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.


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