Unelectable opinions: Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act

I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.

Kafka portrayed it better than anyone: the common man, faced with a bureaucracy which is unreasonable, impenetrable, which denies you access to the people who might resolve your problem, an entanglement of petty obstacles which exhausts your will to stand up for your rights.

In the course of the last decade, UK government departments have been making enthusiastic efforts to turn Kafka’s vision into reality. This post isn’t about the big deliberate policies like Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, iniquitous that it was. Rather, what I’m talking about is this: every government agency, one at a time, has changed its operational policies in ways that make it more difficult, frustrating and time consuming for individuals to deal with them, while increasingly allowing government officials to engage in unfair behaviour without sanction.

I’ll start by quoting two examples from my own direct experience.

My company occasionally sells services to public bodies in Poland. For some reason, in order to pay our invoices, these bodies require a Certificate of Residence which is produced by HMRC. Back in 2011, the procedure was fairly straightforward: you phoned your assigned HMRC office, they told you what you needed to put in a letter to them and when you did this, they sent you back a signed certificate. Job done, invoices duly got paid.

By 2017, the process had changed. There was now an online form filled with jargon that was hard to understand unless you were an international tax expert (I’m not). Several weeks later, a certificate was sent, but this contained a laser printed signature which was unacceptable under Polish law. I couldn’t phone the HMRC office any more: all I could do was to get through to a call centre operator who refused to deal with the problem, saying that “HMRC no longer issue documents with wet signatures”. In the end, we wrote off a significant sum of Polish withholding tax.

My second example is with the Valuation Office Agency – the bit of government which assesses the rateable value of a business property, who set our business rates at several thousand pounds higher than the correct amount (they used a wrong measurement). Once again, we were banned from speaking to the person dealing with the case: our only possible contact was via the call centre – lots of time waiting in voice mail jail, followed by speaking to a person with no authority to even read the full case documents, let alone actually take action.

And here’s the beef: when I submitted a complaint, the complaints office passed it on to someone inside the VOA, but refused to initiate a formal complaints process on the grounds that their Code of Practice states that I should have started by “contacting the person you are dealing with”. Since the VOA specifically made this impossible, this is a Catch-22.

What’s happened in both these cases is happening across just about every government department: where the old process involved assigning your case to an identified person who would read your letter or answer your call, the new process deliberately makes it as difficult as possible for you to do contact any person with any level of authority to assess and deal with your individual case. It’s done in the name of cost reduction, but what’s actually happening is to transfer cost from the government to the individual while ignoring the increased risk of unfairness.

I’m fortunate that on the grand scale of things, these examples are minor and that I’m literate enough to deal with them (in contrast to HMRC, by the way, the VOA dealt with my complaint properly). But the bureaucratic mechanics at play – the replacement of individual responsibility by rigidly automated processes – are the same ones that cause genuine hardship to vulnerable people, as shown in this article from the Guardian and this harrowing story from the Liverpool Echo. People are actually dying as a result of this trend.

Please don’t think I’m a luddite. I’ve designed and sold customer-facing IT systems and use them happily every day. This is not a complaint against automating routine processes: it’s a complaint against government officials being encouraged to hide behind a mask of anonymity and the shield of a call centre. “I was only following orders” has been replaced by “I followed the process”. Officials should not be encouraged (or even forced) to behave in ways that are blatantly unfair or inhumane as a result of supposed efficiency measures. And my (admittedly untutored) guess is that if you account for the duplication of effort from multiple people reviewing a given case and the time wasted by members of the public in jumping through hoops, the cost savings are illusory.

I believe we should have a Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act which grants any citizen dealing with any government department the right to the name, email address and direct telephone number of the official dealing with their case, with a defined level of responsiveness required from that official and a defined process for escalation if that responsiveness is not met. For good measure, let’s add a requirement that senior department officials should be required to meet those responsiveness levels as a condition of any bonuses.

This idea isn’t glamorous and is probably tricky to implement. But I honestly believe that the attitudinal change involved would make a big difference, most of all to those too vulnerable and/or IT-illiterate to deal with the systems and processes now being rolled out. We must not allow the current dehumanising trend to continue.

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