Friday, 5 May 2017

Human Interfaces

The Brexit thing between May and juncker takes me back to my I.T. days. Back when I worked in Interactive Voice Systems, I did a lot of research into human-machine interaction. I could write reams on how or why unsuccessful IVR systems are unsuccessful.

But the Brexit issues boil down to the same problems. Lack of undertstanding or empathy.

When writing the software for IVR systems, you need to understand the needs of the other party, the customer dialling into the system.

You also need to communicate your needs clearly, so they understand what is required of them to make the negotiation between them and the machine work properly.

You need to also undertsand the nuances of language both whilst communicating your needs and also during their interaction with you. It's so frustrating to talk to someone and for them to not acknowledge with some sort of response. We instantly become unsure as to whether our message has been heard.

In an IVR system, the simple addition of a "Thank you" prompt after each input signals that the machine has heard something. If that input doesn't match the system's requirements then should prompt there has been an error and ask for input again. In essence, the negotiation between the two becomes as natural as normal conversation, because the machine is programmed to respond with an approximation of human interaction.

The Brexit debacle between the UK and the EU is similar. Two poeple talking at each other without an particular empathy towards to other's position.

Theresa may is a leader, she doesn't need to enter into details, she will talk of the big picture, making big descisions and it's for junior ministers in government to action those ideas and take care of the details.

Junker despite his position, is no leader. He appropriates the concensus of others and aproximates leadership, but he doesn't have the ability to make big unilateral decisions. He's a beareaucrat, he loves the detail.

So, the two of them are talking at odds because they are talking about different aspects of the same issue, not because they disagree. Either they have failed to understand each other's different perspective, or the language and interpretation was a bit dodgy, or they just want to set out each other's position. They are talking at each other and not talking to each other. It is not a conversation, it is rhetoric, and for the medai to protray it as anything else is wrong. May is not in a different galaxy, nor is Juncker bombastic.

Either way, the media have now jumped on the bandwagon and portrayed it as a massive rift between the two sides, when actually there isn''t one.

It's going to be like this for the most part through the Brexit negotiations. Until two underlings of equal status and at the same level sit on each side of the negotiating table and start to work on the minutiae of the deals, only then will we get any sense of what actually the Brexit deal entails.

So, ignore anything coming out of the media for the next 18 months. They will play up the minutest difference in position, make mountains out of minute molehills, just to make headlines.

It ain't over until it's over.

Public Service.

I've touched on this before, the waste and the sense of entitlement in public services. One of the best examples of this was the case of  Katrina Percy. She was the boss of Southern Health, under fire for various reasons, but mainly a number of deaths during her tenure.

Under fire from the media and others she resigned from her £250,000 a year job and moved to a new consultancy job.....paying £250,000 a year. The consultancy job apparently didn't exist before she moved into it, the assumption being she was moved to get away from the media spotlight, but got to keep her salary. So it appears the Southern Health Trust decided to magic £250,000 a year from the wages pot to stop bad publicity. But not employ extra front-line staff. Quite a skewed sense of priorities there.

In the end after media scrutiny of her second job, she left Southern Health, but not without getting a £190,000 payoff.

I've previously mentioned my dislike of public servants being paid such high wages. But it also shows that the public service managers see the money not as taxpayer's money to be spent wisely and with care, but an entitlement than can be spent and used as they see fit, whether that gives the best benefit for the public or as with six figure salaries, not.

I dislike public bodies being run wholly on the private business model. Sure, running a public service in the most efficient way, making the money go further like you would in a company is a good model to follow. Even making a profit is a good thing as long as it is ploughed back into service itself.

However, management structure and six figure salaries, these are not in the public interest.

The board structure in most public services doesn't have the checks and balances a private company does. A private company has shareholders, who can overrule pay awards if they see fit. They can veto the appointment of board members too. Where is the same brake on excess in public services? Who has the power to sack board members if they underperform or curb pay excesses?

The case of  Sharon Shoosmith (salary a slightly less obscene £130,000 a year) who successfully sued Haringay council after they sacked her when Ed Balls, the then Children's secretary got involved, shows that even when these high paid higher-ups in public service lose the confidence of their board and/or the government, they can't be removed painlessly.

But these are not isolated examples. If you can get the information, look at the salaries at the top of council departments, Police, charities, health trusts and the like. There will be a lot of six figure salaries.

Unlike the private sector they get all the reward for nothing like the risk in the same position in the private sector.

In some cases such as the Rotherham sexual abuse case exposes the lack of real leadership and the ability to actually earn the salaries they get at the top of all of the different agencies all at once.. And at the top of all of these public bodies are people claiming six figure salaries. With very little by way of consequence when they bugger things up.

The abject waste of public funds supplying senior managers in public service with these massive salaries is wrong. All future governments should be working to reduce this excess and introduce checks and balances to ensure those at the top are actually earning the money the public pay them.  And have mechanisms to remove them if they are grossly negligent, incompetent or inefficient.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Brexit: delusion on both sides.

As more comes out regarding the meeting between Theresa May and Jean Claude Junker last week, the more it seems that both sides are poles apart regarding Brexit.

May being dismissive of detail and wanting a more pragmatic approach to the negotiations, with Juncker taking the typical bureaucrat line and emphasising the detail and procedure. Exactly what you'd expect him to.

After all his type love to bind up negotiations in the minutiae of transactions. It's what they do, what keeps them in a lifetime of employment. Why would you complete negotiations in two years when you can continue to haggle and work on the finest of fine details for a decade instead? After all, it reduces the chances of you losing your employment if you drag things out like that. You only need to complete less than half a dozen negotiations at most to cover your working life.

It's not like they do a good job either. The migrant crisis showed that. They get bound up in the minutiae that much that they miss some really important things. Like what the procedure is when a million refugees turn up on your border. Do you (a) reinforce the border and supply funds to enable the countries on the border to hold and process the refugees (and immediately deport the non-genuine cases) or do you (b) refuse to plan for such an emergency, go wibble and ignore the fact that the border countries, unable to cope don't hold the refugees at the border and allow them unfettered access through Europe's open borders to travel across Europe without any checks. Yep, it's b.

It's also interesting that the talk from the EU side even before negotiations begin is of money. We are a huge contributor to the EU's coffers and without us the gap in EU finances would be huge. Not only that, Germany are staring at supplying the lion's share of money to fill the gap. No wonder Mrs Merkel took on board Junker's briefing and decided to chip in.

It looks like the EU are setting out their stall. They are happy for the UK to leave, but they are not happy for the UK's money to leave as well. It's all about the money. They are also ready to bind the negotiations up for years discussing minute details.

Of course they threw in the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK in an effort to look PC and protecting human rights, just like Merkel's statement on refugees. Then chucked in the spanner of the status of Northern Ireland to the debate.

So the EU want us to carry on paying for projects we have no control over, they want us to give full rights to EU citizens including benefits, with no way of claiming the money back off their respective home countries and they also want to muddy the water on the Irish situation. Do they want yet another land grab and subsume Northern Ireland into the EU, almost like Russia's annexation of Crimea? Do they want to grab Gibraltar as a payment for keeping the Irish border open?

The UK might find it's not as simple as they think to make agreements with the EU. It's looking more likely we'll leave the EU without a deal, which is what I already knew and voted for in the referendum.

What's sure is that we ain't seen nothing yet and for sure we don't need weak government on our side of the table.

The thing that gets me is if the EU is such a wonderful club to be in, why punish someone for leaving? Wouldn't leaving itself be punishment enough if it's so bad outside?

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Labour Party: the one-message party.

Now we have an election looming, I see that the same old mantras are being pushed by them.

1. The NHS is doomed under the Tories. Vote Labour, get a better NHS.

Not that it ever was better under the previous Labour government, the government that saddled the NHS with expensive Private Partnership deals. Words are not the same as deeds.

2. Labour is the party of the people.

Well, not for a long time. You see in the Labour heartlands, seats are so safe that MPs stay in power for a long time and let's say, get used to the trappings of Parliamentary privilege. The long-term Labour MPs are no better than Tories. Dining at expensive restaurants, being taxied here and there, getting houses funded by the taxpayer... Nice when you can get it, especially when the wages of us poor saps out in the real world are tanking.

The same goes for the bosses at the top of the Unions: free penthouse apartments, funded by the Union members, the same posh restaurants as the Tory and Labour MPs. It makes you sick that they would abuse their privilege this way.

Don't forget that Labour, despite being "The Party of the People" has been in bed with big business for a long time. Just look at how under the previous Labour mob the supply of income for workers transferred from companies to the taxpayer. Yes, I'm talking about in-work benefits, especially tax credits.

It's a great idea when you put it as a way of topping up already poor wages. Not bad, people on low wages with kids get their wages topped up by the government. This would be fine, if corporation tax was raised to pay for it, so that the companies that pay sub-standard wages in effect get fined for doing it. Instead it's paid for by you and me, the ordinary taxpayer. In effect robbing Peter to pay Paul. Those that qualify for tax credits are better off, but the rest of the taxpaying community who don't qualify are effectively worse off because our taxes are higher to pay for it.

The same goes for zero hours contracts and the minimum wage. First off, I can't understand why people on the minimum/living wage should pay tax. And I especially can't understand why someone on the minimum wage should then have their wages topped back up by tax credits. In effect they pay tax, only to have the government give it back to them.

The downside is that the administration of that process needs paying for. So instead of taking them directly out of taxation, a system which is already administered, they pay tax, administered by one team and then apply for a rebate with another team of people and then given that money back. Crazy.

The other downside is the gap between benefits and wages is huge. Getting a tax-free salary equates more closely to benefits, reduces the gap and makes working a better option.

To me it smacks of a Tony Blair job creation scheme, paying people to shuffle paper around. Usually farmed out to somewhere like Wales or the North-East.

The inequality of zero hours contracts needs to be abolished as well. People should not be subject to informal hours arrangements. Again the government i.e. the taxpayer is paying to allow companies to get away with not having regular contracts. If companies want irregular employees on tap but exclusive to them and not able to work anywhere else, then they should pay a retainer to that employee when not employed, effectively paying the benefit the employee would get directly to them instead of the government.

So, what do I want Labour to start doing?

Well, stop banging on about the NHS. It's as boring as the "Safe, Stable Government" mantra chanted by the Tories.

Labour need to stop criticising and start inspiring.

Lift the poor (those on minimum wage) out of taxation, outlaw zero hours contracts, raise corporation tax on large businesses to pay for that and in-work benefits (and actually say that's what it's for, rather than just clobbering business), look to professionalise the social care sector, with a long-term plan to bring it into the NHS.

Legislation could be introduced to link the biggest rise in corporation tax to those companies that use zero hours contracts, or large numbers of minimum wage earners.

Legislation to curb the abuse of union funds needs to be introduced. Again, the marketing of the plan is key: It's helping the members to stop abuse, not bashing union bosses for the sake of it. Union bosses should pay for their accommodation out of their six-figure salaries, just like every other union member.  Highlighting the issue will put a spotlight on the abuse and should get the support of every union member.

Free local councils to start building houses. Forcing them to just build social housing will not generate new houses as it's just a cost to them. Allow them to build a small percentage for private sale so that they can make a profit, but with the caveat that any money raised has to be ringfenced and ploughed back into the housing fund.

Put a cap on public sector wages. Create legislation to cap the top wage to a certain number of times the lowest wage. It's obscene that the taxpayer should be paying large six-figure salaries to council members no matter how high up they are. Public service is a vocation. If you're so good at your job then go and find your way in the private sector. I find that many in the top jobs in public service are not of the standard to justify the huge salaries, they've just appointed themselves the salaries and justified it on the basis of that's what is needed to attract people from the private sector, when no-one from the private sector is actually employed.

I would apply the same cap on salaries for charities, especially those that receive government funding. There should be no members of charities earning over £200,000 salaries. Even £100,000 seems excessive when it can supply a very good standard of living. Charity donations should not be paying for a lavish upper-class lifestyle.

By these measures, Labour can say it is cleaning up the inequalities in employment and making the working environment more equitable for the lower paid. Lowering the wage gap for organisations that take from the public purse will give the feeling to the lower paid that they are not being exploited

Taking the lowest paid out of taxation will provide a boost in living standards and will equalise the gap between benefits and work.

Making companies pay for in-work benefits will shift payment for work away from the taxpayer and back onto business.