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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 01:26 GMT
Was life easier before computers?
by Mark Easton
BBC News home editor

Someone using home computer
We expect computers to deliver immediate and perfect results
"Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems."

These are the words of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, co-inventor of the Cobol computer language.

But Wednesday's two top-level resignations at the Child Support Agency and the National Assessment Agency come down to just that: modern systems trying to achieve something apparently straightforward - and failing.

Finding out whether a 14-year-old can read and write is an immensely complex task involving flow-charts, organograms and advanced computer programs.

It is a similar story at the Child Support Agency.

On paper - simple maths. In reality, chaos. Why do things go so wrong?

'Thin air'

Partly because in our consumer age, we expect everything to happen immediately and perfectly.

Our expectations of delivery are sky high, but at the same time, competitive tendering tends to result in the cheapest possible machines and people being employed for the task.

We operate at the edge.

In the old days of buff files in a regulation cabinet, it was so much simpler. Things went wrong, of course.

The architecture that has created the problems has been put in place by politicians

But normally the culprit was relatively easy to spot - that dozy person in filing put the papers in the wrong tray.

The system could be modified, the filing person could be replaced. How different it is today.

The dreaded BSOD (blue screen of death) informs you of an "unexpected error" that requires a highly trained engineer to be called out at 350 an hour.

And even then the files have disappeared into thin air.

None of this matters on your domestic PC if it simply means you can't get your fix of internet backgammon or play Tomb Raider, but at the CSA the result might be that children don't get their supper.

The architecture that has created the problems has been put in place by politicians.

'Tweak and tinker'

They negotiated the computer deal. They agreed the budgets, they defined the task.

But it is government at arm's length and when system failure occurs, they are nowhere to be seen.

Modern technology means that when something unexpected happens, or a system breaks down, we are at a loss.

What we should do is stop. Reflect. Reorganise.

What we tend to do is panic, tweak and tinker.

The glitch becomes an emergency which becomes a crisis.

And someone - not a politician of course - then clears their desk.

CSA chief resigns amid criticism
17 Nov 04 |  Politics
Results fiasco test chief quits
17 Nov 04 |  Education


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