Andrew Ducker (andrewducker) wrote,
Andrew Ducker

Why you can't have your perfect rules system (and what you can do about that)

Something I bump into repeatedly is the idea that you can have a perfect set of rules. That you can lay down a set of procedures, laws, or office rules, and that they will then cope with all eventualities. And that when an issue occurs that causes the rules to produce a ridiculous result what is needed is to rip the rules up and start again with some new rules that don't cause the same problems that the old ones did.

The problem is that rules are simple - each part of a rule is a straight line drawn across an insanely complex world. You can do a lot with straight lines - and you can add them together in quite complicated ways, but as with trying to create 3D art out of polygons (where the only way to capture every eventuality is to have a number of lines equal to the level of detail of the original item), you end up needing a level of detail equal to the complexity of the people you're dealing with and the society they're living in*. Attempting to deal with even a small part of that lead to the tax system in the UK becoming over 11,000 pages long. This basically bars ordinary people from any kind of understanding of the rules they are living in - not a good idea for a democracy. And it causes all sorts of newspaper articles where people came to what are clearly silly decisions because they either followed the rules without thinking about the consequences, or had their hands tied so that they had to follow them.

The opposite approach is to decide that if rules don't fit then we should leave the decisions in the hands of the people, rather than the rules. Which sounds eminently sensible to the people who are weighed down by the rules - you'll hear it from doctors, nurses,teachers, and all sorts of other people subject to government inspections. But if you go too far down this road then you end up with massively disparate approaches, regulatory capture (where the inspectors are friends with the bankers), and people who are terrible at their jobs, but can't be removed because of cronyism. And that also leads to all sorts of newspaper articles where people have caused havoc because there was no oversight.

Clearly, the answer is somewhere in-between. Rules _and_ people. I've worked on a lot of projects to computerise business processes, and every time one is built that doesn't have a "But this rule can be overridden by someone competent." failsafe built in you end up needing it shortly after it starts working with real life data. There needs to be a way of escalating issues which clearly don't fit into the spirit of the rules up to a higher level, where exceptions can be made. But at the same time you need to ensure that the people who allow the exceptions don't run amuck and allow the wrong things through.

What you need is transparency. Decisions to be made publicly, and logged somewhere that can be seen. When the US Supreme Court makes a judgement it details exactly why it's made it, in great detail. And that's what you need when you make an exception. It shouldn't be an easy thing, because the rules should work the vast majority of the time. But it needs to be possible, and it needs to be something that you, or I, can see so that we can decide whether the people in charge are doing their job well, and make a fuss about it when they don't.**

*For more on this, see this video, showing how you can build up different patterns out of sine waves - and then this one showing just how many levels deep you need to go to get a reasonable approximation. Those of you who used sound cards in the 90s will remember how bad synthesised sounds were then - because they didn't use samples, they used synthesis to simulate real sounds out of sine waves. If you imagine that reality is fractal,and rules are simple lines and curves, you can see why you always end up with lot of blurriness and confusion around any rules system.
**So, yes, I'd like to see more publicity around the decisions that get made. For instance, when the tax people decide that Vodafone don't owe that much tax I'd like to see their reasoning, along with all of the facts and figures used to make that decision, so that they can be pored over by newspapers and ordinary citizens.

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