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.