July 2011 Archives

G-Cloud goes AWOL

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The coalition government is only applying its transparency programme where the release of information might be convenient.

That explains why Cabinet Office has refused to publish its draft plan for a government cloud, despite sitting on it for months.

Could the plans be too sensitive for government because they'll lead to public sector job cuts? That's what some say. Cloud giants Amazon, Google and Microsoft would lap up public sector data and house it overseas. The Cabinet Office doesn't even know what the effect will be on UK industry. Does it really know what it's doing?

Computer Weekly reporter Kat Hall sought to get the answers to some of these questions in an FOI request to the Cabinet Office. Her request was of course refused.

Cabinet Office said after careful deliberation it had concluded there was a public interest in keeping the plans private. This would protect "the confidence of scholars, journalists, and the general public".

We think it must be mistaken. To protect the confidence of the general public from general publication of the draft plan, the general public must have been given an opportunity to comment on it in the first place.

It cited Section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows public bodies to deny access to information intended for future publication, as long as they can claim their secrecy is in the public interest.

Publishing the draft plans now could undermine them, said the Cabinet Office, which has made a song and a dance about how transparency strengthens trust in government and encourages "greater public participation in decision-making".

The reality is quite the opposite. And Cabinet Office would have a trouble arguing that continued secrecy over the G-Cloud programme is in the public interest. But it doesn't need to make a case for secrecy under FOI law, it only needs to say it is justified.

The public interest in publishing the draft plans is so compelling you have to wonder how seriously the Cabinet Office is taking its responsibilities under the FOI Act.

The G-Cloud promises to have immense consequences for government, industry and even democracy. Handled wrong, it could be a wasted opportunity to invigorate 21st Century Britain. It could concentrate public sector spending in the hands of just a few IT suppliers and result in £billions of public money being spent oversees that may otherwise be invested in local firms, as Cabinet Office claims is an aspiration of its ICT Strategy.

Instead of the "open source politics" punted by Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron before the 2010 election, an infantilised Britain would carry the cost of rising crime, benefit claims and hi-tech security by aggregating its purchasing power and selling it to one cloud provider. We would have UKGov-as-a-service, rented by the hour down the transatlantic pipe.

The country should be allowed to play a full part in deliberations over the plans. This was after all what the Cabinet Office transparency programme seemed to be about: improving government by making it participatory.

Cabinet Office have been developing the G-Cloud plans for two years without allowing public debate. Clearly the public interest is in transparency.

The cloud plan was last scheduled for publication in March. When the government published its ICT strategy on 30 March, it said the cloud plan wouldn't come till September. Before that it was going to Autumn 2010.

Phase 2 of the scheme, which ran from October 2009 to July 2010 involved input from 100 people across industry and included meetings with members of Intellect, a trade body. But these meetings were closed and the results of the exercise remained unpublished for long after their intended disclosure in the Autumn.

Cabinet Office meanwhile used the Phase 2 work to produce a steady drip of public statements designed to impress the public about the wisdom of the plans without ever allowing any real debate.

It was only after Computer Weekly obtained these documents under FOI and published them in February that debate was allowed to progress a little. But then the Cabinet Office went back to developing them in private, with what is most likely a much smaller cabal of suppliers than were privy to the last lot of plans.

No matter what lip service Cabinet Office pays to it, the private sector will stop the transparency initiative getting anywhere. Public debate is snuffed by those private companies close to government. They are as parsimonious with information that might aid the public good as they are with anything else.

Cabinet Office has been intending to publish its G-Cloud plans for a long time. But instead of publishing them and allowing open debate among industry and electorate, it keeps revising them. When they are finally delivered, it will be as a fait accompli. By then their publication will be pointless for anything but a justification of policy.

Transparency skin deep for IDv2.0

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The thing rendered most transparent by the Cabinet Office transparency programme is the transparency programme itself: you can see right through it.

This became apparent when Prime Minister David Cameron dropped his pants over the News International phone hacking scandal. The government has made a principle of transparency where it suits, and a patsy where it does not. That's a shame, because there are things like the ConDem's next generation ID scheme that would really benefit from the sort of transparency the government made a commitment in its coalition agreement.

The promotional blurb for the Cabinet Office transparency programme declared its power to "strengthen people's trust in government" and "encourage greater public participation in decision-making."

Computer Weekly had this in mind when it sought details of Cabinet Office dealings with industry over the next generation ID scheme. Just like Labour's horrifying, original ID scheme, the ConDem scheme is being concocted in secret meetings with industry. Of particular concern is power it may give banks and markets over people's personal data.

But Cabinet Office refused the information because, it said, collating it would take too much effort. We bet it didn't take much effort to get the ideas from industry in the first place, nor to keep them informed about their progress.

Government actually finds transparency very easy to do when it suits.

Within hours of News International chief executive Rebbecca Brooks resigning under pressure from the phone hacking scandal on Friday, the Prime Minister had (under fire over the suspected intimacy of his friendship with her) published a list of meetings he had with the press in the last year. It was good to get this cleared up before police arrested her at the weekend. (UPDATE *)

Yet appeals under Freedom of Information law for details of government dealings with private business show how opaque government continues to be. We only know about the next generation ID scheme because Computer Weekly exposed it.

Now we know about it, we are refused further disclosure. We will likely not here more about it till the plans are finalised. So much for greater public participation in decision making.

ConDem transparency policy has always been opportunistic. Forged in the shadow of the 2009 expenses scandal, it has given us little more than open data, which was already afoot under Labour and quite conveniently serves serves the ends of the Big Society programme - that is, the dismantling and fire sale of public sector.

That's not to say that when this government's transparency programme was unveiled in the May sunshine after the 2010 general election, the Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg didn't believe what they were saying.

"For years, politicians could argue that because they held all the information, they needed more power," they said in the coalition agreement.

"Technological innovation has - with astonishing speed - developed the opportunity to spread information and decentralise power in a way we have never seen before. So we will extend transparency to every area of public life," they said. What is really astonishing is just how shallow this transparency programme is.

UPDATE 22 JULY 2011

Oops. This story originally said that the Prime Minister's disclosure revealed only two meetings with Brooks, and did so in a way that implied this was convenient to him:

"Lo and behold, he had only two meetings with Brooks, though more than any with News International as a whole," it said.

It did in fact reveal seven meetings with Brooks, three with the Murdochs and about 36 per cent of press meetings (26 in total) with News Corp. overall.
 

Cabinet Office refuses disclosure of IDv2.0 plans

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So much for the "astonishing speed" with which the Prime Minister David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg said technology was "spreading information" and "decentralising power" when they launched their transparency programme in May 2010. They were going to strengthen the FOI Act. What is really astonishing is just just how antiquated the FOI act still is.

The FOI Act allows public bodies to refuse requests that may take more than £600 of someone's time to answer. That's a lot of time and since most things are stored electronically nowadays, it's a lame excuse.

That doesn't stop public bodies from refusing FOI requests on the excuse it would take them too long to answer. It's sometimes simply inconvenient for departments to produce requested information. A case in point is Computer Weekly's request for information about the Cabinet Office's next generation ID Scheme, which is already shaping up to be as controversial as New Labours' ID Scheme ever was.

When your humble correspondent makes a request that may on the face of it seem like a lot of work, he calls on a widely ignored power of the FOI Act to avoid the sort of situation that usually occurs: where the department responds to the request a month later with a terse refusal on the grounds that it would take too long to answer it.

That power is the "Duty to provide advice and assistance" to which public bodies are held accountable under Section 16 of the FOI Act.

The Act describes the duty as follows: "It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it."

Whenever your correspondent has appealed for help under this FOI provision, it has always been to seek advice about formulating a reasonable request for information and not one that is likely to be rejected because it would cost too much answer.

This appeal is always ignored

Punch card.pngAs it was when Computer Weekly's asked Cabinet Office for details of its dealings with industry in respect of its next generation ID Scheme.

CW asked for details of report authors, meeting minutes, board members, distribution lists and schedules relating to its draft plans. It's a fair variety of information, but should be readily available in electronic form.

So, we said to the Cabinet Office, please advise us how much of this information we can request without being unreasonable: the last thing we want is for you to come back weeks later only to say you won't give the information because the request is unreasonable.

And what did the Cabinet Office do? It came back weeks later and said you can't have the information because the request is unreasonable.

We suspect the Cabinet Office is telling porkies and that its problem is not that the request was unreasonable but that it was inconvenient. It would have detailed the full extent of industry's part in formulating the ConDem government's next generation ID scheme.

As has been shown here, Freedom of Information is often a misnomer. The system operates to the advantage of departments that want to block the publication of information. They continue to do so in betrayal of the Cabinet Office's own transparency program, which purports to aspire to improve government decisions by increasing public participation in them.

Far from being an instrument of transparency for the networked age, FOIs are like using punch card computers in the 1970s.

Latest technology allows Cabinet Office to answer FOIs with astonishing speed.pngWhen you wanted to make a query of a mainframe computer system held by those few with power and money to have mainframe computer systems, you would have to punch out a card with your query coded in a way that could be input by its operators. The card would get sent off and you'd get a response weeks later. If you'd made a mistake, you'd have to go through the whole rigmarole again. That's what the ConDem's mean by transparency. It's quite astonishing!

Bristol restarts open source pilot

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Who can have stepped in to rescue the pioneering open source pilot at Bristol City Council after it collapsed amid alarming allegations that Boo-Hissstems Integrator Computacenter had skewed the scheme's outcome to favour its chum Microsoft?

You may remember what a stink was caused when Sirius, the firm that helped Bristol mastermind the open source project, cried foul on Computacenter and was promptly hustled out the door.

Can it be that LinuxIT, the firm that within days of Sirius' departure came forward to speak in defence of Boo-Hisstems Integrators, was subsequently rewarded with the Bristol job at Computacenter?

Strangely, Jeremy Comley, the LinuxIT marketing director who was so keen to talk when the business was up for grabs, is now refusing to comment about it at all.

Bristol IT officer Gavin Beckett, who's so big on free software he's a member of the Open Forum Europe Public Sector Group, the panel that has since being patronised by the Cabinet Office become the Milk Marketing Board of open source.

Computer Weekly has been keen to know what steps Bristol and LinuxIT were taking to keep Computacenter in line. If it was skewing the pilot to favour its chum Microsoft, it would make a mockery of the pioneering steps the City Council was taking to stop tax payers being ripped off by greedy software companies.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you can get a perfectly decent suite of office software for free, then buying a Microsoft Office suite that retails for £200 is a waste of tax payer's money; or when you can get a perfectly decent operating system for nothing, then buying an operating system that retails for upwards of £200 is a waste of tax payers money.

But its not as simple as that. Users rear up in techno-xenophobic revulsion when they are given something other than Microsoft.

So years since the first round of public sector open source pilots at councils like Bristol, and we are still doing open source pilots at councils like Bristol to determine whether its worth using an alternative to Microsoft.

And people say, yeah but we have the cost of training people to administer something other than Microsoft, because Microsoft's all they know. And then someone in the corner of the office has the impudence to think maybe there's something in these stories about Microsoft's software monopoly being a blight on commerce and culture, so they go home and look at the operating system section on PC World's website and see that Microsoft is all there is, and in a horrifying moment, their spouse comes in with a glass of wine and an uncharacteristically eerie laugh: ha ha ha - you silly darling - what are you doing? You know there's nothing other than Microsoft! Come on back to your Xbox now.

Neither Bristol City Council nor LinuxIT will say what steps they have taken to ensure Computacenter doesn't fix the open source pilot to favour Microsoft. They must be very silly to think there's an alternative.

Police ICT privatisation kettles coalition strategy

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If you were to look up the UK's most senior police chief and the home secretary on the Police National Database you should not be surprised to score a hit. Because their recent speeches on police ICT were well suspect.

They were also completely at odds with what Cabinet Office experts say is the way to reform public sector IT.

While the Cabinet Office claims to be trying to "put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision," the Home Office and ACPO are preparing plans that will give the oligopoly more billions and more power to call the shots by privatising the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the quango that manages police ICT.

If its not a case that the right arm doesn't know what the left arm is doing, has the Cabinet Office has been telling porkies or is the police service being sold a pup?

Home Secretary Theresa May .pngHome secretary Theresa May told last week's summer conference of police chiefs that police ICT was a costly mess, so it should be centralised and privatised. The Cabinet Office says public sector ICT is a costly mess, so it should be distributed and its public management strengthened at the centre.

The Cabinet Office angle is that public sector ICT went to pot in the last 20 years because the government stopped being an "intelligent customer".

And why did it do this? Because in the late 80s it closed the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), the government equivalent of the NPIA, forcing departments to rely on more on Boo Hissstems Integrators. Needless to say they had their own shareholders, not the public at heart and public sector IT became the costly mess it is now.

Even on the face of it, May's story lacks credibility. The NPIA she wants to privatise has already consolidated half of all police ICT contracts. It could be told to get on with the rest if the aim of May's reforms is consolidation, as she claims. The problems May says beset police ICT reside among those contracts not yet managed by the NPIA but by individual forces. Yet she told police chiefs the NPIA was at fault for this mess and justified its privatisation.

Private service

As the home secretary told police chiefs that a "commercial" NPIA would be "more efficient", the Southern Cross OAP empire was collapsing on foundations made of neglected pensioners and desperate staff, demonstrating what private sector efficiency really means for public service.

This is no minor concern when one thinks of ICT assets for which NPIA is responsible, which includes all those things that raised fears of the modern police service becoming a hi-tech Stasi, such as the national intelligence, DNA, fingerprint and number plate databases. Run for profit, assets like these will make surveillance campaigners fears of "function creep" in state snooping seem somewhat understated. A public NPIA might do more than defend the public purse from profiteering suppliers.

Ominous looking data centre.pngOne plan mulled by the privateers is giving these assets to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The police tech "GovCo" would only be allowed to keep anything it builds anew. This is likely to be motivated more by the concerns of potential capital investors than privacy.

Sir Hugh Orde, chief chief at the Association of Police Chiefs (ACPO), made it a financial issue when he took to the conference podium after the home secretary last week.

He gave a few backhanded complements to the NPIA before claiming it had landed forces with an "unexpected" charge of £5.2m for running the Police National Database.

Yet Orde and other police chiefs knew full well about the charges because they set them in conjunction with the Home Office as members of the NPIA board.

Orde nevertheless warned rising police ICT costs had become such a "significant risks to the service" they would force forces to axe Bobbies.

Woe betide anything that threatens the livelihoods of our beloved Bobbies. Orde turned the NPIA into a threat to the police and declared for a radical solution - "a reality check".

And what was this radical solution? He didn't say. But May had already told us: privatise the bastards quick, before they bring the service down.

Lord Wasserman.pngFor a real dose of reality, consider whether a profiteering police agency will charge forces any less for its services than the NPIA already does. And remember the mooted plan involves giving existing databases to the MPS, which will still want forces to pay their bit for their running costs.

You won't get any more reality than that because the advice on which May is acting remains unpublished. It comes from her special advisor Lord Wasserman, who was due to publish his report on the "Future of Police IT" last December. Orde knows about it already. All the public knows so far is what he and May said last week.

Wasserman's advice has been to give private companies a greater say and local forces less, which does not bode well for the Future of Police ICT. The interests of those private companies, like Capgemini, Logica and Northrop Grumman, run contrary to the cause of more efficient and cost effective government IT, as the Cabinet Office has been saying.

May unwittingly clarified this when she gave her reasons for the further consolidation of police ICT. Suppliers were spending in excess of £1m a-time bidding for work at each of the 43 local police forces when they could save money by bidding for just one central contract, she said.

But the only companies that could afford to bid for contracts at all 43 agencies are those same oligopoly suppliers who the Cabinet Office wants to bring down a peg.

May reckons in other words that police force should restructure their ICT for the convenience of for large suppliers.

The government ICT strategy proposes a different solution: Open Source, Open Standards and Software Re-use, a policy that would preserve local autonomy and break the neck-hold the ICT oligopoly has on the public sector.

That strategy's being overlooked - particularly by those privatising police ICT - because it's not in the interest of large ICT suppliers.

Wasserman, May and Orde have yet to present a convincing argument that their unpublished policy acts in any other interest.

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