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Government standards vehicle driven by "clueless fuckwittery"

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A senior member of a leading British tech standards body has launched an excoriating attack on Cabinet Office efforts to implement the central plank of its ICT Strategy.

The outburst has opened a crack into the secretive world of formal tech standards, suggesting it may be convulsed in a fit of pique not seen since Microsoft got its derided OOXML document format passed by standards bodies around the world in 2008.

Alex Brown, British Standards Institute committee member infamous for overseeing OOXML's approval, said in his personal blog how he had become exasperated with government efforts to bring ICT standards in line with its policy of easy interoperability of public computer systems.

Alex Brown.pngCabinet Office had given formal standards wonks a "kick in the teeth" with its attempt to create an approved set of government ICT standards, said Brown.

A public survey of favoured ICT standards opened by Cabinet Office in February was technically "ignorant", said the expert.

"Faced with such clueless fuckwittery it's tempting simply to ask: what's the point?" said Brown, who sits on IST/41, the BSI standards committee responsible for document formats.

Francis Cave, IST/41 chairman, refused to comment on Brown's outburst or the Cabinet Office consultation.

BSI standards bodies are so secret that members (who have typically invested a life's career in such work) face the threat of excommunication if they talk about proceedings.

The whole episode has nevertheless shown how the British Standards Institute has been thrust into a corner by the current trend for transparency and the Cabinet Office's apparent preference for crowd-sourcing standards from a church of people that may include the great unwashed.

The situation is said to have "gone toxic", with Brown's blue language drawing approval from at least some of his colleagues.

Garbage in, garbage out

The most offensive element of the Cabinet Office survey has been, it is said, its technical inferiority. It was stuffed with mistakes that - it is feared - may lead to useless survey results on which Cabinet Office will subsequently base its standards policy.

This has become a serious matter since the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy said it would "impose" standards across government.

This was a popular policy in a polity paralysed by proprietary technologies: the UK is setting an example, and Cabinet Office decisions on standards will have ramifications perhaps big enough even to change the landscape of the IT industry. Yet the Cabinet Office has raised questions about its technical authority with its first move.

Cabinet Office Standards Survey.pngMany of its mistakes are in the field of document standards in which Brown's IST/41 committee operates.

They include the repeated presentation of proprietary Microsoft document formats as options for formal government standards, despite government strategy being shaped by the icy grip proprietary formats have on the public purse.

The ICT strategy had already raised doubts about the Cabinet Office's commitment to open standards.

It had in February published a Public Procurement Policy Note declaring the public sector should use open standards.

Gerry Gavigan, who represents the Open Source Consortium on IST/41, pointed out that only a month later the ICT Strategy had downgraded the requirement to "common standards".

Conservative pragmatism has infected the coalition ICT Strategy with the belief that it would be impractical to impose open standards where industry already makes common use of de facto formats. The ICT Strategy nevertheless promised to make mandation of an open document format the first of its formal declarations.

ISO Protest Banner.pngReformation

This open / common dichotomy and the BSI's apparent ancillary part in it, point to the the bigger story behind Brown's blog.

That is the existential threat the Cabinet Office reforms may pose for the British Standards Institute itself, and the secretive, formal standard setting process that runs right up to the International Standards Organisation in Geneva.

"What's the point" of putting your heart and soul into a formal standards process when it can be undermined by an ill-thought-out public consultation, said Brown's blog.

Gavigan went further in another recent article, claiming the Cabinet Office's open consultation over standards "undermines the whole standards process which the government funds BSI to deliver".

The failure and, it was alleged at the time, susceptibility of that process to corruption may have been demonstrated by the OOXML affair.

The alleged corruption was never confirmed, to this correspondent's knowledge. But it has for more substantial reasons left the process with a stigmata that goes right to the heart of government policy.

The culture of transparency that has swept along in the wake of Sir Tim Berners Lee's open data initiative has in addition made the BSI look anachronistic.

The Cabinet Office's failure to involve the standards body in its own consultation and policy formation now make it look like the BSI's days are numbered. But the Cabinet Office's own lack of transparency can make anyone look that way.

The Cabinet Office was, as usual, unavailable for comment.

Both bodies are ripe for an equal dose of transparency and openness.

DWP ID Plan - read the Restricted report

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Why would the DWP have supported the hair-brained Home Office plan to commandeer its computer assets for the Identity Card Scheme? Vanity, of course.

You can see what the DWP thought of the plan by reading the restricted policy document that comprised its approval, Use of the Customer Information System as a shared, cross-Government asset.

Thumbnail image for DWP CISx Preliminary Feasibility - report cover - Use of the CIS as a shared cross-Government asset.jpgThe DWP fawned over futile ID plan. "Pioneering," they called it. You may remember, the idea was to take Europe's largest public database of personal records, the DWP's Customer Information System (CIS), and bolt it onto the ID system to create a biographic record of everyone who carried an identity card.

It was to be the first project of its kind in the history of government. It would put the DWP at the vanguard of the Labour government's Transformational Government strategy.

"Using CIS as a shared cross-Government asset puts DWP in the lead in the Transformational Government Strategy and cross-Government co-operation. Sharing CIS supports some of the Government's most important strategic goals such as joined-up Government and the re-use of assets. It allows the release of efficiencies across the system and supports delivery that is more focused on customer needs."

Thus enthused Martin Bellamy, the DWP's then Pensions IS director. To be fair on Bellamy, who is now ICT Director for prisons, he did say the obstacles should be cleared before the work went ahead. So why did he and the IPS recommend going ahead without first eliminating those problems that, it would later transpire, were insurmountable?

Bellamy's preliminary feasibility study gave the cross-departmental green light despite the plan's gaping holes.

But the final word came from the Identity and Passport Service, whose official Feasibility Study gave ministers the confidence to approve the flawed plan. We'll come back to that later.

For now, one might say that hindsight is all very well, and feasibility is an art, not a science. Feasibility Studies are technical manifestos: a declaration of intent; a conspectus of what consensus there is to have something done. The art of the feasible is always a gamble.  Done properly, however, it gives the odds; it doesn't attempt to swing them.

Advisers foretold ID's doom

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The Identity Card Scheme offers a lesson in the infeasibility of IT systems held to political ransom. The cost of failure was too high for the Labour government. So the Home Office pressed on Quixotically with the system, despite never overcoming its critical weaknesses.

The picture that has emerged with the publication of last week's Independent Scheme Assurance Panel report is one of a government department hashing together on the fly a system of a size, complexity and sensitivity never before attempted. It may have been too big to fail, but it was also too much to handle.

The Home Office was obliged over the years to issue empty assurances that everything was under control and that it was addressing the repeated warnings given by ISAP. Can you handle a project of this size and complexity, asked ISAP in 2007. Yeah, 'course we can, said the Home Office - we've recruited some more executives.

In failing to deliver on those assurances, the department gave an indication of the amount of strain its IT experts must have been under. Working on a panacea project must be like happy-clapping at a cult.

The inconvenient imperfections of the ID plan were spelled out clearly in ISAP's 2007 report, compiled in the year after the Home Office cut the ribbon on the system blueprint and set their IT chumlies off on their futile quest.

After three years of development, the problems still had to be addressed. And very little of the blame could be put on the poor techies building the system. The snags were political. The fault was incompetent ministerial direction.

Writing on the wall

Data security risks identified in 2007 were never brought under control. And much else ISAP and good sense required of the ID project in 2007 was never fully addressed.

Public trust essential to the scheme was never secured. Inter-departmental differences over the accountability, funding and ownership of the cross-government system architecture were never settled. A "robust and transparent" system of data governance was never established. The system requirements were never properly defined and neither were its benefits, though both were crucial, it was and is commonly said, before the system could be properly designed.

Vital skilled staff were never recruited. A system of competent organisational governance was never established. Cross-government support was ever obtained and a cross-government standard of identity data and management was never agreed.

It was being built, against ISAP's advice and accepted wisdom, on "shifting sands". And contracts with suppliers were let, to satisfy a political timetable, despite these crucial preliminaries not being clarified.

This must have been especially awkward for the Home Office and may explain why it disbanded ISAP in 2009. No matter that the oversight panel was set up after the Home Affairs Select Committee said in 2004 that the Gateway review process (through which the Office of Government Commerce usually seeks to prevent embarrassing IT failures) couldn't be trusted to oversee a "project of this scale". Don't worry, said the Home Office, we'll set up an independent oversight board.

Had the Home Office given ISAP more credence, a lot of time and money may have been saved. The panel's first public warning put the writing on the wall: data loss will lead to a loss of public trust that, it implied, would be the project's ruin. There were real risks of data loss, it said. Something had better be done about it because people won't stand for it.

Mind bending

This was to be done with a PR exercise that would win public trust by showing how security concerns had been addressed. People would be told the system's tolerance for errors. Said system would have not only to be "robust" but also "well respected".

The problem was swept under the carpet. Civil servants were being sacked for snooping on the Customer Information System (the DWP database that was to form the biographical core of the ID system) before the scheme began. They were still being sacked after the scheme was scrapped in 2010. The DWP's precautions were shoddy, the security leaks were proving unmanageable and the DWP refused to reveal the error tolerance of the CIS. It may not even have known.

You have to wonder how the ISAP overseers felt about it all in the end. Nokia CEO John Clarke, Cranfield Professor Brian Collins, ex-First Direct Bank CEO Alan Hughes, BAA IT director Malcolm Mitchell, and ex-HSBC Bank CIO Fergie Williams: these sort of people are not used to being fobbed off.

Being from the commercial world, they are also accustomed to developing systems that rely for their success on customer choice. Paradoxically, they advised that the ID scheme would only succeed if everyone was forced to use it. This exposed the lie in Blair's ID sales patter, the come-on-you-know-you-want-it approach to civil security: everyone was going to get it anyway, whether they liked it or not.

Sad ending

"To be successful," the ISAP said, "the scheme has to become the government's (and the commercial sector's) primary means of identifying individuals and controlling updates to and use of their data."

It sounds preposterous now. Citizens no more like the Home Office watching them for their own good than foreigners like having bombs dropped on their heads for their own good.

The ID scheme gives us one other amusing paradox to ponder. From ISAP's perspective, it demonstrated how a lack of transparency in public policy and execution led inevitably to costly failure. Yet had the government come clean about the risks, it may never have won the public's support in the first place.

Transparency is the only hope we have of overcome the endemic problem of public databases being snooped.

What support people had given ID was befooled. The sands shifted so much under the ID scheme that it's hard to say what it was meant to do in the first place. Someone should nose around the Home Office with that very same question in mind. When they come across its fascistic database of identity-carded foreigners they might ponder whether it would ever have been approved either had the opening sales gambit not been ID-for-all.

Hansard's cloud plan

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Hansard Broadcast Improvement Plan Systems Diagram.jpg
Diagram produced by The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office and published in its July 2010 Report, Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan - a scheme to improve the publication of Hansard data on the web by making greater use of its multimedia recordings.

The diagram (click on image to enlarge) describes two scenarios for embedding indexed multimedia recordings of Parliamentary proceedings in text transcripts published on Hansard's web pages.

It was envisaged that once PICT had developed a Hansard API that could deliver video into web pages, it could make the facility available to anyone who wanted to embed recordings of Parliamentary proceedings into their blogs or wotnot.

One of the project's over-riding objectives was: "To improve access to Parliamentary content by using open standards to achieve maximum possible audience reach, both today and in the future."

The second of the options shown in the diagram shows PICT's recommended Hansard Improvement Plan. The mass transfer of Hansard data into a cloud repository would provide an opportunity to do a bulk transcoding at the same time. The transcoding would convert Hansard's data from proprietary multimedia formats over which there were inherent usage restrictions that contravened its "maximum possible audience" aim. It would encase them with open standards.

PICT provided a definition of Transcoding in its feasibility study for the Improvement Plan: "This is usually done to incompatible or obsolete data in order to convert it into a more suitable format."

Choose and Book denies cancer patient an appointment, saying he's dead

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The danger of wrong data on an NPfIT system: a man with cancer couldn't make an appointment because a local Choose and Book system showed he was dead.

The Daily Mail reports the story under the headline:

"Sorry, you can't have an appointment... you're dead: Hospital refuses to see cancer sufferer because he's deceased."

At first glance the story could be vaguely amusing - if you're not the man involved; and if you ignore the fact that the government is continuing with uploads of incorrect data to NPfIT systems.

A report by University College London is due to be published tomorrow which will highlight inconsistencies, omissions and inaccuracies in data uploaded to the BT-run Summary Care Record database. The uploads will continue despite the well-informed criticisms of the scheme in the report.

The report's research was led by  Professor Trisha Greenhalgh who spoke with force and authority at the Smartgov conference in London yesterday. She criticised the government for continuing with the summary care records without taking any notice of what's in her team's report. This is despite taxpayers having spent nearly £1m on the Greenhalgh-led SCR research.

Highlights of confidential UCL report on summary care records

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A report by University College London on the summary care record scheme is expected to be published on Thursday.

Today this blog publishes highlights from a draft of the UCL SCR report.

It'll be interesting to compare the draft and final reports to see whether the Department of Health has softened any of the already-nuanced messages in the draft report.

In 2006 draft reports of the National Audit Office on the NPfIT went on a journey from criticism to praise. They went through a "clearance" process in which the Department of Health recommended many changes and PR-related additions before final publication.

iSoft apologies over its CSC and NPfIT statements

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Today (June 7, 2010) iSoft issued a formal apology over a statement it made last week which suggested that a deferral of decisions in relation to the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) for its partner CSC was due to an uncertain political climate in the UK and ensuing election.

iSoft had further suggested that government change was a reason for delays in NPfIT procurements in the South of England.

"Both these statements were iSoft's opinion and cannot be taken as fact. iSoft remains fully committed to delivering the NPfIT with its partner, CSC, and building on recent success and apologises for any unintended criticism of either the NHS or CSC," says iSoft today.

Ex-NPfIT "owner" speaks publicly about scheme for first time since he quit

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Aidan Halligan was the joint senior responsible owner of the NPfIT in 2004, a role he shared with the then head of the programme, Richard Granger.

Always a man who had a realistic respect for the NPfIT's challenges, Halligan quit as joint NPfIT senior responsible owner after only six months in the role, for reasons which were never given.

Before his departure he had acknowledged that not enough had been done to win the support of clinicians.

Their buy-in, he had said, was critical to the success of the NPfIT. He said in 2004:

"There has not been much engagement by clinicians in the early stages of the programme and for that, I apologise. We do need to be open and honest and the most important part of communication is listening."

With prescience, he had also said that the NPfIT would not work unless it was owned locally.

Does this help explain why CfH suspended some Summary Care Records uploads?

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Most primary care trusts taking part in the "accelerated" SCR roll-out were not planning SCR uploads even before the suspension

Primary care trusts took financial incentives from the government for mailing out millions of patient information packs on the summary care records [SCR] scheme although most of them had no plans to create SCRs.

Of about 70 PCTs that took part in Public Information Programmes to inform the public on the summary care records scheme, only nine were planning uploads of records, according to figures released by NHS Connecting for Health.

The CfH figures confirm one of the findings in a confidential draft report by University College London on its independent evaluation of the Summary Care Record and Healthspace programmes.

The UCL report said that some PCTs have been keen to send out information to patients to take advantage of government one-off funding offers but have no current plans to commence SCR creation.

Summary Care Records: the truth or nothing like it?

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Richard Veryard has written a response to our report on inaccuracies and ommisions in the Summary Care Records database. He writes:"What's wrong with the single version of truth."

Researchers at University College, London, found in a confidential draft report that doctors were unable to trust the SCR database as a single source of truth.

NHS Connecting for Health has pointed out that errors and gaps in the SCR database are not its fault - they're because of problems with GP-held data.

CfH's response characterises its approach to the NPfIT: if problems are not of its own making, they don't particularly matter.

But if large numbers of clinicians access the SCR and find the data is untrustworthy, they may decide not to take the time to use it again, which could be a disaster for the SCR, though not for CfH.

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