Something has just registered

There is a possibility, currently only hinted at by rather tangential symptoms, that the national network of registry offices is approaching a state of systemic failure. Let me explain.

Once upon a time I was foolish enough to be a customer of NTL. Well, I say “I”: college had given us little choice in the matter. The domestic bursar at that time, like most Oxford bursars, was an ex-services man. This single fact itself can explain, if not excuse, a multitude of sins (Come on, Tim!) And that multitude probably includes permitting NTL to drill holes in your walls. Just about.

Apart from the three or four letters to Oftel, and NTL’s inability to grasp the idea of someone moving between apartments in a house that happens to have the same postal address, one event that sticks in my mind is when an engineer came round to try (and fail) to fix a problem. The failure wasn’t actually his fault, as it turns out, because of NTL’s… novel approach to field support for its engineers.

NTL engineers, at that time at least, had to ring the same switchboard number that customers had to ring. To resolve possible problems at the exchange or with configuration of accounts, they had to queue with hundreds of disgruntled NTL customers. In itself that isn’t enough to explain NTL’s gradual meltdown, but it’s evidence of a wider problem in the business, to which most who have had NTL either as employer or supplier can testify with many examples.

Anyway, let’s consider the events of a few weeks ago. After spending a bank holiday trying to clear out the wedding underbrush—bank holidays are days when, if you feel like a metaphorical spring-clean, you should forget it, because all the services that might make a mint off you are closed—we rounded off a day of misery and disappointment with the realization that the registry office near where we’re getting married had lost our blue forms. These forms constitute (as far as I can tell) the equivalent of banns notices; without them, despite what the registry office’s literature tells you, you can’t get married.

The registry offices have a communal 0845 number. Why they do this, given that you always have to contact your local office, is unclear, although they can probably provide some corporate book-ending to explain it away without actually explaining it full-stop. Anyway, if you deal with your local office on any level then you end up with their direct, local-dial telephone number. In fact, we now have the numbers for three separate offices kicking around somewhere, so frantic ringing round ensued on those numbers rather than through the central switchboard.

But the individual registry offices don’t have these numbers. They have less information about their own system than members of the public.

You can imagine my horror when K. told me that the office that had lost the forms couldn’t get through directly to the office that had printed them off, to get replacement forms, because they were having problems getting through on the 0845 number. Even if you could understand why all members of the public were being herded through the same narrow, inconvenient gateway in order to access a public, tax-supported service, you’d have a hard time justifying forcing your own employees to do it too. What sort of network is it where all internal communication passes through the same senseless, corporate sheep-dip as external communication does? And how long is it before registry offices, like NTL, start feeling the full effects of the problems they’re wishing upon themselves?

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