government & IT

The other IT from another Europe

Also on Consortium News and Huffington Post

Over the last 10-15 years public IT in Europe has not developed in line with public interests, nor does it guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens such as privacy and freedom of expression. Tremendous opportunities in the field of economic development and employment have also been missed. Europe effectively outsources much of its information processing (software & services) to foreign parties at the direct cost of hundreds of billions of Euros (typically around 1% of GNP). The opportunity-cost to local economic growth and employment opportunities are much greater than that. Even more costly than either of these is the de-facto handing over of control of data of governments, businesses and individual citizens to foreign spies who use it for political manipulation, repression of citizens' freedoms and industrial espionage. Although the warnings about the negative consequences of current policies date back at least 15 years, these aspects have been documented in irrefutable detail over the last year by the revelations of Edward Snowden. 12 months later there has not even been the beginning of a policy response.

It could all have been so different ...

In the first 21 months of the 21st century, the dot-com bubble burst and then three skyscrapers in New York collapsed. Between these two events a largely forgotten report to the European Parliament appeared in the summer of 2001. This report described the scale and impact of electronic espionage in Europe by the U.S. and its 'Echelon' partners (Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Besides a detailed problem analysis, the report also gave concrete examples of IT policies that governments could take to significantly limit foreign intelligence spying on Europe.

In the same period was U.S. government won one of the largest anti-trust cases its history, against Microsoft, and the EU followed this victory by launching a similar case that would also be won leading to the highest fine to a company for economic crimes in the history of the EU.

It was against this background that thinking about strategic versus operational aspects of IT in the public sector changed. The report on Echelon made it clear that reducing IT into a merely operational exercise had disastrous consequences on the sovereignty of European states with respect to, in particular, the United States (and perhaps in the near future, China, other technically capable countries or non-state organizations). The economic consequences of industrial espionage against many high-tech and R&D-intensive companies became a major concern for the government.

Letter to Parliamentary Committee on Gov. IT projects

Letter below has been submitted to the Temporary Committee on Government IT. This document is a translation from the Dutch original.

Dear Members of the Committee on ICT ,

On June 1st, 2012 I was invited by your predecessors to contribute to the expert meeting of the Parliamentary Working Group on ICT projects in government. The written submission that I made at that time is here, including a video of those hearings (in Dutch).

As an IT architect but also as a concerned citizen, I have been actively involved with the IT policy of the government since 2002, focusing on the areas of electronic health records, security and open standards / open source software. On the latter issue I was the initiator of the 2002 Parliamentary 'Motion Vendrik' that advocated greater independence from dominant software suppliers. Last year I also served as a technical expert on the Committee of Minister Plasterk who advised on the (im)possibilities of electronic support for the electoral process.

Although this motion Vendrik from 2002 was translated into the Heemskerk Action Plan in 2007, this policy was quietly killed in 2010/11 by the lobbying power of large software vendors and the U.S. government. Even the Court-of-Audit was pressured to *not* ask certain questions in its 2011 report on the policy. Since 2002, the Netherlands has spent about 60-90 billion on foreign software, for which in many cases free, equally good or better alternatives are available. Their use is, however, actively hindered by both the Ministries of Education and Interior, as well as the VNG supported by the lobbying apparatus of major suppliers and the U.S. government.

This despite Justice Minister Donner's 2004 letter to Parliament in response to the Motion Vendrik where he admitted that:

  • the government's dependence on Microsoft was very great;
  • that this was a problem ;
  • and that by introducing open standards and the use of open source that could be solved.

This dependence has since become much greater and more than one billion Euro was spent on Microsoft licenses over the last decade. That money would have paid for 10,000 man-years of expertise to migrate away from Microsoft products. A large part of the money spent would have remained in the Dutch economy and returned to the state through tax and VAT. Not that 10,000 man-years would have been needed. The Municipality of Ede did it against the odds for a fraction of the cost and now saves 92 % on software expenses (and 25% on overall budget). The rest of the government has yet to take steps. Why is an important question.

IT and government, what to do?

<originally a Webwereld column in Dutch>

Klik voor grotere afbeelding

Friday a week ago I, along with other "experts", attended  a Parliamentary Working Group to answer questions about government IT projects. This was a Parliamentary group of MPs investigating the many IT failures of the government. After the summer (and the sept 12th elections), the investigation should begin with a sharp set of research questions. The invited experts were there to help formulate the right questions.

Here are my blog links to some of the available online advice written by the working group and the video stream (all in Dutch). It was striking how unanimous was the message presented by all the IT experts, given the variety of backgrounds.

Like other columnists and opinion writers, I also emphasised the failings of government and egregious damage to national security, privacy and general public funds. From available data, in terms of the government, the cost to the Dutch has moved from millions to billions of euros annually.

With such a government it is like shooting fish in a barrel for columnists. Therefore it was refreshing on this occasion to make a more constructive contribution. Although it was a pity that such meetings do not occur more frequently and are not better attended by the officials and suppliers who are responsible for all these projects. As 6 billion euros pour down the drain every year (and that is only the out-of-pocket costs - the social impact may be much higher) it might be a good idea to hold consultations more often. While I doubt that the gathering last week has any ready-made solutions for all the problems, I think there is a reasonable degree of consensus about their root causes:

Parliamentary hearing on IT-projects, security & privacy

On June 1st 2012 the Dutch government's Parliamentary working group on government IT-projects held a hearing of experts. My written contribution below. Capture of videostream... (in Dutch). Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter published his thoughts here. Column on this published the week after here.

Introduction - IT and the Dutch national government
Andromeda M31Universality is an assumption of astrophysics that states that all phenomena, everywhere, behave as we observe them from Earth. I'm assuming that phenomena I have observed in specific government IT projects also occur in government IT projects that I have less infromation about (this is usually caused by the poor implementation of Freedom Of Information Acts, see the notes of Mr de Winter).

IT project management is currently based on a rather naive model of reality - "smart entrepreneurs compete on a level playing field for the favours of the government, which then procures with insight and vision." However, this model does not adequately predict the observed outcome of the projects. Whence this group.

Another model would be "a corrupt swamp with the wrong incentives, populated by sharks and incompetent clowns". This model has the advantage of perfectly predicting the observed outcomes.

Doublethink and Zen

<originally a Dutch Webwereld column>

Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel '1984 '. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.

In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.

The certainty with which this (to this day) is  mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.

Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).

The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?

Waiting for the big one

<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>

Diginotar's multiple IT failures in the public sector have been swept under the carpet. So far, nothing indicates that there will be any real change to the Dutch government's overdue IT projects. During the hearing (mp3 – in Dutch) in the Lower House it was apparent that neither the government overseer OPTA or auditor Price Waterhouse Coopers believe themselves at fault, despite the fact that for years as regulators they have rubber stamped the work of Diginotar. The decisions of the PwC auditors were obviously good because "they are executed by responsible professionals". This will be heartening for all those Iranian citizens who are suffering the consequences of this (think of an unpleasant convergence of kneecaps and power tools).

But because of the chaos at Diginotar, we may never know for certain the full horror of those consequences. It is very simple for someone to take over an entire network and manipulate all the logs. The only thing we can really say with any certainty is that so far we have no reason to believe that IT security was any better in the past than the recently discovered FoxIT mess. The PwC audits are obviously not able to detect such a mess and OPTA apparently did not even look. Possibly Diginotar has been totally hacked for many years, and nobody noticed. A really smart spy or cyber criminal does his job and leaves no traces. The many detailed discussions about the exact scale and timeline of the hack have completely ignored this fact. From his grave Socrates is smiling at the idea that we only certainly know what we certainly do not know.

Doctor, doctor ...

<webwereld column>

Actieplan Heemskerk

A MP stumbles, coughing, into the doctor's surgery. There is blood pouring from the ears and nose and left eye. “Doctor, doctor, I've just had a bad fall and I think I've broken my wrist” gasps the MP. The doctor has a look and briefly feels the pulse. “Does that hurt?” “A little bit” mumbles the MP. “I don't think it's that bad” says the doctor. Unfortunately I can't check it today as the digital X-ray machine is broken”. The MP is swaying back and forth. “It's probably just a bruise, the nurse will give you a sling. Take it easy for a couple of days and come back if it's still painful.”  The MP staggers out of the surgery, still bleeding from the ears, nose and eye. The doctor is already focused on the file of the next patient, because doctors are very busy.

The process described above resembles the way the Court of Audit went about answering MPs questions about our national IT strategy. The MPs asking those questions were not experts and the Court provided simplistic answers without providing any context or stopping to consider whether the symptoms might be part of a broader problem. The newly-published report failed to respond  even to the superficial questions and, moreover, based its answers on minimal data.  Which is a disgrace, as it is precisely the role of the Court to delve into the deeper issues.