Thursday, November 22, 2007


That could be a State secret.

Malcolm, at home base after a time in Yorkshire, watched Cameron 4 News ... sorry, simple mistake: Channel 4 News.

As usual Jon Snow was in the bricks-without-straw game, making "news" out of something recycled. Inevitably, it was the great "missing data disks" saga. This revealed ... precisely nothing that hadn't been in the papers already. (Malcolm's recent reading has been the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and--drum roll--the Yorkshire Post.)

It was cross-cut with a YouGov poll (as in "What do you want us to find, Guv?"). Well, inevitably there was a blurring of who did the polling, because one minute it's YouGov, but the next it's Cathy Newman insisting (on behalf of C4 News, presumably) that "We asked 1,600 people ..."

Who asked, Cathy? Was it you and C4, or an "independent" polling organisation? The confusion must be deliberate, because you are then saying the Tories now enjoy "the biggest lead Channel 4 pollsters have given" them. So, again, one must ask: are these figures reliable and independent, or are they what you contracted them to find?

But that isn't Malcolm's gripe.

This was an item appended to a major issue of data security. So, why, twice (once at the 7pm showing, then again at the hour-later repeat just to make sure), did Channnel 4 publicise the registration number of the Prime Minister's official car? Al-Qaeda operatives, please note: Channel 4 News need a headline story for next week.

All passion spent

The best piece on the "missing disks" yet is from Anatole Kaletsky in today's Times.

It is good because it is the first successful attempt to keep a cool head, be objective, and dispassionately apportion responsibility. Unlike Channel 4 News and the thundering herd of the Tory press, Kaletsky isn't just making hay.

He starts by setting out his stall:
What lessons should be drawn from the string of disasters suddenly befalling Gordon Brown and his unlucky successor as Chancellor, disasters that have demolished in two months the reputation for economic competence that the previous Blair-Brown Government took ten years to build up? I can think of four. The first is about proportionality. The second is about responsibility. The third is about focus and priorities. The fourth is about politics and a fatal flaw in Gordon Brown's personality that many people suspected all along.
The proportionality bit is a simple comparison; does the ordinary gal or guy get better service from an official or a commercial source. His opinion is that the UK Government's:
bureaucracies are now working more smoothly and dealing with customers more quickly than in the days before computerisation. They are generally more efficient and easier to deal with than similar agencies in America, Germany or France.

Moreover, they now compare quite well with comparable private sector bureaucracies such as telephone companies, utilities, banks or airlines. A phone call to the HMRC or the Passport Agency is probably as likely to be answered promptly — and by an employee who is both courteous and can offer a useful answer — as a similar call to a utility or bank.
Malcolm, with some scars to show for it, would wholly concur. He would also add that it's a heck of a lot cheaper to deal with Government than with the premium rate numbers used by business and commerce. Or those wicked 0844 numbers one now needs to telephone for a GP's appointment.

Kaletsky's second point is:
responsibility. A junior official at HMRC may have been directly culpable in the case of the missing discs, but true responsibility is clearly located farther up the hierarchy. What ought to be challenged is not the principle of computerising information, nor the decision to merge Revenue and Customs, nor the cuts in staff. The obvious problem lay in the way that HMRC computers were designed and managed, which would seem to pin the blame primarily on the computer boffins, many of them working for private consultants, rather than civil servants themselves.
The sad truth is that is a chronic failure, and one on which the columnists of Private Eye have been dining out for years (in the current issue, number 1198, four paragraphs on the NHS's IT on page 12, and a half-a-dozen on EDS and the NAO on page 27). Kaletsky's valid point is that the heads on the block should be the Civil Service's advisers on IT, and the contractors themselves.

He expands on the theme of responsibility, and makes it his third point "focus", with one of the most pertinent observations Malcolm has seen in a long while:
people and social institutions, including even bureaucracies such as the HMRC or the FSA, will only accept a certain amount of regulation and government interference. If attempts to interfere with everyday life pass beyond this threshold, then intelligent regulation can quickly degenerate into mindless box-ticking, which only distracts attention from real dangers.
This reminded Malcolm of a time, perhaps thirty years back, witnessing two older heads discussing a work problem. She explained to him how to circumvent a fire-wall in the organisation's computer system. They were both of mature years, nearing retirement. They were both employed by ... the Ministry of Defence. So the quotation immediately above should be enshrined as "Kaletsky's Law", for it explains all that is wrong with the National Curriculum, among much else.

Finally, Kaletsky turns to the politics of the whole caboodle, and addresses what he sees as:
Gordon Brown's fatal flaw. Instead of making big decisions about the essential functions of government — foreign policy, law and order, energy and environment — Mr Brown seems to have an irresistible urge for fidgety interventions in every aspect of everyday life — banning plastic bags, creating tax subsidies for cycle commuters, introducing identity cards, saving jobs at Northern Rock.

The more Mr Brown engages in such micro-management, the more he will be sucked into one fiasco after another. That way lies ridicule and political defeat.
That seems to Malcolm to cover much of the ground. The pity is that the media want a scapegoat for every eventuality. And it is clear whom, for the time being, they have nominated for the position. That is, until, the great soap-opera of British politics moves on ... Sphere: Related Content

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