My take on the election, and what lies ahead

Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the result of the election on Thursday. That the Tories secured power for another five years was deeply saddening. That they did so without the need to form a coalition spoke volumes, both about the country and the opposition.

There is less to distinguish between the two major parties (Labour and the Conservatives, for the avoidance of doubt) now than there was in the 1980s, and indeed the 1990s. While I feel that the current Conservative administration has drifted right, so has Labour.

That said, I feel that Labour’s principles are in the right place. And while they didn’t articulate them particularly strongly in the campaign that they so resoundingly lost, I feel that they still hold true.

To me, the important tenets of Labour’s offering are as follows:

I also think that Labour values society at large alongside the economy. Whether this is more a component of Labour’s offering or a figment of my imagination, I’m not sure.

My feeling is that the Tories agree on the proposition that hard work should pay. I get the impression that the safety net is of less importance than it is to Labour. And I worry that health in particular will become a service that is dependent on ability to pay. As for society, I think that the Tories’ view is that a healthy economy leads to a healthy society. While there is a link, I don’t subscribe to it being as directly correlated as they seem to believe.

I have been lucky in my career and life to date. I have earned well, and have not had to rely on benefits. Touch wood, my personal exposure to the NHS has been the occasional check-up by my GP. I am lucky enough to be able to afford health insurance, which I invest in, and my daughter goes to a private school.

My feeling is that the Tories are catering for people like myself, people with options. But their policies don’t cater well for those less well off, those less able to afford options.

In the last administration, the bedroom tax was a dreadful introduction, one that hit many of the poorest people in society. And the Tories’ much more aggressive approach to disability living allowance, while it didn’t affect me one jot, hit many many people very hard. I feel that despite their talk of investment in the period immediately prior to the recent election, the NHS will become more privatised over the coming years, and a platform will be set up for a tiered healthcare system. Again, those who cannot afford options will lose out.

In the end, democracy won. In total, 11,334,920 people voted for the Tories, 21% more than voted for Labour. They won 331 of the 650 seats, and they secured a mandate for power. But my worry is that as a society, we have become more insular, more self-focused. And in becoming so, our voting has changed accordingly. If we as individuals are better off under a Tory government, then that is what we vote for. To hell with the rest.

That’s not exclusively the case. (There are many that vote for the Tories because they don’t agree with the picture I’ve painted above. And there are many that vote Labour despite knowing that they may be worse off financially as a result.) But I fear that it’s a growing trend.

In redefining itself, Labour has its task cut out. It needs to convince the electorate that a benefits system has its place, that it is there to protect the most vulnerable and not to line the pockets of people without the appetite to work. It needs to redefine and embrace the important tenets of society. It needs to hammer home the importance of key services without a direct cost to the individual (beyond tax). And at the same time it needs to demonstrate its ability to embrace the economic drivers that are here to stay.

It also needs a strong figurehead who can rally the party and convince the people. I wonder who that might be.

The 2015 Budget: In household terms

When George Osborne announced the Budget today, like his predecessors, he used some big numbers, generally millions and billions. There were lots of zeros being bandied about.

I find the Budget more relevant to people if instead of using such huge numbers, all financial amounts are quoted as pounds per household. It allows us to understand, on average, how much of our tax contribution is being spent on things.

So, without further ado, here’s the Budget in layman’s terms, all financials quoted as £/household.

The government will earn the following from the sale of organisations:

A further £467.09 is expected from the sale of the Income Contingency Repayment student loans book.

To prevent individual departments paying different amounts to either build their own data centres or outsource this service, the government will create a joint venture to host departments’ non–cloud based servers, which could save up to £3.89. (It is not clear whether this is a one-off saving or an annualised amount.)

A programme to benchmark public sector performance will deliver annual savings of £11.67.

The Skills Investment Fund will see additional funding of £0.15, as will the Video Games Prototype Fund, and the government will invest £23.35 on freeing up the 700 MHz spectrum for 4G use, and £0.77 on seismic surveys to boost offshore exploration in under-explored areas of the continental shelf.

More locally, it will spend:

The government will spend £2.59 in each of the next six years funding cutting-edge scientific research, and £3.89 on exploring driverless cars. It will provide £0.05 to help vulnerable individuals cut their energy bills.

An overall investment package of £48.66 has been committed for mental health. As part of this, £0.58 will be invested in each of the next five years to give care to women suffering from mental health issues during the perinatal or antenatal period, and £0.07 annually to significantly enhance current mental health and support services to the most vulnerable veterans in the community, and the same again to expand mental health services for Armed Forces veterans.

£0.09 will be provided to improve counter-terrorism at the border.

Is that better?

The scope of frameworks

Frameworks for government are important. They create a forum in which companies can set out their pitch for what they can do for government. They allow the government to undertake a certain amount of vetting of those companies. And they reduce the bureaucracy associated with government’s procurement.

Necessarily, their scope is limited. The scope of the framework is clearly defined. Companies specify their competencies against that scope, and this allows the public sector to buy services within that scope via the framework. It all works rather nicely.

However, risk is introduced when that scope is stretched.

Let’s say a framework is geared around a specific subject matter, cloud computing, for example. And let’s say that in being accepted onto the framework, a company demonstrates its competence in this area.

Now let’s say that a government organisation seeks expertise in a different subject matter, the provision of school meals for example. And let’s say it looks on the framework, and decides to go with the aforementioned company to provide its school meals, predominantly because it seems to offer good value for money.

There are two issues here. First, if the company is not very good at providing school meals, where do we go? The framework offered a level of comfort and protection. The companies that are on it have shown a level of competence in cloud computing. But they have shown no such ability in cookery.

Second, what if there’s another company that’s top dog in the school meals world. They make school meals that kids rave about, with locally-sourced ingredients at a price that has to be seen to be believed.

They see the business being awarded within the cloud computing framework. And, rightly, they say “hang on a minute”. This second company had read the terms of the cloud computing framework and dismissed it outright. “We don’t do cloud computing. We’re good at cooking food for kids. How could we possibly benefit from being listed on there?”

The example above is an extreme one for illustrative purposes. (Funnily enough, this specific example was presented to me earlier today by a Cabinet Office employee. They suggested that if the above deal represented good value for money, what was the issue?)

What are your thoughts? Should frameworks be stretched beyond their initial intent and their advertised scope to enable potential savings to the taxpayer? Or should their scope be carefully policed to ensure that companies are not awarded business unfairly at the expense of others; and that government doesn’t do business with companies ill-equipped to meet their requirements?

G-Cloud: Is there a silver, padded lining?

Yesterday, G-Cloud celebrated its third birthday.

In that time, it has accounted for £431m of government expenditure. (The correct figure is allegedly £467m, but the team is yet to update its data file to correct a bug I highlighted to them, so I can’t vouch for the latter figure. They’re hoping to correct this today.)

Of the £431m, £50m (12%) has been spent on software as a service (SaaS); £31m (7%) on infrastructure as a service (IaaS); £6m (1%) on platform as a service (PaaS); and a staggering £344m (80%) on “specialist cloud services”, defined as follows:

Specialist Cloud Services (SCS) support your transition to SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. Examples of SCS include cloud strategy, data transfer between providers or day-to-day support of cloud-based services.

My take on this is that the SaaS, IaaS and PaaS are on the out-of-the-box widgets themselves; and “specialist cloud services” are the people who are needed to either implement or support cloud.

But if you were to buy a truly cloud-based service, one that plugged and played, then even though there are humans needed to support this on a day-to-day basis, my view is that their effort and cost would be wrapped up into the *aaS cost, and would be labelled such. For example, every penny of the £2,970,196 that Ninian Solutions (Huddle’s trading name) has earned through G-Cloud is labelled as SaaS. If you want Huddle, you sign a contract; you get some licences; and it’s yours to use. There are humans who support it on a day-to-day basis – hell, I’ve met lots of them. But to the customer, these people are invisible.

So I expect that the humans covered by the SCS bucket above are doing the stuff that *doesn’t* come out of the box – either migrating stuff to the new solution, or doing something cloud-related that doesn’t come out of the proverbial box. One hopes that they’re not doing stuff unrelated to cloud. That wouldn’t be good, would it?

In my rather simplistic mind, cloud has two features. First, it’s available solely over the internet. And secondly, it’s shared. If it’s not available over the internet, then it becomes infrastructure sat in a semi-dedicated data centre, which is the old world of IT, and therefore doesn’t fit the cloud definition. It’s available over a network, but that network is a pipe dedicated for use by the end client.

And if it’s an application that is designed and/or implemented specifically for your use, then it doesn’t embrace the ethos of cloud that is associated with driving down cost through reuse.

I would have hoped that by embracing the two features above, the extent to which humans was needed would be much less than the above numbers suggest to be the case.

There is clearly a need for people to implement the things that you are buying through G-Cloud. But I am surprised that 80% of the money that is being spent on G-Cloud is dedicated to this. I have no idea what an appropriate percentage would be – indeed it might be entirely appropriate for four pounds in every five to be spent on the people associated with the service. Views?

G-Cloud is a fabulous thing. It has transformed the way in which certain elements of IT are bought within government, and has brought into the fold a large number of small- to medium-sized supplier organisations. But I find certain elements troubling.

Valtech, BJSS, Methods Advisory, Equal Experts, PA Consulting and IBM UK are the biggest six suppliers based on total evidenced spend, with a total take of £88m. Of that, £87,188 has been spent on *aaS. That’s less than 0.1%. All of the remainder has been spent on the humans to think about, implement and support this stuff. I wonder whether that was the model intended when G-Cloud was introduced.

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average: what does that mean?

I read a slightly odd article today. It was in that popular rag Computer World UK.

It contained two sentences that while not in themselves contradictory, were certainly juxtaposed.

First, the story’s headline:

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average.

And later, this:

Some organisations have saved 50 percent on previous costs for IT services, according to [Tony] Singleton.

I don’t have the data. But these two sentences are far from tautological. Nor is either as mind-blowing as it might at first read.

Let’s take them separately and in order.

If G-Cloud supported 10 deals, the first five reducing costs from £1,000 to £100; and the other five reducing costs from £100m to £90m, then G-Cloud has achieved 50% savings on average. Five deals came in with a 90% saving; the other five came in with a 10% saving. ((5 * 10%) + (5 * 90%)) / 10 = 50%.

In this example, the total saving is 10.0008%. But the headline is grander.

And now to the second. Some organisations have saved over 50%. This is basically saying that two or more organisations have done better than halving their costs. Two organisation may have each cut costs from £1,000 to £400, with every other organisation’s spend dwarfing these two organisations’ spend, all bringing in trivial relative savings.

None of the other statistics in the article gave further clarity on the savings achieved. But a bogus spelling of the word “received” certainly made me question its journalistic credibility, perhaps unfairly.

It’d be good to get hold of the data set used to inform the assertions.

David Cameron’s letter re. the Employment Allowance: my views

On Saturday, the last day of the 2013–14 tax year, I received a letter. It was from David Cameron, our prime minister, and it introduced me to the Employment Allowance, which as a small business owner could save me up to £2,000 per year. (It won’t. But that’s by the by.)

Here is a full transcript of that letter.

I was annoyed. Deeply annoyed. And this was for a couple of reasons.

First, the letterhead was that of 10 Downing Street. Now HMRC contacts me quite regularly to tell me about entitlements, my obligations, changes to my tax status, how much I owe, how much I am owed (rarely), their losses of my data etc. But never before to my recollection has any such communication come from the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government.

My view is that this is an official change to tax legislation that has a potential impact on me as a small business owner (owner of a small business, not a business owner of diminutive stature). As such, it should come from HMRC, the people who are responsible for the administration and coordination of my tax affairs. It should not come from the prime minister’s office.

Next, the letter was signed by David Cameron. (Or at least a scanned version of his signature appeared at the base of the letter.) My view is that this should come from a civil servant, not from a politician. This is not a political matter. When HMRC allegedly lost some CDs containing my data, along with that of all other child benefit claimants, I received a letter from Dave Hartnett, then permanent secretary of HMRC, not the minister of the day.

Third, the marketing spiel.

Britain has been through some very tough years. We endured one of the biggest bank bailouts in the world and the deepest recession in generations. For businesses and charities like yours, on the frontline of the economy, we know it has been especially difficult.

We came into Government with a long term economic plan to rescue the economy.

Thanks to your hard work, we are now seeing the results. A private-sector recovery with the economy growing, jobs being created, and confidence reaching new highs. Businesses are saying to us they want to invest, grow, and take on new people. The Employment Allowance is about helping you to do that.

This is the main bit that made me put pen to paper. This is a letter being paid for by me, the taxpayer. And it is being sent by Mr. Cameron, who holds two primary positions: prime minister of the United Kingdom; and leader of the Conservative Party. If the letter had been sent from him in his position as prime minister of the UK, then that is fine and dandy. But the three paragraphs above strike me as having been written more by the leader of the Conservative Party.

They are marketing through-and-through. They are intended to make me feel fantastic about the good work that the current government is doing. They are intended to make me vote Conservative at the next election.

I resent the fact that Cameron is using taxpayers’ money to make a political statement. It’s so blatant and goes entirely against the ethos of government.

(As an aside, David, my view is that front line should be two words; long-term as an adjective should be hyphenated, and private sector should not be hyphenated, even when used as an adjective within a sentence that’s not a sentence. (A colon would have been a much more welcome introduction to that little clause now, wouldn’t it?))

The role of Ofsted in schools

Ever since I can remember, education in the UK has been measured through the use of exam results, at GCSE and A-level. Until the last year or so, some statistic about how many students received a certain number of A*–C (A–C grades before the A* was introduced) has been steadily increasing, giving the general public a warm and fuzzy feeling about how well the Secretary of State for Education is doing in his or her role.

During the same period, school qualifications have become more and more meaningless and valueless.

As I’ve said previously, this needs to change. The proportion of students achieving each grade in a given subject should be fixed year on year. Students should be evaluated against their peers. This is the only way in which grades can become meaningful again. If I received the CVs of two people, one of whom attained five As, three Bs and two Cs; and one of whom had ten As, I am unable to meaningfully compare them unless I know which year in which they took their exams. And even if I was armed with that information, I wouldn’t have sufficient information to be able to discern which candidate had performed better.

Children’s inherent intelligence is not fundamentally changing over the course of time. Certainly not to an extent that can be detected between one August and the next.

(The same is arguably true of employees, by the way. If your organisation is sufficiently large, you should be able to group a fixed proportion of people into each of a number of performance brackets. But that’s an aside.)

So if exam results were to be standardised, Ofsted becomes more important. The quality of education being offered by a school should be measured in two ways: its overall approach; and its outputs (exam results). (Arguably, a school that only accepts really bright students will demonstrate very good exam results, so perhaps a third measure, about its outputs compared to its inputs (11+ results?) might also be useful.)

The quantitative measure(s) involving exam results can easily be collated and presented based on hard data. But Ofsted’s softer role is ever more important in ensuring that this is backed up with empirical evidence about how a school operates on a day-to-day basis.

The black hole of online car tax renewal

So. My car tax is due to expire on 30 November.

The trouble is, my insurance is due to expire on 26 November.

I am able to renew my car tax any time after 5 November, and received a letter to this effect from the DVLA on 5 November. So I went online to renew the following day.

The site said that I couldn’t renew online, as the motor insurance database did not have proof of my having insurance beyond the point of the car tax renewing. Apparently, I’m unable to renew my car tax within the last three weeks of my insurance policy. Coincidentally, that means I’m unable to renew my car tax after 5 November.

So I went through the process of renewing my insurance, with Privilege, and they have now confirmed that on 26 November, my insurance will renew with them for another year.

The trouble is, they are unable to inform the DVLA of my new insurance policy until my existing policy is at the point of expiry.

So I will instead need to go into a Post Office to renew my car tax; or else I need to try to do it in the four-day window between 26 and 30 November. And here’s the rub: the proximity of the two expiry dates means that this will be an annual “feature” of my relationship with the DVLA, unless I choose to pay an £11 premium to only renew my car tax for six months.

Utter madness.

Accessing our information: are we asking the right question?

The rather farcical Where’s Wally/Waldo–style arm’s-length manhunt that is underway to locate Edward Snowden is, perhaps intentionally, deflecting from the important topic of snooping. But I think people are missing the important question.

The question being asked is:

Are the authorities breaking the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The question that should be being asked, in my opinion, is:

Should the authorities be allowed to operate above the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The problem is, the authorities have done little to engender our trust in the past. The police are never out of the news for their corruption and cover-ups, alleged and otherwise. The Stephen Lawrence case is the most recent example. Before that, phone hacking, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, the list goes on.

And in government, MPs are rarely out of the news for their own indiscretion: expenses scandals, selling of information, employment of relatives, cash for questions, their all too cosy relationships with the media.

And this behaviour, this reputation tarnishes the entirety of the security services. Few people nowadays trust that their information will be used in a responsible and positive way, and so there is uproar at the very idea that MI5 or GCHQ might go beyond the confines of the law in an attempt to thwart terrorist activity.

I wonder whether people’s perceptions of the security services’ use of data would be different if operational policing were better trusted, or if those that were responsible for the government of our country operated in a transparent and honest way.

My view is that if the public-facing sections of the authorities behaved in an honest manner, we would have little issue with the security services’ use of our data. Instead of asking whether they’d operated within the law, we’d be asking the extent to which they’d thwarted terrorist activity.

Perhaps this is a naive post, and that I’m ignoring the more fundamental rights we have to privacy. Perhaps. Only you can judge.

Backhanded compliments? The non-committal adjectives used to describe Maggie

Below is a selection of the delightful non-committal adjectives used to describe Margaret Thatcher in the period immediately following her death.

David Cameron:

an “extraordinary leader and an extraordinary woman”

Ed Miliband:

“Margaret Thatcher was a unique and towering figure”

a “unique figure” who “reshaped the politics of a whole generation”

Lady Thatcher’s beliefs were “rooted in people’s everyday lives”

Lady Thatcher “broke the mould”

Nick Clegg:

“the memory of her will continue undimmed, strong and clear for years to come”

“Margaret Thatcher was one of the defining figures in modern British politics. Whatever side of the political debate you stand on, no-one can deny that as prime minister she left a unique and lasting imprint on the country she served.”

Cheryl Gillan, former Conservative MP:

“may not see the like of Lady Thatcher again in our lifetime”

Lord Hill of Oareford:

“I think we all agree she made a huge difference to the country she loved”

Alex Salmond:

a “truly formidable prime minister whose policies defined a political generation”

Tony Blair:

a “towering political figure”

And finally, a more obviously complimentary one.

Patrick Wintour, political editor of the Guardian:

“She had beautiful hands and lovely ankles”



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