Recently in Freedom of Information Category

Police chiefs get FOI spirit

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Time to check down the back of the sofa for the police ICT strategy. First the Home Office said it didn't have the plans. That was after the home secretary announced them. Now police chiefs can't find them either - and after they said they had them.

Lord Wasserman, the strategy's architect, must have been on some other planet when he concocted it. And the home secretary must have been making it up as she went along when she announced the plans to the summer conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers in July.

Police chiefs meanwhile appear clueless. ACPO had a look for Wasserman's strategy under the Freedom of Information Act, even though the association is still waiting officially to be brought under FOI powers. It would do this "in the spirit of the legislation", it told Computer Weekly.

It really got into the spirit of the Act. It fobbed us off.

Computer Weekly asked for a copy of the letter by which Lord Wasserman's proposals where communicated to ACPO. Their publication is nine months overdue but that hasn't stopped Wasserman discussing them at industry conferences and home secretary Theresa May making policy announcements from them.

Ailsa Beaton, Metropolitan Police IT director, told police chiefs at an ACPO Cabinet meeting in May that she would put a letter from Wasserman about it on the ACPO intranet.

"Miss Beaton advised Members that Lord Gordon Wasserman's letter regarding the future of
police IT had been published on the ACPO intranet," said the meeting minutes.

In July ACPO said, after consulting officials, that it would not release the document. Now it says it is changing the official record because the letter doesn't exist at all.

"The minutes of the ACPO Cabinet are incorrect and as such ACPO are not in receipt of any such letter. We are in the process of having the minutes changed to reflect this," ACPO said in answer to Computer Weekly's request for the document under FOI.

But there was a letter about Wasserman's ICT strategy.

Speaking last month, ACPO press office said the letter to which Beaton referred did exist, it just wasn't written by Wasserman. It was written about Wasserman, or his ICT strategy.

Jim Barker McCardle, Essex police chief and former senior responsible owner for the Police National Database, wrote the letter. He wrote the letter on behalf of Wasserman, said an NPIA spokeswoman.

McCardle happens to be one of two people on the NPIA board with responsibility for the future of police ICT, the brief being led by Wasserman. The ACPO lead on the same brief is Beaton herself. Beaton, recently outed in Private Eye as a former partner of PA Consulting, is being appointed with Wasserman to the management board of the NPIA once it's privatized.

Both the Home Office and ACPO have refused now to release Wasserman's advice, both claiming in one way or another it didn't exist.

The government meanwhile proceeds with Wasserman's dubious plan to privatize police ICT, unhindered by scrutiny.

That is the spirit of FOI: follow the letter of the law pedantically into any convenient cul-de-sac one can find to justify refusing the release of public information.

Police ICT reforms evade detection

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Home Office plans to make police more accountable will make police ICT less accountable, and at a time when it is becoming in the words of Lord Wasserman, the man behind the reforms, "the key to fighting crime".

Chief police chief Sir Hugh Orde has already made the simplest connection between technology and jobs, warning overspend on databases means underspend on neighbourhood coppers. But Orde, Wasserman and Home Secretary Teresa May have been slow to factor a more important trend into their plans to make police more accountable: more police technology will lead inevitably to more policing by technology. Yet their plans to privatize police technology are designed to deregulate it too.

Their own deliberations have been less accountable than their talk of accountability would suggest. Now at least six months since Wasserman's guidance on police ICT was being distributed to senior officers, the Home Office has refused to release it under Freedom of Information, telling Computer Weekly it didn't exist.

Wasserman, Orde and May have meanwhile been promoting its unpublished recommendations and on 4 July officially announced its core proposal, the privatization of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the quango currently responsible for police ICT. But there is still no documented justification of what seem like half-baked plans.

Wasserman got busy punting the plans on the policing conference circuit soon after their original publication deadline was missed last December and got settled into his seat in the House of Lords. The revised publication deadline for his recommendations nevertheless slipped again in June. May is said in Home Office records to have been reading initial guidance since December. MPs have meanwhile been denied the opportunity of scrutiny.

Andrew Love, Labour MP for Edmonton, asked in May for Wasserman's terms of reference to be placed in the Commons Library, along with correspondence and minutes of his meetings with the Home Office. Policing minister Nick Herbert fobbed him off. The papers did not appear.

Wasserman himself refused to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee, its chairman Keith Vaz MP complained as the committee considered the government's police reforms on 12 July.

Even if he was willing, Wasserman couldn't answer MPs that day because he was busy promoting his reforms at a conference of criminal policy wonks. He stood in "at very, very short notice" for Herbert, who had taken ill, and defended the plans against critical reports that had appeared that week in these pages.

The Committee had to make do with Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley Police, who shared a podium with Wasserman the day before at yet another conference. She was therefore more familiar with Wasserman's plans than MPs, so filled them in.

The other conference honoured with a briefing on the reforms was a "discreet" City Forum where Wasserman also shared a podium with industry bigwigs Paul Sellick, public services director of Steria, and Bob Quick, chief executive of police consultants Bluelight Global Solutions (of which more later).

Wasserman told the conference how urgent it was that the Home Office carried out his reforms, as trailed by the Home Secretary on 4 July, which involved giving suppliers (like Steria and Bluelight) shareholdings in a privatized NPIA - shareholdings, that is, in the same company that awards their contracts.

Thornton told MPs how Wasserman had told industry how his reforms relied on removing the Home Office remit over police ICT - making it less accountable, you might think. You would be right. Another central plank of the reform was making police ICT unaccountable under the law.

"If it was set up as a company, it could then be exempt from EU rules about procurement, which could make the whole process much speedier because it would be acting like a commercial company. I think that is the proposal," Thornton told MPs.

Police chiefs knew even in February of Wasserman's plans to turn the NPIA into a "GovCo", a private company over which the public sector retained part-ownership. A summary of his proposals has been on the Association of Chief Police Officers' intranet since 8 March. Two days later, Wasserman was promoting them at the Home Office-backed Policing 2011 conference.

All this made the policing minister's confusion before the Home Affairs Select Committee about what was and was not part of the reforms seem conspicuous.

When Vaz pressed Herbert on 28 June over the question of a GovCo, he insisted firmly, "No. There is no plan for a Government-owned company". Just to be sure, he promised that the House of Commons would be the first to hear of the plans when they were at last published.

Six days later, the Home Secretary broke the news at the annual conference of police chiefs that the NPIA would be turned into a GovCo after all. The actual plans remained unpublished.

With all this unaccountable tinkering going on, the police service might be relieved to know Wasserman's on the case. As "Personal Adviser to Prime Minister and Home Secretary", he explains on LinkedIn, he has been charged with making the police service "more accountable to local communities" and "freeing it from interference from bureaucrats in central government".

Even Bill Bratton, the US supercop the Prime Minister wants to lead London's disgraced Metropolitan Police, knew of the plans last December, when Wasserman chaperoned him on what was for the sake of this episode in British policing his Westminster debut.

Bratton ought to have known anyway. Wasserman, who Bratton employed at the New York Police Department in the 1990s, has based his reforms of police procedures on the methodology with which the latter earned his spurs.

That's the CompStat system of data-based policing, in which cops allocate resources to hotspots on crime maps and, crucially, are charged with reducing and not merely detecting crime. That means prevention, and will revive, in conjunction with the liberalised procurement of police technology, concerns about a surveillance society.

Not that there are necessarily concerns with CompStat alone, it being little more than data.gov combined with some sort of Six Sigma process improvements. Though it interesting to note even former MET chief Lord Blair punted the Home Affairs Select Committee with the CompStat line on behalf of Bluelight, the police consultancy he now chairs. And when the policing minister introduced Bratton at a his sort-of-debut last December (where the idea of Bratton's leading the MET was floated) Herbert sang the praises of both the US cop and those of his methods Wasserman had incorporated into his unpublished but much promoted police reform plan.

But Wasserman's GovCo, of which we have now learned just a smidgen, is moving against the tide of accountability, knowledge and transparency that has swept in these other reforms. It's hard enough already to get information about police ICT out of the Home Office, even under Freedom of Information or with the power vested in our elected representatives. Imagine how hard it will be to hold the burgeoning progress of police technology to account when it's managed by a private company.

See also: Cabinet Office collars Liberata as NPIA police data deal crosses open source policy

Bristol Council open source: the allegations in full

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Bristol City Council's failure to deliver on its open source strategy is beginning to make the coalition government's manifesto commitment on open source look incontinent.

The council's own open source strategy is looking ineffectual. Bristol Council cabinet committed to an open source infrastructure a year ago - as long as it was doable. It ordered a pilot but that was discredited by an allegation that it had been fixed. Now the council has refused to release the suspect pilot reports under Freedom of Information, it is time to look at those allegations in full.

Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius, told MPs in May how, left to establishment suppliers Capgemini and Computacenter, the open source strategy got caught in a thicket of indifference and vested interests.

Bristol set an original deadline for its open source strategy to be costed and risked by November 2010. They told Capgemini to get on with it, said Taylor, but Capgemini did nothing. Bristol told Capg to work with Sirius, who were experienced implementing open source infrastructures for companies like SpecSavers. They ignored Surius, said Taylor in a letter to MPs on the Parliamentary Administration Select Committee (PASC).

The council meanwhile tendered for an open source infrastructure using the £6bn Buying Solutions Framework for Commodity IT Hardware and Software (CHITS). Thus it would be ready to roll when the pilot produced its recommendations.

Five large CHITS suppliers bid for the work: Computacenter, Fujitsu Services, Insight Direct, Softcat and SCC. Sirius complained it was forbidden from bidding for the work because it wasn't on CHITS, a list dominated by the UK's largest infrastructure suppliers. Sirius teamed up as Computacenter's open source advisors and the pair won the business. But things then took a turn for the worst, said Taylor's letter.

Ostracized

"ComputerCenter (sic) began the project by having a series of meetings with Bristol City Council without inviting Sirius or even mentioning that the meetings had occurred.

"Sirius first met with the Council on 17th January at a meeting billed by ComputerCenter as the 'kick off'. On the same day we were included on an email from ComputerCenter's Project Manager referring to earlier meetings and assuming all recommendations to the Council would be proprietary software as usual," said the letter.

From the very start of the work in January, Sirius was already writing formal letters of complaint to Bristol over Computacenter's bias for the proprietary software vendors with which it had a business relationship and against open source.

This bias was a hot topic in Whitehall. Within a month, the Cabinet Office called the UK's systems integrators in for a telling off: why had they been ignoring government requests for open source systems for two years?

Capgemini had not even started the pilot, said Taylor's letter. It had been five months.

So Bristol asked Computacenter and Sirius to do the pilot themselves before implementing its findings. What transpired so frustrated Taylor that his protests put him at loggerheads with Computacenter and had him kicked off the programme.

Taylor complained that Computacenter - one of Microsoft's largest UK resellers - had skewed the pilot's parameters so it came out in favour of Microsoft. Implicit in this allegation was the assumption that Computacenter's profit margins relied on the supply and servicing of proprietary software systems, that these systems raise a relatively high income from their monopoly rents and that an industry established on this model had no interest in alternatives.

Bias

It went right to the heart of the commitment written into the government's coalition agreement to "create a level playing field for open source". The industry was founded by companies like Computacenter on proprietary software by publishers like Microsoft and its business model had become thus fossilised. The open source model was disruptive. The proprietary software industry wasn't going to let it in, no matter how discredited it had become for its cost, waste and failure.

"ComputerCenter showed a clear and persistent bias towards proprietary (invariably Microsoft) software," said Taylor's letter to MPs.

ComputaCenter turned the pilot into "an enormous and costly paper-based check-box exercise" that dragged on for months longer, he said.

But here was the key allegation of bias: Taylor said Computacenter had made the "starting point" of its pilot, "a comparison between how well a Microsoft software stack and an Open Source software stack compared with a Microsoft software feature set". On those terms, nothing could win but Microsoft, not even the largely Novell-based infrastructure the council was already using.

Computacenter in addition "lobbied Bristol to buy a proprietary, not an open source infrastructure. Taylor said Computacenter made him sign a contract forbidding him direct contact with Bristol, the council that had turned his 2010 consulting advice into an ICT strategy championed in person by council leader Barbara Janke.

He was excluded from meetings about the pilot and not informed of others. He relied on Councillor Mark Wright, who authored the council's ICT strategy, to inform him when meetings were happening. He fought against Computacenter's insistence that the council should use proprietary software instead of open source alternatives.

In May, Computacenter submitted a recommendation that, said Taylor, the council use "an essentially entirely proprietary Microsoft stack". Taylor complained and his partnership with Computacenter collapsed.

Computacenter claims the allegations are "potentially libellous" and refuses to discuss them, perhaps highlighting one of the most important aspects of this episode - the question of the government's transparency agenda, as discussed elsewhere.

But the episode raises concerns also about the government's SME-led innovation policy, something else championed by Bristol's "Digital City" strategy. Ultimately, both issues are indicators of the state of the industry, fed as it is by school leavers whose computer education consists of learning to operate Microsoft applications.

As Microsoft celebrates the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC on which it piggy-backed to power it is worth reflecting on how it was, famously, the IBM platform's openness that made it such a success. If anyone cares also to reflect on how the 30-year old industry might benefit from reform, they might find a lack of transparency will work to the detriment of them and everyone else.

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!

Parliament illustrates gov.IT malfunction by example

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Empty Parliamentary Committee Room.pngAs MPs on the Public Administration Committee opened their inquiry into government IT today, they exemplified the problem they are seeking to solve: why is government IT often such a hash?

Their attempt to expose the problem to democratic scrutiny was hobbled by their dependence on the same proprietary computer systems that made such a hash government IT in the first place.

If you tuned in to Parliament TV this morning you may have seen some of the UK's leading academics of computing shine a light on the problem. Then you may have not. Parliamentary internet broadcasts are optimised for people using Microsoft software.

This is the very sort of bind the government is trying to escape with its G-Cloud and open source strategies. Proprietary software vendors and systems integrators have been free to mop up behind the scenes of the public sector for years because they supply IT systems over which they control the rights and can therefore charge monopoly rents.

Their position looks untenable now government is relying on their software to support democratic processes.

Blue screen

So Microsoft may have been chuffed when Parliament chose its lackluster Silverlight multimedia technology to deliver live video streams of British democracy in action. It now looks like the most striking illustration of the blight such proprietary software is on society and democracy.

How can a democracy address the systematic problem of proprietary software when the only people who can hear the debate are those users and compadres of proprietary software vendors?

This became a pertinent matter for your humble correspondent this morning. He was unable report on the PASC enquiry because he wasn't using a Microsoft system. Parliament's website said it was unable to deliver its video to anyone who wasn't using Microsoft Silverlight. It asked users of competing systems to install alternative software. Only the alternative software doesn't work, at least not without maintenance beyond the means of all citizens but the ITerati.

Interoperability is a problem for web video, colonized as it is by proprietary software interests. It has not proved beyond the wit of the BBC, whose own Democracy Live website relies on the imperfect but universal, proprietary Flash technology. But the Beeb doesn't bother transmitting committee proceedings. The broadcast rights holder (of which it is a shareholder) probably asks for too much money.

Sir Tim Berners Lee.pngAt least when Parliament publishes the written transcript of the PASC inquiry tomorrow it will be available to everyone. The textual components of Parliament web site are delivered using standards defined by the World Wide World Web Consortium, an independent body which (unlike Parliament) is answerable not to self-serving software corporations, but to Britain's beloved internet champion, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Perhaps Sir Tim will make a contribution to enquiry. Will anyone outside of Westminster's proprietary software circle get to hear about it if he does?

Parliament wants to dump Microsoft Silverlight

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Saying you can only watch Parliamentary debates on the internet if you have a computer compatible with Microsoft is like saying you can only enter the House of Lords if you shop on Savile Row.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (PICT) has therefore stalled its rollout of Silverlight, Microsoft's latest multimedia technology, while it considers if there is a better way.

PICT's reports on the matter, which we are publishing here today, reveal why PICT is reviewing its relationship with Microsoft. It is seeking to increase public participation in the democratic process, and break the limitations that proprietary software and broadcast licences place on Parliament's use of its own recordings.

Broadcasting Improvements Feasibility Study.pngThe strategy is described in the Feasibility Study for PICT's BroadCast Improvement Plan, published internally last year.

<<< Read the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office's Broadcast Improvement Plan <<<

PICT faces the mother of all standards dilemmas. It's Feasibility Study expresses a preference for digital video standards that don't lock it into a single vendor's technology.

But there may be no viable alternative. The digital video landscape has been perverted by years of domination by proprietary software vendors.

Industry-wide efforts to establish an open standard have increased a pace, but may not be resolved by PICT's self-imposed deadline of summer 2011.

Parliament is a thoroughbred Microsoft House. The Parliamentary Broadcast Unit delivers its recordings in a Microsoft format. PICT delivers them over the internet using Microsoft software. TwoFour Group, which builds PICT's media systems, is a Microsoft House. British voters can best view parliamentary proceedings if they have Microsoft software on their computers.

TwoFour told Parliament to upgrade to Microsoft, says the Feasibility Study. Parliament started preparing to do so. It started working with TwoFour on a pilot Silverlight media player called Karaoke, as described in another report Computer Weekly is publishing today, PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for Broadcast Improvement Plan.PICT BroadCast Improvement Plan - Final Options and recommendations - July 2010.png

>>> Read PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan >>>

But PICT put the Karaoke pilot on hold while it considers its options. The Broadcast Improvement Plan had raised the prospect that being locked into Microsoft might be a disability.

This is a classic example of the way in which proprietary standards lock customers in. Parliament has been using Microsoft Windows Media Software. Microsoft is switching to a new platform called Silverlight. It has to bring all its customers along. Microsoft suppliers like TwoFour chivvy them along. Customers like Parliament decide its not in their interest. But they have little choice.

PICT's Feasibility Study considered that Silverlight fell short as a proprietary standard because its user base was too small. That was on top of the fact that it had the proprietary features inherent Windows Media, its predecessor, that PICT considered a distinct disadvantage. But without a viable alternative, even Parliament may not find reason enough to abandon the costs it has sunk into Microsoft's proprietary technology.

The wild card is the democratic interest. What is lost by building the gateways to Parliament with technologies that place limitations on who can pass?

See also:

Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy


Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube


Hansard's Cloud Plan

DWP spent £5m on ID database it never built

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The Department for Work and Pensions spent over £5m on an Identity Cards database so poorly conceived that it was never built.

The department spent three futile years designing the database after the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) commissioned it 2007. It was to be one of two key ID databases and would form the backbone of a system to share personal data about British citizens across the whole of government. But poor planning, inter-departmental disagreements and data security risks prevented it from being developed.

The DWP refused to reveal how much it had spent designing the aborted ID system, called CISx. The DWP press office said it would only answer questions if forced to do so by a Freedom of Information Request. The answers Computer Weekly obtained under FOI revealed how much money the government wasted on the IPS/DWP plan before it officially pulled the plug last summer.

"The cost of establishing the CISx service and developing the technical changes to CIS to enable data sharing and the storage of additional data items totalled £5,200,000," a DWP spokesman wrote in an FOI report.

The plan involved transforming the DWP's Customer Information System (CIS), which has 90m records of living and dead British citizens, into a biographic reference for government department wanting to check people's credentials and record more of their personal details.

The DWP spokesman said the department could still make use of some of CISx design work in its legacy CIS database, which is still used by more than 200,000 civil servants.

"Standards and policies that were developed have or will be used to support ongoing CIS activities," he said.

Ungovernable

He also gave an insight into the inter-departmental problems that led the ID CISx plan to flounder. The system was so ambitious that numerous government departments where required to govern and fund it, with the work being done by the DWP's Information Systems section. But their inability to co-operate caused the IPS to order the DWP plans be torn up in 2010.

The spokesman said some of those departments appointed as joint owners of the DWP CISx had contributed to its development costs.

"IPS and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) reimbursed DWP the cost of developing the original CISx service assets, apart from the development of a financial management tool for the use of CISx services by OGDs (other government departments), which was paid for by DWP...IPS also paid for the development of technical changes to CIS."

The DWP made no reference to HMRC, one of the other departments that had been appointed joint owners of CISx. Neither did it specify amounts paid by each department.

The DWP had tried to establish an innovative means of governing the development and operation of its cross-government system. Such a system had never been built before. The governance model was untried.

The DWP elected to act as though it were an IT services company. Other government departments in on the CISx plan would become commissioners. The governance model proved unworkable.

"CISx proposed a Commissioner/Provider model and shared governance arrangements, with users of CIS acting as Commissioners and the DWP acting as the Provider," said the DWP spokesman's email.

"The DWP has decided not to adopt this model to avoid overhead costs that would otherwise need to be borne by the Commissioners and because experience led the Department to conclude that the model did not provide significant benefits over existing governance arrangements," he added.

The DWP accepted the IPS' request for the CISx in 2007 after establishing loose agreement over the system of governance with IPS, HMRC and DVLA.

Open data sop or not

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If all public information is public and anyone can do what they like with it then...

"You don't need us," concluded one local authority executive at Socitm's 2010 conference in Brighton last month.

Is the public sector really sowing the seeds of its own demise with the open data initiative?

Like a swimming pool with no sides, if you let it all go free it may just all go: snapped up by precocious little bands of XML nerds and sold on as a profitable service to those citizens who can afford to pay for it.

In old bureaucratic Britain, public data belonged to everyone but was accessible to none. Soon it will be accessible to all but decipherable only by those who like to play with data analysis tools in their spare time.

That's the fear: that the transparency agenda will transform the periphery of government, while the centre of power retains its confidentiality and therefore integrity. That the open data revolution, with its publication of contracts and right to public data sets, will indeed improve accountability, but not as much as it nourishes the private sector.

The result may be a powerful centre and a private periphery. Let's not forget that local authorities may have schools and police forces snatched from them too. Devolution it is, but where to?

Smash the establishment

This poses an existential problem for those agencies that live from the sale of repurposed data. The Ordnance Survey and Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy are two that have come under the open data spotlight, and for whom free data may mean burst borders.

Still, you can't have a revolution without breaking some heads. The BBC, for example, is a national treasure, but its archive is public and should be free for all who have a TV licence, while rights holders and stars should say farewell to upper-middle-class luxuries, trumped up circus performers that they are. Their privileges are simply unsustainable in a networked world.

More prosaically, Dane Wright, the Brent Council IT strategy manager at the vanguard of these changes, believes open data will lead to the demise not of the public sector but merely to some of its activities.

Deloitte gave an inkling of what will be first for the chop in a report for Leicester County Council last year. It had the equivalent of 92 staff employed at a cost of £3.7m a year managing 3,000 datasets designed to satisfy central government demands. These functions will be consolidated and shared, their job will be to simply manage a plantation of data sources. The data free-for-all-will also clear much of the impenetrable jungle of public websites and the staff who manage them as well.

Sack the IT dept.

Perhaps those ICT staff sacked as open data inefficiencies will form mutuals to repurpose the data they used to work so hard to keep private for public bodies.

Matters will be complicated when the coalition's Local Government Bill gives councils free reign to compete with private companies.

Yet even though free data will eventually not be free but traded, this sour interpretation of the initiative belies its undeniable and vigorous optimism. It is a liberation, after all.

It may have looked like Tory opportunism, but the possibility that private companies will be forced to open their data when they work on public projects is the surest sign yet that the open data movement's higher ideals have survived its adoption by government.

Someone must now clarify exactly what in this androgynous world will be private but public. That is, what the public can claim a right to without getting screwed.

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