The scene is the office of Sir David Normington KCB, Permanent Secretary at the Home office. It is 11 a.m., Monday 28 December 2009, and even though it is only a few days after Christmas no less than seven private secretaries are beavering away at their desks in Sir Davids office, answering telephones, passing messages to him which he responds to in a whisper, while he signs letters and corrects memos all the while. He is sipping from a glass of water when one of the main doors opens and his major-domo announces "James Hall, Chief Executive, Identity & Passport Service, Registrar General of England and Wales, Director General of Identity Services".
As Hall makes his way warily across the expanse of carpet from the door to the bosss desk, Sir David eyes him inscrutably
dn: James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree, thank you so much for interrupting your Christmas break and agreeing to come in to see me, how went the festivities?
jh: Yes, Sir David, I am slightly surprised to be here, my wife and I were hoping to go out for a walk this afternoon but the driver didnt seem to want to wait. Um Um The festivities went very well, thank you, we had just the immediate family with us, very pleasant, as a matter of fact Mrs Hall and I did a little audit, balance sheet of contentment definitely in surplus, and the results of our focus group among those present suggested er er that this Yuletide was probably in the upper quartile with the majority of responses solidly in the "quite satisfactory" category
dn: Good, good, delighted to hear it, marvellous news I wanted to have a little chat with you about this interview you rather surprisingly gave to Dave Birch. How do you feel it went?
jh: Went? How do you mean?
dn: Well, no-one gives an interview unless they want to achieve something, what were your objectives and do you feel that you achieved them?
jh: Um Um Mr Birch is quite an aggressive interviewer, of course, he kept rushing me and interrupting me and he had a list of searingly difficult questions but, on the whole, er er er , I was very pleased with my performance. I managed to maintain the departmental line
dn: Pretty much what I wanted to talk to you about, actually, James James Morrison Morrison, you see, you managed to suggest that the National Identity Service is just a speculative development, toss in £5 billion of seed capital and maybe see if the banks or anybody might show a little interest, never mind if they dont, take it or leave it, it doesnt really matter. And at the end of the day thats as it happens not quite the departmental line.
jh: Oh, um , I thought that in the 3.25 years since Ive been in charge,
dn: Quite. Quite. Thats another issue. You have had three-point-two-five years in charge, during which you have enjoyed unlimited funds, and questions are starting to be asked what there is to show for it ... what do IPS do all day? The Manchester launch really didnt go terribly well, did it. Someone seems to have omitted to inform the travel operators that there is a new passport on the prowl. And not just the travel operators. Entire countries seem to have been taken by surprise.
jh: Certainly, we do have to beef up our marketing effort a little, Sir David, but
dn: James, you have a marketing director, you have an in-house account manager, you have two of the biggest agencies in the country working for you and you have the unreserved support of the Central Office of Information. Its hard to see, frankly, how much more the marketing effort could be beefed up.
jh: Its not as simple as that Sir Sir Sir David, these things need to be assessed against the framework agreement
dn: the framework agreement of which, I note, we are currently on version 17 of release 3 and still no end in sight. Your office produces an impressive stream of framework agreements but theres something missing, Hall, a national identity register, for example, not to mention a national network of functioning offices capable of registering 60 million people. Do you need more help? If so, what?
jh: Thank you for asking that, Sir, the consultants tell me that I am working them to the bone, there are limits to just how much they can get done during the day. We need more consultants and more public consultation. No clear message is coming through yet from the public as to what it is they want from the National Identity Service. And all the time, there is the constant pressure, the take take take, from one department after another, all demanding to know er er things and, actually, I dont think we should rush this roll-out, we need to take an incremental approach
dn: So, youre going to cancel the 4 January London launch, are you? In the circumstances, a very wise decision of yours, if I may say so. Ive been having a word with some of your chaps at IPS, and chapesses, and the general feeling is that weve probably had quite enough consultation now, thank you very much, and we cant go on employing every consultant in the world without, at some stage, actually reaching a decision and maybe even doing something. Do you remember that phone-in blog whatsit you did a few years ago? Do you remember what you said you would like to do if you had more spare time?
jh: Of course I do. I I I said I would like to do more fishing.
dn: Exactly, James. Fishing. (Takes out a long thin gift-wrapped package from behind his desk). This is a present from your colleagues, James, and they all hope you will enjoy it and, I must say, so do I.
jh: But but Sir David, cant we talk about this?
dn: Im afraid not, Hall, that blue light on Jaspers console over there means that the Cabinet Secretary is on the line, the Home Secretary has already kindly agreed to wait for half an hour and I really cant keep the dear man in the lobby any longer, Interpol are getting a little restive, Ive got to talk to the CIA in a minute about Abdulmutallab, and theres a press conference to prepare for, to celebrate UKBAs great success re ditto.
jh: Sir David, I must object, I am the Chief Executive of IPS, I really think that I should know whats going on!
dn: That is rather my point, James. Happy fishing. And goodbye.
First published: Digital Identity Forum, No2ID
David Moss has spent seven years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.