WHEN people in Guernsey want to illustrate the effortless mind-numbing stupidity of government, that hard-wired, deep DNA obstructive bureaucracy that makes you want to punch someone, they have a go-to example: States Motor Tax.
It hasn’t actually been called that since about 2006, when the island scrapped road fund licence in favour of loading it onto the cost of petrol and diesel in a nod at getting those who use the roads most to pay more, but no matter.
Motor tax, aka vehicle licensing, is a by-word for entering a parallel universe where time stands still, invariably in a queue, and the logic of officialdom warps under its own immense weight into something unrecognisable and frightful.
I was present – in a line, naturally – a few months ago when a chap reported to reception that he’d come to collect a family member’s renewed driving licence. Sorry, was the response, they have to be collected in person.
‘She’s away today and needs it tomorrow (a Saturday) to catch the ferry, so she arranged with a colleague of yours that I could collect it at 3pm today as long as I brought my passport as ID, which I have here (brandish).’
‘Sorry, data protection. They have to be collected in person.’
‘Data protection?’ asked the fellow, perplexed. ‘Yes,’ said the receptionist, ‘we don’t know if you’re entitled to collect the driving licence.’
‘What,’ asked the clearly frustrated chap, ‘are the chances of someone with the same surname coming in at an agreed time and date, with a passport, asking to collect his daughter’s driving licence?’
‘I don’t know anything about that, I’m afraid, sir.’
With an effort, he remained placid. ‘Then why,’ he asked, ‘is there an envelope on your desk marked in green ink, “to be collected by Mr XX at 3pm, passport required”?
‘Sorry, I can’t give it to you, those are the rules.’
With icy calm, the chap countered: ‘Would you mind calling the manager please?’
I won’t labour this further but the licence was eventually released and – remember this was a queue going nowhere in the department of death – as the chap left, people in line patted him on the shoulder, saying good on you. One actually said, ‘You won, you won… I’ve never seen that before…’
So why am I telling you this sad little tale of man against the machine? Two reasons really. Firstly, Charlie Parker. Why not? He seems to be blamed for everything these days, from four-figure consultancy day rates (yes please!) to the dreadful weather.
Secondly, in its own Parker-esque manner, Guernsey’s aiming to become a bureaucracy-free zone and – get this – States Motor Tax is the benchmark by which the programme will be judged.
It’s all wrapped up in a £200m IT digital transformation project that’s an essential element of the reforms of the public sector that are very similar to those of your own Charlie P, but to date without the blood and headlines.
Guernsey’s Future Digital Services (FDS) programme, as it’s known, is also being run by an external UK consultant, an engaging and dapper chap called Richard Hanrahan. But what he and his colleagues are being paid is wrapped up in the £200m contract price. Thus it hasn’t, in the words of your Chief Minister, become subjected to a ‘populist bandwagon’.
Anyway, since public sector services in the other island are going digital by design – something that should lose 200 well-remunerated civil service posts along the way – one needs to know what it is that’s being done, and why, before those processes can be streamlined and digitised in whole or in part.
So folk from Agilisys, the company which won the FDS bid, spent more than two years trawling through every States department and gaining an understanding of how and why they operate, what works well and what doesn’t.
Which is why Mr Hanrahan reacted to a rather cheeky tweet from me saying their transformations would be judged on the basis of motor tax by saying, ‘I accept the challenge,’ something he repeated when we subsequently met for an interview for my Guernsey Press column.
Think about that for a moment and it tells you much.
He and his colleagues saw at a glance how hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from customer needs the department is – plus they know how to sort it and are happy to be judged on the results.
Yet until now, countless civil service bosses and Guernsey politicians over the years have simply put up with presiding over abysmal service and watching one of their departments become a watchword for oppressive and petty officialdom. Aware of the derision and the problems, they did nothing.
It has taken an external pair of eyes to see the situation for what it actually is and wager their reputation and ability on tackling it.
So bash Parker and Co as much as you like but the reality is all organisations benefit from fresh perspectives, new ideas and learning better ways of doing things.
Still not convinced? Well, look at it this way – without external help, you’d still be insisting Jersey’s pretty good at child care.
Richard Digard is the former editor of the Guernsey Press.