Welcoming data protection friends to the cultures of the NHS

No one* goes to work for the NHS intending to cause harm.

It’s easy to argue that Palantir are evil, and that they should have no place in the NHS, but that’s not going to change anything. Especially in a public health emergency.

Companies like Palantir – and especially ‘AI mercenaries’ Faculty – should be kept at barge pole distance (~20ft), not because they’re bastards, but because they’re seen by the public as bastards.

The job we face is not to build tech, but to help patients.

And that will be impossible if your product works best with a continuous high body count.

Unfortunately, the extent to which this Secretary of State and his staff will care is unclear. Their primary measure is to protect the system, not about staff or patients.

Just like all of the NGOs rushing into the health field, everyone else has shown up to help too – each one of them bringing the toolkit they were holding at the time the pandemic started.

Arguments against Faculty, Google DeepMind, or any of the other companies involved cannot and should not rest on morals; they must be substantive, properly evidenced and articulated in real world terms. It isn’t enough to be legally right.

People choices

Just as there is a range of competencies in civil society, there’s a range in all other sectors. 

When Facebook makes decisions, everyone knows that they’re doing what’s good for Facebook, whatever they claim their reasons to be.

DHSC/NHSE make no better decisions than Facebook, Palantir, or DWP – people are, after all, only human. 

People do not make better decisions due to their public office. Witness the unreformed, ‘institutionally ignorant’ and racist view which is slowly pervading everywhere in government…

DHSC makes decisions that are good for DHSC; Number 10 what’s best for Number 10 (today) – and Number 10 always wins.

The deaths of one in ten people in care homes are just one consequence of that approach.

We’ve met civil servants who are exceptionally talented at their (current or previous) jobs. There are also some who should never have been let into the building

But, given the immediate crisis, there are too many decisions to make and there’s a massive overstretch of political leadership within decision-making inside DHSC, so appointing people who can work with the existing team may be helpful. But the unit of accountability is this team.

While it is legitimate to put in place Ministerial (political) accountability to lead the testing operation in DHSX, they gave it to the Chair of NHS Improvement.

And when individuals do make decisions, often they would prefer to be entirely insulated from the consequences of those choices – for which the best way is by not knowing, or by not believing those who do know.

For the best example of that, see PMQs today

May 2020
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