Alan Dean

CTO, Developer, Agile Practitioner

Photograph of Alan Dean

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What would a rational constitutional settlement look like?

A diagram of a rational constitutional settlemtWith the General Election campaign in full flood, I’ve been thinking about what a rational constitutional settlement for the UK might look like. The current settlement, whereby Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved government but England does not is causing a certain amount of constitutional stress and this is likely to increase in the coming years. English voters are becoming alienated by MPs who represent areas with devolved powers still being able to vote for policies that do not affect their own constituents. If we get a hung parliament from this election, but there is a majority party in England then I expect to hear a great deal of commentary about a caretaker government being sustained in power without legitimacy.

Rolling back devolution at this point is not a realistic proposition; that horse has left the stable. Given that political reality, how might we organise our representative democracy? I am deliberately excluding republicanism from this discussion. If you are in favour of keeping a monarch, simply imagine a world where our arrangements for Head of State are unchanged. If you are not, then imagine a world where an elected Head of State exercises broadly the same set of functions as the monarch currently does. Similarly, I am ignoring the question of the voting system(s) to be employed. Clearly, the voting system and seat distribution would have a profound political impact but my proposition stands as a constitutional model regardless of voting system, be it proportional or not.

The primary consideration I have employed to build this model is fairness as accountability is a much more difficult metric to measure. I simply ask would voters consider this model to be fair to all the other voters in the UK?. The secondary consideration is simplicity. I have tried to come up with a model that a voter can comprehend easily and that they know who to blame or acclaim when deciding how to vote.

Local Councils

My proposal does not change the constitutional role of local government, nor does it alter the current organisation of local government. However, my model devolves such decisions and local government funding entirely to the Regional Assemblies (see below).

Regional Assemblies

In this constitutional model, each constituent country in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) would have an assembly (I use the term generically, it does not imply that the Scottish Parliament needs to be renamed).  The current model applied to Scotland would be applied equally to all of the other assemblies; that is to say that certain powers would be reserved to the UK Parliament (see below) and all powers not explicitly reserved become the responsibility of the regional assemblies within their geographic limits. At this point I am not going to enumerate the reserved powers: it is sufficient to say that there will be some and I envisage that they will likely be broadly in line with current Scottish arrangements. As is the case at present, each region would have an executive which is comprised of assembly members. Regional assemblies would be unicameral (i.e. they would have only one chamber). As to the question of where a new English Parliament might be based: I leave that up to you to discuss in the comments! I envisage that an English Parliament might comprise as many as 300 members, with a similar or greater reduction in the number of UK Parliamentarians (see below).

UK Parliament

The most significant changes in my model arise at the national level. With a devolved English Parliament, the structure of national government would need to change dramatically. I propose to keep the current bicameral model at Westminster, with an elected lower house and a revising upper house.

Federal Chamber (Upper House)

I propose that the current membership of the House of Lords should be replaced with a federal membership. The new Federal Chamber would have 100 seats, like the US Senate, with seats apportioned to each region by population recorded at the dicennial census. The seat proportions would approximately be: England 81, Scotland 10, Wales 6, Northern Ireland 3. The primary role of the Federal Chamber would be to revise legislation as the current House of Lords does. The restrictions that currently apply to the House of Lords would be maintained to ensure that the elected chamber would retains primacy (the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention). Members from each region would be selected from the elected Regional Assembly members. Members of the Federal Chamber would not be permitted to take a position in the UK Government, unlike the current House of Lords.

Elected Chamber (Lower House)

The elected chamber would be the primary legislature of the UK, just as the current House of Commons is. Given the introduction of an English Parliament, the elected chamber would not need to be anything like as large as the current House of Commons due to the devolution of powers. I suspect that perhaps as few as 200 members would be sufficient. The arrangement of constituencies would depend upon the voting system employed. All Ministers of the UK Government would be required to have seats in the elected chamber.

European Union

I have long thought that one of the weaknesses in our current constitutional settlement is the poor integration of our institutions with those of the EU. Here is my perspective on how that might be improved.

European Commission, Consilium and Council

These bodies are defined by the Lisbon Treaty and are somewhat integrated with the UK Government already (although the actual interplay between them is rather murky) but I don’t propose significant changes as Ministers would remain accountable to Parliament.

European Parliament

I would make a very real change regarding the European Parliament. Currently, despite the Parliament gaining rather more power from the Lisbon Treaty, voting for it tends to be regarded as a protest opportunity (both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe). I would change this by having all British MEPs be elected via the UK Parliament. The exact mechanics of this election process would be subject to the electoral system decided up for the UK Parliament but the key point is that our MEPs would sit in our national Parliament and be accountable through it, rather than being divorced from normal national politics as they mostly are right now.

Fiscal Policy

These changes to our constitutional settlement would necessitate a clearer separation of responsibilities between the layers of government than currently exists (a good thing, in my opinion). One area in particular, fiscal policy, deserves special consideration as it is the lifeblood of all government. I propose that UK taxation would be explicitly split between the UK Parliament and the Regional Assemblies. The UK Parliament would set a base level of taxation (income, VAT, Duties and Excise) to pay for the reserved powers such as defence. On top of that, each Regional Assembly would levy regional taxation. This would mean that on your pay slip you would see two sets of income tax amounts. The base level of VAT would continue to include the proportion that flows to the EU. This way, voters in each region can elect representatives with high or low tax and spend manifestos without the effects being hidden as is currently the case. However, the Barnett Formula exists for a reason. Although there are many arguments about what the correct amount of fiscal transfer should be, these are properly a matter for budgetary votes in the UK Parliament. Any amounts of fiscal transfer voted for would form part of the base taxation level at a national level as it would be iniquitous, for example, to force an English Parliament to levy a direct transfer. Borrowing and the National Debt would remain a sovereign, reserved, power of the UK Parliament as it is now with interest and capital repayments forming part of the base national taxation level. Update: I envisage local and corporate taxation being devolved to the regions.


I appreciate that much of what I have set out above will be considered radical, possibly even unworkable, but I ask that you consider if we are at a point where we ought to embrace radicalism in order to lay down strong democratic foundations for a form of politics that is fit for our future and I accordingly commend this proposal to you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Spoofing my TabletPC as an iPad

TabletPC DesktopHot on the heels of the release of the iPad, I decided to repave my TabletPC (an HP TX2520ea) with a fresh install of Windows 7. I haven’t been making real use of the tablet for about a year now as I have been highly development focussed and less managerial but it was time to upgrade from Vista.

I did have a quick look at some iPad-ready websites using Safari and spoofing the browser User Agent as an iPad but the configuration steps are clunky and need to be carried out each time you create a new Safari instance.

RocketDock Icon Settings Then yesterday I read “Use Gmail for iPad in Google Chrome” which shows how to easily open Chrome with spoofing enabled and a brainwave came to me. I use RocketDock (an excellent application launcher for Windows which emulates the Apple Dock) and I realised that it would be easy to configure docked shortcuts for spoofing.

You simply create a new docked shortcut to chrome.exe and configure the arguments, setting the desired app URI:

--app="" --user-agent="Mozilla/5.0(iPad; U; CPU iPhone OS 3_2 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/531.21.10 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0.4 Mobile/7B314 Safari/531.21.10"

So far there aren’t a large number of sites which are iPad-ready but there are enough to make a difference to my TabletPC experience, especially as I am a heavy Google Apps user and significant work has been done by Goole on their properties to better support the iPad (it would have been nicer if they had already done this work for Windows 7 Touch devices, but there we are). Here is a selection of screenshots of Google Apps spoofed as an iPad:

Google Mail Google Mail
Google Docs (Folders) Google Docs
Google Calendar
Google Tasks

Here are some other Google sites:

Google Mobile
Google Search
Google Reader
Google News
Google Buzz
Google Talk
Google Maps

Finally, here are some other iPad-Ready sites:

BBC iPlayer
BBC iPlayer

Of course, you can’t run iPad Apps on Windows 7 but the rush to roll-out tablet-style websites that look good on the iPad will coincidentally benefit TabletPC owners like me and that makes me happy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Agility is not Viral

Please note: This post was originally published on my Charteris blog in 2008 but is no longer accessible so I’m republishing it here as I feel it remains important.

At Charteris Day this week, we had a series of presentations discussing Agility. The various speakers covered both Business Consultancy (with a focus on our 'Customer Centricity' capability) and from the Technology Consultancy (with a focus on Agile software development). My contribution was to give a 20 minute talk explaining why I felt that the presentation ("Future Directions for Agile") by David Anderson at Agile 2008 in August was so important.

At the head of my presentation I discussed something that I have been articulating for some time now (including during the Park Bench session at the Alt.Net Conference) and I thought it would be worth repeating here to see if others agree with me or not.

First, a little background. During the late 90's I was developing shrinkwrap software using RAD. Whilst I was working for the IVIS Group on in 2002, I was introduced to eXtreme Programming. Since that time I have considered myself an extreme programmer, rather than an Agilist (for various reasons that I won't bore you with right now) and have acted as an agent of change at a number of organisations.

In hindsight, I think that at the beginning of the Millennium we genuinely believed that our principles and practices would prove to be viral and that the meme would spread. After all, we could demonstrate how effective the practices were. We could measure productivity and velocity in a far more transparent manner than  hitherto. The team members felt more empowered and gained more satisfaction from their work. Sponsors felt that, often for the first time, that they actually knew what their development staff were doing and how well. Sponsors especially appreciated the visibility of functional gain and the ability to direct the functional implementation. These characteristics were (and still are) real. It is not an illusion.

Given the reality of these powerful advantages, how could it not be viral? Why would the meme not spread? Yet it has not. At least, it has not in the way that we envisaged.

It is true that the term Agile Development has gained wide currency now, although perhaps not wide understanding. Many, possibly a majority, of development teams aspire to be Agile. It is also true that there are more agile teams now than there were. My observation about a lack of virality is separate to this.

So what do I mean? Over the years, I have engaged with a number of teams to, amongst other objectives, bring in Agile development practices; to act as an agent of change. To a greater or lesser extent, these engagements have proven successful and the teams grew demonstrably more Agile and effective. But then, the time comes to move on to the next engagement. After the departure of the agent of change, the team reverts to the status quo ante. Not immediately, but visibly and certainly. It isn't a deliberate, conscious decision to do so - it just happens, gradually. Six months or a year later, it is as if you had never been there.

Remember, this is a scenario where everyone was actually happier, more contented and fulfilled when they were Agile. Astonishing.

There have been times when I have questioned my own ability to effect change because of this phenomenon. It was very refreshing to hear David Anderson articulate that he has encountered the same problems.

If we accept that Agility is not viral then we are bound to start asking the question: why?

I will start by saying that I have no potted answer to this question, I am still in the process of seeking to gain understanding, but my first candidate explanation is this: "people are intrinsically lazy".

Ouch. That sounds contentious! Well, it shouldn't be. After all, there is a reason why we prefer to buy labour-saving devices. There is a reason why people walk across the grass along the hypotenuse of the trianglewhen the path follows the other two sides.

So why might laziness be an issue? I suspect it is because Agility is hard work. The practices we espouse are difficult and require us to work at a more challenging pace. Even if we feel better for doing it, it is easier not to do it. It is much the same as exercise. Why do gyms offer 'new joiner deals' in January? It is because they know full well that only a fraction of people will actually use their facilities all year and after the Christmas break people feel guilty about all that excess consumption.

Sponsors love the transparency of agile functional gain but it takes effort from them to achieve it. Sponsors are busy and in the absence of that agent of change hounding them to set aside time to contribute to the development process they start to miss meetings, they stop engaging fully with the development team and so agility is lost. The development team is just as guilty though. They too are busy people and it takes effort to ensure that the quality control practices are maintained. Knowing that the agent of change isn't around anymore to catch them out, they start cutting corners on their TDD. Before long, the team reverts to being less agile; possibly even entirely ceasing TDD for example.

The direction that David is taking in his talk is to look again at the CMM and he certainly marshals some strong arguments. He also challenges some of our practices by asking if Lean and Kanban are Agile. I am not yet wholly sure that these are the right answers but he is certainly asking the right questions.

I have a feeling that perhaps we have historically had a very mechanistic view of people and process. Perhaps this is why we assumed that agility would be viral, because we assumed utility was inherently compelling. When I use the term 'we' here, I suppose that I am really talking about alpha geeks. The same people who naturally gravitated to extreme programming, agile and now to This is why there are so many discussions about "is" and so on. If so, we need to recognise that most people are not like us. Even most software developers, I suspect. We therefore face the very real challenge of how to make agility sticky.

My suspicion is that we need to become sociologists and learn how to enculture organisations with agility.

I am very happy to say that I think that the agility presentations at Charteris Day look like they have succeeded in sparking the debate I believe is needed to grow our capability further as a consultancy; to better leverage the depth of knowledge in the company and to harness this for our clients. I'm sure that I will have more to say on this subject in the future.