Freesteel Blog » A Home Office email survey gets out of control

A Home Office email survey gets out of control

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 at 7:19 pm Written by:

The Department of “Not fit for Purpose” (aka The Home Office), whose remit is to give foreigners, criminals, and other outcasts a hard time (so it doesn’t affect most of us until they do something superbly foolish like take their universal ID Card system beyond the drawing boards of their unbelievably expensive and corrupt consultants), wants to make improvements to the services they provide.

Apparently, their service isn’t to institute socially damaging and unworkable schemes that responsible politicians would say No to, but are gimmicky enough to spread all over party political rags in order for irresponsible politicians to get elected in their place.

No, their “aim is to provide clear, accurate and prompt responses to your queries”. The message goes on:

In order to make improvements to the service we provide, we need to know what you thought about how we answered your correspondence and what you think we could do better. Please note that we are interested in your views on how we answered your correspondence, not on the actual Home Office policy.

We have designed an online survey that will give us the feedback we need. It should take around 10 minutes to complete and is your chance to influence how the Home Office communicates with you in the future.

You will receive an e-mail from [email address] <mailto:[email address]> within the next 24 hours. This will provide you with a unique ID number and password so that you can complete the survey on-line. You will need to do this by 9 February 2009 so the responses can be collated by FDS International Ltd, an independent research company, who will forward the results to the Home Office for action.

You’ll note that this was posted in duplicate on the site for filing Freedom of Information requests.

The website was put together last year and works by hosting an email discussion in public through a unique email address randomly generated for each request.

I am still sort of unconvinced that this will work in the long run, having seen its flaws exposed by Liverpool City Council where the FOI Officer sometimes picks any old email of yours on the desk and replies to it with an attached Word document a month later, so it can fail to get filed properly.

Anyhow, there are ways round this, like giving all the senders unique middle names (eg Julian Hoola8ed Todd) and extracting those.

In any case, the Home Office must have contracted this FDS International (“guiding business success in a changing world”) who knows a thing or two about animating waterfalls on their front page. I don’t know what that silly little red paper boat is supposed to represent. Is that the Home Office somehow staying upright on the water by luck? I don’t see any “guiding” going on. These little PR details are what the top management really gets excited about, while their underlying technology is more embarrassing than a primary school computer project.

The next message comes as promised, through an alert generated by the considerably more technologically competent mySociety website.

You should have received an email from the Home Office within the last 24
hours inviting you to take part in a short online survey.

We are FDS, an independent market research agency which has been commissioned by the Home Office to carry out the survey. If you have any questions about it, please do not hesitate to contact myself, Brian Westra at FDS on 020 7272 7766.

To begin the survey, please click on the link below.[password]

Your ID and password will be entered automatically. In certain circumstances, you may be asked for your ID and password. They are:- Your ID:- 2177 [password]

I would like to thank you in advance for taking part in this survey. Please
note that the deadline for completion is Monday 9th February 2009.

Why does it need an ID and a Password anyway? And why is mySociety replacing all the passwords with the word “[password]” in the text to stop people having any fun? Perhaps it should not substitute the word “[password]” for the password when it’s me who’s logged in and looking at my own requests!

Luckily, I got into the system before they slipped in that feature between yesterday and today, and took the survey:

Q: Firstly, can we confirm that you did email the Home Office within the last 5 – 6 months?

A: Yes

Q: Did you receive a reply from the Home Office to your email?

A: Yes

Q: Was your email simply a request for a publication, a freedom of information request or a job application form?

A: Yes

Q: In that case, we are sorry to have troubled you. Please disregard this questionnaire.

End of interview. Thank you for your participation.

This raises a number of issues.

Firstly, the Freedom of Information Act is quite clear:

Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled–
(a) to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and
(b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.

And so is the Code of Practice:

All communications in writing to a public authority, including those transmitted by electronic means, may contain or amount to requests for information within the meaning of the Act, and so must be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the Act. While in many cases such requests will be dealt with in the course of normal business, it is essential that public authorities dealing with correspondence, or which otherwise may be required to provide information, have in place procedures for taking decisions at appropriate levels, and ensure that sufficient staff are familiar with the requirements of the Act and the Codes of Practice issued under its provisions.

In other words, the FOI Act enforces standards of response to any request for information, even if you don’t invoke the magic words “Freedom of Information Act 2000”. It’s not possible to single them out.

Secondly, to trawl through all the email lists in the Home Office, and to not know enough to strip out the ones that end in “” for something you want to exclude FOI requests from is astoundingly dumb and an indication of the lack of expertise of these FDS International consultants.

Not that these consultants usually get contracts on the basis of expertise, at least on all the past evidence. Someone with some actual competance would have pointed out that the Home Office ought to have all the information that they need inside the department, if only they were properly organized.

I mean, the FOI Act envisages that a department the size of the Home Office would establish a rigourous computerized system for dealing with and recording the processing stages of incoming emails and letters, rather than just forwarding them around the office in crufted-up and disorganized attachments in Microsoft Outlook. Such a system would look not dissimilar to the system, but might cost twice as much, like, say, £100k.

Unfortunately, in UK government consultant-land £100k wouldn’t even pay for producing a speculative tender proposal, while the actual project has got to cost an order of magnitude more to justify the cost of the proposal, so the correct answer is already ruled out from the beginning.

Such an internal system would save a lot of pain and provide immediate feedback as to how long the letters are taking to answer, and whether anyone is happy with them. In fact, if you needed to, why not file out a feedback email to 1 in 100 correspondents at random at the time, not from some bogus market research agency six months later who imagines that it is reasonable and sane to separate people’s views on Home Office policy from how they answered the correspondence. It’s like asking me how well I appreciated the quality of paper, typography, and embossed Queen’s crest at the head of my warrant for arrest.

But who asks the question: What’s marketing to do with the government business in the first place? Our interaction with their core business is not voluntary, so there’s no need to systematically lie to usadvertise at us to fool us into buying from their business, rather than, say, the competition from who we can alternatively get our passports.

But we can go a little deeper.

Do you want a job with FDS International? Well, this marketing company has the barest blank on-line application form in the business. Obviously, the pre-computer literate Managing Director doesn’t see this part of their web-presence, like she sees the front page waterfall, so it doesn’t get a make-over. How about telling us what types of jobs are available at your company so people can apply to them not-blind?

Some people would think you really could do with some web-programming skills in the office, given the quality of the product. But they’d be wrong, because you’re only offering industry standard SPSS Dimensions mrInterview crap web software and probably can’t do and won’t do it yourself. After all, success comes from sales and networking; no one is interesting in technical curiosity and excellence. You buy that in like you buy cardboard-encased Brakes Bros frozen dinners into ye olde worlde country pub. No one cares about home cooked food any more if they want to make money.

FDS International appears in the Hansard records a few times. For example, this written answer and this written answer differ by one column, and we learn that the Department for Communities and Local Government contracts FDS International from 12 May 2008 to 30 February 2008 (apparently for 5 months!) for £47,303 under the “Fire Protection” programme. (Don’t ask.)

FDS International also did a Comparisat benchmark survey, according to the Home Secretary, which found that the UK Passport Service was number one for customer satisfaction.

That’s how you market yourself. By complimenting them!

(Page down one screen to see a late comment from Chris Lightfoot.)

Not surprisingly, if you believe you have a quality brand, like the passport service, any marketing consultant will tell you that you can repackage your low-grade toxic horseshit under that brand and sell it at a profit. I give you Identity and Passport Service: Identity Service Proposition – A joint venture with the Criminal Records Bureau, prepared by FDS International:

The trial was held over nine dates in June, following a pilot exercise in May. Participants were volunteers who were mainly members of Registered Bodies and most had previous experiences of going through the current CRB process.

Having agreed to take part in the trial, participants attended one of nine venues and:
* proceeded through a trial of the short-term process based on the UK passport, then
* went through a trial of the long-term process based on the ID Card.

Like the questionnairre about responses from the Home Office, the marketeers feel it is legitimate to separate the enjoyability of the process from the underlying policy and purpose. From that document:

At the end of the interview about the short-term process, and before going through the second, ID Card-linked process, participants were asked their opinion in general of the ID Card scheme. The timing of this question (at the end of the feedback interview about the first process, but before going through the second process) meant that their later views about the CRB ID Card-linked process could be examined in the context of their overall opinions about ID Cards.

The main value of this question was as a check to see if negative reactions to the process linked to the ID Card correlated with negative views of the ID Cards in general.

In fact, the majority (65%) are supportive of the ID Card scheme, with only 10% not supportive.

Older participants were more likely than younger ones to be very supportive with 74% of the over 50s scoring 4 or 5, compared with 50% of the under 40s.

Overall, reaction to the two new potential services was overwhelmingly positive. The short-term Passport-linked service is considered a major improvement on the current process, for its speed, efficiency and simplicity.

The longer-term ID-linked process is rated even more highly and is thought to be much more robust than the existing process.

These research results represent a very strong endorsement of both these new potential services.

I went back to their crappy on-line survey, ticked No for the question “Was your email an FOI request?”, and filled it in. It’s tediously not interesting and not worth repeating here.

I made an FOI request as well:

I have reason to believe that the Home Office has contracted the independent research company FDS International Ltd who is now conducting a Customer Satisfaction Survey online through email.

I have searched for information about this company and its relationship on the Home Office website and can’t find any information.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 please can I have a copy of:

* The OJEU tender procurement documents, as well as details of the successful application submitted by FDS International, pursuant to this contract (if its value was above the £100k threshold making it liable to this procedure)

* The contract signed between the Home Office and FDS International for conducting this survey, including all details of its value.

* A record of what personal information (for example, email addresses) has been transferred from the Home Office to FDS International for its use in satisfying the contract, and under what privacy terms.

Further in my web-searching I found this posting on seenoevil from March 2006:

Dear Sir/Madam,

The Home Office is trying to improve the service it provides… We have designed a survey so that we obtain the feedback we need without taking up too much of your time… You will receive an e-mail from within the next 24 hours. This will provide you with a unique ID number and password so that you can complete the survey on-line. You will need to do this by 20 March so the responses can be collated by FDS International Ltd, an independent research company, who will forward the results to the Home Office for action.

So this is just money for old rope, and at least shows the value of recording on the internet any old cruft that comes out of the government.

The fundamental category error being made by the political elite which is causing such dreadful misgovernance is to think that it can be made to all work like a marketing gimmick. It’s true, elections can be made to work that way. If you sell more of your crappy product on the right day (election day) than your competitors, then you win the power.

The legitimacy of elections then means that those of us who disagree are supposed to put up and shut up, because we lost, and are therefore wrong.

But policies like ID Cards don’t work like that. It’s not enough to kid an overwhelming majority of people to buy into this horseshit. You need legitimacy. All it takes is for one obstinate granny to make a stand against it, having been aware of the crimes that governments have a long history of committing (systematic violence, theft, and the protection of unearned wealth) when good people let them get away with it, and for the police to haul her out into the mobile Identity Station van parked on the street to get her eyes scanned, and all that marketing effort to pursuade the public how sweet and friendly this system is will come unstuck like a lose scab. The crisis management consultants will then be on the line because their number is auto-dialed into the emergency switchboard at the Ministry.

I’ve not seen any recognition of this old political story-plot in any ID Card promoting document, even though it’s utterly predictable, and will happen. What do they care? Once enough rubbishy marketing consultants are in place, they efficiently drive away anyone with another story to spin until the whole Office is 100% crap. Money and time doesn’t only get wasted, it gets only wasted. Nothing of any good to compare it to can be permitted to exist.

A wise politician will make sure that the ID Card system remains always under construction, and never gets built. Consultants happy, because they’ve got the money for nothing. Labour Party elected politicians happy, because they can use it to bust politicians who are more responsible than themselves and are against it. And the marketing men and women can carry on dreaming that the UK Passport Service is a business which sells us passports, while ignoring the fact that they invented the requirement for this document in the very first place.

The ID Cards are like passports, except they’ll be required to get a job or visit the library. For the next few years they’re only required as a license to have been born in another country. For some reason, that otherwise untraceable historical incident beyond your control means you don’t belong here and can piss off if you don’t like it.

Here’s a public service youtube by the Home Office. Enjoy.

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