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MOT status check: a five minute business case

I have just written this business case in five minutes. Go on, knock it over! [Spoiler: the update lower down is where it gets knocked over, in some style!]

Problem:

Millions of people have no idea when their MOT expires. If they’re lucky, their local garage sends them a reminder based on the last test date. But mostly they have to rely on a piece of paper in a filing drawer at home.

So they let them lapse, leading to compliance problems affecting insurance, enforcement, automated renewal of vehicle licensing etc. etc.

Solution:

Fortunately there’s an online service to check MOT status. You’d think there would be – it’s exactly the sort of simple, non-personal, bounded data storage that computers are really good at looking up.

Complication:

To use it you need TWO pieces of information: vehicle reg no; and either the old MOT certificate (or MOT failure note) reference, or a reference on the V5C (log book).

Thing is, pretty much everyone knows their reg no. but guess where people keep the V5C? Generally in the same drawer, right next to the MOT certificate. So what is the point of the online service if it forces you to go and run your fingers over the piece of paper that contains the answer you’re looking for? And of course when you think of these things, sod’s law says you are NEVER at home, with your filing drawer in reach. It’s a bloody nonsense.

Fix:

Simple modification to the business logic: take away that requirement for a second piece of information.

At the front end, just ask the user for the reg no.

Hidden from view in the back end, tell the system that the correct V5C/cert reference has been entered. Dig through all that ancient legacy code(?) and set the “HAS_V5C_BEEN_PROVIDED” flag to “TRUE”.

Benefit:

Massive improvement in compliance. And a really huge new online transaction success story to shout about AT PRETTY MUCH ZERO COST.

Policy implications:

(And this must be where the problems lie in this complete no-brainer…) It will mean an acceptance that your MOT record is essentially public. Anyone can look it up if they know your reg no. Short of some really outlandish edge cases where the Sun might write some crappy story about Tulisa’s car having an out-of-date MOT, I really can’t see why this shouldn’t be a matter of public record. After all, the presence (at least until this year) of a visible tax disc has been a publicly viewable example of a car’s compliance with the law, and nobody’s ever got upset about that.

Even in the wildest imaginings of what risks might arise, they will never outweigh the benefit of making an MOT status check online service that is actually USABLE.

Rant over. Go on then – what did I miss, and WHY HASN’T THIS J F BEEN D?

(I wrote about this over three years ago, and have mentioned it several times since to senior officials in the world of government motoring administration. No answer ever came back. Should I have been more persistent, or just punchier?)

UPDATE: A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER

So, I tweet the head of DVLA, and I get properly ZINGED. Because it turns out that it did get JFD. (Just f—ing done)

Try this, the new Vehicle Enquiry Service (beta).

I just didn’t f—ing know about it. It’s not obvious in search – which is still dominated by that page linked to above, asking for that elusive second piece of info.

(It also asks for Make – which may possibly thwart a small percentage, and could be argued as being redundant, but I’m hopeful has been shown in testing to be a better way to handle mistyped registration marks than simply offering the (wrong) vehicle details back and hoping the user spots that their Ford is now a VW…)

Without doubt it is a GREAT service. An EXCELLENT service. It does exactly what I hoped. It does more, actually. It shows vehicle tax expiry too – which of course becomes essential as the tax disc is now being phased out.

Quite rightly, given the service is in beta, there’s still work to do on fixing that search journey, and I’m sure before very long that other page – https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-status – will be tweaked to reflect the new functionality.

I’ve got humble pie running down my face, and I’m ok with that. Shall we just reflect how far things have come that a well-intended (but clearly underinformed) blog post can pop-up – get a useful response directly from an agency CEO within a couple of hours, with not a hint of spin, snark or press officer flannel – and lead to a better informed me, and hopefully you, dear reader?

(Off to get a bigger spoon to eat that pie with)

No exit?

It’s the morning after the poll before.

I’ve just read an interesting James Ball piece on why the lack of exit polling was a Bad Thing. At first I thought it was going to be a journalist’s lament that journalists were being deprived of bones to pick over in that difficult bit between being allowed to talk about it and having any actual results to talk about. Oh dear. How awful.

But setting my wholly unfair cynicism aside, the real point of James’ piece was that this lack of information in some way diminishes our understanding of, and competence in, democracy.

[Personally, I don’t much like the practice, if I’m honest. As a voter, I’ve done my thing, and on the way out I really don’t see how it’s anyone’s business who I am or what I did. That’s just me.]

As James put it:

…we won’t know whether it’s because 16- to 17-year-olds, given the vote for the first time, turned out en masse, or whether it’s because of a last-minute change of heart among pensioners (who currently lean towards no).

This detail and data is what lets academics, journalists and politicians alike work out what really happened and how voters act.

And at this point, one of my favourite questions pops up. “Whose needs are being met here?” If the exit polling were restricted to basic questions on participation (e.g. age profiling) that might be useful to help find the missing turnout. But anything on actual preference will only have one effect – to allow the focusing of “messages” on defined demographic slices. To turn the overall outcome by taking close aim at particular levers to shift particular sub-groups. And is that ok? I’m doing a big hmmm in my head.

Surely the whole point is that messages – or better still, policies – have to read across an entire electorate, and be measured in the aggregate. Focus-group all you like in shaping those policies, but I just can’t see how exit polling serves wider democratic interest anywhere near as much as it serves party interests. If that’s the case, let the parties pay for them, and the media rake over them – but let’s be clear about who really benefits.

I suppose to some extent opinion-to-exit comparisons also provide a measure of public mendacity, but is that essential to make democracy itself more effective?

Vote for change

Saturday live and kicking

It’s quiet at Broadcasting House on a Saturday morning. Once you’ve found the right entrance, a security pass is pushed into your hand, then you’re led up to an empty corridor – reminiscent of a thousand council offices – to wait.

Tired buns and tea, a nervous tricklepee, then with the clock terrifyingly close to 9am – TRANSMISSION TIME – into the studio for a very quick hello with the Rev Richard Coles.

I liked him immediately. I knew I would, though. Someone who’s done very different things in his time, in extraordinary and challenging places, with at least the outward appearance of now having one foot rooted in a Northamptonshire churchyard and the other in the clutter of celebrity – what’s not to like, or indeed, to resonate?

Richard Coles copy

Then the show’s on. No rehearsal, little briefing (“don’t mention Scottish independence” was about it – shame – I’d got some thoughtful comments ready just in case.) Head reeling a little from the dramatic trail I heard at 0830 (“Fresh from the pit of alcoholism…Paul Clarke”)

Flitting in and out of headphones, the red eye of studio vitality blinking next to the orange glow of ON AIR. On air. On air to millions (?) of people out there, including some very close to me. Some, I’m sure, for whom this would be a distinct surprise.

And yet, through all this, we managed a bit of a chat, usually only broken by Richard grabbing his headphones, or a proffered sheet of A4 with some new tweets or emails to read. A wave of the fingers, a glance at the script on screen, then honey voice gliding to the mike again.

An hour and a half of this. It flew by. Though I’m never normally short of words – especially when talking about something close to me, or that I believe in – with these two I was the rank amateur. The third person in the studio was Val McDermid – a wonderfully erudite writer with a brilliant array of anecdotes, and no shortage of opinions. I mean that in a very good way. She was strong, confident and lovely, and very reassuring to the newbie next to her.

Behind a window, a group of producers, watching, listening, typing, running… Me the goldfish, they the cats. My glasses kept falling off when I moved my headphones. I couldn’t decide if I should take them off, so I could see Richard properly, or keep them on, so I could scribble comfort notes on the pad they’d given me. I imagined the crew murmuring – ah, bless – as I wrestled for the fifth time with tangled specs and cables.

I can hardly remember any of it. Just be yourself, everyone said. Be yourself. Who’s yourself? What am I saying? What do I mean? Are they same thing?

The introduction – several times – ThePhotographerPaulClarke. Yeah. It’s true, of course. It’s what I do – intensively. But you know the little voice. The one challenging my right. The one I’d use at the radio in my kitchen listening to another privileged wannabe talk about his ohsodifficult struggle to make a living by poncing about doing a bit of clicking.

I wasn’t promoting a book. I wasn’t promoting me (I would be very surprised if anything I said in a few minutes on radio would make a material difference one way or another to my business). So what WAS I doing there? At 9.28, in the studio, it’s probably a bit too late to be overwhelmed by that thought. But as the finger waving and mouthed “Paul, you’re next” oscillated through the-gel-that-is-studio-air towards me, I was.

So I did my best. Of course, nothing that I’d prepared came up: who inspires me*, my favourite photo, most interesting anecdote from a shoot… Zip.

Instead, something about sport, Elyar Fox (not Justin Bieber), loneliness. A schoolboy joke about boobs. Oh, and drinking.

Yeah, that’s why I was there. Because through whatever alchemy of support, friendship, luck and bloody-mindedness, I was the guy who’d put down alcohol, started using a camera to cope, and to self-express, and unexpectedly found himself confounding all predictions to build a successful business taking pictures. Pictures that people wanted to see; that they paid for.

And if, just if, something I said might be useful to just one person, that would justify my early start, quaking terror, and some embarrassing family conversations in the future. Ok, maybe two people. But I was doing it because my interesting little talk had been picked up by the researchers as an example of something that might speak to a rather wider audience.

At five years in, I’d felt able to do that talk, and a year earlier, to write just this one piece which I hope some also find resonant. But that’s all. It’s not a secret, but neither do I think I wear it on my shirt.

Of course, there’s dramatic alcoholism, and there’s the other sort. In my experience, it’s the other sort I’ve come across time and time again, and maybe in some ways it’s more deadly. Because it’s the sort that rumbles on for years, for decades, eating its host away without ever quite triggering an epiphany.

Being media people, the steer was very much towards the “so just how bad was it, when you were at rock bottom and your life was destroyed, Paul?” Being me, I did what I could, not to play down those dark times, but to emphasise the grinding normality of repeatedly doing something you don’t want to do. Of using a substance or a habit to deal with troubling inner voices. That the hardest thing for me – the point that told me it was time to change – was simply the realisation that I’d lost my choice. If it was 6pm, I drank. Simple as that. Whether I wanted to, or not. And in the latter days, I rarely wanted to, nor did it lift me up anywhere other than temporarily out of a craving.

Breakfast whisky? Nope. Blackouts at work? Nope. Uncontrollable trembling? Nope. Loss of job because of drinking? Nope (though I heard that in Saturday’s script, presumably as a result of a researcher conflating some other comments in my talk about my career shifting around me. Journalism, hey?)

Relentless, day-in-day-out, repetition of patterns that were hurting me (and those around me) more and more. Yes. YES. That.

And, in the aftermath, it seems that message was perhaps the most resonant I could have made. Had I crumbled, and gone along with the offered line of park benches and breath mints, it might have made a more dramatic storyline. But it wouldn’t have reached some people – people with far less flamboyant stories and issues to deal with.

I know this, because I’ve since heard from some of them. No details, obviously, but even before the programme had finished I’d had messages from others out there. Some known to me, others not at all. I’ve done (and will continue to do) what I can to help, and am grateful that my target of two was swiftly passed. There’s also a hint of something coming out of this, which if it’s meant to be, will be one of the biggest and most exciting things I could possibly dream of. But I’m doing a serenity prayer on that one right now, because it’s definitely something I can’t directly control.

So that was live radio, on a tricky subject. Much, much more difficult than I’d realised. But I do like to take on the difficult. On balance, I’d do it again. Just better. (You can listen to the show here, and I’ve got a chunk at about 30 minutes in, plus other brief moments.)

I haven’t heard from my Dad yet.

[UPDATE – 18 Sept. I have now. It was so fantastic. He said he was proud of me.]

Studio 13.09 copy

*if you’re interested, it’s not a photographer, nor someone particularly well-known. It’s not even an adult. It’s a 14 yr old boy called Adam Bojelian. A couple of days ago, Adam clocked up an unbroken year in hospital, with some pretty intensive physical challenges. Despite these, Adam is a regular and happy tweeter, organises quizzes and competitions including a World Cup sweepstake, campaigns relentlessly for the voice of children in hospital to be heard, and writes poetry. Great poetry. Oh, did I mention he is only able to communicate by blinking? And yet I know about his world of outings in the park with his dog, and the tireless strength of that small body. Yes, that inspires me. And if you’ve liked this post, maybe follow him (@adsthepoet) or just say a nice hello. He’d like that. If Adam can do what he does, what excuses have the rest of us?

Moving on

It’s time to give you up. To let go. To say goodbye.

You were first there when I was about 10, taking me to cubs behind my dad. That was so cool. (It wasn’t, of course.) You were a clapped-out Honda 50 straining under the extra load of one small boy, but those warm evenings I was Evel Knievel and I can still feel where the battered chinstrap of that gobstopper helmet scratched me. Later I’d wobble up and down the drive on you all by myself, never quite sure whether you had a clutch or not. You were pretty ambiguous on the subject, too.

At 16, you were still pretty lame – Ju beat us up a hill on his pushbike, me and you and your puny, restricted engine. Sometimes you were a borrowed Fizzy or that DT100 I nearly threw into the hedge at Clieves Hills. Unrestricted power – the surge of passing 40mph for the first time as I rode your 100ccs up the St Helens Rd away from the shop. The smell of hot petrol and two stroke in the back lanes at Halsall. Boys heading to Southport, to girls and dunes and the chance of a snog. Jeans streaked with oil and hormones.

Riding test on a CZ125, too slow to be any danger to anyone, and that first moment without the Ls on the Abingdon Road when a passing biker dipped his head in salute for no other reason than we were on bikes, and it wasn’t raining. Oh, and we weren’t in London, where that sort of civility isn’t done. I was in. I wasn’t a learner. I was a biker. You took me through frozen fog that night to Birmingham airport, to surprise Justine on her 18th in Dublin. Gloves still stiff with ice even as I boarded the plane.

Now a GT250, you fell apart in style with that collapsed, inaccessible oil seal, but Ben and I – mostly Ben – found an old engine in Headington and patched you back together. The noise that shook the Cowley Rd when you fired into life at the first time of asking, sans exhaust! A howl of defiance, heralding new opportunity (and cash) as I rode you for real – summers as a courier up and down the M40, sometimes three times a day. Manchester in the cold, Exeter in the rain. The incredible satisfaction of finishing a day’s work with a signed slip, and the knowledge of a job inarguably completed. That didn’t return for another 20-odd years…

Then you were the most hideous pink VT500, a pimped-up despatch bike with built-in boxes and a full fairing. I was CHiPS of East Oxford, sometimes able to top the ton on the sliproad out of Headington, all rollies and camaraderie – swapping parcels for signatures in Soho design agencies.

Biker, son of biker, son of biker – and when the oldest was close to the end – “if you want to see him, you’d better come quickly” – you took me there quickly – tearing up the A43 for one last hand-hold. The one good hand that had raced his own polio-adapted bike, all those years ago. He cruised over the horizon, and I cruised back to college.

Once you were a massive Kwak 1000, collaborator in sinful liaison with her sister by the Farmoor reservoir. Oh my, those days. Or that maroon GT550, less said the better. The courier’s two-wheeled Transit, plodding and dull.

To London, and your XJ600 era. Getting a bit more grown-up now, four cylinders of balanced buzz, but how you must have hated me as I neglected your sprockets until the teeth came off. Prague with the Aces, though, slipping over rain-dashed tramtracks and cobbled streets, and the mighty solo leg home, dad of two tinies whose holiday pass had run out early, dodging the temptations of the gaptoothed sirens on the Teplice road. Hands blue with vibration, and unable to speak on arrival home.

With first proper job, I splashed out on you as a brand new CBR600. Flipped head over tail after 3 weeks but you were well enough after a rebuild to get me to Le Mans and for a few brief moments show me your absolute top speed on the 24hr course. Next, you were a VT1000 Firestorm (warning me of your lethal power with a sideways squirm of the back wheel on ice).

The litre V-Twin superbike: I’d arrived! I loved you so much (didn’t care that you were a bit tamer than a Ducati), wanted to keep you perfect, and on murky days rode you in the shape of your older cousin – the one that Mike stabled with me while he rode an XT round the world. It was one foul wet December morning that you catapulted me through a windscreen, shattering both my leg and my love for you. Two years limping with a metal thigh bone to add to my biker cred. I got rid of you after that. Crashing again with a steel femur wouldn’t have been clever.

A few years off – responsibility and rehabilitation (and poverty) setting the course – until the XT500. The classic 70s trail bike, you took me to Gibraltar after the divorce. It was needed. I suffocated you with altitude in the Pyrenees, but you forgave me as we wheelied into Spain. We sat by the port at Algeciras and I thought about inflicting Africa on you. But we turned north, and I played at being Corser through the meanders up to Albacete. I strapped petrol cans to your handlebars, and a guitar to my back, and tasted freedom and bitterness.

Then you were a VFR and I knew that you were one of the greatest bikes ever made. But…I sold you out for more power. I dabbled with the hard stuff; big Aprilia, GSXR – but also the old stuff; occasional flirtation with AJS and Norton – even, briefly, a Vincent. Dark deeds by Blackbird, as you showed me how you could Hoover the horizon towards me at full throttle. Beautiful aerodynamics stopped me feeling your 150mph blast round the M25 (thigh now rebuilt and de-steeled by this point).

You were a Firestorm again for the motorways, as I two-timed you with a 660 Yamaha thumper. The Firestorm blew out, and then you became Tweetbike. Brief global fame dodging tubestruck London, traded soon afterwards to a new model with vanity plate. Loud cans, “Let them know you’re coming!”, the most fun that could be had in a city.

Then you left me. Or I left you. Older, wiser, perhaps a little too stiff and sore. No real justification to keep you on; you sat and cried rusty tears in the garden for far too long. I’m letting you go today. It’s time. I’ll give you a last sip of petrol, wipe your arse down, and find you a new home. It’s been hard to let go. I’ve put it off for so long. So much more than a collection of metal, glass, rubber and plastic. Heat, passion, dreams, freedom. I’ll find them again, somewhere else, I’m sure.

But to you, my bloody lovely bike, maker of adventures, thriller, rescuer, it’s time to say it now. Goodbye.

Seven rules for meeting up

Clock

(Meeting up, as in meeting me. You know, like a date, or a coffee – a “catch-up”, or whatever. There’s no good general word for all of those, I think. Meeting up will have to do. Anyway – these are my rules. Make of them what you will.)

1 – Respond. It’s not fixed in the diary until there’s word of confirmation on both sides. An unacknowledged invitation sitting there for a week just says “I’m not sure if something more important might come up”.

2 – Be punctual. Three minutes early is on time. On time is already a bit late. You’d rock up to collect your OBE “on time” would you? Every minute that passes says “you’re just that bit less important to me”.

3 – Communicate. If you’re going to be late, say so as soon as you know. Of course there’s no signal underground, but imagining that yours will be the special tube train that will do Hampstead to Embankment in one minute isn’t really going to work out that well. “I’ll be half an hour late”, then arriving after 20 minutes is better than saying “I’m just up the road, see you in about ten-fifteen”. (Ten-fifteen is a trigger phrase for me, btw. It’s minicab talk. Here, we use real Earth minutes.)

4 – Stick to the plan. Once our meeting’s confirmed, it stays confirmed. You don’t need to check in with me the day before (or on the morning) to “see if we’re still on”. Why would we not still be on? It’s not a crime if you do check – but not to show up, because “we didn’t confirm beforehand, did we?” most certainly is. And if you do just forget, that’s ok. I’ve done that. We all have. It happens. Go to no. 5.

5 – You flake, you make. The onus for coming up with a replacement plan falls on the person who pulled out of the appointment. Should that really need saying?

6 – Three strikes. If for any reason meeting up doesn’t happen three times in a row then everyone can retire gracefully, knowing that it’s not meant to be. I used to grieve over these “never managed to meet-ups, did we?” until I realised I could just let them go. Yeah, but surely if they’re all really good reasons? Nah. The first missed one should intensify the importance of its successor. If it doesn’t, then it’s ok to let it go if it’s just not working out.

7 – Yoda’s Rule. “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Less said for one-to-one invitations, more for bigger gatherings, “I’ll try and make it” pretty much guarantees that you won’t be on the next invite list. Just so you know.

Do you have any others?

Flappy Bird – actual strategies

Flappy-Bird

(I can’t believe I’m writing about this.)

Back in the day, as an obsessed martial artist (yes, really – it was a LONG time ago) I used to go on these full-on intensive training weekends. Starting Friday night, going on late, up at 5am for knuckle push-ups on gravel; all that stuff. Hours and hours of training. You’d think we’d get knackered. But not really, not like you’d expect. Instead, your mind would go to shit.

Master Lai told us this would happen: he’d point to arms, legs, centre – then tap his head. “Always the first to get tired.”

And so it is with Flappy Bird. The infuriating game, with its ludicrously simple interface, works just like this. Once you’ve got a basic grasp of the movement, a single pipe is dead easy. Maybe even ten in a row. But after that?

That’s where the game has got interesting for me, once you get past the “regular ten” stage. Prompting thoughts on actual strategy. Finding a depth to the game that you’d never guess from a few minutes looking at the mechanics of it.

So, stuck as I have been for a few days on a high of 29, I’ve been looking at what’s going on. This is what I’ve found so far:

1. You die when you decide it’s time to die. You don’t (once you’ve got that basic movement) die at the first pipe. And probably not for the first few. But at some point your brain starts telling you that you’re a bit tired/you’ve stopped concentrating/you can’t possibly have got this far/OMG you’re nearly at your high score… And then the coordination goes, and you die. Because it was the right time to die.

2. The score can be a big prompter as to when it’s time to die. So – strategy 1 – cover up the score counter. Try it. A bit fiddly in terms of obscuring the upper pipe on high gaps, but I found at least some bliss in ignorance.

3. My second strategy was to think rhythmically. Instead of focusing on pipes, find the tempo required to sustain level flight. Sticking to that, instead of the almost overwhelming urge to give a (terminal) last thrust on gate exit, makes a massive difference. You have to be able to deal with quickening and interruption to rise and fall between gates, but if you can return to that underlying tempo, you’ll improve.

4. But I still hit a lot of pipes. Time for some reframing of the target. On the principle that if you aim for a stretched target, you’ll have a better chance of getting to what you need, I then tried another approach: visualising the gate as being about half its real height. Try to keep the bird in that imaginary central zone, and suddenly you’re clearing the pipe ends by much bigger distances.

5. Still unsatisfied, I looked for another approach. If I could manage one gate; or even consistently manage ten; why could I not manage 30? So this led to the next strategy: doing it by tens. Someone clever once said you don’t have to do something for ever, just for a day at a time; so how about breaking the longer journey into parts? Maybe this one didn’t work so well, but it was fun to explore the difference in how it felt.

6. Then I reviewed why I was dying. This “level flight” thing wasn’t actually not all that useful. I might enter the gate at the right height, but that last bump just before exit was causing 90% of crashes. So, the next approach, and the most successful so far – the rising diagonal. Again, using an imaginary safe zone rather narrower than the gate, visualise it a rising 30° angle. You enter very low, and greatly reduce the chance of that late head-hit.

7. Some things are always beyond your control: I get an occasional glitch which slows down the horizontal scrolling. Death. If there’s a really nasty sequence of high-low-high-low. Death. Too bad. Move on. Do what you can.

So there you have it. An utterly basic game on first sight. But within it: performance review, rhythm, target-setting, staging, mental fatigue, muscle memory, microprecision, feedback loops and much much more – all recorded with one, inarguable, integer. That’s why it’s such a piece of bloody genius. Now to try it blindfolded…

Dis Harmoni

2013-12-14 16.06.01

If you need a GP out of hours, you might end up on the receiving end of services from Harmoni.

Harmoni run the weekend GP service in my area. When I needed them, a few weeks back, I was initially massively impressed. My call to the local GP practice was routed smoothly through to NHS Direct; and they managed to find me an appointment in less than two hours time.

With Harmoni – based within a local NHS hospital. Great! I got there at 11am but was asked straight away if I could possibly come back later, as things were badly overrunning. Erm, ok, said my pale and shaking face. 2? 3? -Whatever works for you, said the weary receptionist. I settled for 3.

Whatever had been going wrong with the booking and queueing system had clearly gone very wrong by the time I arrived back at 2.50. People everywhere – crying kids, coughing old people, someone throwing up in a washing up bowl. Lovely.

At 4, after a few nudges to the effect that a) I was pretty damn fecking ill and b) I was actually an 11am appointment, I got my turn.

All went normally until the GP started to write out the prescription. There it was, up on the screen, on the fancy patient management system thing. And there he was, dutifully copying down every detail on to the green pad on his knee. I asked about the printer. -Ah. It’s broken. I keep reporting it, but they won’t get me a new one.

And this laptop situation? I pointed at the thing you can see in the picture. The one with the A4 paper stuck to the screen, with instructions on how to bodge it together with an external monitor. He just shook his head, sadly. Can I take a picture? Sure, he said – actually quite pleased by the idea. We had a little chat about how everything took longer because he had to copy out prescriptions by hand when the system was supposed to print them.

Printers. £50. Laptops. Not a huge amount more. People. Sitting there all day, getting sicker and sicker.

I did some sums. They didn’t come out very well for Harmoni.

If you hear of them bidding for services in your area, remember this picture. Somebody, somewhere, thinks this is an acceptable level of service, and you’re paying for it.

UPDATE 17 March: A letter from Harmoni, addressing my “complaint” – for apparently this blog post constitutes one… They’re going to bollock the receptionist for what actually seemed like a rather humane move, allowing me to shiver in the comfort of my own home for my hours of waiting. But they are replacing the laptop and printer. So I suppose that’s a sort of happy ending. Oh, and a slightly pompous sign-off: “It is also valuable to note that handwritten prescriptions are also perfectly acceptable.” Point rather missed there, but hey.

Five questions for Identity Assurance

Identified

We’re getting closer to the launch of the government’s “identity assurance” (IDA) service – providing a way of confirming that people are who they say they are online, when they interact with government services.

There’s much on the IDA team’s blog about progress to date, and much to like. Such as the upfront decision to separate the confirmation of identity bit from what government’s there to do, and to open up a choice of identity providers (IDPs) who’ll be able to offer different ways of creating and using an online identity.

But there’s still too much that isn’t clear about the scheme. And given its importance – it will be essential if there’s going to be a major improvement in transactional services – here’s some of the detail I’d like to see:

1. how does it actually work? (and I don’t mean at the theoretical level described in the “Good practice guides”, but using real examples of real services, processes and data) It’s all well and good saying that I will be able to choose an identity provider, and be able to set up a trusted relationship with them online…but what’s actually going on to make this happen, and to support me once it has? How will they know I am who I say I am? Will they have access to something that only I would know, and if so, what? If they’re an organisation I’ve never (knowingly) had any dealings with before, what will they know about me? If they’re a new entrant to the identity provision market (as some in the running are) – where are they getting their sources to do checks? And, as ever, what’s being passed around to whom, how’s it held, secured, indexed…and all the rest of the usual, essential hygiene issues around personal data?

I have a feeling that as these details emerge we could be in for some interesting food for thought about what information is being shared by whom. But best we start to see some real examples so we can get our heads round it, and to make sure we’re comfortable with who knows what about us. Given we’re dealing with that most treasured currency of all – personal data – I think we need much more transparency about what’s being proposed. And we’ll only have realistic scrutiny if there are realistic proposals to chew on.

2. will government department x actually hand off the responsibility for identity confirmation to identity provider y? This has to happen for the service to work as intended, yet it has big implications for the accountability of delivery. Will heads of service still take responsibility if things go wrong in the checking process, or if they find they’re transacting with fraudulent or misidentified accounts? Who does the service user contact to fix things that go wrong, now that more than one organisation is involved?

Make no mistake, I’d absolutely love to see it happen – so I’d be reassured if a government department made a clear statement of this intention and, furthermore, that it no longer intends (or needs) to operate its own version of identity checking in favour of that provided by an IDP. It’s relatively easy to do new, parallel things in government. But confirmation that there’s actually been a change is usually only provided by stopping doing an old, superfluous thing.

3. following on from that, how will the service be paid for? The IDPs aren’t in it out of the goodness of their hearts – how are they incentivised, how can we have assurance that they’re being paid a fair rate, and what’s the outcome for them financially if they get things wrong, or provide a poor quality service in some other way?

4. who’s watching what I do? We live in sensitive times – aware that beady eyes are watching all that we do online. Who will be watching our transactional exchanges – as we’re identified, and then as we go on to use services? One of the big selling points of using a layer of IDPs independent of government was that there’d be no creation of a vast, centralised database of identity and activity. What’s the assurance that such data capture isn’t happening anyway – creating just such a central viewpoint, albeit one in which lots of separate things connected to us are being indexed together?

5. and lastly – where’s the big picture here? Where’s all this going? Will an identity be reusable across more and more services? What will happen when services require different levels of assurance? (For example, an identity created using some basic checks to access a relatively insecure look-up service might need to be ‘strengthened’ to access something that’s more complex in terms of money or confidentiality. How?) How clear will it be to the user what level of trust they’ve achieved using a particularly identity?

And if more and more services can be accessed using the same online identity, doesn’t that create the “all eggs in one basket” problem, as well as creating a virtual single “person” that government’s dealing with – reviving lots of the problems that IDA is designed to avoid? Are we expecting people to try and reuse the same identity as much as possible, or to create a few at different levels of trust, or to start from scratch every time they touch a new service? If there’s the ability to reuse an existing trust relationship (for example with a bank or a mobile phone company) what effect might that have on fair competition for new customers? And how will government in general address the lack of provision of an IDA option as IDA’s use becomes more widespread. Customer expectation is going to rise (as it should for any useful, improved service) and at some point it’s going to become unacceptable for an area of government even to try using a non-IDA verification method. Or has that already happened?

They’re tricky questions and, as ever, not complete nor perfectly phrased. Please do comment with anything else you’d like to know more about. But I’d really like the IDA team in GDS to share much more of their thinking in these areas – and where there are still details to be ironed out, to be open about them. This will lead to more robust solutions, less uncertainty about the myth and reality of what’s planned, and a lot of external help in planning for and addressing the issues that will inevitably surface when millions of transactions are being supported by IDA.

UPDATE 23 Jan: The Identity Assurance team have published a blog post that gets into more detail on some of these issues, and points to a number of posts to come, on issues ranging from user research to the outcomes of a private beta that will apply identity assurance to two specific “exemplar” services – HMRC’s PAYE and DVLA’s “view driving record” services.

This makes you part of the problem, Itsu

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Pret used to do it. Maybe they still do. They had little stickers on their tills saying it was a “Nightmare!” that they had to add on tax to their hot food sales. Oh yeah, same founder, innit? Remind me what school – sorry, charitable foundation – he went to? He has a bit of form for shouting about the evils of taxation.

Yeah, Julian. “The taxman”. That nasty grey bloke in a suit just trying to piss off your customers so that he can hoard a load of cash in some big safe at the end of Whitehall.

Seriously. In case it’s escaped his attention, that’s the same taxman who funds the maintenance of the pavement his customers cross to get through the door, and who oversees the security of supply of the power and other utilities that keep the business running. Who pays the wages of a good proportion of people who buy things over the counter. Who sorts out all the tedious issues of planning, building design, sewage and rubbish collection, that just can’t be done sensibly by one organisation alone, and without which an Itsu could simply not exist. And much, much more. Yes, that taxman.

So if you see this sort of sticker next time you’re in there, let them know, politely, that you think it’s a load of misinformed old rubbish. Or send their MD some feedback. Or just avoid them entirely.

Friendly advice

I’d be hopeless as a politician. Retreat to rational debate gets you precisely nowhere when you’re up against the gong-clangers and firestarters of the populist mob-stirrers.

So it’s with some mixed feelings that I write about an utterly bizarre story that looks like it might actually work against the interests of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Ah yes. Them. (A reminder about my problem with them.)

In this particular story they’ve done two odd things. Firstly, they’re sounding off about the failure of local authorities to stop doing a thing they’re legally required to do; a thing which helps ease the pressure on, erm, taxpayers. Right. (As I publish this, I see that @tim2040 has written along similar lines, including the point that collecting such a tiny amount of money is something of an unwanted chore for the councils in any case.)

But if you dig into the detail a bit, it becomes a bit more clear that they’re actually hoping that the whole legal requirement bit gets wiped out. Ok, but that’s the second odd thing.

Because the TPA has this peculiar Jekyll & Hyde characteristic. On the one hand, the cowardly, rent-a-gob demagoguery of the “I can’t believe they’re spending money on THIS” faction, hauled out to berate, well, anything delivered by public services – whether or not it’s got much to do with the paying of taxes. And on the other, some rather more worthy aspirations around winding down the role of the state in matters of surveillance and data.

Ok, I am a little suspicious that the weight here might be firmly on the “winding down the role of the state” bit, but the end results are often quite sensible, and bring about useful pressure and scrutiny on some of the heavy-handed nonsense we’ve seen from the current administration and its predecessor.

But usually, these messages are delivered under the banner of the TaxHaters’ close cousin, BigBrotherWatch. And what makes this electoral roll story interesting is that they’ve chosen not to use this sub-brand when opining on something which is natural BBW heartland. My advice would be to look carefully at what impact this might have on their overall strategy.

Is it a mistake? Does it signal an intentional shift in position and brand? It looks very blurred to me. To a rational observer, the sight of the TPA asking a local authority to break the law and spurn a source of income that would make matters easier for taxpayers… I mean, it makes them look a bit silly… which is a good thing, from my perspective…

Oh hang on. I’m doing the rational thing again, aren’t I? As I say, hopeless.