How do you give users of a critical system or service some confidence in the way it is run?

The corporate models don’t work.  Dress the head honcho in a Dickensian top hat and the impression is of a scrooge who puts profit before staff-welfare.  Swap the hat for a 1940s bowler and commercial gain has given way to government bureaucracy.

Technology – or technologists – do better.  Moon landing Mission Control: a room full of monitors and shirtsleeves.  Or Thunderbirds’ Tracey Island – Jeff may have worn a polo-neck but the International Rescue boys all wore smart uniforms.  And there was Brains in his big glasses.  Yes, the techno-military model really does clinch it.

I still try to envisage what “mission control” might look like when sorting out a refund on my Oyster card or contacting my ISP.  It’s difficult.  And what picture does “Windows Technical Department” conjure up when an earnest Indian accent informs me that a virus has been discovered on my PC?  Houston Mission Control?  I think not.

If you can’t imagine it, it’s doubtful there’s much of a real organisation there.

Of course, navigation has had this magic techno-military mix from the start.  The smartly uniformed navigation officer on the bridge or in the cockpit; the caps of the lighthouse keepers; the wig of the Astronomer Royal.  I bet the navigation officer of a Viking long-ship had a special helmet, probably with an anemometer on top.

GPS came out of just this world. (The Mission Control one, not the long-ship.)  There really were rooms of people vigilantly watching the system 24/7, just as there were rooms full of incoming ICBM watchers.  There still are.  The “Galileo Services Agency” just does not paint the same picture of assurance.  It’s not its fault.  It’s the bowler hat effect again.

And the great thing about the uniform thing is it cuts both ways.  The wearer does have a job description but it’s irrelevant.  In the event of a crisis, the smartest uniform in the room takes the blame.  Uniforms pin down accountability in a brutal way that org-charts cannot approach.

So as governments in many countries try to work out who is ultimately responsible for essential services dependent on Position, Navigation and Timing, it’s time to reach for the org-chart or better still, issue a uniform.  Or just a hat.  A smart tricorn on which is mounted a whip antenna complete with a 1/72nd scale model block-IIF satellite?

Anything, just so long as who is in charge is 100% clear.

Or perhaps a Viking helmet with an anemometer…..