Responsibility and management in party conference season October 8, 2012 at 6:15 am
I’ve been writing a complicated piece of code over the weekend. It needs to read an excel spreadsheet, so I started in Visual Basic, a choice I am now regretting. The problem isn’t easy, there’s quite a bit of data, and the algorithm is naturally expressed in a way that’s quite inefficient to implement without pointers*. So… it has been a headache. I have some results now, which seem likely to be right, and I’ll spend quite a bit of tomorrow trying various pathological cases. Still, I might have messed up and if I am really unlucky someone else will spot this.
All of this gives me profound sympathy for the civil servants who messed up the analysis on the West Coast main line franchise analysis. It’s really easy to make an error in a complex spreadsheet. For me, there are two main points here. The first is best put by Not the treasury view:
Ministers had months in the run up to the franchise award in August, and two months since, to require DFT [Department for Transport] senior management to explain to them – not with pages of numbers, but with convincing analysis – why this view, now apparently vindicated, was wrong. No remotely competent Minister would accept the explanation “That’s what the model says” on an issue like this. So either they didn’t ask the right questions, or they were incapable of understanding that they were getting the wrong answers. Neither interpretation reflects well.
I guess it would be too much to expect a minister to behave honourably during his opponent’s party conference and a week before his own.
The second and more important point is that this farrago would not have happened without privatisation. Privatisation doesn’t work not just because it provides returns to shareholders when things go well and little risk when things go badly – but also because it is impossible to write a contract that adequately ties down what it means to run a railway well for fifteen years, and to evaluate bids on that contract accurately. Sure, you can have a go at writing a model which helps you to understand, if you are lucky, what the bidders are proposing. But what you can’t do is think of every contingency. If you want to model a railway, run one: the real thing is the only reliable model. So why not close the evaluating contracts department at the DFT, renationalise the railways, and put the resources you freed up to work actually running the darn things? It would be simpler than what they are trying to do at the moment.
*Yes, I know you can fake it with classes. Or with the Win API. No, that doesn’t help much.