Coming back from Poland the other week, I had the opportunity to compare slick and fantastic customer service in Poland with “GBH” (Great British Hindrance) at London Stansted Airport, now renamed London Standstill Airport. After a two hour flight from Warsaw, it took me a whole hour to clear the UK border due to massive queues at HM Revenue and Customs.
Having missed an important meeting due to this I decided to track down the management and ask them some questions. I ventured up the stairs to ‘mission control’. The first thing that happened was that I was told I have stepped into a restricted area and asked to walk back down the stairs (there were no restrictions, so these must have been invisible to the common man or woman). Here’s how the conversation unfolded. I was polite but firm.
Me “So, what’s your excuse today then?”
HMRC Manager “What do you mean?”
Me “Well, it’s not like Tescos, there has not been an unpredictable ‘surge in sales of cheese and ham baguettes’ etc. You know exactly how many people are due to come through here at any moment, so what is your excuse for a one hour transit time through customs?”
HMRC Manager “It’s the passengers. We have a high volume of children”
Me “Quel Surprise. Who knew? Please try again”
HMRC Manager “It’s the Government cuts. We have no resources”
Me “I’m sorry, that’s a typical public sector response. It’s the job of management to secure sufficient resources to provide a reasonable service or organise the ones you have to make the service work. You have plenty of resources anyway – you are all sitting up in your office watching the work, whilst very few people actually do the work. Why not have more people doing the work rather than watching it? The machines you invested billions in are not working either. It is management’s job to sort such things out rather than pass the blame to Government”
HMRC Manager “And the staff are not adequately trained”
ME “No sorry, it’s not a training issue. It’s a staffing issue. Your staff are perfectly capable, they are just crumbling under the pressure of inadequate numbers, whilst there are plenty of staff overall, just not enough of them working”
The queue stretched back almost to our arrival gate – disgraceful incompetence by UK Border Agency
HMRC Manager “Would you like to fill in a complaint form?”
ME “No, I don’t have time to fill in your pointless bureaucracy and that’s just a sop anyway. I’m telling you now so that you can do something about it. In any case I have already taken photos of the problem”
HMRC Manager “I cannot do anything without a complaint form. If you have taken photographs of the booths, we may have to seize your phone and delete the pictures as this is a restricted area”
ME “Is this Russia? I went there in the 1980’s and it wasn’t this bad …. In any case, once again, you are an hour ate. The pictures have already gone on Twitter and are already half way round the world. For anyone coming to the UK, this is a national disgrace. If Tescos operated to such levels of performance, they would be out of business”
At that point I gave up, fearing that any further attempts to install a continuous improvement culture in HMRC would be met with a ‘rubber glove inspection’. Read the comments on this post. I am far from alone in my experience. I am sure that some managers in public services do try, but I’ve yet to find one that does not respond to serious complaints with excuses such as:
It’s the customers’ fault
It’s the Government’s fault
It’s the staff’s fault
Management in public services needs to be much much better, yet there are no ‘carrots’ to do so. The result of improving efficiency is ultimately fewer jobs. Nor are there any ‘sticks’ for not making things better – it’s almost impossible to get the sack in public services. I was talking to my accountant the other day and he told me it has always been thus. He worked at the Inland Revenue many years ago and was given a verbal warning for ‘overperforming’. He was told “you will never get on here if you work that fast”. He agreed and left shortly after.
So, that’s today’s ‘grumpy man’ post. I really do expect better than this and think we must look like a laughing stock to other nations. I don’t think the private sector is the answer to public problems, yet we are stuck with poor performance from many public services and this does not fit with a public that expect their taxes to be used efficiently. Call me a heretic if you will, but the point of travel is ‘motion’ rather than being ‘stationary’. Perhaps it is time for HM Customs to be Exorcised :-) Time for some music Standstill airport:
Peter Cook is author of “The Music of Business” and “Punk Rock People Management” which simplify business leadership, creativity and innovation, strategic thinking and people management for busy people. HM Customs and Exorcise clearly need a lot of help in this area!!
Check out the books at Cultured Llama.