Saturday, January 06, 2007

Data Later

The director general of the Prison Service has admitted that he does not know exactly how many inmates are on the run from open jails.

Phil Wheatley said there was not an accurate system in place to count the numbers recaptured after absconding from such institutions.

Classed as Category D, open prisons have a more relaxed security regime.

Almost 700 offenders absconded in the year to last April from England's 15 open prisons, Mr Wheatley estimated.

Mr Wheatley said he was "embarrassed" to admit he was unable to provide an accurate figure because there is no central database for recording numbers of recaptured prisoners.

This BBC report of ludicrous incompetence illustrates one of the symptoms of Whitehall's impotence when it comes to IT. Why is it always imagined that tracking anything requires a "central database"? A hundred years ago at the Edwardian apotheosis of the British Empire there were no central databases of anything, yet the enterprise managed to keep ticking along.

Organisational issues can't be solved by mandating a huge central bucket into which all data is thrown. If someone in the Prison Service can't answer the absconding lag question with a pencil, a notebook and a telephone then the problem lies with people and procedures not computers.

In civil service culture, a computer system is either a deus ex machina that will solve all our problems in future, or a convenient scapegoat for any day to day difficulty that arises.

See also the Bichard Inquiry and the IMPACT project.

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