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Spreadsheet Blamed For UK Rail Bid Fiasco

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the spreadsheet-fiasco-is-redundant dept.

Bug 125

First time accepted submitter Bruce66423 writes "As a sometime computer programmer who was always very sniffy about the quality of the stuff being knocked up by amateurs aka power users, the current claim that it was a messed up spreadsheet that caused a multi-million pound fiasco is very satisfying. 'The key mechanism... mixed up real and inflated financial figures and contained elements of double counting.'"

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125 comments

WTF (3, Insightful)

ohnocitizen (1951674) | about 2 years ago | (#41568743)

So a sometime programmer likes to think he is better than people who don't know how to program at all? As a fulltime programmer (which apparently puts me higher in the hierarchy) I think that is just a bit silly.

Re:WTF (5, Funny)

cloudmaster (10662) | about 2 years ago | (#41568771)

As a Unix sysadmin, I know that all developers - full time or not - are way too full of their perceived abilities to do things correctly. ;)

Re:WTF (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568971)

As the inventor of logic I know that all Unix sysadmins- full time or not - are way to full of their perceived abilities to do things correctly. ;) .... May You be Touched by My Noodly Appendage

FSM

Re:WTF (1)

interval1066 (668936) | about 2 years ago | (#41569423)

You must be 3000 years old. Do you know Mel Brooks?

What's your account name? (1)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | about 2 years ago | (#41574889)

What's your account name?

*clicketyclicketyclicketyclick*

Sorry, we don't have an account by that name.

Now, you were saying what again?

BOFH

Re:WTF (5, Funny)

dna_(c)(tm)(r) (618003) | about 2 years ago | (#41569355)

As a Unix sysadmin, I know that all developers - full time or not - are way too full of their perceived abilities to do things correctly. ;)

The Excel manager (or the closely related Powerpoint manager) has something in common with the Only-Development Matters developer, the Without-Sysadmin-The-Universe-Would-Shutdown-Now systems guy and the Nothing-Happens-When-I-Dont Sell people. Silo silliness.

Re:WTF (2)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#41569977)

The Excel manager (or the closely related Powerpoint manager) has something in common with the Only-Development Matters developer, the Without-Sysadmin-The-Universe-Would-Shutdown-Now systems guy and the Nothing-Happens-When-I-Dont Sell people. Silo silliness.

You forgot to mention they all live in the I'm-A-Unique-and-Beautiful-Snowflake land, not We're-All-In-This-Together-ville. I know, the second one is a lot smaller -- it's just a town on the outskirts of the much larger land, but... I think these things matter. :D

Re:WTF (2)

rbmyers (587296) | about 2 years ago | (#41570893)

Let all of us who are old enough raise a glass to toast the days when people who wrote programs, who rarely referred to themselves as programmers, understood full well that they didn't know what they were doing and were going to make mistakes.

Re:WTF (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41573581)

As a developer, I know that all Unix sysadmins - full time or not - are way too full of their perceived abilities to do things correctly. ;)

Re:WTF (0)

SydShamino (547793) | about 2 years ago | (#41568783)

I know. WTF "amateurs aka power users"?? Those terms have different meanings for a reason.

Re:WTF (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 2 years ago | (#41575157)

Hint: they aren't referring to the same activity.

Re:WTF (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568905)

It's funny though, the stuff that spread sheets get used for.

Re:WTF (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569103)

It's funny though, the stuff that programmers want to write custom code to accomplish, when a general-purpose program exists that can solve the same problem.

Re:WTF (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569235)

It's funny though how the IT department always has to take over and maintain the garbage spreadsheets and databases put together by the "power user" in various organizations when that person leaves or is transferred. We inherit this utter crap and then are expected to maintain things that never should have been built in an end user computing platform like Excel or the like.

Re:WTF (3, Interesting)

Herr Brush (639981) | about 2 years ago | (#41570489)

Its funny how the IT department doesn't want to build the apps in the first place which means end users have to do the work themselves.

Re:WTF (1)

DeathElk (883654) | about 2 years ago | (#41571933)

Its funny how the end user decides they don't like the tools they've been given, and, because they did it "this way" at a previous employer, think that it's OK to bring in their own methodology without any impact assessment.

Re:WTF (1)

LoztInSpace (593234) | about 2 years ago | (#41573963)

I fully sympathyse with this. Unfortunately the reality is that it is not always the development that goes wrong but often the management of the whole lifecycle.
The missing step in business-built spreadsheets (or whatever) is rigour in process. The whole spec, develop, review, independent test, change management, audit, reporting, DRP etc is rare in the non IT scenario.
That goes for VB, spreadsheets, Access databases or whatever, and that's where that "garbage" comes from. The difference is that the business built spreadsheets tend to overlook that stuff so can knock something up in a short space of time. The IT solution factors it all in and prices/estimates/resources appropriately and as a result gets less done but what does get done stands a better chance of actually helping.
I am currently on the periphery of a project to replace such a system that was knocked up by the business. 40+ manual steps, a spreadsheet/access database, email, 1000+ reference documents and god knows what else keeps a team of 7 people running. Had they accepted the IT department's bid ($300-$400K) that would actually have been a better solution. However the business baulked and evolved a manual process into a mutant hybrid and that's where they are now.
And yes, I realise you claimed IT didn't want to build the app and I've gone off on a tangent from your post, if not the thread.

Re:WTF (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569085)

As an overtime programmer, I agree.

Re:WTF (2)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#41569213)

So a sometime programmer likes to think he is better than people who don't know how to program at all?

I guess that in a similar way, people who can read and write consider themselves better than those who are illiterate. Why is that silly? A significant number of people seems to think that teaching problem solving using automated data processing tools (sometimes manifested as programming) should have almost the same priority in schools as reading and writing.

Re:WTF (1)

Kijori (897770) | about 2 years ago | (#41570557)

I think it would be an equally arrogant and condescending claim if made in the context of reading. Taking satisfaction from people less expert than you making mistakes is rather pathetic, and even more so when (like the submitter) you are not very good yourself and therefore make plenty of your own mistakes.

Re:WTF (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41571561)

Why is that silly?

because all people have equal worth you fucking retard

Re:WTF (1)

Telvin_3d (855514) | about 2 years ago | (#41569323)

An occasional programmer thinks he is better at programming than people who don't program at all? Isn't this a truism?

Re:WTF (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 2 years ago | (#41575151)

You're missing the point. The problem isn't those who don't know how to program, it's those who don't know that they don't know how to program.

English as a first language (3, Informative)

Okian Warrior (537106) | about 2 years ago | (#41568823)

For those of us who speak English as a first language, here's a translation:

"A messed-up spreadsheet caused a multi-million-pound fiasco."

I think it refers to government financing for some sort of rail transport project in England, but I'm not as sure about that part.

Re:English as a first language (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568911)

Submitter was obviously an aussie [must be, he's called bruce] and they have almost as much of a dodgy grip on the english language as the yanks have.

Re:English as a first language (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568981)

I'll try and lay it out in brief:

In the 90's the public Inter city rail system was privitised.

Since then, companies bid for contracts to provide services (13 years in length iirc)

One of the main francises was recently up for renewal (the main route from London to Scotland)

The current holders lost out to a new comer and challange the bid in the courts as being to good to be true.

They lost the trial and the contract was awarded.

It has since transpired (thanks to documents examined in court or documents given a second examination because of the trial, I'm unsure which) that the way the bid was assessed was incorrect.

This was due to a new system being put in place and used for the very first time.

The Minister in charge of this was removed from their Job about 3 weeks before any of this came to light.

This is the first source I've seen providing any actual excuse for what's happened other than "Unexceptable errors".

Re:English as a first language (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41570259)

Let's try and fix that for you:

In the 90s the UK rail system was privatised, with various franchises set up to run passenger services on different routes.

The length of the franchises has varied over the years. The government wanted to let longer (~15 years) franchises to try and persuade the franchisees to invest in the routes they serve (short franchises meant they wouldn't be running the show long enough to see a return on their investment).

Five years ago another franchise (the East Coast route from London to Scotland) was let to the National Express group. Two years in they found that they'd bid too high for the franchise and couldn't afford the payments they'd promised the government (or at least weren't making any money). So they walked away and left the government with the keys.

The government had come up with a new method of evaluating franchises to try and avoid this in the future. This was used for the franchise in question (West Coast route from London to Scotland, Manchester, Birmingham). The incumbent, Virgin, put in a bid, as well as three others. One of the others (First) was announced as the winner, but Virgin kicked up a fuss saying that First's bid was too risky: First's bid offered more money to the government late in the franchise, and little in the first years. Virgin's was more evenly spread.

Virgin called for a judicial review of the franchising procedure, as they were entitled to do. The government insisted that the process was followed correctly and said First would take over in December. They started gathering evidence to present their case.

This week they found that they had made major mistakes and would have the book thrown at them if they went in front of a judge. So they called the whole process off and will refund all bidders the money they spent on their bids. (40 million pounds or so.)

Apart from the obvious political fallout there's the issue of who's going to run the railway when Virgin's current franchise period ends. It was extended once for the Olympics, and European competition law might say that it can't be extended again. The government may have to operate it directly instead. But they're already running the East Coast route. And there are four or five smaller franchises that were due to be let over the next two years. The franchise letting process is going to have to be ripped out and put back together again. The process of letting all those franchises will have to be put on hold. Will the government have to take those over in the short term as well? Can they find enough railway managers to do that?

In short, it is a ghastly mess.

Re:English as a first language (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41572489)

Thank you for doing the submitter's job, and the editor's job.

Re:English as a first language (1)

petermgreen (876956) | about 2 years ago | (#41572537)

Can they find enough railway managers to do that?

What happens to staff when a franchise is taken over anyway? I would think the low level staff and probablly their immediate bosses must be kept arround as to do otherwise would just cause chaos but how high up the tree does it go?

Re:English as a first language (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41572985)

honstly? the goverment shouldnt let out the franchises at all. keep them all and let DOR run them. it terns out its better then the franchises.

Re:English as a first language (1)

whoever57 (658626) | about 2 years ago | (#41568997)

I think it refers to government financing for some sort of rail transport project in England, but I'm not as sure about that part.

It's not a "project". It is the right to run the rail franchise for the west coast main line. The rails themselves are owned by Network Rail and companies bid periodically for the rights to run services on those rails.

Re:English as a first language (5, Informative)

didroe84 (1324187) | about 2 years ago | (#41569441)

The way our railways were privitised (which has been a total disaster btw), is that the government leases out monopolies on routes to companies for 10-15 years. This is about one of the routes coming up for renewal and the contract being taken away from the current operator (Virgin). After the announcement of the winner, Virgin said the other company had made an unrealistic bid and wouldn't be able to operate the route at the quoted rate. Now it turns out the government department overseeing the bidding process has messed up the calculations when assessing the feasibility of the bid.

Re:English as a first language (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41574159)

>Now it turns out the government department overseeing the bidding process has messed up the calculations when assessing the feasibility of the bid.

Did they really messed up? Or did someone else asked them to mess up their calculations?

Why should the government asses the bid? (1)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | about 2 years ago | (#41574903)

Why should the government asses the bid? I'd say it's up to the company to come up with the money and take their losses. They most likely have other routes that are profitable to compensate. Any wise board always calculates a percentage of their budget as "unforseen" and this is just one of these cases. Or did they use the same spreadsheet for those other lines as well?

Re:Why should the government asses the bid? (3, Insightful)

bpkiwi (1190575) | about 2 years ago | (#41575007)

Because without some sort of proof of a sound business model, a company can underbid/overbid (underbid on cost, overbid on the fees they will pay the government) just to get into the market. Then they can run the service into the ground, suck any money they can out into 'consulting fees' and other such expenses that end up in the investor's pockets, and then just go bankrupt. The government gets left holding the run down remains, and suddenly all the trains stop.

Re:English as a first language (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 2 years ago | (#41569903)

This story doesn't really have anything to do with Excel. The mistake could just have easily been made with pen and paper. The issue is that the calculations were apparently not checked, leading to costs of at least £40m.

Currently the people who did those calculations have been suspended, but really the fault lies with whoever should have made sure their work was double checked by an outside agency.

Multi-million pound fiasco. Woah. Heavy. (0)

HellYeahAutomaton (815542) | about 2 years ago | (#41568827)


There's that word again. "Heavy." Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth's gravitational pull?

- Doc Brown

Re:Multi-million pound fiasco. Woah. Heavy. (1)

Dr Damage I (692789) | about 2 years ago | (#41575081)

"Yes, I know. This is heavy" - Doc Brown

Ban power users! (0)

fm6 (162816) | about 2 years ago | (#41568883)

Get all those stupid computers off people's desks! Things were much better when you had to go to a programmer in order to get software to do anything!

And (not incidentally) it would eliiminate all the productivity that's lost to Slashdot!

Re:Ban power users! (4, Interesting)

KingTank (631646) | about 2 years ago | (#41569263)

Get all those stupid computers off people's desks! Things were much better when you had to go to a programmer in order to get software to do anything!

And (not incidentally) it would eliiminate all the productivity that's lost to Slashdot!

Your sarcasm is unwarranted. This is a nice story for us programmers because it's just the kind of anecdote that makes businesses seriously consider hiring more professional programmers. Nobody is suggesting you need custom software for everything.

Re:Ban power users! (1)

moj0joj0 (1119977) | about 2 years ago | (#41569439)

Nobody is suggesting you need custom software for everything.

But it would be nice for the pay check if they did...

Re:Ban power users! (5, Insightful)

fm6 (162816) | about 2 years ago | (#41569823)

The submitter is suggesting — no, make that "claiming" — that spreadseets are dangerous because they allow "non-professionals" to program. Now, spreadsheets are the original "killer app" for PCs. Huge numbers of CP/M-based systems were sold just to run VisiCalc, and this probably had a lot to do with IBM biting the bullet and getting into the desktop computer business, with results that reverberate to this very day and the forseeable future. Alan Kay, one of the inventors of OOP and GUI, cites spreadsheets as a tool that turn ordinary users into programmers. Attack spreadsheets, and you attack the entire idea of user-centric programming. The submitter's attitude is reminiscint of the pre-Woz era, when you had to negotiate with your programming staff to do even the simplest computing and programmers were known as "High Priests of a Low Cult". There's a lot of room for sarcasm here.

More than I thought to use. I also could have been sarcastic about the assumption that "hire a pro" is a magic bullet for avoiding fuckups. Really? "Professionals" never make stupid, multimillion-dollar mistakes? Get real.

"Have somebody check your work" is the applicable lesson here. "Hire a pro and you're safe." is just bullshit.

Re:Ban power users! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41570659)

Your comment provides the best insight into the problem so far.

Re:Ban power users! (1)

Kijori (897770) | about 2 years ago | (#41570699)

I agree wholeheartedly with this. I would add that the submitter's comments are an example of the phenomenon that the barely-competent tend to delight in the failings of others. Those who are more skilled can recognise that everyone makes mistakes, and don't need to dwell on the mistakes that others make in order to prop up their self-esteem.

Re:Ban power users! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41571183)

The trouble is that spreadsheets make it really, really, really easy to fuck up.

For example, suppose there's an error, you got confused and wrote some text where a number was supposed to go

If you were writing a program in Java the compiler says "No dude, that is text, this should be a number" and you can't go on without fixing it.

If you are using Microsoft Excel it just silently eats your mistake, "I guess you know best" and the text is treated as zero or ignored altogether

It's not about professionals versus laymen, it's about using tools that are known to be of poor quality. There have been reports for _years_ telling financial people never to use spreadsheets to do their calculations because it's so easy to fuck up and so hard to spot the problem. And did they stop? Of course they didn't, because if what you have is a hammer then you reassure yourself that the problem can definitely be solved with hammering.

Getting someone else to check your work in today's spreadsheets is a waste of time. The errors tend to be subtle, a hidden column with a row that says N/A because of a rounding error, a typo in an equation you can't see without hovering in just the right place. That sort of thing. People need to stop using them to do this sort of work, they're garbage. They're garbage if you're a professional and they're still garbage if you're a layman.

Re:Ban power users! (1)

hugh9954 (462585) | about 2 years ago | (#41571439)

(shrug) sometimes people push their spreadsheet way beyond what it was ever meant to do - either because they're in a hurry, or because they don't know other tools exist.

As a co-op student 15 years ago, I wrote an indoor cellular-propagation simulator in Excel. It was terribly slow, but it worked and printed pretty pictures and got us a half-million-dollar contract that we would otherwise have lost because the customer didn't think my manager's hand-drawn sketches looked techie enough.

Re:Ban power users! (1)

fm6 (162816) | about 2 years ago | (#41571567)

(shrug) sometimes people push their spreadsheet way beyond what it was ever meant to do - either because they're in a hurry, or because they don't know other tools exist.

Agreed. But isn't that true of any programming tool? Or any tool of any kind?

Re:Ban power users! (2)

ray-auch (454705) | about 2 years ago | (#41570943)

Get all those stupid computers off people's desks! Things were much better when you had to go to a programmer in order to get software to do anything!

And (not incidentally) it would eliiminate all the productivity that's lost to Slashdot!

Your sarcasm is unwarranted. This is a nice story for us programmers because it's just the kind of anecdote that makes businesses seriously consider hiring more professional programmers. Nobody is suggesting you need custom software for everything.

And you've missed the point.

It is just as likely that the accounting model was incorrect rather than the implementation. If the spec is wrong (or unclear or incomplete) then you will get garbage out whatever tools you use - excel, c, c++, c#, haskell or real programming in Fortran (assembler if you must). If you don't test and cross check your outputs then you risk not spotting implementation mistakes - whatever tools you use.

Essentially, someone's built a wooden shed the wrong size and in the wrong place vs. the plan - and now they're in trouble for it. The submitter is saying "that's what happens when amateurs use wood and nails to make buildings, if they'd just hired us steelworkers to do the job properly using steel, it wouldn't have happened".

So what? (4, Informative)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | about 2 years ago | (#41568889)

Spreadsheets are popular for the following reasons:
  1. They are programs that are not based on assigning values to variables
  2. Users get a visual representation of where values are being assigned and how values are related to each other
  3. The syntax of expressions is familiar, and there is little syntax that users need to learn beyond that

I suspect there are better ways to get all of the above, but that is irrelevant. Does the submitter think that people who use other programming languages do not make such catastrophic mistakes? I think history says otherwise:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight_capital [wikipedia.org]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariane_5_Flight_501 [wikipedia.org]

Bugs can be costly, regardless of whether those bugs are in spreadsheets or Ada programs.

Re:So what? (1)

Dan667 (564390) | about 2 years ago | (#41569725)

spreadsheets are popular, because the barrier to entry is relatively low compared to anything else. It is more or less visual basic for people who don't want to learn programming (or are not able)

Re:So what? (1)

im_thatoneguy (819432) | about 2 years ago | (#41571207)

Yeah, I would suspect the "bug" in this case was one of design not execution. So even if a professional programmer had been in charge they would have made the same error if they were following 'spec'.

This isn't an 'excel' glitch, this is a design glitch. They improperly modeled a real world behavior but got the model wrong. That's a mistake that everybody involved in planning can make.

I'm sorry, but... (1)

Casandro (751346) | about 2 years ago | (#41574749)

That argument is like saying we should build houses out of loose straw since houses made out of stone also collapse.

You are comparing something as trivial as some business decision with something that is, literally, rocket science.

MS added a special feature to Excel - UK edition (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568915)

"Create Huge Row"

Re:MS added a special feature to Excel - UK editio (5, Funny)

dna_(c)(tm)(r) (618003) | about 2 years ago | (#41569397)

"Create Huge Row"

And the Daily Mail dedicated several Columns to it.

Re:MS added a special feature to Excel - UK editio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41573257)

Sounds like a winning formula to get more readers.

Excel (1)

girlintraining (1395911) | about 2 years ago | (#41568937)

Excel's new slogan: "The backhoe of the financial sector."

Re:Excel (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569233)

'The key mechanism... mixed up real and inflated financial figures and contained elements of double counting.'

This sounds like standard operating procedure for governments. GDP, CPI, value of assets held by the central banks.... All bullshit numbers designed to contort the truth and convince the public that the government is "doing a good job".

The calculator said so (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41568947)

This has nothing to do with someone using their tools incorrectly and getting the wrong values. This is to do with people blindly believing the numbers because "the computer worked it out so it must be right".

What to trust (1)

sinan (10073) | about 2 years ago | (#41569015)

If spread sheet says 2+2=5 , what do you trust? The spread sheet , which has huge amount of computational mathematics behind it, or your eyes which has, well you , behind it. With the state of mathematics education, I'd trust the spreadsheet. Besides the mathematics may have changed since the last version. What was Edgar Allan Poe's law? Or was it Nathan? Let me ask the computer..

Re:What to trust (2)

houghi (78078) | about 2 years ago | (#41569663)

I have had a situation where the outcome was absolutely not what I expected. I would have needed about 25% more FTE then what I would expect with my experience.

I checked and rechecked again and still came up with the same information.

Instead of getting the extra 25% people in, I decided to do all the calculations on paper AND give it to two other people to go over it to find out where I went wrong.

Eventually I got the correct number that was close to what I expected it to be and we also found the error I initially made. There is one thing that no tool has: experience.
If you blindly follow your tool, you are a tool. You are one of the people who drives into the river because your GPS tells you to go left.

Re:What to trust (1)

MonsterTrimble (1205334) | about 2 years ago | (#41574169)

Exactly. I don't know how many times my spreadsheets have kicked out something that I go 'There's No Way In Hell...' and I then went back and double and triple checked and found the error. If I didn't, I would get somebody else to look it over. If the numbers still stood up I would pass it along/up the chain with a note that I didn't believe the numbers were accurate. While this may not look great to the higher ups because they love hard numbers, they would much rather have your opinion that you think something is wrong.

tl;dr - Once you are done doing the math, ask yourself if this makes sense. If it doesn't - go figure out why.

Background for non-UKians (2)

Lincolnshire Poacher (1205798) | about 2 years ago | (#41569029)

A "rail franchise" in the UK is a Government-granted monopoly to run services over a particular rail route for a set period of time. The monopoly is awarded to the Train Operating Company ( TOC ) that basically bids the highest fee.

Rolling stock is provided by the Government, too, in conjunction with the TOC.

Notionally it is possible for Open Access Operators to also operate services over parts of the same route, but this flies in the face of the cushy relationship between Government and TOCs and so generally isn't granted.

This is the state of rail "privatisation" in the UK today.

Further Background for non-UKians (5, Insightful)

itsdapead (734413) | about 2 years ago | (#41569181)

This is the state of rail "privatisation" in the UK today.

Just to expand on that, "Privatisation" is a UK concept that seeks to combine the efficiency and value for money of government with the social responsibility and long-term vision of big business.

It's what you get if you spend so much time flip-flopping between socialist and capitalist governments that even the parties forget which is which.

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (1)

cyber-vandal (148830) | about 2 years ago | (#41570039)

I'm stealing that quote it's utterly brilliant :-)

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (1)

MSG (12810) | about 2 years ago | (#41570667)

seeks to combine the efficiency and value for money of government with the social responsibility and long-term vision of big business

I think you're going for a joke in there, but how often is government actually less efficient than big business?

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41570941)

Usually, the reason being that an inefficiency government entity get more money to solve a problem if it can't do it. That being said the root cause of most inefficiency is a lack of caring on the part of management. So if you business mangers don't care about efficiency or care about the wrong efficiency it will be as bad as a government entity with careless management. With one exception the government has an unlimited check book written on the production of it's people. Most businesses can actually go bankrupt especially if they have competition that cares. Of course, when you combine business with access to this same check book and efficient management that only cares about writing checks to it elf you wind up with worst of both worlds. Look at the major defense contractors as a great example. Of course there are emerging more smaller contractors who care about doing a good job for a reasonable amount and are delivering things that work the first time.

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (1)

pod (1103) | about 2 years ago | (#41572281)

This is what happens every time you hand a public monopoly to a private company. This is not how you privatize. You just get the worst of both worlds. This is flat out corporate welfare. If you're going to privatize something, you need to have competition in the market.

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (1)

0123456 (636235) | about 2 years ago | (#41573173)

If I remember correctly, this form of pseudo-privatisation was forced on the government by the EU. If they'd really privatised the British railways, the new owners would have ripped most of them up and sold the land to developers.

Re:Further Background for non-UKians (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41573255)

^^this^^

No mod points left.

Re:Background for non-UKians (1)

bazorg (911295) | about 2 years ago | (#41570591)

Rolling stock is owned by ROSCO companies [wikipedia.org] , not by government. Essentially companies in the finance business.
When Virgin trains found they lost this bid, Branson said that the staff would be transferred to First Group. Essentially there's a bunch of companies where a state monopoly used to operate. More overheads or less? I wasn't here to be able to compare - I just take the train and pay through the nose if I don't plan the booking carefully.

ubiquitous (5, Informative)

cratermoon (765155) | about 2 years ago | (#41569055)

Spreadsheets -- well, Excel really -- are inescapable in business.

I know personally of complex multimillion dollar deals in the oil and gas business involving buying and selling entire refineries and gas pipelines where the numbers were all worked out on a spreadsheet.

The insurance industry lives on the spreadsheets put together by the actuaries.

The only consistent reason I've seen for Excel users will give up their rows and columns and have bespoke software created is when the dataset gets cumbersomely large. A secondary reason is when the kinds of calculations needed can't be cobbled together with Excel's function and macro tools. Even then, it's not unheard of for users to demand summary/aggregate reports and analytics that they then copy the numbers from into their spreadsheet to do their scenarios.

Just keep in mind the next time you hear about big money moving around in some deal -- somewhere someone probably had a pivot table for that.

Re:ubiquitous (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569803)

I'm an actuary and at my company, the programmers are pushing to replace Excel based tools with tools based on in house software. It's a disaster since the programmers have no grasp of what Excel does right. Before, users could trace calculations back to their source, and if something wasn't done properly it could be overridden, but now we get an HTML file showing the calculation with the "formula" in the margin. I put formula in quotes because we don't actually see the code the program executes, we just see what the programmer wrote describing the expression hat was evaluated.

The programmers have been claiming that they can get it so it just works and then our complaints should be moot, but so far they've never gotten close.

On top of that, by leaving Excel you lose things like robust cut and paste and undo history for user inputs. Plus the user interface makes it easy to overwrite your saved results with a scratch calclation.

Re:ubiquitous (1)

pz (113803) | about 2 years ago | (#41570577)

On top of that, by leaving Excel you lose things like robust cut and paste and undo history for user inputs. Plus the user interface makes it easy to overwrite your saved results with a scratch calclation.

Don't forget things like reliabilily, (defacto) portability, professionally written documentation, a massive 3rd party training literature, and an even more massive 3rd party help literature on the web. And, for many readers here, the ability to use a work-alike open source tool instead.

Developing an in-house solution for a spreadsheet is, bluntly, an idiotic idea. MS hatred or not, Excel is a well-developed tool that just works. If the company is looking to save money, then deploy LibreOffice instead.

Re:ubiquitous (1)

zippthorne (748122) | about 2 years ago | (#41570615)

It seems you have a list of unspoken requirements and are complaining that your inhouse programmers aren't meeting them.

Perhaps you should go over that with your developers, because all of the features that you like about excel were put there by programmers - there is no fundamental reason why your in-house software can't perform the job you need more reliably, more usefully, faster, and with superior troubleshooting and auditing capability.

Now, the question of cost-effectiveness may come up at this point, but you won't know until you've actually defined all of the real requirements what the costs of the internally produced tools would be.

Re:ubiquitous (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41571311)

My issue is akin the old saw that every sufficiently advanced Fortran program has half a buggy, poorly specified implementation of Common Lisp imbedded in it. I can't tell them to reimplement half of Excel, they'll fuck it up worse than Excel.

Re:ubiquitous (2)

ax_42 (470562) | about 2 years ago | (#41575219)

Actuarial science is a specialised field, requiring a lot of understanding of the underlying calculations so that they can be properly implemented. The work that actuaries do also requires a lot of flexibility around changing the underlying model (e.g. to implement a new feature). Excel offers this quite well as a platform, and there are various suites of software commercially available which also meet those needs, tailored to actuarial work (and more importantly, workflow). Getting proper development processes in place (documentation, testing, specs) can be a challenge, but trying to solve the problem by writing your own system is knuckleheaded in the extreme. You will end up reimplementing Excel, badly.

For the record, I am or have been a developer, an actuary, a PM in charge of building an actuarial system, and a manager charged with making the best possible solutions available for our actuaries to work effectively (Excel + MoSes is what works for us, YMMV of course).

Re:ubiquitous (1)

Let's All Be Chinese (2654985) | about 2 years ago | (#41575269)

There's also the multi-million deals that are made on the back on an envelope... or a beer mat.

Those tend to be the better deals.

As always, in business and in programming and most everywhere else, you really should only introduce complexity when absolutely necessary. excel is a deceptive tool in that regard, it puts a "simple" face on a large bag of unstructured complexity, and then goes about guessing about what it deigns your inputs should actually mean.

Of course, insisting on bespoke software just to "fix" the flaws in excel without understanding the domain or the problem the existing jumble "solves" is a guarantee for getting less done, because the thing is made opaque and inflexible.

But that doesn't mean excel was a good idea in the first place. At best you get poor, shoddy hacks out of it. Despite everything it does right in the eyes of the user. That last bit is important, sure. But it's also important that the solution not fall over at the first sign of trouble, that it gives you a real handle on the complexity and the problem, and for things that aren't one-offs (recall that "temporary" solutions generally outlive "permanent" ones) that the thing scales a bit, not just in size but also in time. As in, it doesn't fall over in obscure ways with the next, or the next, or the next version of the software. And ideally you'd be independent of a single vendor. All things for developers to figure out, I'm sure.

As well they should, because there's a reason excel is seen "inescapable", whether it would still be after a rigorous investigation or not. Well, not just one reason, but it's become ingrained, a habit, the go-to-tool. Even though most who know what computers can do agree that it's not a very good tool at all. It's just so... warm and fuzzy in the minds of the business and enterprise warm body. So. Let's get to it.

former Goldman Sachs executive director... (1)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 2 years ago | (#41569061)

Guilty! They should promote her, like the Americans do.

get over yourself (2)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 years ago | (#41569075)

"As a sometime computer programmer who was always very sniffy about the quality of the stuff being knocked up by amateurs aka power users,

Get over yourself. 'Real' programmers make mistakes too, sometimes mistakes that kill people.

The problem seems to be an accounting/design problem, mixing different kinds of data, not a problem of programmer skill. Since I don't understand accounting, I will not claim that I wouldn't make the same mistake, and I've been a professional programmer for years.

Re:get over yourself (1)

DaveGod (703167) | about 2 years ago | (#41570119)

I suspect what the OP may be failing to communicate is an emphasis on the "amateur" whilst drawing parallels with his gripes about his own field.

As an accountant*1, this does seem very much like an amateur accounting/design problem, i.e. someone cobbling something together with no understanding of what they are doing. This happens all the time. Excel is immensely powerful, but relies completely on the competence of the user - both at Excel and at whatever it is they are trying to do. A lot of folks think Excel can somehow substitute for the latter, they don't really need to understand what they are doing because hey, Excel has a function for that!

However, what should have been an internal embarrassment for one member of staff turned into a crisis for the entire department because of a more fundamental failure with the department: nobody reviewed it properly. Control systems either were not adequate or were not functioning. I am an accountant and also would not claim that I would not make similar mistakes, but I would happily claim that I would most likely discover them in my own testing, and any mistakes remaining would more than likely be picked up at manager or partner review.

*1 strictly speaking it sounds more like an economic/finance job, though there is a lot of overlap.

Re:get over yourself (1)

narcc (412956) | about 2 years ago | (#41570435)

I couldn't agree more.

Just a quick fix for the submitter and those like minded:

this does seem very much like an amateur accounting/design problem, i.e. someone cobbling something together with no understanding of what they are doing. This happens all the time. Programming languages are immensely powerful, but rely completely on the competence of the user - both at programming and at whatever it is they are trying to do.

Just for fun:

A lot of folks think Python can somehow substitute for the latter, they don't really need to understand what they are doing because hey, Python has a function for that!

Spreadsheets are not the problem. They're a great tool appropriate for a broad class of problems. Users aren't the problem either -- it's all a matter of training.

Why all the Spreadsheet love? It saves time and money. As every developer knows, programmers are both lazy and expensive. Why waste their energy and the companies money working out some piddly tool that does what Excel can easily do better?

It's why I recommend training in Excel for all office staff every year. It saves everyone time and, without question, saves money.

The solution ... (1)

jamesl (106902) | about 2 years ago | (#41569207)

The solution will be to require certification in spreadsheet design, creation and use. All others will be issued pads, pencils and adding machines.

Certification will require six months of coursework, an eight hour test and a fee.

Note to self (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569361)

Do not hire this Bruce66423 for any position requiring interaction with end users. Better be safe and not hire him at all.

Amateurs trust technology (1)

ElitistWhiner (79961) | about 2 years ago | (#41569461)

Pro's do their own math when its their own money on the line.

Every time...

Re:Amateurs trust technology (1)

Luckyo (1726890) | about 2 years ago | (#41569713)

By that measuring stick, all the "pros" have been long outcompeted by "amateurs" and are now gone from all industries.

Well, there may still be some in Africa or poor Asian regions. I wouldn't know, but I'm quite certain that when "amateurs" actually judge the region to be financially viable to operate in, the "pros" will be outcompeted again..

Politispeak (1)

salparadyse (723684) | about 2 years ago | (#41569545)

The UK Government is proud to present Omnishambles v1.0
Years of underfunding, lack of training and a truly bizarre employment policy, coupled with the repeated use of IT support companies with records for incompetence and failure as long as your arm, have finally paid off.
There is nothing, literally nothing, that the UK Government can do without the result being a massive, over budget, cock-up.

Re:Politispeak (1)

Dark$ide (732508) | about 2 years ago | (#41569997)

The UK Government is proud to present Omnishambles v1.0 .

For folks who've not yet met the word "omnishambles", it means it's fuck up what ever way you look at it.

Most amusing was seeing Beardie Branson bleating that the Gov't was corrupt because they'd taken away his toy train set and given him a bank (Northern Wreck aka Virgin Money) to play with instead.

Re:Politispeak (1)

cyber-vandal (148830) | about 2 years ago | (#41570227)

With the private sector ably helping out

Re:Politispeak (1)

mrbester (200927) | about 2 years ago | (#41570273)

Omnishambles is just the internal name. The public one is Private Finance Initiative.

Re:Politispeak (1)

tomhath (637240) | about 2 years ago | (#41570347)

There is nothing, literally nothing, that the UK Government can do without the result being a massive, over budget, cock-up.

Of course, being the government there's no downside to screwing up. A private company would disappear; government just raises taxes and keeps moving along.

So accounting screwed up (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 2 years ago | (#41569649)

and you, god like programmer,could have done so much better cause you can shit out a widget on command?

might want to get over yourself Mr. Ego.

Its all about the process dummy. (2)

A Pressbutton (252219) | about 2 years ago | (#41569743)

The calculation could have been done on paper / blood on a wall / notches on a stick
and
carried out by throwing dice / abacus / mental arithmetic
by
morons / normal people / genii
If the process was not validated and the results were not checked, why is anyone surprised when it is wrong?
Some areas can be defined as right or wrong by people with good minds and strong opinions - games
Tax and Financial software not so.
At some point in the process $product needs to be validated using $external_process by $people_who_should_know
I am betting this did not happen.

Re:Its all about the process dummy. (1)

narcc (412956) | about 2 years ago | (#41570515)

How dare you question the evil of spreadsheets! Spreadsheets are a threat to my very existence. Why, if users could handle basic computing tasks with a simple general-purpose tool I'll be out of work -- or worse -- people will stop thinking I'm special.

"Facts" and "reality" have no place here except when they support the submitter's premise. This was supposed to be a love-on-entry-level-developers and hate-on-spreadsheets thread.

HOW ABOUT A BID ON RIGHT ROYAL ORAL HYGIENE ?? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41569905)

All the UK needs is a Ministy of Dentistry and things should be much brighter in the land of the foggy freeze !! Not much agony anymore, you poor old sods !!

Must be the computer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41570373)

One of the officials is ex Goldman Sacks who are totally perfect and noble. They would not get involved in shenanigans such as recommending client buy toxic assets whilst betting against them.

The real question is (1)

Cito (1725214) | about 2 years ago | (#41570631)

Who is John Galt?

Doesn't surprise me... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41571013)

Having worked in UK government for most of my career I can categorically say that most people have no idea what they are doing when it comes to manipulating numbers. Double counting is rife, robust statistical analyses are non-existent, and once errors are pointed out they are normally ignored if being incorrect more favourable results. I have questioned the quality of data presented at fairly high levels of government, and found that there is either a lack of understanding or a lack of wanting to understand; putting problems into the 'too hard box' is very simple when nobody is watching your back.

Depressingly, most calculations are given to the person who happens to be the most capable, even if that means that the only numerical qualification they possess is a GCSE in maths; in government you don't have to be a lighthouse to shine.

Anon.

Where Privatisation Works and Fails (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41571471)

Privatization works when a process loaded by political appointees screws everything up for political reasons: installing favored vendors who hire out of the department, staffing with everyone's nephew, paying off certain lobbying, corporate, ethnic/racial, and religious groups -- is replaced with a more rational and cost-driven approach.

This done largely by removing politics, read graft/corruption/cronyism/spoils politics, from the process.

Governments privatize because they end up with far too many nephews and favored racial/ethnic groups and connected businesses embedded in the process for anything to run even halfway efficiently.

Privatization fails when the idea is to do something below the cost it actually takes; and unrealistic contracts are let out and then abridged. Governments not prone to cronyism, spoils politics, rewarding favored ethnic/racial groups, and installing nephews can often do many things that governments filled with those attributes cannot. This is why Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan have governments run things that must be privatized in places like Brazil or Africa.

And the more Western Europe and Australia and the US become like Brazil or Africa, the more it will have to privatize things just to get politics and inept nephews and Affirmative Action hires out and competent people in.

Tools is Tools (1)

edibobb (113989) | about 2 years ago | (#41574525)

A spreadsheet application is a tool designed to be used by non-programmers. Someone can lose millions with a paper spreadsheet -- it's just easier using a computer.

Spreadsheets are defective tools (1)

Casandro (751346) | about 2 years ago | (#41574717)

Essentially Spreadsheets have 3 problems in this context:

1. They look simple enough so people who should perhaps not make hard decisions believe they can out source their decisions to a spreadsheet.

2. They are fairly opaque. It's hard to look into the structure of a spreadsheet. All you see is the data. When you are programming what you see is the code. You see what your program is doing. Even if you look at the formulas inside your spreadsheet, you'll have variable names like A15. That's not particularly readable.

3. They are hard to maintain. Imagine you having 15 values to add. Now you want to change that program to add up 20 values. In normal programming languages that is just changing one value. On a spreadsheet you now need to change all instances where that array is mentioned. You have no chance of using a constant or searching for "15". It is very likely you miss one thing you should have changed.

And there's another problem which isn't relevant here, but you should consider none the less when thinking about spreadsheets.
Spreadsheets lock their data in complex formats. If you are lucky you can get the data out as some sort of XML, if you are not, it's a binary blob. In any case, should you ever want to access the data with your own programme, you'll probably need to spend more time on getting the data than processing it.

As far as I know, the original Visicalc did some of the things right, so it actually was a moderately useful tool. For example as far as I know, it didn't allow you to scroll. That way the number of cells was limited to the amount of screen space you had... which was not a lot on an Apple II. Nobody would ever get the idea of having 10k data points in a Visicalc sheet, it simply was not possible.

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