Identify yourself, citizen!

May 16th, 2014

If you’re dealing with a bank, building society or other such financial services provider, you’ll inevitably have to hand over some documents to prove your identity and address. The Money Laundering regulations require such institutions to carry out checks on the identity of people opening new accounts – and with good reason. However, the regulations don’t specify exactly how this should be done. Typically, you’re asked to produce some sort of document that links your photograph to your full name – such as a passport – and some sort of proof of your home address, such as a printed utility bill or bank statement. However, the documents accepted by each bank vary considerably! Of course, we increasingly bank online now, and so this means that a new account opened online inevitably results in a letter from the said bank saying “we need to see these documents, but don’t send the originals in the post”. They usually provide you the option to provide a “certified copy” in lieu of the original. However, no-one can agree on exactly who can certify a document, and how they should do it. I have in front of me, by way of example, two letters from two different institutions asking for certified copies.

Post Office Savings (aka Bank of Ireland UK) will accept a tax coding notice from HMRC as proof of ID (which is useful, and unusual), but if you send a photocopy of a passport or driving licence it must be certified by a “legal professional, accountant, bank official or post office clerk”. They must “sign and print their name, specify the date, affix an official stamp or write their business address and contact details and write or stamp the words Certified Original Sighted or words to that effect”.

Tesco Bank (aka RBS), by way of comparison, won’t accept HMRC correspondence as proof of ID or even as proof of address – but they will accept certified copies by “a bank, a post office clerk, a senior civil servant, a police officer, a member of the judiciary, a lawyer, solicitor or notary public, an accountant, an Authorised Financial Intermediary, a Doctor (as long as you’re one of their patients), a Teacher (with whom you have a pre-existing relationship), a local councillor, MP, AM, MEP or MSP, an official of an embassy, consulate or high commission issuing a passport of origin.” That’s a much longer list of people (though with some odd caveats), but their certification is more onerous – they must:

  • add the words “original seen and copy provides a good likeness of the individual”
  • record their full name, date, signature and official stamp (if they have one)
  • Record their business address (or personal address if they don’t have a business address)
  • Record their professional qualifications and professional body membership number
  • Record their contact details (I presume this means a phone number or email address)

This is clearly quite barking mad, as it means every time I open a new bank account I have to get a new photocopy certified with the right form of words and with a person deemed acceptable by the bank in question. The Post Office will certify documents (they charge £7 to do up to three different documents) but they have a standard form of words and I’ve often struggled to persuade the clerk that they need to use the form of words specified by the bank. Quite often, you get a little leaflet from the British Bankers’ Association explaining the need for ID documents – given that the BBA can get a standard leaflet together, why can’t they get their members to agree on a standard list of “suitable people” and a standard form of words for a certified photocopy? I might think that this was the sort of restrictive practice designed to discourage people from changing their bank account too often…

Of course, the rise and rise of online banking, online council tax payments and so on means that the old paper “proofs” are starting to go away. I know that there is a digital proof-of-ID scheme being developed by the government, but I fear that’ll go the way of all government IT projects. We could start by making the paper process less irksome!

 


Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?


Bus frustration again…

December 28th, 2013

I was in Cambridge at the weekend, and re-acquainted myself with its bus system. A few things have changed in the two years I’ve been away, but some obvious things appear not to have been acted upon.

Let’s start with some good news – the guided bus system appears to have been popular enough for the original routes to have been expanded somewhat, and for some routes to now be operating at a higher frequency. For instance, the Stagecoach route A service from Trumpington to St Ives is now every 15 minutes rather than every 20, and now makes a slightly better job of connecting Addenbrooke’s with the railway station, although the Park & Ride bus service from Babraham to Milton still actually has a faster journey time.

I used the route A to get from our temporary flat at Addenbrooke’s into the city on Saturday (partly because the guided buses stop within 2 minutes walk of the flat, whereas the main bus station is about a ten minute walk) and it arrived ahead of time at the railway station and sat there for a few minutes. The new bus access road and bus stops at the railway station (built as part of the CB1 development) are a big step forward for traffic flow around the station, but I can’t help feeling that some important details have been lost in the remodelling. Our Route A bus stopped at stop 9 at the station, which is the one that’s nearest to the station entrance. No fewer than six people came and asked the driver if his bus went to the city centre. He answered no – which is probably the right answer, the route A calls at New Square, which is fairly central but not the main shopping street – and directed them further down the road to another stop (stops 6 and 7 both have buses to the city centre). Surely it would be more logical for the “buses to town” to be using the stops nearest the station entrance, so as to make things easy for people unfamiliar with the city?

This has been a longstanding complaint of mine. Outside the front entrance to the station should be a large signboard explaining where to go to take the buses to a few popular destinations (the city centre and Addenbrooke’s being obvious ones). The bus stops themselves should also be clearly labelled “buses to city centre from this stop” and should also clearly show the fare and explain that the drivers can give change for banknotes but don’t take credit cards.

Now, let’s get onto the thorny topic of ticketing. Stagecoach have a near-monopoly on services in Cambridgeshire, so the majority of people will be happy buying Stagecoach’s tickets: there are singles, returns and two all-day tickets (Dayrider covers the city only, Dayrider Plus covers the whole county). It’s impossible to obtain the single or return fares on the web – you have to call the depot and ask – which seems daft in this day and age. About 20% of buses in Cambridgeshire are operated by other independent operators, so the County Council applied some leverage to the bus companies and made them issue a ticket called a Multibus, which was originally a day ticket covering all buses in the county. A Multibus is quite expensive – £7.80 as against a Dayrider Plus at £6 and a city-only Dayrider at £3.90 – and I suspect they don’t sell very many. Until recently it wasn’t even listed on Stagecoach’s website! However, the Multibus ticket now doesn’t cover the Stagecoach-operated Busway A and B routes, for no reason I can properly understand. There is, however, a special busway smartcard ticket that works on both Whippet and Stagecoach busway buses, but nowhere else! Logical!


An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!


Border control on Eurostar

October 11th, 2012

I’ve just been to Dresden by train, to attend a work-related conference. This, in many ways proved remarkably simple: travel down to London, take a 4pm Eurostar to Brussels, connect to a convenient Thalys train to Cologne, have dinner in Cologne and then take an overnight sleeper to Dresden, arriving at 7am the next morning.

My return journey went pretty well, too – I had an hour in Cologne to have some breakfast and then took a train back to Brussels in order to get the Eurostar. The border crossing between Germany and Belgium happens between Aachen and Liege, and the only thing that you notice is the beeps from people’s mobile phones as they switch to a roaming provider! If you’re a train nerd like me you also notice the brief flicker of the lights in Aachen station as they switch from German to Belgian electrical supplies (there’s a change of voltage AND frequency, how exciting!)

At Brussels South Station, I joined the queue for the Eurostar terminal. You queue first to scan your ticket on the automated gate, and then immediately join a queue for baggage security – there’s the usual bag x-ray and metal detector. Following this is outgoing Belgian border control, quickly followed by British border control. Just before the border control point, a door marked “Lille” allows passengers travelling to that city to skip the unnecessary border control – this is because Belgium and France are both in the Schengen Area which allows free movement without border control.
Finally, you reach the Eurostar lounge, which is actually a bit pitiful – a coffee shop, an expensive chocolate shop and some seating. But you only need to check in 30 minutes before departure, and the train usually boards 15-20 minutes before departure, so most people needn’t wait in the lounge for long.

Upon arrival at the still-fairly-shiny terminal at St Pancras, passengers queue down the platform and then onto a long escalator. At the bottom of the escalator the huge horde executes a brisk u-turn and joins… a British immigration queue! “But hang on”, I thought, “didn’t we do border control in Brussels?” I asked the border control officer (politely but firmly!) why they needed to check everyone’s tickets and passports again on arrival. It turns out that this is to do with Lille. I dimly recall a media hoo-hah a few years ago about immigrants getting into Britain on Eurostar, and this is the result. If you buy a ticket from Brussels to Lille, you are very likely to travel on Eurostar. Passengers travelling to Lille avoid border control, but no-one can actually guarantee that they leave the train at Lille –so some took advantage of this loophole to enter the UK without the necessary visa documents. The British press (predictably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) kicked up a fuss about this, and so the British border control agency attempted to close the loophole. Now, the problem is that the British authorities can’t legally interfere with passengers travelling between France and Belgium (in fact, an attempt to do this provoked a brief diplomatic row between the UK and Belgium, and the threat by Belgian authorities to arrest British border control officers in Brussels that attempted to do this!) and the Eurostar system was designed to make the border crossing as painless as possible when it first started. In fact, when Eurostar first began, the border checks were conducted on the train – but since a 2004 agreement, UK border staff have been stationed in stations in France and Belgium. The reason for this change is the perceived problem of political asylum. Under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the 1950 European Declaration of Human Rights, persons persecuted by foreign governments may claim asylum when they arrive in a foreign country. This is a headache for the UK government, as it means that they’re obliged to decide whether such persons are genuine refugees or “undesirable” economic migrants. Because the asylum rules kick in as soon as your feet touch the soil, the UK government tries hard to keep potential asylum-seekers out – even more so because they could (and should) be claiming asylum in France or Belgium. So, in order to maintain the “fortress Britain” idea and appease domestic political audiences, the UK now perversely has decided engage in extra border checks at St Pancras. The joys. As I said to the German couple ahead of me in the border control queue at Brussels – “I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t join the Schengen Agreeemnt, but it’s politically unacceptable!”.


Letting agent fees – write to your MP!

June 12th, 2012

When we moved to Oxford, we rented a flat. We found one we liked at a price we were prepared to pay. When we said “we’ll take it” to the letting agent, he said “that’ll be £210 in fees to secure the tenancy”. A couple of hours later he rang back: “Sorry, I should have explained – that’ll be £210 *each*”. What do you do for us, for this sum, I asked. “Oh, we draw up a contract, make sure that the place is fit for you to move in…” Oh, so all the things you ought to be doing anyway. Right. I was incandescent, but we paid. Adding insult to injury, the agent *didn’t* actually do their job properly and our moving-in had to be postponed by a week because the gas inspector (who’d seen the flat literally the Friday before were due to move in on the Monday) condemned the boiler installation and it took a week for the gas fitters to rectify it…

Now it’s payback time. I’ve written to my local (Labour) MP, suggesting that the government make this practice illegal in England & Wales. It already is illegal in Scotland. Here’s the letter that I wrote (with a few personal details removed). If you feel similarly about this issue, please write to your MP – the excellent WriteToThem.com will let you do this quickly and easily.

Here’s the letter I wrote. Please don’t copy it verbatim.

Dear Andrew Smith,

I’ve recently changed jobs and moved to Oxford, becoming a constituent
of yours. My partner and I initially rented a flat in Headington,
although we’ve now just bought a house in . Anyway, my
enquiry to you stems from our experience as tenants in Oxford. The
market for rented property is extremely busy, with high levels of
demand, and a large number of letting agencies operate within the city.
I was stunned to discover that the agency expected us to pay an upfront
fee to secure a tenancy on a rented flat – in fact, they wanted £210
from each of us – and checked up on whether this was a common practice.
It is, apparently, extremely common in England – but it is illegal in
Scotland. I last rented a house in London in 2005, and at that time
tenancy fees were not routinely charged by any of the agencies I dealt
with.

I feel strongly that a letting agent is appointed by the landlord, and
acts in the landlord’s interests. They should therefore not be allowed
to charge the tenant a fee – as the tenants are not operating in a free
market. This situation is compounded by the fact that no agencies
include the associated fees in their online advertising – you only
find out exactly what fees they are charging once you make more
detailed enquiries.

Furthermore, the changes introduced by the last Labour administration
to provide statutory deposit protection have also contributed to fees
charged to tenants. There are three deposit protection schemes: one is
free, but keeps the money in escrow. The other two are insurance
schemes, which allow the landlord or agent to keep the deposit and
resulting interest themselves – these charge a fee for the deposit
management service. Our agency (and it seems that this is also common
practice) charged us an additional fee of £30 on top of the £420 we
paid up front in order to cover the cost of the deposit management. So,
as tenants we benefit from knowing that the deposit protection scheme
will ensure that our deposit is returned, but we are expected to cover
the agent’s costs in using an insurance-based deposit protection scheme
that allows them to profit from the interest on our deposit! Again, we
have no choice in the matter: the agency chooses to operate in this
way.

I would suggest to you that in the present financial climate, with
increasing demands on the private rented housing sector, that
unscrupulous exploitation by letting agents is likely to become ever
more common. A manifesto commitment to prohibit agents charging any
fees to tenants in England and Wales would undoubtedly be very popular.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Prior-Jones


Anoka

February 2nd, 2012

My history teacher, Mr Emerson, talked about the origins of the First World War as “a long fuse and a short spark”. This blog post was triggered by the short spark of an article I read today, but the long fuse goes back at least twenty years. It’s going to be somewhat more personal and emotional than usual.

First, the short spark: this article in Rolling Stone. Not a publication I’ve previously paid much attention to, but I saw this particular article linked to by Kevin Arscott (Media watcher extraordinaire, writer of butireaditinthepaper.co.uk and editor of The New Journalist). The article is six pages long – a very potted summary follows: in the town of Anoka, Minnesota, pressure from parents led to the introduction of a school board policy that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle”. This led to teachers and school staff not being able to act against homophobic bullying of teenagers, for fear of losing their jobs for breaching the policy. This, aggravated by the presence of lots of kids who had been told (at home and at church) that homosexuality is morally wrong, led to the suicide of nine teenagers in two years.
Read the rest of this entry »


On time and on budget

January 23rd, 2012

I’ve just seen some of BBC1′s Panorama programme, “Taken for a ride?”, which is about the rises in train fares and the costs of railway infrastructure. Now, the segment I saw (the last fifteen minutes) consisted of the journalist talking to various figures in the rail industry about the cost of project work, and in particular the large overspends on some rail infrastructure projects. He kept asking “will the project be on time and on budget?” and using phrases like “is our money being wasted?”. Now, this is the standard stuff of all projects, so let’s examine this in more detail. What do we mean by “on time and on budget”?

Well, a typical project, be it the construction of a garden shed or a high-speed railway line, starts with a proposal. In that proposal, the promoter of the project sets out the benefits the project will bring, the risks associated with doing it, and their estimate of how long it will take and how much it will cost. Note the crucial word there – estimate. The proposal is scrutinised by some decision-maker, and (all being well) the project is authorised on the basis of the estimated budget and timescale contained within the proposal. Of course, as the project runs, some tasks will turn out to be easier than estimated, and others will be harder. So the project cost and timescale may change as a result. So, when we talk about the “ability of an organisation to deliver on time and on budget”, we really mean, to a large extent, their ability to estimate the project in advance.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that we’re going to put this project out to competitive tender, as all public sector projects are. A number of engineering firms will bid on the project, and that means that they have to spend their own time and money researching and estimating the cost and timescale of the project. There will, of course, be pressure on the engineers to produce a low bid, as the company wouldn’t want to lose the business to a cheaper competitor. There will also be pressure not to spend too much time doing detailed research into the cost of a project, as the cost of the engineers’ time is at the company’s own risk – if they lose the bid, all that effort will have been wasted. So the tendering process is likely to produce optimistic estimates of the project outcome. If a bidding company has done a project like this before, they will make a better estimate – but a rival with less experience is more likely to make a low bid, particularly if they need the business badly. So the tendering process needs to evaluate the companies’ bids clearly, and not just look at the price. There’s always temptation for companies to bid low to secure the project and then ask for more money once the project is beyond the point of no return.

Well, what about making the job a “fixed price contract”? This transfers all the risk from the buyer to the supplier. Great for the buyer? Well, everyone bidding on a fixed-price job will include an additional contingency for unforeseen circumstances. Depending on the nature of the project, that “risk premium” could be enormous. Most companies taking fixed-price work will insure themselves against it, so now you’re paying an insurance premium and asking an insurer to take the risk, for which they charge a considerable markup! The fixed-price job works well when the job is well understood, but for big, risky projects, the fixed prices become ridiculously high.

So, perhaps we should be more circumspect before we condemn projects that run late or “overbudget” – how well can you estimate?


Business hours and ‘housekeeper culture’

November 27th, 2011

An article in today’s Observer made mention of a service called Hubbub, started in Islington (of course! Honestly, the Guardian should change its name to the Islington Gazette…) which offers an online ordering and delivery service for buying food from local independent shops. In a similar tone is another article from the Guardian about the value of traditional markets in towns and cities. Now, I entirely buy into the argument that food purchased from independent retailers is often better quality, cheaper and more sustainable than that from supermarkets. I would dearly love to wander, wicker-basket in hand, around a lovely old covered market hall and buy my fruit, veg, bread, meat and other delights from jolly local traders who know and understand their produce. However, I don’t. Almost all the food that I buy comes from Sainsbury’s or Tesco. Why? Because they’re open at times when I can go shopping.

Now, I’m not working silly hours, either: I leave my house at 8am to be at my desk (12 miles away) at 8:45 – and I leave work at 5:30 and get home by 6:15. However, that effectively excludes me from dealing with all independent shops except at the weekend. Now, I could, of course, go and do my weekly shop in the city market, and perhaps visit Northrop’s the butchers’ in Mill Road on my way home. The market trades primarily in the morning – by mid afternoon the produce has been sold – and Mr Northrop doesn’t trade on Sundays (he is due a day off, after all). So that effectively means that Saturday morning has to be earmarked for food shopping, and of course there are lots of other people in the same boat as me, and so the city is heaving. This also limits what you can do with your weekend, and means you have to be out of bed on a Saturday morning before 10am…

So far, so much whingeing. However, I think there are a couple of wider points worth making.

Firstly, extending business hours into the evenings would massively increase the target audience of small shops, and would potentially allow them to compete more readily with big chains and online retailers. Of course, the shopkeepers themselves would need to take on extra staff to cover the extra hours, which would help with our present unemployment problem. The challenge would be to get a critical mass of shops to all open together. Cambridge supposedly has late night shopping on a Wednesday (meaning that the shops close at 7pm, woo, that’s late!) – but by no means all shops participate. For some businesses, a change in their work patterns would also be required. Bakeries, for instance, would need to keep baking through the day in order to have fresh bread in the evenings – in Portugal they do just that, and many people stop by the bakery to buy bread and cakes on their way home from work. Finally, by keeping the shops open, our town and city centres remain busy into the evening – which reduces crime and anti-social behaviour that can otherwise happen in deserted shopping streets after dark.
I’d be seriously in favour of a trial in which government under-wrote the costs of opening shops later in town centres, on the expectation that the retailers would boost their profits and the social benefits of a lively evening culture in towns would save money in other areas of spending. Managed well, I think it would be a great success.

Secondly, there’s a broader point about how we organise our society. We still seem to have a lingering social expectation that someone in the household will be not working during office hours. Courier companies and the Royal Mail attempt to deliver parcels during the day. Last week, National Grid (at four days notice) told me that they needed access to the house in order to replace the gas main. As soon as you bring children into the picture, the cost and hassle and issues associated with childcare, the desire to bond with your own offspring and the societal expectation of someone being at home, is it any wonder that so many parents -mostly women- choose to give up work?

In other countries shops trade late – why not here?


Missing the misguided bus

August 17th, 2011

I went on a training course today, and chose to take the train to the venue instead of driving. I arrived back at Cambridge station at 1740, and went in search of a bus. As I came out through the station entrance, I saw one of the new guided buses on the roundabout – it was snarling up the traffic as it was waiting for temporary traffic lights on the new access road that leads to the guideway. In my transport-fanboydom, I set off at speed down the footpath to the new bus stops for the guided busway, only to miss the said bus by about a minute. Bother. I looked at the timetable: this is peak hour operation, but the frequency on the southern part of the busway (which goes to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Trumpington) is only one bus every 20 minutes. I walked back to the main bus stops and checked the timetable there. Normal, non-guided buses run to Addenbrookes every 5 minutes, and to Trumpington every 10 minutes. This begs the question: what is the southern section of the guided busway actually for?

Let’s have a look at the timetables. Only one of the four busway routes uses the southern section at all: route A, operated by Stagecoach. This operates one bus every 20 minutes right through the day, stopping abruptly in the early evening: the last buses are at 1830 from Cambridge and 1839 from Trumpington. A note hidden at the bottom of the timetable shows that there are an extra hour’s worth of bus services between Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s after the main service finishes.

The journey times on route A are as follows:

Trumpington – Addenbrookes: 6 mins
Trumpington – Rail station: 13 mins
Trumpington – City centre: 22 mins
Addenbrooke’s – Rail station: 7 mins
Addenbrooke’s – City centre: 16 mins.

Okay, so how does this compare with the conventional bus services? The guided buses have a dedicated route from the railway station to Addenbrookes and Trumpington, but going into the city they are on the road.

Let’s take the Trumpington – City case first. On this route, the guided buses compete directly with the Park & Ride shuttle bus, which makes no intermediate stops between the P&R site and the city. The P&R buses run every ten minutes (twice as often as the Route A buses) and take 16 minutes for the journey. So they are 5 minutes faster than the guided buses, despite being on the road the whole way! As they run twice as frequently, the average journey time for a passenger arriving at the P&R site is 21 minutes (5 mins avg wait + 16 mins journey) for the P&R buses and 32 minutes (10 mins avg wait + 22 mins journey) for the guided bus.

How about Addenbrookes – Railway station? This bit is on the guideway, and so should be faster. And so it is – 7 minutes for the guided bus, as against 10 minutes for the conventional service. However, as the guided bus is only every 20 minutes, whereas the Citi 1, Citi 7 and Citi 8 services combine to provide a bus every five minutes. If you walk out of Addenbrookes at some randomly-determined time and go to look for a bus, you would on average wait 2.5 minutes for a conventional bus, followed by a 10 minute journey time – i.e. 12.5 minutes total journey. However, your wait time for a guided bus will be an average of 10 minutes, followed by a journey time of 7 minutes, making 17 minutes average total journey time. So the guided bus is not much use for going to the station from Addenbrooke’s. The same argument applies to taking the bus to the city from Addenbrooke’s.

Okay, so what about Trumpington – Addenbrooke’s? Maybe the idea of the southern section is to act as a P&R service for the hospital? Well, firstly the every-20-minutes frequency is not exactly encouraging. Secondly, parking at Addenbrooke’s for hospital visitors is not astronomical: £3.50 for 2 hours costs the same as a Dayrider ticket on the guided bus. Thirdly, Addenbrooke’s has a nice new access road that connects it to Trumpington P&R site and the M11, so if a hospital P&R service was required, there was no real need to build a fancy new busway – the buses could just as easily use the new access road.

So, to summarise: the guided buses only offer faster journey times on certain parts of their route (and even then we’re only saving three minutes) but their low frequency means that most people will be better served by the conventional bus service. Providing a P&R service between Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s could have been easily done without the guideway. So what exactly is the southern section for? I still don’t know…