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Monday, 27 July 2009

Manic Monday

The post arrived and it looked quite interesting. Three letters from two venerable financial institutions: The Halifax and Alliance and Leicester – less venerable now. One majority owned by the taxpayer; the other given up to the Spanish Santander.

The Halifax letter thanks me for opening my ISA saving account with them. Included with the letter was a form which I have to sign. I find this process annoying; since I set up the account on line, except earlier I received a letter from Halifax saying they didn’t recognise my name or address so an account couldn’t be set up. I phoned Halifax, explained that I had a number of accounts with them including 2 ISAs and was curious to know why they denied all knowledge of my existence. After a long security questionnaire and an exhaustive legal preamble; the account was opened over the phone. But the account isn’t opened (although my current account has been debited); I still have to send off a signed letter agreeing to all the terms and conditions etc.

Sometimes it makes me wonder why I bother with on line banking.

The two letters from the A&L thanked me for opening an account and notifying me of my Customer ID. But no letter arrived with my pin number; that’s to arrive later. So although I have this new on line account, for which I received profuse thanks from the bank, I can’t access and fund it. So I await with anticipation the postman’s next delivery.

Last year my wife has set up a partnership with an old friend of hers; so this year we need to make a tax return. As well as the partnership self assessment(SA), there is my wife’s and her business partner’s SA to be completed. Doing it online means you have an extra 3 months grace in which to submit the tax returns. As I am doing all three tax returns it seemed sensible to register on line.

I had no trouble registering my wife and partner for individual SAs; but the Partnership SA is more problematic. Registering for the service is pain anyway. The government’s Gateway service is hugely frustrating; or so it appears to me. Anyway, it wouldn’t let me register – I kept getting an error message so I phoned the Revenue Help Desk. They said they’d look into it, gave me a job number and would call me when they’d fixed the problem. Sure enough a week later they phoned and reassured me that I would now be able to register. But when I tried the same error message came up. So I phoned them back, quoted my job number, and explained what had happened. The agent checked the file. It turned out that although they said the problem had been fixed – it hadn’t. They’d record my conversation and would re-investigate. After another week, this morning I phoned – and….. they are still investigating.

Often, my experiences of banks and the civil service leave me fuming. Today’s experiences were no exceptions. The lengths individuals have to go to to prove they are who they say they are are I accept necessary, although I wonder if it has to be so drawn out. But this contrasts with the gay abandonment with which these financial institutions appeared to have thrown away our money. Those meant to be regulating the banks were looking the wrong way, or simply didn’t see or understand what was happening. And yet, it appears that the banks have got away with it. Rather than letting banks fail, the Government has allowed enforced consolidation. So now we have even bigger banks who mustn’t be allowed to fail and less competition for the poor consumer.

My experience with the Revenue is common place. There’s a general rule of good business practice – if you have to fix something do it once only. But more and more that doesn’t appear to be the case. In part I put the blame on sub contracting, and the poor level of contract management. Much of central and local government work has been contracted out. That is no bad thing; the business of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs isn’t running an on line service. If it is to offer such a service it’ll contract it out to some one who’s business is that. Except their business is to do it at the lowest cost and the least effort.

Designing and running a large service contract is a complicated and time consuming business. In fact some government departments have found that it costs them as much or more to manage the contract of a service being provided than to provide the service themselves. But more often, the contracts are flawed and there is not the expertise or senior management time and effort given over to ensuring that the contracts deliver what the customer requires. So often processes are incomplete and deliver on inappropriate targets but leave the level of service and customer and client satisfaction woefully lacking.

Politicians complain about the short time horizons of the financial institutes, yet government administration is plagued by short termism. It’s not just the period of an administration – maximum of 5 years, it’s also the turn over of Ministers and senior civil servants. Gordon Brown is unusual in having been Chancellor for 10 years; most Ministers, especially those heading departments dealing with complex policy, stay for one or two years. Little enough time to be comfortable in the job. Policy formulation is directed at sorting out the immediate problem and letting the devil take the hindmost.

The worrying thing is that many of the services the public and private sectors provided in the lean years are likely to come under greater pressure, as the poor financial and economic fall out continues. More and more of us will be using them and the service shortcoming will be fully exposed. At a time when there’s going to be fewer resources available to maintain the existing services , let alone fix their shortcomings.

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