Requirements conflicts, governance and complexity

I’ve written in previous posts about how I am starting to look at the requirements for a new digital learning platform for Scottish schools.  Technically, this does not appear to be a very complex system but once you start to look at it you see that the complexity does not arise from the technical components of the system but from its governance.

I wrote in a paper recently published in the CACM (copy here) about how it was impossible to control change in a system where there were multiple independent organisations involved in its management and governance – and the way in which digital learning is supported in Scottish schools exemplifies this.

In Scotland, funding for age 5-18 education is the responsibility of local government – and there are 32 local authorities across the country. The national government provides support services (such as the current learning platform Glow) but cannot direct local authorities to take a particular course of action (that’s democracy – see my post on this).

Schools themselves are not legal entities so local authorities take responsibility for failings in the school system and, in particular, are the bodies that would be legally liable in the event of an issue of child protection and internet safety. This means that many (not all) take a very risk averse approach to internet filtering policies and limit what both teachers and students can do. I was astonished by the diversity of policies in this recently published survey. Local authorities are also responsible for funding school hardware and networking – and they all make their own decisions on this too.  Naturally, the provision differs markedly from one area to another.

A consequence of the risk-averse approach adopted by local authorities is that the current Glow system has traded off security against usability and this is perhaps the primary reason why  it is difficult to use in class teaching. As a consequence, it is hardly used by teachers and students – it is certainly not meeting its original requirements of providing effective learning support.

So what we have here is a situation where there are 33 different bodies  (32 local authorities plus the Scottish government) setting policies that influence the use of digital learning platforms.  Each body interprets regulations in its own way and profoundly influences how systems can be used.  There is little point in us specifying another secure system that will satisfy the local authority stakeholders if the security features mean that it is unusable by teachers and students. On the other hand, if we propose what teachers would prefer – an essentially unregulated system, then the local authority stakeholders are very unlikely to approve the use of the system (and they have to power to cripple it simply using internet filtering).

This type of complexity is by no means uncommon in complex multi-organisational systems and is why I despair when I read statements by eminent computer scientists that all we need to do is to produce simpler systems. And why the problems of requirements conflicts will forever be with us.

As a final word,  I have no idea at this stage how we will resolve the fundamental requirements conflicts in this system. Perhaps it is an insoluble problem.


Filed under complexity, software engineering

5 responses to “Requirements conflicts, governance and complexity

  1. I agree with your point on complexity – you can try to manage it, but you often can’t reduce by your systems engineering efforts because it’s inherent in the problem space.

  2. Perhaps the requirements conflicts problem can’t be solved by deterministic means and that’s why existing Glow hasn’t worked. If you think about solving the problem by probabilistic means, maybe it can be resolved?

    Pupils and teachers deal with complexity each and every day: is the use of Internet technologies so far removed from local, tangible problems?

    • Kiran – thanks for your comment. Perhaps you could say a bit more about how a probabilistic approach might address the problems arising from conflicting stakeholder policies – it’s not clear to me how this could be used

  3. Perhaps I have misunderstood your concerns. I wonder whether the risk averse position from many local authorities is due to taking a deterministic stance: if there is something potentially risky in a platform, eg YouTube, then it is banned/firewalled. If they considered the probabilities of risks versus benefits, would that help move filtering towards a more open position?

    Also, on the subject of filtering, I have read views that it should either be applied at a national level, or devolved to the schools.

  4. wtpayne

    Writing software for the public sector stinks. Always has done. Have you thought about trying to find a better customer?

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