December 2011 Archives

Did Westminster and Kensington stuff BDUK for Christmas?

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Shortly before Christmas the FT carried news that O2 had beaten Sky and Virgin to win a  contract to provide wifi to Westminster in time for the Olympics. The article speculated that this could provide a model for other councils. The recommendation of the Officers to Kensington (which will share the deal) indicates that the cost of the consultants who helped negotiate the deal was £9,000. It does not state the cost of legal advice but I am told this was not much more. I commented on the expertise of the small consultancies advising Local Authorities compared to the competance of the big names advising Central Government when the Country Alliance wrongly blamed councils for delay in spending the sums allocated to help bring forward investment in rural broadband caused by the latter. I had not realised quite what good value some of those used by local government were. 

If your local council has a choice between receiving an upfront payment plus profit share for getting ubiquitous broadband by the time of the Olympics and bidding for an unknown share of £100 million (which will be shared with at least ten others, not received before late 2012 and matched from funds they have not got), what would you expect them to do?  Given that their choices, unlike those made by Central Government, are open to public scrutiny, what would you think of them if they spent your money participating in another Whitehall inspired procurement paperchase instead of trying to copy Westminster and Kensington?  

KYC = Kompromise Your Customer (by exposing their credentials to unnecessary risk)

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My Christmas Message sparked a small flame war with an accusation (probably tongue in check) that those who q uery doom and gloom scenarios are damaging bids for information security budgets and research projects by introducing a dose of reality. I then spent a couple of hours  of on-line research (alias semi-random browsing) beginning with Alex Muffett's blog entry  on "Londoncyber: our very own Star Trek Conference" and his presentation "Why Cybersecurity is Rubbish" and ending with "Pirates of the ISPs: tactics for turning on-line crooks into international pariahs".

I then enjoyed a  discussion on how much of the growing jungle of regulation to supposedly "reduce" the risk of fraud and compromise is not only worthless, but serves to actively increase it.  The first example was all those "know you customer" routines which require you to carry that which a mugger can sell to those who will use it to obtain electronic credentials in your name. Copies are then stored with sometimes spectacular insecurity.


The answers are out there - the scale of the skills challenge

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It is just over thirty years since I did a presentation on the implications of "Intelligent Systems" for the 1981 Sperry annual press seminar. It was published in two versions, one by Ellis Horwood (alongside the other presentations) and one, with added political recommendations, by the Bow Group as "Learning for Change". Both were roundly condemned by the members academic and teaching establishments for comments such as:

"It [the rise of Intelligent Systems] removes the main justification for the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueller than those of primitive Africa. At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures!"


"Given the PhD rat race and the scramble to publish, the effects of worldwide indexing and updating and the exchange of information over teleconference links could be interesting ... "

A key message was that we would move into a world of multi-career lives for which:

"Retraining at reasonable cost, social cost as well as economic cost, should be available at any stage of life, indepenedent of the desires, means or needsof the current employers."

The version published by the Bow Group concluded 

" ... throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis .. may well help to promote them."     

It sold out and was unavailable until Ian Brown at the Oxford Internet Institute kindly put it on-line as part of an exercise to look at past predictions of the future.

The long predicted financial crisis is now upon us. One of my current tasks as Executive Chairman of the Conservative Technology is to get the younger generation to look at how to build an education system fit for the 21st Century out of the detritus of one which was not fit for the latter half of the 20th Century.

One of the most interesting immediate challenges is to counter the rush to save public money money by switching to on-line examination and automated marking systems, with the results recorded in a "skills passport". This is happening at the same time as the view is growing among those who really do need well-educated and creative talent that, "the only valid examination is an Oxbridge viva" because for everything else "the answers are out there" available to download via your smart phone.

Employers are therefore having to set up their own routines to check that recruits have the knowledge, abilities and aptitudes they need, regardless of what their CV, skills passport or other accreditation claims. This is particularly so with regard to security posts, where technical competance is only one of dimensions to be assessed 

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Will this be the last censorship-free Internet Christmas?

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I found the e-mail below in my junk mail. It may help explain the evolving debate over Cybersecurity.


Sent: 17 December 2011 09:41
Cc: s

Subject: Outsourcing communications for the "Evolutionary Application of Random Trends and Happenings" Project
Importance: High


To Joint Earth Systems Usability Supervisor


I gave you a millennium to get celestial communications working in perfect harmony on the 3rd rock from an insignificant sun. After nearly two millennia of fratricide and tribal genocide in my name, your teams have finally got as far as a sporadically functional terrestrial network with no in-built security. Meanwhile they are cooking the planet because they are using the network to play games (from the harmless and amusing to the malicious and vicious) with each other, instead of trying understand what is happening around them.  


I've therefore decided to outsource the communications security stream of the EARTH project to SAnctimonious Totalitarians ANonymous next year.


Alternatively you have a week to go back and start fixing it - hands-on this time - no delegation.

General Operations Director

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Digital by Default versus Cybersecurity: herding the sheep on-line to be fleeced

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The formation of government policy has been compared to herding sheep. You check the walls and fences (with ministerial statements as to what will NOT be done) and close the gates (with negative answers to Parliamentary  Questions about unwanted options),  leaving only on line of retreat for when the media dogs panic the sheep. On Sunday night I watched the first episode of the new series of "One man and his Dog". The main difference was that the shepherds had a specified series of objectives to achieve and the performance marking system was also agreed in advance, even if the dogs who were to the work had no more idea than the sheep as to what the objectives were. 

When HMG announces a cross-cutting strategy it will be that set of compromises which the Cabinet Office can negotiate between the departmental tribes of Whitehall and those of Downing Street, coated with layers of spin and wishful thinking. What is delivered (before it is forgotten or changed) will be those actions which fit departmental objectives and for which there are budgets.  This pattern of behaviour derives from the Haldane Report in 1918, which began the restructuring of public services, (benefits, education, health, welfare etc.)  around centralised vertical silos, fit for a steam-age Nation State.  In 1968 the Fulton Report  recommended the professionalization of the Civil service, for the age of data processing.

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The Countryside Alliance opens the BDUK shooting season

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I have commented before on how the BDUK framework process gets in the way of joining up the sources of funding available for investment in rural broadband and the need for its approach to be overhauled so that it is part of the solution, not the problem.

Today the BBC carries the story that progress on Rural Broadband is stalled.

It is over a year since funding for the first four rural broadband projects was approved - and nothing has happened. The feature does not mention that nothing will happen for at least another year if the original BDUK timetable is followed.

The “spin” is to blame the councils, as though they need the expertise of Whitehall to help them. But at least two of those named in the BBC article have had advice from those involved in the procurement of world-class next generation network services to global inter-operability standards. Meanwhile I am told that, until very recently, none of the advisors or consultants employed by BDUK had been involved in a major network procurement in recent years - let alone one designed as part of a “next generation network” infrastructure.

The BDUK has been strengthened -  but DCMS appears to be stuck defending an approach that is based on the centralised procurement practice of the 1990s that brought us the National Plan for NHS IT as well as a series of communications procurements (like OCEAN) that were eventually cancelled after years of spend and delay. Meanwhile there is clear, albiet not well publicised, evidence that a world of competing procurement services, as in local government, produces better value for money.

It is time for ministers to insist on the implementation of policies that meet their original instructions - not an approach that is stuck in the traditional “Whitehall and its consultants know best” mode of thinking.

The need is to ensure that Councils have local access to world-class advice on how to bring together all the various sources of funding, (from home improvers and property developers willing to pay up front for fibre to the home, hotel or business park, from their own service delivery budgets and those of the local operations of central government, from the various pots of DCMS, DEFRA and those that we might, or might not, get from the EU etc.), in incremental programmes that allow the quality (not just nominal speed) of local delivery to evolve and accelerate over time. That should also enable councils to draw in support from infrastructure builders and operators, from pension funds and from savers seeking a better return than a building society), who are seeking long-term utility investments - and thus help pull through economic recovery - the theme of my last blog.  

Attracting commercial investment funding will necessitate addressing the inter-operability and future- proofing issues raised in the session organised by the Information Society Alliance at the recent Parliament and the Internet Conference on joining up network investment programmes. The good news is that at the technical level the “solutions” have been found and demonstrated around the world - even if they are being resisted for narrow commercial and regulatory reasons in the UK. The residual need is to remove the fiscal and regulatory barriers that prevent players from pooling the resources available so that local authorities can ensure that their communities have access to upgradable networks that operate to the latest international technical and operating standards - whether or not these fit the model that lies behind the BDUK framework.  

Whether these networks are then “owned” by Arqiva, BT, BSkyB, Virgin, Vodafone, Borsetshire Council or Ambridge Community Broadband is less important - provided they are built, equipped, operated and maintained to whatever upgradeable subset of global standards the available funding will support.

Towards a market-driven, investment led, economic recovery

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The Chancellors' Autumn Statement is a delicate balancing act between action to prevent melt-down, (by keeping HMG's borrowing costs under control), and the need to win the next election (so as to avoid a return to the policies that brought us to where we are today). Candour about the scale and nature of the problems we face (and how they came about) would probably not help achieve either objective.

Meanwhile agreement that the actions proposed need to be complemented by an "industrial strategy" masks disagreement as to whether this should be based on top down government-led planning or on removing the obstacles that prevent "market forces" from operating constructively. Neither is a panacea and the failure of previous UK central government planning (from picking winners to regional policies) gives little confidence that the officials, advisors and consultants of today will do any better than their predecessors.

The UK is the last of the "20th century, steam age, centralised nation states". Over a third of the members of the European Union (and nearly two thirds of US states) have smaller populations than Yorkshire or Scotland). Most of those that are larger and do not have Federal Constitutions (like Germany), are in the process of decentralising (like France or Spain) or are effectively bankrupt (like Greece and California).  The most credible way forward is to take the "big society" approach seriously, using on-line products and services world to enable and support devolution, diversity and local democratic accountability. The use of IT as an excuse for centralisation, standardisation and bureaucratic regulation should be history.

As chairman of the Conservative Technology Forum I have therefore e-mailed the members asking for comments on a research strategy that focuses on six main policy themes:

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