Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Contempt for Office Boys (and Girls)

Every time I have anything to do with civil servants I feel a primitive urge to lay about me with something sharp in one hand and something blunt in the other. It's not simply that most of the paperwork they require you to do is unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming; it's not just that governments both local and national absolutely love to make you ask permission for every little thing, and pay through the nose even if they refuse to give it to you; these things are not directly the fault of the people you actually deal with, as the ones who create these systems are hiding in mediaeval palaces bought with public money and with armed guards on the doors.

No, what brings out the Viking in me is the laziness, incompetence, incivility and contempt with which people who do trivial bits of paperwork for a living treat the public which pays them and that they are there to serve. They have absolutely no idea of what it means to earn a living, of what it is to have your work assessed by someone who is wondering whether you are worth paying any more, to attend to clients who are paying for a service and expect to be satisfied, to have to turn up on time, leave late and work through your coffee break because there are things to be done, to see income depend on the time, effort, quality and quantity of the work you do. In short, they have no idea what it means to work in the productive economy. And they have absolutely no concept of the value of other people's time. If you try to explain any of this they look at you strangely, completely mystified. Most of them are socialists, obviously, because for them money really does appear to grow on trees.

I'm speaking of Spain, and on this occasion of the office for foreigners, but my experience in other deparments, and in England, has been very similar. I paid someone to do the paperwork for me, and only turned up for one part of the process for which they insist you come in person. Since it consists of stamping a piece of paper I have no idea why but they like to make you waste as much time as possible. In my case a couple of hours.

Most of the people who need to get or renew papers are economic migrants who can't pay an adviser and have to do it themselves. There was a group of Rumanians who clearly worked in the fields or on building sites and had spent the entire morning waiting to be called and 'processed'. There was some kind of computer problem, but no one was trying to solve it, no one was taking responsibility for it, no one was keeping the waiting public informed, no one was apologising. They just exchanged looks and snide remarks, not always sotto voce, about how people had no patience and how stressful it all was. And then they dismissed the Rumanians with 'you'll have to come back on Monday'. It's not the paperpushers who have lost a day's pay which they can ill afford, travelled to the city to be ignored for hours, and now have to convince the boss to let them lose another day's pay so they can try again next week. They don't care, because they do not understand service or money. And as I say, you can't explain these things. A lifetime in the civil service leaves you unable to understand what work really is.

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