Software vendors and the UK government: How to peer behind the scene


In the Open Source world we are rarely privy to what goes on behind closed doors in the world of ICT in UK gov.

However, we have been remarkably 'lucky' over the years to fish out just what is going on. By popular request here's how it's done: The Spencer System.

This is my own system used for detective work when dealing with official releases written or spoken in Mandarin-Speak. They invariably consist of: lies (verifiable and non verifiable); 'economical truths'; weasel words; spin and monkey shaking. A glossary is provided at the end for those unfamiliar with the terms.

The Spencer System

The Spencer System allows the Open Source advocate to counter the machinations of the cosy relationships between established vendors and government.

The process starts with paranoia, which has no factual content, and moves smoothly to plain facts.


Reacting to an imagined threat is not the same as reacting to no threat. The first may save your life the other is just loony. Paranoia merely acknowledges a high but undefined threat level.

Taken to excess paranoia is a debilitating illness, used carefully it is the impulse to generate hypotheses. With a hypothesis you have a direction in which to look for information to support it or refute it.

This is hugely important in an era when an internet search can rapidly test the hypothesis. A dead end is only seconds away and you can try another search. Getting is wrong is low risk getting it right is hugely beneficial.

Guessing or Speculation

Lucky guessing is born of practice. It is a rational cognitive process based on information but lurks just below the conscious. Speculation is simply a narrative version of guessing where guesses are concatenated into coherent plausible stories.

Unlike paranoia, speculation has a few facts some of which are sub-conscious, borne only of experience, which then are confabulated into a story. The utility of this process is that an internally consistent, plausible story is believable especially by conspiracy theorists.

Its mosaic of truth and fable usually flushes out replies and denials, which in turn point you in the right direction in the hunt for the real facts!

Putting Two and Two together

At this level we are on the fringe of analysis. It is the most fun you can have. You have looked in the right places and have enough facts to go beyond mere speculation.

For example, a while ago we were a little paranoid that something was going down in education that involved another behind the scenes government deal with a well known proprietary vendor. To cut a long story short, using a Freedom of Information request (FOI) we obtained travel information about certain government personnel trip's to Seattle. We then backtracked on the activities/posts/interests of those whose names came up.

It did not take long to assemble a narrative and a short list of scenarios. Next step: drill down and put two and two together.


Analysis is less exotic. You simply collect a whole load of information which you have gleaned or been given and work out what it means. OK, it requires a little intellectual effort and some synthetic reasoning but essentially it is just logic and reason.

It's always good to read a piece of sound analysis, you feel gratitude that someone has done a job for you.


This is the purist approach. Gather information, check as best you can its factual accuracy and report what you find. Pure journalism like this is worth its weight in gold, someone else has done some real research work and has gifted it to you... heaven.


You cannot find out what they are up to simply by looking at the facts. The reason is you have no idea (at first) what these are or even where to look for them. Just like in scientific work the process starts with a hypothesis, but unlike science the creative engine is paranoia rather than curiosity.

The process continues until you have got enough facts to weave a plausible narrative, then you publish and go fishing. At the end you will have sussed them. Try the Spencer system for yourself..oh you already do? fair enough.

Glossary of Mandarin Speak

Lies (verifiable and non-verifiable): should be undetectable on hearing and have a short life time

Economy with Truth: 'lying using white space': No lies are told but relevant truths are missed out

Weasel Words: ambiguity generated invisible to the listener through syntactic complexity

Spin: misleading selective use of facts, context and timing to present your case in the best possible light

Monkey Shaking: mixing cliché 'comfort phrases' with complex often controversial concepts with the aim of encouraging the listener to skip the hard bits

"Recommended For You"

The Guardian: Yes, but of What? Global Surveillance: The Day We Fight Back