13 April 2011

Public sector workers and skills

On BBC breakfast this morning they had someone in who was talking about how public sector workers tend not to know how to sell their skills on the job market as well as private sector workers do. I emailed this in but as it's probably too long to get read on air I figured I'd post it here:

I have worked in both public and private sector over the past 15 years, everything from SME employing 50 people to big multi-national company or local council employing tens of thousands. The biggest difference I've found, in relation to skills, in comparing working in the public and private sectors is one of variety and career path.

I've found that in the private sector, in all but the smallest of companies, you are usually quite restricted in the work that you do and the skills you are expected to apply. You are also likely to have a fairly clear career path in terms of knowing where you are and what skills you need to develop to move to the next level up.

In the public sector career paths are less clear and you are typically expected to pick up a broad range of tasks and skills quite quickly and to a fairly high level. many of the consultants I've worked with have been surprised at how myself and my colleagues have switched around roles with a project and between different projects.

I think the driver here is around the restrictions on hiring. In the private sector if you know you need someone with a particular skill set for 6 months then you'll probably negotiate funding from your manager for a temporary contract, hire someone through an agency and that's it. In the public sector it can take 3-4 months to get approval for a temporary contract, another 3-4 to have the job description agreed and checked by HR and legal then 2-3 months to do the actual hiring as even if you go through an agency you usually have to advertise publicly as well for equalities reasons. Usually much quicker and easier to just grab an existing member of staff and tell them that it's now their responsibility, if they don't know how they should just look it up on the web (in their own time) or buy a book (at their own expense).

If public sector workers have difficulty explaining their skills it's probably because they have had to develop, use and discard such a variety that it's more of a question of which skills they should be talking about.

Really the biggest skill a public sector worker has is adaptability!

11 April 2011

Why I think you should vote Yes to AV

I have seen a lot of misinformation and disinformation in the media of late from those who oppose the proposed Alternative Voting (AV) system. I figured I'd post why I think the UK should switch to AV and people should vote yes in the coming referendum. First a little disclaimer...

A Little Disclaimer
Whilst I am a grassroots member of a UK political party this is by me as an individual, it has not been requested or endorsed by that or any other political party. I have been a member of various organisations that have used electoral systems similar to the proposed AV system and seen it in action, I have helped to run elections using the Single Transferable Vote system. I have read the leaflet from The Electoral Commission that has been sent to each household explaining how AV works. My view that the UK should adopt AV and the below is based on my own experiences and the information contained in that leaflet. I recommend that you read the leaflet.

I really do recommend that you read the leaflet
Seriously, it's a quick read and gives a very good explanation of the differences between the current system and the proposed AV system. If you haven't received yours yet, or maybe the hamster ate it, you can get a copy and even more information from here.

What is the current system and what is wrong with it?
The current system is called "First Past the Post". It's pretty simple really. Everyone has one vote and casts it by marking a piece of paper (usually with a cross) against the name of the person they want to vote for. After the polls have closed the papers are separated according to whose name has been marked and counted. Who ever gets the most votes wins. Simple and all well and fine and good where there's only two candidates or choices. You vote for one or the other (or you could spoil your ballot or just not bother to vote). There are a couple of really major problems with this system where there are three or more candidates (from memory there's usually around 7 or 8 in the constituency I live in) in that it often returns a candidate most people don't like (or at least would prefer someone else) and penalises minor parties.

Suppose there are 6 Candidates on the ballot. Candidate A receives 20% of the vote, candidate B gets 19.9%, candidate C 19.1%, candidate D gets 15.1% of the vote, candidate E gets 14.9% of the vote and candidate F gets 10%. Under first past the post candidate A is declared the winner. But just a sec, 80% of those who voted said they wanted someone other than candidate A. 80%! That's a lot, well over half. Also candidate B was only 0.1% of the vote behind candidate A, nearly as many people wanted them although slightly more wanted someone else (but not necessarily candidate A). OK so figures like that are uncommon and probably unlikely. What is quite common is the winning candidate polling only 30-40% of the vote and their nearest competitor being only slightly behind (i.e. marginal seats).

The current system penalises minor parties by dissuading their supporters from voting for them. When there are 6 or 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 (the maximum I've seen on one ballot) candidates then unless you think that your preferred candidate has a good chance of being in the top 3 you might think that you are throwing your vote away. You'd be right. Under the current system voting for a minor party candidate is the equivalent of writing "I am a fish" across your ballot paper. This means that a lot of people vote for a party they maybe don't like but dislike less than the other two parties in the top 3. Some candidates plays this up and and include in their election material "These parties have no chance here, don't vote for them. Vote for us else the [some party they think the voters will see as a threat] will get in." In my example above the party that candidate F belongs to might actually have quite a bit of support, maybe enough to turn that 10% into 20.1%. They don't get the votes because a lot of their supporters think they don't have a chance so vote for a different party, no-one ever knows how much support they really have because their supporters are afraid of wasting their vote and think that if they vote for the party they like that will allow the party they hate to get in.

So what's the alternative and why is it better?
The leaflet gives a much better explanation than I can but here's a summary. Same names on the ballot paper, same ballot box. This time rather than just putting an X (although you can still do that if you really want) you can now rank the candidates in order of preference. You don't have to rank them all, but you can if you want, you can just rank your top few and leave the rest unmarked. When the polls close the ballots are collected as before and sorted but this time according to who has the first preference marked on each (an X or a 1) and these are counted. If a candidate gets 50%+1 or more of the votes then they are the winner and the process stops, we have a candidate that more then half of the people who voted wanted. Quite likely there may be a candidate who has more votes than any one other candidate but less than 50% of the total vote. In that situation the candidate who got the least votes is disqualified an their votes checked for second choices. If there's no second choice then the ballots are discarded (i.e. put away, they're not thrown away) but those where there is a second choice expressed are added to the appropriate pile and to the total for those candidates. If one candidate now has 50%+1 or more of the vote then they are the winner and the process stops, if not then the candidate who now has the least votes is disqualified and their votes checked for second, third, fourth &c preferences. They will then be added to the pile (and count) for the candidate who got second preference unless that candidate has been disqualified in which case they will be added to the pile and count for the third preference and so on, papers with no valid preferences are discarded. This continues until either one candidate has 50%+1 or more of the votes or, rarely, there are no further preferences so no more transfers can be made.

The advantages of this system are that the winning candidate is almost always going to have been a high preference for over half of the voters (in my experience the winning candidate is usually one who was first or second in the first count) and it gives supporters of minority parties to express their first preference but still vote for a majority party (who they like but not as much as the minority party) as second choice so reducing the risk of the opposing majority party (who they hate) getting in.

But doesn't this mean some people get more than one vote?
No! I've heard this claim being made on TV by the 'No' campaigners. It's disinformation to scare people into thinking that AV is an attack on democracy. It isn't, if anything it promotes true democracy. Everyone still only has one vote and only one vote. It's that that one vote can be transferred to a second preference if the first preference comes last.

Might this let an extremist candidate win an election?
Possibly. Yes it is possible that a candidate from an extremist party could get in if they poll at least 50%+1 of the vote in their constituency. That is how democracy is supposed to work, the candidate who most people want to win should win. If you don't think a candidate should win then vote against them and get out and campaign against them. Get a blog, get a soap box, get active. That is how democracy should work. Also, bear in mind that an extremist can win with just 20, 30 or 40% of the vote under the current system so long as the rest of the vote is sufficiently fragmented.

5 April 2011

Splitting PDFs

Had a bit of a change today. There's a report that produced weekly at work, as a PDF file, for all our projects. Basically a highlight/checkpoint report. Problem is that there's hundreds of projects and we don't want project managers to have to go through the whole list to find the one or two pages that impact them (they just won't). We were looking to split the file by project so each project manager would only have to look at the reports for their own project. Fortunately each project is bookmarked in the PDF so we had something we could split on.

I was tasked with finding a suitable product. After looking at a few dozen I finally settled on A-PDF Split. I particularly liked the way you can control the output filenames with macros.

NitroPDF was a close second but cost a lot more, fine if you want the extra functionality (it does more than split) but we didn't need that, and didn't have such good control on the output filenames. The majority of the other products were total 'dog with three legs', many just didn't work at all or threw up loads of errors. A-PDF Split does what we need and doesn't cost much. There's also a command line version for if you need to do offline batch processing, but there's no trial version of that so I couldn't try it.