Broken bureaucracy

We see evidence of Britain breaking under the strain of under-investment and neglect every evening on our news. However, it’s not just in the NHS, our railways and policing where services are broken. Less visible services are also dysfunctional. For instance, the quest to replace my car log, lost in my recent move, has been an eye-opening reminder of how poor and user unfriendly much of our public service bureaucracy is.

I started where most of us start these days, on the Internet. The government’s website explains that as I have both lost my V5C and changed my address, I cannot apply online or over the phone. I have to fill out a form (V62) and send it in. I decided to phone the DVLA to double-check that I had the procedure correct.

The woman I spoke to was friendly and helpful. She explained my choices are to download and print it out or to collect one from the Post Office and fill it in. Fortunately, I have a printer, though many people do not. There was no procedure to submit the form electronically. She also reminded me I needed to pay £25. I asked how that should be done.

“You can either send in a cheque or a Postal Order.”

I paused, incredulous.

A cheque.

I can’t remember when my bank last issued me with a cheque book. I’ve always thought them a useful way to send money to friends and family, but I have probably cashed less than one a year for the last decade and haven’t written one for almost two. As for Postal Orders, I can’t remember the last time I used them. I mentioned it all felt very 1990s and she laughed, awkwardly. Apparently, they couldn’t accept cash but it was perfectly okay for someone else to write the cheque on my behalf.

Really? You go through all this detailed bureaucracy but will take payment in anyone’s name?

Having printed and filled out V62 in my almost illegible handwriting, and having spent half an hour hunting inside the engine for the chassis number and made a couple of mistakes, I decided I would pick up a form from the local Post Office and copy out the details, hopefully in a neater fashion.

Arriving at the Post Office, the chap at the counter explained they were too small to have forms to do with cars and that I would need to go into the city or out to the next town. Never mind that this Post Office serves thousands of households, most with more than one vehicle. Cursing under my breath, I double-checked they could do Postal Orders and headed back home to print a second version of V62.

Finally, the second form in hand, I went back to the Post Office and ordered the Postal Order. It was a different guy who explained that I would have to pay in cash (!). However, they could do a cash withdrawal on my card (!!) and pay for the Postal Order with that. I needed an envelope and was ready to pay for one – but he said there was no need to pay. It was a Post Office envelope and therefore free. Finally, there was an administrative charge for my Postal Order – just over £3.

Reflecting on the process, there is so much that is broken or that doesn’t make sense, or that could be done so much more effectively.

Why can’t I replace my logbook and change my address online?

Why do I have to print a PDF or collect from the Post Office, instead of complete online?

Why does a government agency only take cheques or Postal Orders and make no facility for online or phone payments?

Why does a Post Office not have critical forms or at least the facility to print them for those with no printer?

Why does it cost £3 to print a Postal Order? (Why are we still using Postal Orders!)

And why are Post Office envelopes free? (You don’t need to lick them either, apparently, which – according to the chap at the counter – saves on spit.)

So much of our bureaucracy is broken. Or mad.

The sad decline of the Post Office – and the fight for its future

I still recall from my childhood Fred the Postman, pulling up in his smart van, stepping out in his smart suit, smiling broadly as he stepped up to the front door and handed over a bundle of letters. He was older than many of his colleagues, more experienced, and he had the ‘prestige’ route, out in the countryside of Langdon Hills. He conveyed pride and importance, not in himself, but in a service that was vital in keeping us all connected. At that point, too, it was a single service.

Of course, Royal Mail and the Post Office are synonymous for me, just as I think they are for many people. 1986 saw Post Office Counters Ltd created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Royal Mail, so we didn’t really notice the difference. We didn’t notice when Post office Counters Ltd became Post Office Ltd in 2001. We did notice when TPTB decided to rename the Post Office Group (Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd) to Consignia, but we soon settled back into a misplaced sense of cosy familiarity when that went disastrously wrong and the Royal Mail rose like a phoenix, in name at least.

It was only the contortions of government-imposed reform in 2011 that forced us to recognise that they are really quite different entities, with Post Office Ltd being made independent from Royal Mail (confusingly, Fred would still be a ‘postman’, even though he would be nothing to do with the post office anymore).

Today, Royal Mail post people pitch up in private cars, wear shorts and generally undertake a thankless task (‘I ordered this three days ago!’) in more comfort. Things move on and often for the better, though there is a part of me that hankers after the confidence and security conveyed by a liveried van and a smartly dressed individual walking to the door.

Whilst Royal Mail appears to be able to turn a profit, albeit with some cost-cutting, Post Office Ltd is not doing so well, with profits down.

And herein lies the rub. The eternal tension between public service and private, profit-making entity. The demands of the latter are slowly strangling the services available in the former. So, for instance, from July 31st, savers will no longer be able to buy premium bonds in branches of the Post Office. A small thing. Most of us don’t own premium bonds. But it is another example of the service aspect being chipped away.

On Tuesday I went to town to post off – recorded delivery – some important paperwork. I used to be able to walk around to my local shops, but that option went a long time ago. You used to be able to go to the large Crown Post Office in the town centre. That has been closed and moved into a branch of WH Smith. I walked into Smith’s – scene of many childhood purchases – and noticed it was shrouded in darkness. The Post Office is at the back of the store. A handwritten sign on a cheap plastic chair announced that they were closed due to a power cut.

I asked where the nearest Post Office was. The two staff, still behind the counter, looked visibly irritated by the question. They debated for a while.

There was one in Tesco in Pitsea. Or at Stacey’s Corner. Or one at Whitmore Way.

From years delivering Focus leaflets, I realised after I left that the closest wasn’t any of those, but actually at a local newsagent. When I got there, situated, luckily, on my route to the gym, I asked about posting by recorded delivery. The person behind the counter mocked the difference between Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™ and Royal Mail Signed For® 1st Class (and I gasped at the price difference – over six pounds for a single sheet of paper for Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™). The other person, on the till, didn’t know how to work the machine. When I explained the Post Office in Smith’s was closed, they grumbled and complained it simply meant that everyone would come up to them and they would run out of money. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them the Post Office staff didn’t know they existed.)

I was struck by the contrast with Fred the Postman, and the pride he showed in an integrated service. The Post Office as a resolute symbol of our need to communicate, with the men and women of the Royal Mail, like Fred, out in rain and sun and snow and wind.

I could feel the spirit of Fred as he turned in his grave.

In Basildon, despite the loss of a separate Crown Post Office, something I find unconscionable in a town of over 100,000, at least there are options. There are plenty of places to bury post office counters behind sad racks of sweets and lottery tickets, staffed by shop staff who regret taking on the onerous burden of providing a service with limited resources, even if the Post Office don’t know where they are. In rural areas, however, the options are much more limited and the Post Office retains much more of its powerful symbolism of our need to be in touch.

In 2012, a ten year business agreement was signed between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd to allow the Post Office to continue issuing stamps and handling parcels for Royal Mail (and Parcelforce). Three years of that have passed and in seven years’ time we will be in new territory altogether. Will the spectre of mass post office closures raise its head again?

The Post Office, as a concept and an institution, deserves to be more than a bone, ripped at by the twin dogs of left-wing union militancy and right-wing privatisation dogma. Today’s world is a hard-line one of pounds and pence, where cash transactions are being supplanted by card and automatic payments, and where profitability is seen as a requirement of public service. Those who care about the future of their post offices should be organising now to prevent the coming decimation of a network that is critical to our rural communities and has the potential to be a first rate supplier of public services in our towns and conurbations. We need an investment of creative energy, as well as money, to ensure that the Post Office thrives and becomes a modern institution that embraces the challenges of the 21st  century.

Chequeing Out

Sometimes something can simply not feel right.

Remember the phasing out of Morse Code? It just didn’t sit comfortably.  You can’t argue the case, because the “experts” tell you that it’s been superseded by technology. You feel foolish when it’a pointed out how antiquated it all is. The tech “expert” is the conversational equivalent of the l33t gamer and trying to tell them how to play is going to get you pwnd like a n00b.

Yet, deep inside, the armchair captain in you still knows that when the the computer, the radio and the satellite link-up have failed, you would take more comfort from knowing you could still communicate at a distance with a flash light than from the extremely-expensive-but-now-useless box of WEEE now adorning the bridge. Finally, and long after you’ve been laughed out of the room, a story like that of the MN Rocknes pops up and reminds you that sometimes the old ways of doing things have a flexible benefit all the clever tech in the world can’t beat: Filipinos communicating with Norwegians through the hull of a capsized ship in Morse Code. Now it is the turn of the 350-year-old cheque to be unceremoniously phased out in favour of as yet undeveloped alternatives.

When the Payments Council tried this last year, it found itself facing a less than positive response from small businesses who agreed cheques were inconvenient, but pointed out there wasn’t really a well-developed alternative. It would seem the “experts” in the Payments Council are giving “customer forces” a little nudge in their preferred direction, because, let’s face it, there really isn’t any alternative to a cheque, is there?

Aha, the technorati cry, there are plenty of alternatives! E-mail money transfers! Online payment systems! We can even use our mobiles as alternatives to cheques!

And so this time around, the Forum for Private Business has rolled over.

Nuts. Big fat ones.

Thales is a company that knows a thing or two about electronic communications and financial transactions. They’ve been doing fancy things with MasterCard and something called Advanced Authentication for Chip. Their strategy manager is a chap called Steve Brunswick. It is clear from his blog that even people like Steve haven’t got a clue how they are going to solve this one, really. He makes the brilliantly insightful observation that “Repaying a friend or paying a plumber or gardener for example will be problematic without cheques.”

Whoa! I’d not thought of that! (I’d say your cheque is in the post for Insightful Blog Post Of The Week, but hey, it’s a weak gag.)

What we have here is a familiarly depressing example of how very different groups of people – with very different needs and expectations – participate in the same discussion, but to very different ends. Our “experts” talk in the language of Module Based ID Encryption and “P2P mobile payment solutions” (see Steve’s blog link again for that one). Meanwhile, Mrs Trellis of North Wales doesn’t want to send cash through the post, only has a basic mobile, doesn’t use the internet, but does want to pay that nice chap on the market to frame her pictures and does want to send little Berthog £10 for her birthday. (Berthog is a Welsh name that means “wealthy”. And it is a “her”.)

What does she choose? A cheque.

In the meantime, the Payments Council forces the pace of the getting-rid of a method of payment that is a better leveller of the means of financial exchange than anything other than cash.

I had hoped to point out the finer distinctions between Mrs Trellis and the characters that make up the Board of the Payment Council. Easy enough, I thought.

Mrs Trellis is a single female pensioner and therefore more likely than any other pensioner to be on a low income. Department for Work and Pensions research shows that in 2007-08, the average single female pensioner has just £185 a week left after housing costs. As Mrs Trellis must be almost 80, she will be the wrong side of that average.

By contrast, the Board of the Payments Council is a very different kettle of fish. Curiously, for an organisation which is concerned with all things paymenty, they are very coy about what they are paid.

It is probably a voluntary organisation.

It currently has no Chairman.

So next on the list, by unhappy alphabetical accident, is Michael Alexander, one of the Payment Council’s independent directors. Michael is also Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Chairman of TGE Marine AG, Non-Executive Director of Costain Plc, and a member of the European Advisory Board for Landis and Gyr. After several hours of looking, I’ve pretty much given up trying to establish Michael’s weekly take-home pay. Like the Payment Council, there is a general coyness around the sums of money involved. Perhaps they are all voluntary positions. However, deep inside (!) I can’t help feeling that it is probably a little more than £185. Something tells me, too, that it’ll probably be equally hard to obtain the figures for the rest of his colleagues. (My apologies to Michael Alexander – I am just attempting to make a point about the different worlds in which this same conversation is taking place.)

None of this rambling post is meant as an attack on business or somehow a criticism of companies that I am sure will all play a key role in the UK’s recovery from recession. It is, however, trying to point out that the needs of a commercial world that trades in bits and bytes is very different from that of an impoverished pensioner in a part of the country where she may still be struggling to get Channel 5.

The cheque, physical, simple and technologically challenged, is trusted almost as much as cash by those who live simpler, ordinary lives.

And when the cheque goes?

Perhaps it is time to reinvigorate the Postal Order for the 21st Century. For those who are prepared to make the leap to the web, the Postal Order could provide a secure vehicle for non-cash transactions, requiring the sharing of bank/card details with a single provider: the Post Office. Those not comfortable dealing electronically could purchase them from the Post Office, perhaps through little dispensers (like parking ticket machines only rather more pleasant). Properly coded it could place little strain on the banks, provide an approximate solution for those who fear the increasingly virtual nature of our money, and reinvigorate a failing Post Office network at a time when rural and urban  communities alike are looking for a stable community focus.

Finally, late as it is, and prone to conspiracy theories as I am, I will simply remark on the curiosity of discovering what a small world it is. I began this piece knowing nothing about Thales or ATOC. It was only in the writing that I noticed that the former – specialists in cashless, virtual transactions – and the latter, which shares its Chairman of the Board with the Payments Council, have already done a deal of business together. National Rail Enquiries, which is run by ATOC, awarded Thale the contract to design, build and operate DARWIN, the National Real Time Database (NRTD).

I am still learning about how the world of business works.

P.S. Some interesting stuff about cheques:

  1. The world’s largest cheque was probably this one from Zimbabwe.
  2. What is probably the world’s oldest surviving cheque is dated February 16th, 1659 and is made out to a Mr Delboe for £400.
  3. What is probably the world’s smallest cheque at 1.1mm by 1.8mm was presented by Queensland State Minister John Mickell to Griffith University in Brisbane in 2007 – value $6,000,000.

P.P.S. In a further vindication of older technologies, you might recall the story about the Australian museum that staged a run off between an old-school Morse Code telegraph operator and a mobile-phone-using teenage texter?

Go on… You know who won!

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