Using Information in Society
by Paul Hazelden

Towards a Sustainable System

What are we aiming at?

Two questions to start:

Q1.What do we want to achieve?

Q2.What is the best way of achieving it?

Unless we can answer these questions, we cannot even begin to consider how to change society.

It is the job of government to ensure that society has the infrastructure it requires to thrive. We need to distinguish between the essence of this role, what is strategically advantageous in the circumstances, and what is counter productive.

Government is about social engineering. It is about deciding what is to be encouraged and what discouraged in the society, and what means used to achieve these ends. Only a clear understanding of the objectives can produce a radical change, such as when the welfare state was introduced.

In order to provide essential services, the government must raise money. The means by which this is done must be moral and practical: any which are seen to be immoral will be resisted; any which are not practical will fail. Therefore, people pay in the first place according to their ability - their income. Where possible, they should pay more where they can choose to avoid it (entertainment, for example). They should pay more for destructive or anti-social activities, such as use of non renewable resources and energy.

Tax is good. Tax is the 'cost of a civilised society'.


What do we need to do?

•We need to cut costs and get people back to work. An ageing population cannot afford to have unproductive people. The work they do must therefore be useful to society, so cut down on wasted effort.

•We need to see the country and economy as a whole, not as individual parts. To optimise the whole we need to make each part sub-optimal (see the appendix, 'Towards Sub-Optimal Parts').

•The existing system has been built piecemeal, and was built for very different circumstances and needs. To work out what is required, we must therefore be prepared in concept to scrap the existing system completely and start again. In practice, we will need to implement a gradual transition, but our goal must be a complete, integrated system that works and delivers what is required of it.

•We need to provide our society with a flexible infrastructure that will enable changes to take place for the benefit of everybody.

•We need to manage people's expectations: unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment. Healthcare provision is not, and never can be infinite. Demand will always outstrip resources. Facts and communication are required, not the pretence that everything is wonderful.


How can we do it?

•Remove the distinction between tax, tax relief and benefits. People do not care which bit of the government is taking their money, or which part is giving it out: all they care about is how much they give or take. Remove the distinction between tax and National Insurance, which is simply a capped tax.

•Remove the distinction between the employed and the self employed. Employment should be seen as a relationship, not a status. People should find it as easy to work for three employers as for one. Similarly, the cost of employment needs to be driven down. Employers should not be penalised for employing part time staff or job sharers; part time employees should not be disadvantaged in comparison to full time.

One way to cut the cost of employment is to hold selected details about people on public record, with more details being verifiable under the individual's control. Printout of a query initiated by the individual comes with a check digit; the system stores the precise query with the answers and check digit, and anyone can perform a query check to confirm the details if they have the check digit available. One item on record is the detail of a bank account to which salary and/or benefit will be paid.

Another possibility is to remove the need for each employer to run their own payroll system. Why not tell the IR what you are paying out, and let the IR work out how much tax to deduct and credit the bank account? This would supplement, not replace, existing systems and and enable sole traders to employ people without getting tied up in paperwork.

•Remove the poverty trap. The biggest and most important objective of them all. Why trap people where you don't want them to be???

•Remove all need to move money between government departments. A lot of money and time is spent determining which department will fund a benefit or other expense. What does it matter? Implication: make all benefits non taxable, so the IR don't need to know about any of them. Never hit the situation where the Government gives money with one hand and takes it back with the other - just more paperwork for the Civil Servants to keep them in jobs.

•Reduce the amount of information required by government and employers, and make as much of the rest as possible publically accessible. Cut down the cost of collecting and verifying data. Don't hold everything on paper!

•Provide incentives for people to provide information themselves, either through online systems, or cheap EDI from microcomputers. Promise either faster service or financial benefit if people will cut out the need to

•Empower people by providing the information they need. Information is the key to ensuring that expectations relate to provision of resources.


Related thoughts

What is the cost of targeting benefits? It may well be cheaper to give the benefit to everybody who may need it than to establish a bureaucracy to determine who will get it.

Establish a national minimum wage, paid by the government to everybody by standing order direct to their bank account. It is more cost efficient for people to be employed in low paid jobs than to be on the dole. Employed people have a better self image, less time to get into trouble, and stand a much better chance of improving their economic situation.

Can we change accountancy practice, so that investment and steady growth is rewarded, and year on year profits are made less important? Train the City not to need immediate profit all the time.

We must introduce an improved system of nursery care and provision for schoolchildren after school hours. Raise the status of childcare and teaching: these people are investing in our future.

We must aim to cut down or remove the black economy. Increase the number of things which must be paid through a bank account: the mortgage or rent, for example. Provide incentives for not paying in coins or notes: the banks could charge more to handle cash than they charge to handle cheques, and process electronic transfers for free.

It is cheaper to have fewer rules and where they are needed, establish effective appeals where individual situations break them, rather than try to prevent the rules from being broken. See the appendix, 'The Cost of Legislation'.

The new system must be:

•Simple. Capable of being understood by almost all the population.

•Accountable to the public - in reality. Rules clear, reasons for decisions clear, responsibility for decisions recorded.

•Of benefit to the majority of the population. People must believe it is in their own interests, otherwise it will be sabotaged.


The Cost of Legislation

Thesis: people do not appreciate the cost of legislation as a form of social control.

There exist many problems in society. When confronted by many of them, people feel "There ought to be a law against (or about) that." But in many situations, the law is a very bad way of achieving the desired goal. It often serves to convince people that 'something has been done', rather than solving the problem. We also direct a great deal of resources towards changing the law, rather than towards changing people's behaviour which is generally the real need.

Problem: farmers building roads on their own land and spoiling the appearance of the countryside for visitors.

Solution 1: legislation to ensure the farmers get permission before they build any roads.

Implications 1: an Act of Parliament must be passed, laying down the criteria for valid road building and the procedures to be followed.; a new Form must be created (Application for the building of a Road on Agricultural Land); it must be printed, distributed and stored. People must make this form available to farmers when required. The law must be publicised, with details of how to get the form and how to fill it in. Inspectors must be employed to check the forms are filled in correctly, then to examine every application to determine whether the road meets the criteria laid down or not. The criteria will be found, in practice, to be wrong, make unwarranted assumptions, be too restrictive or too lax, or otherwise unworkable. Everybody keeps working with the system which does not work while other people lobby for a change to the law. Another form must be created (Appeal against a decision..), printed, distributed and stored; people employed to check the forms; appeal tribunals established to adjudicate on appeals by disgruntled farmers. The decision to permit the road must be publicised locally to allow an appeal. Another form created (Objection to an Application...), printed, distributed and stored to enable people to request that the application be turned down. More people employed to adjudicate on these objections. Possibly, inspectors appointed to monitor agricultural land and ensure no unauthorised road building takes place. Certainly, people employed to investigate reported acts of illegal road building; the Police and CPS devote resources to investigating and prosecuting alleged breaches of the law. The courts (and maybe) prisons must devote resources to punishing offenders. All the people employed need salaries and pensions, offices, secretaries and other support staff, computer systems,...

The farmers must be aware of the criteria and procedures, know how to get the form, get the form, fill it in, submit it and wait for a decision and then wait to check no appeals against it have been received before proceeding with (perhaps urgent) work. They must arrange to meet the Inspector, go over the land and explain the needs and implications. They cannot be farming while they are doing this paperwork and administration. They must do this hundreds of times for every case which is doubtful. The greatest cost is born by the most conscientious farmers.

The other users of the land must know the guidelines, be aware of applications, must get hold of the form if they want to appeal, fill it in, answer questions, appear at the tribunal.

Solution 2: empower an existing body to (1) establish and publish guidelines for when building a road on agricultural land is acceptable; require anyone found to contravene the guidelines to restore the land to its original condition and pay a fine.

Implications 2: an Act of Parliament must be passed; people employed to establish the guidelines, publish and publicise them and monitor their use. Inspectors must be employed to check reported contraventions, make a decision and notify the parties concerned, and to check that the land is restored and the fine paid where required. If the offender does not restore and/or pay, take them to court. The courts (and maybe) prisons must devote resources to punishing offenders. The greatest cost is born by the most antisocial farmers.

The farmers simply need to be aware of the guidelines when they are considering building a road.

The other users of the land must know the guidelines, notice development which contravene them, write to the Inspectors, and maybe answer questions.


Towards Sub-Optimal Parts

When you study systems in Operational Research, you work with resources and constraints. There is a goal to be targeted, and a set of parameters you can vary in trying to achieve the goal.

A student working to pass an exam must study, eat and sleep. If they do too little or too much of any of these three activities, they will not pass. The optimal amount of study is clearly not the maximum possible amount of study. The optimal behaviour does not consist of a maximum or a minimum of any of the parts, but of maintaining the correct balance between them. This is true of almost any system you look at.

In any reasonably complex system or organisation, there will be competition between the various parts. Each part will seek to optimise its own performance, even at the expense of other parts of the same organisation, because that is what each part is required to do. The goal of the Sales Department is to make sales; the goal of Customer Services is to keep (or make) the customers happy. The Sales Department sells unfinished or inappropriate products to achieve their goal; Customer Services tries to prevent the customers from buying such products to achieve their goal. The organisation as a whole can only optimise its performance by making each part function in a sub-optimal fashion. The same is true of society.

A factory can optimise its profits by polluting the countryside. This situtaion is clearly sub-optimal for the society, as there is a high cost in terms of clearing up the mess, health problems, quality of life, and so on, which society has to pay as a consequence. Society imposes rules, laws, fines, taxes, allowances, and so on to make the optimal behaviour of the factory conform to the optimal needs of the society. This is very inefficient as the rules, fines, etc do not directly relate to the end result desired by the society.

We see this operating today: you save money by closing down the mental hospitals, so many of the previous inmates are arrested for petty offences, have nowhere else to go, and end up in prison where they cost the taxpayer far more to keep them.




Online Information

Three types of information: Social, General and Personal. Each requires a distinct mechanism to handle it, although they will all be provided through a single, integrated system to the end user. Social and General information will be available on paper or downloaded as a file, with a price being charged for this service. Simple access will be charged, but at a low rate to encourage use.



Social contains essentially dated information: that which is current, and that which changes. If I want to know the rules that apply to an area, I generally want to know the current rules. I often want to know if there are any changes planned and when they are due to be implemented. I may want to know that the rules were different at some point in the past. These areas would be implemented with current information which would be updated, and hence would develop into a history of the subject. Adding historical information would only be done if there was sufficient need.

Politics: passage of bills through the Common and Lords; Parliamentary Schedules and timetables; effective dates for legislation (UK and EC); deadlines for submissions; list of Select Committees, chairmen, memberships, meeting dates and agendas and overall briefs; similarly for QUANGOs, also contact address and telephone numbers; background information, how the country is governed; the Civil Service and Government Agencies, breakdowns, manpower, running costs; Political Parties, addresses, telephone numbers, brief aims; MPs, party, Parliamentary job(s), other interests.

Demographic: population statistics; occupations; unemployment; housing; health; age; ethnic groupings; places of birth; immigration and emigration; background, applying for UK citizenship (what does it entitle you to?), living abroad.

Social: tax, how calculated, rules, deadlines, penalties, recompense; benefits, purpose, entitlement, procedure, how to claim, implications; National Insurance, rules, entitlements; Charter standards for each.

Charities: name; purpose; address and contact name, telephone number; what is on offer; restrictions; details of annual turnover, operating margins, etc.

Business: name; address; description; turnover; profit and loss; tax paid; names of directors, other businesses for each director; date formed.

Legislation: particular areas: import/export; matrimonial; employment; self employment, public liability; health and safety, recommendations and guidelines.






General contains essentially static information: the type of information found in encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Detailed entries will have attached summaries; all entries will be broken down into sections determined by the subject matter. The emphasis will be on recording fact rather than opinion, although opinions will be recorded if relevant and flagged as such.

General: history; geography; science; biography; art; religion; language.

Each entry or fact has a reference back to the source from which it may be checked. people can register uncertainty or disagreement, make comments. Control is required to decide the status of each entry, and promote or demote entries as appropriate: this must be totally impartial for the system to work. The system keeps a log of failed queries, to enable decisions about targetting the most important facilities yet to be provided.



Public - name, NI number.

Private: bank account, date of birth, address, telephone number, criminal record, current GP, next of kin, organ transplant wishes, credit cards.

Private details are the information different bodies have the right to know, but which the public (including jouralists!) has no right to access. The person can choose to make selected private details public, so the default for telephone number will be public (they are already published in books) unless they have already chosen to be ex-directory. Similarly, bank account, date of birth, sex and address may be made public to make life easier for prospective employers. Private details can be verified by means of a query authentication code generated for the person as required. This will enable a shop to verify that a credit card has not been stolen, for example.

Specified bodies will have automatic right of access to specific items of information: government bodies, courts and solicitors will have access to the address since they must all be able to reliably deliver information. Hospitals will have access to the current GP, next of kin and organ transplant wishes so they can best deal with accident and emergency cases.

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