Government IT projects, Defence of indefensible voting and others

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How government IT projects fall into the comprehension gap

How government IT projects fall into the comprehension gap

Sir: David Carpenter (Letters, 24 June) rightly thinks we should be told who is responsible for government IT failures. But he is mistaken to concentrate just on the providers of such systems. Certainly there are valid criticisms to be made of profiteering at the public/private sector interface, but having worked as a lowly programmer on several public sector IT projects, my impression from the trenches is that such systems are often doomed to failure almost from the outset.

Government clients often do not seem to know what they want their new system to do and may be reluctant to engage properly in the design process, expecting the supplier to solve all their problems.

Privatisation of government IT services has sometimes left the public sector without the in-depth knowledge to manage such projects properly. Meanwhile, the supplier can provide the technical skills but rarely has a detailed grasp of the government client's business. Multiple layers of outsourcing can add to the comprehension gap between client and supplier, and sub-contracted suppliers may prefer not to ask awkward questions of their own clients.

All too often, neither party is prepared to confront and resolve problems early on: the supplier may not want to risk losing the next fat government contract by rocking the boat on this one, and the client may be reluctant to admit the inadequacy or impracticality of their stated requirements.

The bidding process for government contracts may encourage people to underestimate the real cost of providing the system, and the development timetable is often driven by political rather than technical demands, with design or testing phases being cut short to meet arbitrary deadlines.

We can probably look forward to more of the same when the Government introduces its proposed ID cards. Garbage in, garbage out.



Straw's defence of indefensible voting

Sir: The arguments Jack Straw (Opinion, 24 June) contrives in favour of first-past-the-post must gladden the hearts of all lawyers trained to defend the indefensible.

First he contrives to present the Free Democrats in Germany as being "in power" between 1969 and 1998, on "less than 9 per cent of the vote", In fact they shared power first with the Social Democrats and then the CDU/ CSU. One might say that if only Labour and then Conservatives had shared power with Liberals/ Liberal Democrats over the same period then maybe the UK would have made similar economic, social and industrial progress to that made in Germany.

He damns consensus with faint praise and goes on to suggest that politicians really know best and what they really need is a nice big majority so they can do what they like for four or five years even though, as at the last general election, over 78 per cent of the electorate did not support them.

His coup de grace is the old one about there being nothing like a single constituency MP. When given a choice between an MP who has no understanding or sympathy with my views or situation, whom I did not vote for, and an MP whom I did vote for but who, under the single transferable vote, shares the constituency with three, four or five others, I know which I would choose.



Sir: Jack Straw says that under a PR system he would not be accountable to his constituents and, in the case of a multi-member constituency, could shift his local responsibilities on to another representative of the area.

Of course under an STV system Mr Straw could do this, but if he did the electorate could easily punish him at the next election. The beauty of such a system is they could do so without even having to vote for a different party. Maybe this is what Mr Straw is worried about.

In dismissing PR, Mr Straw does his own government a disservice. Let us not forget it is this Labour administration that introduced PR systems for the first time on a wide scale in mainland Britain. Could it be that, having failed to gain successive majorities in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay and also losing large numbers of MEPs since the list system was introduced for European elections, the Labour government have had their fingers burnt by PR and have, therefore, moved away from the question of electoral reform?

If so this would be the greatest shame of all, as it is centre-left progressive politics that has the most to gain from a reform of the current Westminster voting system.



Sir: The hypocrisy of it! Tony Blair demands that other European leaders listen to their people, while cowering behind an unfair and undemocratic voting system that allows him cheerfully to ignore his own.



Top salaries: the Zanzibar principle

Sir: It is said that there once lived in Zanzibar a retired sea-captain who was fanatical about time. Every day, precisely at noon, he fired a cannon, the sound of which reverberated over Zanzibar Town. "How," he was asked, "can you keep time so accurately?"

"There is a watch-maker down in the town", he said, "who keeps a clock in his window that always shows the exact time. Every day I check my time against his." When the watch-maker was asked the same question he replied, "There is a retired sea-captain ...."

I am reminded of this story by the arrival of the papers for the AGM of the Nationwide Building Society. The Society's board is certainly less self-serving than those of many major organisations, but its Zanzibar attitude to directors' remuneration is reflected in most British boardrooms. The directors' remuneration and fees are determined by a committee of directors, who, in their deliberations, take advice about remuneration levels in comparator organisations. These, in turn, have based their remuneration decisions on comparator organisations that, inevitably, include the Nationwide.

What I found particularly irksome about the Nationwide's report was the juxtaposition of two figures, each of about £4m. One was in the self-congratulatory leaflet that tells us how wonderful the Society is for supporting good causes: it has helped to raise £4m over 12 years for its "flagship charity". So £4m is an awful lot of money and worth crowing about. Except when it also happens to be the sum the directors paid themselves in just one year.



Ape art may not be good, but it is still art

Sir: Philip Hensher's piece "Art that makes a monkey out of us all" (22 June), in which he suggests that the paintings by the chimpanzee Congo cannot be considered as art, is wide of the mark.

The test which should be applied to the paintings is that of randomness. Are the marks on the paper the result of random strokes of the brush or are they the result of intention? If Congo, when wielding his brush, gave even a minuscule thought to where the marks were going and the colours used then it is not random and indeed is some form of art. It may not be what might be called good art, but it is art.

The painting shown in The Independent the previous day seemed to me to incorporate rhythm of movement across the page and in the different marks made and in the colours used. It could be that these were an accident of chance but I think it unlikely. Biologically chimpanzees are very similar to humans; it is not true that they have no power of thought or reasoning. It is silly to compare Congo's work with human art but it seems to me to be a form of monkey art.



After Thatcher, the land of the Asbo

Sir: The recent debate about the effectiveness and legitimacy of Asbos has neglected one important point.

Up until the late 1970s local authorities and publicly owned companies employed people to ensure that facilities were well maintained and efficient. These public servants took the form of your local park-keeper or bus conductor. They were an important function alongside the regular police patrols in ensuring a sense of local pride and discipline, thus putting a brakes on any attempts at anti-social disorder. As a child I can recall the dread of being caught by the "parky". Sadly the Thatcher years decimated the public sector, societal functions and public transport, leading to the removal of these key people.

Community wardens are an adequate start; but without prolonged funding into improving and maintaining local amenities and instilling a sense of community pride, I'm afraid that Asbos are the only current solution to the problem.



Blair's scare tactics to stifle protest

Sir: Stuart Skyte says that a few thousand protesters do not represent the majority (letter, 23 June). Perhaps he thinks that 35 per cent of the electorate represents the majority with a mandate to govern.

I am hard pressed to remember the last time a mass demonstration was "destructive" and have to go back to the poll tax "riots". The first thing any authoritarian regime will do is enact legislation to protect itself and stifle protest, and they use phrases like, "If you are innocent you have nothing to fear."

We are being fed scare stories about the terrorism and ID theft which enable the Government to remove more of our civil liberties.



Sent back into the clutches of Mugabe

Sir: You report ("Demolition of Zimbabwean homes kills two children", 24 June) that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "No government which subscribes to human rights and democracy should allow this kind of thing effectively to go on under their noses." But it seems that right under Mr Straw's own nose, his colleague the Home Secretary is detaining Zimbabweans and sending Mugabe more victims with arbitrary targets on deportations.

Zimbabwean detainees tell us that 97 of them "waiting in darkness" in removal centres around the UK are on hunger strike.

Deporting Zimbabweans into Mugabe's hands is as reprehensible as what Mugabe's regime does to them when they arrive. The paranoid Zimbabwean government has branded asylum-seekers being forcibly returned from the UK as "trained and bribed malcontents" and "Blair's mercenaries of regime change".

All Zimbabwean asylum seekers are at risk if deported and should all be released from UK removal centres immediately.



Modern support for working families

Sir: You report Professor Bill Ledger's assertion that infertility is a "disease" caused amongst other things by workplace pressure on women ("Britain's fertility timebomb", 21 June).

Britain needs to support better people who might have children if we are to avoid the demographic timebomb, with fewer and fewer young people looking after a growing elderly population. It's in the interest of all of us, including those of us who do not have children, to provide modern support for the modern working family. That means higher and better paid leave in the early years, giving fathers access to a "daddy month" in their own right, and giving parents more choice about who looks after the children.

It also means better and more affordable childcare on which parents - and their employers - can rely; and the right to ask for flexible working for parents of children of all ages.

Discrimination against pregnant women at work is also a major issue. Our research shows that women with less job security, such as young mothers and women with short employment service or on temporary contracts, have a greater risk of pregnancy-related discrimination than older women or women in established careers. Is it any wonder that this may deter some women from having a baby until they are older?



Blunkett's pay-out

Sir: Why does Mr Blunkett feel he is entitled to £18,000 redundancy pay? I thought redundancy payments in the real world were for people who were made redundant, not for those who were sacked or resigned.



Back-to-back theories

Sir: Guy Keleny speculates about the origins of the expression "back to back" for events occurring without a break (Errors and Omissions, 25 June). Might the analogy be with books, hardback or paperback, stored on a bookshelf or stacked on a table, usually with no space between them? I agree the analogy would be incorrect for cricket matches, where "beer-tent to beer-tent" or "yawn to yawn" might suit.



Emin's fatal fascination

Sir: Tracey Emin's column draws me to it like a moth to a flame, or is it a ghoul to a crash site? Try as I might to ignore her writings something pulls me back to see if she has used any swearwords or mentioned drinking. Last week's column (22 June) did not disappoint; the first word being the "f" word. Perhaps you could set Ms Emin a challenge; write an article without resorting to expletives. That way I can ignore it and know that when my three-year-old daughter learns to read she can too.



Conned by Armani Man

Sir:Yes, I admit to being conned by Armani Man in a pub car-park in rural Dorset. It was the usual story - he was on his way to Heathrow and had some stock left after an exhibition. The leather jacket he showed me was actually rather nice, but I did not spot the sleight of hand which left me with a cheap fabric one instead. Still, it lasted a couple of years before it fell to pieces.



Tory modernisers

Sir: Hamish McRae writes that "instead of fighting old battles, the Tories should focus on how to modernise Britain" (22 June). Steady on, Hamish. This is the party which declared that one of its most immediate priorities if elected was to re-legalise the 18th-century barbarities of scarlet-coated huntsmen perched on horseback.