Ministry of Silly Systems

Recently, I had cause to write to a Government department to ask a question. I knew my query was in good hands as soon as I received an automated reply advising me of their service level agreement for replying to correspondence within a 15 day target…

Today I received their reply (within the specified time frame). The sequence of events that followed prompted me to set about scrawling more of my childlike drawings, which I present to you below:

Ministry flow chart 1

So the outcomes of this debacle are as follows:

  • Avoidable waste.
  • Avoidable cost.
  • Unnecessary effort.
  • My query remains unresolved.
  • Aggravated customer.

But most importantly of all from the department’s perspective – (yes you’ve guessed it)…

  • Their 15 day correspondence target is met!

I’m sure their next non-reply will also meet the correspondence time target. You see, this sort of situation is a good example of what happens when real purpose (i.e. answer the question!) becomes supplanted by a de facto organisational purpose (i.e. get the customer out of the department’s hair within the specified correspondence time target by any means necessary).

Furthermore, from speaking to the nice lady who phoned me back (but who was unable to help), it would appear that their service level agreement might well have been drawn up without any understanding of the proportion of failure demand in their demand profile which keeps them so busy that it routinely takes up to 15 days to reply.

I offered some solutions to improve the customer experience and save them loads of time, effort and money. You may borrow these ideas if you like…

  1. Answer the question / solve the problem first time round if you can.
  2. Learn what is in your demand profile – don’t just assume it’s all value demand.
  3. Identify the failure demand and waste that is present then remove / prevent it. (See point 1).
  4. Use an email address that allows customers to reply directly!
  5. Get rid of that silly target.

And here’s what my alternative model might look like…

Ministry flow chart 2

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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9 Responses to Ministry of Silly Systems

  1. Rob says:

    Brilliant….just like my experience with HMRC. I went to do my self assessment online but found I needed a Unique Reference Number (URN) which I had to call them for….they wouldn’t give me this over the phone but promised to post to me in 15 working days! Finally arrived, registered online using my URN, and but then needed to input an “activation code”….no idea how to get this, so phone them back again and after an hour of ploughing through endless IVR options and being told by a recorded message that the answer to my question is probably on their website, I finally speak to somebody who tells me he will post my activation code to me which will take another 15 days! This is meant to be an online service remember…’d think that it would be in HMRC’s interests to make it simple for people to do their tax returns online, but instead they have turned it into the most complex thing ever….and I still haven’t actually got as far as the actual “technical” bit to do with tax!

  2. stymaster says:

    I’m not making excuses here, but perhaps an attempt at explanation of some of it. The varuious barriers to effective comms tend to get put there for a couple of reasons IME:

    * Web forms help reduce spam from robots harvesting websites.
    * no-reply email addresses stop worms harvesting addresses from address books of the general public’s compromised PCs.

    Mostly though, these, and the auto-attendant switchboard are a good way to appear to be responding, without all the tedious business of haveing enough staff (or maybe, just the *correct* staff) to actually deal with enquiries, which i suppose is your point.

    • Despairing public servant says:

      Quite, but if there was a human being able to answer the question at the first time of asking, there would be much less need to worry about robots and worms.

    • Never thought about the worms- Good point (it wasn’t what they told me though – your point has much more traction than the flimsy excuses I was given, which I shan’t bore you with).

    • Rob says:

      Good points – maybe they should also turn off their phones to avoid the possibility of receiving nuisance calls, and then close their post room to prevent the risk of parcel bombs. This would have the added benefit of reducing backlogs and ensuring phone answer targets are not missed.

      • They actually gave one of the reasons as being to stop people sending abusive emails and making nuisance phone calls…! Oh, and because they’re ‘too busy’. ‘Too busy’ because of the huge volume of failure demand no doubt…

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  4. CS says:

    I recently did a planning application for a whole row of houses. It required a whole heap of coordination, architects, planners, lawyers, mortgage providers, householders, back to planners etc. Finally, 17 months and 3 weeks and 1 day after we started we got the final form in to the planning office. We then received a letter saying that the planning office has to get responses in within 18 months to ensure a good service. As it hadn’t been approved within 18 months, the application was rejected. End result – Target met. Furious council taxpayers.

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