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Big Brother Plc

Its easy to overlook the most strategically important building in West London. Travelling from Heathrow to suburban Uxbridge, you might well fail to notice a featureless glass and steel cube guarded by a bronze eagle. A pity really. Most people would be astounded at what goes on in there.
Right now, I'm standing in a dimly lit passageway deep inside this unchartered facility, accompanied by its Supreme Commander. We've successfully negotiated two security points, including one of those annoying bullet-proof glass turnstiles. Now we can go no further. Even the boss can't get to the next level because the passcode changes every hour. Hes growing impatient waiting for help. For something to talk about he sweeps his hand in the direction of a neon studded metal map of the world.

We manage this he says. He reminds me strangely of P.T.Barnum.

In time we file into an observation gallery. Stretching into the distance is a scene that vaguely resembles something out of Battlestar Galactica. Rows of workers are dwarfed by vast screens displaying unintelligible flow charts and maps. Behind a wall-size window just a grenades throw away is one of the grandest computer rooms Ive ever laid eyes on: 70 terabytes (70,000 gigabytes) at the last count, enough to give god himself a momentary headache. The organism grows constantly. At the moment of writing it boasts 50,000 MIPS processing power and services 400,000 terminals around the world.

It looks like enough crunching power to run a government. Which is fortunate, because that's exactly what it does.

This is one of the two international hubs of EDS, the biggest information management organisation on earth. Banks, airlines, oil companies and myriad multinationals depend on EDS to move, sort and make sense of their data. And so do governments. It's not just the Bank of America, France Telecom, General Motors, Sony and Philips in there. It's the US Immigration Service. And the government of South Australia. And your tax records.

You may not have noticed it, but there's a slow privatisation going on that could be worth many many times the value of British Rail - and could carry far more important implications. This isn't about last century's infrastructure. Its about next century's.

At the moment EDS is handling at least some of the data needs of the Child Support Agency, the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency, the NHS, the Department of Social Security, and the Inland Revenue, among others. Its contracts with the British government are worth billions. And it's not just a matter of money. EDS is part of a fundamental change in the nature of government services and government accountability.

In some respects, the outsourcing boom is nothing new In the eighties many people with uniforms or gardening shorts found themselves on the front page of a private sector employment contract. In this first phase of outsourcing, government agencies were divided into core functions (collecting tax, paying welfare benefits) and peripheral or support functions (mowing lawns maintaining building security). The core functions were maintained.

In the 1990s, the equation took another step. Agencies evolved a more complex division : Executive functions (manufacturing and issuing passports, issuing ID cards, processing data), and Judgmental functions (issuing documents of identity in transit, granting asylum). In this second phase of outsourcing, the judgmental functions are maintained by government.

This current distinction is a line drawn in sand. There is no policy - only what Oughton describes as Developing Practice. This leaves the way open for a third phase of outsourcing involving core functions of the 102 Executive Agencies (Central Statistical Office, Employment Service, Customs and Excise, Patent Office etc). The entire Paymaster General went this way last month and more agencies will soon follow.

So it sees that Orwell was wrong. Big Brother doesn't have a party apparatus, and he doesn't wear a uniform (except perhaps for the obligatory tie). He doesn't care what you believe. He just sits in West London piling up the data and trying to make an honest buck. Just a conscientious partner in the great national enterprise. You could almost get to like him.