HMRC – still all at sea!

July 13, 2013

Today, my wife and I who live at the same address, received a total of FOUR envelopes from the HMRC relating to Child Tax Credits, in fact they duplicated each other to a greater of lesser extent but two were from Glasgow and the other two from Preston. After sitting down for a while and tracking back to paper work part related to a demand for overpayment for the year 2011 – 12 and the thicker duplicate wadge to the tax year 2012 -13. Unfortunately, the calculation for 2012 – 13 had hidden within it the amount being demanded for 2011 -12, whilst the 2011 – 12 amount supplied a BGC slip attached to send to their Bradford office. So four lots of postage, paper & machine time when one would do, if the system operated as it should.

With the reams of paper involved over the past few years that have taxed my mind in completing them (hopefully) accurately, I hate to think how a person with a lesser education would cope. We have paid the amount on the more threatening demand with a cheque since although an electronic option is available I’m not sure they could cope without the relevant bits of paper and I’m ensuring a paper trail. We will now await a demand for the remainder in due course.

I am mainly relieved that my son is past the age where Child Tax Credits apply now but we still have to battle on with the Student Loan online system that infuriates us all from the moment we log on.

If any government truly wanted to save money they would ditch these convoluted, time-wasting systems and find a way to collect taxes and pay benefits in a more organised manner. By this I am not supporting the massive waste of time that is Universal Credit, but making a suggestion to review all existing systems from the point of view of the end user and cut out all the unnecessary complexity that is over-engineered into them because computers permit it, and the neo-bureaucrats want it.

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The Cloud of Unknowing

June 6, 2013

I’m pleased to say that the International Journal of Technoethics has just published a paper by me entitled “The ‘Cloud’ of Unknowing – What a Government Cloud May and May Not Offer: A Practitioner Perspective”, International Journal of Technoethics 4(1) 1-10 January – June 2013.

The abstract is as follows:

“Cloud computing is increasingly ubiquitous in the consumer and private sectors and with financial austerity there is pressure on governments to follow suit. However, the relationship between government and citizen is different to that of supplier and customer, despite the advocacy of New Public Management, particularly where the holding of sensitive data is concerned. The paper examines the potential issues of ‘cloud’ and how they may transfer to ‘government cloud’ (g-cloud), along with the potential problems pertinent to ‘g-cloud’ itself. There is an examination of the literature relating to security, legal and technical matters concluding with the considerations and principles that need to be observed prior to any major transfer of citizen data to a relatively new but still developing area of information systems.”

Whilst I have been largely silent on this blog I have continued with academic work, possibly more reading than writing, but have a couple of other drafts in process, along with what is hopefully a more profound work that may one day see the light of day.


What’s your handicap?

January 18, 2013

I recently received the draft of an educational document from a local authority that contained repeated use of the word ‘handicap(ped)’ when referring to disability or those with disabilities. I was appalled and stated so. What is most appalling is that this was from a department dealing with education, along with social services, and the author and earlier viewers of the draft obviously had no idea of the social model of disability, where society is the party that disables people by the lack of provision, or acceptance of whatever it is, that reduces those people’s ability to easily participate in society as a whole. I managed to cause a little stir over this, but in the end the blame was put on haste, missing the expression when proof-reading (the multiple uses of the phrase), and using a volunteer.

Why does this matter? It matters because this was a local authority education department that appears to have missed the point. By not actively discouraging the use of such archaic terminology they are placing people with disabilities at a lower level within the community and are continuing the de-humanisation of those with disabilities in the manner that cost the lives of around a quarter of a million human beings during the Holocaust. This is possibly the same reason that the same body, as it reduces services and support to those with disabilities, condemns them to remain hidden in homes and without a social life. So where does this fit in with the Paralympics’ legacy – it is obviously no legacy at all – when the much-impoverished daily lives of those with disabilities cannot generate a photo-opportunity for the politicians.

Not having a disability, although having experienced episodes of disability, and having associated with those with disabilities for forty years I now find myself working with them for half my week. I recommend this to those highly detached politicians and public servants who don’t have a clue of the reality. Whilst the Prime Minister makes much of his late child’s disability, does he, with the comfort blanket of inherited wealth, really understand the daily lives of ordinary people, let alone those with a disability or even worse multiple disabilities? Does the Leader of the Opposition, with all his talk of ‘One Britain’ as a juxtaposition to ‘Big Society’ ever get his hands dirty?

There is a relatively new sociological theory called ‘intersectionality‘ which brings further forms of identity and distinction into the bigger model. Is life for a woman of colour with a disability different to that of a white woman with the same disability. What does the compounding of gender, race, colour, disability, age, sexuality, class and many more distinctions bring to that person’s life chances when the language employed by bureaucracy is already condemning them as second or third class citizens, or the methods of service delivery recreating barriers?

There is no easy answer to the questions raised, only that by continual awareness and education will matters ever change. The Paralympic games have changed since I first witnessed them in the 1970’s and become more prominent but in the aftermath of the latest, and celebrated UK hosting, has the abuse of Blue Badges or the associated parking areas stopped? Have architects and planners stopped designing public buildings without the correct facilities as a result of failing to consult potential users beforehand? Are systems and facilities changed or removed without consideration of how they might affect the lives of those who use them? These matters occur and will to continue to do so, if those that do it are forever excused, along with no-one speaking out.


Whitewash

January 12, 2013

It is now becoming a regular event that whenever I see or hear the news programmes I think of ‘whitewash’. When I was a child whitewash was what we painted the outside (and only) toilet with, since it was a single-course brick building in the yard lacking lighting and heating, a bright white splash of whitewash provided the aura of light and cleanliness, and also filled in the small cracks in the mortar. Of course it neither cured the lack of light nor improved the hygiene, it just made you feel better when sat there fulfilling one’s bodily functions.

In the wonderful “The Song of the Whitewash” by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler from the 1934 production of “Roundheads and Pointedheads” that was later recorded by Dagmar Krause on Tank Battles in 1989, we are provided with real feeling for the way that politicians employ whitewash as a stop gap, rather than delivering real social change. With the numerous cover-ups surfacing in 2012, which received the whitewashed political response that ‘but that was then – things have changed’, I can only see another coat of whitewash on the pig sty. “Something to prevent the public spotting everything is crumbling in their sight”.

Am I being too negative? I hope not, but whitewash changes little apart from providing the appearance of change. Openness and transparency may assist real change but again they too are subject to more than the occasional coat of whitewash, which is confirmed by an interview with Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, who criticises both the current UK government and the previous one, of which she was part, along with the civil service for failing to be transparent. But with the Saville case, Hillsborough and the many other cover-ups now under re-investigation I’m convinced that ‘armchair auditors’ won’t have any effect and emphasise the need for truly open and transparent governance by politicians and business leaders.


Latest book review – Usability in Government Systems – User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants

December 27, 2012

I’ve just had my latest book review published by the British Computer Society. The book is a really useful one: http://www.bcs.org/content/conWebDoc/49245.

My old acquaintances Angus Doulton and Neil Sandford are contributors with a really strong piece on considering the citizen, and the need for sensible policy making. It’s strange that after all these years we still can’t develop systems that are user-sensitive.

Despite being on the Telephone Preference Scheme (TPS) we were disturbed this morning by an unwanted and automated call. Going onto the TPS website to complain I was then bounced around between their site and OFCOM’s until I gave up! Both bodies obviously prefer people to ‘phone up!