You pay the wages (through your taxes) of millions of public sector bureaucrats in Britain.
I mention this, because most British people seem to be a strangely indifferent towards the fact that public sector bureaucrats are supposed to provide a service to taxpayers. As for the bureaucrats themselves, they seem to be not only indifferent to providing service but resourcefully opposed to doing so.
Last week, I rode my bicycle into a signpost which had been helpfully positioned in the middle of a segregated cycle path in Cambridge, where I now live. The cycle path goes against the flow of traffic. As a consequence, in the evening the oncoming car headlights dazzle cyclists along this stretch. It was evening when I crashed, and it was raining. I simply didn’t see the signpost until – BANG.
Luckily, my shoulder took the impact and not my face. I’m still limping from landing on my knee.
The signpost was positioned far from any lampposts which would have provided illumination, and was itself unlit. It had been installed quite recently I believe, to warn drivers of the cameras that have recently been installed in a bus lane along the same stretch of road. You’ve gotta love the council.
The next day, I tried to contact the council’s highways department to inform them that their latest money-making scheme was dangerous to cyclists. The only mechanism for supplying feedback was an online form accompanied by a dropdown menu of topics for complaints (‘Potholes’, ‘Broken Signs’, etc). There was no category for ‘Profiteering Road Signs Erected in Stupid Places’, so I opted for ‘Broken Signs’. You never know – my shoulder took quite a whack, so hopefully the reverse was true also.
To my dismay, the poxy little online box in which I was supposed to write my complaint was even more severe than Twitter in its demand for brevity, so I gave up trying to explain my accident in the form of a haiku, and attempted to phone the Council instead. By now, my head was filling up with prose.
After much reverberating around in automated phone space, I got through to someone who informed me that I should try emailing the council about the problem. I asked my interlocutor what his name was. He said ‘Matt’. I replied, ‘full name’. Believe it or not, I wasn’t trying to be friends with him. He said ‘Matt... [something or other]’. I can’t remember already. The ravages of time.
Anyhow, I sent a message to the impersonal ‘highways’ email address that Matt had given me. My message carefully explained that the signpost which I crashed into was dangerous. And then something amazing happened. I received a prompt reply!
Alas, my delight lasted a matter of seconds. The reply was an automated message from the friendly-sounding email address ‘Dofirstname.lastname@example.org’.
The not-to-be-replied-to-reply (is there a double standard there?) informed me that I could ‘track the status of this fault at any time’ on the council’s ‘Fault Tracking Page’. Is that better than talking to a human (whose wages I pay) about the signpost I had crashed into? Only one way to find out. I clicked the link, and found a page telling me that the ‘status’ of my fault was ‘Reported’ (Does a fault have a ‘status’? An interesting philosophical question).
Well, at least I hadn’t completely wasted my time – I was the proud author of a Report. This gave me such an inner glow, I was almost willing to overlook the fact that I hadn’t reported a ‘Fault’, as such, rather a poor decision with dangerous practical consequences. Still – who cares what words mean?
In any case, the Fault Tracking Page reassuringly informed me that ‘Within 10 days we aim to decide whether further action is necessary’. An aim! An aim to make a decision! This was real action being taken based on my complaint. I was ecstatic. I was so ecstatic, I turned a blind eye to the fact that the ‘Description of Fault’ as recorded by the council consisted of a truncated block of text lifted from my initial email. The text had been cut off mid word, as though I was a contestant in a sort of bureaucratic game show.
Ah, the curse of the poxy little online box again, only this time the poxy little online box had come to me.
Well, the 10 days have now elapsed. Did the council succeed in their aim to make a decision? I don’t know. I haven’t been contacted. Rather enigmatically, the Fault Tracking Page also informs me that ‘Where no further action is considered necessary, the person reporting the fault will be informed and the report will be closed’. So, can I conclude from the fact that I wasn’t informed that the report hasn’t been closed? Can I conclude that further action is considered necessary? Can I conclude that considering further action necessary is the same as taking further action? I simply don’t know.
Indeed, I don’t know what it means to ‘close’ a report. Does it mean ignoring the fact that there is an invisible signpost in the middle of a cycle lane? And I don’t know what ‘further action’ means. Does it mean further to the aim of deciding? Or further to sending me an automated email? Who knows.
Matt the council employee didn’t want me to know his full name because Britain’s public sector bureaucrats are pathologically unable to take responsibility for anything. They take our money, then they hide behind automated systems.
Credit where credit is due, these automated systems are quite brilliant at protecting public sector workers from the consequences of their actions. Our money, in other words, is spent on ingenious ways of making that sure our money is never spent accountably and wisely.
That, dear readers, is the invisible signpost that democracy is about to whack slapbang into.