Thursday, March 15, 2007

Application Error

This weekend, thousands of doctors will be taking to the streets in the UK to join protest marches in London and Glasgow. So what are they protesting against - low pay, long hours, the future of the National Health Service? No, the cause which has got their stethoscopes swinging to the beat of a pipe and drum band is a new on-line job application system called MTAS. The introduction of MTAS is a central part of the government-inspired reform of medical training in the UK, known as "Modernising Medical Careers". As a result of the new system all junior doctors are applying for their jobs - all of which will start on the same day - using the same newly-installed computerised system. The results are, of course, chaos.
It is not just the centralisation of a system that does not need to be centralised (although everyone would be well advised to avoid being ill on the 1st August 2007 - the date all the new appointments will take effect). It is not just that the new system is based on a largely untested software system which appears to have major flaws built into it. It is that the system has been designed in such a way as to compartmentalise the application process to allow "objective assessment" based on pre-determined criteria. Under the system application forms are broken down into sections and distributed to different sets of assessors who mark according to rigorous scoring regimes. CV's are not allowed during the shortlisting process and therefore everything rests on a series of unconnected value judgements. Even the interviews are undertaken by a revolving series of mini-panels. At no point in the process is anyone taking the responsibility of making an overall judgement based on all the information which may be available about a candidate.
The result of this process is that thousands of highly-qualified and eminently suitable junior doctors are going to be without work in August - or working in Brighton when they wanted to work in Bradford, or learning the skills of the heart surgeon when they wanted to become a GP. It is a story which is becoming too familiar - when untested software "solutions" team up with misdirected equality filters beware.
My interest in the case of the protesting doctors was occasioned by a more general thought process about job applications in the global age. Is the move to paperless, on-line applications a liberating or a constraining development? In the old days applying for a job entailed a number of built-in "effort-filters". You had to search through newspaper columns looking for a suitable post; write for an application form; complete the said application form; return it .... etc. Now you can do on-line searches and complete on-line application forms in minutes. In some cases you don't even need to find a specific job to apply for, you can go down the speculative application route. So are the results from the new system better than those of the old one? I feel an experiment coming on.
Now there is this chap I know (for the sake of argument let's call him Alan Burnett). Reasonably qualified and with experience in everything from tidal flood defence work to political campaigning, bus conducting to web-site designing. He's at a bit of a loose end at the moment, kicking his figurative heels, blogging even (always a sure sign). I have persuaded him to complete an on-line application form for Yahoo (I'm getting to like Yahoo more and more and they were so good about lamplitman). He used the "Can't find anything suitable" section which basically says "here I am, come and get me". The application process took about three minutes and involved responding to a few very general questions like "Why do you want to work for Yahoo?" He was honest throughout, listing his main abilities as thinking and finding innovative solutions to problems not yet identified. He has already received an acknowledgement - his application is currently being considered. No doubt he will keep us fully informed of developments.
In the meantime, spare a thought for those junior doctors on Saturday.

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