Friday, November 30

Would you choose a career as a “civil servant” ?


I put this question to you as part of our consideration of the fiasco surrounding the presidential elections. Three candidates were disqualified because they had too many false signatures. However the real fiasco was in the way the % of false signatures were calculated. Two surveys were done on a sample of the total signatures. The % of false signatures in the sample would be taken to represent the % of total collection of signatures. Fair enough. But the Interior Ministry calculated the % of false signatures by adding together the % from each of the two surveys. This is an obvious misunderstanding of basic statistics which no junior brand manager would make.

My reaction to this, as a foreigner, was to be appalled that such an idiot can be employed in a position which influences public life. Surely the person concerned will be over-ruled immediately, and the correct statistical interpretation implemented. But that is not what happened. A gentleman called Vaclav Henrych appeared on TV and told the amazed population that the law is unclear and that this "method" was one of several that could be allowed thanks to the unclear wording.

Actually I have studied the paragraph of the law. It is a badly written sentence and it is vague. However I cannot see how it allows for a statistically invalid - and absurd - method to be used.

My wife's reaction, however was interesting. We should not heap blame on the urednik, she said, because the badly written law is to blame, like so many laws here. I do not entirely agree with her, because in this case I don't accept that the text of the law encouraged the urednik to use the statistics in a way which is simply and completely wrong.

But she raises a wider issue. I get the impression that the process of writing laws is often conducted hurriedly at Friday lunchtime in Malostranska beseda, before the mad dash to chata. And nobody has either the courage or the intelligence to point out that the laws are often nonsense. You instead get cameo appearances by people like Vaclav Henrych, and the country turns away in disgust at the low quality of such people.

But in the end we all bear responsibility for the competence of people in Mr Henrych's position. In the "UK" to be a "civil servant" is still an honourable career choice. To get to a senior position you need to have done well at University and to have performed well for years in your position. You will not earn as much as your friend from University who joined Unilever but you will not go hungry, you will earn enough to support a strong, educated family. In France, the concept of ‘an elite' of public servants is if anything even stronger. In these countries, the kind of mistake we saw at the weekend would not get beyond the most junior person before being spotted and corrected.

Most of you reading this who are Czech went to University. If you were graduating now, would you even consider a career in the Czech ‘civil service"? Would you aspire to Mr Henrych's job? In most cases I think I know your answer. But therein lies your problem. We can easily express our contempt for Mr Henrych and his failure to understand the basics of statistics. But we need to replace him with a younger generation of people who are as intelligent, well paid and well-trained as you, dear reader; and who have the courage to say "No, Minister!"

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