Open contracts only so convenient for GOV.UK

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Global Witness campaign photo for Oil and Gas transparency programme.jpgUK corporations and government have slipped into a cosy understanding about the coalition's transparency policy.

The government had pledged to make its business dealings wholly accountable to members of the public. That meant publishing all its contracts in full. But it arranged instead to let corporations ignore transparency when it suited them.

Corporations had already begun publishing their public contracts in full when it suited their financial interests. It just hasn't suited those corporations that have been doing business with the UK.

It has suited them, however, when they've been doing business in sectors or countries with a reputation for corruption, where multinationals have been under pressure to prove they are kosher and there's a broader economic interest in making corporations accountable.

Tullow Oil plc, a British company that has become so committed to transparency, has for example seen fit to publish, in full, original, signed copies of contracts it makes with uppity African states where incessant war and corruption make visitors more careful of their manners.

Take the forthright transparency evident in the contract Tullow released for a 2006 deal to exploit the Tano deep water oil and gas reserves in Ghana. It makes the partial transparency managed by companies in the UK - most notably those companies that helped the coalition government engineer its transparency policy - seem a little lame in comparison.

The UK played a prominent role in the international initiative under which Tullow made its commitments to transparency. The story goes that this was for the sake of democratic accountability as much as financial necessity. Thus being both morally and financially righteous, the case for transparency left little room for exceptions.
The World Bank working group that developed the international initiative reckons there's no excuse for anything but full contract transparency in all but the most exceptional circumstances, regardless of whether a corporation operated in the political vacuum of an oil-rich war zone, or in amidst the political sophistication of a post-industrial democracy.

"No excuses"

There's no excuse, say transparency campaigners, because the full details of any contract are already known to anyone in the business world who cares to know them. The only people who don't know are the citizens who are ultimately subject to it.

Esther Duflo - Charles Kenny - David Leonhardt.png"Most contracts can be published without redaction," said Charles Kenny, academic overseer of the open contract initiative, in a report last November of the international Working Group on Contract Publication, where Tullow Oil is represented.

"As a practical matter, for large contracts ... the final provisions are known by hundreds of lawyers, advisers, financial consultants, and others.

"It is hard to imagine a competitor determined to know what was in the contract would have too much trouble finding out," he said.
Gavin Hayman, director of the Open Contracting Partnership, was spun out of the World Bank in January, told Computer Weekly it was perverse that the only people who couldn't see what corporations where doing were citizens.

"You can buy a lot of contracts online," he told Computer Weekly before he took up his post. "They cost a lot of money. But everyone knows exactly what's going on. [Corporations] are scrutinizing each other all the time. They all know what's going on," he said.

Hayman was previously director of Global Witness, a charity campaigning for "full transparency" of business in the mining, logging, oil and gas sectors.

"We believe the only way to protect peoples' rights to land, livelihoods and a fair share of their national wealth is to demand total transparency," the charity says on its website.
(Compromise)

The coalition government had originally applied the same principles to public sector business in the UK. But in a society where public bodies have been privatized persistently for forty years, much of what would be made accountable has been transferred to a domain beyond the reach of public power. The coalition primarily pledged transparency but primarily strove to do more privatization.

Though whether you think it motivated more by one or the other is a matter of perspective. One follows the other, if not perhaps as quickly or a surely.
But even those public services that remain under the public gaze have been held less accountable to it than they might, after the government came to its cosy understanding with business. For while less transparency was convenient in principle, it was inconvenient in practice.

Cabinet Office had allowed UK corporations to use exception clauses in the Freedom of Information Act to redact any information from their public contracts they deemed confidential.

Yet some experts say it became a chore for them to go through contracts and work out what they should redact, and for public bodies then to judge their redactions and challenge any differences. That may explain why certain redactions appear to have become routine.
Moreover, the coalition's transformation of public services into commoditized cloud computing utilities has caused public contracts to be simplified so much that they have become pamphlets listing standard terms-of-sale and otherwise redacted of their most distinguishing features such as pricing and people - arguably the most important details in a world where who gets paid what to do what by whom may say more about a public deal than anything else.

It seems then coalition policy increased corporate power over public life when it claimed to be striving to increasing public power over corporate affairs.

Its public contract transparency was enough to aid commerce, by turning basic information about the market into a market commodity, but not enough to make corporations fully accountable to members of the public.

It meanwhile put more public business into private hands where it wouldn't have to be transparent at all. Corporate interests determined what should be transparent and what not.

"Excuses"

This cushy corporate compromise was apparent when the Confederation of British Industry declared last year that public contracts should be published, "as long as the customer is happy for this to happen".
Private companies were believed to be behind the widespread redactions of open public contracts. But the CBI seemed to be suggesting it was government that wanted transparency curtailed.

Margaret Hodge MP - CROPPED.pngOthers supported this position. The international working group cited Margaret Hodge, chair of parliament's Public Accounts Committee: the redactions were typically made by government.
Cabinet Office guidance had actually said in 2012 the matter would be decided by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. It gave companies 23 possible "exemptions" from a demand they publish information. The government would get final discretion. Most of the exemptions were related to state security, diplomatic relations and national economic interests. Information would be redacted if it was in the national interest to keep some business arrangement secret.
But really, companies were making most of the redactions themselves. Of the two FOI exemptions most frequently used to justify them (when they bothered to give a reason at all), one would always be at the company's discretion. That was commercial confidentiality: i.e., anything they decided was in their commercial interests to keep secret. Public bodies might contest their decisions if they could really be bothered, or had time and money to do it.

The other was personal information: a routine exemption that led absurdly to Contracts Finder, the UK's public contracts register, being stripped of the names of people responsible for overseeing, designing and building public works. This was claimed to protect their privacy.
Either way, the CBI was applauded last year for coming out on the side of transparency and accountability, when really it came out only for transparency.
Remainders

Accountability was used to sell the policy to the public. But its purpose was to make markets more efficient by increasing the flows of information that made markets work well: basic information about the deals done, but not so much that private businesses would become fully accountable to the public.

Thumbnail image for David Cameron - Linn products HQ - East Renfrewshire - 3 MAY 2010 - Conservatives promotional picture.jpgPrime minister David Cameron had even emphasised accountability and commerce when he put the policy to the electorate; and dropped the accountability part of the spiel when he got settled into power (and had but to convince businesses it was good for them too).
This sort of commerce had also been the founding purpose of the World Bank, the "Bretton Woods" institution behind the international open contracting initiative: to open markets, to promote free trade.

It had a less accomodating view of redactions because national interests were different abroad, where corporations needed to extract vital minerals and resources. It was also relatively straightfoward, calling for full transparency in the primary industries. It would be a different matter back home, where information itself was becoming a tradable commodity along with the algorithms and even business relationships applied to it. Redactions were therefore becoming more likely back home, where it was in commercial interests, even though it the information economy would have greater implications for accounability.

That's not to say the initative pursued open markets at the expense of democratic accountability. One naturally begets the other, with exceptions.

Coalition c̶a̶b̶a̶l̶ network breached computer c̶a̶r̶t̶e̶l̶ state

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The coalition government sought to catalyze the dissolution of big public bodies by publishing their contracts.

It wanted ultimately to "transform" lumbering government departments employing lots of people in big call centres, turning them into into whizzy web apps that rendered most government jobs in software.

It would only do this if it could break open the big outsourcing deals the big government departments did with big contractors to run their national, public services. It would employ ecosystems of small, private tech companies to do the transformation. But first it had to break the public sector open so the interlopers could get in. Total contract transparency was part of the plan.

Some of the contractors who helped formulate its policy subsequently did well under its contracts. Only their contracts were redacted.

They assembled at the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, a think tank prime minister David Cameron launched in 2010. He used the launch to announce that he would reform government by publishing all public contracts "in-full".

Thumbnail image for Liam Maxwell.pngLed by Liam Maxwell, who subsequently became responsible for implementing coalition digital reforms as Cabinet Office's chief technology officer, this Post-Bureaucratic bunch insisted likewise that transparency must be "imposed" and "enforced" on public contracts. This was set out in their September 2010 report, "Better for Less" - effectively a blueprint for the ICT Strategy that would spearhead the coalition reform programme, issued in March 2011.

Jerry Fishenden.png Maxwell's co-authors all subsequently helped him implement the coalition's computer-led reforms: Jerry Fishenden, Cabinet Office advisor and LSE academic who worked with Maxwell as deputy government CIO, and who organised and wrote the Public Administration Select Committee hearings and report in 2011 that generated the resonant but insubstantial accusation that the public sector ICT industry was corrupt and therefore needed urgent reform;

Jonathan Sowler.pngJonathan Sowler, who worked with Fishenden on strategy at Microsoft before 2010, and who then joined Methods Consulting, a principle contracting firm for the Cabinet Office's digital transformation programme;

Peter Rowlins.png Peter Rowlins and Mark Thompson, owners of Methods, the latter an architect of the coalitionMark Thompson.png reform programme as advisor to chancellor-to-be George Osborne before the 2010 election, and Cabinet Office advisor after it - he also articulated the policy in numerous papers he co-wrote, as a Cambridge University business school lecturer, with Fishenden;

Simon Wardley.pngSimon Wardley, a consultant to the Cabinet Office through the Computer Sciences Corporation's Leading Edge Forum advisory group, and one of the foremost public advocates of the coalition-flavoured model of computing;
William Heath.png
and William Heath, chairman of Mydex, an identity software company that helped formulate the coalition's Identity Assurance Scheme and then won a place on its £25m pilot contract in 2013.
This lot demanded public contracts be published in full. But Maxwell wasn't quite as strict about their own public contracts.

His Cabinet Office published its contract with Mydex in 2012 only after redacting the names of directors and civil servants involved in the deal. Mydex was subsequently lined-up for a place on the £150m Verify framework, the successor to the ID Assurance scheme trial.

IDA, the coalition's replacement for the last government's dreaded Identity Cards Scheme, was the keystone of all its reforms: it couldn't automate government if it didn't also have an automated way of identifying people who used its automated government services. Maxwell's colleagues all coincidentally shared a professional interest in such systems.
Contracts

Mydex was a shoe-in for a place on the £150m framework contract, having helped design the coalition ID scheme, and being one of a few pioneers in the world of the principles behind it. The other trial companies were all expected to get places too when Cabinet Office finalised the deal this month.
Thumbnail image for William Heath.pngBut this all changed at the end of March, while Computer Weekly was resarchng the NpBA cabal network. Cabinet Office issued a jaw-dropping announcement: Mydex was not getting a place on the £150m Verify framework after all.

It was unprecedented for any government department to renounce a supplier from a contract before its award was announced. It was surely unprecedented for government to renounce a supplier from a contract at all?
"Mydex CIC has been an important partner for GOV.UK Verify and, although it will no longer be one of the certified identity providers, that partnership is ongoing", said the Cabinet Office statement.

"Mydex goals remain aligned with HMG policy," it said. Mydex would continue developing identical systems "alongside" the UK government contract as well. It just wouldn't be on the contract anymore. It neglected to say why.
Recession

Maxwell imposed transparency but loosely again when his department gave his compadres at Methods Consulting a place with 65 other suppliers on its £2bn ConsultancyOne framework in 2013. Contracts Finder recorded the deal with blank, generic framework templates.

Peter Rowlins.pngThompson and Rowlins did well out of it because they restructured Methods, pre-empting the policy changes they had helped Cameron's government devise.

Mark Thompson.pngThey had in 2009 been on a similar 3-year, £500m ICT Consultancy framework with 23 other suppliers.

But their business was crushed by a freeze Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude put on IT spending in 2010 while he prepared to implement Thomson's reforms, and while Fishenden prepared the way with his racket about a cartel.

Methods Consulting 2012 Accounts.pngMethods' revenue dropped from £54.9m in 2009 to £28.7m in 2012 after Maude's freeze bit, according to their annual accounts registered with Companies House. Methods reacted boldly to this crisis: by almost halving to 21 people the administration, sales and marketing staff who had formed its entire workforce, and replacing them with twice the number of consultants.

Since Methods applied for a place on the £2bn ConsultancyOne contract at the start of 2012, it hired 42 hand-picked consultants, doubling its staff from pre-downturn levels. It got a place, and its public sector income subsequently jumped 60 per cent, back to pre-downturn levels, at £46m.

Thompson and Rowlins bragged in Methods' annual reports how Cabinet Office reforms called for just the sort of thing their business was geared up to do.
That was "scalable, commoditised computing" - the same thing CSC and Mydex were geared up for as well.

Also known as cloud computing, it was what government services would become when they had been transformed by the coalition and its network of advisers: vast, remote data centres run by the likes of CSC would host software produced by the likes of Mydex to run government services previously administered manually by civil servants.
Oligopoly

The Cabinet Office would bring this new regime about by establishing its G-Cloud procurement system. This was a digitally-enhanced framework contract that would create a quasi-marketplace of pre-vetted suppliers whose cloud services could be "pulled off" as though from a picture book of haircuts in a barbershop.

Cloud computing itself would involve delivering commodity computer services over the wire. It would be like the difference between getting a haircut at a salon or picking a style from a picture of prefabricated wigs.

Along with contract transparency and some technological reforms, these were the fundamentals of the coalition plan to create a vigorous market for public services.
The technological reforms were open source software, open standards and open data. The first two would, theoretically, stop companies using their software to gain control of the market by claiming property rights over the software people used, then dictating the terms on which people's software communicated, and then hiking up rents to gluttonous levels. Osborne and his NpBA advisers had diagnosed this as the source of problems the government had with big computer systems.
They proposed that open standards and open data would allow them to disrupt the "ICT oligopoly" - 18 companies, it reckoned, who dominated public sector computing - not because 18 was as many as the market for big government contracts could sustain - but because their own nefarious software had closed the market to any competitors.
They would correct this apparent injustice by creating a kind of perfect competition: the nirvana of free-market economic theory where no companies could set themselves up as a gluttonous oligopoly because market conditions would always make it easy for any competitors who fancied having a go.
Open contracts, cloud computing and the G-Cloud procurement framework were text-book examples of the conditions you would need for a perfect market:

full market information, so everyone could see what everyone else was up to, with who and for how much;
having many suppliers would prevent wannabe oligopolists from exploiting their power to earn more money than anyone else;
the technological reforms would make it easy for anybody to join the market if they wanted;
and cloud computing would remove any distinctions between them.

It would created a totally "level playing field".
Thus by the laws of economics, the public sector would become a place where innovative young entrepreneurs would thrive. The large contractors who usually got government work would be forced to make their software assets open, so anyone who fancied muscling in on their business could just come and have a go. And the competition would surely become intense because their competitors would see their juicy contract prices and undercut them.
Accordingly, when Methods got a place on the £200m G-Cloud 6 framework contract in February, it did so not with 65 other suppliers as before but with about 1400. It got a place on the Cabinet Office's £40m Digital Services framework as well, with 173 other suppliers.

This is what Cameron and Osborne promised their reforms would deliver: the difference between a stagnant pond with a few prize, hand-fed carp and a dynamic ecosystem churning with oxygen and healthy food-chain rough-and-tumble.

That's what they offered on the face of it. But from another perspective they were merely continuing a programme of privatization begun by prior Conservative governments - and most especially Margaret Thatcher's government of 1983. You can read about that <here>. 

Oxford experts erased from public spending records

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The coalition government's habitual redactions of crucial information from major contracts is seriously contrary to declared transparency policy. But its redactions can also get a bit silly.

Take Cabinet Office, government department responsible for implementing the coalition's transparency policy. It published a contract it is signed with the Oxford Saïd Business School in January 2012 to establish a Major Projects Leadership Academy, for teaching civil servants not to bodge big public projects.

But it published only after redacting the names of project directors and big cheeses who would run the school, even though most of them could be identified easily enough by looking them up on the internet.

The A-Team included:

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], executive director of the BT Centre for Major Programme Management at Oxford Saïd Business School;

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], the BT Professor and Chair of Major Programme Management at Saïd Business School;

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], BT Saïd's practitioner director and president of Major Government Programmes at US conglomerate CH2M Hill.

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], a Partner at Deloitte who "leads our Programme Leadership practice" and "has led some of the most complex projects in Government, including for the [Redacted Text] and [Redacted Text]"

It also lined up:

Einstein.png [Redacted Text],  "former permanent secretary of the [Redacted Text] and senior advisor to [Redacted Text]". Also well known as distinguished chairman of [Redacted Text], and former chairman of of [Redacted Text].

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], "internationally renowned" author of "bestselling book [Redacted Text]", otherwise known as professor of Risk Engineering at New York University Polytechnic Institute & Distinguished Research Scholar, Saïd

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], "Chairman of [Redacted Text] from its establishment in April 2005 to the end of August 2006... previously Managing Director for [Redacted Text], Chief Executive [Redacted Text] and Chairman of [Redacted Text]".

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], "Chief Executive of [Redacted Text]", "directed the strategy unit at the [Redacted Text], working with Ministers on [Redacted Text]", also renowned author of reports on health leadership.

Anyone would think them embarrassed to take public money. Cabinet Office redacted their public fees too, and pricing and milestone payments for the public Academy as a whole.

Anyone would think them embarrassed to take public money. Cabinet Office redacted their public fees too, and pricing and milestone payments for the public Academy as a whole.

Public sector

This Oxford [bunch] were concerned, however, with major projects the coalition's transparency reforms sought to dismantle. By the government's reckoning, their generation was on the way out.

Advised largely by a Cambridge bunch, the Conservative coalition leadership sought to publish public contracts to catalyze the dissolution of big public bodies. Total transparency was going to make it easier for a new generation of government contractors to take over. They did stage a take-over too, the Cambridge bunch. But they had their contracts [Redacted] too.

That's a whole other story though. You can read the rest of it <here>.

Maude's ginger radicals staged 80s revival

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Francis Maude.jpgSoon after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude began his parliamentary career in 1983, he co-founded a group of Conservative MPs whose ideas where so pariahic they dubbed themselves the gingers.

This  "No Turning Back" group wanted to privatize the National Health Service and hand its financial control over to the insurance industry. They wanted to privatize schools and what there was of public housing. But their demands were too radical even for Margaret Thatcher, who was then privatizing the public industries.

Maude's ginger radicals were determined. And they were satisfied in the end. Their campaign came to fruition nearly 30 years later, in David Cameron's "digital transformation" of public services. Maude engineered Cameron's leadership and then took personal responsibility for implementing his transformation policy.

Cameron's Thatcherite government was moreover the culmination of Maude's career. He had quickly progressed from pariah to establishment. He led the Conservative privatization programme as chief secretary to the Treasury for prime minister John Major in the early 1990s. After losing his seat in parliament, he became global head of privatization at Morgan Stanley investment bank, and carried on working on UK privatization as paid adviser. Later as Conservative Party chairman he got Cameron into power. And so it comes round again.

No Turning Back

His transformation of government was effectively privatization through automation: since the public services consisted primarily of services delivered by people, their automation, along with the public release of data they used to use to do their jobs, and the open sourcing of any software now used to do their jobs, would create conditions for private companies to step into to any public service shoes they fancied. It was a programme to replace public services with the free market.

It had always been about Freedom. Maude himself championed Freedom of Information when running privatization for John Major.

FOI later  became a method for journalists and right-wing campaigners to find evidence in public records of "waste and inefficiency", to use a catchphrase from the Conservative privatization programme of the 1980s.

Edward Leigh.pngThe cacophony of derision was amplified by Edward Leigh, a founding member with Maude of the No Turning radicals. Leigh prepared the way for Maude's 2010 reforms with parliament's Public Accounts Committee. As committee chair before 2010, he portrayed the complexity of big public sector IT projects - especially the NHS National Programme for IT - as an inherent source of needless waste and inefficiency.

Nevermind that it was inherent to such systems as were required to support tens of thousands of staff in spawling public organisations, administering national public services to millions of people, that their costs would naturally be gargantuan, and that any cost over-runs would be of such a scale as to seem outrageous. The coalition said the problem was IT. It's solution was on the face of it, to fix the IT. But really it was to get rid of people, and to get rid of national public services.

Jerry Fishenden.pngBernard Jenkin.pngBernard Jenkin, another No Turning radical, became chair of the Public Administration Select Committee after his government came to power in 2010. He paved the way for Maude's reforms with the 2011 Fishenden hearings that established in the public imagination the misconception that large government IT suppliers were corrupt, in some vague way that was never substantiated.

Iain Duncan Smith.pngIain Duncan Smith, yet another No Turning radical, coincidentally made such a bodge of building the Universal Credit social security system as Maude's Cameron's minister for work and pensions that he proved the case against big government IT once and for all.

His failure put modernization of the Department for Work and Pensions back nearly a decade. If Universal Credit had gone to plan it would have turned DWP into a fortress of public power. As it happened, his bodge made DWP vulnerable to dissolution as well. Embarrassingly for Maude, his Cabinet Office was largely responsible for Smith's bodge. And his government has reduced wealth redistribution so much as to make Universal Credit almost untenable.

Gangsters Politicians Business men

The outcome of all this was widespread belief that big public sector IT projects were corrupt, expensive, inefficient and bodged.

It was like a bunch of gangsters had got hold of a fat old shop keeper and roughed him up a bit before planting some evidence he was a paedophile and calling the local newspaper, while their bulldozers waited round the corner with their engines running, and an architect stood by with his plans for a casino and shopping mall complex.

There was no real opposition to the coalition's automation of the public sector. Nobody even knew what they were doing till it was too late to turn it back.

But as computing technology proliferated, so did support for the coalition's digital transformation, especially among the twitter-literate ecosystems of small companies most likely to benefit from it. The public sector's po-faced corporate façade was still so 1950s when the coalition came to power. The networked age made some form of epoch-changing restructure inevitable. Automation was inevitable, at least.

The question of whether the rest of the coalition's digital transformation privatization of public services was inevitable - that's a bigger story. You can read it in full <here>.

Thatcher reborn in digital tr̶a̶n̶s̶f̶o̶r̶m̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ privatization

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Margaret Thatcher with Union Jack Background.pngThe coalition government's "digital transformation" of public services continued a programme of privatization begun by prior Conservative governments - most especially Margaret Thatcher's government of 1983.

Its big idea was to replace the big suppliers who did most public sector IT with an ecosystem of SMEs.

Having discredited the big suppliers with a vague accusation of corruption, it set about usurping them and the big government departments held up by their systems. Its alternative would be like the difference between a stagnant pond with a few prize, hand-fed carp and a dynamic ecosystem churning with oxygen and healthy food-chain rough-and-tumble.

That's what they offered on the face of it. From another perspective it continued work begun in earnest by Margaret Thatcher's government of 1983.

The coalition's recent reforms were similar to the privatization programme of the 80s and 90s - not least because coalition Cabinet minister Francis Maude had played a central part in both. They were both also driven by the same powerful forces: technology and globalization.

The consequences then as now: restructuring, mass unemployment, a constriction of public ownership, innovation, and piles of money for a fortunate few. The vision: dismantling public industries (then) and public services (now) would release immense energy and resources to form a creative chaos from which innovation would grow.

ZX Spectrum 48K.pngThe role model for this was one of the most proud and most innovative moments of modern British history. That was the ZX Spectrum, the home computer beloved of children from prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne's generation in the early 1980s.

( If you were fortunate enough to do home computing in the 80s, you might be amused to consider the irony of the Conservative leadership coming from families who probably used snooty BBC Micro home computer (an over-priced work of public sector perfection); while Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed earlier this month a childhood love for the down and dirty free-market funbox, the ZX Spectrum.)
Cameron's government had devised for public services the same kind of innovative ecosystem that had distinguished the ZX Spectrum from its rivals.

The Spectrum nurtured a thriving ecosystem of computer games publishers because it was easy for anyone to have a go. The computer itself had been cheap and cheerful, so lots of people bought it and instructional media flourished. Plucky nerds were encouraged to write games for it because its software was distributed on cheap audio cassette tapes; and Sinclair Research, its manufacturer, put no conditions on people producing software. So the market for Spectrum software thrived.

Jobs Computers

Sir Clive Sinclair.pngSir Clive Sinclair, its inventor, even had a vision of the future that foreshadowed the coalition's dissolution of the public services. It was a vision of computer automation, mass unemployment, ecosystems of small, innovative companies, and vast concentrations of personal wealth.

He described it to a meeting of Mensa, the society for clever people of which he was chairman, at Cambridge University, six months after he launched the ZX Spectrum in 1982.

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"We have been passing through a great industrial age in which the economic basis of society has demanded the bringing together of people in great numbers, many thousands per factory, many millions per city," he said.

He was speaking at a time when global recession had made three million British unemployed

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"This is not a passing phase of recession, but a trend which will last until the end of the century, during which I expect the manufacturing industry to shed a further seven million jobs and for the proportion employed in manufacturing to decline from some 42 per cent of the population to less than 10 per cent."

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"This will occur as automated systems are now radically cheaper than manual costs," he said.
Sir Clive Sinclair.png"We must change the pattern of expectation - no longer to prepare people for a life-time's work in major organisations but to give them the self-reliance for a broader role in smaller groups.

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"Many, if not all, of today's young people will always work for small organisations and indeed must found them. We must encourage people to follow this route if we are to create future employment," he said.

Manufacturing Manufacturing

UK Manufacturing Employment - 1980 - 2003 - PWC - Eurostat.pngSinclair's prediction about manufacturing employment was close enough. But though he was unhappy about the corresponding unemployment, there was not much anyone could do to stop it.

Francis Maude.jpgBecause at that moment Francis Maude, the minister who engineered Cameron's premiership, was preparing to stand in the 1983 general election that would introduce him to parliament and launch him on a career dedicated to hastening industrial transformation by privatizing public industries.

He quickly became one of its most radical agitators, pushing for the NHS and schools to be privatized as well, at a time when the idea was so radical that even Margaret Thatcher wouldn't stomach it.

In the midst of a global recession, their government embarked instead on a more modest programme to privatize public-owned industries:

UK Manufacturing Employment and Productivity - 1979 to 2007 - PWC - Office for National Statistics.pngRolls-Royce, British Steel, British Leyland, the Royal Ordnance Factories.

Also British Gas, British Telecom, British Ports, British Airways, the National Bus Company, the National Freight Corporation, the regional water utilities and so on.

And before 1983: British Aerospace, Britoil, Cable & Wireless, chemicals manufacturer Amersham International and, among the very first in 1979, International Computers Limited (ICL).

UK Manufacturing Gross Value Added - 1958 to 2007 - PWC - Office of National Statistics.png
British manufacturing had been in decline, relative to the rest of the economy, since the US-led Bretton Woods reforms of 1944 did for the world economic system what Cameron has done more recently with public services: it broke the existing regime open so anybody could have a go.

That meant opportunities for US companies to trade where British industry had dominated. But it meant opportunities too for other countries to increase their manufacturing exports.


UK Manufacturing as percentage of gross value added - GVA - PWC - Office of National Statistics.pngBritish manufacturers had grown accustomed to privileged trading terms within the British Empire. Their exports were bound to decline, from dominance to something more mutual.

Competition subsequently encouraged comfy British companies to invest in cheap production oversees.

By the 80s, computers and communications were hastening their transformation from national colonial industries into multinational corporations.
UK Conservative Party prime ministers - 1970 to 2015.pngNow amidst another global recession, the technologies of automation have begun to encroach again - this time on the remaining arms of public services and administration.
The prime minister - Cameron - proposed using these forces to open up the market for public services. But really he meant to turn what remained of public services into a market. Or Maude saw that he did, anyway. You can read more about that <here>. But even that is only part of the story about the coalition's scheme to privatize the public services. You can read the full story <here>.






Labour plan to save NHS defies tech-driven doom

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Alphonse de Neuville - The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879 - CROPPED.pngTechnology threatens to disrupt NHS institutions and hasten their privatisation. Yet the Labour Party reckons it has a plan to "save the NHS". It had better be a good one.

It wasn't entirely convincing when Labour leader Ed Miliband sketched it out in a speech yesterday.

Step one of the NHS rescue involved hiring more nurses and doctors. Yet the NHS' doom will be wrought by automation. Nursing and other NHS jobs will be replaced by computers. Future governments will be forced to cut staff not hire them.

The coming technological disruption will be so profound that scarce hospital beds will become surplus. Visitors will find hospital car parks have spaces. There'll be fewer patients to visit when they get there. There will be less need for hospitals at all, and not much call for administrators and managers to run them.

The coalition government began this process in 2012 with a scheme to create ways to automate patient care using computers. It's "3million Lives" trial targeted 15m patients with long-term illnesses who accounted for over 70 per cent of all hospital beds and half of all GP appointments.

Telecare

The trial developed rapidly, its potential extending beyond those 15m long-termers. Just three years ago it had been concerned only with "Telehealth" and "Telecare" - systems that use surveillance sensors to monitor people's health and environment so that if, say, their heart rate started going awry or they slipped and fell in the bath, a nurse or care-worker would be alerted.

The idea was to make it feasible for people to stay at home instead of hospital, and to plug them into the internet with devices that monitored their physiology so the constant vigil of a dedicated team of nurses wouldn't be necessary. Instead of ten hospitals with beds and carers, you would have one telecare centre that monitored patients in homes across ten regions, like a CCTV security hub with banks of monitor screens.

By September last year, when NHS England announced its trial had become a full-blown programme, technology had advanced so rapidly that "telehealth and telecare" had become "telehealth, telecare, telemedicine, telecoaching and self-care apps".

NHS England Medical Director Bruce Keogh at Institute for Government conference with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude 2 - date uncertain - CROPPED.png"This is the future of healthcare," Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS medical director declared in September, when the NHS turned its "3million Lives" trial into the Technology-Enabled Care Services (TECS) programme.

"Imagine .. a smart phone .. coupled with wearable biosensors and capable of sensing, analysing and displaying vital signs and alerting you and your clinicians to significant changes or deterioration wherever you are, rather than through check-ups at a hospital or GP practice," said Keogh.

Imagine also the effect this would have on the NHS. The trial had been justified by the amount of money it would save: people with long term illnesses account for 70 per cent of all spending on health and social care as well as all beds. Its proposed solution was to automate the long-term care of people in both health and social care, implying how technology would cause the services to merge.

Braun ExactFit 5 - BP6200 Upper arm blood pressure monitor.pngBut that is just one way technological change will force restructure on the NHS in coming years. Shops such as Boots have already started stocking such monitoring devices as Keogh described. Part of the sales pitch for smart watches is their potential as health monitors.

Technology will make it easy for multinational corporations to set up in competition to the NHS. No private sector interloper would have had a chance setting up a national care service in competition with the NHS' network of hospitals and clinics in an age when you needed enough hospital beds and carers to care for 15m people with long-term illnesses. But anyone can distribute gadgets and software. And anyone can buy them, if they can afford it. It will be so tempting for wealthy people to buy their own health-tech that the dissolution of the NHS will be certain. It might be gradual. It might not even be total. But it is already happening.

Privatisation

Hospitals might even break up, not because of some top down reorganisation, but because their labour-intensive services would gradually be divided among suppliers of different automating technologies. Different multinational corporations would develop different specialities. The international division of labour that characterised the decline of British manufacturing, and has been gradually repeated in the public industries since the early 70s, is being repeated now in other public services such as health.

Politicians' pledges to protect the NHS must then surely be empty, unless they mean to slow its dissolution for another 40 years. Granted, you have to hire nurses in the meantime. But how many would you need to hire to really make a difference?

Ed Miliband's pledge to hire 20,000 nurses sounded like a lot. It probably was incredible. The NHS had been recruiting almost as many nurses every six months in recent years of relatively low-recruitment. It's also around the same number (from around 350,000 in total) who leave the service every year, due to retirement and other reasons.

Pledges to "save the NHS" seem empty all the while they fail to address the technological threat, and to lay out concrete plans for an alternative: something to work towards rather than merely something to hope for.
Ed Miliband MP at the Guardian and London School of Economics and Political Science conference Reading the Riots - 14th December 2011.pngThe question then is whether Miliband sees the coming technological dissolution of the NHS, but understands it will be gradual, so intends to fight his election campaigns over that thing we still call the NHS - and will remain so, until that time when people have begun to notice, over the tops of their mobile phone health monitors, that its has become but a rump and a reminder of past days. That would assume his policy is something of a charade. Perhaps though he is determined to try to find some innovative way to keep public services in public ownership - to fight doggedly down whatever path he can find without quite knowing where it leads.

Wearable Medical Technology - CROPPED.pngWhile he's fighting that battle, his next-door neighbour one side will be splashing out on a state-of-the-art gene-hormone-state monitor with patented micro-regenerative drug administration guaranteed to combat 90 per cent of known diseases. His neighbour on the other side will have invested in a private insurance policy to get pioneering organ replacements not usually available on the national insurance, and will be in front of you and me in the queue whenever he does need an NHS hospital.

Prime minister David Cameron, who has come out in favour of the NHS after his government already did so much to hasten its dissolution, will meanwhile still be bragging the NHS was "free at the point of use", when anyone with any extra money was paying it into their own, private health schemes.

Freemium

And though anyone who depended solely on the NHS might still get it free, what they got would hardly accord with the principles of equality and solidarity on which the service was founded. It would accord with the principle that who paid most got the best service. And the principle of the knackers yard for everyone else.

Those of our leaders would who would protect the NHS or "save" it - which is about all of them - have not proposed legislation to stop people using private health insurance schemes, to ensure all would be treated equally regardless of their ability to pay.

Even if they did, where would they draw the line on a nose job, a boob job, a last-ditch attempt by desperate parents who would sell their own home to save an only-child's life, or a Chinese brain-health monitoring centre that used premium-priced patented software technology to fine-tune your neurochemicals according to the circumstances you were in?
Miliband proposed to refashion the NHS by the principles of "care, compassion and co-operation", instead of "competition, fragmentation and privatisation".

Number of UK Private Medical Insurance Subscribers and people covered - by sector - 2008 to 2013 - Mintel - OCT 2013.jpgBut it was not clear how he intended to achieve this. Roughly 16 per cent of British adults have private medical insurance, by a reckoning market research agency Mintel did in October 2013. (To be precise, that was 16 per cent of adult internet users). Their policies covered about 8.8m people, if you count the family members covered by their insurance plans (about 3.2m people if you count policy holders alone). Their numbers dropped by a million since the crash in 2008 - about 10 per cent. Medical inflation put people off in the downturn. But their numbers exhibit a taste for fragmentation.

The coalition government's Health and Social Care Act meanwhile removed the structural framework that held the NHS together, creating the conditions for competition, fragmentation and privatisation: just the conditions for a free market in healthcare services where health-tech innovators would seemingly flourish.
Markets

The Labour Party plan to save the NHS pledged to revoke that Act and, presumably, reverse those reforms. Yet Miliband's party office was unable to say by what mechanism such a reversal would save the NHS.

The coalition's dissolution of the structural framework has seemed irreversible. It effectively transferred commissioning power from hospitals and regions to GP surgeries, who have been coagulating into purchasing consortia and potentially conglomerates. In their hands, health services would migrate more rapidly from labour-intensive hospitals to multinational telemedicine corporations.

The old structural framework was reformed into a state that seemed more amenable to its gradual atrophy, like a redundant organ snipped and left to its own devices. GP consortia were supposed to carry on using the old structure as a professional service for procuring the health services they would give to their patients. But they have been just as inclined to do it themselves or to employ professional services firms instead.

The market for health services has been thrown right open just at the point when med-tech services are starting to emerge. Given the choice of buying expensive hospital beds or a commoditized telehealth service, those private businesses otherwise known as GP practices are not likely to choose the more expensive option just because it is public and employs nurses.
The Labour Party, if it intended to reverse the Act, would have to make a stand against healthcare markets, and against the powerful forces of technology and globalisation that appear to have made the fragmentation of the big public health bodies inevitable. If it fails to articulate a substantial alternative, is that because it is false or because it is hopeful?
And what if the Labour Party had no hope of reversing the market, of controlling the global forces that make technological innovation happen, and of determining the patterns by which technology was distributed?
Unless healthcare tech, by liberating health data from the old, closed health institutions, created the conditions for innovation within the NHS as well as without it.

Ownership

Perhaps there would still be hope for public ownership - and equality at the point of use - if there were public technologies.

Not public services (a phrase for an age when public services were manned and delivered by people). But public technologies, which could compete on the open market as viable alternatives to the global health-tech corporations.

Such an alternative could be public investment in open source technologies of the sort Cameron's government originally proposed as the basis of its 2010 plan to reform computer systems in the NHS. But Cameron didn't seem to be serious about open source except as a way of breaking the public sector open to competition.

A genuine open source policy would have involved creating international collaboration between public health bodies, pooling their resources to create health technologies good enough to compete with the emerging telemedicine multinationals. It would be the med-tech equivalent to Microsoft and Linux.

Linux demonstrated that it was possible to create an international collaborative product of software and science dedicated solely to the public good, and over which the public held the rights.

Such open source med-tech - owned by everyone and no-one - would form the basis not of a national health service, but an international one - a permanent basis for a 21st Century public sector: a digital commons that must be grown as vigorously with as wide a variety of innovators as any global market could muster if it is to keep up and the public sphere be sustained in the digital age.

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Transparency reform leaves names redacted"> | More
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If Contracts Finder had operated in the 19th Century it would have credited the Great Western Railway not to Isambard Kingdom Brunel but to [Redacted].

A website the coalition built to fulfill its transparency pledge in 2011, Contracts Finder was supposed to carry copies of public contracts with private companies. But they were heavily redacted when they were there at all.

Take for example the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project.

DCMS actually did publish its June 2013 contract with Arqiva on Contracts Finder. But only after redacting the sort of details you have a transparency initiative to avoid being redacted in the first place:


Large land portfolio owners paid under the scheme land agents land rental terms & trends tactics for dealing with local authorities grant awards past local consultations costs  strategies to control rents, transmission & power costs targets business rate reductions risks and risk mitigation plans systems employed problem escalation schedule key personnel  concept drawings project plans number of sites for mobile masts partners used to locate sites contract signatories ...

Seriously contrary to declared policy, such redactions could also be silly. Take Cabinet Office, government department responsible for implementing the coalition's transparency policy. It published a contract it is signed with the Oxford Saïd Business School in January 2012 to establish a Major Projects Leadership Academy, for teaching civil servants not to bodge big public projects.

But it published only after redacting the names of project directors and big cheeses who would run the school, even though most of them could be identified easily enough by looking them up on the internet.

The A-Team included:

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], executive director of the BT Centre for Major Programme Management at Oxford Saïd Business School;

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], the BT Professor and Chair of Major Programme Management at Saïd Business School;

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], BT Saïd's practitioner director and president of Major Government Programmes at US conglomerate CH2M Hill.

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], a Partner at Deloitte who "leads our Programme Leadership practice" and "has led some of the most complex projects in Government, including for the [Redacted Text] and [Redacted Text]"

It also lined up:

Einstein.png [Redacted Text],  "former permanent secretary of the [Redacted Text] and senior advisor to [Redacted Text]". Also well known as distinguished chairman of [Redacted Text], and former chairman of of [Redacted Text].

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], "internationally renowned" author of "bestselling book [Redacted Text]", otherwise known as professor of Risk Engineering at New York University Polytechnic Institute & Distinguished Research Scholar, Saïd

Einstein.png [Redacted Text], "Chairman of [Redacted Text] from its establishment in April 2005 to the end of August 2006... previously Managing Director for [Redacted Text], Chief Executive [Redacted Text] and Chairman of [Redacted Text]".

Einstein.png[Redacted Text], "Chief Executive of [Redacted Text]", "directed the strategy unit at the [Redacted Text], working with Ministers on [Redacted Text]", also renowned author of reports on health leadership.

Anyone would think them embarrassed to take public money. Cabinet Office redacted their public fees too, and pricing and milestone payments for the public Academy as a whole.

Public sector

This Oxford [bunch] were concerned, however, with major projects the coalition's transparency reforms sought to dismantle. By the government's reckoning, their generation was on the way out.

Advised largely by a Cambridge bunch, the Conservative coalition leadership sought to publish public contracts to catalyze the dissolution of big public bodies - though they didn't quite put it that way. They wanted to "transform" lumbering government departments employing lots of people in big call centres, turning them into into whizzy web apps that rendered most government jobs in software. But they said they proposed openness as a means of encouraging public accountability and private enterprise.

The big idea was that a ready supply of information about big public contracts (complimented by the wide release of public data anyone would need to take over public services) would become market intelligence to nurture ecosystems of small, private tech companies, who would rise up to usurp the big contractors usually employed to run big ventures for big departments.

Cabal Network

UK Conservative Party prime ministers - 1970 to 2015.pngAs it happened, some private contractors who helped formulate and promote this policy would subsequently do well under its [Redacted] contracts. They assembled at the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age, a think tank prime minister David Cameron launched in 2010. He used the launch to announce that he would reform government by publishing all public contracts "in-full".

Thumbnail image for Liam Maxwell.pngLed by Liam Maxwell, who subsequently became responsible for implementing coalition digital reforms as Cabinet Office's chief technology officer, this Post-Bureaucratic bunch insisted likewise that transparency must be "imposed" and "enforced" on public contracts. This was set out in their September 2010 report, "Better for Less" - effectively a blueprint for the ICT Strategy that would spearhead the coalition reform programme, issued in March 2011.

Jerry Fishenden.png Maxwell's co-authors all subsequently helped him implement the coalition's computer-led reforms: Jerry Fishenden, Cabinet Office advisor and LSE academic who worked with Maxwell as deputy government CIO, and who organised and wrote the Public Administration Select Committee hearings and report in 2011 that generated the resonant but insubstantial accusation that the public sector ICT industry was corrupt and therefore needed urgent reform;

Jonathan Sowler.pngJonathan Sowler, who worked with Fishenden on strategy at Microsoft before 2010, and who then joined Methods Consulting, a principle contracting firm for the Cabinet Office's digital transformation programme;

Peter Rowlins.png Peter Rowlins and Mark Thompson, owners of Methods, the latter an architect of the coalitionMark Thompson.png reform programme as advisor to chancellor-to-be George Osborne before the 2010 election, and Cabinet Office advisor after it - he also articulated the policy in numerous papers he co-wrote, as a Cambridge University business school lecturer, with Fishenden;

Simon Wardley.pngSimon Wardley, a consultant to the Cabinet Office through the Computer Sciences Corporation's Leading Edge Forum advisory group, and one of the foremost public advocates of the coalition-flavoured model of computing;
William Heath.png
and William Heath, chairman of Mydex, an identity software company that helped formulate the coalition's Identity Assurance Scheme and then won a place on its £25m pilot contract in 2013.
This lot demanded public contracts be published in full. But Maxwell wasn't quite as strict about their own public contracts.

His Cabinet Office published its contract with Mydex in 2012 only after redacting the names of directors and civil servants involved in the deal. Mydex was subsequently lined-up for a place on the £150m Verify framework, the successor to the ID Assurance scheme trial.

IDA, the coalition's replacement for the last government's dreaded Identity Cards Scheme, was the keystone of all its reforms: it couldn't automate government if it didn't also have an automated way of identifying people who used its automated government services. Maxwell's colleagues all coincidentally shared a professional interest in such systems.
Contracts

Mydex was a shoe-in for a place on the £150m framework contract, having helped design the coalition ID scheme, and being one of a few pioneers in the world of the principles behind it. The other trial companies were all expected to get places too when Cabinet Office finalised the deal this month.
Thumbnail image for William Heath.pngBut this all changed at the end of March, while Computer Weekly was resarchng the NpBA cabal network. Cabinet Office issued a jaw-dropping announcement: Mydex was not getting a place on the £150m Verify framework after all.

It was unprecedented for any government department to renounce a supplier from a contract before its award was announced. It was surely unprecedented for government to renounce a supplier from a contract at all?
"Mydex CIC has been an important partner for GOV.UK Verify and, although it will no longer be one of the certified identity providers, that partnership is ongoing", said the Cabinet Office statement.

"Mydex goals remain aligned with HMG policy," it said. Mydex would continue developing identical systems "alongside" the UK government contract as well. It just wouldn't be on the contract anymore. It neglected to say why.
Recession

Maxwell imposed transparency but loosely again when his department gave his compadres at Methods Consulting a place with 65 other suppliers on its £2bn ConsultancyOne framework in 2013. Contracts Finder recorded the deal with blank, generic framework templates.

Peter Rowlins.pngThompson and Rowlins did well out of it because they restructured Methods, pre-empting the policy changes they had helped Cameron's government devise.

Mark Thompson.pngThey had in 2009 been on a similar 3-year, £500m ICT Consultancy framework with 23 other suppliers.

But their business was crushed by a freeze Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude put on IT spending in 2010 while he prepared to implement Thomson's reforms, and while Fishenden prepared the way with his racket about a cartel.

Methods Consulting 2012 Accounts.pngMethods' revenue dropped from £54.9m in 2009 to £28.7m in 2012 after Maude's freeze bit, according to their annual accounts registered with Companies House. Methods reacted boldly to this crisis: by almost halving to 21 people the administration, sales and marketing staff who had formed its entire workforce, and replacing them with twice the number of consultants.

Since Methods applied for a place on the £2bn ConsultancyOne contract at the start of 2012, it hired 42 hand-picked consultants, doubling its staff from pre-downturn levels. It got a place, and its public sector income subsequently jumped 60 per cent, back to pre-downturn levels, at £46m.

Thompson and Rowlins bragged in Methods' annual reports how Cabinet Office reforms called for just the sort of thing their business was geared up to do.
That was "scalable, commoditised computing" - the same thing CSC and Mydex were geared up for as well.

Also known as cloud computing, it was what government services would become when they had been transformed by the coalition and its network of advisers: vast, remote data centres run by the likes of CSC would host software produced by the likes of Mydex to run government services previously administered manually by civil servants.
Oligopoly

The Cabinet Office would bring this new regime about by establishing its G-Cloud procurement system. This was a digitally-enhanced framework contract that would create a quasi-marketplace of pre-vetted suppliers whose cloud services could be "pulled off" as though from a picture book of haircuts in a barbershop.

Cloud computing itself would involve delivering commodity computer services over the wire. It would be like the difference between getting a haircut at a salon or picking a style from a picture of prefabricated wigs.

Along with contract transparency and some technological reforms, these were the fundamentals of the coalition plan to create a vigorous market for public services.
The technological reforms were open source software, open standards and open data. The first two would, theoretically, stop companies using their software to gain control of the market by claiming property rights over the software people used, then dictating the terms on which people's software communicated, and then hiking up rents to gluttonous levels. Osborne and his NpBA advisers had diagnosed this as the source of problems the government had with big computer systems.
They proposed that open standards and open data would allow them to disrupt the "ICT oligopoly" - 18 companies, it reckoned, who dominated public sector computing - not because 18 was as many as the market for big government contracts could sustain - but because their own nefarious software had closed the market to any competitors.
They would correct this apparent injustice by creating a kind of perfect competition: the nirvana of free-market economic theory where no companies could set themselves up as a gluttonous oligopoly because market conditions would always make it easy for any competitors who fancied having a go.
Open contracts, cloud computing and the G-Cloud procurement framework were text-book examples of the conditions you would need for a perfect market:

full market information, so everyone could see what everyone else was up to, with who and for how much;
having many suppliers would prevent wannabe oligopolists from exploiting their power to earn more money than anyone else;
the technological reforms would make it easy for anybody to join the market if they wanted;
and cloud computing would remove any distinctions between them.

It would created a totally "level playing field".
Thus by the laws of economics, the public sector would become a place where innovative young entrepreneurs would thrive. The large contractors who usually got government work would be forced to make their software assets open, so anyone who fancied muscling in on their business could just come and have a go. And the competition would surely become intense because their competitors would see their juicy contract prices and undercut them.
Accordingly, when Methods got a place on the £200m G-Cloud 6 framework contract in February, it did so not with 65 other suppliers as before but with about 1400. It got a place on the Cabinet Office's £40m Digital Services framework as well, with 173 other suppliers.


Margaret Thatcher with Union Jack Background.pngThis is what Cameron and Osborne promised their reforms would deliver: the difference between a stagnant pond with a few prize, hand-fed carp and a dynamic ecosystem churning with oxygen and healthy food-chain rough-and-tumble.

That's what they offered on the face of it. But from another perspective they were merely continuing a programme of privatization begun by prior Conservative governments - most especially Margaret Thatcher's government of 1983.

The coalition's recent reforms were similar to the privatization programme of the 80s and 90s - not least because coalition Cabinet minister Francis Maude had played a central part in both. They were both also driven by the same powerful forces: technology and globalization.

The consequences then as now: restructuring, mass unemployment, a constriction of public ownership, innovation, and piles of money for a fortunate few. The vision: dismantling public industries (then) and public services (now) would release immense energy and resources to form a creative chaos from which innovation would grow.

ZX Spectrum 48K.pngThe role model for this was one of the most proud and innovative moments of modern British history. That was the ZX Spectrum, the home computer beloved of children from prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne's generation in the early 1980s.

( If you were fortunate enough to do home computing in the 80s, you might be amused to consider the irony of the Conservative leadership coming from families who probably used the snooty BBC Micro home computer (an over-priced work of public sector perfection); while Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed earlier this month a childhood love for the down and dirty free-market funbox, the ZX Spectrum.)
Cameron's government had devised for public services the same kind of innovative ecosystem that had distinguished the ZX Spectrum from its rivals.

The Spectrum nurtured a thriving ecosystem of computer games publishers because it was easy for anyone to have a go. The computer itself had been cheap and cheerful, so lots of people bought it and instructional media flourished. Plucky nerds were encouraged to write games for it because its software was distributed on cheap audio cassette tapes; and Sinclair Research, its manufacturer, put no conditions on people producing software. So the market for Spectrum software thrived.

Jobs Computers

Sir Clive Sinclair.pngSir Clive Sinclair, its inventor, even had a vision of the future that foreshadowed the coalition's dissolution of the public services. It was a vision of computer automation, mass unemployment, ecosystems of small, innovative companies, and vast concentrations of personal wealth.

He described it to a meeting of Mensa, the society for clever people of which he was chairman, at Cambridge University, six months after he launched the ZX Spectrum in 1982.

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"We have been passing through a great industrial age in which the economic basis of society has demanded the bringing together of people in great numbers, many thousands per factory, many millions per city," he said.

He was speaking at a time when global recession had made three million British unemployed

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"This is not a passing phase of recession, but a trend which will last until the end of the century, during which I expect the manufacturing industry to shed a further seven million jobs and for the proportion employed in manufacturing to decline from some 42 per cent of the population to less than 10 per cent."

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"This will occur as automated systems are now radically cheaper than manual costs," he said.
Sir Clive Sinclair.png"We must change the pattern of expectation - no longer to prepare people for a life-time's work in major organisations but to give them the self-reliance for a broader role in smaller groups.

Sir Clive Sinclair.png"Many, if not all, of today's young people will always work for small organisations and indeed must found them. We must encourage people to follow this route if we are to create future employment," he said.

Manufacturing Manufacturing

UK Manufacturing Employment - 1980 - 2003 - PWC - Eurostat.pngSinclair's prediction about manufacturing employment was close enough. He was unhappy about the corresponding unemployment.

Francis Maude.jpgBut there was not much anyone could do to stop it.

Because at that moment Francis Maude, the minister who engineered Cameron's premiership, was preparing to stand in the 1983 general election that would introduce him to parliament and launch him on a career dedicated to hastening industrial transformation by privatizing public industries.

He quickly became one of its most radical agitators, pushing for the NHS and schools to be privatized as well, at a time when the idea was so radical that even Margaret Thatcher wouldn't stomach it.

In the midst of a global recession, their government embarked instead on a more modest programme to privatize public-owned industries:

UK Manufacturing Employment and Productivity - 1979 to 2007 - PWC - Office for National Statistics.pngRolls-Royce, British Steel, British Leyland, the Royal Ordnance Factories.

Also British Gas, British Telecom, British Ports, British Airways, the National Bus Company, the National Freight Corporation, the regional water utilities and so on.

And before 1983: British Aerospace, Britoil, Cable & Wireless, chemicals manufacturer Amersham International and, among the very first in 1979, International Computers Limited (ICL).

UK Manufacturing Gross Value Added - 1958 to 2007 - PWC - Office of National Statistics.png
British manufacturing had been in decline, relative to the rest of the economy, since the US-led Bretton Woods reforms of 1944 did for the world economic system what Cameron has done more recently with public services: it broke the existing regime open so anybody could have a go.

That meant opportunities for US companies to trade where British industry had dominated. But it meant opportunities too for other countries to increase their manufacturing exports.


UK Manufacturing as percentage of gross value added - GVA - PWC - Office of National Statistics.pngBritish manufacturers had grown accustomed to privileged trading terms within the British Empire. Their exports were bound to decline, from dominance to something more mutual.

Competition subsequently encouraged comfy British companies to invest in cheap production oversees.

By the 80s, computers and communications were hastening their transformation from national colonial industries into multinational corporations.
UK Conservative Party prime ministers - 1970 to 2015.pngNow amidst another global recession, the technologies of automation have begun to encroach again - this time on the remaining arms of public services and administration.
The prime minister - Cameron - proposed using these forces to open up the market for public services. But really he meant to turn what remained of public services into a market.
NHS

Thus telehealth and telecare technologies have begun to disrupt the national health and social care services; while computer-assisted learning and the "smart city" will encroach on labour-intensive education and policing.

The government's recent claims to have halted privatization of the NHS seemed >dubious< in light of this. Pledges by its Labour opponents to "save the NHS" seemed similarly misleading.
These once national public services would after their transformation increasingly be run by technologies owned by multinational corporations, and rented at prices beyond public control.
In health, technology services would be apportioned according to the powers people held by virtue of their private health insurance plans, as Maude and his colleagues in the radical Conservative group "No Turning Back" demanded in 1983. Education would be managed similarly; perhaps policing too.

Francis Maude.jpgFrancis Maude would have had a rare understanding of these forces after his radical 80s, and after his time running the Conservative privatization programme as chief secretary to the Treasury in John Major's government of the early 1990s, and most especially as global head of privatization at Morgan Stanley investment bank in the mid-90s.
But the future he helped engineer on his return to government would be different from the one suggested when Cameron and Osborne put it to the electorate: when they said they would build 21st Century Britain from open source software - software, that is, owned by anyone and no-one.
The coalition did begin building a government administration from open source software. But this was a "transformation" of routine, paper-based processes fulfilled by people: booking things, applying for things, recording things.

Reform of those functions has cut public sector jobs at a rate similar to the amount of unemployment caused by automation and globalization in manufacturing. Its more ambitious new-build IT projects have not been open source but left to the market.
Identity Card Sheme

So the coalition's answer to the 'dreaded' Identity Card Scheme was a US-led initiative to create a global market for intelligence data about people. Branded simply "Verify", it was modelled on the stock market. It involved creating standard software interfaces as the basis of a market exchange for intelligence sources.

People like you and me would be the subject of the intelligence. When we wanted to subscribe to get a loan, or apply for social support, or access a high-security jail, we would provide our credentials and the market intelligence system would verify that we were entitled to do what we were trying to do.
This though was not the bonanza the coalition promised it would deliver for SMEs. The companies behind it would be operating on a global scale. And they wouldn't be inclined to make their software assets open either. The only thing that would be open would be the market the software operated in.
SMEs

Hence the coalition gave its £150m Verify contract (with one exception) to banking, security, intelligence and insurance corporations with interests in the emerging global business of watching, assessing and permitting people. One of them could just be classified as an SME, but was fast outgrowing its moniker.
Cameron's proposed policy of using open source and open standards to improve public sector IT would have taken the country in a different direction if it had really been followed to its logical conclusion.

Instead of scrapping the Labour government's identity system, he would have released it as open source software and continued its development in open collaboration with other governments and industry.

Nobody and everybody would have owned it. Instead, the coalition scrapped the last government's national, public identity system operated in secret only to institute their own international, private system operated in public.
Open source

It therefore seemed Cameron's government proposed open source only so far as necessary to break the public sector software industry open; only as required for the Conservative Party to continue the programme of privatization it began in the early 1970s when it embarked on its "Trading Fund" programme to partially privatize such public assets as the Ordnance Survey and MET Office - a programme only just coming to fruition today.
The coalition did create a bonanza, however, for those SMEs employed on the coalition's "digital transformation" of existing, labour-intensive government services.

Those were SMEs like Methods who, operating under procurement frameworks such as the G-Cloud, would help build the coalition's automated government administration.

Their bonanza might last as long as there was transformation to be done - fuel to burn - particularly in health and local government, while public services were being automated.
But when the chaos of transformation settled, economic forces would likely cause the innovators to congeal again - as innovative companies merged or got bought out by larger firms. Perhaps there would even be an oligopoly, only of global companies delivering automated cloud computing services, commoditised as any other private utility and charged the same way.
Open data

The coalition reform programme promised other bonanzas though. Its open data scheme promised a creative bonanza like the one that made the Spectrum such a success in the 80s. Likewise, the release of health and crime data.
The National Information Infrastructure (NII) - the product of this initiative - assembled a hodge-podge of more than 300 datasets of things like the location of public court buildings, crime statistics, cycle routes and outcomes for children in need.

But the coalition dropped from this its stipulation that the data be open. It instead said data given an NII designation could be open, if it was made open. But it might also be available only for a fee, perhaps if it was held by a privatized utility.

A lot of data on the first NII list was held by public bodies scheduled or long-eyed for privatization, such as the Ordnance Survey and Department for the Environment. Ordnance Survey released some open data. But it said this was justified, at least in part, as a way to encourage sales of its more valuable data assets, like a delicatessen that distributes dinky samples outside to entice people in off the street. It's primary strategy was to sell data overseas, to become a global data corporation.
As with transparency, some data companies would feel more commercial or pressure to produce open data than others. Public libraries found in recent years when publishers started turning their old paper-based reference almanacs into online databases, that data was being sold at a premium over paper and they could no longer afford to stock them. Most data will be beyond the reach of people without the means to pay for it.

Transparency

And so the coalition's transparency revolution might flicker out after an initial flurry of innovation finished transferring public assets into private hands.

It would have been gobbled up by the multinational utility companies that delivered the reformed public services, like the water companies privatized in the 80s, transport and electricity companies privatized in the 90s, and even the manufacturers sold off back in Sinclair's day. These services would no longer be subject to the coalition's transparency and accountability rules. The policy would eat itself. What would be left is the market.

Even when public bodies did publish contracts since 2010, their routine and heavy redactions showed the the coalition government's transparency and accountability initiative was already being circumscribed by corporate interests.
Yet corporations have insisted on publishing their contracts with public bodies in full when it was in their financial interests - when the sector or country where they operated had a reputation for corruption, for example.

The transparency managed by the companies behind Cameron's reforms seemed lame in >comparison<. UK companies found full transparency of their public affairs was not in their interest. They slipped into a cosy understanding with government that transparency could be ignored when it suited them.
Accountability

Before this became apparent, it was possible to imagine the coalition's transparency initiative building enough momentum for open contracts and freedom of information to extend right into the private sector as well - so corporations would be made democratically accountable too.

It seemed instead that Cameron's government proposed transparency and accountability only so far as necessary to break the public sector open; only to continue the privatization his party began in earnest in the early 1980s, when Maude came to office.

It did not, for example, manage to implement the modest 2010 election pledge of its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, that companies contracted to provide public services should have that part of their business made accountable under the Freedom of Information Act.
Maude himself championed Freedom of Information when running privatization under John Major in the early 1990s.
When FOI was at last operating in the naughties, it became a method for journalists and right-wing campaigners to find evidence in public records of "waste and inefficiency", to use a catchphrase from the Conservative privatization programme of the 1980s.

No Turning Back

Francis Maude.jpgMaude joined the vanguard of that privatization programme in 1985 as a founding member of the 'No Turning Back' group, which called for privatization not only of industry but also health, education and housing. His campaign came to fruition in Cameron's programme for government, which he engineered and then implemented.

Edward Leigh.pngEdward Leigh, a founding member with Maude of the No Turning radicals, prepared the way for Maude's 2010 reforms with his work on the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. As committee chair before 2010, Leigh portrayed the complexity of big public sector IT projects - especially the NHS National Programme for IT - as an inherent source of needless waste and inefficiency. Yet it was inherent to such big systems supporting tens of thousands of people in spawling organisations, that their costs would also be gargantuan. The coalition said the problem was IT. It's solution was to get rid of people.   

Jerry Fishenden.pngBernard Jenkin.pngBernard Jenkin, another No Turning radical, became chair of the Public Administration Select Committee after his government came to power in 2010. He paved the way for Maude's reforms with the 2011 Fishenden hearings that established in the public imagination the misconception that large government IT suppliers were corrupt, in some vague way that was never substantiated.

Iain Duncan Smith.pngIain Duncan Smith, yet another No Turning radical, coincidentally made such a bodge of building the Universal Credit social security system as Maude's Cameron's minister for work and pensions that he proved the case against big government IT once and for all.

His failure put modernization of the Department for Work and Pensions back nearly a decade. If Universal Credit had gone to plan it would have turned DWP into a fortress of public power. As it happened, his bodge made DWP vulnerable to dissolution as well. Embarrassingly for Maude, his Cabinet Office was largely responsible for Smith's bodge. And his government has reduced wealth redistribution so much as to make Universal Credit almost untenable.

These radicals styled themselves as a "ginger group" in the early 80s because their ideas were awkward and unpopular.
As computing technology proliferated, however, so did support for their reforms, especially among the twitter-literate ecosystems of companies most likely to benefit from them. Central government's po-faced corporate facade was still so 1950s. Whereas an enterprise culture born of the network would be so inherently well integrated - so inherently level - that it would surely remove any meaningful distinction between public and private.

Ginger Golden

Sir Clive Sinclair.pngThis is what Sir Clive Sinclair, ginger-haired poster-geek for the No Turning generation, had gone to tell the Cambridge elitists about in 1982. Not merely that the age of automation would be a new Golden Age, as he called it. But that it would burden them with a great responsibility. Because the unfortunate consequence of automation would be mass unemployment. It would fall upon them - the wealthy elite - to deal with it.

(This Golden Age would, incidentally, be triggered by a technological breakthrough as startling as... "the invention of writing or moving type" ...is how a Sinclair User magazine puff piece about the inventor's Mensa talk reported it in October that year.

Writing and moveable type each "cut the cost of data transmission by a factor of 100". New technology was about to do the same again.)
Sir Clive Sinclair.png"The resulting unemployment due to technological innovation and automation will leave the population with a lot of spare time if present trends continue," Sinclair said.

"If the number of unemployed rises to more than 90 percent it may be necessary to redefine the term altogether."
Still, he insisted, this could be "the most Golden Age of man's history". If only the elite would remember to be good patrons to the arts, then civilisation might flower. Because there was bound to be some artistic potential among three million unemployed. And the age of automation would produce an abundance of wealthy patrons.

Do the maths though - on the back of the flyer you picked up from the food-bank - and you'll see it doesn't quite add up.

Computer patrons of the new Golden Age - Clive Sinclair - Lorenzo de Medici - Elizabeth 1 - Louis XIV - - Sinclair User magazine - OCT 1982 - CROPPED.pngTech-driven market perfection might produce more wealthy patrons, and even more wealth per capita. But there's more people too. And greater numbers of poor. So you'll end up with about as much great art per capita as well, if you're lucky. And about as much inequality.
Coming years of tech-driven reform might even cause the structures of international power to metamorphose again, in a way the gingers perhaps imagined: from the multinational corporations that usurped empire, to international ecosystems of empowered individuals united by cross-border software infrastructures.

Do bear in mind though, the last "Golden Age" was the name given by economists to the period of Britain's Imperial supremacy, when the world economy was supposed to have prospered under a kind of ideal currency-market harmony, sustained by the monetary system peculiar to the then dominant British pound.

After the US-dollar usurped the pound - a subversion concomitant with the technological dissolution of British colonial-industrial power - the Golden Age was exposed as a myth.
Middle-aged computer gamers and programmers meanwhile look back wistfully at those days in the 80s when it was possible for anyone to have a go - not just take part, but to get the prize.
The innovative ecosystem of 80s games producers became a multinational industry. Its productions grew into Hollywood-scale operations. Its programming heroes became middle class wage slaves. This perhaps is the future of the public sector once its digital transformation is done: coagulation.
The No Turning plan to level everything therefore seemd to have left blanks in the parts where it must surely have intended to address wealth and privilege.

UK open contracts pledges < part two >

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2011.07.07.
Prime minister letter to Cabinet ministers
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Central government contracts are being published in full, claim
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Government departments have been publishing contracts in full, claims prime minister David Cameron in letter to Cabinet Ministers on transparency and open data.

"Dear Secretary of State

As you know, transparency is at the heart of our agenda for Government. We recognise that transparency and open data can be a powerful tool to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens. We also understand that transparency can be a significant driver of economic activity, with open data increasingly enabling the creation of valuable new services and applications.

In May 2010, I set out the Government's specific commitments on transparency in a letter to Cabinet colleagues. Over the past 12 months, we have successfully fulfilled these commitments, and demonstrated global leadership in government transparency and open data.

This revolution in government transparency will make it easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold government to account for the performance of key public services.

Open data achievements since May 2010
...
• Central government spending transparency
• New central government contracts published in full "

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2011.09.
Publication of Tender Documentation - Guidance Note
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Cabinet Office says Contracts Finder will give public accountability
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All central government contracts will be published on Contracts Finder, says Cabinet Office instruction. Procurement documentation will be published as well.

"Tender documents should be published on Contracts Finder...

Contracts Finder is the government's single platform providing access to public sector procurement related information and documentation, including the facility to publish both tender and contract documents in a single place.

Contracts Finder provides:

• Buyers with capability to publish live tender opportunities ... and contract documentation.
• The public with means to download public sector tender and contract documentation."

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2012.03.
HM Treasury Open Public Services report
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80 per cent of public contracts have been published on Contracts Finder, claim
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Formal response to 2011 Open Public Services consultation claims Cabinet Office progress reports have determined that public bodies have published almost all their contracts under the transparency initiative.

"More than 80 per cent of eligible tenders issued and contracts awarded have been published on the Contracts Finder website."

To ensure that all the government departments and bodies which should publish their procurement arrangements on Contracts Finder are doing so, compliance is monitored monthly and published on the Cabinet Office website."


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2012.05.
Publication of New Central Government Contracts - Guidance Note
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Policy guidance permits commercial confidentiality redactions
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Cabinet Office transparency guidance clarifies new standard contract terms that give suppliers broad powers to redact information they decide is confidential.

"All new contracts should be published on Contracts Finder, the government portal that hosts publication of various documents in relation to procurement and contracting."

The purpose of this commitment is for central government to be more transparent about how public funds are being spent to help deliver better value for money in public spending."

Departments are expected to publish contracts in full. The contracts themselves needed to be presented in open, machine-readable formats.

Publication should include overall pricing but in some cases, not necessarily a breakdown of pricing structure - see section 6 on exemptions and redactions.

Redactions of contractual text are permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Freedom of Information Act contains 23 grounds for possible exemptions. These may include national security, commercial confidentiality and the protection of personal data."

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2013.06.20.
World Bank Open Contacting Principles
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Principles for open contracting produced after international consultation
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World Bank Open Contacting Principles say governments should publish contract summaries in the Open Contracting Data Standard, as well as all contracts, and an exhaustive list of procurement documents.

It demands detailed information about public deals including the sort of information being redacted from UK contracts routinely: milestones and stage payments. But it says exceptions should be permitted.

"• Contracts, licenses, concessions, permits, grants, annexes, schedules, reference documents, pre-studies, bid documents, performance evaluations, guarantees, audit reports.

• Also information about the procurement planning process, method of procurement, award justification, selection criteria, bidders, other participants, bidder's validation documents, exemptions.

• And conflicts of interest, debarments, award justification for the award, the identity of the contract recipient, statements of beneficial ownership.

• Information related to performance and completion, subcontracting arrangements, major milestones, changes, milestone achievements, dates and amounts of stage payments, source of payments, service delivery and pricing.

• Arrangements for ending contracts, final settlements and responsibilities, risk assessments, environmental assessments, social impact assessments, assessments of government assets and liabilities, risk management, financial information, revenues and expenditures, time and cost over-runs, etc."

Contracting information made available to the public shall be as complete as possible, with any exceptions or limitations narrowly defined by law."

Contracting parties shall support disclosure in future contracting by precluding confidentiality clauses, drafting confidentiality narrowly to cover only permissible limited exemptions, or including provisions within the contractual terms and conditions to allow for the contract and related information to be published."


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2013.10.31.
UK National Action Plan for Open Government Partnership
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UK puts Contracts Finder into international open government agreement
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Presented in person by prime minister David Cameron, the UK commitments to the international Open Government Partnership pledges support for World Bank Open Contracting Principles: contracts will be published on Contracts Finder.

"The Prime Minister published a letter on 31 May 2010 setting out three policy commitments in relation to open contracting:

all new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010
all new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011

The vehicle for publication is Contracts Finder.

As of September 2013, nearly 18,000 contracts had been published.

In addition, since 31 March 2011 central government, and other public sector bodies have used Contracts Finder to advertise contract opportunities of a value above £10,000."

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2014.02.26.
EU Public Contracts Directive
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EU countries agree to publish tender documents but not contracts
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UK coalition makes its bolshy negotiation of the reformed EU procurement directive a definitive example of its determination to cut regulatory restraints on business. But it fails to get its open contracts commitment into EU law.

"Contracting authorities shall by electronic means offer unrestricted and full direct access free of charge to the procurement documents... The text of the notice ... shall specify the internet address at which the procurement documents are accessible."

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2014.03.05
Confederation of British Industry transparency report
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Corporate lobby group says publish redacted public contracts if customer agrees
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John Cridland, CBI Director-General, says corporations must win back public trust by being transparent. But his report, "Competitive - Accountable - Transparent - A Value Driven Public Services Sector" - says members would publish public contracts only with redactions.

"All government contracts should be published online, as long as the customer is happy for this to happen. And where commercial information is redacted, there should be a clear explanation of who requested the redaction and why."

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2015.02.05.
UK Public Contracts Regulations
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Contract summaries must be published on Contracts Finder by law: but not contracts
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Putting reformed EU procurement rules into UK law, Cabinet Office names Contracts Finder as its mechanism for transparency. But only contract summaries and tender documents will be published. Not contracts.

"The information to be published on Contracts Finder shall include at least:
...
internet address at which the procurement documents are accessible
name of the contractor
date on which the contract was entered into
the value of the contract."
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2015.03.19.
Computer Weekly investigation
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Frequent omissions & extensive redactions show UK broke open contracts pledge
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"Computer Weekly's research of the public contracts the government has published under its transparency programme since 2010 found £5bn of public deals without contracts published at all, just by looking up a random shortlist of the coalition's major projects."

UK open contracts pledges < part one >

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2010 - 2015

The coalition government broke its transparency pledge to publish all public contracts in full. It has attempted to backtrack, claiming it never really intended to publish all its contracts in the first place.

Much of the work it did under the programme amounted meanwhile to little more than a stage set it called Contracts Finder.

But it had made open contracts a firm goal, both as an election pledge, a policy, and an international commitment. As a Computer Weekly investigation demonstrated last week, it did less than it said it would.

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2010.02.22.
David Cameron speech at Network for a Post-Bureaucratic Age
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Public contracts to be published "in full" without exception
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Prime minister to-be David Cameron sets his transparency agenda out during the 2010 election campaign with the inaugural speech of the Network for a Post-Bureaucratic Age, a think tank peopled by those who wrote and would go on to help him implement the policy.

(On the very same day, then prime minister Gordon Brown made an almost identical pledge for open public contracts in his own speech - Building Britain's Digital Future).

"We'll publish every Government contract worth over £25,000 in full - every clause, every performance measure, every penalty trigger - so people can not only search for waste but small businesses, charities and social enterprises can compete to provide government services."

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2010.03.11.
Conservative Party 2010 Technology Manifesto

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Open public contracts become key tech pledge
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Computer-led reform is so fundamental to the Conservative Party's manifesto for government that it dedicates a separate manifesto to it. Transparency is its central theme.

"We will publish online all IT tender documents and IT procurement contracts to enable the public to root out wasteful spending and to help more small businesses bid for government contracts."

George Osborne, then shadow chancellor wrote in the Forward:

"We will publish online every item of central government and Quango spending over £25,000 - including every contract in full. We will also publish online all government tender documents for contracts worth over £10,000 via the existing Supply2Gov website."

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2010.04.13
Conservative Party 2010 Manifesto
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Pledge to publish public contracts "in full"
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Removing any doubt the Conservative Party is serious about open contracts, it repeats its pledge to publish all public contracts in-full in its main manifesto.

"We will take steps to open up government procurement to small and innovative businesses by publishing online all government tender documents for contracts worth over £10,000 via the Supply2Gov website."

We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000."

We will require all councils to publish spending above £500, and to publish contracts
and tender documents in full."

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2010.05.20.
Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement
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Coalition commits to open contracts pledge
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Unlike the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats doesn't pledged open contracts. But the Conservative Party makes it a condition of their agreement to form a coalition government.

"We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts ... and tender documents in full."

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2010.05.31.
Prime minister transparency letter to government departments
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Cameron gets moving on open contracts right away
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Within a fortnight of taking office, David Cameron commits the contracts pledge into a policy instruction he sent to all government departments: public contracts would be published "in full".

"Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.

The government must set new standards for transparency, and our Coalition Programme for Government sets out a number of specific commitments.

Limited exemptions on national security and personal privacy grounds will be permitted.

Central government spending transparency
   ...
all new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011
new local government contracts ... to be published in full from January 2011"

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2010.11.07.
Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age think tank report
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Cameron lieutenants back open contracts in blueprint for government strategy
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The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age think tank repeats the contracts pledge in its landmark report - "Better for Less", which forms the blueprint for the coalition government's ICT Strategy.

Led by Liam Maxwell, who would subsequently become responsible for implementing the policy as the government's chief technology officer, the report authors include principle people behind Cameron's policy: expositors - Cambridge University's Mark Thompson, Microsoft's Jerry Fishenden, and Computer Science Corporation's Simon Wardley; and company directors who would do much work implementing it: Mydex's William Heath, and Methods Consulting's Jonathan Sowler and Peter Rowlins.

"With the possible exception of national security, all IT expenditure and contracts over £25k will be published on the web.

Enforce transparency in procurement and commissioning (publication of contracts on award)."

Impose transparency: any IT procurement in any government department will be wholly
transparent and available online."

[Cabinet Office Crown Commercial Service] to be required to openly publish full details of all new contracts...[and] to publish all existing contracts and to identify suppliers who refuse to let this happen (and any legal impediments to such publication)."
Liam Maxwell however finds it necessary to make redactions:

"I would like to thank the team of writers and collaborators on this project - some named and some for obvious reasons un-named."

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2010.10.22.
Cabinet Office transparency letter to suppliers
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Government tells suppliers they can redact what they deem confidential
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Bob Ager, head of procurement for the then Central Office of Information, tells suppliers they would be allowed to redact information they deemed commercially confidential if they cite secrecy clauses in the Freedom of Information Act.

"The Prime Minister has set out specific commitments in procurement and contracting.

All new central government contracts over £10,000 to be published in full

Under the terms of this commitment, certain redactions may be required prior to publication in order to protect certain types of information which may be considered exempt from publication. Redactions of contractual text will be permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act."

COI may, at its sole discretion, redact information from the Contract prior to publishing for one or more of the following reasons:

• national security
personal data
intellectual property
information which is not in the public interest to disclose
third party confidential information
IT security
prevention of fraud "
 
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2010.11.04.
Science & Innovation Strategy
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Open contracts and open data basis of growth strategy
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Prime minister David Cameron puts his signature on an innovation strategy that relies on full transparency of government business.

"For too long, the Government has failed to release data that could be used by innovative technology companies.

According to Dr Rufus Pollock of Cambridge University, releasing this government data could generate at least £6 billion of new economic activity.

The Government has, therefore, set out a radical agenda for data transparency that will help catalyse the growth of innovative technology companies.

We will tackle the information barriers that prevent many small companies from bidding for contracts by publishing online all government tender documents, as well as contracts worth over £25,000 in full."

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2011.01.11
Prime minister launches Contracts Finder
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Government website to publish all public contracts in full
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Prime minister David Cameron launches Contracts Finder - a website for publishing government contracts - with a personal email sent by the Cabinet Office. But he seems to describe it more as a means for suppliers to find potential contracting opportunities than as a way to deliver his transparency policy.

"When we came into government, we inherited a system of doing business that was wasteful, inefficient and inflexible. One problem was secrecy - contracts being signed behind closed doors, with no opportunity for public scrutiny. Another was the lack of competition, with small and medium-sized businesses, charities and social enterprises being actively discouraged by the system from competing for government contracts.

Last month, we started to publish every central government contract worth over £25,000 in full, opening them up to scrutiny by potential competitors and the general public. In order to help companies find this business, we are today launching an online tool, Contracts Finder, which will display every central government tender opportunity."
He also announces the launch to a gathering of SME suppliers at HM Treasury in London that day. He tells them open contracts would let them see their competitors' pricing.

Last month, we took an unprecedented step, we started to publish every government contract worth over £25,000 in full. I think this will make a huge difference.

Procurement managers will have to make sure they are not subject to over-the-top provisions or penalties, existing suppliers will know they have to offer the best price, and new contractors looking online will be able to see the deals that have been done and will be able to say 'Well, I could do that for the same or for half or a quarter of what they are charging.'

And to help you to find those opportunities we're going to go another step further and I can also announce today we're going to be launching a new online tool - Contracts Finder.  It goes live today; it's a one-stop shop which will display every central government tender opportunity."

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2011.02.11.
Procurement Policy Note 05/11
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Formal instruction for public contracts to be published on Contracts Finder
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Cabinet Office Procurement Policy Note - "further measures to promote Small Business" / Procurement Information Note 05/11 - says Contracts Finder will publish contracts.

"Package of Measures:

a. Launch of Contracts Finder, which will be used to publish procurement and contracting information in one place, including procurement opportunities, tender documents and contracts."

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2011.03.21.
Cabinet minister statement to parliament
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Francis Maude clarifies that Contracts Finder will publish contract documents
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Contracts Finder will publish contract documents, says Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in written evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee.

"Government has issued two Procurement Policy Notices (PPN) about increasing the number of SMEs involved in government contracts:

• 10th November 2010: PPN 19/10 - 'Package of announcements to support Small
Businesses'

• 5th February 2011: PPN 05/11: 'Further measures to promote Small Business
procurement'

These PPNs covered:
...
• The Contracts Finder website - allowing all businesses to view details of live contract
opportunities, closed tender documentation, contract awards and contract documents;


< transparency review >
Cameron's Contracts Can't-Finder

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Cameron's Contracts Can't-Finder"> | More
Cabinet Office Shared Services Connect Limited on Contracts Finder - November 2013 - CROP 2.png

Five
years after prime minister David Cameron stunned new-age computer policy wonks with his election pledge to publish all government contracts "in full", it looks like the only thing he issued in full was hot air.

Because a lot of contracts weren't there on the Contracts Finder website he launched for the purpose in 2011. And when they were, they were not "in full".

It was so hard to find Contracts on Cameron's Contracts Finder that he really ought to have given it a different name. When it takes all day to find a contract then to learn it's been stripped of meaningful information, you have to wonder what the point was of putting it there in the first place.

It became apparent after repeated bad experiences with Contracts Finder after 2011 that some definitive explanation must be found. Because Cameron's contract pledge was one of the most charming things about his 2010 manifesto for government. It was so radical, so progressive, you couldn't quite believe it was true.

Progress

When subsequently it was never possible to find government contracts for some major project in the news, and government departments ignored direct requests for them, it seemed like the policy had been ditched.

Contracts Finder had pinched much information it did have from the European Commission procurement portal, Tenders Electronic Daily (TED). TED has published detailed data about UK tenders and contract awards since 1998.

Contracts Finder appeared to get its information about UK contracts by 'scraping' it off TED. That's web parlance for copying information from someone else's website with an automated software tool.

It republished the TED data as its own. But it did so dodgily. TED stored its contract summaries in 30 data fields and displayed them in a way you could read. Contracts Finder bunged them up often without formatting.

So the coalition government had fulfilled its open contracts pledge for Cameron's Euro-septic, thumb-print electorate by replicating the EU tenders portal but badly. The EU already did it well. The Best of British was a bodge.

Heritage

If you wanted to find contract information on Contracts Finder you were even better off looking for it on TED first, because TED's search facility was sophisticated and reliable after nearly 20 years of live running. You could search TED by any one of those 30 data fields. It looked a bit old-fashioned and its operation was a little arcane. But it worked.

Cameron's proposed something much more. Not just contract summaries but actual contracts.

He didn't deliver because there's no law that says public bodies have to publish their public contracts on Contracts Finder. He just issued a policy that said they ought to. So some of them did. Some didn't.

TED delivered because EU law insisted public bodies publish summary information about their business deals.

If they don't, "the contract can be torn up," said Richard Auton, director of law firm Walker Morris. "At the EU level its very strong. So by and large, people follow it to the letter," he said.

Cameron had a chance to give his open contracts pledge muscles like TED's. But he passed it up.

Reform

EU countries including the UK got started reforming their common procurement rules right after he came to power. The UK got stuck right in. We know this because Francis Maude, minister in charge of Cameron's transparency policy, made such a fuss about it. We're fighting in Brussels to make EU procurement reforms reflect our policy goals, he told suppliers. That's us, the beefy bulldogs sorting those feckless continentals out with our no-nonsense can-do.

But when the EU published its Public Contracts Directive last year, it didn't decree that contracts would be published, said Abby Semple, a consultant on European procurement law.

It said only that public bodies should publish procurement documents. And that was only for the sake of competition. Cameron's big transparency ticket had been accountability for small people and competition for the small companies they ran.

Never mind though, because Cameron had another chance to make his open contracts pledge stick when it came to implementing the EU directive in UK law. But he passed that one up as well.

The old EU rules just made companies publish summary notices of their business deals, remember. This always applied only to deals above about £110,000. It was that way for twenty years.

Legacy

Cameron produced his British rules in February: the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. They decreed that public bodies would have to publish summary information about their small business deals as well. That was all. Just summaries for a few more deals than before.

Now with the new EU law telling public bodies to publish procurement documents for big deals, and Cameron's law that they must publish summaries of small deals, the future is looking a little less useless for Contracts Finder. The EU law doesn't want the documents on TED. It wants only a link to them. Cameron's law cites Contracts Finder in person. Cabinet Office even released a beta prototype of Contracts Finder 2 in February.

It might even be easy to find contract summaries on it one day. But the future's looking less substantial for Cameron's open contracts pledge. Though his government published some contracts, its resolve to fulfill this single most remarkable pledge was weak. What will give it momentum after his government has dissolved in two months?






Farmers go bovine over prototype mapping tool

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Mark Grimshaw - chief executive - Rural Payments Agency.pngMark Grimshaw, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency is either an imbecile or a charlatan, if Farmers Weekly is anything to go by.

He's been telling the agricultural press that his agency's prototype mapping tool is a failure. That's like saying a recipe is duff because your soufflé collapsed on your first trial run.

Farmers were apparently unhappy the prototype was not working as well as a production-quality system. So Grimshaw called a press conference yesterday and announced that the sky was falling down.

The odd thing was that the mapping tool had only just been released as a public beta prototype. A date hadn't even been scheduled for a live roll-out.

Being a prototype meant farmers were supposed to be using it tentatively, so its software developers could identify problems and get them fixed. That way, the new system would only be rolled out properly when it was ready.

This style of prototyping is the big whiz for the Cabinet Office's Government Digital Service (GDS), whose software developers have been producing the mapping tool. They call it iterative development. But the idea's same as ever for such software projects: keep the old systems running while you get the new one working properly. There's bound to be problems with a new system. So you factor in some flex. You don't do anything reckless like tell all 88,000 farmers to use the prototype system en masse, as though it was ready, oiled and tested to roll at full speed.

Rash decisions

There was plenty of flex in the Rural Payment Agency's new system, as it happened. Computer Weekly understands that as part of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs' £155m Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery Programme, it wasn't due for final completion till the end of 2016. In any case, GDS schedules for the mapping tool didn't have a date for the live roll-out, suggesting they were expecting to take a sensible look at the prototype and how long it might take to fix its problems before making any rash decisions.

This was just as well, because GDS had reported this mapping tool was a tricky task. This is not a bad thing. It sounded like GDS were having a lot of fun with it. They were making digital maps that farmers could use to clarify their boundaries when claiming European Union subsidies. It looked like a peach of a project to work on, and a peach of a tool for farmers too. If the Rural Payments Agency has managed farmers' expectations so badly that they have gone bovine over the prototype, then it must be seriously in need of a dip.

Perhaps though, Grimshaw has been done a misdeed himself. You have to ask who advised him on this, and how GDS let him shove their prototype software out as though it was a done deal.

Brainless rage

He should have been especially sensitive not to rush it, because the Rural Payment Agency CAP system got such a heavy panning under the last government from Conservative politicians with an agenda against public bodies and public subsidy that it must now only take someone to say the words 'computer' and 'CAP' for farmers to froth in brainless rage.

Now Grimshaw has issued a press release saying he has given farmers "a new approach" to file their claims for EU subsidies in place of the 'failed' prototype. The new approach sounds remarkably similar to the existing way they do it.

The old system involved farmers using paper forms to describe their boundaries. They would send them to the Rural Payments Agency, where its officers would check the paper submission against their own computer systems and send out experts to deal with any discrepancies.

Grimshaw's new approach will allow farmers to use paper forms to describe their boundaries and send them to the Rural Payments Agency, where its officers will check the paper submission against their own computer systems and send out experts to deal with any discrepancies.

"Fiasco"

In other words, Grimshaw said farmers will go on using the old system while the new system beds down. That was the plan all along. It was like telling someone who had just walked to work that some new prototype transport system was still in prototype phase but in the meantime, if they would forgive him, he would give them the use of their legs.

And yet he managed to convey this information in such a way that the farming media are referring to it as an "IT fiasco". The fiasco, if there is one at all, has little to do with the IT.

<part three>
Tax system edit fagged the Universal Credit

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Tax system edit fagged the Universal Credit"> | More
The Looshai expedition - Goorkhas clearing a passage through bamboo jungle - Illustrated London News - 1889 - CROPPED.pngHM Revenue & Customs' Real Time Information, its radical reform of the tax system, was always going to be difficult.

It was like an audacious expedition into wild territory: very unlikely to go to plan. This wouldn't have mattered if the coalition government hadn't given it an improbable deadline of October 2013. Even that wouldn't have mattered, but for Universal Credit.

The coalition pinned the Department for Work and Pensions' reputation on Universal Credit - an equally audacious expedition - then gave it the same improbable deadline. But Universal Credit wouldn't work if RTI wasn't finished first. It needed RTI data to drive its own engine. It was bound to stall.

Using the stock analogy of audacious public enterprises, it was like NASA planning for the first humanned Mars mission to catapult off the first moon lander. But space was surely simple compared to the jungle territory that social engineering projects like RTI and Universal Credit attempt to tame: between them, every business, every employee, all the unemployed, the lion's share of public bodies, and the electronic banking system. Is that everything?

HMRC didn't do terribly with RTI, as it happened. It got RTI mostly done against the odds.

But HMRC had not done what it said would be required by October 2013 to drive Universal Credit. DWP did heroically badly against stiffer odds. The deal was that RTI would by then be feeding Universal Credit with live data from every employer in the country.

As it happened, Universal Credit wasn't ready itself in October 2013. If it had been, it would have succeeded only if it could have accommodated RTI's teething problems.

Now 16 months past deadline, HMRC is still struggling to ensure RTI's data is accurate, and still getting employers connected.

Simon Parsons - Ceridian UK director of payments, benefits and compliance strategies - chair of the British Computer Society -BCS- Payroll Group.jpgSimon Parsons, chair of the British Computer Society's payroll group told Computer Weekly about 1 to 2 per cent of employers were still having problems with RTI.

"That could effect millions of people," said Parsons, who is also a director of HR and payroll outsourcer Ceridian.

"HMRC would say numbers are low but it's a sizeable group and when it occurs it causes quite a lot of difficulties because the initial contact with the employer is via a debt collection agency. The challenge we have is HMRC never seem to feed back to say what the error is when an employer raises an issue.

"We are positive about RTI but there are some aspects HMRC have pushed into without understanding it," he said.

Reported problems included HMRC duplicating people in its PAYE database because a variety of niggly little ways in which it hasn't quite got its system working properly. On top of that, HMRC had been forced to set up an emergency system to workaround an unforeseen problem it had verifying what wages people where paid through the BACS electronic banking system. It has not been able to assimilate many small employers - especially those whose cash-in-hand employees may be most vulnerable to mistakes in the social security system.

Such teething problems were "bound to happen," said Parsons. Complications were a reality of life. The art of building a computer system was to get stuck in to flush the complications out, and then to adapt the system to accommodate them.

Jungle

HMRC was still learning how to do that. It wasn't a big deal. But for the political pressure on Universal Credit. Even in July last year, just months before DWP was due to launch Universal Credit, HMRC's Annual Report and Accounts said it had only just begun testing links between RTI and its own central database of people's tax records, the National Insurance and PAYE Service (NPS), which had been a source of data quality problems since it was implemented in 2009. HMRC was still in an ongoing struggle to route out mismatches between its own records and those held by employers and pension funds. It recorded a formal risk that it wouldn't manage. It also had software bugs the NAO feared might stop it updating NPS with data from employers.

This wouldn't have been a problem if the coalition hadn't insisted it would have Universal Credit rolling out with the full backing of RTI in October 2013, or if DWP could have worked out a way to accommodate HMRC's teething problems.

It wouldn't matter to HMRC either way. This became apparent in November when the National Audit Office revealed an indefinite delay to a major part of Universal Credit being delivered by HMRC. That was Tax Credits - one of the primary justifications for doing Universal Credit in the first place.

A big sell for Universal Credit was that it would make fewer social security payments by mistake. This had been a political problem primarily for Tax Credits, which was overpaying people about £2bn-a-year because of mistakes in its administration by HMRC.

Tax Credits

Overpayments happened because HMRC's system calculated Tax Credits annually. It supplemented the wages of people in poorly-paid jobs, families with children and so on. But if people's wages went up or kids left home they might carry on getting the old credit until the system was updated. This became a crisis when HMRC started trying to claw back the difference at the end of each tax year.

DWP would resolved this by merging Tax Credits into Universal Credit. It would update them in real-time with data about people's incomes from HMRC's RTI, thus doing away with the annual round of miscalculations. Tax Credit overpayments therefore became a primary justification for Universal Credit.

HMRC was due to phase Tax Credits out as DWP phased Universal Credit in, through to the end of 2017. Now neither was quite ready, it would take till some time "beyond 2019", said the NAO in November.

Red Box - Chancellor George Osborne - 11 Downing Street - 2011 budget day - 23 March 2011.pngThis wouldn't matter to HMRC because it had begun using RTI to update Tax Credits itself. And it was claiming the benefit, without Universal Credit.

Chancellor George Osborne said in his Autumn statement, on 3 December, that Tax Credit overpayments would be reduced "in-year" from April 2015. 'In-year' is Tax Credits parlance for real-time or near-as-dammit. He was able to credit this because HMRC was already feeding RTI into Tax Credits.

HMRC was even geared up to accommodate RTI's data problems. HMRC already had an organisation that administered income tax and credits. The income tax system would still operate in an emergency without RTI, HMRC said in 2013 after the Public Accounts Committee raised concerns about it having no disaster recovery system. HMRC had axed RTI's back-up plan to cut costs. HMRC would be okay. It was just other departments whose own systems could not tolerate an interruption by RTI that it might leave in the lurch.

HMRC would presumably also continue working in those cases where RTI was delivering duff data, while its bailiffs roughed up problem employers and its engineers tried to render reality more accurately in their software. Universal Credit's delays gave them two more years to get things ship-shape.

Coincidentally though, Universal Credit did do one other thing for HMRC. Its own very public farce distracted everyone while HMRC built in RTI an extraordinary state power to keep vigil over people's pay packets, pulling corporations, the banks and the state into one audacious, totalitarian tax collecting system. That would have made a computer controversy more momentous than the trials and tribulations of some social security system that sought merely to improve people's economic welfare, or even some NHS system that sought to improve their health.

  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - - - -

* UPDATE 2014.02.26.

HMRC has ignored Computer Weekly's questions about the rate of error in RTI for nearly a week. It has ignored other questions about RTI for nearly a month.

But after this article was published, Ruth Owen, HMRC director general of tax, sent a letter to the editor, via her press department.

Owen's letter:

Thumbnail image for Ruth Owen - director general of personal tax - HM Revenue & Customs - 25 June 2014 at Civil Service Live conference in Liverpool - CROPPED.pngDear Sir
 
I refer to your article: Tax system edit fagged the Universal Credit.
 
We have made it repeatedly clear that it's untrue to suggest that RTI had any negative impact on the implementation of Universal Credit. RTI has been rolled out since 2013 and was delivered to its original timescale. It supported the biggest change to the operation of PAYE in 70 years and underpinned the government's Universal Credit programme. 99 per cent of all PAYE schemes are being reported in real time.
 
The feed of payroll data from HMRC systems to DWP's Universal Credit system began operation on time and without a hitch, contrary to your article's suggestion that it was delayed and suffered fundamental problems.
 
Ruth Owen
HMRC Director-General, Personal Tax


The article in question - the one above - said not that RTI's troubles caused Universal Credit's ongoing delays, but that they were significant enough to ask whether they would have undermined Universal Credit if it had been ready to launch on time.

Owen's statement is partially true, though misleading. RTI's problems are recorded in HMRC's own annual reports. More importantly, note that a two per cent rate of error in "PAYE schemes" (employers, roughly speaking) would create a significantly greater number of errors than two per cent of employees. Similarly, 99 per cent of employers connected equates to much less than 99 per cent of employees' records. Nor does it say that 99 per cent of employers are connected without error.

These are the pertinent questions when considering how reliable RTI's real-time data would be for a system that, like Universal Credit, would need a reliable real-time data feed.

They also happen to be the questions HMRC won't answer. They will be revisited on these pages, resources permitting.

<part two>
Universal Credit farce hid tax system bodge

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Universal Credit farce hid tax system bodge"> | More
The Department of Work and Pensions had enough trouble building the coalition government's flagship Universal Credit system without other government departments adding to its woes.

But it depended on data from another improbably ambitious computer system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs, called Real Time Information. RTI went awry just as Universal Credit was turning into a farce. Who would have thought the taxman had comic timing?

Each computer system was the engineering for a radical socio-economic reform. Problems ought therefore to have been expected. But problems in the sense of problem solving, not in the sense of crises great enough for political scandal. What ought have been expected was engineering challenges. What was expected was crises, since the coalition parties created an association between computer-led social engineering challenges and institutional rot.

Astonishingly then, the coalition government told parliament in 2011 it would build these two systems in two and a half years. More astonishingly, the coalition's guardians of engineering at the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority (MPA) approved the idea.

These projects were improbable only because the coalition had committed to do them in two and a half years. It set the conditions for its own failure, by the terms it had set itself: the measure of a major computer project's success being whether it was done according to the time and budget estimated at its start. Clearly it would never be done as quickly and simply as it claimed when it sought permission to do it, and neither should it have been expected.

Universal Credit might on its own have been as unchallenging as MPA said it was in 2011. Its core work involved rationalising existing benefits systems. Anybody could have imagined it done simply. But the foundation of Universal Credit was RTI. And RTI looked unlikely, even then. If it wasn't finished in time, Universal Credit would have to wait.

Iffy data

RTI's biggest challenge was iffy data. It had to match the employee and pension records of every employer and pension fund in the country with its own database so they could talk in real time. But their data was inconsistent. And UKplc was running software that wasn't up to the job. UK businesses had to update their software so HMRC could update its software so DWP could update its software so the coalition's Universal Credit benefits reform would work.

HMRC's data problem had been so critical while MPs were debating in 2011 whether to approve the coalition's two-year Universal Credit project that HMRC had to devise a work-around solution: in software terms, sticky tape and staples good enough to tap income records of 62m people from Britain's employers and pension funds.

David Pitchford - former MPA chief - now CEO of UrbanGrowth NSW - at UKTI Australia infrastructure symposium - KPMG Sydney - 12 FEB 2015 - CROPPED.pngHMRC announced its "interim solution" just two months after MPA gave Universal Credit its unreserved thumbs up in its initial "Starting Gate Review" of the project in March 2011. Universal Credit was possible in the time given, it said; which it was, if you ignored the ramifications of its dependence on RTI; which it did.

MPA's then chief David Pitchford was asked to take control of Universal Credit when it was in crisis two years later, and kept control for less than four months before leaving government altogether.

RTI was going to solve its own data problems by forcing suppliers to address them: their errors would be exposed when they connected to RTI. The problem was that industry couldn't do it in the time given. HMRC's work-around would therefore be critical, which is how the National Audit Office described the challenge in July 2011. RTI had to have good data flows from every employer and pension fund in the country by October 2013 or Universal Credit wouldn't work. The interim solution would tide RTI over while Universal Credit was established. Its final solution would be ready within three months of go-live. But even the interim solution looked problematic.

Two months after parliament finally approved Universal Credit on 8 March 2012, HMRC said it would need its interim solution to operate till 2016. Universal Credit itself had just then been thrown into the start of its own crisis, with the coalition putting its designs under root-and-branch review just three months after parliament approved them.

Not-in-real-time

Only then did it emerge that the interim solution would probably not suffice for Universal Credit, which is what MPs in the All-Party Parliamentary Taxation Group said in July 2012, having been told by a senior DWP source. HMRC's "policy driven timetable" would meanwhile break RTI, they said. The only way to accommodate it was either to delay its roll-out, or deliver it on-time but operating not-in-real-time.

Neither would suffice for Universal Credit. But it seemed HMRC planned for its interim solution to process employer records not in real time but monthly even before MPs approved Universal Credit. Coalition ministers meanwhile kept up the pretence that all was on schedule.

East Ham MP Stephen Timms at Tamil Chamber of Commerce meeting in east London - 16 JAN 2011.jpgIt ought to have been expected too that HMRC's pilot of RTI didn't quite go according to plan in 2012. Only a quarter of 250,000 employers needed for the 2012 pilot had taken part. It ought to have been expected to that when its pilot shone a light down the cracks where the iffy data came from it saw spaghetti trains of horrible little bugs crawling round. They came out over the 2013 New Year in a series of parliamentary questions between former Treasury secretary Stephen Timms...

David Gauke - Exchequer Secretary - Spending Review visit to Bryson recycling Ltd in Belfast - 19 AUG 2010 - CROPPED 2.png... and current Treasury secretary David Gauke.

HMRC was due to start its roll-out in three months. By March it was telling small employers they could update RTI monthly at first. They wouldn't have to report in realtime till October, the end of HMRC's live roll-out period and the final deadline for RTI to be ready for Universal Credit. Three months later it said small employers would be allowed to report monthly until April 2014. Then it became 2016, when the interim solution was due to expire.

Amyas Morse - Comptroller & Auditor General - National Audit Office at CIPFA Annual Conference 2012 - 3 - for Redactive Events - CROPPED.pngOther problems emerged. HMRC aimed to resolve them with a second RTI software release in April 2014, six months after the final deadline. With just three months to go, HMRC was trying to finalise software designs while late-running employers were still connecting to RTI for the first time.

That might just cause more problems, comptroller and auditor general Amyas Morse wrote in HMRC's July 2013 annual report. More problems did indeed follow.

<part one>
Universal Credit farce hid tax system gamble

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<part one>
Universal Credit farce hid tax system gamble"> | More
The farcical procession of crises that beset the coalition government's Universal Credit programme since its inception five years ago obscured a more fundamental reason why it was flagging.

It was critically dependent on another computer system being developed simultaneously by a different government department - a system of momentous proportions and unrealised controversy. Yet while this other one floundered, Universal Credit copped the blame.

The other computer system was Real Time Information (RTI), which HM Revenue & Customs has used to establish live links between its tax databases and the accounting systems of every employer in the country.

Universal Credit was so dependent on RTI that it simply would not work without it. It was to give people social security payments that adjusted to their individual circumstances. It would top up people's wages so they could take low paid jobs with little security without living in poverty. But it could only do that if it could track changes in their income as it happened - in real time. That's what RTI would do.

RTI had fundamental problems from the start. These became public in the summer of 2011, while parliament was scrutinizing the coalition proposal to build Universal Credit in two and a half years.

Universal Credit Starting Gate Review - CROP.pngYet the Major Projects Authority, which the coalition government set up at the Cabinet Office to fulfil its election promise to stop big IT projects going wrong, and apparently to distinguish it from its incompetent opponents, neglected to mention this when it was called to make a sober assessment of Universal Credit's chances of success.

The day before MPs started debating whether to build Universal Credit on 9 March, the MPA gave the project an unreserved thumbs up in a report supposed to assess its prospects. Universal Credit was critically dependent on RTI, it did admit. But it neglected to mention the problems.

HMRC's biggest problem with RTI was Universal Credit's October 2013 deadline, which it was forced to adopt as its own. It meant rushing RTI. But it was physically impossible to rush it. It involved reforming the entire income tax system - every person's pay packet, every accounting software supplier, every business, every pension fund and the whole electronic banking system: the very skeleton of the economy. It was quite unlikely to be done by October 2013.

Three months after the MPA said how impressed it was with all this, HMRC's Annual Report and Accounts suggested this might be more difficult than the MPA had let on.

Universal Credit Starting Gate Review - CROP.pngChallenge

HMRC was still trying to resolve data quality problems derived from a replacement income tax computer system it implemented in 2009. Those problems would be "critical" for Universal Credit, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, wrote in HMRC's June 2011 report.

RTI needed data feeds from employers to get realtime updates about people's incomes. That would only work if employers' payroll records would square off against RTI and HMRC's income tax database. That was only possible if the data quality was good - if names and codes were consistent, for example. Only then could HMRC fulfil its side of the bargain, which was to get every employer in the country connected to RTI by October 2013. And only then could RTI feed Universal Credit the realtime earnings data it needed to calculate people's social security payments.

This was going to be a challenge, said the auditor.

Employers would nevertheless be mandated to join RTI October 2013, in stages from 2012 when HMRC planned to start piloting the system. Small and medium employers would go first.

"All employers will be under RTI from October 2013," he said.

But it soon emerged that employers wouldn't meet the deadline. In June 2012, three months after parliament finally approved Universal Credit, Morse wrote in HMRC's June 2012 Annual Report and Accounts that payroll firms didn't think businesses and banks had enough time to adapt their own systems to submit pay data to RTI.

The Universal Credit farce was just starting to get into full swing as the true extent of HMRC's problems emerged. The farce was largely due to other things which, despite all the attention paid to Universal Credit by press and parliament, were overlooked. More to follow on that. Suffice to say that one of the reasons Universal Credit wouldn't have been able to roll out as planned in October 2013 was because HMRC's RTI wasn't ready. HMRC denies this is so. It insists that RTI was "substantially completed" in October 2013. And that was good enough for Universal Credit which, HMRC did not add, was then itself cranking up so slowly that HMRC's problems would not have been any cause of alarm, assuming they were not actually cause of delay. Still, HMRC insists (see its statement in response to questions below*) that RTI is now working at almost full capacity. So this is all immaterial anyway. More to follow on that too.

*HMRC statement

"It is completely untrue to suggest that RTI has had any impact on the implementation of Universal Credit. RTI has been fully rolled out since 2013 and was delivered to its original timescale. It was always planned to implement RTI in staged phases. It was piloted in 2012 and the main roll out started in April 2013 and was substantially completed in October 2013. By May 2013 over 1 million employers were reporting in real time. Over 99% of schemes with employees and pensioners are reporting details in real time, representing around 99% of all individuals within PAYE."


Coalition computer programme creates circulatory problem for fascist idyll

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Circulatory system by C14th Persian - Mansur ibn Iiyas - 350 years b4 Europe - at-HistoryNeedsYou.pngBritain has got a circulation problem. It is only just getting a circulatory system, and it already has a circulation problem. Blame both on the coalition government's computerization of the state.

You might see less cause for blame than praise when you learn what sort of computerized administration the coalition has been building. But the diagnosis is pain: painful decisions, painful truths. It has been building a digital remedy, but that may itself be a cause for concern: it suggests the organismic harmony of a fascist utopia. So blame, surely. Blame.

The computer systems our government has been putting in place at HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Word and Pensions in particular are turning the government administration into the nerve centre of an organismic nation state. But drop for a moment the fascist associations from this analogy of nation state as organism that is currently in vogue, so we can diagnose the pain clearly.

Those computer systems - HMRC's Real Time Information system and DWP's Universal Credit - are bringing the nation's employers, banks, exchequer and social security system into harmonious combination.

Almost entirely automated, it is coming to resemble a circulatory system: the nation's blood its money, its nerves as data, the parts made greater in their whole by the computer systems that unite them. Complexity theorists call it emergence. Puritans called it God. Fascists called it glory. The coalition government calls it efficiency.

You might think this nothing new. The nation does circulate money and data already, but only as well as it circulates venereal diseases or gossip. With HMRC's Real Time Information System cranking up, it's about to get ship-shape, shiny boots and step-in-time. RTI is getting links to the payroll systems of companies and the payment systems of banks, so it can get their data and money in real-time.

The circulatory flow is depicted in the concept diagram for Universal Credit, which you can get in a pop-up from this article >here<. It shows how money and data will flow from employers, banks, HMRC, DWP and back round into people's wage packets. The idea is that government regulates the flow to sustain the working poor in the lower limbs of the national organism. So HMRC's nerve system gets updates about individual people's income, day-to-day, from their employer's payroll systems. It gets updates about who gets paid what similarly from the banks. The systems extract the money itself from people's pay. The money flows to the exchequer. The data and some of the money then flow round to the Department for Word and Pensions. DWP checks which employers don't pay their staff properly. And then its Universal Credit system, the beating heart of the national weal, is supposed to make up the difference. When it's all up and running, tuning the economy will just be a matter of tweaking the algorithm that controls the flow of money between rich and poor, roughly speaking.

Beast

So when Boss Hog, say, pays himself so much that he doesn't have enough left to pay a living wage to his skivvies, DWP is supposed to correct his wrong by snatching money out of his pay packet and tucking it in theirs. That's the shape computer-age social harmony is supposed to be. And how glorious this is, surely. But this beast's got a serious circulation problem.

The circulation has got clogged somewhere between the point at which HMRC's algorithm was tuned with rules that determine how much money it should snatch out of Boss Hog's wage packet and the point where DWP's Universal Credit was tuned with rules that determine how much money should be tucked back into the pay packets of his skivvies. The system's initial settings are not getting money and data to flow round to the working poor.

The clot wot caused the blockage is otherwise known as parliament. A diagnosis will show it is a classic case of arteriosclerotic vascular disease. It is in other words a build up of fatty deposits that have stemmed the flow of blood to the lower limbs. The beast's muscles are so starved of blood that manual labour induces pain. Its arteries are so clogged that it is in serious risk of a heart attack.

The problem can be corrected easily enough. Parliament just needs to tweak the algorithm so the flow of blood resumes and the country can start moving easily again.

That would be no end for the pain though. It wouldn't be an end even if the state didn't take this power to micro-manage people's finances, their comms, perhaps their medical records, their genetic constituencies, and use it to pile privileges on those who fate has already advantaged and visa versa, creating a final solution to all social ills by putting each in their allotted place, thus leading the meritocracy to its techno-bureaucratic conclusion, it <parp> .. excuse me ..

It will creep up while you are unaware. Even if things didn't turn out so bad that the technocratic state had socially sorted you into some job you were deemed physiologically, psychologically, algorithmically suited to do, you will at least, thanks to the circulatory flow of blood and money or money and nerve or whatever it is the HMRC has established with its realtime information, be apportioned some wage deemed appropriate for a person of your humble position and the health of the nation, and befitting the pride and the charity of your superiors, and their representatives in parliament, both who will sit ever so much more snugly in their high chairs for all the justification the algorithm gives them. Because they won't tune the economy for the sake equality. They will tune it for efficiency at the bottom and luxury at the top. For the sake of the nation.

What will hurt the most is the realisation that your subservience has been entered into the national economic equation as one of its constants: yours and many other whole lives of menial work and meagre rewards at last liberated from the false hope that they might find some kind of meritocratic salvation through striving. Losers in the game of snakes and ladders will accept their place in the organismic hierarchy. Fools will pick up bad dice and roll them again. It will be like everyone worked for John Lewis. Give a little curtsey, stand in line with your hat in your hands, get a penny for your labours: thank you, Mr Lewis.






Gov dodged scrutiny of Universal Credit

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Universal Credit payments - reclaimed overpayments.pngThe damage coalition cuts and bodge have done to Universal Credit was omitted from the National Audit Office assessment of the scheme in November.

The full story emerged a week after the auditor published its report. Had the NAO been able to put all the cards on the table, it may have discredited the coalition as the country entered its few months of mudslinging before the general election in May.

The ambitious Universal Credit welfare scheme was in a worse state than the Department for Work and Pensions had admitted when the auditor did its assessment. But this may have been caused more by government cuts in welfare to people in low paid jobs than its well-publicised IT problems.

The NAO assessment was incomplete because DWP had not disclosed the latest estimates the NAO used to determine if the programme's ongoing development was financially viable.

Those numbers would be drawn from the 2014 Universal Credit business case, which the Treasury signed off in September.

"The department did not fully revise the Autumn 2014 figures," said the NAO report on 26 November.

The shape of those figures became apparent just a week later when chancellor George Osborne made his budget statement, on 3 December.

He unveiled numbers the public auditor had not been allowed to publish: further cuts to the amount of income support Universal Credit would deliver.

George Osborne - then shadow Chancellor - meets Bradford B&Q store staff on Get Britain Working tour - 2 OCT 2009.pngThis and three other revisions the chancellor and the DWP had made to their flagship scheme's business plan since 2011 had diminished its potency drastically.

The chancellor's cuts had been a primary factor in the NAO's assessment of the programme's diminishing success.

But there was worse to come. The scheme had also been undermined by problems the DWP and Cabinet Office had (overseen by the Treasury) with the IT system.

Those problems postponed the time when people could start receiving Universal Credit. The auditor's second primary measure of the scheme's success was the total amount of such payments administered in the first twelve years since work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith commenced construction on Universal Credit in 2010.

By these two measures, Universal Credit's potency had diminished by two-thirds since 2010 - a £24bn fall. It would deliver just £11.8bn of help in its first twelve years, by the most recent available numbers. That was less than the cost to build it.

The NAO said Universal Credit's potency would shrink another £2.3bn if it was delayed even by another six months.

Lo and behold, while the chancellor was delivering his statement on 3 December, the Office for Budget Responsibility issued a forecast that Universal Credit's development would indeed slip another six months.

With ongoing IT problems, the NAO had raised the possibility that it might even be delayed another year. Along with the chancellor's further cuts, the original £35.8bn advantage in doing Universal Credit was diminishing to almost nothing.

More cuts than IT

The NAO and Institute for Fiscal Studies have now hinged their final judgement on Universal Credit's success on how the implementation overcomes its IT problems.

But the NAO based its judgement on misleading calculations. A further delay would obviously lessen the amount of social security payments it administered in the twelve years that followed the day Iain Duncan Smith announced his intention to do it. That's how the NAO predicted Universal Credit would lose £2.3bn of its value if it was delayed another six months. It reckoned Universal Credit was worth less while it was unfinished.

By the same reckoning, if Smith had put his announcement off for a single day in 2010, perhaps to savour his moment in destiny, it would have cost Universal Credit £12m in benefits not delivered: not delivered that is, until they were delivered, a day later than originally planned.

It judged the scheme by a measure that could be meaningful only once it was finished.

The final reckoning wouldn't be whether the system was finished. It would be how much social security it delivered, how well, and with what difference to society and the poor.

The coalition's own welfare cuts undermined Universal Credit more than its IT delays.

More damage

Yet it will cause alarm when Universal Credit's further IT-related delays emerge officially, as they will undoubtedly continue to do after the election when the almighty bodge the coalition made of its development bears fruit. Politicians of any creed would exploit this to damage their opponents at the expense of the programme. Even the Conservatives who conceived the scheme would benefit from its collapse, and the damage it would do to big government and welfare, both of which they have vowed to diminish. The purpose of the venture, then long-forgotten, would sink under the waves with the system itself, and probably its captain.

Cuts and computers undermined Universal Credit

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Universal Credit payments - reclaimed overpayments.pngCuts and computer problems are responsible for Universal Credit's failure to "make work pay" as work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said it would when he sought parliamentary approval for the scheme in 2011.

That's not to say it's not worth the continued effort to get it right. But the chart above shows how weakly the coalition government's revised plans for Universal Credit will help the poor. Their worsening circumstances were arguably this government's greatest responsibility and greatest failure.

The chart shows how the government has diminished Universal Credit's power to make work pay with repeated revisions to its plans since 2011.

Universal Credit is set to take more money from the poor than it gives them after the Department for Work and Pension's most recent revisions to the scheme's business plan.

Parliament agreed the scheme in 2011 on the understanding that it would drastically increase the amount of income support it distributed to people in low paid jobs.

The coalition's 2011 Universal Credit business plan promised to increase welfare by £38.5bn over the first twelve years from its inception, according to DWP estimates reported by the National Audit Office in November.

It would simultaneously save the government £15.5bn by reducing welfare payments made in error.

The balance would be a boost to the poor of almost £20bn.

But the government cut the amount of welfare payments that would go through Universal Credit by two-thirds in successive revisions of the schemes' business plan since 2011, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It cut the Universal Credit three times after 2011.

It had cut Universal Credit so much by its last revision that it would actually claim more back in overpayments than it paid out in support of people on low incomes.

Universal Credit would make the poor worse off by £2.2bn under the 2013 business case that followed the Cabinet Office's "reset" of the programme in 2013.

Universal Credit Caseload Projections - NAO - November 2014.pngBut coalition cuts only explained part of Universal Credit's impotency.

The amount of benefit it would administer had also fallen because the coalition had made such a bodge of its implementation, IFS senior research economist David Phillips told Computer Weekly. DWP was cranking the Universal Credit system up so slowly that it would be years yet before many people were subscribed to it. So the amount of money it would administer would be much lower until much later.

The NAO had assessed Universal Credit's success according to how its numbers stacked up during the first 12 years of its life, starting from its inception in 2010. After by the DWP's latest revision, it would still be loading eligible people onto the system after 2020, 10 years from its inception. The end-date wasn't even in sight.

By mid-2017 - almost two-thirds into the NAO's assessment period - only half the eligible people would have been loaded onto the system.

The degree to which Universal Credit's diminishing revisions were due to its bodged implementation was obscured from the NAO report on that very implementation in November.

How much of it was due to cuts and how much to bodge? The NAO didn't break the numbers out. Its assessment of Universal Credit's implementation papered over the bodge.

The real reckoning of Universal Credit won't be a measure of how much it got done while it was still being implemented. It will be what it achieves for the poor when it is finally done. But even the NAO's flawed assessment of its implementation was incomplete. Because the DWP withheld the recent estimates from its 2014 business plan for Universal Credit. Even since then there's been more cuts and predictions of more delay.

Universal Credit bodged its bodge

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Iain Duncan Smith looked like a fall guy when he started work on Universal Credit. He humbled forward to take the stage for his grand social project, with a little shove from his superiors. He looked so earnest, with his army officer poise. They waved him on: yeah you go for it, Iain.

Yet Universal Credit was just the sort of IT project his superiors had long since pilloried for always being bodged, wasting billions in tax... you know the words by now.

Leaving aside the fact that Universal Credit will give government more power to redress inequality than any disheartened socialist toiling under the post-Thatcher yoke might dream possible.

There is still this knee-jerk IT bodge story, which for now is all Universal Credit is to most people. That story is a matter of great hypocrisy.

The prime minister and his most grandiose lieutenants had promised they wouldn't do big IT projects like Universal Credit. They wanted to break the big government computer systems up, and government as well.

They effectively won power by doing so much jeering at the last, Labour government's ambitious, computer-powered social reforms that their faces got stuck in rictus.

And they wanted to cut social security payments to the poor - to make it harder for people to get help from the state, not easier.

Yet when Smith, work and pensions minister, said he wanted to build a huge computer system to improve the way his huge government department gave a huge amount of money in welfare payments to the poor, they said yeah you go on Iain. They said they would make an exception to their rule that there would be no more big state IT.

Not only that, they said they would do this perilously ambitious project in just two years and for just £2.4bn, as though they had banged their heads and forgotten everything they had said before about big IT bodges. The surest way to create an IT bodge was to overestimate how cheaply and quickly you could put a system together, and then to make a big political parade out of it, leaving yourself no choice but to drive all your resources recklessly into it. So that's what they did.

They were letting Smith attempt to build a grand, national benefits system of unfathomable proportions against a very specific, goofy budget and breakneck schedule. Just like the last lot.

Ta

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister responsible for ensuring the government didn't do any more IT bodges, then lumped Smith's Department for Work and Pensions with three other ambitious IT reforms at the same time.

The biggest told-you-so story in politics consequently became that Universal Credit was as big an IT bodge as ever.

But when you've got an organisation like the DWP, with 90,000 staff making £70bn of payments to 7m households through under a variety of regimes and through a national network of 700 job centres, 10 call centres, and throughout local government as well, your IT systems are going to be big and complex; and you are going to build them only after trial and error, unexpected pitfalls and climatic changes. Other civil engineering projects would come close to the same volatility if they did their construction out of Tetris.

Universal Credit's troubles did seem to prove the Tory case against big state organisations. It got knees jerking all round. But it wasn't quite so.

Its trouble was that the Cabinet Office's 'independent' Major Projects Authority approved its grossly unrealistic schedule. And that the extra requirements the Cabinet Office piled on the programme's shoulders quadrupled its chances of failure. It made unprecedented demands of the contracting model, the design methodology, the transaction model, its security precautions, the complex rules by which it administers benefits to people, and the organisation itself. This all caused the DWP so much trouble that the Cabinet Office, with its MPA hat on, had to freeze the programme. In the two years of chaos that ensued, with Cabinet Office ripping up DWP's plans and removing the extra burdens it had earlier imposed, the public perception was another big state IT bodge. The programme consequently went two-years over-schedule, as if to prove the case.

When Universal Credit was at last resumed in November, Cabinet Office had forced DWP to alter some of its big state designs. Its revised solution was more in keeping with its own favoured model of public IT: something more amenable to reform; and particularly amenable to its own favoured reform, which was to automate government functions and make their staff redundant.

Cabinet Office usurpation of DWP's project was partial however, according to the NAO report on the affair in December, because its own designs were unproven at high levels of scale and dependability demanded by the social security system.

DWP had been reluctant to move too quickly to Cabinet Office's radical tune. It had the nation's £70bn social security resting on well-rooted, dependable computer systems. The Cabinet Office's own alternative designs turned out to be to be premature. It was not even possible to say whether they would be reliable enough to run the social security system even in 2019, said the NAO in November.

The transformation of DWP from an organisation of 90,000 people into a Cabinet Office web app has consequently slowed. But not much.

The transformation was already inevitable to some degree, as people transact more of their lives online. The question has been how soon: whether it would be accelerated for the sake of a Tory strategy to break up government and cut social security.

DWP now expects up to 74 per cent of people will process their social security claims online under Universal Credit in five years time.

At least when the DWP back office is laid off over coming years they will be able to fall back on the Universal Credit system that replaced them.

* CORRECTION: This article originally said Cabinet Office strove to process 100 per cent of Universal Credit claims online. This is not necessarily so, though its strategy was "Digital by Default". Sarky outgoing comment also added.

Domesday computer to make equality automatic

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АК-47.jpgFire a few kalashnikov rounds into the air over a crowded square when Universal Credit is completed in 2019. Perhaps rattle a few volleys from the windows of cars on roundabouts. At the very least, throw some confetti.

Because the Universal Credit social security system will give government power to deliver equality at the press of a button. The only question is whether it or indeed any government will use it.

The Credit will be the final piece in a jigsaw of computer systems that will give government a totalitarian view of people's incomes, and extraordinary powers to act on its intelligence by levying tax and paying supplements.

Its intelligence gathering system is a Domesday Book for the 21st Century: the Real Time Information system, built by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs almost without anyone noticing, and just coming online.

It happened with a surprising lack of public alarm, after all the fuss about ID Cards. But Universal Credit has commanded everyone's attention with another knee-jerk IT bodge story. HMRC meanwhile built links with employers' payroll systems, and the wider electronic banking system, to get live data about everyone's earnings.

This would be creepy but for Universal Credit. By establishing its own data feed from HMRC's realtime earnings intelligence, the Department of Work and Pensions has gained the power to correct pay inequalities in realtime as well.

What used to be a system of social security has consequentially become a system of social justice.

Get your own

David Cameron - Lewinnick Lodge - Newquay - 2 MAY 2010 - Conservatives promotional picture.jpgIt just depends what you call social justice. Prime minister David Cameron campaigned in the last election with the idea that fairness was a middle class luxury: what's mine is mine, and if you want some too, well fair on you if you can get your own.

While the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, his ministers strive to cut the amount of money government redistributes from the rich to the poor on whose backs they stand. Universal Credit has been justified as a way to make sure the state paid the poor no more than their allotted handful of alms. Commentators have been more concerned with clawing back "overpayments" made by the approximated system of Tax Credits that preceded Universal Credit, than with increasing the paltry amount of redistribution that the system already manages to perform.

Universal Credit was presented to the public however as a system to administer social justice. It was supposed to encourage people to take grossly low paid jobs they would otherwise shun by topping up their wages with social security payments.

The point of Universal Credit was to "make work pay", as its creator Iain Duncan Smith pitched it in 2010.

Without Universal Credit, the tax system worked against them. A family living on social support and a part-time wage could earn £7,500 more if their wage earner went full-time on the minimum wage. But the government would claim £7,000 of that in tax. That's what they call 94 per cent 'marginal taxation', for someone who doubles their hours on poverty wages.

BBC bruiser Andrew Neil interviews Iain Duncan Smith about Universal Credit - 15 December 2014.pngBut as BBC bruiser Andrew Neil put it to Smith in December, if that same poor family got Universal Credit, 83 per cent of their extra income would still be consumed by tax. If on the other hand they were wealthy, and their wages went above £150,000, the government would tax only 45 per cent of the extra. So much for Cameronian fairness.

If Smith wanted to "make work pay" he might have simply made employers pay people a proper wage in the first place.

He had instead created a benefits system that subsidised employers who paid low wages, he admitted to Neil.

But the point of Universal Credit was that succeeding governments could tweak the Universal Credit algorithm to increase the amount of money it redistributed to the working poor, Smith said in not so many words. Once the system was set up, social justice was just a matter of calibration.

The problem it claimed to address wasn't merely caused by companies not paying staff enough money. It was company directors not paying staff enough while paying themselves too much. And it was Übermenschen such as IT professionals demanding so much money that many of them have long since enjoyed a work regime that involved doing six months work and six month's on holiday, or investing their surplus in property that they then rent out at exploitation rates to the people whose wages they've hogged, who they then employ to clean their cars and wipe their toilet seats.

Universal Credit's own problems were exacerbated by an inability to recruit enough IT Übermenschen to build it, and an inability to pay enough money to retain them. It presumably capitulated and did for them what the social security system has failed to do for those beneath them: topped up their wages.

When the system is up and running, it will hopefully do for the IT Übermenschen what they programmed it to do: get their over-inflated wages back in tax and give to people more in need of it.

Magna Carta

Universal Credit Concept Viability Diagram - DWP - 2009.pngThe basic concept diagram of Universal Credit illustrated how it would happen: an almost virtuous circle of data, money and labour.

HMRC would get data from banks and employers about the money people were earning, and DWP to feed back fair rebates to those being rewarded but meanly for their labours.

But the flow of money had not been automated between HMRC and DWP. The Treasury and parliament damned the flow and, under the current arrangement, would channel enough on to DWP for its Universal Credit to let a trickle back into the pay packets of the working poor.

Any government could open the taps. But they would not likely be under much pressure to do it, because the circulation of data was broken too. Employers knew what everyone was earning in their domain. The banks knew all they knew. All their incomes data went to HMRC. It and DWP would know what everyone was earning. But that's where the circulation of incomes data would stop. Only employees themselves would be kept in the dark.

This has created a quandary in this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, the celebrated tax reduction the Medieval Barons muscled out of King John.

king-john-signing-the-magna-carta-reluctantly.jpgAs HMRC cranks its totalitarian tax collecting system up this year amidst the commemorations of Magna Carter, it might seem appropriate to smash it up*.

For while the Carta is celebrated for empowering common people, it was the barons wot got the best deal. What's trickled down since has evaporated as soon as replenished. HMRC's Domesday computer now gives common people the means to muscle a better deal out of the barons, in these days of zero hours and obscene inequality. You might say Universal Credit was their Robin Hood. All they need now is a government prepared to use it. That would surely follow if the government took its defining computer-age policy to its logical conclusion - its promise of open data and transparency for the sake of democracy and liberty: so free our incomes data then, so we can see that justice is done.

* That's what the Conervatives said they would do with big government computer systems anyway, and yet here they've built another one.

UK drone net got torture-grade CIA comms

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Punishment_of_the_Paddle_1912.jpgA computer network that the US Central Intelligence Agency began using a decade ago to conduct the kidnap and torture of terrorist suspects has become an integral part of the system now operating drone strikes in the Middle East and Africa.

The means to send 'above top secret' intelligence communications around the globe without exposure empowered the CIA's Rendition and Detention Program to snatch and interrogate suspects in the US 'war on terror'. The same network system became the principal mechanism behind the intelligence-led "targeted killing" of suspected enemies using drone strikes today.

The technological link between the two sinister programmes, signposted in passing detail by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program last week, further confirms that a US military network routed via the UK carried intelligence vital to the US targeted killing programme, and presents evidence that may sway officials deciding whether contractor British Telecommunications Plc should be held to account for building a part of the network used to transmit drone targeting intelligence since 2012.

In both programmes, secure global comms gave the CIA unprecedented, computer-driven power to collate, combine and analyse information about individual suspected people, and to pursue their subjection or assassination in other countries rapidly, with dreadfully focused vigilance.

Now having been pulled up for torturing the 'wrong' people, for assassinating the 'wrong' people, and for straying beyond the scope of international law, its newfound intelligence powers have been exposed as a grotesque.

CIA_illegal_flights.pngInformation dominance

The Senate Committee Study and other investigations of the US' misuse of power have focused on its effect. Its mechanism and its means, however - its source - remain unquestioned. That is the information dominance the US has striven for since embarking at the turn of the millennium on its ambitious strategy to create an intelligence-led, computer-driven, globally-networked war machine focused on pin-point actions against individual people.

The Committee report nevertheless gave a peek at the source of this terrible power - a thread to be unravelled.

Describing how contractors who had masterminded the CIA's deranged interrogation programme set up a private company to do it once the operation had become well established in 2005, the report noted that the CIA had given the company (called "Company Y" in the heavily redacted, previously classified report - later identified as Mitchell, Jessen & Associates) access to its 'above top secret' computer network, so they could use its intelligence sources in their work tracking and snatching terrorism suspects, 'rendering' them to one of a network of secret prison bases in countries desperate or weak enough to permit them, and 'interrogating' them.

SCIF - Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.jpg"The CIA also certified Company Y's office in [REDACTED] as a Secure (sic) Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF)," said the Senate report, "and provided Company Y access to CIA internal computer networks at its facility."

It was really only a passing reference. But getting access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) was tough enough that government agency's still paid pay for it out of their capital budgets.

They had to build specially secured buildings and rooms called Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF), just so CIA-grade intelligence could be handled, and even discussed.

This had been the case since 1999 when a formal order from the office of the CIA director ordered SCI as the designation for data relating to CIA intelligence sources, and the precautions that would secure its transmission over US military and intelligence networks.

It effectively extended the CIA's hush-hush, clean room secrecy over the network and to wherever its intelligence went, so the information could move freely among those permitted to know: software, network pipes, computer facilities, people, would all be locked down.

Intelligence network

Inevitably, such CIA-grade intelligence found its way onto the Global Information Grid (GIG), a US military and intelligence network that has over the course of the 'war on terror' become the data-fuelled engine of US operations, especially drone strikes. Likewise the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN) - the global network of high-capacity comms cables that formed the backbone of the GIG.

This was not a simple undertaking. The National Security Agency, the US' network intelligence centre, extended the CIA's secure, compartmented realm over the DISN/GIG by starting a programme to build architecture good enough to carry CIA-grade intelligence.

KG-340 - NSA Certified.pngThe NSA's crypto-modernization programme guided US military contractors in their production of devices such as the KG-340, a high-capacity encryption device that has become one of the principal building blocks of the GIG.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for KG-340.pngAs a 'Type 1' encryption device, the KG-340 was certified by the NSA to carry any data up to the level of Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI).

That meant it would securely transmit government and military information classified by the usual trio of designations - Confidential, Secret and Top Secret - using encryption algorithms developed under the NSA's Commercial COMSEC Evaluation Program. But it would also encrypt data to the level required to transmit data within the CIA's compartmented realm.

The result was that the DISN and the GIG would incorporate CIA-grade intelligence into their operations, allowing it to be combined with data from other sources in systems such as those the US used to pick, track and attack targets like people on its terrorism suspect list.

Off-the-shelf spying

This was not done lightly. None less than the Director of National Intelligence, an office created in 2005 as over-arching head of intelligence agencies including the CIA and NSA, dictated how SCI would be handled by the DISN/GIG.

As it was put in a definition of SCI agreed in 2010 by a committee of military and intelligence agencies: "Classified information concerning or derived from intelligence sources, methods or analytical processes, which is required to be handled within formal access control systems established by the Director of National Intelligence".

On being established, the DNI established an agreement between the CIA, its sister agencies and the Department of Defence to collaborate on network security. Their subsequent work established means for assuring the transmission of SCI across the GIG.

The NSA ensured the devices that would do this did so in conjunction with established network technology: devices such as the KG-340, which would turn a standard, high-capacity network into one capable of sending sensitive compartmented, CIA-grade intelligence. Supplied by industry, they would rely on proven technology. The KG-340 was designed by SafeNet, a long-standing military networking pioneer. It was recently bought by Raytheon, one of the larger US weapons manufacturers. It was designed to be a standard "off-the-shelf" network components that would work with other standard, off-the-shelf network components.

That was where BT came in. The US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) contracted the telco to build a high-capacity DISN trunk line between the UK and a US military base in Djibouti, North Africa. As part of the DISN/GIG, DISA set out in its contract specification to BT that it would cap the line either end with KG-340 encryptors. The BT line would thus carry CIA-grade intelligence as well as other Top Secret information for military operations such as drone strikes.

As DISA itself said of the DISN in its 2015 budget statement to Congress: "The DISN provides secure voice, video, and data services over a global fibre-optic network that is supplemented by circuitry obtained from the commercial sector.

"DISN subscription services are described as follows: compartmented information communications services for the DoD Intelligence Community and other federal agencies."

BT has tried to portray this network as an infrastructure comprised of unexceptional features and built for banal purposes, in an effort to discourage UK officials looking into the question of whether the British telco ought to be called to account under international rules for corporate social responsibility for its part in the DISN, after US intelligence-led drone strikes became an international human rights scandal.

Officials have spent 18 months deciding what to do because, they have said, has been a lack of evidence that the BT network was anything more than BT said it was: a trivial network connection of no significance and of no interest even to its own corporate ethics board. The DISN, however, was built to be the foundation of all US military operations.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Restraint_chair_used_for_enteral_feeding_at_Guantanamo.jpg

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