The public sector is not a comfortable place to work at the moment. As well as facing possible pay cuts, redundancies and higher pension contributions, you have to deal with the know-it-alls. You run into them socially at barbecues and parties. They may engage with you on the bus, the train, or even your holiday flight to Magaluf.
They know, for a fact, that your pension scheme is unfunded and unaffordable. They know that you are under-employed. They know that if they need to contact the council, if they get a response at all, it will be either arrogant or incompetent.
I can stand my ground over the first two allegations, but my confidence in the quality of local authority customer service has been dented in recent weeks. Both instances involved a neighbouring council and I can only hope that my own would do better.
My first contact concerned a grant due, but unpaid. Making enquiries, I managed to discover the name of the relevant head of service and wrote to him directly. Twice. Both times letters were sent by special delivery and - you have guessed already - I received no reply to either. A large amount of money was involved, but even if the sum had been trivial, an acknowledgement, at least, would have been polite.
Eventually, I tracked down his deputy by telephone and, of course, received no hint of apology. She explained that the head of service had left the council recently and my letters were locked somewhere ‘in the system’. Actually, her boss had only just left, so that wasn’t the true explanation, but I let it lie. The grant was too important to quarrel over.
My second bureaucratic bruising came the very next week, when a friend asked me sort out his local housing allowance. I should have known better than to take this on. Dealing with the benefits woes of our own tenants isn’t easy but at least I know who I need to talk to. Benefits department colleagues often help by going the extra mile, rather than just responding to my basic enquiry. They will offer answers to questions I didn’t know I had to ask.
Without this collegial support, you can get lost in the maze of complex regulations. You are at the mercy of officials who know more than you. The process can be intimidating as well as confusing. The issue in this case, was the same as with my grant - a total lack of communication. Letters were ignored. Every time you called the benefits office a different person answered and it was back to first base, patiently explaining the problem.
Although staff were helpful on the telephone, nothing ever seemed to result from our conversations. Or rather, one of two things usually did. A letter would arrive asking for information already provided. Or the officials would make bizarre assumptions, conflating the present claim with one several years old and asking for evidence to be produced to back that claim, rather than the current one.
The weight of the required evidence was breathtaking. I hugely underestimated the detail, about my friend’s financial transactions and life circumstances, that would be demanded. Some of it appeared utterly irrelevant and may have been related to his previous claim.
The problem, though, wasn’t the amount of work involved, it was the lack of resolution - even after the information was provided. A letter apparently resolving each issue would be followed by another asking for further evidence. Every telephone conversation seemed to generate further layers of misunderstanding.
My friend began to despair that the council was, ‘out to get him’. It did seem as if someone with a malicious agenda was trying, not just to prevent resolution but to inflict mental torture.
I don’t think he was right about that, all the same. It is true that he had made life difficult for himself by getting angry with the benefits staff, but there was limited opportunity for official huffiness, given that the same person never seemed to answer the phone twice.
No, this was incompetence, pure and simple. That surprised me since, in my experience, the systems to manage and monitor benefits claims are robust. I can imagine some explanations; high staff turnover perhaps, lack of training and of course IT failure. But this is one of the largest local authorities in the area and its poor service shocked me.
Of course, the council eventually sorted out the mess, my friend received his allowance along with an apology for his frustration and wasted time, right? Wrong. What he got was an appeal ruling which acknowledged few of the issues and requested he provide even more evidence.
My friend has plenty of other problems. He has been made bankrupt after building up enormous debts. He has fought and won a vexatious court case. All the while, he has been facing eviction because he cannot get his LHA sorted out. For these and other reasons he is emotionally and financially vulnerable. His personal issues may be irrelevant to the bureaucrats, but their incompetence piles on the pressure.
If you are claiming housing benefit, one thing is clear: you have no power.
Finally I received some help - if not an apology - from the council about my grant. But my friend will be locked into his bureaucratic nightmare for many months to come.
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer