True Story No40

 

Crisis Management

I've never seen the gist of this story in print before.
For simply ages we and the Americans (and others) have been pooling intelligence. Not necessarily all our intelligence as lots of it has the words "UK EYES ONLY" appended, and no doubt on the other side of the pond "US EYES ONLY".

Just digressing a little… I once built a decoder for listening into Morse code transmissions. It was in the days of the old Beeb computer: a really clever piece of equipment; not only for playing the usual mindless games, but for helping with really interesting things like running programs to decode Morse code.

Anyway, I built the interface unit from scratch and then wrote a program to decode the results. Not too easy as there are lots of variables… speed of transmission, length of dots and dashes, spaces etc etc. Real fun to debug. When it was finished, and coupled to a short-wave communications receiver, I managed to read lots of messages, mainly short transmissions between amateur radio stations. I also copied many encrypted messages, which of course showed up on the monitor screen as meaningless groups of letters and numbers. I do however remember receiving one message carrying the heading "US EMBASSY STAFF ONLY". It wasn't encrypted so was probably pretty boring stuff. I recall the contents referring to something that happened the following day but what it actually was I can't remember. It might have been that time the US invaded Grenada and the reprobates pinched all the radar equipment from the new International Airport being built by Plessey, the company I worked for. I think the story got mixed up the next day because I believe it was said the airport was being built by Russians... well it wasn't it was good old Plessey, an English family-run firm. I wonder what the US did with all our radar equipment? Probably copied it and put US names on it I shouldn't wonder.

Back to the story about Crisis Management. Oh yes that's what I was getting at earlier, "Crisis Management". The US had this powerful Crisis Management system used by their "executive", if that's the right description?

A year or two before the last female UK prime minister left office I read a request for quotation, issued by a government department, for a Crisis Management System for the UK. Evidently the US system had been viewed, and reported on by a visitor: and when the benefits of automated crisis management had been understood by a certain member of the UK government she just had to have one.

So it was then that a request for a tender to supply a UK crisis management system had been prepared and issued to selected UK firms.

What was fascinating was one of the terms tagged onto the financial statement.
There was a large bonus for the successful contractor if the system was to be delivered early.
The terms of the bonus got better as the timescale reduced.
Clearly, the game was given away when one looked at the key date the system was to be in place… and working.
Just in time to give the government in power a huge re-election advantage.

Knowledge is power it is said.
The crisis management system is built around knowledge.
Unfortunately delivery was late, very late.

The room near the centre of the system had been finished in a pretty shade of pink.
One of the first things to be done after handover was to re-decorate that room. Pink wouldn't do. I've no idea what colour John Major requested, if indeed he was consulted?

In fact did anyone ever tell him about the new system?

I won't say what it's called but I bet Tony Blair knew about it and if Mr.Brown looks hard enough I believe he might find a secret door leading to an underground passage leading to the system.

 

When I wrote the above (when Mr Brown was in charge), "Project Pindar" wasn't known about much outside the Cabinet Office. Actually, that's nonsense because the plebs involved in the project knew everything about it. Back in the tendering stage I was "Project Manager Designate" which didn't really mean too much. I remember standing on a stage in a lecture theatre in London, within the building occupied by the Cabinet Office, armed with a set of notes corresponding to vu-foils which I'd managed to produce on a computer.

Plessey was the main contractor and supporting us we had teams from most of the UKs defence contractors. Lots of meetings were held to decide on the share of the cake and how to break the development task into chunks large enough to satisfy the financial ambitions of the bidding teams. I suppose the whole setup was destined to raise the overall cost to astronomic levels compared with what it might have been. Knowledge is power though and what did politicians know about the technicalities of computers? Not a lot I guess. One or two had been escorted around the US version of Pindar and may have been prepared to let UK Industry boffins blind them with jargon... The project would elevate the standing of the Minister in charge except, with Cabinet reshuffles, I'm not sure if any one individual took credit, and by the time it was handed over with cost and time over-runs the Minister in charge would have been a little upset.

Now in 2018, a search of the Internet will turn up photographs of Pindar, but mostly these pictures tell us nothing, and some of the ideas you'll read are not really accurate (in fact sheer fantasy). Where did the name come from? When I asked an MoD chappie, at a briefing for the bid, he pointed out his office window. On the wall opposite the sign read "Pindar Street".

 

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