Challenges in The Guardian we can meet

I worked in local government – show me a robot that could do my job better

Ahem:

deadrobot

The major mistake the rant makes is that it says that all jobs which it is possible to automate are automated. OK, accept that as true. As technology advances then more jobs can be automated, that’s what it means, see?

48 thoughts on “Challenges in The Guardian we can meet”

  1. It looks like she’s already behind the curve in terms of what technology can do:

    “I challenge any computer or algorithm to organise meetings between multiple members of staff with conflicting diaries that may not be up-to-date, and find a suitable room to hold the meeting in.”

    Outlook’s scheduling assistant has been in existence since Office xp in the 1990’s

  2. An increasing amount of transactional work (invoicing, processing, reading letters and deciding who to send them to) is being robotised these days. The fact that it’s being done on an anonymous server box rather than by a hissing mass of anthropomorphic tubes and pipes doesn’t mean that it isn’t automation

  3. Quite apart from the fact that most of what she does is probably a complete waste or everybody’s time and oodles of taxpayers’ money.

  4. To be fair the comments below the article trashed it fairly comprehensively. The fundamental issue they seem to miss is that adding technology (robots) improves the efficiency of the humans working elsewhere in the process. I am actually suspicious that the majority of the guardian itself is written by a SJW- bot that is programmed to take the highest trending story of the week and then write an article about why it reflects the unfairness of the capitalists system, the Tory cuts etc.

  5. I challenge any computer or algorithm to organise meetings between multiple members of staff with conflicting diaries that may not be up-to-date, and find a suitable room to hold the meeting in.

    She thinks this is a challenge. Bless.

    Me, being possibly the laziest engineer every to graduate, would first ask “Are these meetings necessary?”

  6. To echo John Square

    “I challenge any computer or algorithm to organise meetings between multiple members of staff with conflicting diaries that may not be up-to-date, and find a suitable room to hold the meeting in.”

    I recently worked in a local authority. I booked those meetings. with Outlook, which not only allows staff to be added, but also rooms. And they had a little page on their intranet with details of the rooms.

    “In local government I came across PAs who knew the names, faces and number of children of every person with whom their chief exec had a meeting.”

    So fucking what? How does that get the bins emptied?

    “And while most administrative tasks such as filling in forms are now done online, frontline housing staff who help residents to fill out forms do so because they often deal with vulnerable people who need sensitivity. Show me a robot who can do that with genuine warmth and compassion.”

    There isn’t one. That’s where you need humans. At the moment.

    “There are jobs that I encountered which could, in theory, be automated. Some housing surveys, now done via face-to-face meetings, could be done more efficiently by sending out an online survey. However, for many elderly residents these surveys gave them a chance to have a chat and feel part of a community. ”

    Here’s the thing, though. The reason I got pulled into the LA I was working in was that actually, they found that their assumptions about old people and tech were wrong. That the effect of iPads and mobiles was that old people were using their web services in very large numbers. It prompted them to work on making their sites work better on mobile, so they could offer a better service and reduce staff.

    “Moreover, in local government people don’t only do one thing. Everyone, including PAs and housing officers, take on varied roles. They’ve had to, because of the cuts. You might automate one part of their job, but there’s a whole lot more they do which can’t be automated. So for now, we might be wise sticking to robot vacuum cleaners.”

    And this is the thing with automation. It rarely does 100% of the job. But if you can remove 75% of the repetitive work, you don’t need a team of 100 any longer. You need a team of 25 to do the non-repetitive work.

    Oh, and robot vacuum cleaners really aren’t very good at the moment.

  7. a hissing mass of anthropomorphic tubes and pipes

    Thanks, I didn’t know that Ritchie also has a job on the council.

  8. Bloke in North Dorset

    They really are behind the curve when it comes to what can be done with AI and machine learning.

    As for dealing with the elderly, notwithstanding BiW’s comment, as Generations die out more of us will be computer and web literate and would prefer to deal with and AI than a trained monkey on the end of a telephone or behind a screen.

  9. I have a couple of close family working in a local authority and their experience is broadly that 1/3 of the staff is useful people doing useful things, 1/3 is useless lazy idiots not doing enough to allow one to tell if what they are meant to be doing is useful and 1/3 people (both good and bad) doing utterly useless crap.

    Never mind automation, you could get rid of half of them now and the end-user wouldn’t notice.

  10. Automation my arse! There isn’t a robot yet invented can play Solitaire as well as me. So my job is safe for a very long time thank you very much.

  11. “computer literate” a lovely phrase – meaning able to deal with a machine that needs constant maintainence , updating and the like.
    I suspect that if computers and the attached programs were built properly there would be little need for all the maintainence staff. And that is why computers are so ramshackle.

  12. @BiW: ‘“And while most administrative tasks such as filling in forms are now done online, frontline housing staff who help residents to fill out forms do so because they often deal with vulnerable people who need sensitivity. Show me a robot who can do that with genuine warmth and compassion.”

    There isn’t one. That’s where you need humans. At the moment.’

    You can programme a robot to display empathy and sensitivity. I’m less than convinced this is possible with the typical local council worker.

  13. In local government I came across PAs who knew the names, faces and number of children of every person with whom their chief exec had a meeting

    Sodding hell. Local government is, well, local? You’d never guess, would you?

  14. In local government I came across PAs who knew the names, faces and number of children of every person with whom their chief exec had a meeting

    How exactly does that improve getting my bins emptied?

  15. @SE

    “In local government I came across PAs who knew the names, faces and number of children of every person with whom their chief exec had a meeting
    Sodding hell. Local government is, well, local? You’d never guess, would you?”

    Could the Chief Exec not remember these basic courtesies for themselves?

    Sounds like the CE needs replacing.

    And:
    “Although I have to say, in her (?) defence that describing Deloitte as being “patronising and unrealistic” pretty much cuts to the core of their business model.”

    I’m not saying Deloitte aren’t, but having the best part of 15 years in the environment she’s talking about here, many actual professionals are baffled by what they see when landing in LA or HA’s for the first time. I suspect they are simply trying to ask politely and kindly why something unneccesary is being done in such a cack handed way by so many people, and the CiFer is misinterpreting their befuddlement as a direct criticism.

  16. http://www.haushaltsroboter.de/hitchbot-ein-roboter-auf-deutschland-tour/

    How about that one – all it was was a collection of garbage with some lights and a battery that did nothing, expecting others to do the work until it met some surly Americans on the other side of the country.

    And its still more valuable to my local community than most of the actual local government employees.

    It doesn’t, for example, take my tax money to pay a streetsweeper to drive around and mix the sand blown onto the streets with water and then redeposit the mixture on the roadway as a nice wide strip of mud.

  17. Bloke in Wiltshire
    October 31, 2016 at 8:51 am

    “And while most administrative tasks such as filling in forms are now done online, frontline housing staff who help residents to fill out forms do so because they often deal with vulnerable people who need sensitivity. Show me a robot who can do that with genuine warmth and compassion.”

    There isn’t one. That’s where you need humans. At the moment.

    The question here is, of course, why are these people filling out forms in the first place? Then, if the form is actually necessary, why is it so complicated that they need help.

    Doesn’t sound like a spot where automation is needed – it sounds like a spot where someone should be asking why these people need to ask for permission.

  18. However, for many elderly residents these surveys gave them a chance to have a chat and feel part of a community. ”

    Fine. Automate the process, fire 3 of the survey-takers, keep the 4th on and retrain him to go around the neighborhood and have tea with the lonely old ladies.

    None of this ‘oh we still need to cover this bit which is why we’ll keep the horrible inefficiencies of the rest of the system’ crap.

  19. I remember the names and birthdays of all my cousins, nieces and nephews through a fantastic piece of technology called a “piece of paper”. Anybody who relies on the human brain for such information storage is an imbecile.

  20. @Agamammon

    You jest, but Daniel Fujiwara at LSE had given the world a way of estimating Social Return on Investment.

    That work was designed to allow current use value of e.g. Woodlands, so developers would have a mechanism to compare their proposed wind farms/power stations/etc with leaving stuff the fuck alone. It’s instead been used to actually give a pounds and pence ‘value’ to sitting and having a cuppa with the old.

    Imagine my face when some community engagement bod said that the 45k they’d spent doing exactly that gave a social return of 550k, “so that’s half a million in the bank”

  21. John Square,
    That relies on the people assessing the value to be objective. In reality, half of the paper-pushers are telling the other half that their paper-pushing is worth millions. It requires external auditors. But that’s another layer of bureaucracy.

  22. “In local government I came across PAs who knew the names, faces and number of children of every person with whom their chief exec had a meeting.”

    Standard requirement for any PA, whether local government or corporate, surely?

  23. As others have said, it isn’t necessarily whether a robot could do the job better, but whether the job is necessary at all.

  24. Me, being possibly the laziest engineer every to graduate, would first ask “Are these meetings necessary?”

    Second laziest TN. I never even picked up my degree. Thankfully, 20 years later, no one has ever asked to see it.

    ‘Necessary’ was my first thought too. I’m a big fan of if something really needs to be discussed, we’ll do it on site. And I’ll call anyone that really need to be there. My PA has already been robotised. I call it my phone.

  25. Anyone worth impressing already knows that the only reason their opposite number knows their family details is that a PA put them on a postit note. Because it’s the sane way *they* know.

    Some people really do remember that stuff independently, of course, but smart other people may appreciate it, but mainly are interested in any useful skills that accompany the niceties.

  26. Bloke in North Dorset

    I can understand a CEO in private industry waning to know the family details of the CEO of the company they’re trying to close a big deal with.

    For the life in me I can’t see why the top bureaucrat needs to know that information, companies are buying from her and its their job to do the glad handing.

  27. JuliaM

    ‘You can programme a robot to display empathy and sensitivity. I’m less than convinced this is possible with the typical local council worker.’

    Oh absolutely – I can recall dealing with three boroughs, Harrow, Barnet and Barnet between the mid 90s and 2012 on behalf of various family members or as a resident (so not even the ones allegedly infiltrated by Soviet sympathisers in the 80s) and with very few exceptions the people I dealt with were uniformly uninterested, monotone and completely unhelpful jobsworths whose primary raison d’etre was to get from 9:40 to 4:20 (outside which hours you could not get hold of them) with as little possible contact with the taxpayers paying their wages as possible.

    A computer program or AI would in most cases be a massive improvement.

    The UKIP name given to the dismissal of 4 million such people – ‘The bonfire of the inanities’ has, despite what the Guardian says been at best partly accomplished by the Coalition/Tories. Much still needs to be done.

  28. @AndrewM

    “That relies on the people assessing the value to be objective.”

    Fujiwara uses a substitution methodology.

    You get ask a bunch of folks “Does x make you feel as good as a salary increase of y”, and puzzle out a value for x from a range of answers. It uses the British household survey as the base for the data.

    Basically, you end up with a group opinion on the value for a certain kind of interaction/intangible assets/bit of open space etc.

    Its not really econom(etr)ics, more family fortunes with a skim of numbers over the top (the fact the return is given in pounds and pence is an affectation- it could have easily been bananas or clouds), but you can see the point and purpose.

    The horror is the way it’s been interpreted by liberal arts and humanities grads in the workplace. Aside from the fact painting kids faces isn’t an investment (there’s only a cost there, no actual return to the person spending), you end up with (in the case I mentioned above) a cash cost of c£280k showing a return of £5.2m in ‘social good’.

    That kind of statement will only generate questions that cannot be easily (or profitably) answered.

    Standard ROI is tricky enough, as there are so many factors that can impact the stated outcomes, uncertainty and all that. When the return isn’t actually in cashable things, instead being in good vibes and positive feels, the whole thing looks utterly pointless

  29. As an addendum to the “half a million in the bank” anecdote, said publically funded idiot went on to argue that their budget should be raised as they were ‘generating revenue’.

    The proposal was seriously considered for a week or two, before the FD corrected matters.

    As an aside, Fujiwara’s work was hailed as ‘transformative’ by a lot of social outfits.

    And it’s perfectly safe to use, as long as it’s used as a way of ranking projects within a silo of similarly-targeted work. As long as it’s all relative, you are safe and can use the outcomes to prioritise face painting over tea and so on.

    It’s when idiots pretend that it actually generates money and that sums arrived at are meaningful outside the idiocy tent that things get ugly.

  30. Tim Newman,

    I hardly had any meetings at the council. Monthly progress meetings where I showed off the state of things, and quite a lot of 2 man meetings reviewing designs and things.

    I do think there was something peculiar about the council I did some work for. I never saw much shirking. Some of the people were a bit plodding, but they genuinely seemed to want to do a good job. You’d be in a meeting and the HR management would ask a staff member to give you some logo or colour palettes and you’d have them in a few hours.

    My theory is that the councillors were older, people with experience who weren’t trying to carve a political career but just get the bins emptied. I’ve done work in other parts of government and left angry at how money was wasted.

  31. John Square>

    “It’s instead been used to actually give a pounds and pence ‘value’ to sitting and having a cuppa with the old. Imagine my face when some community engagement bod said that the 45k they’d spent doing exactly that gave a social return of 550k, “so that’s half a million in the bank”

    To be fair, I don’t find it at all implausible that a few tens of k’s worth of sitting and chatting with old people could be more valuable than a few hundreds of k’s worth of local government ‘services for the elderly’. In which case, spending £50k does indeed result in a ‘saving’ of a few hundred k over what the council would otherwise do.

    Obviously that’s not revenue generation, but it is cutting spending, so if the ratio is actually like that, it’s a good deal for the taxpayer. If…

  32. To be fair, I don’t find it at all implausible that a few tens of k’s worth of sitting and chatting with old people could be more valuable than a few hundreds of k’s worth of local government ‘services for the elderly’. In which case, spending £50k does indeed result in a ‘saving’ of a few hundred k over what the council would otherwise do.

    Only if the council has cut the ‘services for the elderly’ budget to £0.

  33. John Square,

    Thanks for the explanation. So even if X doesn’t make you feel as good as cold hard cash Y, we can’t use that methodology to argue for tax cuts?

    Bloke in Wiltshire,

    That chimes with my experience: most people in government work at least 75% as hard as in the private sector. But as others explained, much of the work they do simply isn’t necessary at all.

  34. @Dave

    “To be fair, I don’t find it at all implausible that a few tens of k’s worth of sitting and chatting with old people could be more valuable than a few hundreds of k’s worth of local government ‘services for the elderly’. In which case, spending £50k does indeed result in a ‘saving’ of a few hundred k over what the council would otherwise do”

    Dave- I think pretty much everyone agrees with the proposition, it’s the quantification of it that’s dodgy. The aim in your example is to work out whether paying a tea monkey 25k saves money in the long term. The Fujiwara methodology won’t do that as effectively as a longitudinal study, with a control who aren’t offered tea. There, your tea monkey with 50 OAP’s and check their admissions to hospital, alcohol consumption etc against the control group. Fujiwara and his substitutions aren’t necessary.

    Also- this whole set of studies doesn’t answer the question of who should do it: does the cahncil crowd out neighbours who’d do the tea drinking for free?

    Any prizes for guessing why no one looks at that?

  35. @Andrew M

    ‘So even if X doesn’t make you feel as good as cold hard cash Y, we can’t use that methodology to argue for tax cuts?’

    Strangely, no one seems to use it like that. Possibly because the people using this methodology all start with the presumption that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!!

  36. Came across a similar problem with six sigma projects, removing queue time without changing touch time just didn’t give big savings so someone ended up developing a formula to assess savings that gave it an assumed value.
    Sometimes something is just the right thing to do and not always quantifiable so using something like the social good method as described as a ranking method sounds sensible.
    At my daughters school they bring in groups of elderly people to have lunch with the kids once a month, she spent the last one talking to someone who was 100, personally I’d says it’s a good use of time and money even if there’s no cash payback

  37. @BniC

    “Sometimes something is just the right thing to do and not always quantifiable”

    Exactly- but the bureaucracy cannot miss an opportunity. A sane person would say “it’s the right thing to do, so we are doing it”.

    The public sector goes “I want my arse protected, so find a justification for me doing it”.

  38. @ John Square
    I occasionally have trouble remembering the names of the children of people I know: that isn’t what makes me a potentially bad CEO (although it makes is it less likely that I should ever be invited to bcome a CEO).
    It is a waste of effort for a CEO without these particular personal skills to acquire them when he could be doing his job. [gender-specific terminology appropriate; that skill helps women get appointed CEO and the lack of it is a barrier to them while some guys who are good enough can get to the top despite it]

  39. ‘Show me a robot who can do that with genuine warmth and compassion.’

    “There isn’t one. That’s where you need humans. At the moment.”

    ‘Warmth and compassion’ at the DMV. That’ll be the day.

    I recently went to the DMV to transfer a license plate from a car I traded in to my new car. I was told by people to wait til the dealer’s paper work had cleared DMV, so they’d have a record of the transaction. I waited til I was sure they had it.

    They had said record. I still had to fill out a form, and wait an hour to talk to a clerk. The receptionist could have looked it up on her computer, “Yep, we got it,” and taken my 10 bucks.

    An hour of my life I’ll never get back. And no warmth or compassion. More of a “tough shiite” attitude.

    I’m sure you could program a ‘bot to have an attitude. Hmmm . . . maybe a list of attitudes.

  40. Which part of Local Government do you brave libertarian thought miners regard as especially useless then?

    Is it the building regs guys who make sure that your unregulated Polish builders don’t build a school annex that collapses on the kids? The free market could have fixed that. All we have to do is wait until the first few kids die and say “well, we won’t use them again!”

    Is it the planning officers who you complain to when your neighbour tries to build a 30ft statue of Ayn Rand in their back garden that blocks out the sun to your petunias?

    Is it the road safety guys who sit around idly twiddling their thumbs as the UK’s accident rate lowers itself by the free market mechanism of people simply being much more sensible these days?

    Is it the useless, idiotic coastal engineers who, much like King Midas, pathetically attempt to reverse the course of longshore drift with groynes rather than allow the free market to replenish the beach each year by sheer competition between private sector companies?

    Or the namby pamby work shy road maintenance guys who sit around repairing the roads every year when we could easily just get by with off road vehicles and a bit of British “what ho!” spirit?

    I imagine if we did do away with your Council that it would not be long until you found yourself reminiscing over the days when you could actually phone somebody to complain about your bins, but instead now ended each day rocking yourself to sleep after having had a crywank into your well thumbed copy of Atlas Shrugged.

  41. I’d happily do away with the race mongers, the diversity advisers. The entire council housing department. Paid councillors. The local education authority. The twats who insist on spending money on recycling, something more expensive than landfill. I’m sure I could find more too.

  42. JG

    In addition to Tim’s answer, it’s not just that parts of LG add little value.

    If you’ve ever had business dealings with Councils, you would understand that even the “useful” parts of LG can be incredibly wasteful; either employing too many people (and unable to act on that, even when spelt out in black and white) and / or employing people that are basically inept (zombies at desks).

    Given that quite a few would be completely unemployable in the private sector, one could argue that the illusion of value (and not being on the dole queue) is probably a net benefit to the community?

    And on the flip side, I’ve seen a lot of very smart and capable people doing really great stuff, whilst earning but a fraction of what they could if they were in the private sector – it’s not all one way.

    The overall sense of the public sector should not be surprising – as the “flattening of wages” (in the public sector) means that any equilibrium is only ever one way. If you’re good, then salary wise you may likely be better off in the private sector. If not so capable, you can often earn more than your equivalent private sector counterpart (and for a lot less effort).

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