Apparatchika

A fairy tale about reduction of customer service and the onus put upon the consumer in terms of time and frustration.

This story happened not long ago in a famous District called Dolumbia.

In Dolumbia the happy peasants delighted in the enlightened rule of the Mayor and his Council. Most people, not particularly familiar with the government of other major Districts in the world, believed the people to be blessed with a wise and dynamic Council, which was especially active when it came to meeting the requirements of business interests. Among the most prominent among the Council members was Prince Charming, a man of drive, self-confidence and foresight. Prince Charming, along with his fellow members, when they were not arguing and plotting against each other, were busy thinking about baseball.

All this was thirsty work, so in an excess of practical zeal they formed the District of Dolumbia Water and Sewage Authority, so that they could get water delivered to their houses. That is, when they were not thinking of skyboxes. But actually running such an enterprise seemed a bit unattractive when you were on a high, traveling the world, negotiating with team owners and designing vital legislation. Who had the time to supervise such an entity? Who wanted to measure how much water everyone used? Who was prepared, at an exclusive cocktail party, to admit that it was their job to worry about — sewage?

And so they disposed of the District of Dolumbia Water and Sewage Authority, hiving it off as a semi-autonomous private corporation. This meant that top Dolumbians like Prince Charming could waft in from time to time and ask intelligent questions about lead in the water. This offered a good photo opportunity and gold stars for being communitaire. But in all other respects the supply of water and the disposal of sewage was regarded as something that just happened, unseen and best un-remarked.

In medieval fairy tales, when the king was busy fighting battles and wooing fair maidens, his dukes and earls and barons had a habit of building themselves castles, extorting taxes from the serfs and pretending the king didn't exist. Time has not wearied this sad scenario. Most fairy tales are about kingdoms long ago and far away. This fairy tale took place not long ago and is rather nearby. Lo and behold, in the absence of real interest in what he was doing, the General Manager of the Water and Sewage Authority built himself a castle.

First came the moat and outer defenses. He commissioned a telephone options system that was impenetrable from the outside. Telephone calls to the Authority were answered by a patronizing mechanivoice that most of the time could not understand a word the caller said. None of the options offered allowed him to speak to a flesh and blood person, except for emergencies. Thus the General Manager put an iron curtain between himself and his unwelcome customers. The good thing about this, from the point of view of fellow members of the nomenklatura (top management), was that it avoided being bothered by pesky complaints, justified or not.

Next, high walls. Medieval barons used to confuse the king with a mass of facts, magna chartas, justifications and expressions of overwhelming good will. In order to achieve this effect in more modern times one needs a well-trained public relations department that revels in industry jargon. Thus, from the Authorities website, taken at random:

A sentinel compliance regime for determining an exceedance the use of the 90th percentile as a compliance measure, rather establishing a maximum contaminant level (MCL).

All public utterances were to include assurances that the Authority was:
(1) Working very hard to bring the latest techniques and science to bear.
(2) Had the best intentions towards its customers.
(3) Was gravely misunderstood.

Lastly, the militia. Early warlords liked to have a troop of warriors to bully and cajole any possible opposition. Nowadays in Dolumbia and elsewhere, large corporations give money to amenable politicians, and employ lobbyists to spin the facts. This all costs money, but it leaves them free to run their organizations, untroubled by democratic oversight.

But enough about the high governance of Dolumbia.

You will recall that Cinderella, an illegal immigrant who worked in a kitchen scrubbing floors, had been to a ball,and had lost her glass slipper. In Dolumbia she realized the dream of millions of immigrants by marrying the handsome Prince Charming. (Note: In real life the handsome Prince was just another lawyer among legions in Dolumbia, but they fail to reveal these details in fairy stories).

In any event, Prince Charming took Cinderella, his new wife, on an extended tour of the world, promoting Dolumbia's new, unbelievably expensive and over-budget baseball stadium. This is normal; it is so much more fun wining and dining in foreign cities than getting to grips with poverty, poor education and crime. Do they play baseball in Rajastan? I have no idea.

When Prince Charming and Cinderella returned to Dolumbia, waiting for them was a four month pile of mail, among it huge bills from the Water and Sewage Authority. Cinderella picked up the phone and after about ten minutes of wasted time (no doubt registered as increased productivity by the company, which discouraged staff/customer intercourse), pressed Emergencies!

Cinders: My husband and I have just returned from four months traveling and need to query our water bill. It is twice as high as it was last year.

Apparatchik: This is an emergencies line.

Cinders: This is an emergency.

Apparatchik: You may post a complaint on our website.

Cinders: I don't have the time. I have a life, too. And my husband is handsome Prince Charming.

Apparatchik: (relenting):Oh, ah. Which months are you talking about?

Cinders: June, July, August and September.

Apparatchik: Well, it is now October.

Cinders: Exactly. My husband and I were absent from the house the whole time. How could water consumption be twice as high as the previous year?

Apparatchik: An engineer can visit your palace to establish whether there are any internal leaks of a liquid nature. If you are still dissatisfied we have a formal appeals procedure. I can send you a form.

Cinders: What about faults in the satellite-operated automatic reading system?

(Yes, Dolumbia reads its water consumption by satellite. It is widely believed that this system has resulted in higher water bills all round).

Apparatchik: Our satellite system is the envy of foreign princes and potentates.

Note: Some people might believe that old meters should run alongside the new system to spot-check readings and highlight possible errors, but in Dolumbia monopolies do not make mistakes, and if they do they don't admit them.

Cinders: I still want to query June, July, August and September.

Apparatchik: It's too late to query June, July and August.

Cinders: Too late? How can I query the bills if I am esconced in a luxury hotel in Uzbekistan, encouraging people to enjoy drinking and networking in a skybox in our stateof-the-art, expensive new baseball stadium?

Apparatchik: It's our rule.

Cinders: Not allowed to query an invoice? I don't believe it.

Apparatchik: I can't help that. We have people fighting for liberty and democracy all over the world. They have to deal with their water bills, too.

Cinders: You mean, servicemen have to have their Dolumbian water bills sent out to the battlefield, with bombs going off all around them? You expect them to submit an appeal?

Apparatchik: Yes, Ma'am.

Cinders: And what happens if they are wounded or on a lengthy secret mission to blow up enemies in the desert? How do they query their bills then?

Apparatchik: That's not our problem.

Cinders: To add insult to injury you have just increased your charges by 5.5%.

Apparatchik: As our General Manager says, he likes to raise rates on a gradual and predictable basis.

Cinders: According to my bills, he has already raised them by a hundred per cent.

Apparatchik: WASA's independent financial system, budget policies and decision making represent a model of multi-jurisdictional cooperation in managing one of the nation's largest regional water and sewer service providers.

Cinders: I'm going to speak to my Fairy Godmother about this!

Apparatchik: Be my guest, but may I remind you that this conversation is being recorded for training purposes?

Cinderella consulted her Fairy Godmother.

Godmother, dear, my husband, Prince Charming, is one of the rulers of the District of Dolumbia. At least, I thought he was. But unaccountable water company barons are carving out fiefs and robbing the poor to give to the rich. What can I do? Can I have another wish?

Godmother: Sorry, dear, I can't help you.

Cinders: But why, Fairy Godmother? You've always looked after me.

Godmother: Tell the truth, dear, I had a visit from Trickem, Cheatem and Dupem, the lobbyists for the, er, the Dolumbia Water and Sewage Authority. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Join us with your wand and your frilly dress and you won't regret it, they said. So now I'm turning biosolids into gold bars. Top secret. Sorry dear, a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. We've all got a price.