One of the persistent themes in the book (which I am engaging with closely at the moment as I prepare the fourth edition) is to probe the meanings of efficiency to argue that these are often ethically deficient, and beyond that to say that it is not just that they are deficient and yet ‘work’, but that often they simply don’t work.
With that in mind, I have been thinking about a series of things which have happened in the last week or so. These include:
· I arrived in good time at a train station. The ticket office was closed and two of the four machines were out of order, with long queues at the remaining ones. I missed my train. Soon after one of the ticket booths opened and the ticket seller told me that the company now only employed one seller because there were now machines, and so when she had her break the office was closed. When I finally got the train, there were no seats and it arrived 20 minutes late due to faulty signals.
· I received payment for some work I did – last May. It has taken seven reminders to get paid.
· I was due to pick my wife up from the airport. She texted me to say that boarding was two hours delayed, but the airport website still showed her arrival as being on schedule even after that scheduled time had passed. I phoned them (on a premium rate number), went through a long automated sequence, then was put on hold, then spoke to someone who told me the flight had landed. I pointed out that it had not even taken off yet, and that the flight he mentioned was the earlier one from the same destination. He hung up.
· My phone line and hence broadband connection went down (this happens every couple of months). The usual horrible process of the automated phone call system to report it, and it was almost 24 hours until the fault was fixed.
· I needed to contact HMRC (the UK tax office). This isn’t the usual horrible process of the automated phone call system. It’s far worse. Because it has a voice/word recognition system that doesn’t seem to recognize anything I say. I gave up.
· I had arranged to have some ironing and dry cleaning picked up one afternoon (yes, I know, a first world problem if ever there was one). They don’t turn up so I call them – they say that they came in the morning when I was not in. And this, unlike the other examples, is a small, family-run firm.
I think that this was a fairly typical week. Now it could be said that I am ignoring the many other transactions and interactions I have had with organizations this week that have gone perfectly well. That is true (although I could add to my list of problems as well, although with fairly trivial examples). But even so I experience these transactions and interactions as a constant struggle. A struggle against inefficiency, against organizations just not being very well organized, but also a struggle against efficiency in that many of the problems (the ticket office closure, the automated phone systems) derive from company’s introducing what for them are efficient systems.
It might also be said that I am unusually tetchy or impatient with such problems. That may be true – it’s difficult for me to judge. But my sense is that I am not alone and certainly things like train overcrowding and delays, automated phone lines in general, and the HMRC phone line in particular are quite widely complained about. There seems to be some basic sense in which, across a wide range of transactions and interactions, organizations just don’t work very well.
It’s also the case, to reprise another of the book’s themes, that the notion of choice in all this is quite bogus. In most of the cases listed above I had no choice about using the company I did, even though with the exception of the HMRC they are private companies (albeit often formerly public utilities). And even in cases where similar problems are common like banks where I can choose a different bank (although not, realistically not to have a bank at all) I’m unlikely to find much difference between them.
It’s not just that these things are irritating - although they are – it’s that they transfer inefficiency to others. When my broadband connection isn’t working, there are many work tasks I can’t do; when my train is late, I miss a meeting (actually, I didn’t, because knowing that delays are highly likely I factor them in, but that still means that had I got the train I planned I would have wasted time hanging around due to being early). These things in turn mean that I may cause problems for other people. It’s not that I am wedded to some productivist notion of constant work – I quite enjoy, for example, the ‘wasted’ hour when I am early for a meeting, or the respite from emails when the broadband is down - but there is an irony in the fact that those who are create through their practices the unintended consequence of eroding its possibility.