Michael Cross on the Convention’s bravest attendee

Michael Cross of the Guardian has written a piece on why he believes David Varney should be given an award for being the Convention’s ‘bravest attendee’.  He writes:

“As the prime minister’s special adviser on “service transformation” – official-speak for joining up the data that government agencies hold on us – he’s one of the architects of the “database state”. It’s fair to say that, of the 1,500 people in the hall for the opening plenary session, 1,499 vehemently opposed the idea”

Cross goes on to argue that there are important lessons to be learned and that we must consider what Varney said in order to understand where the database state should and might go from here.  He continues:

“Varney said that he is no champion of “a single great state database”. Literally speaking, this is consistent with his 2006 report Service transformation, and wider government policy. Although a software company did promote the idea of a single government database in the 1990s, the UK government never took it up. What Varney does favour, though, is public bodies sharing a single set of data about every individual citizen. This would be name, national insurance number, date of birth and address, he told the convention.

As it happens, I’m sympathetic to the idea – it’s hard to see how we can enable individuals to opt in or out of information systems, or to view their own files, without knowing who they are – but to describe the outcome in functional terms as anything but a “single great state database” is sophistry.

So, too, is Varney’s main argument, which is that government may be a data-gobbler but, by golly, private business is much worse. (He won a heartfelt cheer by quoting from a particularly intrusive sign-up form, with weasely small-print opt-out clause, produced by … Guardian News & Media.) “It would be mad if we imposed constraints on the public sector but allowed the private sector to go on as before,” he said.

Quite. But the answer here is so obvious that it’s not worth spelling out. Suffice to say that anyone who equates a supermarket loyalty card with a mandatory government information system cannot be interested in a serious debate.

And debate, Varney said, is what he wants: “There needs to be a big public discussion on what information it is right to share.” I agree. The opportunity to launch such a debate is coming up: later this spring, the government will publish a national identity strategy, setting out what ID data public agencies will share about us. The document should be debated, scrutinised line by line, and if it’s not good enough, or not specific enough, thrown back until we get it right.

The article can be found in full on the Guardian website

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply