As we near year-end, it seems appropriate to do some 2007 thematisation. Was this finally the year when we learned to love someone or other? Will it go down as the year when such and such went mainstream? Yes, I'm sure it was and it will. But allow me to make a small contribution to the feast.
Here are two stories that made big headlines this year - not Maddy-sized headlines, but big nevertheless. Firstly, there was the controversy over whether the Queen had stormed into a photo shoot or out of one, which eventually led to the resignation of the BBC1 Controller. As a consequence of this, the boss of the BBC offered an amnesty to documentary producers to come forward and confess their sins (I quite like the image of them doing this as group therapy. Imagine lots of men in wacky glasses sitting in a circle, taking it in turns to disclose their terrible guilt - "My name is Joe Bloggs, and during the filming of our hit how-clean-is-your-dog-kennel-makeover phone-in contest, I secretly used an Alsatian to play some of the scenes that had in fact involved a labrador!!! I'm sooo sorry!!!!"; cue sobs).
The point here was not - I hope - that anyone reveres the Queen sufficiently to view her irritation as cause for panic. The point was that people inside the TV industry knew that it was riddled with this sort of thing, as a direct consequence of the viewers' demand for programming that fuses 'factual' and 'entertainment' (along with the obvious contradictions involved with trying to sell tv shows to viewers as participatory activities). Stories started to surface not through investigation, but through confession.
Secondly, there was the scandal over the lost data, containing details of 25m child benefit claimants. Clearly the consequences here are potentially more severe, but in other respects it was a similar kind of story. It took a major increase in scale to bring it to the attention of the media, but I truly wonder if many civil servants were all that surprised. Despite the very minimal interest that senior e-government experts have in privacy arguments, those who have a technical responsibility to handle this data must surely have been worried for some time. Without some per se commitment to defend the integrity of individual identities, and not merely an instrumental or evidence-led one, it is surely inevitable that eventually incentives to do so will collapse.
So a confessional is required. And low and behold, Ruth Kelly (who must be quite practiced at it) confesses to the loss of 3m records from the DVLA last May. It would stand to reason that more similar stories will emerge over the next couple of weeks, leading to the announcement of a cross-cutting independent review of the government's entire information architecture, which will conclude several months later with a headline recommendation that we need another re-branding of the e-Government Unit.
I suspect that this could become a model for public policy debate: public sector technocrats cut corners but hide this behind the language of being 'flexible' and 'innovative'; public sector technocrats start to get a little nervous; big cock-up occurs and public throw up hands in horror; various other public sector technocrats emerge sheepishly out of the bushes to reveal their shared sins; review takes place, before the process starts all over again.
Why is this happening? Two reasons spring to mind immediately. Firstly, there are contradictory values at work here, especially in the irrational demands of the public. To use the television example, people want television to reveal reality, but never to reveal it as dull. Or to use the e-government example, people want perfect, personalised services (or so the government claims), but do not want to take any of the risks to security that go with this. A reliably-filmed documentary would bore the pants off people, just as a reliably-performed public sector bureaucracy would frustrate the pants off people. People want things fast, flexible, groovy, NOW, but they also never want them to fail. People need to grow up.
The second aspect of this relates to what is sometimes loosely called 'the information society' (amongst other things). People have spent some decades speculating as to what effect the internet, ubiquitous surveillance and abundant information would have on how politics is conducted. One thing is now very clear: these technologies offer very little assistance to governments in their efforts to control policy outcomes, indeed they sometimes undermine these efforts, but they greatly increase the risks attached to failure and the chances of those failures becoming publicised. I guess this is what others have described as growing complexity.
One solution to this is to devolve accountability to places where it more logically lies (and I see no reason to assume that this is automatically more local to where the individual happens to live). This is all very well, but how do you get the media or the public to play ball? Being answerable for cock-ups is something we expect of public-facing officials and politicians, even though this is in many respects a less and less reasonable expectation. After all, who else is going to speak on behalf of an error, when the error is endemic to a culture in which information is hurtling around in a scarcely controlled fashion? Certainly not the private sector company that first demonstrated how the corner could be cut (aka 'efficiency saving achieved'). On the other hand, no politician can stand up and risk appearing conservative by suggesting that sometimes we can achieve greater certainty through producing and sharing less information. Instead, the cameras, cables and computers are left to whirr away, creating a blizzard of misplaced representations of everyone from several million benefit claimants to the head of state.
Which leaves us with the politics of confession and forgiveness. An error occurs, that was ultimately somewhat inevitable, leading figures to emerge in public to confess to these errors, usually because an informal auditing process was about to sweep them out of the woodwork anyhow. These same figures then spend several weeks trying to hang on to their jobs. The question looking forward, if we insist on playing this game, is whether forgiveness could ever become a significant factor in British public discourse.
Ministers 'forced to admit' on this occasion that they don't know what data has been lost by 9 NHS trusts.