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How gov scapegoats systems for man-made errors

Dead pupil letter shows it is human to err

So why is a County Council putting out a statement that is at best misleading, and at worst calculated to divert attention from an individual failure or even a more systemic failure by the Education Authority to ensure that users of the SIMS system are properly trained?

Their initial reaction was that such speculation was unfair. They have now passed on a statement from the Head Teacher of the school in question, who is adamant that the correct procedures - including flagging the pupil as deceased - were followed. This does not quite explain why their first statement made reference to a second database.

Does this matter? We think it does, because as long as the general public are encouraged not to understand the difference between system and human error, it is impossible to have a sensible debate about the use of IT in the UK. On the one hand are the eternal optimists in government, focused wholly on the benefits that properly functioning IT can bring; on the other are the naysayers, who do not quite understand the issues but have been educated to believe that many of life’s ills can be put down to "computer error".

That in turn makes it hard to spot when a system is badly structured. Earlier this year, we were told of failings in a package called "Truancy Call" that sends out automated calls to the parents of absent school pupils. One problem with this package was that it did not appear to have properly sorted out its rules for calling where parents were separated or divorced, which led to it generating inappropriate and almost certainly DPA non-compliant calls to non-resident parents.

That is a "system error", normalising bad practice, and inculcating some very bad data habits indeed into those who believe that if the computer says so, it must be right. Stephen Clarke, Managing Director of Truancy Call Ltd, commented: "Truancy Call extracts data live and in real-time from schools' management information systems which schools are responsible for updating." In other words, if there is an issue here, it is to do with the way the schools hold data - not Truancy Call's interpretation of it.

The issue in both cases is that the explanation is neither simple nor straightforward. The Macclesfield error was reported as system error, looks more like human error, and is finally claimed as something subtle and systemic. The Truancy Call problem appears to be about the unintended consequences of software interacting with someone else's database. In neither case is understanding aided by sweeping general claims from officialdom. ®

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