Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Another Fine Mess”: The Applied Language Solutions Debacle

The whole Applied Language Solutions (ALS) catastrophe reminds me of a Simpsons episode in which Homer is put in charge of handling the response to a nuclear meltdown. Inevitably, everything goes south immediately. While scrambling desperately for a solution, Homer grabs the manual, suddenly realizes he doesn’t understand the first thing about nuclear physics, and slowly begins to grasp how desperate his situation is. He finally exclaims in exasperation: “Who would have thought a nuclear reactor could be so complicated?” You can sort of imagine ALS CEO Gavin Wheeldon crying in his office while he wonders where he went wrong.

In a nutshell, the British Ministry of Justice (MoJ) decided to assign responsibility for finding interpreters for all courts in England and Wales to this single company. Previously, every individual court sourced its own linguists via a national register of vetted interpreters.

The problem is that the company that won the contract, Applied Language Solutions, was totally unprepared for the changeover. The new deal imposed by the ministry included a sharp reduction in the per hour rate earned by interpreters, from £30 to a sliding rate of £22-£16. Furthermore, compensation for the time spent traveling and other costs incurred were severely slashed. All in all, an already difficult task which was woefully underpaid was made completely unattractive with one stroke of a bureaucratic pen.

The thing is that the system collapsed almost immediately. Many interpreters simply decided to boycott the new system in protest against the pay cut. Hearings were suspended because ALS failed to fill many slots. Lawyers and judges complained about missed deadlines and the level of qualification of the people supplied by ALS. The overall perception is one of generalized chaos up and down the green and pleasant land.

These are some of the lessons to be drawn from the affair:

A massive contract was dumped on a tiny, inexperienced company incapable of providing the service. It is quite evident that, in this case the need to make hasty cuts to the ministry's budget led to some very, very bad decisions. First of all, news reports indicate that Gavin Wheeldon’s ALS only made £7 million in revenue last year. The Ministry of Justice contract is worth £45 million per annum, i.e.,almost seven times as much. ALS, therefore, is sort of a tiny mosquito that suddenly swallowed two pints of blood and is about to pop like some grisly water balloon.

Computer- and network-driven efficiencies were promised which turned out to be non-existent. The idea was that, by not having to source their own interpreters, individual courts would save time and money. However, while it makes sense hat court staff would spend less time on this task, it is not evident that this represented a monetary cost for taxpayers. The ALS case thus seems to me to constitute a pretty obvious case of the failure of computerized centralization to generate the magic efficiencies promised by some databases. Of course, simple incompetence on the part of ALS and general lack of preparation on all parts could also be a factor here. But, in any case, the MoJ has no one to blame but itself. The idea that the amount of inefficiency in the old system was such that the simple introduction of a database and call center would allow ALS to slash interpreter rates from £30 to £16 is so disingenuous as to be either the product of sheer stupidity or the tacit hope that by outsourcing the service, the Ministry would be able to ride out the outrage from the interpreters. (Considering the reports that Tory MP Crispin Blunt, the undersecretary for prisons and youth justice, has stated that interpreters were grossly overpaid, stupidity seems to be jockeying for first place here.) 

A very complex ecosystem that worked fine was clumsily replaced with a hastily prepared and crude database that focused solely on costs at the expense of qualifications. The old system sounds like a well-functioning market that was simply obliterated by the ham-fisted decision to abolish it and move to a single, monopolistic operator (ironic for the party of free-market liberalism). Moreover, ALS, as a monopolist was entitled to draw rents, in the form of profits, from a system that previously worked fine without that monopoly. Seriously, how twisted is that? The deal is more reminiscent of Bourbon France in the 18th century than free-market Britain in the 21st.

Court interpreting is a difficult profession that probably was already underpaid. By seeking aggressive pay cuts of 30% or 40%, the MoJ and ALS probably pushed the per-hour compensation below what most qualified professionals were willing to accept for a demanding and sometimes depressing job. To use the language of free-market economics, the market cleared at £30. Anything below that point probably triggered not so much a strike or a walkout but a repricing by the market of other freelance activities. Suddenly, maybe taking on 10,000 or 12,000 more words a month from an agency did not sound so bad, considering you don’t have to pay for fuel and you can stay home on a rainy day. (Look up the term "opportunity costs," Crispin, you half-witted product of centuries of inbreeding.) Thirty quid might just convince you to drag your weary bones 100 kilometers to help out at a deposition. Twenty-two quid…? Maybe not so much.

The sleaze factor in the translation sector should not be overlooked. Relative newcomers like ALS that are only focused on revenue should immediately raise concern. Mr. Wheeldon is an attractive, sharp man who can probably make a convincing presentation, but due diligence seems to have been sadly missing. The company repeatedly bleats that it was created nine years ago in the founder’s bedroom. While Wheeldon’s entrepreneurial spirit should be commended, it is a little childish to be impressed by that sort of “origin story.” Exhibit A: There are reports that one Czech interpreter registered her pet rabbit in the company’s database. Jajo the Rabbit was apparently welcomed with open arms into the ALS database. (Jajo, by the by, has a Twitter account.) 

All in all, the ALS catastrophe is a perfect storm created by a spectacular collision between the urgent need among developed governments to cut costs willy nilly, on one hand, and the onrushing train of the “anything goes,” “quality bad, four legs good” translation philosophy that is currently in vogue, on the other. Mr. Wheeldon of ALS thinks, like so many cutting-edge l10n entrepreneurs, that translation is a commodity, so the interpreting slot at a murder inquiry can be filled by any warm body at half price. In this case, since a rabbit is warm blooded, he fit the bill quite nicely. Perhaps in a few years technology will have evolved so much that reptiles will also fit the bill. Who knows? The world is changing so quickly... 

Is this McLocalization's Waterloo? Yeah, right. You bet. My prediction is to expect more debacles like this in the future.

In the Simpsons episode referenced above, Homer finally averts the meltdown by playing “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” Perhaps the time is approaching when Mr. Wheeldon will have to resort to this solution. The problem is that solving this mess is way more complicated than shutting down a nuclear reactor.

Further reading

To read more on the ALS issue, visit any of the following links:

Mr. Wheeldon puts on a brave face in the middle of the storm.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.


Aurora Humarán said...

If only the MoJ had read the wiki...

«Wheeldon's business philosophy is smoke and mirrors, a tactic that was believed to have been used to win the Ministry of Justice interpreting contract. As Gavin himself said in the Times interview "How I made it" (about a contract with Hewlett Packard worth £22,000): “I was ringing up and pretending I was this huge translation company when really it was just me in the back bedroom with a phone and PC. I won the contract and then thought: oh my God, how on earth do I deliver this?”.»

«Gavin’s mum, Denise, says – ‘My nickname for Gavin was our small Arthur Daley, my dad always said if he didn’t end up behind bars he’d end up making a fortune!’»

Thank you for another great post, Miguel.

Henning Simpson said...

Quality was never on their agenda, just monies!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Thanks God ALS is also involved in €1.2 million EU-funded Mosescore project so that the feast can go on a lttle bit longer with a little help from Brussels.