In government as in business, having no institutional memory means waste and lost opportunity

A Twitter thread from George Peretz QC draws attention to an article from the Institute for Government called Policy reinvention leads to huge waste and little progress.

In a series of tweets, Peretz laments the lack of institutional memory in government “made worse by stripping out of middle management and end of ‘the file'”. He paints a picture of civil servants covering ground already discussed because no one presently in charge has access to any human or any tangible (“the file”) means of recalling past labours.

Much the same ground was covered in an article in The Times on 24 January called Whitehall wastes £500 million a year on rehashed policies (subscription required).

The picture is depressingly similar in many organisations. The components include ever-greater masses of data uncontrolled by any form of information governance, increasing need for a fast response, and a reduced workforce whose members no longer expect to work in the same place for life. Add these things together and it becomes almost impossible for organisations to recall what happened before in time to use it (or perhaps at all). To the extent that there is any focus on this, it is almost entirely to do with identifying risk or complying with discovery demands for litigation or regulatory purposes. Organisations never get as far as identifying useful material which might either take it more quickly to a conclusion or cause immediate abandonment of an idea because the organisation has been there before and retreated from it.

We have some examples from government which have been embarrassing. George Osborne’s infamous “pasty tax” had apparently been considered and discarded more than once before but nobody was in a position to tip Osborne off about that. Philip Hammond’s recent budget included an increase in National Insurance Contributions which flew in the face of a manifesto commitment. It seems probable that nobody spotted the contradiction, which has resulted in a hasty and embarrassing climb-down and a £2 billion hole in the budget.

These days, the file is not a bulky folder of fading paper (well, in government it probably is, but it should not be). It is not even a single collection of documents which you can point to in a computer file system. It should consist of documents of all kinds scattered across multiple systems but indexed and uniformly tagged so that anyone searching around the subject will be able to pull together the history, including premises and conclusions, of past canters over the same ground. If the tagging process is accompanied by deletion of obviously irrelevant stuff, then the result is even better.

From time to time, you see figures which purport to represent the amount of time wasted daily by employees who are simply looking for stuff rather than doing anything productive. Whatever the accuracy of those figures, it is the daily experience of most of us that much of our day is dribbled away in this fashion. Public waste and political embarrassment get the headlines, but lost or hard-to-find information affects many aspects of business life on top of the wasted cost of looking for things or redoing them, and beyond the unsatisfying nature of the resulting daily grind.

These include competitiveness (the rival gets there first with all its ducks in a row while you are still redoing last year’s presentation), time to market (it takes six months rather than four to get the job done), and cash-flow (late completion means late billing). All that is before considering the effect (and cost) when a court or regulator demands documents, an audit or whistle-blower prompts an urgent investigation, or a data breach raises reaction and reporting obligations.

Lawyers offer a good model for all this. Much of their work involves recycling prior inputs and outputs, whether that is hard knowledge, the product of earlier research, the firm’s precedents, and the “this is how we do things here” understanding which differentiates one law firm from another. In the old days, it was not necessarily the lawyers who suffered from poor organisation of all this – they would simply charge their clients for all time spent, whatever it was spent on. As we move away from chargeable hours to fixed fees and other forms of alternative fee structure, every hour spent looking for stuff affects the lawyers’ pockets. The “institutional memory” to which George Peretz QC refers goes beyond the recall of prior conclusions and into standardised methods of delivering the answer.

One can easily see why organisations, including government, have hitherto said that they cannot see a benefit in information governance which is commensurate with the investment of either time or money. The balance is changing, however, as new risks (compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation is an example) arrive at the same time as new tools to help automate the process of identifying material which meets certain criteria (I wrote about that here, picking up on an article on analytics by Adam Kuhn of OpenText). Just finding stuff is only the beginning: new artificial intelligence tools combine inherited knowledge and standardised processes to deliver answers quickly to workers (from the Chancellor of the Exchequer downwards) with new skills. If Spreadsheet Phil had been served better and more timely information, he could have spent more time considering the political implications of his budget proposals. You can easily think of commercial equivalents.

Anyone who pretends that this is easy is a fool, but the ROI question is resolving itself as the cost of getting it wrong rises, and as clearer benefits emerge of turning data into information, information into understanding, and understanding into action. George Peretz QC rightly laments the loss of the long-time staff member who “could remember what went wrong last time” and of “the file”. Their modern successors are technology solutions which render “the file” in dynamic form (that is, with today’s information as well as relevant historic information), and a new breed of worker capable of quickly interpreting the results.



About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Analytics, Discovery, eDiscovery, Information Governance, OpenText. Bookmark the permalink.

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