Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
You have to wonder whether those interpreters and agency owners enthusing about the Uber/Airbnb/Etsy model of commerce – “disrupting the market” with a “digital revolution” – have actually ever experienced life as an Uber driver themselves.
“Character-forming” is a euphemism
It was at about this time last year – early summer 2015 – that the full extent of my failure was finally confirmed. For five months, a suspicion had been growing that the Signature unit I had been persuaded to run, BSI423 “Introduction to Interpreting”, was not only prescriptive and very narrow in scope when it should have been a light and sweeping tour, but was quite literally unassessable as well. Like a painting by numbers kit with all the numbers missing and an unexpected last minute bill for fifty gallons of battleship grey.
Five months went by during which I played voice-mail table tennis, wrote many increasingly strident e-mails and did a lot of rocking back and forth in the corner of the shower crooning “Gov’mint come’n took mah baby” in order to establish that absolutely no-one involved in delivering this brand new course – myself, the centre, the awarding body – had much more than the faintest inkling of how it was actually supposed to be completed. Collectively, we all failed a small group of colleagues who were honestly trying to develop as new interpreters. (Fortunately all of them have great potential and I expect amazing things from them, regardless.)
The final deal-breaker was a suggestion, made to me by a member of staff at the awarding body, that if an assessment wasn’t working out then I might have to “make it up” a bit by asking leading questions. That’s really when I started walking away. I’m still walking.
Why is this kind of thing happening in the first place? First, we should explore what “standards” actually are. At this point you might want to supply your own Bagpuss-like wibbly-wobbly dissolve with a surreal harp scale, indicating that we are phasing into the recall of events from earlier in time or some kind of reverie.
I was unable to attend Signature’s statutory regulation meeting in January due to being unexpectedly hospitalised (I’m fine now). While waiting for my belly-button to resume normal service, I did a little bit of reading and uncovered a range of interesting and depressing responses to the statutory regulation struggle in the annals of several other professions. Many of these are the kind of practitioner-focused issues that have so far (to my knowledge) been absent from dialogue. This is a long post so let’s start with the main shakedown and then move on to the sources.
Key issues raised
- Statutory regulation encourages “medical model” approaches to practice which even healthcare professionals may find oppressive, let alone those in occupations which are patently not healthcare.
- Excessive regulation – increased inspection regimes, measurements and managerialism – can lead to increased “reactivity”, a term which describes practitioners feeling a pressure to select “easy wins”, reject more difficult work, abandon more difficult clients and “cover their backs” instead of acting from best professional judgement.
- Campaigns to promote statutory regulation above self-regulation have historically resulted in schisms and increased disunity within various professions. Almost all the campaigns resulted in failure and wasted resources, even for professions between thirty and two hundred times the size of BSL/English interpreting.
- A political will is required to take up the cause of state regulation, which brings with it political scrutiny, which entails unpredictable effects such as sudden reversals of support or unexpected spotlights on bad training/practice. Statutory regulation can stop being statutory at any time should political will or public support be withdrawn: the fight to keep your status may be even more effort than that expended to attain it. The current political will is opposed to statutory regulation even for highly specialist and expert clinical professions taught over and above postgraduate level, let alone social/linguist ones with a mixed bag of vocational qualifications that verify skills instead of teaching them.
- Meta-regulators such as the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and its predecessor the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) have long asserted that regulation must be based on empirical assessment of “actual harm” and not “possible risk”, i.e. regulation must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to solve. A regulator that creates sledgehammer/nut issues is incompetent.
- Given that absolutely none of above is even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by Signature’s meandering rationale for pursuing statutory regulation, it becomes necessary to ask whether the current governance of their “NRCPD service” is fit for purpose and their personnel are qualified to decide our profession’s future. Who watches the watchers?
- Finally, the concept of principled non-compliance may offer some solutions, or at least traction, to those with doubts and fears about the path ahead, while those who favour statutory regulation have a paradox to resolve.
Let’s be done with euphemism for five minutes. When we talk about statutory regulation for sign language interpreters, we are really talking about deliberately creating a new breed of criminal: we need and want more criminals. We are so desperate to be preferred that we are preparing to use the bluntest of instruments to cleave the world of community interpreting into two halves: interpreters over here, and criminals over there. With us, or against us, in the name of public protection. Because historically, black and white solutions have worked out so well.
I was a bit blown away by the interest in my Great Flounce – in just five days, it had double the total traffic of the last ten months – a little nerve-wracking. Some very fair criticisms were made: I agree completely with those who pointed out that it isn’t especially helpful to dismantle things without offering any kind of solution. This post is an attempt to redress that, pulling together bits and pieces I’ve rambled about here over the last year.
Here’s what would bring me back into the loving arms of my comrades, if a register (or equivalent) could manage it. It’s not a shopping list: they are my terms, which sounds super-butch but has that faint implication of compromise. Most of them (except possibly the first) have been talked through by others for decades, and they all overlap to some extent. If you don’t like longform (essay-length) blogs, here’s a quick list with soundbites.
- A twenty-first century register: the register as a “really useful” public-facing database interface, emphasising specific competencies
- Certification to work in critical domains: the death of the “pancake profession”, the birth of structure and progression
- Pupillage/internships: mandatory hours of supervised work experience for full registration status, post-qualification
- An end to deontology: no more stone tablets which contradict contemporary research and cripple us with dissonance
- Evidence-based decisions and practice: a permanent ban on blind faith and “off-the-shelf professionalism”
Unfortunately, rose-tinted faith in a leisurely future was misplaced: the light at the end of the professional tunnel turned out to be fire on the tracks. Leading up to and past the turn of the millennium (in the First World at least) the same social mobility and technological progress that enabled professionalisation to sprout also resulted in higher education (and information in general) becoming more and more accessible, more democratised, which in turn made expertise gradually less rare and thus less socially and economically valuable. A few ivory towers crumbled: nowadays, even commoners are allowed to be critical thinkers. In terms of “knowledge capital”, both old and new professions increasingly began to lose their monopolies, and their reflex response was more professionalisation. An arms race ensued, a vicious circle that demanded ever more education, regulation and organisation, spreading even as far down as the skilled trades – today most people would not notice anything strange about the term “professional plumber” but Jane Austen would have slapped you in the face in shock.
Generally armed with more knowledge and generally possessed of less natural deference to elders or betters, people felt increasingly confident in challenging a professional opinion. The social capital of professionals also took a series of sharp knocks at the marketplace due to some very public scandals (local examples at random: Harold Shipman, Lehman Brothers, Baby P, and most recently the crisis and dismemberment of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which is inexplicably making waves for sign language interpreters despite their absolute lack of involvement in it). Those events were undoubtedly appalling, and the media (whose own processes of professionalisation and rabid competition had honed their ambulance-chasing skills to a fine art) expertly stoked wave after wave of distrust for professionals.
Their response: even more professionalisation, but also a tendency and occasional mandate to include more “lay persons” in the governance of professions. The safeguards of professionalism were no longer seen as sufficient and its core value of autonomy was increasingly seen as mere self-interest: society wanted to be closer to the alarm button and, in a rather unfortunate metaphor originating from the land-grabbing of the American gold rush, to have more of a stake; the stakeholder was born, not to the sound of trumpets but the deafening wheeze of a billion snores. In a “risk society”, autonomy must be replaced by accountability; the original values of professionalism get buried another layer of dust and professionals gradually cede control of their work to non-practitioners in the name of public protection.
As well as elevating existing occupations to professions, many new occupations were created by the professionalisation movement (perhaps we should talk more about “occupationalisation”) which went on to spawn yet more occupations themselves. For example, the UK’s sign language interpreters of 1982 dragged themselves, panting, out of the primordial muck of social work and were suddenly standing on hind legs with a real job that commanded a wage and a title and qualifications and everything. The process had demonstrable benefits to the Deaf community despite a couple of robot-related accidents along the way, and everything seemed to be going very well until a cad and bounder at Jobcentre Plus had the gall to turn some filthy dole-scroungers into Communication Support Workers, and the grubby cycle of life began anew. (This account of the rise of the CSW is brought to you via ASLI.)
Capitalist industry didn’t miss the opportunity here (it never does). With the sheer proliferation of professions and occupations, the economic response was to use and even accelerate the process by encouraging the demarcation of labour into ever smaller fractions: knowledge capital was spread ever thinner. Demarcation saves money, increases profits: it can be far cheaper to employ (and replace) ten drones to do one simple task each than to recruit and train a super-drone who can do all ten. This tendency, mainly found in the manufacturing and energy industries but also in softer “semi-professional” settings such as education (“teaching assistants”) and social work (“care managers”) started to be referred to as “deprofessionalisation”. And as the stock of knowledge capital went into free-fall, so too did the social value of professional status. This was obviously a blow upside the head for professionals, because the whole point of social status is to have more of it than someone else. What is the point in being elevated if there is no-one to look down on? Professionalism is essentially a matter of class.
But working conditions and “class struggle” were already tied fast to our collective notions of “a profession”. A profession’s status is supposed to be proportional to society’s level of need for the functions it performs. If the need is great enough, stable working conditions are likely to be created: salaries, contracts, tenure, working rights, piffling benefits such as sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, healthcare … A small occupation that is composed almost entirely of disposable freelancers and zero-hour contract staff is clearly not that highly valued and can’t really consider itself to be a “profession”. Are anyone’s working conditions really guaranteed in the 21st century?
Returning to the spiral of professionalisation, an arms race by definition requires bigger and bigger guns, and the nuclear deterrent here is statutory regulation. This measure was originally reserved only for the “old professions” and later for those few whose potential for abuse or exploitation was above a fairly high threshold, but in theory, if distrust and suspicion of a large and important enough profession begins to run so high that no measures of increased accountability and decreased autonomy can allay society’s concerns – or, alternatively, when the professionals’ anxiety about their status becomes debilitating enough and their wish that it be protected in law becomes unbearably shrill (“but anyone can call themselves a sanitary engineer!”) – it can, very rarely, be deemed no longer sufficient that professionals organise themselves voluntarily: the state will intervene and mandate some form of “protected status”.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether a government can really control the use of an agent noun formed from a very flexible verb in common everyday use (to pick an example at random, “to interpret”), it’s unfortunate for statutory regulation campaigners that successive governments blow very hot and cold on the issue; we’re currently in an ice age. The problem here is that society, not being the monolith we all pretend it to be, is fickle and has many voices, no matter how much a regulator wishes it would speak in perfect unison. The state, meanwhile, is torn between its desire to control and its newly-found antipathy to bureaucracy or, indeed, spending any money on anything at all. The perfect example of the unreliability of government support for statutory regulation in recent years is the current situation for Further Education teachers, who went through the following blink-and-you’ll-miss-it professionalisation and deprofessionalisation process accompanied by the birth, swelling and punctured collapse of the Institute for Learning, like a supernova with elbow-patches:
- Teaching in FE is an unqualified occupation;
- becomes a voluntarily regulated and mandatorily qualified profession with 266 initial registrants;
- becomes a statutorily regulated profession with 200,000+ members, some with new letters after their names;
- goes back to being a voluntary one with 33,000 members following the Lingfield report;
- gives up and becomes an occupation again, with no compulsory qualifications and no professional body.
All in the space of just twelve years; the time lasted under statutory regulation was a mere five years. So are those 200,000 teachers “unprofessional” now? Were they ever professionals? Clearly no-one else cares. Perhaps they shouldn’t either: they have much more important things to worry about.
Teachers know better than anyone else that if you hand over control of your job to non-practitioners, you open the door to performativity and the death of the soul of your work, which we have already covered. However it is also just about possible, if you work really hard, that you might just nudge the definition of professionalism onto a slightly new course, perhaps sneak in another “trait” or two. In many of the social professions, you will now find some new bullet points on the list of “professional standards”, most commonly a requirement to undertake Continuous Professional Development (CPD, or Continuing Education Units in other English-speaking countries) and a directive to engage in reflective practice. There is nothing wrong with these aspirations. No-one sane could argue that there is no value in learning new things and refreshing what you think you know, and in actually examining your reactions to your work and being just the tiniest bit thoughtful. The real issue is having adequate time and provision of resources to do those things, and the question of how those activities are going to be measured and accounted for does not have a particularly happy answer. Performativity will infect and corrupt even the best of intentions. The observer’s paradox is a real problem: measuring something changes it, usually into something drab and fake.
And you have to be careful with creating new weapons: your arsenal can be taken and turned against you. Part of the Lingfield review’s justification for the deprofessionalisation of Further Education was that there is no evidence that fashionable “best practice” in the form of make-work, tick-off-the-bare-minimum CPD has had any effect on improving the standard of teaching. What other ideas about “enforced professionalism” are a matter of blind faith?
All of these forces inevitably result in the planks of specialist knowledge and “professional practice”, for which the requirements for most of the rest of the traits of professionalism are supposed to logically follow, being more and more frequently kicked out from below until there is no status left for the professional to stand on. By the 1990s, sociologists (who arguably got us into this mess in the first place) had, for the most part, long since abandoned the term “professional” as not especially precise or useful, and – apologies for using the W-word – began talking instead in terms of “knowledge workers”. Professionals have become that which they most wanted to escape, just another worker: today there is no practical difference between the organisation and attributes of most “professions” and most “occupations”.
But many aspiring “professionals” didn’t get the e-mail and have carried on regardless, still gate-keeping, still trying to stay on top by putting others down, still robotically trying to forge a status for themselves that no longer really exists except as a medieval figment, a bedtime story, a lullaby.
The question of whether we are in a profession or not is not so much a red herring as a massive crimson whale. In a wide variety of fields, even trainees’ textbooks and their tutors openly discuss the arbitrary smoke-and-mirrors nature of much of the trait-based “professional standards” criteria. Most “professions”, such as mine, can only consistently tick the first one of them off, anyway: we are not necessarily educated to a high level; we are not “certified to practice” the way other “professions” understand the term; we are certainly not autonomous and self-regulated (although we have bags and bags of formal organisation – there seems to be no limit on the number of factions our professional bodies can split themselves into); research repeatedly shows that we only opportunistically adhere to prescriptive, deontological codes of ethics (and our working conditions often force us to ignore them); and we’re somewhat hit-and-miss on the altruism too. There are many other things we also do not have that people expect from a profession, but this is all well known and again, we have been here before.
So we have essentially failed to achieve something which was completely made up in the first place. That is even harder to do than it sounds. Well done us.
And I still don’t have a jetpack.
I’ll leave you with this:
No code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgement. … Thinking is not optional. The code has been written primarily to guide, not to punish.
– British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2009
A rulebook which has a rule which says that rules are only rules. That is better than “professional”: it is true. And truth is beautiful.
Let’s try for a bit more beauty in our lives, while we still have a shred of collective soul.
Ball, Stephen (2003): “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity”, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228
British Psychological Society (2009): Code of Ethics and Conduct, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/documents/code_of_ethics_and_conduct.pdf
Lingfield et al. (2012): “Professionalism in Further Education: Interim Report of the Independent Review Panel”, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32351/12-670-professionalism-in-further-education-interim.pdf
IfL (2014): “The proposed future of IfL: FAQs”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at https://www.ifl.ac.uk/our-work/what-were-working-on/the-proposed-future-of-ifl-faqs/
Lunt, Ingrid (2008): “Ethical Issues in Professional Life”, in Cunningham, B. (ed.) Exploring Professionalism, pp. 73-97, Bedford Way Papers
Runté, Robert (1995): “Is Teaching a Profession?”, in Taylor, G. & Runté, R. (eds.) Thinking about Teaching: An Introduction, Harcourt Brace
TES Connect (2014): “Institute for Learning to close over fears it will run out of money”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at http://news.tes.co.uk/further-education/b/news/2014/07/01/institute-for-learning-set-to-close-over-cash-fears.aspx
It is surprisingly difficult to pin down what a profession is, or was – if you don’t believe me, try reading around for yourself. It is an immensely depressing voyage of discovery, as though Magellan set off to find the route to Asia but found himself sailing down Bromley High Street instead.
Skipping a millennium of boring stuff about divinity and guilds and semi-secret all-male professional societies with a trowel and apron fetish, I’m given to understand that in the early twentieth century, the West’s budding sociologists made an early stab at these questions and produced “trait-based models” of professionalism: this largely consisted of using a remarkably blunt instrument to nail down a few jobs everyone pretty much agreed were probably professions, and then listing the elements they all had in common. To this day, you will still see the same general kind of list in textbooks or on the pamphlets and websites of regulators under the heading of something like “professional standards”:
A member of a profession:
- has a specialist set of skills informed by abstract knowledge
- has been educated to a high level, usually at university
- is certified to practice
- is part of a formally organised, self-regulated and autonomous body
- adheres to a Code of Ethics or Conduct or Practice
- provides services out of altruism
The lists do vary – there might be five, seven, nine items – but these six are representative. There are many problems with them but the glaring one is the horrible circular logic that informed their selection. Listing the features of something you found lying around is not explaining it or understanding it (sadly, Bloom’s taxonomy was yet to be invented), so this is really just a hall of mirrors. If a profession has these qualities because doctors, lawyers and surveyors are professionals and they have them, why then are doctors, lawyers and surveyors professionals? Because … they also have those qualities. The ones they … already had … because they are … professionals. The list, standing alone, does nothing to explain why any of these things are necessary in order to constitute a profession, or why some different attributes would not do just as well instead (or be even better). As an explanation of why a “profession” has these things, it’s about as mature as stamping your foot and saying “Because”.
You’ll also notice that payment is not listed. Many people’s (and some dictionaries’) first definition of a professional would be “someone who is good enough at what they do to get paid”, the antonym of “amateur” (from French via Italian via Latin, “someone who does it only for the love of it”). So why do wages (or love) not appear in the trait list? We are concerned here with the differences between a profession and an occupation, what is special and better about a professional. Bin men, abattoir workers and even the untouchable scum that work in advertising also get paid but they are not “professionals” in these terms, notwithstanding jokes with a particle of truth about the elevation of bin men to “sanitary engineers”.
A more thoughtful version of the trait model was the “functional-structural model” of professionalism, developed mid-20th century. Attempts were made to logically link certain of the traits together in order provide an interdependent web of justifications for their a priori existence. For example, if a professional requires expertise in the form of abstract knowledge (1), that knowledge must come from somewhere reputable and its attainment should be independently verifiable, which connects logically to the requirements of higher education (2) and certification (3). Likesay, traits 4 to 6 can be explained as mutually necessary due to the understandable public concern that an expert in a position of power requires some form of oversight and restraint, due to mankind’s more regrettable instincts: to protect the hapless public, and since a professional’s competence can only really be verified by another professional, we require peer scrutiny, which requires autonomous self-organisation and a prescriptive framework; a general sense of do-goodery and selflessness won’t hurt either in putting a limit (or at least a spotlight) on exploitative or harmful and therefore “unprofessional” behaviours. But despite these improvements, the model was still a lot more descriptive than explanatory: the specifics and first causes of professionalism are still pretty much bootstrapping themselves out of vacuum and do not explore alternatives or improvements.
At very roughly the same time, artisans and other skilled and semi-skilled workers (who unlike medics and lawmen rarely held actual powers of life and liberty over others but were still very able to influence and be valued by the community) realised that if all it takes to become a “professional” is that you follow this recipe, we could all become professionals. Remember that the 1950s was a time when the spectre of world war was seemingly forever exorcised and a dog had died in orbit: it was being confidently predicted that any day now, obsequious robots would be doing all our housework (and definitely not becoming self-aware and exterminating us), and we would all be flying around in atomic jetpacks on our six out of seven days off, or eating space food in space hotels in space, served to us by someone with an amazing beehive hair-do. “Progress” and “social mobility” must have seemed to have no horizon, not merely in terms of automation and the re-division of labour across class/race/gender/robot boundaries, but with the tantalising promise of ever-rising standards for all human endeavours. “Professionalisation”, the process of becoming more like a profession, became a real word and a trend, and over the next few decades, the “old professions” rapidly lost their exclusivity.
Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away
– William Hughes Mearns, 1899
Burning your reserves to establish just how “professional” you and your colleagues are is not a new activity. Workers in almost every occupation have, at one point or another, expended a considerable volume of blood, sweat, bile and a whole shelf of other secreta in pursuit of the question of just where in the pecking order their avocation lies.
The matter is especially loaded in those occupations sometimes described as “semi-professional” because of the dubious not-quite-status one acquires from living on a fault line, classic examples being teachers and social workers (my preferred colleagues for interpreting work). Liminality is both sexy and corrupted, and is very much a characteristic of the era: it is no coincidence that popular culture in the West is currently heaving with tales of vampires, zombies and morally ambiguous superheroes having torrid and needlessly complex liaisons and daddy issues on the eve of apocalypse. Identities are not what they were. The ink on everyone’s labels is running, like the tear-streaked mascara on a hard-working but second rate drag queen.
But even in the proper world of proper grown-up work, the wider questions of what a profession really is and whether it is desirable, useful or indeed possible to be a member of one are typically left unasked. It is all just assumed. Professionalism is an ideology: magically levitating, but you can’t see the strings. Challenging it takes some persistence and will probably be seen as a threat. If you have difficulty with professionalism, you must not be professional enough.
We forget (so easily) that the very broad concept of “a professional” is socially constructed, and like much else built out of bits of language and history, from semi-conscious mass participation in medial ephemera, the idea is really a bit of a dog’s breakfast. We construct an infinite variety of narratives about ourselves in our continually renegotiated attempts to make sense of anything: one story of “what a professional is” is never quite repeated, but cultural themes will re-occur. White coat, grey suit, red robes: the symbols of the old professions of doctor, accountant and judge have been created by a continual process of broadcast and regurgitation (literature, film, pub banter) that began in the Middle Ages; they are almost universally, if unconsciously, recognised. I knew I’d really graduated as a “master” of my “art” only when I saw the fuck-off-huge gold sceptres those blokes were nonsensically hefting at the ceremony.
“Professionalism” is not only symbolic but archetypical, a super-class, an abstract interface: a “profession”, a specific instantiation of professionalism, is more of a stereotype. For example, assuming some common cultural background, I can say “nurse” to you and can reasonably predict you are now thinking in terms of either Angel or Slut (and that’s just the boys). In 2014, Monty Python performed for the final time the sketch where the chartered accountant wants to be a lion tamer and everybody rolled around clutching their sides as if it were still 1969. An accountant who wants to be a lion tamer is silly.
We all “just know” what “professionalism” is, and of course, we all want to achieve it if we’re not certain we already did; we want desperately to hang on to it if we think we might have. Professionalism is inescapably bound to aspiration, because a professional is good marriage material; a professional has the respect of the community; a professional has power over the lives of others and is therefore a repository of trust, with responsibility and competence and integrity. A professional commands a rare wage, a prestigious status. A professional is an expert practitioner of an incomprehensible art, mysterious: much, much more than a mere “worker”. Small wonder we all want to be one.
There’s just one small problem: there is no such thing as a profession.
In early 2013 I stepped away from a local authority education service, for several reasons, but partly because the standard of information I was getting about my assignments with Deaf students had dropped to the level where I could not routinely expect to get the full names of the people I needed to ask for at reception desks, or anything more than the vaguest hint as to what kind of meeting or lesson I was going to, or a start time accurate to more than one significant figure, or a room location more accurate than a postcode. I don’t need to put up with this any more, I thought, I’m a qualified interpreter now and therefore above such things. So I walked away, and started looking for work organised by “professionals”.
How naive I was. The world outside of education is much, much worse.
When you register as a sign language interpreter with NRCPD, there is an online “profile” that you have to fill out. If you choose to advertise your services, there is a form titled “Assignments” where you tick off the settings you are competent to work in – Further Education, social services casework, physical health, police work, workplace disciplinary proceedings etc. etc. It’s quite a long (if not fully exhaustive) list. When you first enter these details, the word “Pending” is displayed next to each entry: they must be verified by a pusher of buttons somewhere, after which they show as “Active”.
But it is all completely pointless. Absolutely nothing is done with that information. It is never displayed to anyone; it is not searchable; it is left to rot in a walled-off database somewhere, gathering electronic dust. I am a former database programmer and it makes my nose bleed. To find an interpreter, you either have to know their name or you can search by postcode and get a list of very basic information. Nothing at all about specialisms and competencies: no detail at all of what they know or don’t know, can do or can’t do.
I asked NRCPD why the data is never displayed and not searchable. Five months later, I had a response: the ability to search by specific domain competence was taken away because “users” did not find it useful – I assume this means the users of the search function, not the interpreters themselves. So who are these “users”?
I’m still a relatively raw interpreter. I’ve been on the Register for sixteen months. In that time, contact from out of the blue has escalated to the point where I’m currently deleting 10-50 emails and 3-15 SMS messages requesting my services every week, plus a few voicemails. Due to my other commitments and regular clients, I can typically accept none or perhaps just one of them. Nearly all of them are from interpreting agencies – both sign language specialists and not – who have harvested my contact information from the Register and are blindly pumping out job offers. Some are in domains I have no experience of; most have very little information at all. I have devised an array of filters so that some of the worst offenders are simply dismissed automatically.
From only a couple of firms do I get anything approaching the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether I am the right interpreter for that job, a core stipulation of the interpreting Code of Conduct: it’s right here in section 2, in glorious monochrome. The rest ask me if I can do “a meeting”, “an appointment”, “a job interview”, “a training day”. How can you say you are competent when you know almost nothing about the setting, topic, content, aims, attendees? The agencies ask me to get in touch, but they rarely want to know about my experience or my specialisms, or any evidence that I know the first thing about the setting I’m bidding for. They don’t want to know much about me at all, in fact, except that I have to tell them how much I want to be paid – do not hold your breath waiting to be told what they think your time and skills are worth.
I do also get a very small handful of messages from private individuals looking to book an interpreter – something like 5% of the total requests, probably less. Those also rarely tell me anything useful, but with them, it’s excusable: they are not in the business of making money out of interpreting and do not make claims, on pretty websites drowning in stock photography of attractive grinning actors, that they are experts in the supply of quality interpreters; they are just Deaf and hearing punters. It is not their fault that most of them don’t know what an interpreter needs to know to take a job: no interpreter or organisation claiming to represent interpreting has successfully imparted that knowledge to them.
Obviously there are understandable reasons why perhaps not all of the necessary information can be revealed in an agency broadcast to freelancers. Quite apart from confidentiality concerns, the agency is also a business and therefore self-interested above anything else: it doesn’t want to tip people off to the identity of the client, not for their protection or any other moral reason, but to stop freelancers and other agencies from poaching and under-cutting the work.
And of course there is nothing to stop me from replying to each and every request with an indication that I am available and a request for sufficient information. Nothing, that is, except the hours of extra, unpaid work every week it would take to do that. As a part-time freelancer with more than enough additional admin and reporting duties in my education work, as well as a higher education course to struggle through, I simply don’t always have that time. It would not solve the problem anyway: the same fear of poaching puts us in a chicken and egg situation (do you see what I did there? Try rendering the “spirit of meaning” of that in another language without “adding” or “taking away”). I can’t accept the job until I know it is within my competence, but they can’t give me the information I need to make that decision until I accept the job.
If I were full-time, the load would likely be even higher because I would likely have actively signed up with agencies – all of the above describes only randomly broadcast spam. I have not “registered” with any private firms, just with a couple of public sector services. (Ping: as I am writing this, my phone goes off, for a job 73 miles outside of my normal radius, in a hospital. I have no real experience of the medical domain.)
Remember, all of this is happening before you’ve even accepted the job – the problems with getting adequate preparation for a difficult assignment after you’ve accepted it are another blog post entirely. It would be like getting blood out of a stone only if the blood were a teaspoon of helium Einstein-Bose condensate and the stone were a three solar mass pulsar rotating at relativistic velocity. (It is difficult.)
Given the above and that there are about a thousand registered sign language interpreters in the UK, it’s entirely feasible that the NRCPD Code of Conduct is being flaunted hundreds of times per working day and that the industry is not merely complicit with this, it unwittingly encourages it. I say unwittingly because I am not yet fully convinced that there is a widespread conscious intention to play tiddlywinks with the lives of Deaf community members and put interpreters into repeated positions of mind-imploding dissonance until they burn out or screw up so badly they can never work again, at least not in every case. It is just a zombie tendency of the zombie capitalist society we live in, where it’s acceptable for the clients of social services to be seen as just another McProduct to be flogged off by the lowest bidder. (We put our faith in ghosts. Companies and corporations have the legal status of humans: they are mythic entities we imbue with human agency and talk about in the third person singular, like Godzilla or Bagpuss, but it is hard for a myth composed of many decoherent parts to keep a grip on the social conscience and enquiring mind that attend actual humans.)
So most agency staff don’t wake up in the morning consciously deciding to encourage bad practice; they aren’t completely ignorant on purpose about what interpreters really need and do. They are just permitted, by their bosses, by government, by capitalism, by regulators and by us to continue believing that their work, the industry, is just fine. It’s not that they don’t see the big picture: they don’t even know they are in the gallery. They have not merely got the wrong end of the stick, but have a different stick entirely, or perhaps not even a stick but something very different, like a jelly, or blue. I could go on.
None of this is a problem, according to some colleagues. The Code of Conduct and the resulting complaints process exist, in part, to curb this very tendency, they say: if you accepted those informationless jobs, you’d be a bad interpreter by definition. The problem with this is that going by the volume and quality of agency job offers, the Code clearly isn’t having much of a retardant effect; those jobs will probably be accepted by someone, and unless they are an immortal soul that has stalked the Earth for millennia, drinking directly from the fountain of all human wisdom, they would be making as uninformed a decision as I. As for the rigorousness of the complaints process, the number of upheld complaints by NRCPD in 2013 was zero. In 2012 it was one. What a terrifying deterrent.
For my MA dissertation, I surveyed the attitudes of interpreters who have worked, or might be asked to work, in Sex & Relationships Education (SRE). I asked whether any of them had ever declined an SRE assignment and, separately, whether they felt well prepared to interpret SRE. 77% of them had interpreted SRE already. 60% of them were qualified interpreters. 34% said clearly that they were prepared. 11% had taken SRE-specific training. 0% of them had ever declined an assignment.
Impotent deontological codices aside, is it correct to blame interpreters and only interpreters for accepting those jobs? They have bills to pay, mouths to feed; they are pumped just as full of consumerist desire as anyone else, beamed from every available urban surface. Do the industry and the self-appointed “regulator” share none of this moral responsibility, can they fob all of the ethical burden onto our shoulders? Where is the conscientious structure that binds them?
The incredibly unfunny joke is that with a fairly trivial update to their public-facing database interface, a compulsory instruction to list specific competencies, and a pulling out of their collective fingers, NRCPD could put every shoddy agency in the country out of business and improve the general standard of interpreting and increase the job satisfaction of interpreters and halve the cost of interpreting services to commissioners by cutting out the profiteering middle-persons, all in one go, just by doing what they should be doing by the letter of their own oft-vaunted principles: enabling and encouraging people to find interpreters who have the specific linguistic and knowledge-based competence for specific domains of work. To collect that data and then deliberately not use it speaks of being totally sheltered from the real world of community sign language interpreting.
And so baby interpreters like me gawp in wonder at the amazing technicolor blizzard of spam, and read the repeated messages from professional bodies which encourage everyone to believe that registered interpreter status is the end of a journey instead of the beginning of one, and they think, I could give that unknown job a go, why the hell not? I have a pretty yellow badge now.
And then – toss a coin – they crash and burn.
None of it is good enough and we shouldn’t put up with it.