Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Systemic understandings - sophisticated grasp or avoiding responsibilty?

In the UK about the time of the Hutton Inquiry, or possibly the Butler Inquiry (there were so many over Iraq with such little useful effect) I observed that some politicians and journalists were starting to to use the 'S' word - 'systemic'. My colleague John Naughton drew attention to it in a blog at about that time and in a subsequent posting at the time of Charles Clarke's resignation.

This word is one of the two adjectives based on 'system' - systemic (pertaining to a system or a whole) and systematic (methodically, as in following a recipe). Fortunately recent usage suggests that those who are using it know the difference. This is true in Oz as well - a recent headline says: 'Abuse claims prompt fears of systemic problem in detention centres' .

What is not clear however is whether those using the 'S' word do so as a means of avoiding responsibility by implying that systemic failure cannot be avoided. If so this is a copout!

For over 30 years at the OU we have been teaching courses which equip students (who are usually working at the time) with concepts and skills to understand why systemic failure occurs and how, by thinking and acting systemically, many unintended consequences can be avoided i.e. how to take responsibility for avoiding systemic failure! The evidence we have is that our courses work for students, as shown by the research published in 'Waving not Drowning' drawn from alumni working within the NHS.

Despite this experience and expertise systemic failure abounds in all walks of life. For example, I was recently one of 23 academics who signed an open letter calling for a review of 'Connecting for Health', the Blair government's multi-billion pound IT project for the NHS (published in Computer Weekly on 11 April 2006 and addressed to the Health Select Committee). My motivation in contributing was to try to prevent yet another IT-based systemic failure and the loss of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Despite the best efforts of my colleagues, those responsible for the project, after some initial agreement that a review would be helpful, mounted a successful defence and it is more-or-less business as usual, although recent failures may re-focus attention and scrutiny. The recent failures article says:

'The project to overhaul the NHS's computer systems, costing millions, is so beset by problems that hospitals would be better off if they had never tried to implement it, according to a confidential document apparently sent by one of the scheme's most senior executives'.

The perspective of Richard Granger, the Director of Connecting for Health can be gauged from this interview.

This is not just a UK phenomen as this example from Australia demonstrates. Here is a little of what it has to say:

'The [Australian] Government faces an uphill job generating public confidence in its new hi-tech benefit card after the Auditor-General found the current system is so shoddy, almost half the records are wrong.

An Australian National Audit Office random check of 10,048 Centrelink customer records has found 45.3 per cent contain at least one error.

In 29.8 per cent of these cases, the error has a dollar impact.
The average debt caused by the errors was $1,034.

Anyone who has ever dealt with Centrelink will cringe at the prospect that 16 million Australians will have to front up for a 15-minute interview with the agency to register for the new smartcard between 2008 and 2010.'

Of course UK citizens ought to be equally, or more, concerned with New Labour's foolish committment to press on with ID cards.
So what has changed?

In 1993 I wrote:

The drought of the early 1890's led to fundamental changes in the way the Western Division was viewed; at this time Henry Lawson (1990) wrote in his poem "Bourke":

"No sign that grass ever grew in scrubs that blazed beneath the sun;
The plains were dust in Ninety-two, and hard as bricks in Ninety-one.
On glaring iron-roofs of Bourke the scorching, blinding sandstorms blew,
No hint of beauty lingered there in Ninety-one and Ninety-two.

This was reflected institutionally in the 1901 Royal Commission, which was a landmark in that it concluded that the nature of the land itself imposed special constraints on any attempt to populate or utilise it (NSW Parliamentary Papers 1901). It is also only through the chronicles of poets, like Lawson and the myriad story-tellers that represent the Bushies oral tradition that we know of the experiences of the pastoralists. These are not incorporated into scientific discourses but are powerful in shaping the ways in which pastoralists interpret their world of experience - we are the bush, as our collaborators observed. The study of Pretty (1991) of the 3-4 fold increase in agricultural productivity in 17th - 19th century Britain is salutory as it was achieved by farmers without either institutionalised science or extension.

One hundred years later the headlines exclaim:

"Dirt poor. You think you have heard it all before .... about how Australia's farmers are suffering. But not on this scale, not in this way. The vast plains of our state's west have become a disaster area - for both people and their properties. Hopes and dreams are being eroded, just as surely as the land itself." (Wahlquist 1992).

In 1993 I asked: So what has changed?

According to Asa Wahlquist, still writing on this subject, 'things are bad, very bad, for much of the western division. How bad we will probably know only when the drought ends and the exodus begins.' The situation seems much as it was to me.

Elsewhere Asa attacks Jared Diamond's conclusions about Australian Agriculture and chronicles some of the changes for the better that she perceives. Almost daily the media runs a story on land management or water and the letters pages reveal the range of perspectives that exist on these issues. Thus far, however, I do not encounter many who feel new dams are part of the solution.

My original comments were published in Ison, R.L. (1993) Changing community attitudes. (Invited Keynote Paper) The Rangeland Journal 15, 154-66.