Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 9

Memorandum from LASSeO

1.  BACKGROUND

  LASSeO, the Local Authority Smartcard Standards e-Organisation, was created in March 2002 from interested local authorities and partnerships, at the suggestion of the ALCO partnership, to assist the local authority sector by reducing the risks caused by a lack of agreed standards for the public sector.

  LASSeO, as its name implies, is concerned with doing this by selecting or developing standards and specifications for the public sector. The organisation's mission is to ensure that the full potential of smartcards is harnessed in the delivery of local authority electronic services for the benefit of UK citizens, by defining and monitoring interoperability standards and frameworks across platforms, issuers, local services, and environments.

  LASSeO acts as a smartcard standards body for local government and has excellent links with industry and other standards bodies. As such it is well positioned to be aware of any external contact from the Home Office National ID project.

  Like other players outside central Government, we find the whole process highly opaque. We have no direct knowledge of the existence of Chief Scientific Advisors let alone their impact on the Policy making process. Our industry links lead us to believe that levels of skill in this technology are low within government circles.

  Throughout the comments below we are assuming that the term Scientific Advisers includes responsibility for technology. In general terms (possibly with the exception of biometrics) the science is determined but the technology involved in deploying it is the case in point here.

2.  SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

  As an organisation that aims to support the deployment of smartcards in the public sector, LASSeO is very keen to ensure that whatever arises from the National ID card scheme works well with other public sector card schemes.

  The National ID scheme demands attention from the wider public sector because, if it is implemented well, it could provide a very useful fillip to mass card deployment and could significantly change the authentication landscape. However, if not implemented well, it could put back the status of smartcards many years.

  In the event, the whole science/technology/advice process and its impact on policy have been opaque. As stated below, it is very difficult to discover an accurate and authoritative position on current thinking about what technology will be deployed and how it will be used.

  Presumably the project has been through some kind of gateway process but this remains unclear outside the project. Indeed, the process underway is not known or understood by large parts of the smart card industry and there has been a lack of detailed engagement with some obvious external peer groups. The run-down of the e-GU Smartcard Working Group is a classic case in point. A fairly strong, technically able group that was effectively providing free review of government smartcard activity has been allowed to lapse without any obvious replacement mechanism.

  There now appears to be no external scrutiny of the technology being adopted and the quality of the process could be considerably improved by the establishment of an external peer group review. If carefully chosen and properly funded, this would perform the role of critical friends who could become ambassadors for the technology being used within the project.

3.  THE DETAILED ISSUES ARE ADDRESSED IN TURN BELOW:

3.1  Sources and handling of advice

What impact are departmental Chief Scientific Advisers having on the policy making process?

  We suspect very little—this involvement has not been visible at all to those outside Central Government.

What is the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser in the policy making process and what impact has he made to date?

  Again, this involvement has not been visible at all to those outside Central Government.

Are existing advisory bodies being used in a satisfactory manner?

  LASSeO was initially involved in some early discussions around appropriate standards and had some passing input to e-GU support provided to the project. This effort would have been able to be sustained and the input greater had even limited funding been available.

  As an influential organisation, we receive frequent questions about this project from other forums and local authorities indicating that other usual channels have not been adequately engaged.

Are Government departments establishing the right balance between maintaining an in-house scientific capability and accessing external advice?

  LASSeO believes that there is a general lack of smartcard expertise in central government and, although strenuous efforts seem to have been made, believes that more work is required here. We are not aware of significant attempts to access external advice, outside the initially inexperienced (in smartcard terms) consultancy used within the project.

3.2  Relationship between scientific advice and policy development

What mechanisms are in place to ensure that policies are based on available evidence?

  The e-GU has advised the Home Office on the ID project but its access to available evidence has been limited by the winding-down of the e-GU Smartcard Working group that existed early in the project development.

  This Working Group should have been used as a much needed peer group for external challenge and review but it has been allowed to fall into disuse.

Are departments engaging effectively in horizon scanning activities and how are these influencing policy?

  As suggested above, technology specialists and those in the smartcard industry who might expect to be involved have not been engaged in the project.

  If this activity is being carried out, it is not visible outside government circles.

Is Government managing scientific advice on cross-departmental issues effectively?

  Taking a wider view, the answer is no. Engagement with technology advice on wider cross-public sector issues has been, at best, sporadic.

3.3  Treatment of risk

Is risk being analysed in a consistent and appropriate manner across Government?

  No comment.

Has the precautionary principle been adequately defined and is it being applied consistently and appropriately across Government?

  No comment.

How does the media treatment of risk issues impact on the Government approach?

  The media treatment of risk issues has had an undue impact on the Government approach. The amount of "noise" surrounding the project has made it very difficult to engage with. It is very difficult to establish what detailed plans exist or are being developed, what technologies will be selected, how these technologies will be used, etc. This has been a major factor in the lack of engagement from local government, and some degree of scepticism from technologists outside the project.

3.4  Transparency, communication and public engagement

Is there sufficient transparency in the process by which scientific advice is incorporated into policy development?

  No, the process is very opaque. The ways in which scientific advice is incorporated into policy development remain a mystery to those outside Central Government.

Is publicly-funded research informing policy development being published?

  If this is so, information about the process is not easily accessed.

Is scientific advice being communicated effectively to the public?

  No. It is difficult to distinguish between scientific advice and hype. There is huge difficulty in accessing authoritative, accurate, information, and being sure that it is up to date. The result of this is a confused situation where public understanding of the science and technology is being led by the news media that tend to dwell on some possible outcomes.

3.5  Evaluation and follow-up

Are peer review and other quality assurance mechanisms working well?

  As stated above, peer engagement and review outside central government is not working well, if at all. The lack of external review also makes it difficult to believe that internal quality control mechanisms are being properly applied.

What steps are taken to re-evaluate the evidence base after the implementation of policy?

  See above.

4.  THE AUTHOR

  The author of this response is Chair of the Local Authority Smartcard standards e-Organisation and is an ICT consultant with particular interest in the use of smart cards in the public sector. He is responding on behalf of LASSeO.

February 2006





 
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