Wednesday, October 26, 2005

ID in the id...

Once more unto the ID card breach. As you know, I tend to make sweeping generalisations based—depending on the subject—on a fair degree of knowledge and critical thinking: essentially, I'm lazy. There are no such flies on the Pedant-General, however. Our P-G has taken it upon himself to go to the original source material and rip Neil's figures to shreds.
I suspect that we have a number of factors to consider here. Firstly demographics: bloggers are not representative of the population at large. They think about things a bit more. They are better informed (because they do things like finding the original research rather than relying on news reports) and are likely to have suffered a bit more education.

Secondly, it is just possible - crazy idea here, but I shall float it anyway - that ID cards are a bit like the EU constitution: the more you know about it, the more you begin to see that you don't like it...

YouGov supports this:
Do you support the introduction of ID cards? 42% No
Is it worth spending £6B on their introduction? 66% No
Is it worth spending £19B on their introduction (a more realistic figure)? 81% No
Do you have any confidence that this will not be an inconvenience? 84% No

Bloggers have looked at it more carefully than the population at large (remember your MORI poll with the 80% support? you know, the one where 73% said they knew little or nothing about ID cards) so their view is more likely to concur with the response levels once all information is taken into account.

The second post is from Bloggers4Labour and concerns the idea of a private company running the ID Card scheme.
Perhaps the solution is to run the ID system entirely within the private sector (I'm thinking: one huge software/integration company), within the bounds of the Data Protection Acts, albeit giving government officials special levels of access, plus special hardware and software.

Frankly I'd feel reassured about the use of the data, and I'm convinced that not only would the cost savings be great, but the capacity for costs to spiral would be lessened.

This begs the question: what's in it for the private sector? Paying them out of the public purse would hardly be a solution, as it would be far too great a temptation for both sides. The alternative is that the private company be able to run the system for profit (albeit capped and regulated).

Wait a second; capped and regulated by whom? The government? Well, that's not letting the private sector run according to the market, which is inclined to be equally disastrous.
How, though? They could be restricted to making a profit on the sale of new/replacement ID cards, though this may make the things too expensive for ordinary people to afford. What other opportunities could they exploit, that would allow cards to be affordable to all? By showing targeted advertisements when people use their home card-readers to view and amend their details? One-click purchasing of the company's other online products?

This is actually quite a sensible idea, given the original premise.
I can imagine making myself unpopular with this line, but perhaps it could give us an ID system which was cheaper, reduced the risk of snooping, satisfied people about intrusion and tracking, and which opened up opportunities to ordinary cardholders that the current proposed system seems determined to deny them.

There are a number of problems with this, certainly from a free market point of view. Firstly, it is not a market: people are being forced to buy these cards. People are not being given the option to buy a product at a certain price, they are being forced to buy it (eventually) whether they want to or not.

Secondly, no company would take this on if profits (or, indeed, takings) are to be capped. The chances are that the costs will be higher than anticipated (although to a lesser extent than if the public sector were running the project), and if the price at which the company can sell the cards is capped then they may actually make losses on the contract. If this happens, one of four things may happen:
  • The company goes bust

  • The company raises the price of the cards anyway

  • The company cuts its losses and dumps the contract

  • The government steps in and bails the company out, or otherwise subsidises the cards.

None of these options gets around the inevitable rise in development costs.

Thirdly, if you authorise just one firm to do this work you are creating a monopoly. No one, socialist or free market capitalist, believes that monopolies are good things (with socialists' one exception: that monopolies are fine as long as they are run by the government). Furthermore, if the government is regulating the scheme, then this is not even a free market anyway.

This must be made clear: the main reason that public IT projects tend to run overbudget is because of politics. As the politics change, so do the specifications of what the system must do. This happened with one of our projects, which started in August '04. Because of the political flux, and thus the specification changes combined with endless meetings to decide what to do about this or that political decision, a project that should have been finished within two months dragged out over 10 months and cost almost three times the original quote! As long as a scheme is being in any way initiated or controlled by government, it is going to be an expensive disaster.

Lastly, that still doesn't get over the principle that having ID Cards is wrong in the first place. Having a private company dogging my every step makes me no happier than if the government were doing so. And if the government can access the data anyway, what difference does it make? I believe that ID Cards are wrong, even were the cost negligible and the technology secure.

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