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Open Government:
The BSE Enquiry


Chris


The Freedom of Information Act, 2000 specifies how open government should operate in the UK. Broadly speaking, citizens have the right to see any information held by public bodies, unless there is a compelling reason to withhold it.

Open Government is a wonderful and a powerful concept, allowing citizens to scrutinize the workings of the government they elected. The information they collect allows them to:

  • Understand the issues behind the headlines
  • Campaign for and follow their special interests
  • Assess the performance of government, and perhaps to expose problems
  • Assure themselves that all is well in the administration of society

These are our rights.

Being open to public scrutiny helps public bodies to develop a public service and accountability mentality, which is appropriate, since they are elected and employed by us, to do the work of running our society for us.

It all sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Great British Democracy in action?

Well, some time ago, the government held an enquiry into the BSE crisis, and we are told that this enquiry cost £6 million. I wondered how our government could spend this amount on an enquiry, so I decided to test our Open Government, and I asked it.

The Government body responsible turns out to be the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - "DEFRA". This article documents my progress so far in trying to gain access to this information.

If you prefer, you can jump to my conclusion.

10/8/2001: To: helpline@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Hello,

I heard on the news that the cost of the foot & mouth crisis so far is estimated by DEFRA to be 3 + 2 BN pounds.

I also hear that the cost of the BSE enquiry was more than 30 M pounds.

Please direct me to the sources for both statistics. I'd like to understand how the £30M was spent, and how the £5Bn was estimated.

Thanks,
Chris

15/8/2001: From: Gladstone.Pereira@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Dear Chris

Thank you for your e-mail of 10 August to the DEFRA Helpline. I have been
asked to reply.

With regard to your query about the cost of the BSE Inquiry, you may wish to look at the following website address which should provide you with the information you require:

http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/bse/index/html

There is also a dedicated Foot and Mouth Disease website located at:

http://www.defra.gov.uk/footandmouth/default.htm

I hope this is useful.

Yours sincerely

GLADSTONE PEREIRA
BSE Correspondence Section

I can't find my response email, but I was able to verify that neither of the web sites referred to contained the information I was looking for, so I asked again.

5/9/2001:

Dear Chris

Thank you for your further E-mail dated 15 August to Gladstone Pereira.

You asked for some information about the costs of the BSE Inquiry. By way of background, it is important to bear in mind that this Inquiry was a massive undertaking. Lord Phillips and his team spent nearly three years examining what happened day by day during the ten years that led up to the announcement of 20 March 1996 that BSE had probably generated a new and fatal human disease. More than 1,200 people submitted written evidence to the Inquiry; there were 138 days of public oral evidence from 333 witnesses; and the team looked at 3,000 files of contemporary official documents.

Up to the time of reporting, the full estimated cost of the Inquiry to the public purse was about £29 million. This figure includes a number of separate elements:

- the BSE Inquiry, including the Committee, their analysis and support teams and the reimbursement of direct costs of families of variant CJD victims attending the hearings, which cost around £16 million;

- the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, including the costs of the Departmental Liaison Unit (set up to provide an interface between the Department and the Inquiry), direct costs of serving officials called to give evidence before the Inquiry and legal support for current and former officials, former Ministers and current and previous external government advisers. These costs came to about £9 million;

- the Department of Health, including costs of their Liaison Unit, direct costs of witnesses who were serving officials and legal support for current and former officials and former Ministers, coming to about £3.2 million;

- other administrations and departments (e.g. the Devolved Administrations) sponsoring the Inquiry, including costs of Liaison Units, direct costs of witnesses who were serving officials and legal support for current and former officials and former Ministers, coming to about £0.8 million.

Legal support for witnesses proved to be a significant element in the overall cost of the Inquiry. Lord Phillips's team decided at an early stage that such representation would be necessary in order to ensure the effective presentation of evidence about individuals' involvement in the BSE story to the Inquiry, helping the process to be as thorough, open and fair as it could possibly be.

The costs of producing and distributing the Government's interim response to the Inquiry Report were about £11,000. I am afraid that we don't have any figures for the direct costs of departments who contributed to the work. Your query regarding the cost of the foot and mouth crisis has been passed to a colleague within this Department and you should be receiving a reply shortly.

I hope this is helpful.

Hugh McDonagh
BSES General

Many of you will feel that Hugh's response is an excellent one. It's certainly well-worded, with an open feel, and quite a bit of information.

But this is a very high level summary - the cash chunks are still very large, and they do not add up correctly. High level summaries are often the starting point - not the endpoint.

For example, Hugh tells us that:

" - the BSE Inquiry, including the Committee, their analysis and support teams and the reimbursement of direct costs of families of variant CJD victims attending the hearings, which cost around £16 million;"

I think these things:

  1. £16m is a very large chunk. I would like to see the breakout - what went where?

  2. How much did the committee cost us?

  3. (I'd also like to know who was ON the committee - what qualifies them to be on it, and how they were appointed, by the way)

  4. What were these "support teams"?

Isn't this what's required for open government to work? The high level summary cannot be used to understand the workings of government, nor to satisfy oneself that things are as they should be.

What I'm after is a level of detail which is suitable for an analysis of what went on.

Actually, I don't see why we can't go down to individual salary levels. All of that information must be there - that's how the totals were calculated, and the cost of providing it should not be large.

5/9/2001:

Dear Hugh,

Many thanks for the response you have sent me, and for your time in preparing it.

It does shine some light on the costs, but it is perhaps necessarily, very high level.
It raises many new questions, and doesn't give me a solid feel for where all that money went. I am reluctant to take more of your time with follow-up questions, and I wonder if you can point me to the sources which allowed DEFRA to arrive at its estimate.

For example, there might be a spreadsheet somewhere with a breakdown of the cost estimates, or indeed a report whose conclusion was this overall cost estimate.

Please let me know.

Best Wishes,
Chris

14/9/2001:

Dear Chris

Thank you for your E-mail dated 5 September.

The information contained in my reply of 5 September to your earlier E-mail was put together by our BSE Inquiry Liaison Unit. They advise me that this information cannot be broken down any further or provided in any greater detail.

However, to give you more of an idea of the time and effort spent on the BSE Inquiry it may be useful for you to access the Inquiry report at:

http://www.bseinquiry.gov.uk

Hugh McDonagh
BSE Correspondence Section, DEFRA
14 September 2001

14/9/2001:

Hello again Hugh, and thanks for your reply.

You say that the information cannot be broken down any further. Please clarify for me - do you literally mean that the information CANNOT be broken down further, or do you mean that you are not prepared to provide the breakdown? Either way, I'm not content.

If you're saying it cannot be broken down further, then I would like to know how the estimate was constructed. The earlier information you provide was very high level and could not have been the basis on which the estimate was made.

Presumably the estimate was derived from a hierarchical of costed sub components, and those were costed and written down. Presumably we have civil servants costing, reporting, authorising and monitoring expenditure here.

However the estimate was contructed, I'm asking to see that information. The website you pointed me at doesn't appear to offer anything useful in this direction.

If you're saying that the derivation of the estimate is not available, then I would like to understand why.

We've spent huge quantities of tax payers money on the BSE enquiry, and I think it is reasonable and entirely possible for government to share the details of that expenditure with the public who financed it.

If I have this wrong, please educate me.


Thanks & Best Wishes,
Chris

Two weeks went by with no reply from Hugh
02/10/2001:

Hello Hugh,

I am still waiting for a response to my email from you. Do you have response-time goals? Perhaps I'm being too eager. If you let me know what your response time goals are I'll be sure to wait until they expire before reminding you of outstanding issues.

Thanks & Regards,
Chris

Another two weeks went by with no reply from Hugh. So I called him on the phone. He sounded embarrassed - I think he thought he'd heard the last of me.

And remember we're talking about public employees, paid specifically to correspond with the public on matters like this. Hugh is being asked to do the job for which the public pays his salary. His mortgage, his car, his dinner, his underpants - are all publicly funded. (Should we open those to the public, I wonder...)

After the call, I documented our chat in an email to him. As you'll see, he is blaming someone else for the delays, and that person is conveniently not available by phone.

18/10/2001:

Hugh,

Just to confirm our phone call today:

You are liaising with the person who can (or perhaps cannot) source the information I am asking for.

You have forwared my enquiries & my reminders to him via paper notes, but he has not responded.

This is the reason why I have been ignored since September 12th - about 5 weeks ago.

Your system does not allow me to speak directly with him.

You express confidence that your next reminder you give him will provoke a response in a short time.

Thanks for your efforts.

Regards,
Chris

Remember that Mark's response, below, is now nearly TWO MONTHS late.

Is this Open Government at its best?

He is making many of the right noises.

He apologises but does not explain his two month delay.

He admits that they have very detailed records from which the summary was generated, but thinks it would be "inefficient" to provide them.

I wonder exactly why, and exactly how inefficient that would be.

But of course, getting answers to those little pertinent questions would be no easier that any others.

He closes with a very polite "sod off".

I wonder how far grounds of "inefficiency" can be taken in denying public access to information in this way. We look into this later.

09/11/2001: From Mark Filey

Dear Chris,

I know that you have had an exchange of e-mails with my colleague Hugh McDonagh about the costs of the BSE Inquiry. I am sorry that you have been waiting so long for a reply to your follow up questions, seeking more detailed information about the money that has been spent. I should explain that I provided the initial financial information set out in Hugh's e-mail of 5 September.

I am sorry that the information I provided has not answered all your questions. First, I should emphasise that the cost details provided were almost entirely based on actual costs, rather than estimates. The term 'estimate' was only used because there were one or two unpaid bills floating around, which meant I could not claim that the whole breakdown could be regarded as final expenditure.

Clearly we do have very detailed records of expenditure, covering costs incurred by the BSE Inquiry and by DEFRA (other sponsoring departments would have details of their own expenditure). However, I do think that it would be a very inefficient use of scarce resources to seek to provide further information on an Inquiry which spanned 3 years and where the records involved will therefore be both complex and voluminous. The information we have provided to date gives a full picture of the total cost of the process and the key elements within it - we are very happy to be fully open about that. The same information has been provided to interested MPs in the past, so we are not trying to provide you with any less detail than our normal response to such questions.

I do appreciate that this is an area where you have a genuine interest and I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful on this occasion. If you have more specific questions that you would like me to answer, I will happily do my best to oblige. But it would simply not be sensible - on resource grounds - to provide detailed breakdowns for the entire costs of this Inquiry.

Yours sincerely,
Mark Filley
BSE Division
DEFRA

As is usual with these things, one finds oneself with no friends in a place where everyone around you would like you to leave. But you have to ignore normal social norms, and stick to the goal, so here we go again...

12/11/2001:

Hello Mark Filley,

Thanks for your eventual response.

I am sorry that this rate of progress is the best you can manage. I am also sorry that - according to Hugh McDonagh - I am not permitted to speak to you by phone directly.

Please explain why that is.

I guess you calculated your costs hierarchically. I already have the top of that hierarchy - it is the answer: £29 million.

You have gone further and given a very high level summary, from which I can extract only the following:

Committee activities, £16m
MAFF, £9m
Department of Health, £3.2m
Other administrations, £0.8m
Legal Support, "Significant element in the ... cost"
Report generation, £11k
[- £9m missing - about 30%]

I am surprised and dissappointed to hear that the report you gave me has been considered sufficient for MPs.

Your recent email says you cannot provide the bottom of that hierarchy. Clearly not.

But I am asking for an understanding of the costs at the level of a management summary.

This might be one or two pages in length.

These pages would not be verbage - they could be a crisp table containing major expenditure items with costs.

They would be supported by explanatory notes expanding on the line items.

Typically management summaries explicitly account for all items larger than 5 or 10% of the total.

Was such a report written? If so, may I have access to it? Aren't there levels of detail below the one you have provided, which could be made available at little or no cost?

Regards,
Chris

Well, the rest of December ran its course.
Mark was clearly far too busy to deal with little old me.

Then came the new year, and half way through January - another (the second) TWO MONTH delay since my last email, I still had no response from Mark.

Is this how Open Government works throughout Great Britain?

I wonder, in a casual kind of way, how much Mr Filley earns a year.

I imagine him living in a 4-bed detached number, in a leafy London suburb, with a huge black car, doing his best for open government in our Great Nation.

But then - enough about my mental problems...

14/01/2002:

Hello Mark Filley,

Please tell me why you did not respond to my email of November 12th. In addition, please respond to it now.

Thank you.
Chris

I wasn't holding my breath.

Time to diversify, so I thought I'd see what my local MP is good for.

He never responded to the email below. I wonder why. I wonder if he considers ignoring constituents entirely is a good way to represent them.

In fact, I wonder what HE does for his income too.
See our Electors section for more on this.

14/01/2002:

Dear Patrick Hall,

I am a member of your Bedford constituency, living at [my address].

I have been working with DEFRA to obtain the detail behind the cost estimate of £30M for the BSE enquiry.

I have received a high level summary, but have been unable to find more detail. The people I am dealing with are very slow in responding, and their responses are not very helpful.

I have been pushing this on-and-off since August 2001.

I know that your maiden speech supported open government, and so I am particularly hopeful that you may be able to exert influence, or provide advice on how to get the information I am want.

In case it is useful to you, I have included my most recent email exchange below this email.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Wishes,
E: [Chris]
P: [phone number]

Meanwhile, back at the main event, I'm still hammering away at Mark's door.

21/02/2002:

Please respond to this email with the name, email address and phone number of your supervisor.

I will double the number of times I send this email to you each day, until you respond with the infomration I have asked for.

Chris

22/02/2002:

Chris,

I'm sorry but I do not recall having seen your previous emails on this issue - following mine of 9 November. I will of course see if there is any further information I can provide, but I doubt that there will be, for the reasons previously given.

If you wish to speak to my line manager, her name is Dr Mandy Bailey and she can be contacted on 0207 904 8054.

Kind regards

Mark Filley

SEEMS UNLIKELY, MR FILLEY

22/02/2002:

Mark,

You would need to not have received THREE emails over a period of MONTHS to support your explanation.

I have tried to copy your boss on this email. Please let me know if I got her email address wrong.

Dr Bailey - please consider this a formal complain against Mark and his department. His responsiveness has been abysmal.

Mark, since your email seems to be wroking again now, please now respond to the issue fully, comprehensively, and promptly.

Thanks,
Chris

22/02/2002:

Chris,

Though slightly foolhardy of me, I should point out that you have got Mandy's e-mail address wrong (I think you typed "Mailey" rather than
"Bailey").

I have forwarded a copy on to her, but I leave to you whether you want to resend yours anyway.

Mark

22/02/2002:

It bounced - so I spotted it & corrected it Mark, but I thank you for telling me anyway.

Chris

So, let's review the situation.

I started this little adventure into Open Government on August 10th, 2001.
Now here we are on 22nd February, 2002.
That's more than six months, with no real progress to report.

I have gone through Gladstone Pereira, Hugh McDonagh, and Mark Filley.
Mark has single-handedly added four months of delay to the process.

And now I'm at the desk of Mark's boss - Doctor Mandy Bailey.

But though I'm at her desk - Mandy isn't. At least, she is not responding to me.

Are we feeling good about Open Government yet?

03/03/2002:

Ms Bailey,

Please respond to this.

Thanks,
Chris

[previous email attached]

05/02/2002:

Dear Chris

COSTS OF THE BSE INQUIRY

I am responding to your e-mail of 22 February, seeking further information on costs incurred by government as a result of the BSE Inquiry and expressing concern that your earlier requests have not been answered properly by this Department. I should like to apologise straightaway that our response to your enquiries has not been more timely.

I understand you have received some information on the costs of the Inquiry already. Namely, an explanation of the total amounts involved, and how individual Departments fit into the overall picture. This information identified the main activities covered within Departments' expenditure totals: in particular, the costs of Departmental Liaison Units (set up to provide an interface between the main Departments involved and the Inquiry), direct costs of serving officials called to give evidence before the Inquiry and legal support for serving and former officials, former Ministers and serving and former external government advisers. This is consistent with the level of information previously provided to MPs and other correspondents. However, you have also requested a more detailed breakdown covering major expenditure items, along with costs and explanatory notes.

There are rules covering public access to Government information, which oblige Departments to provide details about public services, including what they cost, and to respond adequately to requests for information. This Department takes its responsibility to openness seriously, endeavoring to respond positively to all enquiries from the public.

However, there are some circumstances where Government Departments can be exempted from the general commitment to provide information. In particular, where requests for information are vexatious or manifestly unreasonable or are formulated in too general a manner, or which (because of the amount of information to be processed or the need to retrieve information from files not in current use) would require unreasonable diversion of resources.

/I do not suggest


2.


I do not suggest that your request is vexatious or manifestly unreasonable. But it does require significant diversion of resources. The BSE Inquiry was a major administrative exercise. It ran for almost 3 years, culminating with the publication of the Inquiry report in October 2000. The process was sponsored by several Government Departments: MAFF; the Department of Health; and the Health and Agriculture Departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To bring together information covering individual Departments would in normal circumstances represent a major task. To try to do so now that the Inquiry's secretariat has been disbanded and individual Departmental Liaison Units are no longer functioning would be even more difficult. We would need to retrieve numerous files no longer in current use. Other Departments involved would need to take similar action.

Satisfactorily considering your request for further information, involves the balancing of several considerations: the fact that some relevant information has already been provided; the degree of difficulty involved in obtaining the supplementary details you require; and the considerable demands that would be made on busy staff in tackling your further request - necessarily diverting them from other pressing tasks. In the circumstances, my firm conclusion is that further work would not represent an efficient use of resources.

I am sorry to have to give you disappointing news. I would wish to assure you, however, that I have reflected carefully on your request. Should you wish to discuss my decision, please feel free to contact me.

Yours sincerely

Mandy Bailey

Dr J A Bailey
Head of BSE Division

Mandy's email exhibits a characteristic which I see a lot from officials dealing with the public: it includes a lot of information I did not ask for.

This can have two unfortunate effects, which may or may not be intentional:

  • The sea of words can conceal how little of the information I asked for is present

  • These words provide a platform upon which to exhibit jargon and a superior knowledge-base, which can sometimes intimidate.

If you're conducting an enquiry of your own, you might want to watch out for these.

To illustrate this, I have isolated the new and relevant content from Mandy's email.
It is simply this:

  1. Sorry that we have not provided timely responses to you.

  2. Providing more detailed information would be too expensive.

  3. I am sorry about this - we can discuss it if you like.

So I did...

05/03/2002:

Ms Bailey,

Thanks for your reply.

However, it is unsatisfactory on two counts.

Firstly, I copied the email I sent to Mark to you, as his supervisor, as a complaint.

I said so in the email. As Mark's supervisor, I hope you are interested in being made aware of his apalling record in persistently failing to respond to me, and that you'll see this in a broader context, in which I have been trying - and failing - to get the information I require for many months now.

Please explain why Mark's performance has been so unfathomably poor.

Please then explain what you intend to do to improve his performance,
and that of the other employess at DEFRA who I have had the miserable chore of dealing with.

Secondly, on the information itself - you have not addressed my argument about providing more detailed information.

That argument goes like this:

1. You have all of the information - that's how you derived the estimate

2. Though the analysis was doubtless very expensive to do, the result is probably summarised in a single spreadsheet or other document.

3. So the cost of providing the data is therefore unrelated to the cost of deriving the data. In this case, the cost of providing it would presumably be the cost of attaching the spreadsheet to an email and sending it.

Do I have this wrong?

Please respond on both issues.

Thanks,
Chris

13/3/2002:

Dear Chris

Thank you for your further emails of 5 and 11 March.

I am of course interested in being made aware of any deficiency in the performance of my staff. However, as Mark has explained to you himself, the reason he failed to respond to your earlier emails is that he did not receive them.

Mark is an extremely capable and hardworking member of my team whose work if of a very high standard. In considering your complaint I have taken into account his record of responding to requests for information both within and outside of the Department. I do not feel that any action is warranted to improve his performance in this area.

You are clearly dissatisfied with my explanation of why we cannot respond to your request. I am not claiming that we do not have the information. As you rightly point out, the totals that you have been given already were generated originally from the payment of individual invoices. However, this data is not stored in a form which enables us to extract it easily, particularly with respect to identifying specific items of expenditure above a particular threshold.

There has not been a report on the costs of the Inquiry. We have provided you with the management summaries that are readily accessible which have also been used to answer questions raised by Members of Parliament. To get to a level below that will require a detailed search and analysis. I am afraid that I simply do not have the resources available to undertake this work. Furthermore, given my business priorities, I could not justify diverting resource from other activities to meet this request.

In your later e-mail you asked me for a copy of the rules covering public access to Government information. A copy is enclosed:

http://www.lcd.gov.uk/foi/codpracgi.htm

Yours Sincerely,

Mandy Bailey

So here is the reality of Open Government in this instance.

They have the data I want to see, but they're saying it would be too expensive to convert it from its present form, into a form suitable for me. Therefore I can't have it.

Neat, huh?

Conclusion

So - we have open government in theory, but in this case, we can't see the data because it would cost too much to translate it into a suitable format.

I've been a manager, I've seen a lot of reports. I've managed budgets of millions. I can't see how it can be true that preparing anything other than a high level summary is so expensive.

And I wonder how the government does its management if it does not have readily to hand, right now, a report of the kind I'm asking to see - containing useful levels of information. Levels which allow the posing of pertinent questions.

I can't know, but I suspect that this is a smoke screen.

No one is saying - "Bugger off - we have secrets to keep here".

But:

  • by their taking weeks or months to respond to every email

  • by their responses addressing only a few of the issues raised

  • by those responses being themselves incomplete and hidden within a sea of superfluous verbage

  • - in summary, by their plodding intransigence

- they may just as well be saying "Bugger off - we have secrets to keep here.

Well, it isn't going to stop here. I'll press on. I'll review the government regulations, learn the right trigger phrases, and then use them. If necessary, I'll march on up to Mandy's boss and beyond. I'll also send my MP another email, and ask him why he ignored my previous email. You can bet I'll get a timely and comprehensive response. Yeah, right.

Why am I doing this?

In the dim and distant past, I wanted to know how we spent £6m on the BSE enquiry. Then I wondered why that was turning out to be so hard to do. Now I'm wondering if anyone anywhere gets to exercise their right to an Open Government satisfactorily.

Perhaps you can tell me.

It seems to me that we need thousands of people like me, all hammering away at government departments, trying to gain access to the details of government workings.

Together we'll get better at it. More knowledgeable and more efficient. We'll advertise the truth about the reality of open government in the UK.

Then the power of Public Scrutiny can come to bear.

If you want to play a part, please contact us.

We need all the help we can get!

You can follow progress which has not yet been documented here, at the BSE thread in our forums.

 
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