The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Sunday, November 18, 2012


A recent local election highlighted the problems inherent in democracy. I first became aware of the Santa Clara Valley Water District election when signs for KWOK and HSUEH popped up in my neighborhood.  These were followed by flyers in the mail.  Okay, someone wants to get elected to some minor position.  How cute.

Then I started getting attack ads.   My gut reaction was, who the hell wants to win this badly?  Well, as this San Jose Mercury News article explains, there is a fair amount at stake:

In recent years, grand jury reports, media investigations and audits have criticized the agency for its rich staff benefits and salaries, mission creep and questionable spending. Among the issues: the seven-member board voting to spend $1.4 million to build a gazebo in Alviso; board members charging softball games, interviews and visits to community festivals as "meetings," reimbursable at $286 per event; and a failed attempt last month to provide lifetime pension and health-care benefits for board members, who serve part time.

Now I am not in the least bit qualified to vet the process of delivering drinking water.  I occasionally buy water from grocery stores and Costco.  It would never occur to be to buy stock in Nestle to influence how Arrowhead is bottled.

But this isn’t about water per se; it’s about corruption and malfeasance.  And that should be curable via the democratic process, right?  Vote for the right candidate, and corruption is transformed to purity and malfeasance is transformed into, um, whatever the opposite of malfeasance is.  Feasance?

Sadly, real life does not work this way.  Because to hear Kwok and Hsueh tell it, they are both are reform candidates. Hsueh was a former water district COO running as someone who would transform the district.  Kwok was a board member --  I quote the article again: “appointed to the water board in 2005 after former member Greg Zlotnick was given a newly created, $184,000 job at the district without it being advertised.  That controversy led to the board forcing out CEO Stan Williams, and eventually Zlotnick's job was eliminated.”

Now I have absolutely no way of knowing who is sincere and who is a fraud.  Maybe Kwok has been working tirelessly to clean up the district for the last 7 years.  Or maybe not.  How could I know?  How could I possibly cast an informed vote?  

One of my duties at my job is to interview potential candidates for hire.  Usually I interview engineers, and give them technical problems to solve.  This works, but there is a lot of room for error.  I can tell if someone can write a specific algorithm.  I can’t tell if they’re combative, lazy, overwhelmed by complex systems and procedures.  

Occasionally I am asked to interview candidates for positions that require “soft” skills.  Managers, product people, that sort of thing.  These interviews are much, much harder.  Democracy is the process of conducting interviews for soft skill positions without ever having met the person, where reading one article in a newspaper probably puts you above the median in amount of research performed.  What do you think would be the result if your employer’s interview process was conducted in this manner?

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