Not Saussure

January 16, 2007

The new database — just not getting it

Filed under: Blair, hubris, UK — notsaussure @ 11:50 am

Sometimes I fear the Prime Minister just doesn’t get it. How else to explain the following, from The Indy?

The Prime Minister told a seminar at Downing Street that “perfectly sensible” plans to share information held by government departments had been misrepresented. He insisted the aim was to improve the performance of public services, so that people no longer had to give details repeatedly to different parts of the government machine.

Mr Blair argued that the move could save lives. He cited the example of electronic patient records that would allow nurses or doctors treating a patient away from their local area to find out their medical history. Other improvements could include avoiding the need to contact between 30 and 40 government agencies after a family bereavement and simplifying claims by pensioners for benefits.”This is a very good example of how a perfectly sensible thing can be misconstrued,” he said. “The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better public service.”

Where to start? The aims behind the project are, I’m sure, perfectly laudable. So, too, were the aims behind the NHS computer system which Mr Blair, rather alarmingly, holds up as an example. No one, when they embarked on the project, I’m sure, intended that it should be astonishingly open to abuse, pose ‘a potentially significant clinical risk’ to patients by failing properly to record their details, apparently cause child vaccination levels to fall to risky levels in some areas by being unable to provide proper data for doctors to make appointments and send out reminders for follow-up jabs, nor lose details of patients’ appointments, admissions and transfers in eight major hospitals and more than 70 primary care trusts simultaneously for several days.

Similarly, obviously Accenture did not think, when first they involved themselves in the project, that they’d have to walk away because they were making big losses on the work and faced fines for late delivery any more than did ISoft think they’d end up in quite the pickle they now find themselves.

No, the fact that something seems like a good idea at the time, and is carried out with the best of intentions, is no guarantee of a successful outcome in domestic IT policy any more than it is in foreign policy.

Mr Blair’s protestations that

The purpose of this is not to create a new piece of technology at all or a new database

miss the point. I know the purpose isn’t to do that. The point behind the sort of Customer Relations Software he’s talking about is that it sits on top of existing databases and tries to pull them together. Properly used it’s a very powerful tool — horribly expensive, by the way; when I was involved in the business, about 7 years ago now, we were charging large financial services companies and supermarkets about £2,500 per year per seat for the development and operating environment licences alone, and that was before they built anything with it.

What he’s talking about is putting another layer of software on top of existing systems. This is all very well, but it’s nice if the systems are there and working properly in the first place, which doesn’t seem here to be the case. It’s also most emphatically not a question of just sticking this stuff in to automate what you’re already doing; that’s bound to lead to disaster. The reason for this is that systems work at the moment because the people who operate them get them to work despite the rules most of the time.

Simply implementing what your manual of procedures says people ought to be doing hardwires bad practice into the system, so the luckless public are stripped of the protection they’ve hitherto been afforded by experienced human beings who can somehow make the system work and, instead, are exposed to the full horrors of your back office processes.

We used to stress to the companies for whom we did work that we weren’t interested in the contracts unless they were on the basis that we sat down and worked very closely with their people — not the IT department, but with both the people who knew what they wanted to be able to do with the new kit and with the people who were actually making this happen at the moment — and, essentially, carried out a major overhaul of their business procedures with them. That’s why we didn’t normally bid for government contracts, by the way; the civil service doesn’t normally operate that way, while banks, insurance companies and major retailers are prepared and able to undertake that sort of review.

Mr Blair’s example of having to ‘to contact between 30 and 40 government agencies after a family bereavement’ points up what the problem is. First, I have to say I don’t recognise that figure — I certainly didn’t have to contact anything like that number of departments when my wife died in 2003 any more than did my cousin when his mother died last year — but let’s assume it’s accurate.

No one in their right mind would sit down and design a system where 30 or 40 government departments had to involve themselves when someone dies — which, we must recall, does happen to us all eventually. It’s clearly something that’s grown up over the years — decades — as successive governments have identified ‘problems’ which need ‘solving’ when someone dies. Thinking that you can make it work better by introducing a technical fix is sheer stupidity.

I’ve been trying to imagine the initial ‘scoping meetings’ for the project, where you sit down with the customers and try to work out what exactly it is they’re doing at the moment. We used to go in with rolls of wallpaper, pads of Post-It notes and loads of Blu-Tac and coloured string, so we could physically map out the procedures that actually happened when — for example — someone applied for a credit card from our customers — what information was collected, what decisions were made and by whom, what criteria did they use and so forth, what happened as a result of various decisions, who had to do what at each stage and what must and mustn’t happen at various points.

Even so comparatively simple and well-understood a business process is generally a lot more complex than you’d think, and it’s child’s play compared to managing the account once you’ve opened it. We used to end up with huge scrolls — we tended to take over the client’s board room each time we went it — that took back to the office and tried to make sense of. Imagining what one of these is going to look like when they try to map out the work of these 30 or 40 departments doesn’t bear thinking about.

And, of course, this is going to show up all sorts of idiocies, all manner of duplications and people working at cross purposes. Now, in a commercial organisation, it’s easy enough — at least in theory, though since it’s people’s jobs you’re talking about, it’s not so easy in practice — to do something about this. You can’t with government departments, though; quite apart from institutional inertia and people wanting to protect their departments and fiefdoms, you’ve got the problem that these people have statutory responsibilities.

Parliament — or ministers through Orders in Council and Statutory Instruments — have said, at various times and with the best of intentions, that it’s the law of the land that such-and-such must happen. When, as inevitably will happen, the developers say, ‘but this system of, potentially, 30 or 40 departments involving themselves each time someone dies is utterly illogical and wasteful and, if everyone carried out their notional duties to the letter, they’d find themselves working at complete cross-purposes,’ what’s going to happen? It’s difficult enough to negotiate and manage that sort of change when you’re talking about automating just one part of one clearing bank’s back office procedures (trust me on this); the idea of trying to do it for so wildly complex a system, where the illogicialities and duplications have legal backing, is a nightmare.

The immediate solution — not one that would appeal to someone of Mr Blair’s somewhat grandiose turn of mind, and certainly not to someone who’s not going to be around for more than a few months — is to do it bit by bit, on a very controlled and modest scale. You start with the particular process, or part of a process, you need to fix. Ignore all the related things you could be doing; we can build extra modules to handle those once we’ve fixed the task in hand. Once people see how much easier that one bit of the process is now we’ve fixed it, then other departments might be more willing to give it a shot.

In the instant case — the unfortunate family who found themselves having to contact so many departments (or was it the same department so many times? Reports are unclear on this) you’d need, I think, to look first at what went wrong in the department — was it human error at a particular stage, whereby some wrong information got recorded and no one was able to get it corrected? I rather suspect it might have been. Then you need to look at the particular processes and try to untangle them. What do we need to do when someone dies? Well, obviously tax and NI records need amending, allowances recalculating and so on, and there’ll probably be a widow’s pension/bereavement allowance to be calculated and issued and other benefits to be cancelled.

Concentrate on getting that right so you don’t need to keep on coming back to the family for the same information, and make sure that when individual sections in the DWP do need to come back for additional information, that (and the actions they take as a result of their inquiries) gets fed back into the system, so no one else has to ask for it again, and make sure it triggers appropriate actions from other sections in the department if necessary.

In the long term, though, I think they need to give careful thought to a system whereby, apparently, up to 30 or 40 different departments seem to find it necessary to involve themselves in the ultimate fate of us all. It seems truly extraordinary. And I have to say that I doubt the right people to fix this state of affairs are the same people who, in the name of modernisation and social improvement, have so greatly added to government involvement in our lives and, as it transpires, our deaths as well.

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1 Comment »

  1. More knowledge, wisdom and good sense has yet to be spoken on this subject. I advise you to send a condensed version to the editor of every daily newspaper in the country.

    Comment by rainmanlite — February 14, 2007 @ 8:51 am


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