Maxine Waters Cannot Drown Bureaucracy

Saw a great story on the news last week. Cong. Rep. Maxine Waters (D, Cal) was trying to help out some of her constituents with their mortgage problems. As the Biz Section columnists like to suggest, they had been trying to renegotiate their mortgages, but had come up against the VoiceMail Wall. Rep. Waters apparently figured she might get better results by being able to start the conversation, “This is Congressional Representative Maxine Waters,” etc. The story did not actually indicate whether the results she got were any better than those of her constituents, but clearly her results were pretty bad. She spent between ten minutes and two hours trying to get through to the appropriate people at the various mortgage offices. Kept getting rerouted, disconnected, transferred, and left at dead ends.

It was all, of course, very familiar to me, as it undoubtedly was to most viewers. We get that kind of treatment all the time, not just from our mortgage offices, but from the phone company, the health care people, the car repair people, the gas and light utilities, and, oh yes, congressional offices. I’m currently in the process of trying to renegotiate my various phone accounts (which include two residential lines, one business line, and two cell phones, one of which—a phone company person helpfully pointed out today—is also a business phone) so as to package them into a lower-cost arrangement. So far, I’m only two phone calls into the process, but then, it’s just the beginning of the week.

What’s really going on here isn’t the fault of any particular private or public bureaucracy. It’s the fault of a decision made by almost all of them 30 years ago or so, that receptionists are a waste of money. Receptionists spend (the reasoning goes) X% of the time answering phones and transmitting messages, which is what they get paid for. But they also spent Y% of the time doing nothing while they wait for the phone to ring. And they still get paid for that time too. We can’t have that. So now the unpaid waiting time has been shifted to the consumer (or, on occasion, the consumer’s advocate, such as Rep. Waters.)

Mr. Wired says this is all a function of queuing theory, and was worked out a long time ago by IT types. Which is why most bank and post office have umpteen windows, ¾ of which are not in use at any given moment, because it is cheaper to make the customers wait in line than to let tellers have any down time other than their official breaks, if any. BTW, at least in Chicago, the Fire Department is now trying to reduce the amount of down time of the firefighters, by putting them on 8-hour shifts, rather than the usual 24 hours on-24 hours off arrangement, which (we are told) gives them all kinds of time to run small businesses and get into trouble. But the 8-hour pattern is ill-suited to almost any seconds-of-terror/hours-of-

boredom job, including but not limited to the US Marines. This needs rethinking.


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