Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Lego syndrome

I see the British government, in the person of justly-reviled home secretary Jacqui Smith, is to offer ID cards to the people of Manchester. Giving them the priceless opportunity to be the first 'general public' in the country to get their hands on them.

Yeah, I'm sure Mancunians have been clamouring for that privilege. Manchester, I note, is a comforting 114 miles from Ms Smith's own constituency of Redditch.

This isn't going to be another libertarian rant about why ID cards are a bad thing. I'm not going to use words like 'totalitarian'. In fact, I'm hardly going to get political at all. No, this particular editorial is brought to you not by Vet the Sarcastic Liberal, but by Vet the Business Analyst.

I've never seriously imagined that the UK government sees its ID cards as something 'controlling', and nor do most of their electors. That's why neither group 'gets' those criticisms. The oft-painted picture of the UK government as some kind of Orwellian super-state simply doesn't ring true, because we all know they're just not that competent. They couldn't do it, even if they wanted to

(For instance: given all the regulations around airline passenger manifests, ten days after swine flu hit the country, this same government still couldn't get a list of who'd been on the flight that brought it in. That's our experience of the 'surveillance society'.)

That incompetence has always been a vital characteristic of the UK government. And most of the time they acknowledge the fact, with a suitably tactful coating of course. That's why Parliament was invented in the first place - to tell the government when it was going wrong. The entire political system - free press, courts, appeals, the House of Lords, elections, public inquiries, royal commissions, select committees, the whole boiling of it - is based around the central, fundamental assumption that the government will screw up.

It's an assumption that seldom lets us down.

When I look at the ID card story from that viewpoint, there seems a certain familiarity about the - shape, you could call it - of this particular screw-up. The flagrant dishonesty over costs, the eternally shifting justifications, the boneheaded refusal even to acknowledge, much less engage with, contrary arguments, and most importantly of all, the barefaced lying about popularity - oh yes, I've seen this elsewhere...

It's what Joel Spolsky calls "the single worst strategic mistake that any software company can make". Governments do just the same thing, and for just the same reason. Everything Joel says of software is equally true of legislation. It's a reason that seems to be a basic law of human nature, the reason why Lego is the most popular children's brand in the world:

Building something new is more fun than tinkering with something old.

The 'something old', in this case, being countless ad-hoc systems, each devised to address a slightly different, though similar, problem. Bankers, publicans, bureaucrats, police officers, border controllers, shopkeepers - each of these has their own, more or less legitimate, reasons for wanting to know someone's identity, and they all have their own systems for doing it. Sadly, some of those systems are no longer up to the job they were designed for. And rather than just tell them to improve what already exists, the weak-minded government yielded to its first and worst impulse, which is - as always - to throw them all out and start over.

The catch being, as Joel points out: "there is absolutely no reason to believe that you are going to do a better job than you did the first time".

All those ad-hoc systems I was talking about just now - they were each 'good enough' for the purpose, and in the environment, they were meant for, but they failed to keep up with changing circumstances. People - nasty, unscrupulous, profit-driven people - looked at the systems that existed, and saw flaws and chinks and weaknesses that no-one had thought of. When that happens, the correct answer is to patch the system so that that particular weakness no longer works.

The wrong answer is to scrap the old thing and start again - in the superstitious belief that this time, it'll be perfect.

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