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.