Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Castle at High Peak Council Offices

In a stroke of irony - to me at least - of almost Orwellian proportions this week beginning 6th October has been designated Customer Service Week at High Peak Borough Council. I am not sure what this entails other than a bit of glib PR and a visit from mainly absentee Council CEO Simon Baker who is part-time but for me it meant a particularly toxic dose of rudeness from their Customer Service Telephone Team.

Thus the call will start along the lines of a somewhat over- parroted "High Peak Borough Customer Services, how can I help you? which I personally find a bit chilling and off putting. Their staff probably go on highly costly courses to learn this mechanical routine when ultimately in view of their seeming unhelpful remit I think I would prefer the machine, so at least I knew where I was. I find such an unerring replication of a machine from a person a somewhat chilling introduction!

What I have found on previous occasions then occurs. You want to speak to a specific officer in a Team, say Planning. No chance really, they are always in a meeting. You call back in the afternoon, they are out on a site visit. Basically the deal is they call you when it suits them!
Assuming they are busy there are no other members of staff in the relevant Team to take your call. Also in a new development nowadays the Telephone Operator seem to think they have been empowered to deal with your enquiry complete, and will not offer you any access to a professional officer. The only way past is to move heaven and earth, and be prepared to engage in strenuous negotiation with the grim guard of the Reception Team.

This whole "bunker mentality" creates stress and aggravation in even reasonable people. I do not wholly blame the Customer Services Team because it is evident they are acting on the express instructions from above. It does lead them to be very curt however. It is a bit disconcerting to be asked roughly "Whats your name?", particularly in Customer Service Week. When I worked in Customer Service I never found it difficult to ask even in a slightly stressful situation "Could I have your name please?".

However ultimately if the Council is to be inaccessible to the public in this way I think it should
publish that fact. If it has empowered the Customer Service Team to deal wholly with Inquiries it should be clear at outset, and they should not pose as a Reception Service. Similarly if the Professional Officers in a team, or in their absence other team Officers are only available at their convenience, not yours, let it be known! We can surely have no complaint, for after all they are paying us are they not? At least I think it must be that way round - it surely cant be the case that the subsidy is ours, and they are supposed to perform at our behest?

If it were the latter, and I offer this as a hypothetical reading - a situation where we pay them to rule - that would surely mean a kind of return to feudal times, and the bunker mentality of the middle ages, where the Manorial Lord resides in his castle, and the serfs outside work and pay for the privilege of having him and his Lady there. Small government structures are often worth monitoring for paradigms of political organisation and power relations and the trouble is that this disconcerting model does appear to be incipiently in operation, which is mainly why in a warning vein I have chosen to write about it here. Recently I wrote similarly for the same reason about about the Standards Committee and suggested similar sinister forces might be at work when they dealt with an alleged case of bullying.

During a particular grim period of history, in the between the war years of the last century, Franz Kafka wrote a prophetic book about the dynamic of political structures. I read "The Castle" as a veiled metaphor of just such a feudal paradigm, a study in medieval power relations which he saw being re-incarnated and reworked for modern times. So High Peak Borough Council, when I ring for its "assistance" often rings the Kafkaesque alarm bells for me, And especially during Customer Relations Week!

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