If only BT and Virgin Media were as efficient as Hackney Council

Last night I found we were out of recycling bags, without which Hackney Council won’t accept our recycling. So I went on the Council site and, in about 1 minute, ordered some new ones. But here’s the remarkable bit. By the time I left our house at 11am this morning, the bags had been hand delivered to our front door.

I was delighted. But I wasn’t too surprised, because that is the kind of service we have come to expect from our local Council. They are easy to get through to on the phone, and generally helpful and efficient. Indeed all the services we use, especially the local schools, are excellent.

Which leads me to ask, why can’t the private sector be as efficient as the public sector?

The biggest contrast is with our broadband/TV/phone supplier. We used to be with Virgin. However I got tired of having to put aside an hour to call them, knowing how long I would have to wait on hold. And then talk to somebody who would make clear promises and completely fail to deliver – leading to another hour on the phone, and another.

So we switched to BT, thinking they couldn’t be worse than Virgin. A big mistake. BT used to be quoted, back in the 80s and 90s, as a shining example of how privatisation produced more efficient service. I’m not sure what’s gone wrong but something certainly has, as the service we have received – at work and at home – has been abysmal.

At home the BT installation engineer left us with nothing working. The next engineer pointed out why, as the first guy had plugged everything into the Virgin box. The second engineer plugged it into the correct BT box but was “not allowed” to move the box to where it needed to be for the BT services to work, we’d have to call out another engineer to do that. The 3rd engineer didn’t turn up, leaving us about to spend a fourth morning at home waiting for the installation to be completed. The total compensation for this huge waste of our time? £10.

Why is it that the public sector can be so efficient and customer focused, but the private sector – despite the market and the forces of competition – can be so incompetent?

It isn’t just Hackney Council. There are a whole range of public services that are a delight to deal with. The NHS has helped me and my family out in so many situations. And I have been  so grateful for NHS Direct, which kept me at home often but got me to rush to hospital on two crucial life-saving times with my children.

Or the police. Imagine if BT was in charge of the local police. “You’ve had a burglary? I think we can fit in a visit a week on Monday sometime between 8am and 1pm”.

With a few honourable exceptions (for me, John Lewis, First Direct and the Apple Store) it is hard to think of any parts of the private sector that give great service. And especially not those companies – like Capita, Serco and G4S – that have taken over public services.

Next time somebody tells you how efficient or customer focused the private sector is, ask them how easy it is to get through to somebody helpful from their mobile or broadband company on the phone.

So perhaps it is time that we stop asking if public services can be improved by being handed over to the private sector. I doubt that they can. Instead perhaps we should ask how private companies can learn to be as good as organisations in the public sector – and especially as good as Hackney Council.

4 responses to “If only BT and Virgin Media were as efficient as Hackney Council”

  1. I do agree that the much-vaunted efficiency of the private sector is often overblown. Private motivations (at the front-line and in the boardroom) really do not marry well with provision of services that form our commons. And bureaucracy? Until you’ve worked in a private company with more than a handful of employees, you have no idea about form-filling, pointless meetings and make-work jobs filled by corporate drones. It’s really not that different from the public sector.

    But… there is a big difference between delivering recycling bags and fitting broadband. And whenever I’ve been burgled, that’s precisely how the police dealt with it. Also: making appointments at the GP is now more or less, “can you come in after you’ve probably got better?”

    Solving those organisational problems – and crappy private sector efficiency – is pretty much our big question for the next five years, when the technology to help us do that will have matured and ought to deliver for everyone. Coincidentally, we’ve collectively decided the next five years will see cuts in public spending which will make those efficiency and effectiveness gains even more important for the public sector. If the tech and the organisational reform doesn’t deliver… well, don’t get burgled or sick. Fingers crossed…

  2. I do so agree with Richard about the myth of the private sector being intrinsically more ‘efficient’ public sector always ‘inefficient’. This line just suits the prevailing orthodoxy and ideology of the neo-liberals.

    Look at the East Coast mainline which returned £1 billion to taxpayers over the past five years under a public sector franchise, twice as much as Virgin has managed on the rival West Coast line yet it is handed back to….Virgin. The fear of the neo-liberals is that public sector services will be seen to be good. They cannot be tolerated.

    My experience with utility companies generally, energy and telephone/broadband particularly is just more the same with some notable exceptions. Co-Operative energy used to be excellent. Look what happened to them recently as they have been taken over by the corporates. A disaster. Every time I call now I get the message that they are experiencing high call volumes. I used to get through immediately on most occasions. They obviously don’t care because this has now been the case for months. I moved to Ovo to support the smaller guys. I am sure that they are great when everything goes well but when it goes bad they are really bad. I will never switch energy company again after the experience switching to Ovo. If I factor in my time on the phone and emailing, constantly checking on them and repeating myself, they definitely owe me more than I have supposedly saved.

    For broadband and telephony I cannot recommend Zen Internet enough. They are not the cheapest but they don’t operate a model that makes the loyal customers pay for the constant switchers. They provide a real customer service, the sort we used to get when companies just did it rather than talking about it, before anyone had heard of dedicated ‘customer service’ teams. Zen staff are all in the UK and are all efficient, polite, friendly and knowledgeable. Zen are a private company so they don’t dance to the tune of the shareholders just that of their customers. Now there is a novelty.

  3. Also forgot to say, when you speak to any Zen staff member they always seem HAPPY in their work!!

  4. I agree with Henry whole heartedly. I had such a bad experience with BT once that I formed the opinion that they were Britain’s worst company. The matter was extremely simple: to disconnect my phone before the completion of the sale of my flat. Instead, BT managed to disconnect my phone for all of 24 hours… and then reconnect it in the name of a person who had never lived at the property. It took over 2 weeks for BT to disconnect my phone again, during which time I was lied to by staff on numerous occasions; whole hours of my time were wasted on a daily basis, being placed on hold; none of my emails to customer services received a reply; and my letter to customer services did not even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgment.

    Move forwards a few years and my sister wakes up from a coma, completely paralysed and barely able to speak. When admitted into the Royal Worcester Hospital she was conscouos, able to walk and her diction was perfect. The serious deterioration in my sister’s health was the consequence of neglect, negligence and even dishonesty, at times, by various members of staff responsible for her care.

    Two scenarios. One from the private sector, one from the public. The difference being, that making a diagnosis is more challenging than disconnecting a telephone line. However, they demonstrate that unacceptable forms of behaviour can be found in both the private and the public sector. As we know, the behaviour of staff at ‘the coal face’, so to speak, is the result of poor management, and poor management exists in many private organisations. Just as it can also be found in parts of the public sector. Usually, one finds poor behaviour by workers when there is no system of accountability ie when the worker is simply an anonymous member of a mass of people and there is not a proper system in place for holding workers to account, when their behaviour is unacceptable.

    However, as pointed out by Henry, we can find examples of outstanding service in the public sector, which I rarely experience from the private sector. Take the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, for example. After a week as an inpatient at this hospital, I had encountered numerous departments and wards. All of the staff I encountered, with only one exception, provided an excellent level of service and/or care. Hospitals are hugely complex organisations performing highly complex tasks. I would wager a bet that this level of complexity is higher than the installation and maintenance of telecommunications, no matter how complex that may be. Yet the Royal Free is part of the NHS. It is hugely constrained financially by the Chancellor of Exchequer, as well as by the problems of staff shortages, skill shortages, staff retention problems, etc. etc. But the Royal Free hospital delivers the best possible care that it can, in spite of all of this.

    So I endorse what Henry has written because we constant hear the refrain from neoliberals, that the public sector is wasteful and inefficient, in contrast to the private sector or that the public sector should adopt the practices of the private sector, and so on. Government recruits consultants from the private sector to advise it on how to run parts of the public sector, not vice versa. We need more people like Henry to speak up for the public sector and to challenge the neoliberal dichotomy that private is good, public is bad. Yes, the public sector can be as bad as the private sector. But the public sector can be a whole lot better than the private sector too.

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