global warming. These subsidies are paid for in part by levies added to our gas and electricity bills.

Meanwhile, we could be taking advantage of the bucketsful of shale oil we're apparently sitting on, the way they have done in the US, to reduce energy prices, but the roundheads refuse to countenance that, in their Puritan way, and spread malicious rumours of methane coming out of our taps if we start fracking. Also, earthquakes.

Everyone knows that we ought to be developing nuclear capacity but no-one has the courage.

The effect is to drive energy-intensive industry abroad, where prices are lower.

It's all a bit of a mess and now the leader of the opposition has proposed that, if we vote him into power at the 2015 general election, he will freeze energy prices.

Job done. Genius. Why didn't anyone else think of that?

Unless you were born yesterday, you might remember that we did. And last time we had a prices and incomes policy in the UK, in the 1970s, it all went horribly wrong and we had to rediscover the hard way that utility prices should be set by markets. Do we have to go through that again?

If you want a reminder of the good old days, take a look at Venezuela today, where the army has had to be called in to guarantee supplies of lavatory paper, Troops move in as shortages prompt new roll for Venezuela:
Critics of President Nicolas Maduro say the nagging shortages of products ranging from bathroom tissue to milk are a sign his socialist government’s rigid price and currency controls are failing. They have also used the situation to poke fun at his administration on social media networks.

A national agency called Sundecop, which enforces price controls, said in a statement it would occupy one of the factories belonging to paper producer Manpa for 15 days, adding that National Guard troops would “safeguard” the facility.

“The action in the producer of toilet paper, sanitary napkins and disposable diapers responds to the state’s obligation to ensure a steady supply of basic goods for the people,” Sundecop said, adding it had observed“the violation of the right” to access such products.
All of which is way outside the remit of this blog.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

G-Cloud pan-government accreditation

What is pan-government accreditation?

The UK government proposes to make public services more efficient by using cloud computing. The G-Cloud project – government cloud – operates the CloudStore, an on-line shop for cloud computing services. Central government departments and local government, too, can buy whatever they need from the CloudStore quickly and cheaply.

Quickly, cheaply and with confidence, because these cloud computing services have all been accredited.

And some of them have pan-government accreditation. 72 of them, to be precise:
Any services procured which have not achieved pan government accreditation are purchased at the risk to [sic] the consumer. The Pan Government Accreditation service (PGA), Public Sector Accreditation Board (PSAB) and the G-Cloud SIRO shall not be accountable for any such decision. The preference of the G-Cloud programme is that BIL 11x/22x and 33x should have pan government security accreditation before they are bought from the Cloud Store.
Nine of the pan-government accredited services are provided by Lockheed Martin, 18 of them by Microsoft and two by QinetiQ. These are big companies that everyone has heard of, just the sort of suppliers you would expect to be worthy of this valuable accolade, pan-government accreditation.

There are smaller companies, too, including our old friend Skyscape (now UKCloud Ltd, added 11.9.17), the captive cloud company, which offers 14 pan-government accredited services. Quite extraordinary, when you remember that Skyscape didn't even exist until 3 May 2011.

And then there's MDS Technologies, with two services on offer.

Who are MDS?

G-Cloud buries its head in the sand

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook and became the youngest self-made billionaire on the planet. He's still young, he's still rich and he's not pleased:
Zuckerberg recently criticised the Obama administration's surveillance apparatus. "Frankly I think the government blew it," he told TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

The Facebook founder was particularly damning of government claims that they were only spying on "foreigners".

"Oh, wonderful: that's really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that's really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies," said Zuckerberg.
Never mind privacy and security, the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) could reduce the size of the market for Facebook. They could cost money. This is serious.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

"The digital beauty of GDS"

"When was the last time you got all choked up about a website or app? Can you recall a transformative digital experience? Have you felt the beauty of digital?"
Ashley Friedlein's consultancy offers Digital Marketing Excellence™ and in that capacity he has "spoken at numerous international conferences, from the USA to Croatia, as well as trade events in the UK, on a range of digital marketing and e-commerce topics".

Today he shares his views with us on The digital beauty of GDS (Government Digital Service). On marketing, he says that "businesses can charge for the value of the "transformation", of the “feeling”, that an experience offers". And as to beauty, he associates it with the experience of being hit in the solar plexus.

"We believe that the experiences themselves are marketing." The customer experience is the marketing?

Today the death of Ken Norton was announced. Not only did Norton hit Muhammad Ali in the solar plexus, he went on to break his jaw. That cracking sound we all heard, that was the sound of marketing.

Public administration page-turners

Two more books for the bedside table:
Published in 1952 and still essential reading:
Why would anyone want to read these books?

Monday, 16 September 2013

Biometrics, Aadhaar and the Apple iPhone 5S

(Hat tip: Ram Krishnaswamy)

For seven years DMossEsq has been boring the world with scare stories about biometrics. "Biometrics don't work", he's been telling anyone not agile enough to get away from him first, "not well enough to do the job they're meant to do, not in the mass market, not with large populations".

Even the other day when those fashionable and lovable exploiters of third world labour Apple announced details of the iPhone 5S, with its fingerprint verification, he couldn't stop himself writing about the problems of false non-matches.

These warnings just wash over people. It's all theoretical. "Computer says no" is a line in a very rude TV comedy show, it doesn't happen in real life.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Universal Credit – one for The Old Vic

Last Wednesday, 11 September 2013, the Public Accounts Committee took evidence on Universal Credit from DWP, the NAO and the Cabinet Office.

Media coverage of this electric event has been minimal. We know all about the different colours available for the Apple iPhone 5S. Nothing about the unmasking of misfeasance in public office on a monumental scale.

Where the media fail, perhaps another institution could succeed?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Public services under a cloud

Cloud computing is like a utility. Cheap. Think of your gas and electricity and phone and water bills.

Like the internet, it's always available. Resilient. Disaster-proof. No power cuts. Ever.

Except for the past two days, when some suppliers accredited to the UK government CloudStore found they couldn't log on, see below.

iPhone 5S fingerprint technology – eye-catching

Apple unveils two iPhones — and a password at your fingertip, it says in the Times today. According to the Telegraph, Apple iPhone 5S and 5C: fingerprint sensor and plastic make iPhone 5 debut. Etcetera, throughout the media.

You could have announced the end of the world yesterday. No-one would have noticed.

In fact, Sir David Attenborough did. "I think that we've stopped evolving", he told the Radio Times. And all anyone wanted to know is how easily they can photograph themselves with the iPhone 5C.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Edward Snowden – déjà vu all over again

Come to think of it, this debate about the security services having cracked all our codes is not entirely new.

For what it's worth, back in August 2010, on the No2ID forum, we were discussing the latest revelations about BlackBerry mobile phones. Someone posted the following extracts from a Nic Fildes article in the Times newspaper, BlackBerry ‘near deal to open messages to Saudis’. The debate remains relevant three years later:
The makers of BlackBerry mobile phones appear to have backed down in the face of demands from Saudi Arabia to allow the state to monitor messages sent on its devices ...

The Saudi-backed television station Al-Arabiya quoted unnamed sources as saying RIM [Research In Motion, the people behind the BlackBerry] had agreed in principle to grant the Saudi authorities access to its messages.

Bandar al-Mohammed, of the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, said RIM had expressed its “intention…to place a server inside Saudi Arabia”, allowing the kingdom to inspect communications and data exchanged between BlackBerry handsets ...

The United Arab Emirates intends to ban BlackBerry e-mail, messaging and web browsing on October 11 ...

The company then issued a statement on Thursday denying that it had already allowed some governments access to BlackBerry data.

The US and Canadian governments have also offered to hold talks with countries concerned about the security implications of BlackBerry usage.
Not just Saudi Arabia, but the UAE, too, and India and Indonesia and France – it seemed as if no country would allow people to use BlackBerrys until its security services had found out how to listen in. There are obvious implications for industrial and other espionage.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Edward Snowden – the penny drops 2

While beautiful people dance, beautifully dressed, through the lush pastures and wild flowers singing beautifully, they are stalked all the while by the Gestapo, the Geheime Staatspolizei, the sinister secret state police ...

The Sound of Music? It's a parable of our time, dontcha know.

No it isn't. But you'd never guess that from the way some people have reacted.

Who do you think wrote this in the Guardian?

Edward Snowden – the penny drops 1

The Edward Snowden revelations began here in the UK on 6 June 2013.

The public response and the response of the national media has been muted. Spies spy. What do you expect? They have to. Surveillance is legal. You'd have to be naïve to think otherwise. It's for our own good.

It's a case of move along, there's nothing to see here, as far as Whitehall is concerned. And in that case the plans to make public services digital by default can proceed. We can carry on saying that it is safe to store our data in the cloud. We can carry on saying that trusted third parties – "identity providers" – can supply us with personal data stores, maintained on "secure websites", which will give us "control" over what happens to our personal data.

There's nothing to see here. Our personal data will be encrypted. The security of the websites is provided by encryption. Encryption works. That's why the third parties can be trusted.

When the cartoon character runs off the edge of a cliff his legs keep going and he keeps moving forwards as long as he doesn't look down.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The internet secure? Absurd

While we were all away on holiday a scene from the theatre of the absurd was reported. It had been enacted  a month before, in July, in the basement of the Guardian newspaper's London office.

Dramatis personae:
    A number of GCHQ persons
    A Guardian editor and a Guardian IT person

    A number of computer disks and chips
    An angle grinder and some other tools

On 20 July 2013, apparently acting on the orders of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, who was in turn apparently acting on the orders of the Prime Minister himself, the Guardian persons set about destroying the disks and chips with the angle grinder and other tools. The GCHQ persons, having watched but not assisted, left once the job was done.

Thursday, 5 September 2013


The National Audit Office (NAO) have published their report on Universal Credit (UC). UC is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) initiative to rescue benefit claimants from the poverty trap created by the UK's inept welfare system. The idea is to rescue them by making work pay.

Universal Credit: early progress is 60 pages long. 60 pages which document the unrelenting and expensive failure of DWP to get to grips with UC. There is a summary for you kindly prepared by Tony Collins – Will Universal Credit ever work? – NAO report.

By 31 March 2013, DWP had spent £425 million on UC. £425 million spent by intelligent and experienced public servants and there is nothing to show for it.

Monday, 2 September 2013

You are for sale

The Financial Times have been doing a bit of investigative journalism. Health apps run into privacy snags, they said on 1 September 2013:
Before Celeste Steenburger takes off on her morning run, she taps the orange button on the MapMyRun app on her iPhone to track the exercise.

The 30-year-old office manager counts calories, logging the food she eats into a separate Lose It! app. When her menstrual cycle begins, she marks the details in the Period Tracker Lite app.

With each bit of health data Ms Steenburger records, third-party companies, some with names she has never heard of, are receiving information about her.