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Lost files and running against the tide

The news that 114 files potentially relating to child abuse couldn’t be found has greatly excited the interweb and the twittersphere. Even @Frankieboyle has an opinion – Oddly, a government that lost 114 files on child abuse thinks it’s important to keep a note of every time you post a funny cat video online.

Now, even though we ran a post on the Gadarene swine fallacy the other day this isn’t just a post deliberately running against the tide.

Instead, let’s think about what that statement about 114 missing files means.

The first thing is that, in a statistical sense, we don’t know what it means. Were lots of files regularly lost by the Civil Service, or were these 114 files the only files lost by the Civil Service, ever? The difference should be clear to anyone with an understanding of what the Civil Service is telling us.

I sometimes have to remind myself that we are living in a post Windows world, where files and folders refer to digital collections of information, endlessly backed up and saved in multiple locations. (You do back up your vital files and never accidentally delete them, don;t you?) The nominal index of the Police National Computer only went live in 1974, and most work recording intelligence or information about individuals remained paper based well into the 1980s, especially as police were more wary then about recording on computer unsubstantiated intelligence as opposed to hard information about arrests and convictions. That wariness may have been about storage limitations as much as about scruples, but it remains the fact that we’re talking about paper files here, physical objects that existed in only one copy.

So, the Civil Service, is talking about files, cardboard loose leaf folders with sheets of paper inserted within them, sometimes as thing as one letter or memo, sometimes stretching across multiple folders in the same file drawer. Keeping track of such files is not as simple as chaining them to the shelves. They will move from department to department, from desk to desk, as inquiries come in and out. The obvious analogy is with library books. Just a little context here – a review of 101 British universities in 2012 revealed that they had over 300,000 missing books.

Just to keep track of such files is a masterpiece of system design. You need a master index of files, probably on index cards, (there used to be a company called Kardex who existed just to make such index files and cabinets) that records where they are. You need a movement index, probably in a loose leaf ledger, to record when a files has gone somewhere, and whether it has come back. You need an index on the front of each file, to record what’s in it and who has amended it. And you need lots of skilled office staff and messengers, to make the system work, and keep it working. Presumably the Home Office knows these files are missing because it has an index entry for them, but no corresponding file. The question of what’s actually on the card, and how much it tells us or doesn’t tell us, is why the Home Office is referring to some of the files as potentially relevant. A card that says ‘Diplomat X embarassing incident car teenage girl’ may be telling us that X was caught with an under age abuse victim in his car, or that he crashed his car while drunkenly giving his daughter a lift home from school.

And still, it is possible that a file will go missing. It might be misplaced on the shelves. It might be lost in transit. It might be destroyed in error.

Let’s imagine for a moment dear reader that Six Sigma had been defined as a quality improvement standard when these files were first created, and let’s imagine three processes; Transport, Master Indexing, and Movement Indexing. Even if Six Sigma standards of quality were being achieved – which equates to 99.9996% right first time, then we’d still be making 3.4 errors for each million processes. That is to say, 3.4 transport activities would go wrong, 3.4 master indexing activities would go wrong, and 3.4 movement indexing activities would go wrong.

But actually, that’s an over simplification. Transport is a process with lots of steps, each of which has to meet the Six Sigma standard to keep your defect level own to 99.9996%. Try and map it out in your head. File clerks get the files from the shelves in the registry – the shelves will most likely be those ones that run on tracks and have a wheel on the end to open and close the gaps between them. The files are then delivered to messengers, who check the index on the front to find out where they’re going, and sort them. That’s two process steps right there; reading the destination, and sorting. What do you think the error rate will be?

Remember, too, that the reading and sorting process will be repeated at the receiving department – a file sent from the Home Office to Scotland Yard would go not straight tot he appropriate desk in Scotland Yard, but to a post room who would repeat the process; there might be hundreds of offices, desks or maildrops within the building. What do you think the error rate will be?

Try doing the same sort of process analysis for each step of the process. Try imagining the kind of skills required to make sure each card is coded correctly, or that each file title reflects the content of the file.

We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that someone deliberately misplaced, stole or destroyed files that they thought should be covered up. But we shouldn’t assume that the fact that some files, out of many, are missing, is evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up. That way madness lies.




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This entry was posted on July 11, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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