Thursday 27 December 2007

Dr Who Christmas cash-in

Doctor Who - Voyage of The Damned
Every year I watch the Dr Who Christmas special and every year I am left gob smacked at the fiendish misuse of the word 'special'. Terms such as 'cash-in' or 'rip-off' would have been more appropriate. The trouble is I know that Dr Who, despite occasional moments of brilliance, isn't really that good. I might have been tempted to blame David Tennant consistently gurning at the camera; but Christopher Eccleston did exactly the same thing in his turn as The Doctor and he's a brilliant actor. The problem lies in sloppy direction and some really inconsistent writing. The good stuff is good enough that you forgive the dross that is all too frequently meted out. However Christmas episodes of Dr Who are rather like the entire first series of Torchwood (I'm a software developer so I had to watch it all); they take the worst bits of Dr Who and put them into an extended episode cunningly timed for just after the evening meal.

Think about it; it's Christmas day and those people with a social life will by that time have consumed enough alcohol to view the whole thing through rose-tinted spectacles. Those with their critical faculties intact, and therefore without a social life, are going to watch it regardless. I suppose it's quite clever but just once I'd like a Christmas special that lives up to the name; an episode with original characters, without the usual clichéd dialog. This episode, just to rub it in, indulged in visual clichés that even Jerry Bruckheimer would have been ashamed of. At least next Christmas I know what to ask for from Santa.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Magic numbers

Broken promises
I try so hard, I really do, but then those magicians we fondly refer to as the Government attempt one sleight of hand too many. The latest Gordon Brown inspired wheeze is to reduce the value of morally binding pay settlements by delaying paying up. Don't try telling me this was all the Home Secretary's idea. Work out how much you want to pay and then delay implementing the agreed pay increase for a calculated number of months; so that by the time the increase is implemented it's only worth the amount you wanted to pay in the first place. The Government, true to form, have thrown a large number of red herrings our way.

Principal among these are pointing out the need to keep public spending low and the relatively good pay increases of police officers over the last ten years. These are good points, however they are completely irrelevant. Whether we believe the police do a good or bad job, or perhaps have some personal grievance against the police, is also completely irrelevant.

The only relevant detail in this case is that an employer and the employees used arbitration, and have done for the last 27 years, to decide on the pay rise. An amount of 2.5% was agreed upon. If the employer couldn't afford this they should have said so at the time. What they shouldn't have done is agree the rise and then subsequently renege on their agreement by delaying implementation. In this case the Government have delayed the pay rise so that the actual value is only 1.9%. Those in the Government that still claim this is a 2.5% pay rise need to take remedial lessons in mathematics... or they could learn to stop lying.

This is important regardless of whether you think the police are doing a good job or are paid enough. If the Government are free to treat employees in such a manner it’s a green light for all employers to use equally duplicitous methods to cheat their own workforce.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Learning their lesson?

Learner plate
I was never a great fan of the Blair administration, though at the start he did at least represent something new and for a while I was taken in, seduced if you like, by the new style. The alarm bells should have started when he trebled the number of staff at No. 10, but the real pointer was the Alastair Campbell influence. The former Director of Communications had little regard for the niceties of democratic debate, and more than once those people brave enough to question the Prime Minister in public were on the receiving end of a hatchet job a few days later in the press. I never quite understood why Tony Blair allowed this to happen. Perhaps he thought this was a robust defence of his policies or maybe he didn't know it was going on. Either way it soured my opinion of him permanently.

Gordon Brown should have been a refreshing change, being less enamoured with the sound of his own voice and giving the appearance of someone who might actually give you his opinion before consulting a focus group. However he'd been waiting so long for his predecessor to hand over the reigns that during his time as chancellor he developed a reputation for an autocratic style of leadership. This can make for great newspaper copy but such powers come at a cost; huge levels of bureaucracy and inefficiency in all levels of government. Delegation is not one of Gordon's strengths.

It was inevitable that someone would screw-up; the only question was how bad would it be? HM revenue and Customs answered this challenge spectacularly by managing to lose discs containing the personal details of 25 million people. They didn't lose them within the building, though the fact that copies of the data could be made so easily is disturbing, the details were lost when they were posted to another department. It would appear the government's idea of keeping the data of its citizens secure is to put it in a brown paper bag and hope nobody looks.

If you believe the government, though by now I'm finding it hard to think why we should, this happened because people weren't following the correct procedure. Lessons must be learnt, we were told, only they weren't. The trouble is that this kind of incident has happened several times before, though not on such a scale, and each time we were given the same promise. The biggest pointer however to the government's culpability is their mistaken belief that this happened because people weren't following procedure. Not true; this happened because the system allowed people to not follow procedure. If you create an IT system on the cheap, one that requires more manual processes than is necessary, and then run it in an overworked department that has faced savage cutbacks in staff, this kind of calamity isn't just possible, it's inevitable.