US President Gerald R. Ford, Chicago 1978
Nick Denton has written an interesting piece on The myth of American efficiency, and it has motivated me to write about a similar subject, one that I’ve been thinking about for some time and might be called The myth of British resistance to change.
I moved to the UK ten years ago, in April 1992, and I’ve been thinking about the changes I’ve seen take place here during the last decade. The changes I have in mind are those that have occurred in the frequent, ordinary activities that fill daily life, and upon reflection I’m surprised to find they all appear to be positive improvements. Of course, this is very much a personal view, and other residents of the UK may not appreciate these changes to the same extent.
I moved to Britain after accepting a job with a classical music agent in London, and one of the first things I needed to do was open a bank account. I visited my local branch of Barclays Bank thinking it would only take a few minutes to apply and deposit my savings, but quickly discovered that in Britain banking was not so simple. In addition to a lengthy application form, the bank required a letter from my employer confirming my employment and six weeks in which to process my application!
I couldn’t believe this inefficiency. A few months earlier in Toronto, I had opened three accounts at the same bank within 15 minutes. I complained to my employer’s accountant about the British delay, and she kindly called the manager at the company’s bank (a different bank in a totally different part of London) who provided me with a chequing account by the end of the week (still poor service by Canadian standards).
(As an aside, I had a Kafkaesque experience a few years later when I returned to university. I negotiated a government-sponsored loan through Barclays Bank, which agreed to lend me the money on condition that I open an account. I did so immediately, and had access to the loan within two days. So whereas it took six weeks to deposit money, it only took 48 hours to borrow it!)
Ten years later, the vast majority of my banking is done electronically and the last account I opened was done so on-line without talking to a single bank employee. I now pay all my bills using the telephone or internet, only visiting a bank on the very odd occasion when someone sends me an increasingly rare cheque for deposit.
Retail Food Industry
Food retailing has been very competitive in the UK for years, but technology has really improved its customer service recently (see my previous blog on Re-engineering the Grocery Shopping). So much so, that I rarely visit any of the large grocery stores anymore (What bliss this is! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate not having to waste time shopping!).
Ten years ago it was difficult to obtain an itemised telephone bill in Britain. Not only was it a special request, but all calls costing 40p or less were lumped together anyway. You could only obtain specific information about expensive, usually long-distance, calls. Now I can view my telephone bills on-line, including all the information about every single call, and pay them automatically via direct debit. The process has become truly paperless. I can even download all the information and manipulate it to my heart’s content in my electronic spreadsheet to obtain a complete picture of how I use the telephone. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other; from not enough information to almost having too much.
When I first moved to the UK, arts organisations used to charge £5 annually for the privilege of adding you to their mailing list! Consequently, I did not subscribe to any such lists. Now, having obtained my name and address when I purchase tickets, they send me brochures and pamphlets regularly for free. It took them a while, but British arts organisations now understand the need for self-promotion and they are beginning to learn how to do it. Fund raising will be next.
In all these ways living in Britain has improved. No doubt there are others as well. I know that many people complain about the deterioration in transportation and educational standards here, but these issues rarely affect me. Perhaps the key, no matter where you live, is to be selective. Seek out those things that work well wherever you are, and avoid those activities that don’t work until they get better. Now I know why I don’t own a car!