Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Humble thoughts on computer systems and implementing the Green Tax agenda 

The government’s hapless record on actually implementing complex IT schemes has a number of lessons for us all – and we need to take these on board as we move into our Green Taxes agenda. Because getting Big Ideas to work is a hard slog with a bad track record.

Here is the warning sign for the implementation of the Software to support the National ID card gamble: much of it will not be rigorously tested before the scheme goes live.

And that is an official government announcement. Professional IT developers (those who are not being paid to produce this software anyway) are rather dismissive of the rationale for this. Silicon-com has the story and some blogging response…

Of course the Government is quite right that it is impossible to foresee every future glitch. And as a well-known djykstraism says:

Program testing can be a very effective way to show the presence of bugs, but is hopelessly inadequate for showing their absence.

But any new system needs a way of learning and adapting to experience and a failsafe structure to limit damage if things go wrong. Failsafe does not mean guaranteed failure proof . It means that if there is a malfunction e the system defaults into the safest state possible compatible with the existence of that malfunction.

With Green Taxes we are promoting a really big idea. We need to accept that big ideas can come up with big and unexpected consequences and try to build really good learning systems into our implementation procedures. A proper response to markets is one such discipline but there may well be need for others. We should be asking questions of ourselves as we push these ideas. Enthusiastic and enquiring humility may be needed so that we learn and where necessary accept the need for changes in our proposals.

Otherwise we may find ourselves on slippery slopes that rather resemble New Labour dogmatisms on ID Cards, the NHS Information Systems, the CSA Computers and the Passport Office uproars. .

To end with another quote from Dijkstra, speaking on the computer

It has already taught us a few lessons, and the one I have chosen to stress in this talk is the following. We shall do a much better programming job, provided that we
approach the task with a full appreciation of its tremendous difficulty,
provided that we stick to modest and elegant programming languages, provided
that we respect the intrinsic limitations of the human mind and approach the task as Very Humble Programmers.

The Green Taxes approach is too important not to be approached with humility.

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