Or else.

There’s the standard trope – usually attributed to John Ruskin – “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey”.

I was reminded of this when I went to get a parking permit the other day. The process is touted as new and improved, faster and more reliable. I’m not so sure. The old process involved me walking into the student hub, giving the relevant amount of cash to the lass behind the counter, and walking out with a parking permit. As far as I could see, the process was unimprovable.

The new process is hoop-jumpingly convoluted. I walk into the student hub, and rather than give the money to the lass, I have to login to the uni network, then login to another system as guest, or some damn thing (not the Thai site that sells mobile phones, which you’ll get if you type in the address on the slip of paper they give you).

Then I must provide a credit card number, and the system sends an auto-email or runs a realtime update to the underlying database… or something. It then goes to the young lass who logs on to her system where the email is lost amongst a thousand others, but the database update hasn’t got back from being copied to the Russian fraud botnet.

Essentially, I’m doing their job for them, as well as potentially compromising my credit card and facilitating my own identity theft; and yet there’s no reduction in the price of the permit. Only after all this do I finally walk out with a permit.

So it’s a stretch to see how this qualifies as an improvement. However, it does mean that the University doesn’t necessarily have to employ trustworthy staff, as the “cash” is electronic. It doesn’t have to employ reliable staff, as the cash is deposited automatically into the right bank account. Nor does the University have to employ knowledgeable staff, as the process is completely automated. so that they can save on staff and administration costs.

As the TV series The Games (Series 2 Episode 7 “Immigration”) put it:

“They’ll be ropeable!”
“The level of their anger will have no effect on our bottom line.”

Except it will.

And as the cost to the University – damage to its reputation, the conversion of collegiate ‘students’ into transactional ‘customers’, the disinclination to engage, the loss of good will – won’t be felt for years down the track. Well, that’s a problem for later.

The people who come up with this sort of caper are typically the same people who demand respect. Demand, rather than command. How can I respect them when they so obviously have no respect for me? Their motivation is transparent and self-serving, yet questioning it is forbidden.

The services that the University provides exist so they can be ticked off a checklist. The services don’t actually have to be delivered – not in any meaningful sense – they just have to exist in a minimum passing way, so the PR flacks can then (truthfully) say that the University of Newcastle does have a student welfare capacity/academic advisory service/whatever it is.

And as neither the management team or the flacks actually use the service, it doesn’t have to be funded to do its job well. You could save even more money by abolishing the service altogether, but that would affect the rankings that the pay of the people who come up with these penny-pinching service simulacra.

The problem is invidious. If you do your job well, it seems like you’re doing nothing at all, and can be sacked without consequence. If you do your job badly, you annoy management and ‘customers’ and increase management’s motivation to replace you so they don’t have to deal with you. In either case, you get sacked, replaced by a computer,
and everybody’s happy. Well, management is. One out of three ain’t bad.

Bob Ellis posed the question “…what do you do with the dumb blokes?”. His argument was that the jobs dumb blokes used to do – cleaning up after horses and digging ditches and opening doors – are all gone and replaced by cars and backhoes and infra-red sensors. The parking permit process is an example of automation which is putting people out of jobs. Trustworthy, reliable and knowledgeable staff are expensive, and robots are cheap. Robots that end up as software are even cheaper.

The trick is to get “…a huddle of clerks that function just like a computer”. Once they behave like a computer, they can be replaced by a computer. All the edge cases – where insight, discretion and the ability to make a decision are needed – fall to the ground. Anything not on the menu is not allowed. Do not confuse the robots.

Story image: ‘old_man’ by taishi nishida on Flickr