I walk in, slightly tentatively. It’s not altogether clear quite where I should be. I stand in what looks like the right area. Nobody takes any notice of me. There are one or two members of staff talking to other customers. There is a woman whose job seems to consist of walking around importantly with a clipboard while avoiding any eye contact with customers. Eventually I manage to intercept her and state my business. She is polite and efficient and points out the completely different place I should have been standing with only the slightest of body language subtexts that I am a fool for not having known that.
Here there is a row of desks, two of them occupied, each with a conversation which looks as though it has been going on for a long time and neither with any sense that it might come to an end in the foreseeable future. At one of the desks there is an entire family; eventually the mother takes the restive toddler and the baby away leaving the father to maintain the vigil.
After a while a third member of staff appears, bringing another customer to one of the unoccupied desks. Their business is soon concluded, and I see my chance. The member of staff has spotted the risk too and immediately embarks on a clearly well practised route from where he is to the other side of where I am while at all times staying a sufficient distance from me that he does not have to acknowledge my existence. He fiddles with something in a drawer for a bit, before reversing his crabwise route and wondering if he can help me.
I explain what I want. It turns out that he can help, and he starts looking up details on his computer. He scribbles a reference number on a slip of paper in impressively short order. But then it turns out that that is the limit of his role. I now need to take the slip of paper to the other side of the building and give it to somebody in a different department who will be able actually to do what I need. All helpful now that he has a way of passing me on to somebody else, he even offers to take me to the right place and show me where to wait.
Another row of desks, only one of which is occupied. One customer at the desk, one ahead of me waiting. There are reasonably comfortable chairs: this doesn’t look too bad. A few minutes pass, then a woman I hadn’t noticed who had been sitting at a desk half-hidden behind a pillar got up, looked at the two of us waiting, hesitated briefly, then pulled a small trolley from behind her desk and marched into the middle distance.
After only another few minutes, the customer at the desk gets up and leaves, to be replaced by the man waiting ahead of me. Their conversation is long and intricate. Ten minutes go by. Then another ten. The important woman with the clipboard comes past and asks me if I am waiting to be seen. She apologises that there are not more staff available. There should apparently be at least one more and possibly two. She might possibly go to see where they have got to.
By this stage the conversation at the desk looks as though it may be approaching its denouement. A home visit seems to be needed and is being arranged: the end must surely be imminent. But this turns out to be trickier than you might think. There is a big folder of papers which is the source of some critical information, but with nothing to guide the inquiring reader to the right place, so despite presumably doing this many times a day, the member of staff has to flick backwards and forwards for quite a while before finding the page she needs. This information, whatever it is, needs to be reconciled with a laminated map. With folder in one hand and map in the other, details – apparently extensive details – need to be entered into the computer. This takes almost ten minutes by itself and is almost completed when finally a second member of staff appears who is keen – or at least willing – to help me.
I explain what I need and proffer the slip of paper I acquired some lifetimes earlier.
‘What’s the significance of this second number?’ she asks me.
‘I have no idea’, I say, ‘That’s what your colleague wrote down for me.’
She is momentarily perplexed. But soon she is able to transcribe the information from the slip of paper on to her computer which the first man had transcribed from his computer onto the slip of paper. Progress is being made. It seems that my case is a relatively simple one, and all is done in just a few minutes more.
So, an everyday story of flabby public services, where the absence of effective demand signals, reinforced by the indifference of staff cushioned from reality of life by their index-linked pensions and the knowledge that nobody has any choice but to deal with them? A perfect tabloid story, because it fits and reinforces the stereotype so completely. I had plenty of time to think while waiting, and the thought which came most strongly to mind was the bad old days of Europe behind the iron curtain where it could take four queues to buy a single item.
Well, no. This was John Lewis (or Peter Jones to be precise), the comfort shop of the middle classes, where I was struggling to get them to measure and fit a curtain track.
And the moral of this story? Well maybe none: generalising from a single experience is generally a bad idea. Maybe that the temptation succumbed to by many to assume that the private sector is successfully focused on effective customer service, while the public sector drowns in muddled and ineffective processes, is one which should be resisted.
Or maybe just that sometimes a rant can be therapeutic.