Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lords King, Blair, Carlile & West go to Westminster

My irreverent parliamentary sketch take on the the attempt to sneak the snoopers' charter into law is now available at The Conversation.

A copy of the slightly more serious original draft is below.
If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, you might recall an episode entitled "Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington".  Krusty the Clown gets elected to Congress and the family receive an education in the activities required to get things done in Washington DC. Against the ever decent Lisa’s better judgement, they surreptitiously attach an air traffic control bill to a bill giving US flags to orphans. The provisions get passed, thereby curing the Simpsons’ recent air traffic noise pollution problem created by Mayor Quimby.
This side of the pond we’ve had our very own version of the Simpson’s 2003 scenario playing out in recent days in the House of Lords. Lords King of Brigwater, Blair of Boughton, Carlile of Berriew & West of Spithead attached 18 pages of amendments to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill the UK government are currently fast tracking (is there any other way with supposed anti -terror proposals?) through parliament.  These amendments effectively amounted to an attempt to sneak the snoopers' charter aka the Communications Data Bill (CDB) into law by the back door.  Basically the same snoopers charter that was emphatically rejected by Parliament's Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill.
The Joint Committee said the draft Bill paid “insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy”, was a “disproportionate” attack on fundamental human rights and the Home Office’s justifications for it were “fanciful and misleading.” Additionally they found the Home Office estimate of £1.8 billion in relation to the implementation of the Bill likely to be exceeded “by a considerable margin.”
Whilst watching laws or sausages in the making was not a pastime recommended by Otto Von Bismark, what passes for debate in Westminster really should be compulsory viewing (beginning here at 16:32) on occasion.
Led by Lord King, the gist of the excuses for clipping the thoroughly discredited snoopers’ charter to the already hugely problematic Counter Terrorism & Security Bill was, as I understood it:
·         The Lords don’t understand new technology but terrorists DO!
·         95% of the criticisms of the parliamentary joint committee investigating the snoopers’ charter have been accepted by the Home Office (so why try to pass the original?)
·         the principle has been established of data collection
·         Jack Straw likes it
·         We need targeted rather than mass surveillance (er… how does that marry up with passing a mass surveillance measure?)
·         Baddies are bad. Be afraid
·         Action is need urgently otherwise parliament will be blamed for not acting
·         Needs of security services and police must be met
·         The police desperately need the snoopers’ charter for ordinary crime fighting
·         We are now losing the technology race against the terrorists - there is a "horrendous gap that gets bigger each day" that prevents the security services doing their job
·         Comms data in Paris established connection between the murderers (not the fact they were brothers and one of the murderers claiming on camera they were connected...?)
·         The 4 lords calling for the snoopers charter amendments are experts so we should trust they know what they are doing
·         The government are not looking at content only the “outside of the envelope” and we should worry about private companies not government
·         We don't need studies - our nation's security is too important, so we must act now
·         Opponents are peddling emotive claptrap when we need the snoopers charter to protect children
·         It is an affront to the police and security services to call the CDB  the snoopers charter, thereby attributing exclusively malign motives to these brave men and women
·         If the French security services had known the wives of the Kouachi brothers had called each other’s mobiles 50 times, they would have prevented the terrible murders in Paris
·         There’s a sunset clause so we don’t need to worry about the snoopers charter being in place for very long
Lord Blencathra, the chairman of the joint committee that had so roundly rejected the Draft CDB, was one of a number of members of the House who spoke against the amendments.
In summary their position was:
·         The police already have excellent data handling and processing systems and have said all they wanted was the who, where and when not the “sweeping powers” the snoopers’ charter represents
·         Clause 1 of the snoopers charter is so obscure and so broad that it effectively has no limits
·         Parliament should not pass general and obscure laws that give security apparatchiks carte blanche to do anything with no checks and balances
·         It would be an affront to parliamentary democracy to bounce these kinds of powers into law by attaching them in undiluted form to a fast-tracked Bill
·         a distinction has to be made between powers to tackle terrorism and serious crime on the one hand - big money, big bucks, drugs - and the rest of crime on the other; it tarnishes the reputation of the big guns, like MI5, if local councils are using anti-terror regulations to pursue fly tippers
·         Parliament will be severely criticised if they rubber stamp the passing of such fatally flawed measures, particularly if they originate in the unelected House of Lords
·         The growing “horrendous gap” in the technological arms race with the terrorists is an exaggerated myth not supported by any credible evidence – members of the CDB joint committee were “angered” by the misleading claims
·         We need to engage with communities not create alienation and resentment by passing laws perceived to be disproportionately targeted at minority communities
·         You can only get good intelligence by cultivating good relations with communities - most plots are foiled because of intelligence from communities not high tech interceptions
·         Forcing mass corporate collection of personal data for subsequent security services access will lead to mission creep
·         Abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to track down journalists’ sources should be a stark warning of this
·         Regardless of any supposed sunset clause no future government would be prepared to remove the snoopers charter from the statute books for fear of being accused of being soft on terrorism
·         The use of the Tempora system means the security services are already acting beyond any extra powers this Bill will give them and parliaments should not grant these kinds of powers on the precautionary principle
·         These snoopers’ charter amendments are a “gratuitous affront to parliamentary democracy“ that must be “consigned to the dustbin of history.”
Lord Bates, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Criminal Information at the Home Office, then confirmed, as various members had claimed, the government have CDB 2.0 waiting in the wings. This masterpiece of parliamentary drafting could not be made available yet but some people have seen it, including Lord Blencathra, who confirmed it apparently addresses 95% of the criticisms his committee levelled at the original CDB.
There were several requests for the government to make CDB 2.0 available to attach to the Bill. Lord Bates declined, however. The government were concerned that both the tabled snoopers’ charter amendments and any version thereof, regardless of how pristine it now might be, would put the safe passage of the 53 page Counter Terrorism & Security Bill through the House of Commons at risk.
Lord King, accepting those concerns, though believing the powers therein to be more important than those in the rest of the Bill, then withdrew the snoopers’ charter amendment. In the course of doing so he made a really important point:
“what I do know is that the moment you get a terrorist outrage is when all the wrong things are decided. The pressure comes on that something has to be done, and it is much better to have decided in advance what you are going to do, in a measured way.”
The attempt to tag the snoopers’ charter to the already controversial Counter Terrorism & Security Bill, being fast tracked in response to the Paris terror attacks, displays little evidence, however, of a measured approach.
Closing note to Mr Cameron and potential successors: the security and intelligence and police services don’t need more laws, powers, personal data or money thrown at computer systems. They need more people i.e. experienced, well trained and effectively deployed human intelligence. 
It is important to note that the snoopers' charter has not gone away with Lord King's withdrawal of the amendment in the House of Lords on Monday, however. Our very own securocrat version of the Simpsons crew have made clear their intention to re-introduce it at the report stage of the Bill next week if they don't get some movement from the government in their direction on this. It seems the snoopers' charter is more important to them even than the section 21 provision of the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill requiring educators and other public servants to become the counter terrorism thought police. So it is to be recommended that a close eye be kept on proceedings.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Nothing to hide or fear from those who would hide the passing of the snoopers' charter

ObiterJ's Law and Lawyers blog is 5 years old today. Happy birthday.

The good blogger marks the occasion by drawing our attention to Sir Brian Leveson's (President of the Queen's Bench Division) - report which has now been published, entitled Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings: Final Report. And in particular paragraph13 of the report,
"Between 1989 and 2009, Parliament approved over 100 Criminal Justice Bills and more than 4,00 criminal offences were added to the statute book. 
From an historical context, the figure is more startling: Halsbury’s Statutes of England & Wales has five volumes devoted to criminal laws that (however old they may be) are still currently in force. Volume One covers the law created in the 637 years between 1351 and 1988, and is 1,249 pages long. Volumes Two to Five cover the laws created in the 24 years between 1989 and 2013 and are no less than 4,921 pages long. The 2013 Supplement adds a further 200 pages. So, more than four times as many pages were needed in Halsbury’s Statutes to cover laws created in the 24 years between 1989 and 2013 than were needed to cover the laws created in the 637 years prior to that."
The legislative garbage being churned out of parliament for the past quarter of a century is indicative of the "something must be done - passing a law is something - we've done something" world of the UK's policymakers.

The latest in this round of damaging (almost) statutes is the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, currently being unconscionably fast-tracked by the government in the wake of the terrible murders of 17 people in Paris. Yesterday, as it is heading for final stages of what passes for parliamentary scrutiny in these difficult times, four members of the House of Lords,


decided to append 18 pages of amendments, effectively trying to sneak the snoopers' charter (aka the Communications Data Bill) into law by the back door. Almost the same (but with even fewer safeguards) snoopers charter that was emphatically rejected by Parliament's Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill.

It's nice to be able to dismantle government actions politely as Lord Pannick did on the Lord Chancellor's approach to judicial review in the House of Lords earlier this week (21 Jan 2015 : Column 1344). But sometimes you need to call a "spade" a "spade", rather than an "earth inverting horticultural instrument". And this action on the part of these four privileged members of the House of Lords is a shameless abuse of parliamentary procedure and an affront to people who have given their lives to secure and defend our precious freedoms.

I suppose they might believe we should trust them.

Maybe we should?

After all, what have we got to to hide or fear from the kind of people who would deign to slip this kind of thoroughly discredited, dangerous, disproportionate, destructive legislative surveillance apparatus surreptitiously onto the statute books? Another 18 pages or so in Halsbury’s Statutes won't be noticed, amongst the 5000+ of the past 25 years.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Expanding powers, mass surveillance is easy. Tackling terrorism is hard

I wrote to my MP Nicola Blackwood on 1 December 2014 expressing concern about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill.

I've had a reply today, copy below.
"Dear Mr Corrigan,

Thank you for your email regarding the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, I do apologise for the delay in my response.

I understand your concerns about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, in particular that it came before the House as emergency legislation, and I share your desire to ensure that people’s civil liberties are protected at all times. I have consistently said it is absolutely essential that powers to monitor communications are confined to what is entirely necessary and proportionate to protect our national security, and also to be accountable.

To be clear, this legislation goes no further than regulations which are already in place. Rather, it brings clarity to existing law following a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in April. The ECJ’s ruling would have struck down regulations that let internet and phone companies retain communications data for law enforcement purposes for 12 months, and therefore a clearer legal framework was needed to underpin companies’ cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept the communications of serious organised criminals and terrorists. I understand that some companies had already made clear to the Government that they would be unable to work with the UK on this unless that law was consolidated and made clear.

As you may know, I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee, who play an active role in scrutinising Government legislation, the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, appeared before the Committee to discuss the provisions of the Act. The Government has stated that communications data and interception plays an important role in prosecuting cases of serious organised crime. Therefore, whilst before the Committee, I took the opportunity to ask the Home Secretary about this and she clarified that such data is used in 95% of cases that the Crown Prosecution Service deals with in relation to serious and organised crime; it has been used in all major counter-terrorism investigations over the last decade.

With regards to your concerns about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and data retention, this Bill will require Communications Service Providers to retain data that can link a specific device or individual to an IP address. This data will only be available to those public bodies who are entitled to it for lawful purposes, where it is necessary and proportionate to do so on a case-by-case basis.

Currently there are gaps in communications data capability that have a serious impact on the ability of law enforcement to carry out their functions. One such gap is the ability to identify who in the real world was using an Internet IP address at a given point in time. Without this data, it is not always possible to attribute a particular action on the internet to an individual person. For example, it would improve the ability of the police and other agencies to identify terror suspects who may be communicating with each other via the internet and plotting attacks. The Bill also establishes a Civil Liberties Board that would provide further assurance to the public about counter-terrorism arrangements, including ensuring that legislation and policies have due regard for civil liberty and privacy. The Government is also restricting the number of public bodies that can ask for communications data and publishing annual transparency reports, making more information publicly available than ever before. Progress of the bill through Parliament can be found online via:

The Security Service believes that since the attacks on 7 July 2005, around forty terrorist plots have been disrupted. As you may know the independent organisation responsible for gauging the threat posed by terrorism to the UK, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, recently decided to raise the threat level posed by terrorism to 'severe' and I am confident that this is an objective assessment of the situation the UK faces.

Please be assured that through my role on the Home Affairs committee, I will continue to scrutinise Bills of this nature. You may be interested in the seventeenth report by the committee on Counter Terrorism, which is currently awaiting a response from the Government. Further information about this and the role of the committee is available at:, which I hope you will find useful. I have also passed on your concerns about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill to James Brokenshire MP, Minister for Security and Immigration and I will of course pass on to you any response I receive in due course.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Kind regards,

I've responded again but don't hold out much hope of getting through.
Dear Nicola,

I'm disappointed that you would continue to claim the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) 2014 goes no further than regulations which were already in place.

It's a relatively short Act and well worth reading in full but to take just three of the eight sections of the Act:
Section 1 of the DRIPA attempted to re-enact the Data Retention Regulations 2009 (S.I. 2009/859), in addition to giving the Secretary of State, under sections 1(3), 1(4) and 1(7) wide ranging Henry VIII clause powers to amend the law, essentially as and when she likes.

Section 4 expanded the the immensely complex Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 interception powers, including the extra-territorial reach of those powers.

Section 5 expanded the scope of the meaning of "communications service" to a degree that it could be interpreted to mean any entity using a computer and the internet.
I'd additionally refer you, in particular, to excellent legal analyses by Steve Peers, Graham Smith, Tom Hickman, Liberty, the Open Rights Group, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, Article 19 and English PEN.

I'm familiar with the Home Secretary's appearance before the Home Affairs Committee saying communications data is used in 95% of cases that the Crown Prosecution Service deals with in relation to serious and organised crime. The only surprise was that it was not 100%.

I won't repeat the objections I have already outlined in relation to the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill, other than to re-inforce my concern about the Bill's Section 21 obligation on public bodies including universities, schools, nurseries and councils to prevent terrorism.

Since I wrote to you on 1 December, Security Minister, James Brokenshire has gone on record at the Joint Committee on Human Rights session on 3 December 2014, as saying that section 21 sanctions under the Act could include prison time for university staff. The Committee has since recommended that the new "prevent"duty is not appropriate for application to universities. I would therefore appreciate an indication of where you stand on this.

More generally, though, I would make a handful of concluding points.

Changing the law is easy.

Expanding powers is easy.

Throwing public money at the security services, computers and mass surveillance is easy.

Playing the tough-on-terrorism rhetoric to the gallery and the press is easy.

And the, so far, short 21st century history of the effects of these easy activities is not pretty.

Actually tackling terrorism is hard.

It requires gold standard human intelligence as well as signals intelligence (and not the mythical magic terrorist catching machines and laws policy makers seems to believe in).

It requires social and economic stability.
It requires trust in the institutions of state, like the police and security services.

It requires equality of opportunity, regardless of background, race, creed, disability, gender or any other form of human categorisation.

It requires an absence of the demonisation of entire communities or peoples just because someone commits an act of violence they claim to be in the name of that community or their religion.

It requires a respect for and implementation of the rule of law and fundamental rights all over the world.

It requires an absence of state, commercial or cause sanctioned rendition, torture, maiming and murder sometimes on an industrial scale and by remote control.

It requires care, concern and deeply embedded respect for human dignity from individuals through all levels of society and its public, commercial and other institutions.

You were sold a pig in a poke with DRIPA. Don't buy into the same confidence trick with the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill and the snoopers' charter and the Prime Minister's new grand plan to ban encryption and ensure there are no communications the government cannot read.

It is too easy and does incalculable damage.


Update: Thanks to the eagle eyed spotters of the spelling error in the title, now corrected.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work

I have an op ed in New Scientist today, Mass surveillance not effective for finding terrorists.

"Cameron seems to believe terrorist attacks can be prevented if only mass surveillance, by the UK's intelligence-gathering centre GCHQ and the US National Security Agency, reaches the degree of perfection portrayed in his favourite TV dramas, where computers magically pinpoint the bad guys. Computers don't work this way in real life and neither does mass surveillance...
Mass data collectors can dig deeply into anyone's digital persona but don't have the resources to do so with everyone. Surveillance of the entire population, the vast majority of whom are innocent, leads to the diversion of limited intelligence resources in pursuit of huge numbers of false leads...
Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1000 - and no security technology comes anywhere near this - every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people...
Law enforcement and security services need to be able to... engage in court-supervised technological surveillance of individuals whom they have reasonable cause to suspect. That is not, however, the same as building an infrastructure of mass surveillance.
Mass surveillance makes the job of the security services more difficult and the rest of us less secure."
Thanks to Jon White at New Scientist for the invitation to write for them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

University staff could go to jail for failing in "prevent" duty

Embedded video below of the Joint Committee on Human Rights session on 3 December 2014 at which security minister, James Brokenshire, in response to repeated questioning by Baroness Helena Kennedy, indicated university staff could go to prison for failing to fulfil our section 21 "prevent" duty satisfactorily, under the proposed Counter Terrorism And Security Bill. (Discussion on section 21 and universities starts about 10:50. Baroness Kennedy launches in about 10:57. Critical statement comes from Mr Brokenshire at 11.21.30 "Ultimately the Secretary of State would have to enforce that through the courts... a contempt of court in those circumstances." Baroness Kennedy asks "So they would jail the director of the college?" Mr Brokenshire deflects and prevaricates then on repeated pushing by Baroness Kennedy gets at 11:23:40 to "Ultimately it would be a contempt of court sanction" i.e jail time).

Martin Hall former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, is one of many who think this is a bad idea. The Human Rights Committee itself has just published its report on the Bill also noting this is a bad idea and suggesting universities be exempt from the section 21 obligations
"6.11 In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new "prevent" duty is not appropriate for application to universities. We recommend that the Bill be amended to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies. Alternatively, we recommend that the Bill be amended to add the exercise of an academic function to the list of functions which are excepted from the application of the duty."

UK government exploiting Paris terror attacks to expand mass surveilance

I have an article in The Conversation this morning about the UK government's unconscionable exploitation of the terror attacks in Paris last week.

Copy of original unedited version below.

Je Suis Charlie

No one has seen anything like the demonstrations on the streets of Paris on Sunday 11 January 2015 since the end of World War II. 

Three deranged men murdered 17 people last week and millions mobilised, not just in the French capital but throughout the country, united in solidarity to express sympathy for the victims’ families and friends, intolerance of hatred and terrorism, and publicly acknowledge the country’s distress, defend freedom through satire and, no doubt, a whole host of other personal reasons unique to each individual on those streets.

Political leaders were out in force too, uncomfortably linking arms at the front of the crowd. What is it the cynics say? Never waste a crisis or photo opportunity? 

I must admit my own response to the talking head wind-bagging on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and other murders was less than charitable; noting the opportunist hypocrisy on the part of political leaders calling for more mass surveillance in response to the attacks to be almost staggering. 

David Cameron and Theresa May judge conditions to be ripe for promoting a re-introduction of the snoopers charter and railroading through of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill which could result in the jailing of university staff refusing to report students suspected of undefined extremism.
The French Prime Minister, in echoes of the appalling failures of Blair-Bush-ism, has called for a war on terrorism.

I was wrong in one respect at least.

It is cynical, opportunistic and hypocritical but not in the least surprising that politicians would use the Paris attacks to further their own agendas. Neither is it surprising they would fly to Paris for the mass commemorations. There is a good chance the likes of David Cameron would have been roundly abused, possibly even with satirical cartoons, if he had declined to show up. Cameron is flying to the US to discuss the Paris murders with President Obama later this week, as well as plans for GCHQ to work more closely with the NSA.  More closely? If the Snowden revelations are to be believed it is hard to see how they could be any closer.

In light of the politicking/electioneering, I do have a question or two for Mr Cameron and perhaps a suggestion or two for the mainstream media hacks who do get access to him. 

Now you’ve been to Paris to stand up for free speech, will you repeal laws like section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which criminalises offensive speech?

How exactly will the further expansion of mass surveillance in the UK cure the problem of known terrorists committing murder? (If anyone should doubt we already have mass surveillance in this country, I suggest typing ‘Snowden’ or ‘Tempora’ or ‘OpticNerve’ ‘DRIPA’ or ‘GCHQ’ or ‘NSA’ into your favourite search engine and perusing the results at your leisure. Alternatively spend some time with The Guardian’s NSA files).

The French intelligence and security services could not keep track of the Kouachi brothers, known extremists, to a sufficient degree to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Likewise Amedy Coulibaly who murdered a police officer and 4 others in a supermarket.

France has blanket electronic surveillance. France has armed police. France even has the ID cards so beloved yet so tantalisingly eventually out of reach of Tony Blair and his succession of home secretaries. France has an inquisitorial justice system the purveyors of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill’s ‘prevent’ duty seem to be hankering after. France arguably also has a constitution that mass surveillance, at least, offends against.

None of it was enough to stop the Kouchais and Coulibaly.

If it takes a conservative 20 intelligence and securitystaff to monitor a suspect 24/7, where do we get and how to we provide the 1.2 billion staff and associated resources to watch the 60 million people in the UK?

Not going to watch the 60 million 24/7? Which ones and how many will you watch in addition to the known dangerous individuals you are already unable to keep track of

Which, for example, of the resources currently devoted to extremely dangerous suspects will be diverted to watching grumpy academics disinclined to engage in their ‘prevent’ duty, under section 21 of the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill to report students prepared to voice non-standard views.

Little noticed last week the Parliamentary Human Rights Joint Committee issued their fifth report. By coincidence, it happened to be a legislative scrutiny of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. In it they criticise the Bill as an attack on freedom of expression and academic freedom. They even recommend universities be exempt from the section 21 preventing terrorism duty:

6.11 In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new "prevent" duty is not appropriate for application to universities. We recommend that the Bill be amended to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies. 

That might, should a blue moon ascend and associated flock of pigs fly past and the government accept this recommendation, be good news for universities and irascible academics. But where does it leave the rest of the public servants burdened with this ill-defined, liberty-bashing, preventing terrorism duty?

Two final questions and a suggestion.

If the Paris terrorists had been white middle class Manchester United supporters declaring their motives to be love of Alex Ferguson and all things Red Devilish, would political leaders have been so keen to gather in commemoration; and condemn Man Utd supporters as extremists we need new mass surveillance laws to guard against?

How, in the name of all that is holy, if I may borrow a phrase from the violent religious extremists that cause rational thinking human beings due concern, can anyone consider it a respectable or defensible position to require everyone in public service to spy on each other and the rest of the population?

The suggestion? 

Try typing ‘Stasi’ 'NKVD' and 'KGB' into your favourite search engine and looking through the selection of offerings it throws up. Then ask yourself why the West spend over 40 years fighting a Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies, if all we wanted to do was construct the architecture of a surveillance state that would make those guys weep with envy...

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why e-voting is a bad idea

Entertaining Computerphile 8 minute video on why electronic voting is a bad idea.

The unsustainable crisis in public services

The crisis in hospital accident and emergency departments is in the news. The crisis in policing has practically identical systemic roots. As do the crises mental health, the ambulance service, all corners of the NHS, care for the elderly and disabled, the prison service, criminal justice and legal services, the border control & immigration services, social services, social welfare, transport... the education system is a certified basket case.

When you divide complex, deeply interconnected and interdependent public service systems up into competing quasi-autonomous silos and then instruct the leaders of those silos they will be evaluated on the basis of single figure simplistic targets or metrics - e.g. A&E waiting times - you cannot be surprised when the silos focus on those metrics at the expense of everything else; including the effective operation of the individual silo, not to mention the (up to 99% of) work they used to provide as a service to other parts of the overall public services system.

People can't get to see a GP, so they call an ambulance or go to A&E. A&E can't cope so they sit in corridors or ambulances whilst A&E waiting times go up or get massaged. Ambulances can't get to emergencies because they are waiting to offload patients at busy A&Es or because they are dealing with non emergency cases to meet the 8 minute target. There is inadequate support for the elderly and frail so they are in hospitals rather than having appropriately tailored care in appropriate environments. Police officers are dealing with vulnerable seriously mentally or physically ill people because ambulances and other services are overstretched and unavailable, in thrall to their very own distortionate targets.

It would be ridiculous to say one rectangle was bigger (and better) than another because it had a longer base, without knowing what the height of either was. It would be ridiculous to say we can produce better pigs by weighing them. Yet somehow, and in the surreal political and media frenzy of the run up to a general election, it is ok to "measure" complex public services this way.

The political normalisation of this insanity throughout the public sector has to stop.

But it won't.

We are completely incapable, as a society, in this world of short attention spans, social media outrage mob rule and 24/7 attention-grabbing-focused news media, of holding a mature public debate on any of this.

Single words, phrases, soundbites, expressions, nuances, personality traits are rabidly seized upon by the media, political opponents and the outrage mob as sticks to beat anyone who ventures an opinion outside of the mainstream. The Tory, Lib Dem and Labour gangs can't help themselves, even amidst their almost total rabid agreement on everything lest they upset the Murdoch press or the Daily Mail, they choose to attack each other, rather than develop enlightened evidence based policies. They have nothing to debate in policy terms because they are committed to the same failing policies.

I learned at the weekend of a dedicated, bright, enthusiastic, successful young teacher deciding to leave the profession after several years because of the unreasonable demands the schooling system visited upon her, her colleagues and the kids in her school.

Someone doing an enormous amount of good, 24/7, for the children in her care, decided she no longer had the physical or emotional capacity, as an individual, to compensate for the systemic insanity of an education system failing the majority of children.

It takes an enormous amount of integrity to walk away from something of huge importance to you, when you realise you can no longer make a sustainable difference, in spite of the occasional and even spectacular pockets of success.

She's now in temporary employment in the retail sector and enjoying, for the moment, the serenity of closing the book on the job, as soon as she leaves at the end of each day. The retail sector's current gain is the education system's enormous loss.

Update: edited for a couple of spelling errors.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ches Lincoln

One of the Open University's true online learning pioneers, Ches Lincoln, sadly died on Christmas Eve.

Ches was a brilliant, cheery, kind, caring, deeply enthusiastic technophile who had the core integrity and values of the OU woven into the very fabric of her DNA.

Whether as a technology tutor or one of the key architects of the technical infrastructure that dragged the OU into the internet age, through the vehicle of a course known as 'T171: You, your computer and the Net', she put her heart and soul into the people and systems that crossed her path.

John Naughton, another of the key brigands behind T171, often describes T171 as a "success disaster". It was the first entirely online undergraduate course in the world and pulled in 900 students for the pilot in 1999 and 13500 for the full launch the following year. In an institution in those days used to 3 to 5 year development cycles, we had to build the technical infrastructure from scratch in 9 months with the organisational equivalent of string and glue and a tiny team. We recruited and trained over 500 associate lecturers to tutor online when there were only a handful of people in the country who had ever done online teaching. And the whole experience, though successful in student recruitment and operational terms, nearly killed the university because of the vast structural changes that had to be accommodated in such a short space of time. (The 100-hour weeks were not exactly conducive to my own good health at the time either, though I've cut that to 60 since and Ches's sudden and all too early demise is making me reconsider seriously dropping to the 37 the OU computer says I do...).

So T171 remade but nearly broke the OU at the turn of the century.Yet without Ches, John, Martin Weller, Andy Reilly, Ernie Taylor and a small number of others it could never have come to fruition.

No matter how complex or difficult a problem was thrown her way, technical or personal, Ches never turned down a request for help from students, friends or colleagues. She always had time for people and displayed a level of care, understanding and compassion that was immeasurable in this world of short attention spans, tick box metrics and generally insane behaviour on the part of large organisations.

Ches you will be sadly missed.