I recently had to spend some time engaging with an Irish Government agency as a result of my voluntary redundancy from my former employer. Now, while I’ll admit I am perhaps over sensitive to information quality issues, having had a lot of experience with them and having written about them a lot over the years, I do find that I am also a magnet for these things.
So I was not surprised to learn that, according to the Irish government’s computer, my wife was married to me but I was not married to my wife. The Computer Says No.
While this took only a second for the very nice and personable civil servant to correct, it does beg these questions:
- How was one part of the relationship between my wife and I populated but the other wasn’t? (What process failed)?
- How was that incomplete relationship not identified (What checks are performed on the quality/completeness/consistency of information in the Irish Civil Service)?
- What down stream systems might have been making incorrect decisions based on that broken relationship (what processes might fail)?
- How far might that error have propagated?
For example, if my wife died (heaven forbid) would I have had difficulty in claiming a widower’s pension because while the computer says she is my wife, it doesn’t say that I’m her husband?
I was surprised to hear the civil servant complain then about the quality of the information and how it made life difficult. I was doubly surprised when he told me he’d been trying to explain to his boss about how if you set up a database correctly it can help prevent errors.
Unfortunately, he works in the real world, in the Civil Service. Having had experience with civil service type cultures in the past, my fear is that the enthusiasm that that young civil servant showed for finding and fixing errors and trying to understand the root causes of the problems and how to prevent them will be ground down by management attitudes of “that’s above your pay grade”.
And so we return to the theme of leadership versus management in the context of information quality. To achieve quality you need to foster a culture where even the lowest member of staff can make suggestions for improvement and can be empowered to lead on their implementation or to find out more about how the problem can be solved.Â Waiting for inspiration to strike from on high and trickle down often leaves the crud problems backing up in the process pipelines as the 2 minutes to fix becomes 10 minutes, or (even worse) becomes “oh, I’m not paid to do that”.
Environments which rigidly enforce and demand respect for the “chain of command” often only find their bottom up leaders during a significant crisis. Think “battlefield promotion” in the context of military matters and you have the closest parallel I can think of (at the moment). Until then, they promote on seniority rather than merit (“Hey Bob, you’re still not dead, so here’s a promotion”) and newer staff members who have ideas that are going in the direction of a solution often get tagged as the “squeaky wheel”.
However, even in those type of environments, it is possible for the squeaky wheel to have some influence on the thinking of management. It just takes time and perseverance and not a small amount of pure unadulterated pig headed self belief to keep on pushing the question. Eventually the squeaky wheel gets a little oil and, with every win, the squeaky wheel helps the business move smoother and has to squeak less.
To the young civil servant who corrected that small error on a government file….. Well done. Thank you for your focus on the customer, your sense of humour about the issue, your insight into some of the fundamental issues in Information Quality. I doubt you will read this, but if you do, join the IAIDQ where you can learn from other squeak wheels how to get the oil you need. By being part of a community populated by people who’ve been there and done that, you’ll get the support you need to be pig headed about the need to tackle processes, system design and simple governance to ensure the quality of information in key functions of your organisation.
Quality is not job one. Meeting or exceeding the expectations of your customers is job one.Â Or to put it another way…