When IT Meets Politics

June 13, 2016  3:49 PM

Is there really a Digital Skills Crisis?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Apprenticeship, apprenticeships, BIS, Digital skills, European Commission, Pitcom, Trailblazer

This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released its report on the “Digital Skills Crisis”  This afternoon the House of Lords debated the government response  to its “Make or Break” report last year . Last week the European Commission published a proposal for a Skills Guarantee . Meanwhile BIS is ploughing ahead with byzantine routines for a return to the type of training grant and levy scheme that was  scrapped (for good reason) in 1980s.  Unfortunately though dead, the idea of grants and levies, job creation schemes for bureaucrats, will not stay buried. In 1992 I helped kill an attempt to revive it with a Bow Group Paper on the theme of “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”.  The processes proposed by BIS to fund “approved “training organisations to deliver apprenticeships which meet criteria dictated by officials not employers, make the average European “initiative” look like a model of efficiency.

I therefore applaud the recommendations by the Select Committee that

  • Government needs to work with closely with employers, higher education institutions and schools to understand the apprenticeship marketplace, to ensure that education aligns with industry’s requirements, and that apprenticeships are delivered in a flexible way to adjust to future changes in the digital sector”  (Para 54)
  • Government should emphasise the need for more digital skills components in all apprenticeships … ” (Para 55)
  • should review its Trailblazer initiative, making it more streamlined and accessible … simplifying the scheme’s processes” (Para 56) and
  • … make it easier for industry to partner with universities and colleges to support student teaching … work placements … allow the cost to be written off against the Apprenticeship Levy contributions” (Para 57)

I am less happy with the recommendation that  “The Government should review the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles added to the Tier 2 visa “shortage occupation list” , making it easier and more flexible for SMEs to recruit top talent from outside the EU” (Para 30).  The European Commission proposal for a “Skills Guarantee” to help adults stuck in low paid jobs is more forward looking but the Committee’s recommendation is perhaps inevitable,  given the 50 years of policy failure summarised in my evidence to the House of Lords report (see pages 1057 – 70) and referred to in my blog entry, describing the need to break out of groundhog day, when that report was first published.

The crisis is over. The patient is dead” .

We failed to use the past “crises” as a catalyst for change. Things came to a head during the run up to Y2K and the “false start” of the transition to mass-market, Internet-based on-line systems. My 2001 IT Skills Trends report was about surviving the bursting of the dotcom bubble and preparing for the skills that would be in shortest supply when recovery came – in 2005 – 6. But that recovery did not come. By 2006 demand and salaries for those jobs which could easily be moved off-shore had stagnated. Much of the software and support industry had come to be staffed by a mix of overseas systems development and imported contract labour. We were facing the consequences of our inability to retrain our existing workforce, let alone our failure to educate and train our children.  I stopped writing the reports. They had become too depressing and the only ones taking action were those who helped write them.

An Apprentice Levy without a credible, let alone efficient, Grant process

Today we have a curate’s egg  wth unemployed computer science graduates in parallel with unprecedented shortages of competent and trustworthy recruits for Fintech and Security roles and another exercise to dig up the dodo of levies and grants – this time with the grants ring-fenced to meet the costs of “approved providers”, officials trying to dictate the requirements that employers are allowed to have and different processes for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last week I attended a briefing session for employers. Those serious about training their future employees with the skills they will need were already looking at how to bypass the system, writing off the levy as a payroll tax on those jobs they could not realistically subcontract or move out of the UK. It was, as the Commons Select Committee has pointed out, not only unfit for purpose when it comes to the needs of SMEs (Para 30), it looks unlikely to meet the evolving needs of those large firms who already train their own and/or those in their supply chains.

But markets do not stand still. The Commons Select Committee call for the annual “dynamic mapping” of initiatives against demand so as to create a long term mechanism for adjusting the strategy (Para 29) is therefore particularly welcome.

The recommendation that Government should commit “to work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focused careers advice …” (Para 43) is also most welcome, but this should be extended to cover school-leavers. We can no longer afford to peddle the immoral fantasy that the majority of our children will benefit from starting their working lives saddled with student debt after spending three years to become less employable than if they had been paid to do a graduate level apprenticeship. In 1982, in “Learning for Change” I attacked both

  • “the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa, At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures” and
  • our confusion of “education” with taxpayer subsidy for the middle class ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest.

The many recommendations of the Select Committee with regard to computing schools in schools are worthy but the most important boring is  Paragraph 83 where it recommends working with the Tech Partnership “to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry led digital training, and to make it easier for business of all sizes to get involved“.

The need to “break open the educational ghettos” has been a key message since  1982, when PITCOM organised for relays of school-children (from 30 schools) to man an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Room of the House of Commons (26 computer systems, up to 14 running at any one time running off three power points, at a time when Parliament had no facilities for schools visits!). That exhibition was attended by 120 MPs: one returning six times to get a group doing Economics A Level to run variations on the Treasury Economic Model – hence my long-standing support for Donald Michie’s idea that MPs should be able to simulate the effect of the legislation, including amendments, which they are expected to approve.

That was over 30 years ago. It is therefore particularly sad that the same messages have to be repeated as though they are new. The reason is linked to the prevalence, evident in paragraphs 70 – 76, that teachers (whether in School, College, University or Industrial Training Centre) have to be expert in IT in order to educate their pupils/students.  If that is correct then there is no solution – other than to rely on those (in other parts of the world) who use their limited supply of skilled educators to supervise the delivery of blended learning (mix of packaged learning materials, personal contact and supervised work experience) by mixed teams of assistants and subject experts: which is what successful digital “informal learning” groups (para 70 – 77) as well as enlightened employers, have been doing since before school computing curricula or computer science degrees were invented.  Hence some of the recommendations in my own submission to the Select Committee

July 20, 2019  4:25 PM

How long before the shareholders break up BT?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BT, competition, Ofcom

The BT share price reached nearly £5 in late 2015 after the Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy  was announced and BT received clearance to buy EE.  About then Patterson attacked Ofcom for suggesting that Openreach be split off  and I described how DTI and Ofcom had destroyed BT’s previous investment strategy. They had brought about the collapse of its share price from £15 (2000) to under £2 (2002 – 2012).  In March 2016 I suggested the fear of being broken up by Ofcom would cause BT to give better service. But then the share price had begun to slide.  The rights issued planned at the time of the acquisition of EE was abandoned. The slide continued. The share price is once more under £2. This severely limits BT’s borrowing capacity and ability to invest. Its cash flows are committed to addressing a massive backlog in preventive maintenance to make its ducts and poles fit for PIA. Hence also the need to rebuild its in-house training capacity because the necessary legacy skills are no longer available elsewhere. Others are far concerned with the skills to build full fibre and mixed fibre/wireless networks.

Man from Whitehall he speak with forked tongue

For all the talk of level playing fields for investors, the Treasury, which underwrites the BT pension fund, is under pressure to preserve BT’s legacy revenues until such time as it comes up with a strategy that will convince future investors that it is a going concern, not a basket case. An example is the award of the Universal Service monopoly. As a result of its recent crowd funded community bond B4RN could offer full fibre to 5%  of those who BT will be subsidised to provide with up to 10 mbs.  EIS status has been refused because Inland Revenue says the B4RN business model poses no risk of loss of capital to investors. So why does BT need a subsidy?


The B4RN model may not be scalable. Community enterprises do not function well above a given size. It is, however, capable of being replicated, with many local variations, to serve those for whom the USO is intended. Indeed there are many successful variations around the world. But for the Ofcom focus on nominal rather than real competition focussed, BT would be incentivised to use B4RN as a USO subcontractor and encourage another 19 clones to deliver a USO that is out of this world. There is a great set of UFOs,  universal fibre opportunities, for which BT could provide the backhaul and global connectivity. The way Telia works with the various community and municipal networks across Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia provides one model.  The way Verizon and AT&T do similarly across the USA, including with the utility networks, provides another.

The sum of the BT black hole is less than the sum of the parts

Openreach is an infrastructure management and service company which owns nothing, not even its training centres. It is relatively easy for it to be spun out. But that would not lead to added investment. It would also require Treasury support for the pensions of those transferred from BT. Meanwhile the BT-owned infrastructure needs massive investment to turn it into an integrated all IP network capable of supporting EE as an ubiquitous 4/5G provider. Then there are the needs of UK business and of Smart Communities (Cities, Countryside, Energy, Transport, Utilities etc.) for resilient, reliable backhaul. Closing down BT’s surplus exchanges will enable cost savings but will not raise funds, they were sold back in 2002. It is unclear how much could be raised by selling off the high risk content and systems operations. Tis would, however, leave a communications utility that, but for regulatory uncertainty, is rather more attractive to global fund managers and institutional investors.

Until then, the BT share price looks set to drift down to a £pound or less. That leaves it unable to invest other than from cash flows and Government subsidies. It is also unsaleable because of the pensions time bomb and the dead hand of Ofcom.

The way forward is co-opetition

BT is seen by most of others in the telecoms industry as a Machiavellian bogeyman. That reputation was well earned by the tactics used to stop others obtaining BDUK funds or pillaging BT’s leased line markets. Even today BT is playing its cards close to its chest. It seeks to hold on to past business, quietly transferring customers to newer, more reliable technologies only when they are close to defecting to other suppliers.

The alternative strategy is for BT to look at the investment models of its peers around the world.  Most of these are based on co-opetition – with players subcontracting to each other to share cost and/or improve resilience at the same time as competing to be lead supplier in multi-source contracts. Unfortunately where BT has set about exploring similar arrangements in the UK it has been threatened by Ofcom with action under its competition powers.

There is  precedent. BT has subcontracted to those running wireless networks in parts of Cornwall where there would otherwise be no service. We need to see many more such deals. In a world where multiple routings are essential for resilience we need, for example,  to see BT routinely contracting to use City Fibre backhaul for hot standby and vice versa.

We need to see all business parks served by at least three local operators with similar hot standby contracted between them – akin to the way the University science parks connected via Janet/JISC have multiple routings. It is worth noting that the Janet/JISC network uses infrastructures owned by a wide variety of players, including BT, the Electricity Utilities, Universities, Local Authorities, Defence Research Establishments and others to provide the UK’s fastest, most powerful, flexible and future proof network. Like LINX, the heart of the UK’s Internet world, it is a mutual.

Question: What is the difference between a Cartel and a Mutual?

Answer: The number of participants

It would be unrealistic to see the infrastructure heart of BT spun off as a mutual. But we should look at the way its peers in other parts of the work with each other and with a variety of  infrastructure partners. This may well be the best way of pulling through investment on the scale needed. We need business and property users and owners working with local authorities to fund and expedite network construction, to international standards (including for inter-operability), using whatever business model fits the community to be served. Those meeting their needs, (City Fibre, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, Wireless Internet Group et al) are very attractive to the City as soon as they have acquired a track record of delivery.  The “real” competition is akin to that in the 19th Century when Manchester competed and/or co-operated with Liverpool and Leeds with Bradford, while Birmingham co-operated with everyone, to pull through the construction of canals and railways. It did not matter if the company went broke, provided the line was built to common standards so that some-one else could take over the operation. Over time the railways coalesced into regional and national operating networks, even before nationalisation.

The Problem is Ofcom – or rather its terms of reference

Twenty years ago I was part of the team that organised the pre-legislative scrutiny for the Office of Communications Act 2002. The world has moved on. Meanwhile Ofcom has succumbed, as feared,  to many of the temptations that face regulators in times of change. The first is that of trying to predict the future in order to better regulate it. It should, instead, be focussed on acting more rapidly to uncover and address abuses of market power as they emerge.

Ofcom is also too focussed on nominal competition, as with the candy floss competition of local loop unbundling. It is blocking the voluntary co-operation that is essential for a critical infrastructure utility networks to provide hot standby. It should be helping to set and enforce standards for infrastructure and network inter-operability and quality of service, in line with those emerging across the world. These might look anti-competitive but are essential to making it easier for new entrants to attract investment, become established, reach critical mass and provide genuine competition.

Only when such matters are addressed is the UK as a whole likely to benefit when the shareholders break up BT and investors from around the world put in the funds to help turn round its struggling parts.


July 15, 2019  11:10 AM

Help set the forward agenda for Schools and Skills

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

On the afternoon of 17th July Lord Lucas will chair a round table to launch a national debate on Digital Skills. Cconfirmed opening speakers include

  • Ben Mason from Global Bridge (opening up new pathways between employers and recruits in the North east),
  • David Willett, Corporate Director of the Open University (the UK’s largest degree level apprenticeship provider as well as the largest University),
  • Chris Murphy of the Highways Electrical Association (whose members are already building the 5G-ready digital infrastructures of our embryonic smart cities).

Please e-mail the Digital Policy Alliance ( dpa@dpalliance.org.uk ) for a guest place if you are serious about helping set the political agenda for a Britain that develops its own talent instead of importing from overseas. There will be no public report. The meeting is being held under the Chatham House rule and will be used identify topics for the 21st Century Skills working group to address over the year ahead. The group also looks after the project portfolio which I handed over just after Easter.

The objectives include

  • stimulating discussion on meeting the demand for basic digital abilities;
  • the cross sector, professional and academic evolution of skills demand;
  • responding to the accelerating rates of change in the technologies available for identifying, delivering and assessing talent and
  • reviewing legislative and regulatory frameworks to maximise potential in creating and implementing UK/EU education and training policies.

I blogged my own views back in February . The analysis in the discussion paper may still hold good but the pressures for change have increased since. The Augar report  has pointed out the immorality (as well as inefficiency) of focussing attention on only half the population.  The changes to the teachers pension scheme  will more than wipe out the extra funding for schools and colleges promised this year and next.

Expediting the roll out of reliable full-fibre broadband will enable cloud-based education-as-service to make teachers workload but will not bridge the funding gap. There are many ways forward. I like the concept of the “community college”: doubling or trebling the school income by also providing a round-the-clock life-long learning and training hub and sports/games/leisure facility. But that is by no means the only way forward. The only certainty is that the pace of change, in educational techniques and technology as well as in the skills and knowledge in demand, have far outstripped the ability of centralised planning to cope.

Hence the need for a new debate.

Remember the St Trinians Motto –“get your blow in first”

I do not know how many places are left on Wednesday and I know that the DPA team will be busy with there AGM this afternoon (Monday).

You should but e-mail dpa@dpalliance.org.uk and ask for an invitation to the round table and, better still, to take part in the follow up.

If you cannot attend, ask for an invitation to take part in the follow up anyway.

July 2, 2019  8:55 PM

Why I will be voting for Jeremy Hunt

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

Three years ago I blogged on why I made the mistake of voting Remain. I would still prefer the UK to be a member of a reformed, multi-track, democratically accountable European Union. But that is not on offer. Ursula von der Leyan may be a surprise choice to replace Juncker  but she is keeping Timmermans as her deputy and is a strong believer in building towards a United States of Europe.

I will be delighted if she does indeed turn out to be a reformer but until that happens I remain a reluctant believer that Brexit is the only way of bringing about the reforms to the EU that will make it worth be a member. And if that sounds “Irish” … it is. At the time of the referendum an Ulsterman who had worked as long and hard as I had on trying to make a reality of the Digital Single Market explained why had done the same analysis as I had … and decided to vote Brexit.

I have since come to realise that he was indeed right. Knowing what I know now, I would have voted leave.

I also understand much better why the different parts of the UK voted as they did.

The task ahead is not just Brexit

The new Conservative leader faces a massive task in re-building the Party round a shared set of values and visions for the future. Then comes the task of rebuilding trust in politicians, parliament, the civil service and the electoral system. No wonder the Conservative Party faithful want more hustings so that they can look the candidates in the eye and form their own judgements. And all that is before we start discussing the policies that we may, or may not, trust them to deliver.

My reasons for voting for Jeremy Hunt are based largely on his track record. I am less impressed by his claim to be one of the few entrepreneurs in politics than by the nature of the business he created: Hotcourses  It is the world’s largest guide for would-be students and parents deciding where to invest their time, money and hopes when the pace of change is accelerating.

Those supporting Boris Johnson think he will be able chair a cabinet in which responsibility is delegated to them. I fear that the Civil Service, facing the post-Brexit existential threats  of Devolution and Deregulation to their Whitehall Empires, will come together and run rings round them all.

After surviving his early baptism of fire at NHS, defending a badly botched junior doctor’s contract, Jeremy Hunt set about unravelling the culture of secrecy (including gagging clauses and the persecution of whistle-blowers) that had enabled those frightened of clinical responsibility to create some of the most inhumane (to both staff and patients) and inefficient working conditions in the modern world. The drop-out rate among student nurses is more than double that for students as a whole. Those doing nursing apprenticeships spend more than four times as much off-the-job because of the failure to use modern learning methodologies.  I am married into a medical clan and have learned to keep quiet when the iniquities of the Royal Colleges are discussed.

My hope is that Jeremy Hunt will be able to lead a similar unravelling across the whole of central government, making it impossible for the “Empire” to strike back. The cult of “commercial confidentiality” with regard to the spending of public money, whether on in-house or outsourced services, needs to end.

My fear is that, by contrast, that Boris will go for gesture politics, as at the GLA, and will no more be able to begin the overdue reform of central Government than he could that of Transport for London or the Metropolitan Police. Both now in the hands of Sadiq Khan’t with everything blamed on “austerity”.

But it begins with delivering a constructive Brexit

I liked Hunt’s presentation at the recent Conservative Progress Conference – with rapid legislation on what has already been agreed so that it can be “banked” and the areas of uncertainty and fears of potential retaliation greatly reduced. This is the opposite to the more common approach of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. It is, however, the approach adopted by some of the most successful negotiators – if one counts “success” as delivering win-win deals that build for the future. They isolate the areas of disagreement and weaken the positions of those holding out against compromise. They then praise everyone in sight as they start lining up their allies for the next deal but one. They are great fun to watch, especially because they are so under-estimated by more aggressive negotiators who make great play out of winning unnecessary battles.

And, as I said in my blog on the Golden Rules and Taboo Questions – the Irish Backstop is a McGuffin. It is there to prevent discussion on topics such as cutting our Corporation Tax rates so that Global High Tech Companies pay tax in London rather than Dublin on their UK earnings. Thus enabling tax cuts to yield higher tax takes.

I also like the clarity of Jeremy Hunt’s ten point plan

That bring me back to my due diligence.

Hunt made his money from providing usable guidance for students and parents around the world on where the invest their time and money in doing courses that would help them meet their objectives. Politely unravelling nonsense is what he is good at. And it is a very powerful negotiating tool.

June 28, 2019  10:35 AM

Who is serious about On-line Harms?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
DCMS, Facebook, Google

1) DCMS kicks the can down the road – again

The deadline for submissions to the DCMS consultation on On Line Harms  is July 1st. The NAO report politely savaging the UK failure to join up its approaches to tackling organised crime was released today. Organised crime derives much of its revenue from the On-line harms listed in the DCMS white paper. This is co-signed by the Home Secretary. No-where is there any indication in the white paper of the need to join up policy and policing. It is as though the departments still live in parallel Universes.

Meanwhile the timescale for implementing the Age Verification has been delayed again . It is well worth reading the reactions of the House of Lords to the statement . They did not believe the reasons given any more than did the technical press. When DCMS last kicked this particular can down the road they denied it would be further delayed . Pink News then interpreted “three months” in Whitehall speak as the end of the year.  Techspot has more recently interpreted six months as manana .  This is not a victory for “freedom of expression“. It is another own goal in the fight against organised crime and abuse. The extra time should be used to see whether a simpler solution, e.g. audits against processes which meet the BSI’s PAS 1296, would better protect the privacy of both adults and children.

2) And can expect to pay a price

The excuse given by DCMS is probably open to legal challenge from as many directions as its approach to implementing the Age Verification legislation. Those who believed the original timetable spent £millions developing the necessary “age gates” and gearing up to handle the expected volumes of traffic from July onwards. That work has now been halted amid growing scepticism that the law will ever come into force, let alone be properly regulated and/or enforced. Lay offs and cutbacks are now certain. The DCMS credibility cap, (which dates back to when it “leaked” the e-mail addresses of over 200 technical journalists at the original launch of the scheme )  has widened. We can expect those affected to seek assistance in rectifying the damage.

3) Meanwhile British Industry has produced a global solution

More significant, but unpublicised, is that British service providers have delivered on the promises made when David Cameron was persuaded to announce the original plans for legislation .
The day after Jeremy Wright announced the delay in implementation, Telemedia carried the news that not only had the UK first supplier been audited against the extension of the existing Age Check Certification Scheme  to cover on-line checking using PAS 1296 . The PAS is now probably on its way to becoming a global standard. The service is fully operational and was used for the Web Portal for the Channel 4 Documentary “Mums Make Porn”.

Age Checking is not, of course, just about protecting children from accidentally accessing porn, or from having their age controlled social networks penetrated by adult predators. The members of the embryonic Age Verification Providers Association  do most of their business with the suppliers of other controlled products and services, such as alcohol, gaming or tobacco.  More-over this is a global business. UK-headquartered players like Experian and Lexis Nexis compete with those, like Facebook and Google, who seek to use their domination of Internet Access and Social media to invade the trusted identity market and link it to their big data business models.

4) Who is trusted by Who?

At this point it is worth looking at the annual Edelman Global Trust Barometer to add context.  Last year saw a collapse in UK confidence in Government. It has not recovered. This year saw a similar collapse in trust in social media, particularly across Europe and North America. “On-line only” media are now significantly less trusted than “traditional” media. Meanwhile brands headquartered in the UK are more trusted than those headquartered in the US, but not as trusted as those with HQs in Germany, Japan or Switzerland.  The global brands, on whose advertising spend the business models of Facebook and Google rely, are looking to halt “contamination” by association with the “on-line harms” listed in the White Paper. They plan to do so by taking back control of programmatic advertising.

5) Facebook and Google have no choice but to respond

There is a simple explanation for  Nick Clegg’s welcome, on behalf of Facebook, for Government Regulation . Facebook has less to fear from governments than from a revolt by global advertisers. The track record of regulation in this space is deeply unimpressive. By contrast they face an existential threat if they cannot provide a credible response to the pressures from global advertisers . The latter have been so badly burned by click-bait fraud, linked to free porn at least as often as to fake news, that they will not be content with ticking a few regulatory boxes. They will demand audit that is at least equivalent to the processes of the controlled circulation media . This is likely to include using third party Age Checking, just as the main security consultancies (including the big four accountancies) have had to use third party penetration testing operations. No one trusts big players to mark their own homework.

6) So Age Verification moves centre stage globally

At this point the work of UK Age Verification providers in producing robust processes for anonymising the use of secure and authoritative third-party identity databases (from the credit, education, financial services and health industries, as well as government) come into their own.  They should not be viewed as a threat to either the big data business models or the privacy paranoia industry. They complement both.

But where does that leave Government and DCMS?

They appear to have painted themselves into an embarrassing corner – seeking to sustain an idiosyncratic approach to age-checking which fits neither the relevant UK legislation nor that of the EU.

Can they use the six months delay to produce a simpler, cheaper way forward, perhaps based on using audit against PAS 1296 in the context of EU data protection requirements?

Or will they be stuck, defending the indefensible, against all comers – from the Child Protection charities to the Open Rights Group?

Positioning the UK as a globally trusted on-line hub for inter-operable authentication, authorisation, audit and quality control goes hand-in-hand with retaining our position as a world class financial services hub. It also needs privacy processes that are sufficiently robust to the protect the finances of the ruling elites of the world from their security services (as successive US Presidents failed to protect themselves from J Edgar Hoover) and their children from abuses.

I would also like to see effective protection for the rest of us – now that the Internet is used by over half the children in the world.

My new role with the local Safer Neighbourhood Board has led me to discover just how little the “other half” of society trusts either Government or Global Big Tech. The Edelman analyses also reflect the views of the inner city youth and faith groups to which I have been listening. The consequences for the advertising funded Internet are profound.  I am therefore prepared to bet a pound to a penny that Facebook and Google will embrace third party audit, including for their age checking process, before Government implements effective regulation.

I would of course be delighted to be proved wrong. But money talks rather more coherently than Government.


June 18, 2019  10:27 PM

Is the internet destroying Western Liberal Democracy?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
democracy, fake news, Internet, propaganda

There is an irony in the appointment by the House of Lords of a committee to explore the impact of digital technologies on democracy.  The Internet is now, however, global. The majority of users live in parts of the world which had city states and empires while our ancestors were still wearing woad. They tend not to equate not to equate “democracy” with “listening to the empty vessels who make the most noise”. They believe that social cohesion is better served by a more “mature” process in which elder statesmen decide after listening to the views of all parts of society.

The formation of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media is likely to have far more impact on the way the Internet functions than the actions of politicians and regulators. The latter are in thrall to those with the biggest budgets for lobbyists and lawyers. No-one today has lobbying and legal teams bigger than the US West Coast Internet giants. Players like Facebook and Google have, however, seen the need to take action to preserve their advertising revenues from spending strikes by global brand-owners, like Diageo and Proctor and Gamble   The advertisers are also looking to take back control from the intermediaries who put their brands at risk , placing them alongside content from terrorists, abusers and peddlers of click bait.

The moves to deny a voice to those who have been driving “moderates” off-line raise questions as to who should exercise editorial control over content. If the dominant players exercise their ability to block/remove content which damages the brands whose adverts they appear alongside, can they sustain the argument that they are not publishers – with the responsibilities of the latter for the content of “letters to the editor” and “classified adverts”.

1) From open debate to self-reinforcing cyberghettos

Early enthusiasm about global dialogue and “on-line town halls” morphed into disappointment that most on-line forums served to polarise opinion into self-reinforcing groups. In parallel we saw the rise of mass-market social media and advertising/trading platforms dominated by a handful of US players. That led to the collapse of the traditional channels of communication between politicians and people. National and local press and broadcast services and labour-intensive write-in and phone-in campaigns have been replaced by botnet-driven spam and twitter storms organised by who-ever has the budget and expertise.

The primitive “dictatorship of the sysadmins” (mediating on-line voting systems) has given way to the automated “dictatorship of the algorithms” with precedence to those views/stories which generate the most clicks, regardless of whether these are from humans or botnets. Now, after protests from around the world and pressure from large advertisers, players like Facebook are bringing back banks of humans  to remove material which damages the image of brands alongside which it appears.

2) Mediated by the most powerful cartel the world has ever known.

The rise of on-line bring and buy services and pay-per-click programmatic advertising model have made it uneconomic for newspapers and broadcasters to employ journalists to do much more than regurgitate press releases. The cartel has thus come to dominate communications between current and would-be political leaders and their current or potential followers via advertising funded social media. It appears impossible for that dominance to be challenged by those who recognise US copyright and patent law.

It may be intellectually satisfying to discuss how this situation came about. The bigger question is what should be done to restore democracy. But that masks the question of what we mean by “democracy”.

3) What is democracy?

For over a century we equated “democracy” with universal adult suffrage based on a published electoral register and a secret physical ballot. Then with the rise of postal voting our electoral system rapidly degenerated into one that would disgrace a banana republic . Add on-line registration, the failure to prosecute election fraud and an allegedly “stolen” by election in Peterborough and we have growing scepticism that UK election results reflect “the will of the people”.

Meanwhile we have a steady flow of comment from the intellectual and business elite of the Country, as represented by the BBC, Guardian, Institute of Directors and CBI, that the people were mislead and lied to when they had the temerity to vote to leave the EU. They feel we should therefore re-run the referendum because the plebs had the temerity to disagree with the consensus of the graduate, metropolitan intelligentsia over the nature of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

4) How did the ruling establishment of Westminster, Whitehall and Media City  become so out of touch with over half the electorate?

That split between the plebs and the intelligentsia is not confined to the UK. It is reflected in debate on the supposed need to address the “democratic deficit” of the European Union as a whole. The Union uses hierarchies of consensus creating bodies to produce policies, directives and regulations for Parliamentarians elected by proportional representation to agree. Is that not a triumph of mature democratic process over the shallow populism of Farage, Le Pen and Trump?

London and Brussels have produced consultation processes which engage and satisfy those sufficiently well organised to employ professional lobbyists. These grind on until any dissidents have lost the will to live. We have similar situations in local government. E-mails to councillors protesting against decisions are blocked as spam. On-line objections to planning applications are acknowledged but not registered. But there are no longer any trainee investigative journalists on the local paper seeking to make their reputations by investigating why, how and what is accidental, careless or deliberate.

In consequence dissent can gain traction and grow to critical main using communications channels that politicians and pundits fail to monitor.

5) Leading to Government by Protest

The UK has a long and proud tradition of peaceful protest. Rhis erodes when the gulf between the political establishment and the people becomes too wide. Perhaps the most spectacular example was the UK fuel protests in September 2000 . These appeared to come out of nowhere and were supposedly resolved by firm Government action, alias capitulation followed by revenge (as with the Peasants Revolt). A better way of looking at what happened is to see it as the first and last spontaneous mass protest to be organised over CB radio.

40 years ago CB radio spread from truck and taxi drivers to farmers and teenagers, with illegal burner/relay station on urban tower blocks and rural hill tops. National “cover” was probably as ubiquitous as wifi today. Faced by crippling fuel prices rises, groups of farmers and lorry drivers discussed mounting a French style protest. Support for the idea spread nationally within a couple of days. The consequences are history. Appalled by what they had achieved and with no plan to handle the consequences, the nominal leaders called for the protests to end as soon as the Government, faced with no credible alternative, publicly gave in.

Unfortunately the lesson the Government learned was that independent lorry and taxi drivers and farmers were outside Trades Union control and had to be brought to heel, including surveillance by the security services. The Radio Communication Agency set about monitoring CB radio and shutting down relay/burner stations. No-one concluded that Government needed more sensitive consultation and communication processes in order to avoid provoking such anger.

6) Using the Social Media of the day

Over the next few years mobile phones replaced CB radio over most of the UK. The 2011 riots  were “organised” via SMS, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. Subsequently more of the rioters were caught from social media footage than from CCTV or material collected using powers under RIPA.

The effect of social media campaign and fake news on the 2016 referendum campaign is a matter of disagreement. Government, the EU and those campaigning for Remain spent many times more than those campaigning for Leave. Cambridge Analytica had little if any influence on the results and techniques it tried to sell to the Leave campaign were used extensively used by the Remain campaign – but to little effect. Those using them appear to have miscalculated either the audiences (plural) or the messages (plural).

Then came the 2017 elections which caught no-one, except Conservative Central office, by surprise. The shock result resulted largely from a short order social media campaign to encourage students to register at both home and University and vote and get their parents to vote.

More recently we have the rise of the Brexit party, based on the use of social media to communicate simple messages to the audience that came together for the referendum campaign and were increasingly tired of being patronised and told they did not understand.

Almost exactly two years ago I took part in an event organised by ISOC UK on the theme “Fake news: annoying symptom or life threatening disease”  I recommend listening carefully to the comments of the Facebook speaker. What do we really want from them and their peers with regard to editing news, views and comment?  I blogged my views on the question “Is fake news destroying democracy?” in advance of the meeting . I quoted Tom Standage’s excellent book “The writing on the wall“. It traces the evolution of social media from the first stirrings of literacy through the ages.  The first election campaigns to be successfully distorted by fake news were those of Julius Caesar. His letters described the genocide of the Gauls (we now have archeological evidence) to steal their gold as a series of heroic fights against vast odds. I also used the opportunity to blog my paper for the 50th Anniversary of LEO under the title “Everything on-line is potentially fake and we cannot tell the difference“.

My conclusion was a question: “Can you check the sources, or are you left deciding which editor (Google, The Guardian or the Goebbels of the day) you choose to believe?”

7) The propaganda to influence “democratic decisions” is only part of the problem.

The honesty, integrity and auditability of consultation processes and voting system are critical. The public have to feel confident that results said to represent their views/wishes do indeed do so. That is being lost in the UK.

Key  questions for House of  Lords enquiry include how we could/should use technology to help restore confidence that our representatives are honestly elected, our “democratically accountable” institutions really are, and that their decisions are not so far out of line with the consensus of public opinion as to risk serious civil disobedience.

I f we do not find and implement answers quickly, the next General Election could be the most fractious, vicious and violent since the 19th century, when the processes for a secret ballot based on a published register of voters were developed. The candidates in  the Conservative leadership debate organised by the BBC after the second leadership ballot all wanted a General Election postponed until after trust in Parliament had been restored. Others might say that a General Election is needed to help restore trust. But in the current mood would the losers have any more faith in the result than in that of the Peterborough By Election?

June 7, 2019  5:15 PM

A hospice for a dying HE/FE funding regime – A review of the Augar Report

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Open University

The report of the Independent Panel to the Review into the funding of Further and Higher Education was not just about Student loans and University Funding . But most of the 370 submissions came from Universities and their acolytes. There were only 9 from Further Education providers. “Businesses” and “Employer bodies” were a subset of “Others” alongside academic experts, institutes and organisations representing the arts and science. See Page 14 of the Annex on the Call For Evidence for details.

Those who complain that, like the recent review of Apprenticeship Standards, the report only addresses part of the problem have themselves to blame. Most employer organisations were (and still are) more concerned to be able to import talent than to help grow our own. Hence once of the reasons for the Brexit revolt of the have-nots against the Establishment.

Despite that constraint it is a thoughtful report . It makes serious and detailed proposals to reform the current system. Read carefully. But also think about the political and economic context as you do. Philip Augar is a former equities broker. He was a non-executive board member at the Department for Education while he was writing (he had a History PhD) about the cultural changes  that led to the 2008 banking crisis. Now think about the current challenges to the way the century old UK FE/HE funding regime has been evolving over recent decades. Perhaps the best than can be done really is to buy time for constructive evolution as opposed to destructive change akin to the banking crisis and that which followed.

The Tectonic Plates are shifting – the 1917 Consensus is under threat

The authors of the report have done a good job in drily assessing the signs of movement in the tectonic plates that underlie the UK education system and its values. The Haldane Principle has been the basis of Government funding for HE (with FE as an increasingly poor relation) since 1917. It is now under serious threat. Even were the sixty or so recommendations in the report to be implemented in full they would probably not preserve the current system against change. They might, however, reduce the threat that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater.

The idea that HE/FE funding and policy should be determined by councils of experts with a vested interest in the out-comes, trumping the views of employers, students or the public, will not survive exposure to the scrutiny of the Internet Age. But reaching consensus on a new and more balanced and sustainable approach will not be easy. Nor will transitioning from the present set of hierarchical processes.

That is why it is so important to read the report and the analyses on which it is built. The submissions to the review omit the views of employers or public. Those who submitted may not recognise the way the global English language education and training content and qualification industries now dwarf the UK academic world. They may be ignorant of the way commercial and/or international  providers are eating the lunch of those who have not already partnered with them. But the submissions do represent the thoughts of those who dominate our current policy and funding frameworks  on how best to respond to the challenges that they see. You ignore them at your peril.

The current structures cannot handle the accelerating pace of change

The evidence submitted pays little or no attention to the way libraries of on-line materials transform the dynamics and economics of global education and training markets. These enable the assembly of customised, modular, blended learning programmes which cut the time to master content or acquire new skills from years to months, months to weeks and weeks to days or even hours.

Those used to a four to five year cycle to approve a new course cannot compete.

The processes the report is attempting to reform will never be capable of handling the pace of change necessary to do more than educate students in the basic disciplines they need for their first career. But a world of accelerating career change and life-long learning will still need academic cadres trained in those disciplines and research methodologies. The issue is to reach a new consensus on the balance of priorities when it comes to using public funds.  

How should the recommendations be judged?

The report begins with eight principles:

1. Post-18 education benefits society, the economy, and individuals.
2. Everyone should have the opportunity to be educated after the age of 18.
3. The decline in numbers of those getting post-18 education needs to be reversed.
4. The cost of post-18 education should be shared between taxpayers, employers and learners.
5. Organisations providing education and training must be accountable for the public subsidy they receive.
6. Government has a responsibility to ensure that its investment in tertiary education is appropriately spent and directed.
7. Post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces.
8. Post-18 education needs to be forward looking.

There are then nine headline proposals to address the “core problem”of the unfair and wasteful split between the 50% who supposedly benefit from HE/FE and the 50% who do not.

1. Strengthening technical education
2. Increasing opportunities for everyone
3. Reforming and refunding the FE college network
4. Bearing down on low value HE
5. Addressing higher education funding
6. Increasing flexibility and lifetime learning
7. Supporting disadvantaged students
8. Ensuring those who benefit from higher education contribute fairly
9. Improving the apprenticeship offer

We should judge the detailed recommendations against the principles and the headline recommendations.

They are not prioritised. Most of the publicity to date is for proposals 5 and 8, addressing principle 4. That is because most of the submissions were from those seeking to preserve the current funding regime, with modifications in their favour.

To quote the Annex on the call for evidence:
Across all groups, responses focused overwhelmingly on university education, with fewer responses on the other aspects of post-18 education, including technical education or apprenticeships.

• Further Education (FE) providers considered that higher education works best for well-qualified 18- to 30-year olds and that FE needs further investment in technical education facilities.
• Higher Education (HE) providers emphasised their view that HE is not a business but provides a society-wide benefit. On funding they felt that the review should not just consider fees in isolation.
• Students, graduates and the public were mainly concerned with financial issues, with costs of HE being too high and flexibility of provision limited.
• Employees working at educational organisations particularly noted a decline in part-time, mature students and Level 4/5 course take-up, and commented that the fragmentation of post-18 policy and funding across HE, FE and apprenticeships is restrictive and prevents a joined-up approach.
• Public bodies and others emphasised value for money, choices to meet skill needs of the UK, wider participation in Level 4/5 qualifications and generally better communication with learners.”

The Augar recommendations help open the way to a new consensus.

The press cover to date is almost all on the recommendations on student fees .

The changes proposed are unlikely to change the erosion of public belief in value of incurring debts that will never be repaid in order to spend three years away from home acquiring a qualification that employers do not value. There is no mention of  the most serious barriers to widening access for the most  disadvantaged: e.g. the way DWP processes penalise a family on benefits when one of its members accepts a place on an apprenticeship programme.

If the core objective are “fairness” and economic value then the first recommendation in the Augar report is the most profound in its potential impact:

The government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan allowance for tuition loans at Levels 4, 5 and 6, available for adults aged 18 or over, without a publicly funded degree. This should be set, as it is now, as a financial amount equivalent to four years’ full-time undergraduate degree funding.

Combine this with the 11th ,

• The careers strategy should be rolled out nationally so that every secondary school is able to be part of a careers hub, that training is available to all careers leaders and that more young people have access to meaningful careers,

and the effect could be dramatic. But only if the careers advice neutral. It must not be skewed by the way schools are penalised if they allow their brightest and best to be tempted by apprenticeships – even those which are degree-linked and offer privileged entry into world-class careers. That neutrality will only be achieved if schools earn as much from supporting apprenticeships (e.g. in parallel with T levels) as they do from keeping hold of their academically competent pupils to do A levels – whether or not the latter improve their lifestyle choices or employability.

Given such neutrality we can expect the implosion of those FE/HE courses which do not give economic value. This is likely to be the most effective way of addressing recommendation 4.

Handing over the baton of bringing education and training policy into the Internet Age

In May 1968 I accepted a job offer from STC Microwave and Line as a graduate Engineer 1st Class, alias apprentice computer programmer. I then graduated with a degree in History and within two years was a guest lecturer on one of the first Computer Science courses. I have since watched half a century of  attempts to define the content of courses and qualifications intended to help students acquire the intellectual disciplines and applications skills to research and exploit digital technologies before they change.

My career, let alone thoughts on how to handle digital skills, on which I have blogged for more than a decade, would have been very different without the habits of mind that I acquired at the Devils Flamethrower  The THES article with that title is now behind a pay wall. Ross Anderson’s “Alternative History of Cambridge” and my review are not.  In 1971 my reward for a successful decimalisation was two years at London Business School. My education on “manpower planning” began with listening to Denis Pym and Charles Handy. The class included Peter Lampl (Sutton Trust) and David Davis MP  (who has also written a review of the Augar Report).  One of my MSc projects was on the economics of the commercial training market. The aim was to help ICL decide on the future of a course on business for IT professionals which was not selling. I analysed the database of UK management courses then maintained by the British Institute of Management to find out which courses were regularly repeated, over weeks, months or years. And what was different about them. In the 1980s, after the publication of Learning for Change (see here for original text ) I had responsibility for the NCC Microsystems Centre. My staff maintained similar files. I advised the High Tech Unit of Barclays Bank on requests for finance from several commercial training operations. I also had responsibility for turning found that which I inherited at the NCC as well as advising succession of  ministers – although the minds of most of their officials were firmly closed to evidence that did not fit departmental policy.

Earlier this year I pulled together my most recent material in a discussion paper  to help set the scene for wider discussion after the Augar review was expected to report. That time is now.

On May 8th a very impressive team at the Open University took over support for the Digital Policy Alliance Skills Group. Much of the discussion was about how to extend the OU tradition of open access to academic excellence to lifelong learning as a whole, keeping pace with the evolution of digital disciplines and the accelerating pace of change in cross-boundary research and applications skills. In other words how to deliver the wider Augar principles and headline recommendations. I was also very happy in the quality of thinking among those to who would be taking over where I left off. I am confident they will do a much better job of bringing the relevant players together across all boundaries – not just intra-UK.

The Augar report is the start of a debate.

At best the recommendations on Student Loans may buy time for sufficient students to vote with their feet to enable a more politically acceptable solution to become affordable.

You should read the analysis and the other recommendations – bearing in mind that this is the “insider” view. Then e-mail dpa@dpalliance.org.uk or DPA-Open-University@open.ac.uk to be kept in touch with (or better still join and help) the plans of those taking over from me to widen the debate and home in on the actions needed to deliver constructive change.

May 31, 2019  8:12 PM

Passing the baton on Cybersecurity Skills

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
CompTIA, cybersecurity, DPA, ISACA, Skills

This year will be the first time I visit Infosec with no agenda. Or to be more precise I will have a Community Safety rather than a Cybersecurity Skills Agenda. This has caused me to take a cool look at what has happened and what has not over the past decade. It has also caused me to consider what has changed over the past year as the pace of change has accelerated.

What has changed over the past couple of years

The main change has been the rise of the virtual CISO as all but the very largest users outsource their security operations. Unfortunately most of the providers target the 10,000 or so organisations who employ more than 250 staff. The other 1.5 million, who employ between 2 and 250 staff, are commonly left bereft of meaningful support, whether or not they are willing to pay. The Digital Policy Alliance recently held a meeting on the role of Cyber Insurance in setting the standards necessary for a business to be insurable, beginning with an externally assessed version of Cyber Essentials and a support contract. But far too few organisations are addressing this market. And who trains and updates technicians and professionals with the skills necessary? A recent ISSA survey (global but in practice mainly US) identified that training Virtual CISOs and maintaining their skills is a global need. But few employers help maintain the skills of those they have, let alone train new ones.

Who is addressing the skills standards  for Virtual CISOs to support large numbers of SMEs, other than Comptia?

Meanwhile, as the recent  Institute for Apprenticeship standards review identified, pen testing is not enough.

But who, other than ISACA, is looking at the skills standards to do holistic audits of security processes, including for applications which use ever more complex and vulnerable networks of IoT devices? We need to cross fertilise the work on intelligent weapons systems and integrated warfare systems with than on, for example, autonomous vehicles and mobile phones. Hence a new dimension on the way that the US – China electronics “arms race” has over-taken global co-operation.

Both CompTIA and ISACA helped the Cybersecurity Skills pilot, led by Bluescreen IT on the Plymouth University Science Park.

This showed the viability of a local Cybersecurity Skills partnership, using a shared skills incubator to bring together education and training programmes (from schools to post graduate) in providing work experience running a world class security operations centre with globally recognised qualifications as part of the apprenticeship programmes. The centre is coming up for its second anniversary. In February Bluescreen IT received funding from DCMS  to package its methodology for harnessing the skills of “over inquisitive” teenagers to enable others to replicate that success . Perhaps more important is that it has demonstrated the viability of an unsubsidised shared skills incubator providing virtual CISO services to the local community at affordable prices. Put this model alongside COMPTIA Cyber Ready and the growing market for boot camps and apprenticeships and there is the potential to transform the supply of the skills to secure the 99% of British businesses (employing half the private sector workforce) whose needs are left out of the current mainstream cybersecurity skills strategy. The 99% are not greatly helped by a central government strategy which subordinates their needs to those of GCHQ and MoD for cyberwarriors and of major consultancies to secure those businesses large enough to afford their fees. But we now have a viable alternative way forward.

This therefore seemed to be a good time to for me to retire (for the fourth time). On the morning of May 8th I met the team at the Open University who have taken over from me in co-ordinating the work of the Digital Policy Alliance skills group . The group’s portfolio includes the Cybersecurity Skills partnership. I very much hope that one result will be the replication of that approach wherever the Open University has a sufficient footprint. E-mail DPA  for details.

My new role brings a new perspective

My new role, as an independent member of the Lambeth Safer Neighbourhood Board, “convening” a pilot Community Safety Partnership, has given me a rather different perspective of the need. The closure of the last bank in West Norwood (population 34,000 and several hundred businesses) has brought home how little the banks, for example, appreciate that as they close branches (rural or urban) they are opening their customers, including small businesses and pensioners (who control half the nation’s disposable wealth) up to on-line fraud [herding the sheep on-line to be fleeced].

The latter need a human, not a help desk, to get them get back on-line. Meanwhile local law enforcement needs a lot more than a couple of skilled investigators per force. Hence the need for many more police forces to exploit the changes made in 2011 to enable security professionals to become police service volunteers, whether warranted as special constables or not.

Meanwhile the failure of major players to act on evidence of criminal abuse using their social media and on-line marketing networks, means that a growing proportion of society (particularly those whose children, elderly relatives or vulnerable neighbours have been victimised) strongly supports holding them to account in ways that may, or may not, be rational – but will certainly destroy shareholder value.

I therefore intend to remain active in campaigning for effective change to meet the needs of users, while leaving those younger than me to do the heavy lifting of making it happen in ways that enable responsible suppliers to develop more sustainable and ethical business models.

Time has, however, run out.

Trust in the cyber security industry has been eroded by the failure to remove decades old vulnerabilities because they are still being used in the three track (AI, Big Data and Cyber) and three way (United States, China and Organised Crime) arms race.  There are, of course, other players but result leaves the rest of us (from children and vulnerable adults through SMEs to big business and the critical national infrastructure) unnecessarily open to on-line abuse, attack, fraud and harm.

The focus on “awareness”, without credible action plans, is increasingly counterproductive.

Back in 2008  I had the task of doing the warm up act for Lord Errol as opening speaker for an event on the use of encryption to better secure the on-line world . The fashion of the day was for Privacy Enhancing Technologies. I referred to the industry promoting e-immodium (when the need was to identify the causes of data diarrhoea) and PETS (privacy enhancing technologies) when the need was for bloodhounds and wolf packs to hunt down those causing the mayhem.

Having failed to secure action it is time to pass the baton to those who I hope will do rather better.

But the world is changing.

On the afternoon of May 8th I attended the third annual Global Cybersecurity Alliance  briefing in the Mansion House. I am a big fan of their approach, using the proceeds of crime to remove common vulnerabilities. We learned, inter alia, of their new small firms tool kit  to help the 99% improve their security. We also had a very interesting briefing on how Intel has carried its end-point security offerings to the next level  . What a pity our Computer Science and engineering graduates are still not routinely educated to use the hardware security facilities that have been embedded in most common chip sets for over twenty years. One might even call it criminal negligence – akin to the attitudes of those who place adult rights to privacy above children’s rights to be protected and block the use of anonymised age checking.

Afterwards I learned of Cybersmart  which automates the process of compliance with Cyber Essentials. On May 9th I sat in on a global webinar with the President of ISSA on their latest survey on cybersecurity skills and careers. One of the key priorities of respondents was the need for access to training to keep up with the tools now available to remove vulnerabilities, automate response and dramatically improve security. This is particularly so since many more businesses, especially in the US, are now protected by a virtual CISO than have one in-house.

Or is it?

That week I read the Europol press cover  for the latest success of an NCTFA  led international investigation. We had press cover for the discovery of one of the tools  used by intelligence agencies (and others) to spy on supposedly secure social media communications. We had a bout of publicity for the vulnerability of the submarine cables that carry the Internet . I first blogged on this in 2008  . Readers should, however, be aware that their local internet connection is more vulnerable and that regulatory pressures for duct sharing with BT mean it will remain so.

City centres and business parks need multiple routing to meet critical infrastructure standards. Building these will run into the construction skills shortages that I highlighted at the end of last year. I am pleased to say the DPA sub group created in February to address the problem is now under way, chaired by the CEO of the Highways Electrical Association, and has identified the points of leverage that need to be addressed. I plan to blog separately on this, which is also part of the skills partnerships portfolio for the main DPA Skills Group.

Meanwhile Ofcom is talking about setting up a group to forecast future trends so that it can regulate them. This is the very approach that was rejected when its predecessor, Oftel, was created – because it would constrain the future. Instead Ofcom should be looking at how to handle the long overdue job of regulating telecoms as a critical infrastructure utility – with multiple inter-operable routings and mutual hot standby between competitors, maintained by technicians whose competence is individually accredited.

Time to move on

Anyway time for me to move on and leave it to others to make the on-line world a safer, more secure and resilient place as I spend more time off-line – where life is safer … or is it?

The whole of society increasingly depends on the industry living up to customer expectations, not best efforts and blame avoidance. I therefore have a vested interest in ensuring that the next generation make less of hash of skills policy that the current one.

May 29, 2019  12:22 PM

IT in the Tory Candidates’ Manifestos

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Broadband, Leadership

I added a comment on Dominic Rabb’s inclusion of degree apprenticeships in his call for Fairness and Choice to my recent blog on the IfA apprenticeship review.  In his opening campaign letter Rory Stewart call for “the vocational training and apprenticeships that equip people for the jobs of an ever-changing economy”.  He is also “enraged that our broadband speeds in the UK are slower than Madagascar”. Back in 2010 Computer Weekly reported on the event organised by Rory Stewart that led to the BDUK programme. Rory’s Reivers are still showing the rest of the UK how local enterprise can build better, as well as far cheaper, than Central Government or the incumbent.

Shortly after he was elected Kit Malthouse chaired  “Towards a post Brexit Strategy for Gigabit Britain – Building the infrastructure for a Smart Society” at the Conservative party Conference in 2016. That was the conference at which Matt Hancock, having read his way in at DCMS, came down firmly, at a series of meetings, in favour of full fibre – to the surprise and consternation of many lobbyists.

I will update and extend this blog as other candidates raise IT issues in their battles for the votes of first their fellow MPs and then the party faithful.

Their fellow MPs are a sophisticated (to use the polite term) electorate and will be looking to some-one who can not only deliver Brexit (whatever that means) but can rebuild an election winning party around issues that matter to voters in their own constituencies.

Their comments on matters IT, and responses to questions on matters IT, will therefore reflect what they think are the priorities of the future.

Given that the forthcoming NSPCC report on a world-wide review of “On-line Harms” will be launched between two of the main “hustings” meetings I will be interested to see how they reconcile the need to expedite effective action on child safety with improving the protection of personal privacy

May 25, 2019  5:16 PM

5/10 for the IfA Digital Apprenticeships Standards Review

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Apprenticeship, CompTIA, Skills

The Statutory Review of the Digital Apprenticeship standards  inherited by the Institute for Apprenticeships answers less than half the question. Much of the question (e.g. allowable costs) is outside its remit and the resources available for the review were limited. A low score should, therefore, not be unexpected but the conclusion that IT Support skills are be covered elsewhere was surprising, to say the least.

An Insiders’ Review

The inputs to the review were limited to those employers, apprentice and training providers with “direct experience of the apprenticeship standards”. Those unable to make the standards process work, not interested in the standards agreed or unable to participate for other reasons were not asked to comment. The positive responses:

  • 85% of apprentices said the apprenticeship met their expectations.
  • 95% of respondents said the title of the standard reflected the content.

from those involved were therefore to be expected.

However, “41% of respondents (employers and training providers) encountered difficulties training apprentices”. Unfortunately these are not described in any detail.
89% of respondents said that off the job training on the standards was between 20% and 39%. Those with experience of mainstream industry training programmes would regard this as surprising high for programmes expected to last more than year. The use of supervised, hands-on blended learning, home study modules, interspersed with the occasional group workshop or residential modules means 5% or less would be more common. Such a training programme would not qualify as an apprenticeship for levy purposes. Meanwhile employers with large numbers to train to common standards appear to prefer 10 – 12 week digital boot camps to 12 – 18 month digital apprenticeships, even though the latter can be offset against the apprenticeship levy.

The review looks at a subset of the market. Great care should be taken in extrapolating the results

Sensible updates mixed with unrealistic ambitions

Most, but not all (see below) of the recommendations as to which the inherited standards should be retained and revised and which should be withdrawn, with “some of the content incorporated into revised standards, broadening and enhancing the content” are uncontroversial. The plans to align apprenticeships, T levels and Level 4 and 5 qualifications with common occupational maps are welcome.. So too are plans to link reviews of Level 3 standards and content.

But the idea that the IfA map will cover “the whole of technical education” is over ambitious. The standards for which the IfA has responsibility cover but a subset of the English subset of a digital education market in which most of the standards recognised by industry are international. The IfA is right to focus its efforts on establishing a reputation for quality and relevance but this will not be helped by over ambition as to what it can achieve by itself. It needs to partner with reputable players, local, national or global.

Specific Comments

  • “Digital and Technology Solutions Professional (Level 6): will be retained on the basis that each of the individual options are reviewed in detail to ensure they each meet the requirements of an occupation.”

Each of the “occupations” cross boundaries and overlap with technologies and applications which are evolving at an accelerating rate. Reviewing the cross disciplinary intellectual frameworks necessary to cope with change is more important than the reviewing transient detail. That will entail looking at how those running industry and commercial certification and accreditation programme handle the pace of change. When the IfA was created I attended a meeting (organised at the request of the Minister) at which members of Digital Policy Alliance Skills Group offered to brief IfA staff on the processes they used to keep abreast of change. At the time there were no staff in post to brief. Perhaps the time has come for the IfA to take up that offer.

  • IS Business Analyst (Level 4) will be revised and broadened in scope to become Digital Product Analyst/Digital Business Analyst (Level 4). The occupation should apply to a broader range of sectors rather than just Information Systems to better serve the needs of employers.”

This is particularly important given that there is no separate standard for “systems engineering” where the “system” is an evolving mix of networked hardware, software and wetware (people processes) with shifting boundaries between the three. Thus the AI-based “system” may be hardware (inference  and authentication  chips) and software in support of people processes (because complete autonomy without human oversight is uninsurable).

Including systems engineering in “Digital Network and Infrastructure Engineer” implies a narrow definition of the range of roles where the disciplines and techniques are required. I speak as one who was trained in the in the 1970s before systems engineering became confused with digital systems engineering.

The problem with removing knowledge units and mandatory qualifications as opposed to the need for robust, rapid and efficient change processes

The report identifies the problems with using “knowledge units” from existing qualifications to enable “future proofing” by building on the review and update processes of those maintaining them. However, requiring the “trailblazer groups” to “bring all relevant information into a standard as they are redeveloped” gives them a difficult choice. Do they attempt to bring the update processes in-house (a massive task) or to negotiate compromises which have the support of those for whom enabling their trainees to acquire the skills currently recognised by their suppliers, customers and peers is more important than recovering their levy. The latter will be essential for the digital apprenticeship market to achieve its potential.

Digital (both information and control systems) is not, however, the only skills market dominated by requirements for internationally recognised qualifications, some generic but many vendor maintained (e.g. to install, use and maintain specific product ranges). Aerospace, automotive and critical infrastructure utilities and many branches of engineering have similar needs.
The solution to the problem of maintaining lists of relevant qualifications coving “the full range of software and approaches required for full occupational competence” is not to wish this onto the existing trailblazer groups. It is to allow them to work with the qualifications bodies, professional bodies, trade associations and training providers who are already in the process of developing semi-automated, networked, routines, linked to on-line libraries of course planning, content and assessment materials. The IfA should look at the potential for working with those seeking to create a neutral “hub“ for such routines in order to transform the position of the UK as market-leader.

This happens to be one of the projects I have just passed to the team at the Open University which has taken over from me in running the DPA Skills Group https://dpalliance.org.uk/about-21st-century-skills-group/. The aim is to package and publicise the existing inter-operability and exchange processes of JISC, the Grids for Learning, the various STEM, Coding and Content initiatives and the main global content libraries. It could also be used to provide a much more practical solution than that proposed.

Supporting Small Businesses

The basic idea of meeting the needs of small businesses, whether suppliers or users, by directly involving sample SMEs in setting digital standards is impractical. According to the ONS Business Survey 2018  there are

  • 7, 500 employers with more than 250 staff, i.e. large enough to have the in-house expertise to help specify training needs.
  • 35,000 with between 50 and 249 employees i.e. large enough to employ more than a handful of apprentices.
  • 210,000 with between 10 and 49 (who might employ one or two)
  • 1,1 million with 1 to 9.
  • 4 million sole traders

Meaningful inputs on the needs of all but the top 7,500 employers will only come via the relevant trade associations or professional bodies.

The decision to require the IfA to work direct with employers, cutting out intermediaries (like the sector skills councils), without providing the necessary resources and budgets, means the standards processes are unable to reflect the needs of over 95% of employers and half the workforce. To remedy the situation it has to allow the trailblazer standards groups to re-create processes for working with those intermediaries who genuinely represent the collective needs of their members, the 1.3 million SMEs who collectively employ as many as the top 7,500.

The good news is that we can see that happening with former “intermediaries” providing the secretariat for many of the more effective standards. But the lack of such input to the review process may explain the most puzzling recommendation in the report: that to remove ”IT Support, as the occupation was judged to be covered elsewhere”. Apart from suppliers of IT products, services and support, only 7,500 businesses are likely to have more than one or two full time digital technicians or professionals. The other 1.3 million are reliant on external support. Hence the reason for qualifications like those from COMPTIA  (a not for profit trade association created to provide vendor neutral training for the employees of the IT support market).

There is a need to explain where “elsewhere” is – since it covers most of the digital skills market. .

Promoting Diversity

Changing the language in job adverts can be surprisingly effective but there is also a need to address the academic or other pre-requisites for apprenticeship programmes. Many of these merely serve to filter out those excluded from mainstream education for reasons not relevant to their employability. The bigger issue with promoting diversity is, however, allowable costs – including for socially inclusive recruitment and pastoral care for vulnerable apprentices in SMEs with no in-house processes. This is outside the scope of the review.

Establishing principles for future approval

Most of these look sensible, albeit THEY ARE much harder to implement than to agree.

One of the hardest is: “Naming conventions – occupational standards should adhere to consistent naming conventions across the Digital Route to promote consistency and understanding”. It reads well and similar phrases are repeated regularly in report on skills and professionalism.

Over the fifty years since I became a graduate apprentice programmer (before there were computer science courses) I have seen countless attempts to produce common taxonomies. None achieved traction.

There is, however, an alternative way of achieving the objective.

In the 1980s I ran the NCC Microsystems Centre (the flagship awareness programme of the day). We needed a taxonomy for indexing our monthly-updated “Directories on Disc”, covering the hardware, software and training on the UK market. We used what would now be called AI to help collate those already available. We quickly determined that many definitions overlapped and rarely matched the claims of the suppliers. We decided to instead embed a synonym finder. This was also updated monthly with the aid of the journalists and product reviewers for whom we held open house after I scrapped the PR budget. The result turned the Directories into a must-have industry index and turned round the finances of the operation.

The situation with digital definitions (whether of hardware or software techniques, products and services or the skills to develop and use them) has become even muddier over the decades since.

None of the many subsequent attempts to produce skills taxonomies has been successful outside specialist areas where certificates to practice are mandatory or big budgets (as with some of the US DoD contracts for NIST) are available. That has not stopped players (UK, EU or US) from trying, whenever they can find a sponsor with deep enough pockets. Einstein’s supposed definition of madness  is apposite . A synonym finder updated by those who want to use the results for their own purposes is much easier and more useful, especially if it has on-line cross references to the work of others.

The reference to the cross-cutting nature of digital skills and the “Essential Digital Skills Framework” is apposite but that framework is itself overdue for review. The reference to “Handling information and content” needs to include reference to recording and/or checking the provenance of the information. Security for that which is false or misleading, not just misleading, is not enough. This is commonly omitted. The consequent risks are profound. When I did my “digital apprenticeship” in 1968/9 it was core part of my training, alongside the GIGO (“garbage in = garbage out”) principle. I had to find out when, where and how the data was collected and the motivation (if any) of the staff collecting it, correcting it and entering it to the system.

Occupational Maps and the removal of the IT Support path

The removal of “IT Support” without alternative pathways will severely limit the relevance of digital apprenticeships to those who support the 99% of businesses with no full-time digital expertise. One can understand the reasoning that led that conclusion only in the context of confining the review to those who have been able to make the current standards system work. But the consequences it makes my headline score of 5/10 appear generous in the eyes of those whose needs are left out.

In the 1980s the NCC Threshold Programme, the Microsystems Centres and ITECs provided apprenticeship-like programmes and hands-on skills incubators to train tens of thousands of support technicians (with City Guilds 726 providing the framework for customisation to meet the needs of clusters of employers). But their success in putting socially excluded teenagers into well-paid jobs threatened the status of academic computing. Funding and support was diverted into “computer literacy” programmes (to feed students onto the academic courses). The UK supply of digital support technician skills imploded (save for the Millennium Bugbusters programme) until the Americans came to the rescue with vendor neutral programmes (like those of COMPTIA) to complement the vendor Academy programmes (like those of CISCO and Microsoft).

The success of local skills incubators in organising digital and engineering apprenticeships (and other training programmes) to meet the needs of geographic clusters shows what can be achieved. But it appears that those conducting this review decided, possibly correctly, that they have neither the resources nor terms of reference to provide digital support apprenticeship frameworks for use by the Borchester  or Causton  skills incubators or to help the digital supply chain copy the approach of the Builders Merchants. The latter have apparently organised a network of 200 local training agents to handle the organisation of apprenticeships on behalf of those in the supply chains of their 800 members.

Future Statutory Reviews

The report tells us what we can expect from future reviews. They will “again start with the content of the occupational standard” but “will have an enhanced focus on the quality of each EPA [end point assessment]. They will also “ benefit from even more targeted communications and engagement activity with employers, apprentices, provides and other stakeholders such as EPAOs [end point assessment organisations].

In others words they will again be conducted by those who stayed the trailblazer course and have been able to make the existing system work to meet their needs.
It is unclear how “public” the future consultations on “Occupational Maps” for other sectors will be but it is well worth looking at the IfA Occupational Map for Digital
and comparing this with the maps produced by the various professional bodies, trade associations, training providers and advice services trying to attract people into digital careers


I have awarded half marks because the report covers only half the question. It addresses the concerns of those who have been able to make the standards system work. It does not address the concerns of those who have not. And there are far more of the latter.

Given the resources available to the IfA for this review it might be unreasonable to expect more. But if the Government wants to use a successful start to rebuilding the UK apprenticeship system as part of its platform for the next General Election (whenever that comes) it will need to provide the IfA with the resources and terms of reference to ask, and answer, the whole question.

Comments received:

Jon Hall (Open University) has commented as below

  1. Digital and Technology Solutions Professional (Level 6): will be retained on the basis that each of the individual options are reviewed in detail to ensure they each meet the requirements of an occupation. occupation as opposed to a profession?

The choice of words is revealing: occupation applies to the practitioner as part of a profession, perhaps, but what is an apprenticeship if not the expression of the sustainability of the profession over the individual? Are we to assume that the correct criteria for review are those of the individual, in that case? If so, what hope for those critical skills a degree teaches?

2. Future proofing

This isn’t necessarily achieved by removing anything from a syllabus, but from thinking more carefully about its conceptual core, something that universities (should be) good at, but that trainers can miss. From that conceptual core come the notions of, what I call, a ‘sand topic: something that moves (sand dunes drift) but sufficiently slowly as to be captured in a long term syllabus, and a ’sky’ topic which, like the clouds, moves too fast to capture once and for all. Trainers do the latter better than universities under the traditional models of both, but some unis, including mine, have techniques for keeping up with the leading edge and providing self-updating skills at the same time.

3. Promoting diversity

You’re right, of course. The work of Rachel Acraft is also pertinent (thesis available on demand from me) in which she identified the ‘drama’ model of computing: (paraphrasing) we need set designers, musicians, lighting engineers, producers, directors and myriad others to have something of dramatic value, not just authors. Producing a solution with computation embedded is similarly team based, requiring skills from all over the place. So diversity or role provides for a broader skill base. Digital apprenticeships mould recognise this sort of diversity too.

It has also been pointed out to that the first video manifesto for a Conservative party leadership candidate uses degree-linked apprenticeships as an example of “Fairness” and “Choice”. At least three of the other declared candidates are know to be strong supporters of apprenticeships. Will they also use them as a plank in their campaigns?

May 10, 2019  1:48 PM

Brexit: golden rules and taboo questions

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, fake news

The Brexit debate sees the endless repetition of mendacious claims, meaningless slogans and fake news. But key questions appear off limits – because no-one wants to discuss the possible answers.  They reveal that what is a stake is not a simple matter of “in” or “out”. It is what is allowed to happen afterwards – and who really wants what.

Now that the manifestos of the European Reform parties in other members states have been published can we begin to read some of the arguments that no one wants us to hear.

I therefore feel a need to throw a rock into the stinky pool to see what emerges.

But first the Golden Rules for interpreting the answers.

  1. Nothing is quite what it seems.
  2. Everyone has a vested interest, alias valid point of view and they all have good reasons for them.
  3. Those accusing others of ignorance or stupidity should take a look in the mirror and then think a little harder.

Please bear these rules in mind when asking taboo questions and listening to the answers.

I summarise my top three below, I also summarise some of the answers. I would very much wish to hear yours.

1 What is the difference between “the” Customs Union, “a” Customs Union and Swiss style frictionless borders?

  • “The” Customs Union means that US multinationals can continue to pay VAT and Corporation Tax on UK earnings in Dublin or Luxembourg.
  • “A” Customs Union means that US multinationals may be able to continue to pay VAT and Corporation Tax on UK earnings in Dublin or Luxembourg.
  • Swiss style frictionless borders mean VAT and Corporation Tax on domestic earnings are collected (and retained) locally while goods from, for example, Italy can transit a non-member to France (and vice versa) with no need to stop. Pre-cleared Swiss imports and exports can transit equally rapidly. The TIR processes predate the EU and are international. The Mayor of Calais (which stands to lose most from border delays, Calais also owns the port of Dover) has promised equally rapid processes. The risk is that he may have problems with striking customs officials (fearful for their jobs) or fisherman (if they are not squared after Brexit).

2 What is the Irish Backstop?

The Irish backstop is  a McGuffin . The aim is to delay decisions that could lead, inter alia, to a 10% (or more) cut in the budget for running the Commission before the current incumbents have left.  Such a cut could necessitate halting sessions of the European parliament in Strasbourg. This is already being called for by reform candidates in other member states.  It would be a severe embarrassment to President Macron – but not to anyone else.

3 What difference would No Deal and reverting to WTO rules make?

It depends which rules you invoke:

  • A two year period of no change while agreement is reached?
  • No change until agreement is reached?
  • Independent arbitration (various formulae) when agreement cannot be reached?

None of these is the nirvana or the existential threat claimed – according to which side you are on. All, however, end the ability of the EU (or EU Court) to impose a solution in the event of dispute. They also end the potential for imposing changes that have not been agreed by the UK.

So what other questions do you think need to be asked? 

Having spent twenty five years of my life trying to make a reality of the mythical digital single market, with its tangle of geographic software and content licenses and differential pricing, I can think of plenty more questions. Then there are questions about the various “licence to practice” barriers to the free movement of professional and technical staff – except when they are in short supply and will not undercut the natives. The depressed after-tax earnings of freelance IT staff in the UK should, of course, be blamed on IR35 and Tier 2 visas for non-EU immigrants. The EU has had little impact. It has its own shortages and many of our freelances have done better by working in, for example, Germany.


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