Lockheed Martin and the 2011 census

Someone on Twitter this morning highlighted to me the annoyance that was raging online over the Office for National Statistics’ decision to award a significant portion of the 2011 census contract to Lockheed Martin. The rage was encompassed in the Census Alert website, and was specifically directed at LM being the world’s number one military contractor and arms exporter, its involvement in Iraq and the “War on Terror” (their quotes, not mine), and its involvement in the Echelon global surveillance network.

I’m guessing that some of these credentials did not adversely affect LM being selected by governments on both sides of the Atlantic for defence-related contracts. Yet it seems moral grounds should be included as an evaluation criterion in the OJEU process for census data processing.

First, some facts. LM seems to have a good track record in this field. It provided the data capture elements of the UK’s census of 2001, as well as being involved in censuses for Canada and the USA.

LM has worked on technical systems supporting Scotland and Northern Ireland’s air traffic control and the Royal Mail’s post sorting operations. And it is considered sufficiently trustworthy to provide the Metropolitan Police with a new Command, Control, Communication and Information System.

And it certainly has strong financial backing for the £150m contract, with a market capitalisation of $28bn and a 2009 net income a little over $3bn.

Now to the campaign. And here’s the most bizarre bit. Beyond the arguments listed above, there’s this nugget below:

We are not opposed to the Census itself. Aggregated, the information collected is important in allocating resources to local authorities and public services.

But personal privacy is important too, and we are concerned that Lockheed Martin’s involvement could undermine public confidence in the process and lead to inaccurate data being collected.

That second paragraph is important. The campaign itself is advertising and making an issue of LM’s involvement in the census. Yet they are worried that awareness of such involvement could undermine public confidence, leading to inaccuracies.

It’s highly unlikely that the contract will be withdrawn from LM as a result of the campaign. And so the campaign is only likely to exacerbate one of the very issues it is worried about: inaccuracies. (Although I very much doubt that the campaign will be seen by sufficient people to have a statistically significant impact on the census results.)

The government must, and does, have criteria determining which organisations can be selected to provide its services—terrorist organisations, for example, are out. But if Lockheed Martin pass muster to provide our missiles, then why not for optical character recognition of our census data? Or should we use different moral selection criteria depending on the government department procuring the services?

Healthy public sector puts private sector to shame

The public sector has become the envy of the private sector, benefiting from the good health of its employees. Central government departments have released information about their employees’ sick leave via a parliamentary question  from Tory MP Priti Patel.

A total of 12 departments released details of how many days were lost due to staff sickness. The Ministry of Justice had the highest count of days lost, at 749,723. While this figure sounds high, few journalists care to put it into context. Across its c. 80,000-strong workforce, this equates to 9.37 sick days per person per year, while a survey of the private sector puts the figure at 10 days.

The difference equates to 50,400 additional days in the office for the MoJ when compared to an average private sector organisation of the same size—or put another way 229 full time equivalents, a salary saving of over £5m.

The private sector has taken note, and five seminars were arranged led by public sector HR specialists designed to give the private sector an insight into the methods used by the public sector to drive down sickness absence. Unfortunately, the first two seminars were forced to be cancelled due to audience illness.

Big Society: my views

Culture can be changed. The fewer the number of people, the easier it is to change. And the more willing the people are to embrace the culture change, the more likely it is that it will work.

For the management to change the culture of a company of 20 disillusioned people is very difficult. Increase that number to 5,000 and the chances of success become nigh-on impossible.

David Cameron is trying to change the culture of 61.8m people at a time when a good number of those people are resentful of the government that is imposing the change—and the circumstances in which the change is being made. The change: Big Society.

It doesn’t really matter what the change is. The circumstances themselves make the vision, in my opinion, unrealistic.

The country is in the midst of one of the biggest recessions in its history. The investment banks, aided by the lax controls imposed by the FSA, have helped create a deficit that the entire country is now paying off. In the analogy of a company, this would be like all employees taking a pay cut to help the company ride out some bad business decisions.

And at this time of uncertainty and fear of what the future might hold, people will become introspective. They will focus on themselves, their families—at the detriment of wider society. And for me, I can’t see that the community-specific aspects of Big Society will work. If people have a few hours spare, they won’t choose to do community work; they’ll choose instead to do some more work to earn the money that they won’t be certain of earning next month.

I’m generalising, of course. Some people will choose to lend their time and efforts to the Third Sector or their local community. But those are likely the same people that would have done so anyway. And Big Society is all about a change—a sea change.

I hope I’m wrong. But I’m doubtful.

Half a million redundant clicks

I was working on a spreadsheet with someone the other day. I was on their PC, and at the end of the session I needed a copy of the spreadsheet we’d created.

So I asked whether I could email it to myself. With her consent, I attached it to an email, put a couple of words in the subject line, and hit Send.

Automatic spell-check was turned on. It found seven errors in total, all appearing within the lady’s email signature. Parts of her name, her company address and her email address all fell foul of the spell-check.

I asked her whether this happened every time she sent an email. It did. Every time, she hit Skip seven times, the email eventually zooming into the ether on the seventh click. I asked why she hadn’t instead hit Add to dictionary, but she was afraid that doing so would add it to a big, central dictionary.

So for the last 12 years she’s hit Skip seven times—every time she’s sent an email. At 30 emails per day, that’s over half a million Skip clicks. Or she could have hit Add to dictionary seven times on day one.