It is nice to know that debates and questions in the House of Lords have an impact in the outside world.  In June 2005, I asked the following question in the House of Lords:

“Whether the time spent preparing the e-Government Unit’s document, Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like, represents value for money.”

This was not, of course, entirely serious, although it did seem to me to be a particularly jargon-led approach to promoting e-government and the wrong approach to making e-government easy and accessible.

I haven’t thought about the matter since then, so I supposed I should be flattered/embarrassed to discover it appearing yesterday in a blog hosted by the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama.  The blog has the catchy title: “Metalogues from the Delta” (I wish I’d thought of that one first) and is subtitled “A Bama SLIS student’s weblog on all things metadata”.

The blog’s first paragraph is a classic:

“While reading Heather Hedden’s “Better Living Through Taxonomies,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of a brief article on taxonomy that circulated about Dr. MacCall’s LS 500 class during my first semester in the MLIS program. Really, how could anyone forget a title like Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like?”

And the blog then refers to another earlier blog entitled 

025.431: The Dewey blog

Clearly, there is a big academic market out there for Lords debates.

For those who want the original exchange here it is:

e-Government Unit

11.22 am

Lord Harris of Haringey asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether the time spent preparing the e-Government Unit’s document, Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like, represents value for money.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, yes, the document was published in 2002 by the Office of the e-Envoy, at the request of technical users in government who were new to the subject. It was produced in-house at an estimated cost of less than £100.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that information. I ask him to congratulate the civil servants concerned on the diligence and speed with which they must have produced 12,000 words and four charts on the subject of Tomatoes are not the only fruit, containing such gems of information as:

    “How long has it been for many of us since the primary meaning of the word ‘mouse’ has been ‘a small furry mammal that frightens elephants?'”,

 or the information that carrots can be either salad or root vegetables. That will no doubt come in very helpful in promoting e-government.

Can we also congratulate the authors of the Guide to Meta-Tagging with the Integrated Public Sector Vocabulary, which gives another eight pages of valuable advice and information? It includes the information that the phrase “common agricultural policy” may appear under the phrase “European Union” or under “Farming” but will mean the same under both.

Given the diligence of the civil servants in the unit, can the Minister assure the House that the same energy and effectiveness is being applied to delivering information security throughout the public sector? Are such arrangements susceptible, or likely to be susceptible, to external challenge?

Lord Bassam of Brighton:

My Lords, I shall of course pass on my noble friend’s congratulations. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that civil servants are, as we speak, listening carefully to his kind congratulations and warm words.

As to my noble friend’s second point, there is an important issue at root here—I said that with a straight face. The Government are paying careful attention to those information security issues. The document, although it has attracted a certain levity, is, I am sure, most useful to those who work in government IT services.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, can the Minister not pass on congratulations to the civil servants on producing a document that is completely incomprehensible to a normal person and really does not make any sense at all? Why cannot they learn to write English?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, having looked at the document, which has a modest number of words, I disagree with the noble Earl. I believe that IT users in the business will probably find it very helpful and useful. Certainly, when I read it, I began to understand notions relating to taxonomies, thesauri and ontologies.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, although the use of what the Civil Service calls “controlled vocabulary” may operate as a disincentive to get online  
to the Government, can the Government say whether there has been a significant improvement in access to e-government over the past two years? It was made clear in June 2003 that only one-tenth of the population was using the online e-government services, as compared with 50 per cent of the population in Canada, with its single portal.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there have been improvements, and I am sure that the e-Government Unit is aware of its role and responsibility in ensuring that those improvements continue. There is an increasing number of visits to government websites and increased participation—as I understand—in www.govtalk.gov.uk. So I believe that people are learning their way around the system.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, would the Minister comment on how successful the OGC has been in implementing Sir Peter Gershon’s e-government efficiency review?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can only at large and in general say that I believe that there have been improvements. The work of Sir Peter Gershon has been widely welcomed throughout government, and our IT record is one of continued improvement and success.

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, is the Minister aware that if he were unfortunate enough to have cancer of the bladder, medical advice would be that he should eat no more tomatoes? Is that information on the website?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, not that I am aware, no.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I really wonder whether the noble Lord is aware of the extent to which he has attracted to himself this morning the wholehearted sympathy of the House at the appalling ordeal that he has had to go through in not giving a single answer to a question and really fluffing what he has said beyond the limits of comprehension.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord always makes generous remarks across the House, and I suppose that I have to be the beneficiary of those remarks on some occasions.

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