Sometimes austerity involves sudden rupture: an immediate loss of services that we notice and protest against. More often it’s death by a thousand cuts: incremental destruction of the public realm, leaving us with outsourced, inaccessible, dysfunctional services. Successive Conservative governments have made these cuts in the name of efficiency. We experience this marvellous efficiency as The Four Seasons plays on an endless loop while we wait to talk to someone in a call centre with no power to act, subcontracted to someone else in a Kafkaesque nightmare of privatised, inscrutable bureaucracy, unable to resolve our problems or meet our needs. Nothing works any more.

George Monbiot on political choices.

Once upon a time, just after she retired, my Mum was brought back in as a consultant to do a review of a healthcare-related complaints helpline. Each state ran its own helpline and every single state was a dysfunctional shithow except for one. Mum’s job was to find out why.

The long and short of her findings were that every other state had implemented a “best practice” tiered helpdesk, specifically one that included a strict skill hierarchy between people on Tier 1 (who took calls) versus Tier 2 (in-office experts) and Tier 3 (who went to physically investigate incidents). The One Functional State did not; they still had different levels, after a fashion, but rotated staff between them. What it effectively meant is that, from the caller’s point of view, more often than not they’d call the helpline and get answered by someone currently on L1 rotation but who’d had the skills in T2 and T3 that meant they could immediately assist; no scripts or escalations required. The net result was that calls were resolved faster and people were generally happier with the service (and, recall, this was a healthcare-related helpline, so “happier with the service” had a direct positive health impact).

Ironically, as Mum was doing this, I’d just been “girl demoted” at work when our combined Level 2-3 IT support helpdesk got split. Myself and the one other girl on the team got somehow magically sent to Level 2.1 I only stayed in that role for a few months but, during that time, I was (successfully) resolving over a thousand tickets a month; the second most effective person was barely scraping double digits. The reason I could do this? Experience in T3, which meant I was basically doing every level of support, all at once. The reason I know all of this is because, despite the metrics, I ended up having a shittonne of downtime, which I used to, firstly, write SOPs for the (subcontracted) T1 people in vain hope of reducing escalation and secondly, when that was done, read books. Because of the latter, I got pulled up on performance management by my boss;2 this was where she made the mistake of showing me just how much I was propping up the entire system. So I did her the favor of performance managing myself out of the organization, into a promotion elsewhere.

Tl;dr, tiered helpdesks suck. But they make call center outsourcers rich so, hey.

  1. Notably, we weren’t the most junior people in the team . . . but the most junior people were men, so they got to stay. []
  2. Relatedly, in T3 I worked with a guy who’d use his flex time to take long lunches on Tuesdays to see a film at the cinema across the road. He got told by the bosses to stop doing this for “perception” reasons which, really, should’ve been my first clue. []