Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tackling Unknown Unknowns: The Vetting Process

I'd like to thank everyone who gamely joined the mock vetting discussion on the page you see above. The comments elicited mirror what goes on during a vetting process when creative ideas are thrown onto the table, debated and improved upon.

I liken the vetting process for creative ideas as a battle against unknown unknowns. The committee won't know what errors to look for (first unknown entity) or how many mistakes they must find (second unknown entity).

There's no model answer to refer to at the end of the vetting process and one hopes that the collective wisdom of the vetting committee would hedge against mistakes. Most times, this works.

As editors in charge of daily newspapers will tell you, slip ups are part and parcel of the job. People do drop the ball despite the best systems and intentions because the production of an editorial product, like a parade programme, is essentially a human enterprise.

Blast from the past
The image you see was not doctored. It was scanned from the National Day Parade 1991 (NDP) programme.

When the freshly printed NDP programmes were delivered to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) back in August 1991 - ahh, it didn't take long for me to cast the spotlight on them - I was given a copy as a souvenir. I served PAFF during my full-time National Service.

One of my quirks is that I'm hardwired to look for errors in other people's printed work. Funny thing is, I can't catch my own speling errors, but can usually sniff out glitches that other people make.

While flipping through the 36-page programme, the image of the Colours Party caught my eye. I felt something wasn't right. So I went to look for Senior Warrant Officer Sng (can't remember his full name), whom I regarded as MINDEF's subject matter expert on such matters. I didn't make an appointment as SWO Sng was friendly and approachable and in those days, he had an "open door" policy.

I cracked the NDP programme to Page 8, the one with the picture you see above, and asked for his comments. I watch his studied gaze as his eyes shifted from one image to another.

SWO Sng then half-closed the programme to look at the cover and opened it again to Page 8.

He spotted the error immediately. The wattage from his smile when he beamed at me could have lit the whole office. He knew someone had messed up.

By then, more than 55,000 copies of the NDP programme had been printed. When I brought the error to the attention of my superior officer, he was baffled initially. As he was a Non-Uniformed Singapore Armed Forces (NUSAF, later renamed the DXO scheme), I think the error didn't quite register. He then sought the opinion of an Army officer in PAFF and that officer backed me up.

Here's what happened next: The NUSAF officer asked me who else I had spoken to about the issue (only SWO Sng) and ordered me keep it quiet. If I blabbed, I would be put on charge (!).

Now, when you're a lowly NSF and your superior officer threatens to put you on charge, this sort of episode gets seared into your memory for life. That's why I recall that episode so vividly till this day.

Vetting Exercise Takeways
I found the mock vetting exercise interesting because an error that eluded an entire NDP EXCO in 1991 also escaped the attention of many netizens - many of whom weren't even born in 1991. : )

Just look at the comments it elicited. One discussant found the image odd. And it took a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Second Lieutenant to point out the error. Good job.

As I work for a gaming company, I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of NDP'91 spectators would not have spotted the laterally inverted picture. You're also probably right to point out that the glitch wasn't a show-stopper.

I'll be the first to concede the error is minor.

On the whole, I feel the NDP'91 EXCO did a fine job given the constraints on time, resources, funding and political considerations. Iraq invaded Kuwait a year earlier in August 1990 and MINDEF was aware that the show in 1991 had to send an even stronger message of deterrence. This was a new inject the NDP'91 EXCO had to grapple with and they did so very well.

The whole point of this exercise is to underscore how errors make their way into cold hard print.

Vetting Process: The Systemic Flaw
Thinking back, the vetting process had a systemic flaw. Images in the pre-digital photography era were reviewed using slide projectors. The EXCO members would have had the draft parade programme printed out for them in A3 format - but in black and white with pictures appearing as a blurry mess thanks to early 1990s xerox technology.

The EXCO had 36 pages of mock ups to run through. As 136 images made it into the programme, common sense says that a larger number would have been flashed on screen because not all proposed images made the grade. The images would have been reviewed one at a time with the help of those pathetic A3 mock ups.

Remember the unknown unknowns? The NDP EXCO watching that slideshow were literally combing in the dark to weed out glitches. Vetting editorial copy is never an easy task. This is why the job of newsroom copy editor is often a thankless one.

There's another systemic flaw: most people in the sub-committee that vetted the programme were, by and large, very senior officers. So while an RSM might have zeroed in on the wrong positioning of the Colours, this boo boo probably escaped notice by the senior officers.

Can you see how the vetting process dropped the ball?

In the larger scheme of things, slip ups while vetting other types of MINDEF and SAF material has provided me with a fair bit of intel on items that would otherwise be considered S or TS. I will not highlight these as this will compromise operational security (OPSEC), but mistakes have been made and I think I've made my point.

But there are numerous things in my little black book I can, and will, share with you.

I've highlighted this example and the previous one involving the erroneous venue for Exercise Sing-Siam to demonstrate why staff officers must pay great attention to detail.

These are examples that many of you are probably reading about for the first time. In my opinion, this is probably because MINDEF and the SAF tend to shy away from learning from past mistakes. We do not make enough effort sharing how errors were made and have a tendency to sweep things under the carpet.

Case in point: the misfiring of the fireworks curtain from the Sheares Bridge during NDP 2007 was edited out of the television footage during the repeat telecast of the parade, as was the mistimed Fire of Joy during an earlier parade at the Padang. In time to come, people forget. Future generations viewing such footage without the benefit of institutional memory (for example: access to NDP after action reports) would not know about such glitches as everything looks picture perfect.

What has been carried forth through the years, however, is the punitive mindset.

To be fair, it's my view that this isn't peculiar to MINDEF or the SAF. Try criticising other parts of the system and see the reception you get.

When I pointed out the error in September's issue of PIONEER magazine, PAFF reacted in much the same way as my superior officer did way back in 1991. From what I hear, certain individuals were miffed.

Rather than getting their house in order after learning about the Alouette III error, the feedback seems to have generated mainly negative emotions.

I got not one word of thanks. Not a word.

Somehow, the deafening silence didn't surprise me.


goat89 said...

Interesting article Mr Boey. ><

Unknown said...

Nice one CJ. Very interesting insight. 55K printed copies? The guy that signed off the proof would have had a heart attack! Systemic flaws....its true not only in SAF but in many organizations that the "last chance" vetting level are very senior people. But there again for such elementary errors to escape the eyes of the working level checks before reaching the vetting says alot..... At least this one has no obvious signs - I have seen many examples of mirrored "printed words" on images. Quite prevalent in the days of slides and negatives. How that escaped the "sharp" eyes of the editor still baffles me.....perhaps the editor can't recognize mirrored text..LOL. - Spotter (milnuts)