Bureaucracy, U.K. Style vs. U.S. Style

I do love bureaucracy. Wild Thing swears that customer service in general and web sites in particular are worse in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I’m not sure she’s right. If anyone wants to weigh in with an opinion, I’d love to hear it.

My senior rail card runs out in not so many days, and I’ve been trying to renew it. Online. On the phone. By intense psychic messages. Quick, because if I can’t get this done before it expires I have to drive 40 minutes to renew it in person by presenting proof of my existence, my age, and my warm feelings toward Network Rail.

I begin online. I still believe this will be easy, and I answer their questions.

Password? I get that on the second try.

Renew? Yes.

One year? Three years? A thousand years? Oh, a thousand. Think of the discount.


Irrelevant Photo: Boat. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Boat. By Ida Swearingen

“We save your details at every step,” the second or third page chirps at me. “Just log back in to pick up where you left off.”

It doesn’t tell me this, but I’ll damn well need to pick up where I left off because I won’t be able to finish on this visit. I’ll be coming back and picking up where I left off until I’m so old I qualify for a SuperSenior Rail Card. Which doesn’t exist yet. They’ll introduce it just for me.

But I don’t know that yet. In all innocence, I move to the next page, fill in my credit card details, and hit the Irretrievable Commitment button. The internet takes a few moments to contemplate the obesity of the universe and comes back with a message saying my card’s been rejected.

Well, that card’s difficult. Sometimes I want to buy things that the issuing bank doesn’t think I need. It’s the strict parent. But I have another card—the indulgent parent—and I enter that one.

It won’t take that either.

I call and we go through all the same details. When we run out of details, the guy I’m talking to says their payment system’s down. But he can give me a number so we can pick up right where we left off.

He couldn’t tell me this at the beginning of the call?

I write the number down on a shred of paper in the morass I call a desk. I keep a pad on the desk—for all I know, I keep several—but it sank to the bottom months ago, so a shred will have to do. He tells me to call back in an hour.

But I’m no longer the sugar-fed fooI I was at the beginning of the process. I wait a full day, then go back to the web site. Most of my information really is still there. I fill in what’s missing and hit Buy Rail Card.

I get a message saying I already have one. I don’t, but there’s no one to argue with and I’m locked out of the payment page.

I call and, in a rare moment of good organization, find my transaction number and read it out. Just to confirm that I am who I say I am, the man I’m talking asks for my name, my address, my date of birth, and everything the first guy asked. But it’s okay because we’re saving time here and it’s much more convenient.

Then he tells me the payment system’s down—either again or still, I don’t have the heart to ask which. I can call back in 45 minutes.

I wait another day and try the computer. When I get to the message saying I already have a Senior Rail Card, it suddenly hits me that maybe I really do. Maybe my transaction of two days ago went through. Maybe my transaction from two days ago went through twice, once on each card. I may now have two rail cards. I may have to prove I’m over 120. This worries me, as does the possibility of being charged twice for my, ahem, discount card.

I don’t call. I’ve lost the magic number that saved me eons of time, besides which I lack the moral fortitude. Besides, I may really have a rail card so I should wait to see if it comes in the mail.

The next morning, for a change of pace, I go online to renew the tax disc on my car. In the past, we’ve been able to do this at the post office, but come October this has to be done online and we won’t get an actual physical disc to put in the car windshield, it’ll all be tracked by computer, because computes are infallible. If we fail to register our cars, we’ll be fined £1,000 pounds and hung by the neck until very, very sorry.

It’s not October yet, so I could still go to the post office, but as far as I understand it—which is not very far—I’ll have to register online by October anyway, so why not get it all done at once?

Under the old system, every car owner has gotten a reminder letter, but to save money in this age of budget cuts these are being stopped, and the only warning has been a bare few back-page newspaper articles and whatever gossip we’re lucky enough to pick up. And the newspaper articles weren’t all that helpful. Exactly what were we supposed to do and how? They didn’t say. They probably don’t understand it either. But we are all going to be in a lot of trouble if we don’t do it. In other words, the new system is being introduced with all the competence I’ve come to expect of the current government.

Just the day before, I asked at our repair shop, figuring, you know, cars, registration, they’d know this stuff. They hadn’t a clue and of the two women at the counter, one’s registration was about to run out and she was catching that first panicky whiff of trouble herself. It smelled like the burning-rubber-on-the-highway scent that tells you your car’s about to do something unfriendly, like catch fire maybe.

So they couldn’t help me. I can count only on myself this sunny morning. After googling several wrong terms, I find the right section of the right department of the right government website and I enter the eleven digit number from my log book.

The web site would have also accepted a different number, I think it was thirteen digits, from the letter they didn’t send me, but since they didn’t send it this year—well, just because they didn’t send it doesn’t mean they have to stop asking, does it?

I entered my information. The website reported that my car doesn’t exist. But it’s okay, because they have a phone number.

I dial. The system is automated and I punch in my eleven-digit number. I’m told that my car doesn’t exist but that I may have punched the numbers in wrong. I didn’t, but there’s nothing involving numbers that I can’t screw up, so I try again, checking each digit as I add it. Nope. I try a third time. At the end, surely  they’ll have pity and let me talk to a human being. But in these days of budget cuts, human beings are like my car: They don’t exist. I’m no longer the system’s problem. Goodbye. I have a non-existent car. I have a tax disc that’s about to go out of date. I have a phone and a computer and neither of them will do me any good.

The Department of Non-Existent Car Registration is going to hang me by the neck until very, very sorry.

Your honor, I’m already sorry. Very extremely sorry. And I have a magic number, somewhere, from Network Rail. Couldn’t I read that out and save us all some time and trouble?

I need a break, and since the letter carrier’s come and gone without bringing my imaginary rail card, I dial the rail card line. I wait for it to ring and go blank about what I’m trying to renew. I gaze at the shreds of paper on my desk. Call Simon, one says. Write Emily piece, another advises.

I understand these, but I still can’t remember who I’m calling.

An automated voice says something about rail cards. Yes! Rail cards! I need a rail card! I punch 5 without waiting to hear my choices. That’s how well I know rail cards. A man answers and I ask if the payment system’s working.

“As far as I know,” he says.

I’d kind of hoped for a yes, but I read out my magic number, which has resurfaced, and he asks for my name, my address, my date of birth. We save more and more time. I give him my credit card number. He tells me my card will arrive in three to five days. By which time I may have found a way to convince someone that my car’s real. Or that I don’t have a neck and am therefore exempt from punishment.

Tomorrow I have to do something about my U.S. voter registration. I sent the form in, but I just checked online and I’m not listed.

27 thoughts on “Bureaucracy, U.K. Style vs. U.S. Style

  1. Sounds oh so familiar. I cannot compare it to the system in the US, as I have never been there (leave alone used it), but bureaucracy is a funny thing, as long as you have the nerves and patience. Which I rarely do. I have decided to start a PPI claim last week – would be interesting to see how long that will take! Will keep you posted if you want. :-)


  2. Thinking about it, I have actually had dealings with US bureaucracy, through work. I have had numerous dealings with the US Dept of Education. Last time I talked to them it too me the enormous TWO HOURS to sort the issues we had, but at least they did get resolved.


  3. There are many times when I have the urge to sell up and buy a cabin in a woods somewhere and not even think about paperwork, US/UK taxes, registrations and re-registrations, annual this or thats–bleh. I am very grumpy about bureaucracy of any kind. Especially when there are complicated rules and stiff penalties for getting them wrong (as is the case of filing US taxes as an expat). But I enjoyed this read in spite of the hackles rising. You’ve effectively (and with high entertainment value) summed up much of what I’ve chewed over for a long while!


  4. So frustrating, but it’s getting much worse here in the U.S. too and for the same reasons (high expectations, lack of money to deliver, and no real person to talk to).



  5. This is hysterically funny. I cackled. Loud enough to scare the cat from his slumber. Sorry to say, all at your expense. The scariest part of this post? —> “because computers are infallible”

    Your writing reminds me of Douglas Adams. And that’s a good thing.


    • I’m going to have to add a p.s., which is that I made the process worse by misunderstanding when my car tax expires. But that sort of fits with the Douglas Adams theme. (Thanks for saying that, by the way. I’d just about decided I wasn’t funny this time around.)

      Give my apologies to your cat, would you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, at least in the hinterlands of Vermont. You know, it’s sort of half digital here. You can only get your bill via email (not in the mail) and what you get is a blank email with an attachment called a “report” that is not really an invoice but a printout of some kind of inventory software. And the only way you can pay your bill is to send them a check but I don’t use checks any more, so I usually call them with a credit card number, but they don’t answer the phone most times. Two or three times in the last two weeks, when I’ve called during business hours the message says they’re closed for the day at 2 pm or something: “Our business hours are 9 to 4:30. Today we are closed at 2 pm and we’ll be open next Wednesday.”
        Similarly you can’t pay your phone bill on their website, although you can send them a check.


  6. Goodness. You actually make South Africa sound efficient by comparison. Renewing my vehicle licence took only five minutes and my driver’s licence only fifteen (both done in person). I still have to go apply for a new identity document as we’re switching from books to new-fangled biometric cards, and I’ve been dreading that particular line (and the fact that I don’t know if they’ll be requiring a DNA sample and, if they do, how they plan on collecting it), but now I feel positively hopeful.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, try to get hold of the BBC series, Yes, Minister (the original made in the 80s, not the new one). It won’t make you feel better about the bureaucracy but at least it’ll make you laugh.


    • It turns out that I added a level of inefficiency–to use a polite word for a screw-up–to the car licensing process, but I’ll write about that separately. I will tell you, though, that some years ago Wild Thing and I were supposed to get so-called biometric i.d.s. We hadn’t gotten citizenship then, and some genius decided that requiring resident furriners to get something tough and serious sounding, like a biometric identity card, would be good politics. So we duly drove way the hell to Wales and spent hours getting our fingerprints and photos taken. That’s all it consisted off–two old technologies and a fancy name. Any police station could have accomplished as much in minutes. How do I know that? I learned it when I was 17 and part of a civil rights demonstration. All charges were eventually dropped, by the way. As was the biometric i.d. program. I can’t remember how much we paid for the privilege, but we never did get our cards. Part of me wanted to call up and complain….


      • They’re introducing the cards over here because the books are too easily forged, so the idea is sound in principle. But unlike the British I’m not crazy about queueing and resent the fact that I have to pay for the new ID – first-time applicants get it for free, but I have to pay just like if I’d lost mine.


        • Having grown up in the U.S., I never learned to take it as a given that everyone has to have some sort of i.d. True, if you drive, or if you want to vote, or if you hope to prove you’re part of the real world, at some point you’ll need identification. But the idea that we need something on top of that? I’m not convinced.


          • Over here you cannot be without it. Applying for any membership, anywhere, from a library card to a bank account, you need to provide a copy of your ID, not to mention school applications and any transaction involving a contract. Even to collect a package from the post office. A driver’s licence isn’t even accepted in most cases – either the official SA ID book/card or a passport – and in many cases you have to provide proof of residential address as well, like a utility bill or lease agreement. Until you’re sixteen you use your birth certificate, and then you need to apply for your ID. In living memory it has always been like that, as far as I know.

            That said, you’re under no obligation to always have the ID with you and the police have no right to stop you and demand to see identification. That did happen to non-whites in the Apartheid era, though, and any attempt to introduce a new law to that effect would be met with fierce resistance as a result.


            • I remember reading about passbooks under Apartheid, and reading your earlier comment I did hear the echoes of those days. It’s good to know that police can’t stop a person and demand i.d. these days.

              I really should write about what it takes to open a bank account here. Seventy-six hoops to jump through, all supposedly to prevent money laundering, although I’m told London is a major money laundering capital, so at a wild guess I’d say they’re targeting the wrong people.


              • I faced that particular conundrum during my brief stint in London on a working holiday visa. You can’t open a bank account unless you’re employed, but you can’t get a job if you don’t have a bank account. Same with that tax number thingie. Never did get one of those.


  7. I laughed all the way through this, especially “But in these days of budget cuts, human beings are like my car: They don’t exist.” – Australians love bureaucracy with a passion, although not as much as the English, thank god. I do love my home country but you’ve reminded me again why I like living here! Thanks!


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