Tuesday 12 June 2007

The public service ethic.

The train broke down yesterday.

Not the train I was on, mind, but one in front. The line from Belfast to Bangor has no sidings all the way, so one train stuck on the track blocks it completely. My train left Belfast Central at 18:20, went a couple of miles, sat on the track for half an hour, then eventually turned around and took us all back to Central. Once we were there, we were told that buses had been ordered to take us to Bangor, but who could say when those buses might arrive? There was no way of telling, apparently, presumably because the buses' operators were operating in some other century.

So Vic had to drive in and give me a lift home. What should have been a half-hour journey took two-and-a-half hours.

Now, this was all quite annoying enough as it was, but it managed to get worse this morning. On arriving at work, I discovered that my colleague, who had left an hour before me, had also got stuck behind this broken-down train. I had assumed that it was the train in front of mine that had broken down, but no: a train had broken down sometime around five o'clock — on, as I mentioned, a single track with no junctions — and the eejits in charge of this bit of the network continued to send trains after it in the full knowledge that they would get stuck. By the time I left my office, this had already been going on for over an hour, yet they put me and my fellow victims on a train, with no announcements or even hints that anything might be up, sent us down the track, had our train sit stationary for half an hour, then brought us back to where we'd started — and only then thought of ordering some buses.

When Vic & I drove past Sydenham station at about eight-fifteen, the passengers who had been on the 18:00 train were all still standing there. Waiting for the promised buses, presumably.

I might add that the buses and the trains are operated by the same company, Translink. You'd think that this would enable them to coordinate their activities to some degree. Ha.

What should have happened, of course, is that I should have turned up at Central Station to be told that all trains to Bangor were cancelled and that I would instead have to use this handy bus that's waiting right here and will be leaving in a couple of minutes. It would have been slightly irritating, but, hey, these things happen. I know that trains break down, and can sympathise with their operators when it happens. That sympathy evaporates when their considered response is to deliberately and premeditatedly waste hundreds of people's time.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in public-sector-mentality land, you may be aware of the imaginatively named "Check and Send" service offered by Post Office Counters Limited. For seven pounds, they take your passport application and check that it's all correct before forwarding it to the Passport Office with your payment. This way, you can be sure that the Passport Office won't send it back to you with a note informing you that you've forgotten to put a cross in box 27d, subsection 13A, page 78 and will therefore have to cancel your four-thousand-pound holiday next week. In theory.

Despite using this service — in fact, as you will see in a moment, because we used this service — Vic received Daisy's passport application today, returned from the Passport Office. The Post Office had checked the form, and it was all correct, but had forgotten one teensy little detail: they had failed to forward to the Passport Office any record that we had actually paid for the passport.

Luckily, Vic has kept the receipt and so can send a copy of that to the Passport Office. And we shall be asking Post Office Counters Limited for the seven quid back.

Companies that were once part of nationalised industries but are now private tend to be run according to a set of principles that I call "cargo-cult capitalism". Just like the cargo cults who build things that look like runways in the belief that these will bring planes bearing bounteous wonders, the managers of these organisations have seen private companies doing things and making profit, but have no conception of the underlying structure that informs their actions. "Oo!" they say, "Private companies sometimes rebrand, so let's rebrand! It's bound to work!" They have no idea why some companies rebrand or what they hope to achieve; they just know that they do it. So British Airways, with one of the best recognised brands and logos in the world, and British Telecom, with one of the best recognised brands in the UK, simply destroy their own identities. Anyone who's worked for British Gas will recognise this mentality.

Cargo-cult capitalism has also thoroughly infected the Labour Government, thereby spreading into things that haven't even been privatised, such as the National "Health" "Service" and John Prescott's house-building schemes. "Oo!" they say, "Private companies can build things so much quicker than we can, so let's get them to build stuff for us! It's bound to work!" Their understanding of why a private firm can build something more quickly than the second subcommittee of deputy under-secretary C's pre-approval public consultation outreach strategy (phase three) is non-existent. So they ask a bunch of private firms if they'd like to do some of their usual work but with four times more red tape than usual and guaranteed interminal delays caused by the whims of jobsworth officials whose pay is not even tangentially related to their speed, then scratch their heads in bafflement when there are so few takers for what seemed like such a wonderful offer.

Post Office Counters Limited are supposedly now a private company. They have yet to get their heads around the idea.

No comments: