A Job for Mr Bond - James Bond

At a guess, it took under ninety seconds to locate the minutes of the meeting of the Whitehall PMC (Private Military Companies – Mercenaries) Group of 16th November 1999. Now while the government is keen that the address of the US-based Web site hosting such sensitive and in fact, classified information isn’t published, I have to wonder whether there is any point hiding the address from the general public in this country, when Al Qaeda of anyone else, come to that, could find it as easily as I can and with it, the names and telephone numbers of the many intelligence agencies personnel involved.

What interests me about this document, which has now slipped into the public domain, isn’t so much how, in 1999, we were worrying about mercenaries in Africa but rather how the information technology on which government relied was almost as big a problem as the danger it was attempting to address. “There was a failure of joined-up government; Departments were not pooling their knowledge”

Government had invested in what appears to be a knowledge management application code-named ‘Fortress’ and to quote from the minutes:

“Twelve months on, the consensus in CTPD is that Fortress has proved to be slower, less reliable, less practical, but more costly than the old paper distribution of intelligence. If the system cannot be improved we would prefer to return to paper distribution”. “We estimate that it takes us five times as long to process reports on Fortress than on paper: not a very efficient use of our time”

I won’t go into any more detail, as I’m sailing rather close to the wind by writing about this, even if it does raise the usual questions about freedom of information in our society and how this sits with Mr Blair’s vision of universal Internet access by 2006.

What for me, is more interesting than worrying where this thing called the public domain happens to exist, is the evidence that in the most sensitive and ‘Mission Critical’ areas of government, IT was, at least in 1999, failing as miserably and as expensively as everywhere else, except that it was a secret and that the security services were seriously considering a return to paper and carrier pigeons.

I rather hope by now, Fortress and the other classified information systems referred to in the document have been ‘sorted-out’ or I wonder, was the debacle last week over a ‘Silly’ and ‘Non-existent’ terrorist threat to the London Underground, another example of an information management problem?

When we think of joined-up government, we naturally look towards the more mundane aspects of the public sector and the wins and losses that are an everyday part of reporting the struggle towards the 2005 target of 100% service delivery. We forget, that below the surface, there are the systems supporting the national critical infrastructure and intelligence communities that cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds from budgets that will never see the light of day.

In this twilight world, the prospect of technology failure could have consequences that none of us would really wish to consider..

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