Thursday, 27 November 2014

Why are people so cross these days?

I thought of calling this blog ‘The ceaseless quest to find out why people hate politicans’. I haven’t done so, mainly because the answer isn’t terribly hard to find.

Even so, it is strange that a string of former Labour cabinet ministers still write articles suggesting compulsory voting or voting by phone, as if voting was the problem. I’ve just read another one by Charles Clarke.

I’ve suggested some reasons before. This is another one, and it occurred to me this morning, early in the damp mist in Sussex as I texted the bus company to find out the arrival time of my next bus.

You can do this in London too, and it costs about 25p and tells you what buses are arriving at your stop and when. In Sussex, you get what purports to be that, but – on closer examination – just turns out to be the bus timetable.

It wouldn’t have been my choice to spent 25p to look at the timetable, since it is also glued to the bus stop. Do I get cross? A little.

It made me realise how important this gap has become between the fundamental purpose of a public service and its actual purpose in practice.

And how enraging it can be.

The text service for the Sussex bus company is a small example. It purports to have a purpose of giving transparent information to customers. Its actual purpose is to show that they are using technology – and maybe to raise money to pay for it. The audience purports to be the customers when it his actually the county council paymasters.

This example doesn’t matter much, but take Atos, the company charged (until the end of its contract) with assessing fitness for work. Its public purpose was to police the boundary between fit and unfit claimants. Its actual purpose – built into the system provided for them by DWP – was to shave money off the welfare bill.

I am not saying that saving money on welfare is an ignoble cause. The issue here is that the gap between appearance and reality is first disturbing, and then – when you meet it in every public service – it is absolutely infuriating. It is alienating.

I interviewed a GP today for a BBC programme and was fascinated, again, by the number of prominent warnings – together with pictures of the police and blue lights – warning patients not to abuse staff.

Of course, they must not abuse staff. But the fact that these notices are as ubiquitous as they are is a symptom of that gap between the public purpose of a health centre (to cure you) and its real purpose (to control you and your behaviour).

Ask yourself what the real purpose is of your bank when it deals with you (sell you financial products) and the real purpose of many, if not most, government call centres (to get you off the phone in two minutes).

Add that up to a gap in every institution we used, public and private – and voluntary sector too, whose real purpose is often to collect target figures for the Big Lottery, then it amounts to a reason to be cross. Very cross.

My take on this, which is partly the way of the modern world and partly the by-product of the Blair-Brown control system, is that it has hollowed out our institutions.

Never mind the loss of authority and trust, which the BBC is always banging on about. People have never trusted their MPs very far, unless they happen to know them – and sometimes that doesn’t help – but when they see this unarticulated gap, day after day, between the public and real purpose of ever official they deal with, it is a reason for deep distrust.

The effect was clear in Rochester and Strood.  Perhaps I should have called this post: 'The corrosive gap between public and real purpose'.  I will next time...


Iain King said...

You've certainly hit on a huge issue. But note that it's not the public sector, but large institutions 'serving' the public badly, which can be both publically or privately owned. For some reason, the person you deal with usually seems nice, reasonable, capable, honest, intelligent etc. But however much they promise to help you, their message gets lost or garbled, and is carried out badly.

So the question is: why are large public-orientated organisations so poor? Lack of competition is one factor. Could there be other means of direct engagement, accountability or governance from the 'customers'?

Anonymous said...

"it's not the public sector, but large institutions 'serving' the public badly, which can be both publically or privately owned"
Yes - one only needs a run-in with an organisation such as a credit card issuer to recognise that.

Mark Pack said...

Much I agree with in your post David (as ever!). I wonder however when the 'golden age' of people being less cross was?

I'm not sure there was one, or at least if people were less cross it was because they were too accepting of bad service rather than because there was some previous era when services were consistently run brilliantly across the board.

Did you have a particular past in mind?

David Boyle said...

I have a feeling people are more ready to get cross now, but you may be right in general. But I was really responding to reports of shellshocked canvassers at the lst by-election saying they had never known people on the doorsteps be so angry. I think we need to assume they;re right...