Archive for the ‘privatisation’ Category

Here’s a story from the Grauniad about privatised forensics lab LGC getting it Very Wrong Indeed.

Now here’s another.

LGC said one of its staff members made a “typographical error” while inputting code, leading Scotland Yard to spend more than a year trying to trace a non-existent suspect. It was confirmed last month, when LGC carried out a review, that the partial DNA profile belonged to a scientist involved in the case.

“Having made further checks, LGC identified the partial profile as matching that of a Metropolitan police scientist who was involved in the original investigation of Mr Williams’ home,” a LGC spokeswoman said

I think what they mean is that the Met police guy’s DNA was taken in order to eliminate him from the inquiry, running the profiles of the police who entered the place against the target samples in order to isolate anything interesting and also to confirm as a positive control that the analysis was indeed working. Then somebody fatfingered, with the result that the elimination profile used wasn’t actually the right sequence and therefore didn’t match. And what a case, too.

Only Theresa May and Francis Maude cooperating could have thought privatising forensics was a good idea. Mind you, who on earth thought retyping DNA hashes by hand was a good idea?

So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.

In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.

In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.

On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.

In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.

You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.

Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.

So we’ve had the grand tour d’horizon; we’ve had the self criticism; we’ve had the very rapid skip over the nuclear issue; we’ve had a careful balance of general-purpose capability and counterinsurgent language. Now for some hardcore bureaucracy. It’s Chapter 5 of the SDR Green Paper – People, Equipment, and Structures.

This kicks off with the MOD’s personnel problems. As in essentially any organisation of the last 15 years or so, there’s an invocation of having to learn new skills many times in your career, etc, etc. There’s going to be a “whole force concept” review of how the MOD manages its people. There are warm words about looking after our veterans being a moral value. And then there’s this:

The provision of accommodation, for example, is a potential disincentive to home ownership and may not represent the best investment we can make in helping families and personnel deal with the demands of Service life.

I would have thought the disincentive to home ownership would be the wages, and the, well, demands of Service life. (How many mortgage lenders are cool with the idea that the signatory may get shot at any moment?) Seriously. What the fuck? Apparently they’re looking at “alternative models for accommodation”, which might be good if it involved killing off the Annington Homes money pit, but it doesn’t sound like it.

On equipment, the general theme of a renewed interest in industrial policy is there, although the section is very general indeed, in fact vague. Tellingly, the issue of operational sovereignty – which has flared up all over again with regard to the F-35 – is raised:

We will have to revalidate our overall approach to:
* Operational Sovereignty. Our Armed Forces rely on assured overseas sources for some important equipment and support but there are cases where specific industrial capability must be located in the UK for operational reasons

There’s also a nod to arms exporters, presumably to pass the document through the bits of the MOD involved with DESO and friends.

On organisational issues, the chapter contains a bit more meat; it appears a major re-apprisal of the MOD’s structure and business processes is coming, although the drafters warn that the costs of constant reorganisation have been a very serious problem.

Change must be considered carefully in the light of the risks associated with reorganisation highlighted in the Haddon- Cave Report. The future Review will offer an opportunity to re-examine the model and to determine whether and how we might be able to improve on it.

Haddon-Cave is the report on the Nimrod XV230 crash in 2006, which demonstrated that the Nimrod fleet was essentially unairworthy in its entirety and that the engineering and management systems intended to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of the MOD’s aircraft. A major issue it identified was the impact of constant organisational change – something of a theme throughout the public sector in the Blair era.

The chapter finishes with a ritual call for greater efficiency. There’s also this worrying statement, in the light of the bizarre property-booster bit:

the scope for further rationalisation of the defence estate;

Not again…

In short, if Chapter 3 was impressive, Chapter 5 is poor – with the exception of the reference to Haddon-Cave, it’s mostly either made up of truisms or else simply too vague to mean anything at all. And what on earth is this stuff about property? Notably, the comments home in on it at once; it’s also noticeable that by Chapter 5, the trolls have landed.

There is something pleasantly surreal about this story. London Reconnections reports on the appearance of the heads of Tube Lines, the Underground, and Mr. Chris Bolt before the London Assembly’s transport committee. It doesn’t sound obviously hilarious, but then, who is Chris Bolt? You may vaguely remember him as the Rail Regulator, the chap who had the unenviable task of acting as ref between Railtrack, the train operators, the rolling stock lessors, and the Government in the glory years of rail privatisation. That was all 10 years ago, so why is he being quizzed by the committee?

Because the Tube PPP contracts specify that he, and only he, act as arbitrator of any disputes between the contractors and the Tube. Not the institution of the Rail Regulator, which in any case has been abolished – Mr Bolt personally.

It’s been a while. Did they ever lose touch with him? What colour was his hair when he answered the call? I can imagine Department for Transport civil servants looking on park benches and in squats in Dalston, scrutinising all the Facebook pages ending in Bolt, placing advertisements in provincial newspapers. What if they hadn’t been able to trace him? Would his next-of-kin have inherited the heavy responsibility – the DfT Director, Railways descending on an otherwise harmless citizen, like some Sicilian matriarch in a grey suit bringing news that the vendetta is now up to you?

Or is the process less brutally secular? Perhaps a Bolt will simply emerge, like the next Dalai Lama.

Of course, Bolt’s role is deeply mythic. Alone, the Bolt continues to guard the sacred wisdom of the Railtrack years, wandering in the wilderness. One day, he will return to judge Tube Lines’ trespasses, or rather not:

Chris Bolt felt it was important to reiterate that the increased cost of the contract was not based on the failures of Tube Lines so far, but on a natural increase in the theoretical cost of the upgrade work.

The faith cannot err; it can only be betrayed.

Even Boris Johnson has repented of rail privatisation.

It is time to bring an end to this demented system.

Actually, he’s only recanted – I see no sign of repentance from the man who accused Stephen Byers of being as bad as Robert Mugabe, not once but twice, in order to defend Railtrack after the corpses had piled up.

If it’s possible to get Americans to start a string of minor riots in order not to have at least $80bn worth of national healthcare, surely it must be possible to start a good row about whatever it is the Conservatives have in store for us? We stand to lose at least that and more. I ask in the light of this post at Bickerstaffe Record, which suggests, not stupidly, that making an Aunt Sally of the credit rating agencies might be a good idea for a demo.

After all, it’s very true that they played a key role in the great crash, and before that in the post-dotcom Enron/telecoms fraudfest. As Eavis & McLean point out in The Smartest Guys in the Room, the rating agencies were in the best possible position to work out just how much debt Enron had hidden down rabbit holes and in other people’s wheely bins – because every time Enron pulled another fancy dan financing, they had the ratings agencies rate the bonds that came out of it.

We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

And, strategically, this is always going to be a problem, because unlike all other forms of credit risk assessment, the agencies make their money from the party issuing the debt, so it’s always in their interest to be optimistic. (Similarities with this little beauty of a deal are entirely appropriate.) When they are dealing with private clients, that is; if it’s Argentina or Britain involved, they just go ahead and shoot. John Quiggin has an excellent post on their failure and their role in pushing PFI in Australia.

But I have my doubts that any such action will change their opinion; in fact, it wouldn’t be the aim of such an action. The point would be rather to render their opinion less relevant and alter the conditions under which it is formed. However, I have just ordered the domain name standardispoor.com, and I welcome suggestions for what we might do with it.

More broadly, what worries me is that the Tories will pull some horror out of their back pocket in the financial year 2010-2011, and by the time it’s passing through the House, we’ll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you think.

This is why, by the way, projects like FreeOurBills are important. If there’s no point protesting about a road project after it gets into the national programme, the answer is to shorten the feedback loop and react quicker. This is much more interesting and important – real citizen technology – than Twittering for Iran, DDOSing low value Russian Web sites, or any of the other manifestations of the fake version.

So this is one of the few good features of open primaries I can think of; they provide an opportunity to put together an organisation early in the game, which is roughly how Obama dunnit. In a parliamentary system, though, this is much less important.

Shouldn’t we be getting our lists together now, rather than waiting for the Tories? I agree that this implies giving up on the elections, but then, who wouldn’t, and who doesn’t suspect that a surviving Labour government wouldn’t be just as bad?

What is the legacy of the so-called “loony left”? The conventional wisdom is clear; it was all their fault, for panicking the swing voters and preventing a sensible, Newish Labour solution emerging earlier. Well, how did that work out?

And it has always seemed disingenuous for the Labour Party establishment to blame local councillors for a period when the party’s central institutions were regularly totally out of contact with the public mood and spectacularly incompetent; it certainly serves the interests of the top officials and MPs to push responsibility onto an amorphous and vague stereotype essentially based on hostile newspapers’ take on the 1980s. Arguably, believing hostile newspapers’ take on itself has been the fundamental mistake of the Left since about 1987; the entire Decent Left phenomenon, after all, was all about demonising anyone who was right about Iraq in identical terms. Does anyone imagine that the Sun in the Kelvin McFuck era wouldn’t have savaged and libelled any non-Tory power holders?

In a comment at Dunc’s, Paul “Bickerstaffe Record” says:

I want to kick off a bottom up meets top down economic analysis of how Labour /Left leaning local authorities should now be challenging the Thatcherite orthodoxies of cost control/rate capping in a sort of ‘1980s no cuts militant’ meets 2000s grassroots-dictated economic policy. The institutional/legal framework has of course changed out of recognition since 1984, but heh, that’s a challenge rather than an insurmountable problem

He has a point. Consider the position; it’s still conceivable that Labour might luck into a hung parliament next year, cue Liberal and Nationalist (of various types) rejoicing, but any realistic planning has to include a high probability of a fairly rabid Tory government in the near future. Further, the financial position is not great – it’s nowhere near as bad as Gideon Osborne makes out, as a look at the gilt rates shows, but it’s very far from ideal.

So whoever is in charge will be looking for cuts, and it is a reliable principle of Whitehall politics that one of the best ways to get a policy implemented that you want for your own ideological aims is to attach it to a supposed saving. Only the special relationship and the police-media complex can beat this principle as all-purpose justifiers.

The possibility space includes a Labour government in coalition or under a toleration agreement with the Liberals, which is likely to still be strongly influenced by the Blairite stay-behind agents, a Conservative government heavily influenced by products of 80s Tory culture (the mirror image of the London Labour party in the same period), and some sort of grand-coalition slugthing. It is clear that the balance of risks is towards an effort to legitimise a lot of ugly hard-right baggage through an appeal to cuts.

The Tories are planning to make all spending departments justify their budgets at line item level to none other than William “Annington Homes” Hague; it’s certainly a first in British history that the Foreign Secretary will control the public spending settlement, if of course he finds the time to show up.

Therefore, even though there is a need to steer the public finances back towards balance once the recession is clearly looking over, there is a strategic imperative to push back and push back hard against the agendas the cross-party Right will try to smuggle through. After all, the nonsense industry is already cranking up.

Which brings me back to the importance of being loonies, and a bit of politics by walking around. One thing that strikes me about North London is how much stuff in the way of public services here was visibly built in the late 70s and the 1980s; there is a reason why Ken Livingstone hopped right back into the Mayor’s office. Despite all their best efforts, the Thatcherites were never quite able to shake the core welfare state; was it, in part, because down on the front line people were still pushing out its frontiers and changing its quality?

A lot of ideas (service-user activism, notably, environmentalism, a renewed concern for architecture and urbanism, and the whole identity-politics package) that were considered highly loony back then are now entirely orthodox and are likely to stay that way, especially given the main parties’ obsession with putting taxpayer funds into the “third sector”.

I fully expect that anyone who talks a good game about making black schoolboys click their heels in front of teacher – you know the stuff they like – will be able to secure reliable venture capital funding in the million class from a Cameron government, just as they have been able to from Boris Johnson’s City Hall, with remarkably little monitoring. William Hague will be snarky. Let him. Nobody cares what the Foreign Secretary has to say.

This creates both opportunities for action – perhaps someone should prepare a Creative Commons or GPL toolkit for citizen-initiated delivery quangos and thinktanks – and also targets for ruthless mockery, when the Tories’ preferred third sector entities fuck up. We’ve already had some very fine examples of this courtesy of Boris Johnson. Clearly, the only rational response to the times is to go mad.

We’ve blogged before about the NHS’s computer project. So I’m not at all happy about this remarkably silly post at Timmeh’s. He takes issue with a post of Richard Murphy’s about bank nationalisation:

Yup, the people who brought you the NHS Spine are to be put in charge of developing all banking software in Britain.

Well, this is a strawman to begin with. Is Murphy the Chancellor now? But let that pass. Really? A group of mostly American healthcare computing specialists? Several of which no longer exist? Or does he mean the big IT consulting firms involved – like IBM, BT Global Services, and Accenture? Because I’m pretty sure they do a hell of a lot of financial work as it stands; in fact, everyone was worrying last week about IBM’s third quarter results precisely because banks are big customers. (They turned out to be OK, in that mysterious IBM way.*)

But perhaps he thinks the NHS NPfIT was developed by teh government bureaucrats? Or at least, he’s willing to pretend it was to suit ideology? The whole problem with NPfIT, as we’ve said before, is that the system was developed completely in isolation from NHS bureaucrats or indeed anyone else who would have to use it. The NHS trust IT departments were kept well out of it. The upshot was that the developers knew literally nothing of the NHS’s requirements, its business processes, or the data the system was meant to handle.

No wonder it was a disaster. In fact, when a group of US hospital bureaucrats had a go at designing a medical IT system, they came up with a beauty – there’s even a satisfied customer in the comments. Why? Because they knew what it was meant to do and how. Compare this comment:

I met a guy who works for this company. I cannot repeat what he said, since he has a family to feed. But suffice to say he was deeply worried about the implications for safety of life. That was a few months ago.

The whole thing is rotten to the core, and desperately needs to be scrapped. Now.

The good news is that the thing still doesn’t work well enough to turn it on even as a pilot project, so we’re safe for a while yet. But what did happen the last time the Government took on a really challenging in-house IT project? You ask Daniel Davies.

(* probably something to do with asking the fucking users – that or the staple Nazi market, or wearing a lot of pale blue shirts.)

This story; from China is predictably horrible:

Chinese authorities have sentenced two women in their 70s to a year’s “re-education through labour” following their application to hold a protest demonstration during the Beijing games, a relative said yesterday.

Officials said this week they had not approved a single permit for a demonstration, despite designating three parks as protest zones.

The International Olympic Committee’s communications director said she would look at the women’s case, but stressed the games were “not a panacea for all ills”.

Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbour Wang Xiuying, 77, sought to protest about their forced eviction from their homes in 2001. They went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) four times this month to request permission to demonstrate in the zones – created for the Olympics to counter criticism about restrictions on political expression in China…

But that isn’t my point. My point is that it’s all oddly familiar. For a start, they have been placed under an “order” which restricts their movements, subjects them to the scrutiny of a neighbourhood committee, and isn’t subject to a court hearing or to an appellant jurisdiction of any kind. Why not? Because, of course, it’s not actually punishment. Only breaking; the order would be a crime, and would result in your being sent to a labour camp.

Yes; they’ve reinvented the ASBO. Meanwhile, 77 applications to demonstrate have been made and absolutely none granted. 74, apparently, were “resolved through consultations”, another two turned down because the form wasn’t properly filled in, and another rejected on the grounds it involved a child. (Won’t somebody think of the children?) And I was fascinated by this quote from Sir Mucho Pomposo Wang Wei of the Organising Committee:

Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, told reporters they should be “satisfied” with the protest zones. “The idea of demonstration is that you are hoping to resolve issues, not to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. We are pleased that issues have been resolved through dialogue and communication – this is how we do it in Chinese culture,” he told a press conference.

He added: “We want everyone to express their opinion. Everyone has the right to speak; this is not the same as demonstrating.

It’s so familiar; the insistence that anyone who disagrees is doing so out of spite, that only acquiescence is “serious” or “helpful”. I’m surprised he didn’t offer them a Big Conversation, but in fact, with the right mistranslation he might have done. Similarly, the re-education through labour order for disturbing the public is just a translator’s caprice away from an anti-social behaviour order.

Perhaps there’s a wider truth here; this sort of events/urban regeneration politics seems to follow the same grammar all over the world. It’s conceived of as a project; which implies there are only participants, or else obstructions. Despite the money and the bulldozers, it respects class boundaries; veering around the villas of the rich. It needs special security arrangements which always turn out to involve some sort of summary justice based on vague and unchallengeable notions of appropriateness, propriety, or order; similarly, these are always temporary but are never revoked. The state authorities and private interests involved are indistinguishable. (Interestingly, the legislative foundation tends to be very hard to get rid of; the Act on the Great Exhibition of 1851 is still in force and still a major headache for anyone planning to build on or near the original site.)

More deeply, it seems to include a sort of quasi-medical view of society, or more specifically of the city. It, and we, need to be made better. Not only the method of this treatment, but the definition of better, is reversed for the doctors; but we are responsible if it doesn’t work, because we didn’t comply sufficiently. The nudgers’ cognitive biases are not examined; it’s our fault if we don’t press the right coloured shape in response. Equally, no-one suggests subjecting the Home Office to compulsory psychotherapy in order to get rid of its hysterical anxiety, but it seems to want to make everyone happy.

So, the Tories are currently making hay on the economy, while the black clouds are overhead. Unfortunately it’s all drivel, and specifically, it’s drivel because the current economic crisis is entirely the result of the Tory economic settlement. The promise of infinite free money from property was the core Thatcherite proposition, and its costs (specifically, high interest rates and a high pound) were traditionally covered by North Sea oil. Of course, rising house prices aren’t actually money, just a way of borrowing from your kids, with the special feature that they don’t get any schools or railways for the borrowing. But the Tory achievement was to get an economy specialised in property speculation accepted by both major parties. And, as we have seen, they have very good personal reasons to pretend that the government could just stick the bubble back together if it wanted.

All oppositions pretend something like this, of course; but it’s incumbent on them to have some idea of the difference between bullshit and government. Just look at the Tories’ performance over Northern Rock. To recap, they thought the Bank of England’s money was taxpayers’ money in August but not in January; they thought the Bank of England was an independent agency in August but under ministerial line management in January; they imagined the Bank of England had vastly more money that it does throughout. Thank God for the civil service.

And even if you grant them a huge pass on administrative reality, their stated positions are wildly incoherent. In the pastel corner, there’s Huggy Dave’s quality of life reports. In the phlegm-spatter corner, there’s Mad Jack Redwood’s report on how the economy can be revived by letting private “care homes” pack in more codgers per square foot. What an invention – the battery granny farm. Will the staff get Dave from PR’s improved work-life balance? Bollocks they will. However, Greasy Phil Hammond’s specialist NHS property development firm, Castlemead Developments Ltd, would presumably find investments in this field rather tastier. More seriously, what the hell does Mad Jack think our problems are? Aren’t they more about the tradable sector, and what happens to the balance of payments with an energy import bill and tanking City volumes?

None of this should be any surprise. Look at the chief economist of chouchou snackthinkers Policy Exchange. What has he discovered? Well, his tube train was late, and so he’s written “England: An Obituary on a Great Country”. Seriously. And he apparently thinks “Britain” supplies IKEA goods and services, rather than a huge Swedish multinational. This used to be the quality of a middling to poor Tory newspaper columnist. Now it’s their intellectual foundation.

According to the BBC, the Home Office really, really doesn’t get the basic truth that 0.01% of a really big number is quite a big number. The Torygraph reported that the Criminal Records Bureau had mistakenly told its customers between February 2007 and February 2008 that some 680 people had criminal records when in fact they had none. The Home Office’s response:

The Home Office said CRB has a 99.98% accuracy rate in vetting people working with children and vulnerable adults.

Indeed. I keep saying this; 99.98% accuracy, which is the politician’s way of saying a 0.02% failure rate, is only good enough if 0.02% of the total isn’t a large number. It must seem silly to people outside the telecoms business that we go on about 99.999% reliability. But that is a percentage of up to hundreds of millions of calls and signalling events.

Fortunately, there are some numbers in the story. The Home Office claims that 80,000 (a round number, but we’ve got nothing else to go on) people were prevented from taking up posts involving “vulnerable people”; there’s no way of telling whether this means only ones involving “vulnerable people”, only ones where a job offer was withdrawn, or just the total CRB checks that came up positive, and there’s no telling what period of time it refers to. If it was the total for 2007-2008, that means the chance of a positive CRB check being a false positive is 0.85 per cent (99.15 per cent in contractorspeak). And we *haven’t* even considered the false negatives….

So where’s your 0.02 per cent now? Naturally, it’s possible that the 80,000 covers more than one year…but hold on. If there were many more, some such figure recurring every year, then this suggests the actual numbers are even worse. The CRB has been going since, what, 2002? 13,333 refusals a year on average. We know the 680 false positives are for just one year; which would make it a 5.1% false positive rate for 2007-08. (That’s 94.9% in contractorspeak.) So, the Home Office’s figures cannot possibly be right; it’s impossible to have a negative number of false negatives, so we *know* that the CRB does not provide 99.98% accuracy. Surely this means the Government should be suing Capita or whoever?