Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What doesn't surprise me ...

What doesn't surprise me about yesterday's data loss cock-up is the timeline of events:

18 October - Junior official from HMRC in Washington, Tyne and Wear, sends two CDs containing password-protected records to audit office in London through courier TNT, neither recorded nor registered
24 October - When package fails to arrive, second one is sent by registered post and arrives safely
3 November - Senior managers are told first package has been lost
10 November - Prime minister and other ministers are informed
12 November - HMRC tell ministers CDs will probably be found
14 November - When HMRC searches fail, Metropolitan Police are called in
20 November - HMRC Chairman Paul Gray resigns; Chancellor Alistair Darling makes announcement to House of Commons

Now, you're going to have tons of politicians running around like headless chickens (or turkeys, maybe, given the current bird culls) saying things like security must be tightened! But the truth is that all you need to know about such protestations is the information in that timeline.

For a start, why was the entire database sent through the post rather than just the information actually requested by the NAO? Probably the NAO sent a letter to the senior managers, who then delegated through the line until it ended up on the desk of the poor sod who is going to be blamed for this entire fiasco. I bet the instructions for security didn't travel with the order, and the work wasn't checked as it was carried out. Delegation is not a Civil Service forte: yes, all the managers have been on the training courses, but putting the theory into practice? Excuse me while I giggle inanely at my monitor for a few moments.

Now, as far as the junior officials are concerned, either it took them a couple of weeks to work out that disks going missing in the post might be a bit of a concern; or they were too scared to tell their line managers. Because what the Civil Service mostly runs on is not competence, or skills, or diplomacy: it's fear. At every level of the Civil Service, the first priority of the official is to cover their own arse, and those of their mates, before worrying about what the effects of their actions will be on others.

This isn't just a junior failing (and who can blame them for feeling that way?) Check out that whole week it took the senior managers to tell Ministers that there might be a bit of a cock up on the horizon. And even after telling them, they were still trying to "manage their Ministers" by telling them the discs would probably be found.

Talking of which, notice how TNT seem to be missing the flack. Years back, all interdepartmental correspondence was sent via a system called IDS. You put the documents in a "grid" (reusable envelope) and put it in the communal out tray and it was all sorted. The service got privatised (naturally) but essentially remained the same until now. IDS is cheap: couriers are expensive. Excessive spend can reflect badly on line managers.

The one thing that does surprise me is that the Chairman of HMRC has bitten the bullet and resigned. This is almost unheard of in the Civil Service, where incompetence - particularly at the Team Leader level and above - is more often than not rewarded either by level transfer to a team that hasn't heard of the idiot before or (and I've witnessed this) promoting the problem away.

Don't get me wrong. I worked for the Civil Service for 18 years, and I have enormous respect for many of the people I worked with (whether the feeling is reciprocated is moot). But when it comes to the more senior people, my respect rapidly declines. There's some sound people in the service, and there's some shits. It's a pity that shit tends to float to the top ...

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