Recently in Sir Humphrey Category

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.


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!

UK shakes dust off open source policy

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Liam Maxwell jazz hands.pngIf it looked like UK open source policy, just recently exhumed, had already been swept back under the same carpet it has been kept under since it was first launched two and a half years ago, the announcement yesterday that Liam Maxwell had acquired responsibility for it with a Cabinet Office portfolio did surprisingly little to improve its mien.

It is then just as well Cabinet Office is about to announce long-overdue progress in its cause of creating a level-playing field for open source software. Because the new appointment will need all the help he can get.

No matter that Maxwell is head of IT and has taught at Eton, the toff school that groomed Prime Minister David Cameron for power. Whoopee-do that he wrote Tory Tech Policy and the open source strategy now being executed by the Cabinet Office. Yawn, 'scuse me, but it is of little significance that he did all this simultaneously and even as he held the ICT portfolio at Windsor & Maidenhead Borough Council, where he waved a shitty stick at Microsoft and championed open standards. He might appear like superman. But you'd have to think twice about it since he agreed to take this Cabinet Office job.

Because Maxwell's only going to be Cabinet Office Director of ICT Futures for 11 months. It was a full time job. Yet he's taken it on secondment with no explanation. As one interested observer put it, that gives him about a 0.00001 per cent chance of getting anything done.

Think about it, said this observer. He turns up at his allotted desk on 1 September. He learns where the toilets are and that sort of thing. That will take him till December. He'll then produce a report and call some meetings. But what will Sir Humphrey and all the other old goats in the civil service make of him?

"These are hardened civil servants who wait for ministers to go by, and for governments to change," said said observer. If they know he's only going to be there for 11 months, will they deign to jump when he says so?

Then Maxwell is said to be in possession of intelligence that the same attitude has been adopted by the Boo Hissstems Integrators who control the public sector ICT oligopoly.

Maxwell's assigned team have already been asking nicely would the integrators please do more open source software, on which they could less likely fleece government with oligopoly rents. Maxwell is said to be in possession of a report in which a Boo Hissstems integrator says, don't worry about all this open source lark, it'll blow over: just hang tight till this lot get voted out of government.

Some fringe elements in the civil service may have acquired outlandish ideas about getting things done since they started entertaining members of the Agile systems development cult, but they've got to be wearing some pretty loud disco trousers if they think Maxwell will get their agenda pushed through in just 11 months.

On top of open source he's been charged with making government the sort of place that gets things done. He might do that first. Then he's been asked to implement open standards policy, which was recently cut back, reform procurement for the sake of SMEs, and advise on using new technology.

A catty observer might ask why a man of Maxwell's talents wasn't given a permanent job. But the clue might be in the title. A "director of ICT futures", is like any futurologist, the sort of chap you put in a dicky bow and roll out to do slots on the radio about kerrazy ideas like floating cars and open source software. Mickey Mouse likes to wear a dicky bow. Maxwell, who's been seconded by Eton, might want to get back to some proper work when he's finished doing jazz hands for open source.


The appointment took a vaudeville turn when Cabinet Office announced it yesterday. It had been talking to Maxwell about taking the "director of ICT futures" post since January. Ian Watmore was said to be keen on him. Tory Tech command was practically his brain child anyway. But there was some debate about whether he "could or should take the job", said someone close to the negotiations. It was a matter of some "delicacy" which remains unexplained.

Cabinet Office initially announced he had been appointed "Director of ICT Futures". Then said he wasn't actually going in at director level after all. He was going to be a non-permanent advisor though the job description was precisely the same as the one it had advertised for "Director of ICT Futures".

Whatever his title, many of those SMEs now in his care will be wondering if the Eton boy wonder's temp contract will be handled by Boo-Hissstems integrator Capita like all the other temp contracts it recently took from SMEs with Cabinet Office permission.

Chin job

The Cabinet Office has meanwhile managed after six months of work behind the scenes to establish another talking shop for its ICT policy. The long-promised open source advisory panel will have its articles of incorporation signed off Wednesday.

Computer Weekly was told the wet-ink proposal involves the production of a web site in which government departments can seek advice from "the community" on the acquisition of open source software.

The arrangements were made by the Public Sector Group of industry lobby Open Forum Europe, which in December (some two years after it formed) scored its first significant success by recruiting Cabinet Office operator Qamar Yunus as joint chair. It's membership is notable for its absence of big hitters from the heffing departments of state DWP, HMRC and MOD.

There are also unconfirmed reports Cabinet Office is about to produce the final open source reference stack (a list of approved open source software) on which it first sought advice from "the community" back in February. Verily, at this pace of change old Liam Maxwell could be in and out the Cabinet Office with such agility no one even notices he was there.

Whitehall power brokers pick at Open Sores

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Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom is about as reliable a source as a Libdem election promise or a Tory public service.

The ostensible data sharing tzar has nevertheless published a book of absurd tweets that might help distract you, if but momentarily, from the despair of working another January day in the pay of some tyrannical bureaucrat or despotic bourgeois.

They are as reliable as a Blairite dodgy dossier, but a single Sir Bonar tweet is said still to contain more truth than a whole year of government press releases. That's despite the fact that they're all utterly untruthful, especially the ones about private companies who might sue for libel.

But don't buy the book, ffs. It's sad enough that you are reading this blog.

We read it so you don't have to. Here's what he had to say about open source in government.

"Microsoft advise me that all this Open Source business is overrated. Fine for fanatics, but not for serious business."

"Indeed, one hardly gets invited to Lords by Open Office plc, does one?"

"We in the civil service feel that the OpenOffice and suchlike are perhaps more appropriate for the voluntary sector and the Third World."

"I am also advised that Open Source software is unAmerican, and using it therefore possibly prejudicial to the Special Relationship."

"I find the public spiritedness of government's major IT suppliers encouraging; hear-warming, in fact."

"It's a fine day at the Oval, and circumstances are very propitious for discussing the achievements of the CRB working with Capita."

"By Capita's projections, 80,000 incidents of abuse have been saved by the interventions of the CRB - my, that one turned!"

"It would be ludicrous to suggest that conduct could be influenced by the offer of a meal or attendance at a function."

"I've just received some apparently extremely important documents sent by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. I look forward to reading them."

"We've had them sent out to be converted into Microsoft Word. Patricia can print them out and I'll have a look."

"Just had a excellent luncheon courtesy of our friends at FACT (the Federation Against Copyright Theft) UK. They do the most tremendous work."

"EDS are the most fearful bores and Experian are somewhat arriviste. The best catering is done by a firm called Trafigura."

"EMC's top brass keep telling me about Data Whorehouses. Is this some kind of Texan joke?"

DirectGov spunks £200m

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Has DirectGov really spent £200m producing websites, Jerry Fishenden, LSE fop, former Microsoft suit, and general man about town, asked last year.

Since Fishenden had asked the question via Twitter of Sir Bonar-Neville Kingdom, the ostensible Data Sharing Czar of Her Majesty's government, we have to wonder whether whether standards might be slipping at the London School of Economics. Or whether, as Sir Bonar has himself remarked, Autumn 2009 was a particularly good season for mushrooms. 

Nevertheless, it was this week that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude pledged an historic review of the government's web site estate. It's historic in the sense that we never had so many websites to scrap before.

We've already seen DirectGov's top brass cleared out. This is but the beginning. To mark the occasion, it would be worthless republishing Tweets written on the matter by Sir Bonar, HM Government's first official Twit. That's why we're doing it here.

His Tweets, it is whispered around the fagging sheds outside the corridors of power, have had civil servants squirming in their seats.

"I have no doubt the £66m spend by the DoH in the last three years on two of its Web Sites is excellent Value for Money."

"We will further improve the DoH Web Sites by getting rid of most of them. This will be a great improvement."

"We feel Transform's DirectGov report represents fair value for what we paid them."

"The confirmation of DirectGov's central role as government's Web Publishing Platform in the Transform report is uncontentious."

"Incidentally, we are rebranding Directgov as "DirectGov" to give it a more comtempory feel."

"Now we can recommission these absurdly cheap MySociety Web Sites from proper suppliers like IBM, ATOS and Qinetic."

"One could hardly sustain an indigenous IT industry on the unrealistic budgets bandied about by these NGOs. We need serious Web Sites."

"I feel we should shut down Google and use DirectGov and a national email service. As I recall CESG developed one..."

"Clearly we need a Government Search Engine. We could call it"

"The UK's flagship Web Site Direct Gov is still looking for a head of innovation. Please apply by last August."

"I have a splendid idea: let's dust down that old promise to put all public services online. It always works!".

"We must be seen to be active. Let us launch official versions of things which people are successfully doing already!"

"We should promote democracy with a web site. We could call it"

"Let's promote the government agenda for mothers with a website, called both and, just to be sure."

"We must ensure that any feedback about Health Services comes from authorized sources via an approved contractor such as capita."

"In light of the irresponsibility of the news media we propose a new Government Newspaper. We plan to call it"

Sir Bonar has published Tweets in a book, at the launch of which he gave a rather tedious speech you can watch here.

IT openness is coming - Cabinet Office

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Government CIO John Suffolk and his colleagues are preparing plans for the publication of IT-related documents that have always been secret and  difficult to obtain even under the Freedom of Information Act.

The plans include the publication of:

- Gateway reviews

- Project reports of all types

- Risk registers

Business cases

- Minutes of project meetings

- Health Check reports

Is summary care record being reviewed because all IT-based projects are being reviewed?

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When NPfIT minister Simon Burns declared in a letter to the BMA that the government was reviewing the summary care records scheme, his announcement came at a good time: GPs were voting at their annual conference on motions to scrap the scheme.

Burns' letter was read out at the Local Medical Committees' annual conference last week. His promise of an SCR review averted a row with local GPs and the BMA.

Now it turns out that the Government is reviewing hundreds of large public sector projects that have a substantial IT element, including the summary records and indeed the £13bn NPfIT.

So Burns was announcing to the BMA a project review that would have happened anyway, as part of Cabinet Office ICT policy.

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.

Tory manifesto: what about the promise to publish Gateway reviews?

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On the "Make IT Better" website, which is run by the Conservative Party, is a promise to publish  gateway reviews "when they are produced, and allow the public to scrutinise the value and progress of a project".

This was confirmed in my interview with Francis Maude, the Shadow Conservative Cabinet Office minister.

But the Tory promise to publish all gateway reviews in full didn't make it into the draft Conservative manifesto - nor into the Conservative Manifesto 2010 which was published yesterday.

There's not a single mention of gateway reviews in the Manifesto.

But Conservative Central Office insisted yesterday that the Party plans to publish "all gateway reviews". Its spokesman Giles Kenningham said in an email to me:

 "We will publish all gateway reviews. I don't think we can be any clearer."

Socitm identifies the big flaw in Government IT

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Government CIOs can bring about only limited organisational change - and that may be the biggest single weakness in their job descriptions.

It's a subject touched on in an excellent policy briefing paper which is newly-issued by Socitm, the association for local government IT professionals.

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