What’s the big idea?

July 8, 2012

Yet another ‘big’ paper making ‘big’ things up around the opportunities from ‘big’ data. This time from the right-of-centre Policy Exchange who should realise that ‘big’ data ultimately brings along big government. “The Big Data Opportunity: Making government faster, smarter and more personal” (PDF, 36 pages, 1.21 Mb) is written by Chris Yiu.

There is little mention in the report of local government, which is the hard/chalk/coal face of government to the majority of the population and whilst has minimal control over its budgets thanks to ‘big’ central government, has the most to offer in terms of accountability, local democracy and the effect on people’s lives. Page 7 does highlight the requirement “that ensuring that public sector leaders and policymakers are literate in the scientific method and confident combining big data with sound judgment”, which would be something of a novelty given the tendency of politicians and their puppets to adjust data to their needs – one has only to consider WMD for a start! This is repeated on page 9 “Embracing the big data opportunity will take leadership and ethical integrity of the highest order”, to which I would ask for some real-life demonstration of it first. In also think there’s something contrary in an economist talking about ‘scientific method’.

In a similar manner, those given access to the data are expected to respect privacy, another new experience for those governing – I doubt if any citizen of this country, given the low moral compass of their leaders, would trust any with more information than they have to. This is an accepted fact when the population happily reveal to Facebook and Google data that they’d resist handing over to government. The paper, on page 13, then goes on to present data matching as an alternative to the National Identification card, as if we didn’t have legislation that clearly prevents that type of exercise (unless crime is indicated) – this is more Big Brother than big data, whatever the benefits. The author then goes on to make a number of proposals for the use of big data, along with a stylised desktop for airport management. Some of the ideas will clearly be constrained by existing legislation and data quality, but anyone who has dealt with the HMRC and their ‘credit reference agency’ will know the quality of the data, and the HMRC’s seemingly singular inability to join up their own house let alone share data with others!

As to the use of data mining to identify fraud – a quick read of The Plot Against the NHS by Colin Leys & Stewart Player would indicate that the vulnerability to fraud comes greatest when attempts to marketize services are made, this will apply to all government service not just health. A current example is the investigations being done around A4E. The issue here is not big data but the structuration of services and policy in such a manner that no auditor has the opportunity to smell the rats as they surface. The more complex systems are made, the increased likelihood of fraud and error.

Page 29 repeats the wishful mantra again – “Governments should have the utmost respect for civil liberties – and citizens themselves can and must hold their government to the highest ethical and moral standards”. Citizens should be able to trust government but recent history indicates a majority of politicians can’t be even trusted to do their own expense claims, let alone not mix with the wrong sort of journalist.

I suggest the ‘think-tank’, like some many of their brethren, get some real world experience before indulging their fantasies on the rest of us.

Cynical summary – The report is ‘sponsored’ by EMC Corporation, the recent destination of a former government CIO and a company whom I would imagine make a lot of money out of government accumulating big data.


Austere academia

January 6, 2012

I somehow missed this publication being released in 2011 but fell over it when looking for something else! ‘Innovating out of Austerity in Local Government: A SWOT analysis’ is by Patrick Dunleavy, Paul Rainford & Jane Tinkler of the London School of Economics Public Policy Group and despite its inherent self-referencing, even of unpublished sources (Hasn’t anybody outside of the LSE written anything appropriate? – I’m sure they have), it is worth generating a discussion around.

The report starts off with the obvious but not often practiced wisdom that “Introducing changes in delivery-level public services critically depends on consulting with services users and achieving a deep understanding of citizens’ needs and expectations: a strategy of more intensive ‘customer engagement’that has already borne fruit in many different localities and NHS provider areas.” The document then goes on to confirm that innovation involves circumventing central government permissions and gaining buy-in from the professions. It is what it states, a SWOT analysis of what has been going on, although personally I feel that a number of these are assumptions by outsiders based upon limited experience rather than actual facts e.g. one local government weakness is identified as ‘weaker ICTs record in general’, whilst, as has been confirmed to me by several senior central government persons is the situation with central government, rather than local government! The paper does accept (p.6) that UK central government is “probably the most intrusive national government across Western Europe”.

Much is made of the Kent Gateway project which is a good example but had the blessing not only of a dynamic Chief Executive but similar political leadership. They were also lucky in gaining the involvement of the regional NHS, which isn’t the case in all areas. On page 7 there is some acclamation that “Despite the valiant efforts of SOCITM (sic)* and many thousands of staff working in council IT departments, the provision of online local government services remains at best patchy”. However, this fails to acknowledge that local government ICT departments provide e-services for many, many service units, whilst in central government this is likely to be a few related to that Department’s rather focused services e.g. driver licensing, taxation, etc. This criticism is unfairly grounded, presumably due to a lack of understanding. Similarly the statement on page 8 that “where most UK local authorities are currently lagging badly behind the next wave of important ICTs”, is unspecific in only picking on ebooks in libraries, which is hardly a ‘killer application’ when many library users are probably more concerned with real books and the use of free Internet access, rather than those who can buy such items as Kindles, Kobos and iPads.

I will agree, as stated on page 9, that “within local authorities themselves, complaints processes are often un-systematized, with little data being collected, no data publicly published and councils having little information available that would show whether they were doing a good job in terms of not generating complaints or in responding effectively to complaints received”, which is why I had developed the model I have for improving service delivery and suggested some applications to assist, which is all available on this blog. I also suggested to various people at the Government Data Service launch that this was the best way of handling feedback.

Unfortunately I don’t agree with the authors that citizens are put off complaining to councillors (page 9) about operational issues, since it is frequently one sure way of getting some sort of result, and would be interested in the authors’ evidence for this.

On page 19 the authors do accept that the ongoing disturbance to the NHS is impacting on innovation, which will probably become clearer as central government attempts to further transfer care responsibilities to local government.  The contradictions and imbalances within the NHS have already been identified in the struggle to get the Public Sector Network (PSN) off the ground. Attempts to make big savings, along with innovations, will require much improved cooperation across the public sector.

Whilst the conclusions of the paper would appear to be the authors’ expectations there needs to be a realization that in local government all things are not equal. Amongst the range of local authorities resistance to change, which is the major obstacle, comes from a variety of sources that are not consistent across councils. Sometimes its the Chief Executive, sometimes the Director of Finance (holder of the purse strings) or even the IT Director – it could be any one of the various services that blocks change, but this is normally different in every case. It is therefore difficult to make bold statements about how, where or when innovation will or should occur since it requires a combination of auspicious circumstance. In the best examples this is probably a bold Chief Executive, with political support.

As CIO’s/IT Managers are under increasing pressure to make savings, along with service managers it is difficult for all parties to find time to innovate with reduced staffing. If it were a single application (as per the aforementioned central government instance) this insight might be possible but when it requires multiple services to test, be trained and culture change on to a new way of working there will be foxholes of resistance all along the route. These will need multiple strong minds from the top to the bottom to successfully trace a path of successful innovation.

In fact, I wonder how the LSE’s IT service copes with innovation? If, like a number of university IT services that I’m aware of, they are treated with some disdain by their academic colleagues, academia will be just as austere in its approach to innovation as government!

* The conventional branding for the Society of Information Technology Management is ‘Socitm’