I love civil servants

Here’s an interesting anecdote I would like to share with you. It’s on the efficiency of UK public servants, namely the staff working at the local council, administrating the council tax. For those who don’t know, the UK has a system of a local property tax called council tax that is levied on each person occupying a property, and it’s supposed to be used to finance local government services. It’s a lump sum paid by the occupier(s) disregarding one’s income or current work situation (e.g. retirement), although exemptions always exist. 

I’m not to rant about its efficiency in the fact that it raises less than a quarter of the funds for the local council, or its unfairness on making it a lump-sum payment regardless of income, or how it’s sometimes used to fund lustrous projects (such as the one on the picture – courtesy of Dan Mitchell), or anything like that. No, I am more concerned on the issue of simple logic in the daily operations of public service. 

In order to see and track your council tax online you need to register for an account (much like a lot of web pages). You can do the same thing for your internet, electricity or water bills; just register and order a paperless bill – it saves the environment, saves money on posting, and reduces the amount of paper I pile up at home. 

So I made the payment the other day via an online system and naturally the payment couldn’t be processed even though the money was taken from my account. In order to see my account online to check the status of the payment I needed to register on the council’s web page, so I registered. But, I didn’t get access to the account immediately. The registration process meant that they would send me my password by email, but my username via post in the next couple of days. This bemused me. Instead of sending both the username and the password in an email, they would send the username separately – via regular mail, three days later. 

First of all, why the username, why not the password? Isn’t the password the thing that’s supposed to be more secret? Second of all, why send them separately at all? So that I should more easily lose one of them, presumably the paper one? Third, wouldn’t it be much simpler, easier and cheaper just to send them both by email immediately? I couldn’t access the account for three days cause I was waiting for the mail to drop by. And finally, how cost efficient do you think this is? I can picture a conversation of the two office clerks designing this ingenious system:

- Hey, so when someone asks for the username and password, how should we do this, just send them both by email?
- No, we should send them separate, and by using regular mail.
- Why?
- Cause, it’s more professional that way, besides, people love getting mail every day, especially if it’s from their city council.
- Sounds good. So...send the username first?
- No, the password will go first, this way a customer will have time to memorize it before the username gets to him.
- Oh, ok, so we send them both by mail.
- Now that’s just silly – we need to mind the costs you know. There’s a crisis going on. Send only one by regular mail, and the other by email. That way we save up some money.
- Ah, of course...I assume the password will go by email, right? So it can get there first?
- Now you’re learning. Feel free to take your three hour lunch break now.

Think about it, just from the money saved on sending one of these two pieces of information via email, they saved enough to put up another ‘keep off the grass’ sign. That’s what I call efficient. 


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