Meeting Ethical Demands in a Multi-Agency Project


Joe Thomas and Andy Bissett,
School of Computing & Management Sciences,
Sheffield Hallam University,


This paper describes a piece of action research concerning the provision of an IT solution for services supporting drug misusers in a large city in England..

The researcher was tasked with advising a coordinating team whose members were representatives from many different agencies. Some of the agencies were voluntary, some were direct providers of health care, and some were from local government and community groups. The researcher essentially fulfilled the role of IT consultant for this ad hoc multi-agency team.

The putative need foreseen by this coordinating team was for an information system that would streamline the referral, service provision and planning for drug misuse needs across many agencies, for a drug misuser population of around 5000 individuals in the city. In particular, there was a common desire for all parties to avoid repeated filling-in of referral forms for the same clients, many of whom were engaged simultaneously with more than one agency. An equal goal was to be able to extract information from a common database. This information could be forwarded to regional and eventually national health and social service providers in order to assist with planning and resourcing of services for drug misusers.

The complexities of this context were very high, both in terms of sensitively balancing the needs of the multifarious stakeholders, who mostly had different agendas, and in terms of due ethical stance towards all of these stakeholders (including the dug misusers). The ethical issues revolved primarily around the confidentiality dimension. Aside from obvious requirements such as compliance with the UK Data Protection Act, there were complicated issues concerning what data it was appropriate for different agencies to see for a given client. The clients’ permissions (and agendas) varied from agency to agency. Coupled with this was the often rapidly changing nature of the data, given the typically chaotic and usually shifting nature of the serious drug misusers’ lifestyle. Most difficult, too, was the need for data to be accurate, as welfare and even medical outcomes would be affected by it.

The approach taken by the researcher was informed by the field of Social Informatics (Kling, 1996; 1998). From the outset it was understood that the coordinating committee’s work had a huge social dimension, and that any possible information system devised by the researcher may not necessarily involve information technology.

The paper describes how the project was progressed from problem analysis to possible solution using as a strategy Checkland’s (1981) Soft Systems Methodology. Tactically, a possible solution was focussed by using the Joint Application Development technique (Wood & Silver, 1995). Now the researcher acted as the JAD session ‘facilitator’, having loosely followed all the phases of JAD. Finally, an IT solution was prototyped using Visual Basic and demonstrated to everybody’s satisfaction.

To fulfil the ethical needs of all stakeholders, the solution found was a relatively ‘low-tech’ but acceptable and effective IT solution. The paper concludes with a discussion on how ethical needs may sometimes conflict with and curb the possibilities of the technically optimal ‘high-tech’ solutions inherent in, and so beloved of, the ethos of so much of IT theory and practice.


Checkland, P. (1981). Systems thinking, systems practice, Chichester: Wiley.

Kling, R (1996). Computerization and controversy : value conflicts and social choices, 2nd ed. London: Academic Press.

Kling, R. (1998) What is Social Informatics and why does it matter ? (Professor Kling’s Web site).

Wood, J. & Silver, D. (1995) Joint application development, 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley.