News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Hi D: I just endured an excellent example of bureaucratic incompetence. Moving to the new place, I had to make a decision about whether or not I wanted to retain my old phone number and have it transferred to the new address. So, I went down to an office of the national telephone agency and spoke with one of their resident experts. Well, needless to say, being a bureaucratic expert, the expert didn't know anything. It took me more than an hour to determine whether or not it was in my interest to transfer the phone number from my other address over to the new address. The person I was dealing had no idea of the options available, unlike a private sector salesperson who would typically have been full of options (that's how they sell; salespeople have to be flexible and figure out a plan that will appeal to you, the customer. Government doesn't have to sell because it's not profit driven and it's a monopoly operation so the customer has no choice but to deal with it; ergo it has no motive to achieve competence and every incentive to fall into mediocrity, which it routinely does)

And, the expert told me several times that it was impossible that I was already using ADSL service because they had not installed ADSL service at my new home (I still officially do not have ADSL service but of course, as you know, I'm on the Internet everyday). In the end, after an excrutiating pulling of information out of the expert, a very pleasant person who wished to help but was simply incapable of helping, I decided to transfer my old phone number to the new address. However, just as I went out the door of their office I reconsidered and felt that I should first speak of my landlord to confirm the change of phone numbers. I immediately reentered the office and canceled the change.

It's now a week later. I went back to the national telephone agency today to transfer my old phone number to my new address. The new expert informed me that the change had already been performed. I said that I had canceled the change. But I was told that no, the change had gone through, despite what I'd been told before, and that I could already use my old phone number. I said, okay. Whatever. A fuck-up that works in my favor. But then I was told that my telephone was functional. To which I replied, my phone is not functional because as of yesterday and this morning it has no dialtone. She dialed the number and told me it worked (though of course my wife didn't/couldn't answer it because no phone was ringing in our home). The woman informed me that my phone must be broken. I said to her, "You must be kidding me. Do you really believe that?" I then informed her that nobody had been here to install the new phone so how could I have new phone service? She told me that of course somebody had already come over to install my phone. I said, "Please! Nobody has come over to install phone, I assure you. I don't have phone service, although I do have ADSL service." The latter of course assured her that she was right and that I must be mistaken.

You get the picture. And I've left out plenty. It's just a zoo in there unless you're paying a bill. The bean-counters have calculators and no sentience is required for math: ergo, they can take your money and add up the bill correctly.

Furthermore, both the first and second person told me that there is no fee for changing my phone number to the new address. Well, I just came back fresh from the office, to find a new phone bill in my mailbox. Lo and behold, I'm being charged a thousand NT for transferring my phone to new address! Ergo, in half an hour or so I have to go back to the phone office and get them to take this fee off my bill.

This sort of all-around incompetence, particularly distinguished by the inability to sell a product and rank unfamiliarity with the product line, and just plain absence of brainpower, is my chronic experience when dealing with governments. I saw the same thing when I had to deal with government departments in Oakland California while trying to help my Japanese girlfriend deal with identity theft. I had the same problem in New Brunswick with the phone company when I ordered pagers back in 1983. I spoke with three different people in Fredericton who worked in the same office over a period of four weeks. I asked for the names of all three, and none of the three knew each other and all three gave me different versions of the fee structure. I ordered pagers for a friend and I in the painting business and the pagers ended up being sent to another city, and so on and so forth. It was incompetence from A to Z. And of course, government always charges the highest price for the worst service. When you read about other people's trials and tribulations dealing with government bodies you realize this is a pattern, and not at all a case of serial bad luck.

Government is structurally incompetent. It's not the people, but the structure. The best people working in government would still be incompetent. Government cannot be enhanced to compete with the private sector and offer a similar range of services at competitive prices. No more than the Soviet Union could have done. This is a structural problem which cannot be overcome anymore than designing wings for a giraffe's hind legs in an effort to get it to fly. Giraffes can't fly without hollow bones, a radically new cardiovascular system, a new skeleton, etc. Government is the same. The problem is structure. The only structure I know of that works is capitalism. Prior to capitalism we had poverty, disease, ignorance, and so forth.

In the private sector, especially in small companies operating in competitive industries, efficiency is paramount. When exporting commemorative pins to France in the early 1990's and doing the rounds of Taiwanese companies, you were in and out of their office in ten minutes. They were so efficient; so to the point. No B.S., no tea, no chatting. Just "Here's our catalogue, price structure, manufacturing schedule, shipping costs, our bank, etc..." They gave you their card and you might ask a question or two, and then you were on your way. Everyone was busy. Time was money. It worked well. People knew what they were doing. You had a problem, people got on it. And of course they did. They had personal incentive. Sales bonuses, company profits, etc...

On the other hand, why should anyone in government care on a day to day basis about what they do? Would you or I? I wouldn't. I've been corrupted by professional culture and the influence of decadent friends before so I ain't going to be pious and pretend that I'm above that sort of thing. When you see everyone else doing "it" then you do "it" and excuse it by saying "well, everyone's doing it." Speak to a few honest people working in government and see what they have to say about it... I have, and they don't paint a pretty picture...


With regard to my crude statement about capitalism and poverty, I was in a rush... A bad sentence. I should have said something on the order of given today's population densities, only capitalism can feed us....

Anyway, the last segment of my exciting telephone tale!!

So I went back to the telephone company. I would have preferred to speak to the person I dealt with in the morning, in order to save time and so that I would not have to repeat my story all over again. And, after all, she was pleasant and agreeable. However, this being a bureaucratic organization, I had to take a ticket stub and wait my turn and be serviced at random by somebody entirely new.

As chance had it, I was not served by the original person which thus required me to waste plenty of time explaining the whole story all over again. Except this time, the person was not friendly and generous. She was not predisposed to listen to my complaints and to understand my situation. Furthermore, what had previously been a relatively simple situation became complicated by the fact that I was now informed that Clara had changed the phone number over and not me. In other words, when I had first gone to the telephone company and changed the number, I was not told that the number had already been changed. The second time I went to the telephone company I was again not told about Clara's phone call. So, things became complicated and the service person began to believe that I was making up some sort of wild story.

As you can see, everything would've been made much simpler if I was allowed to speak with the original service person who had dealt with me and my situation before. For whatever reasons, she and the previous service person had filtered out the noise in the system (such as Clara) and tried to give me what I wanted.

As we all know, n the private sector the person who handles your account is often called an account executive. He or she already knows your background, your deal, and your story; they can predict what you probably want. In other words, once again you have efficiency in operation. To a bureaucracy, government or private, a customer is just another fish in the pond. You have to take a number, you're put on hold, you have to resort to a voice mail system, etc.

This is one of the reasons that large companies fail and monarchies collapse. Efficiency is something which must be worked upon at all times. In any large organization, at all times some people are sliding into sloth whereas some others are moving into corruption. You have to stay awake to keep things on the up and up. When you have competitors, then management has a vested interest in ensuring efficiency because efficiency means a lower bottom-line and higher profits. But with government or private monopolies, no matter how bad the performance, it doesn't matter. Your customers have no where else to go.

In the end, I was able to convince this afternoon’s service person that I was adorable and cuddly and she got on my side (I applied a number of the tricks I learned from picking up and squiring women). She and two members of the staff then teamed up and it took them an hour, I kid you not, to figure out a way to defeat the system and get me a rebate. Again, the people aren’t usually the problem: the system is. A sales exec working for private company would make a decision and then implement it. They’re often given wide discretion when it comes to sales. They wouldn’t have to wade through all this red tape. Again, in my view, the phone company’s structure-based low efficiency wastes employee and customer time and makes even motivated employees functionally incompetent or mediocre by requiring them to devote an hour to what should require five seconds of decision-making…


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