In local government, no one can hear you scream. I've discovered that Milton Maynard Council is not so much an assignment as an execution. I thought that my cunning in putting on an exciting (if fraudulent) demonstration for SLAC (the Society of Local Authority Councils) would have won me Brownie points with icy chief information officer, Lucy Livesey. Not a bit. Instead, she now expects me to be well on the way to developing a non-existent and probably commercially impossible system.
The basic concept is simple. Milton Maynard wants to decrease traffic in the city centre, in part to push unwilling passengers onto the subsidised park-and-ride buses that rattle back and forward empty every day from the unappealing out-of-town car parks. That way the subsidy could be reduced.
More importantly, Ms Livesey wants to be part of an exciting, hi-tech council, which can bring in electronic car charging ahead of its rivals.
One-upmanship (or rather, one-uppersonship) is a big thing in council circles.
The problem (or should I say my problem, since Ms Livesey has made it very plain where any fan-propelled excrement will land) is that we have neither the time nor the technology to develop a prototype, especially in the three weeks allowed. Two weeks had already trickled away in the endless meetings and form-filling that seem an inevitable part of council life. I convened an emergency session with my two most trusted henchmen among the small army of council workers who are happy to give sizeable chunks of their time to the project, as long as they get away from their desks.
"It's not hopeless," I said, despite the onset of despair. After all, the good consultant always gives the client the impression that everything is fine. Or rather, everything would be fine, if only the client would spend enough on consultancy. But I digress.
"Could we buy in a system?" This was Maggie, a superb organiser who is wasted on Parks and Cemeteries.
"No. The technology exists, but it's too expensive, and it's not invented here. Ms Livesey wants all the glory."
"What about using mats on the floor, like a census?" Dennis from Highways was having trouble joining the technology age.
"That won't work, Dennis. We'd know how many cars came through, but not which ones."
"Bloody computers," observed Dennis. "We'd be better off without them."
"Yes, yes", I started to shut Dennis up, but then a wonderful thought struck me. Perhaps Ms Livesey would have her prototype after all. I started scribbling furiously. "Dennis, get in touch with this firm. Ask them how many of their in-car units we could have by Friday. Maggie, how are your contacts in other departments?"
"Excellent. Networking is what local government is all about."
I restrained the urge to say I thought it was all about long tea breaks.
Possibly, just possibly, a solution was in sight - but I hadn't much time.
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