Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Why e-voting is a bad idea

Entertaining Computerphile 8 minute video on why electronic voting is a bad idea.

The unsustainable crisis in public services

The crisis in hospital accident and emergency departments is in the news. The crisis in policing has practically identical systemic roots. As do the crises mental health, the ambulance service, all corners of the NHS, care for the elderly and disabled, the prison service, criminal justice and legal services, the border control & immigration services, social services, social welfare, transport... the education system is a certified basket case.

When you divide complex, deeply interconnected and interdependent public service systems up into competing quasi-autonomous silos and then instruct the leaders of those silos they will be evaluated on the basis of single figure simplistic targets or metrics - e.g. A&E waiting times - you cannot be surprised when the silos focus on those metrics at the expense of everything else; including the effective operation of the individual silo, not to mention the (up to 99% of) work they used to provide as a service to other parts of the overall public services system.

People can't get to see a GP, so they call an ambulance or go to A&E. A&E can't cope so they sit in corridors or ambulances whilst A&E waiting times go up or get massaged. Ambulances can't get to emergencies because they are waiting to offload patients at busy A&Es or because they are dealing with non emergency cases to meet the 8 minute target. There is inadequate support for the elderly and frail so they are in hospitals rather than having appropriately tailored care in appropriate environments. Police officers are dealing with vulnerable seriously mentally or physically ill people because ambulances and other services are overstretched and unavailable, in thrall to their very own distortionate targets.

It would be ridiculous to say one rectangle was bigger (and better) than another because it had a longer base, without knowing what the height of either was. It would be ridiculous to say we can produce better pigs by weighing them. Yet somehow, and in the surreal political and media frenzy of the run up to a general election, it is ok to "measure" complex public services this way.

The political normalisation of this insanity throughout the public sector has to stop.

But it won't.

We are completely incapable, as a society, in this world of short attention spans, social media outrage mob rule and 24/7 attention-grabbing-focused news media, of holding a mature public debate on any of this.

Single words, phrases, soundbites, expressions, nuances, personality traits are rabidly seized upon by the media, political opponents and the outrage mob as sticks to beat anyone who ventures an opinion outside of the mainstream. The Tory, Lib Dem and Labour gangs can't help themselves, even amidst their almost total rabid agreement on everything lest they upset the Murdoch press or the Daily Mail, they choose to attack each other, rather than develop enlightened evidence based policies. They have nothing to debate in policy terms because they are committed to the same failing policies.

I learned at the weekend of a dedicated, bright, enthusiastic, successful young teacher deciding to leave the profession after several years because of the unreasonable demands the schooling system visited upon her, her colleagues and the kids in her school.

Someone doing an enormous amount of good, 24/7, for the children in her care, decided she no longer had the physical or emotional capacity, as an individual, to compensate for the systemic insanity of an education system failing the majority of children.

It takes an enormous amount of integrity to walk away from something of huge importance to you, when you realise you can no longer make a sustainable difference, in spite of the occasional and even spectacular pockets of success.

She's now in temporary employment in the retail sector and enjoying, for the moment, the serenity of closing the book on the job, as soon as she leaves at the end of each day. The retail sector's current gain is the education system's enormous loss.

Update: edited for a couple of spelling errors.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ches Lincoln

One of the Open University's true online learning pioneers, Ches Lincoln, sadly died on Christmas Eve.

Ches was a brilliant, cheery, kind, caring, deeply enthusiastic technophile who had the core integrity and values of the OU woven into the very fabric of her DNA.

Whether as a technology tutor or one of the key architects of the technical infrastructure that dragged the OU into the internet age, through the vehicle of a course known as 'T171: You, your computer and the Net', she put her heart and soul into the people and systems that crossed her path.

John Naughton, another of the key brigands behind T171, often describes T171 as a "success disaster". It was the first entirely online undergraduate course in the world and pulled in 900 students for the pilot in 1999 and 13500 for the full launch the following year. In an institution in those days used to 3 to 5 year development cycles, we had to build the technical infrastructure from scratch in 9 months with the organisational equivalent of string and glue and a tiny team. We recruited and trained over 500 associate lecturers to tutor online when there were only a handful of people in the country who had ever done online teaching. And the whole experience, though successful in student recruitment and operational terms, nearly killed the university because of the vast structural changes that had to be accommodated in such a short space of time. (The 100-hour weeks were not exactly conducive to my own good health at the time either, though I've cut that to 60 since and Ches's sudden and all too early demise is making me reconsider seriously dropping to the 37 the OU computer says I do...).

So T171 remade but nearly broke the OU at the turn of the century.Yet without Ches, John, Martin Weller, Andy Reilly, Ernie Taylor and a small number of others it could never have come to fruition.

No matter how complex or difficult a problem was thrown her way, technical or personal, Ches never turned down a request for help from students, friends or colleagues. She always had time for people and displayed a level of care, understanding and compassion that was immeasurable in this world of short attention spans, tick box metrics and generally insane behaviour on the part of large organisations.

Ches you will be sadly missed.