In an article a while back, I defined bureaucracy as “the thoughtless application of rules to the conduct of human affairs”.
Bureaucracy is, of course, much more than that. But one should never underestimate its capacity to evacuate common sense from a situation, stifle independent thinking and destroy good judgement.
One of my favourite stories about it comes from Lambeth Parking Services (LPS) in south London. A friend had rented a car and popped into the LPS office to buy six days’ worth of on-street parking vouchers.
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A surly civil servant explained that it would only be possible to buy these in one batches of a day, five days or 10.
“Fine,” my friend said, “I’ll have a one and a five please.”
“Nope,” came Surly’s reply. “It’s one, five or 10.”
“What about if I buy five now, go outside, come back in and then buy the other day’s parking.”
“I won’t serve you.”
Needless to say it left my friend furious and exasperated plus leading to the telling and retelling of this story many times over.
I felt similar levels of frustration when visiting the Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) in St Peter’s Street on Sunday night.
I’d had a good day in which I’d spent the afternoon with a couple of old friends in the pub where we watched the Community Shield match before carrying on the merriment for a few more hours.
My previous visit to the GBK had been on Friday night when I’d had luck to win a free burger thanks to a dice game for customers. So on Sunday full of cheer and beer, I rang through an order for a GBK cheeseburger and said I’d be along shortly to collect it to take home – or so I thought.
Upon arriving to pick it up, a manager was summoned to explain that the free burger only applied to people eating in the restaurant and pointed to the rule on the voucher.
Given that I had no intention of eating in, they said food would go to waste. My fault, I see, for not reading the small print.
In other words, chucking away perfectly good food and upsetting customers is acceptable so long as it is done so in the bureaucratic pursuit of thoughtless rule following.
However, I thought I’m not going to let a free burger go to waste so I told them I’d eat in. After it was brought to my table on a plate, I simply wrapped it and the chicken bites which I’d paid for in napkins and then walked out the door to eat at home in front of the telly.
If anyone in GBK that day had any sense, they would have quietly put the food in some wrapping and sent me on my way in the knowledge that they’d done me a (very small) favour.
Instead, I left angry and frustrated. Two things have happened as a result: I’ll never go back to GBK and I’ll share my experience of the place with others.
Regardless of this single episode, you might have thought that with the uncertain state of the retail climate, businesses which interact directly with customers would do whatever they could to keep them.
Not in GBK’s case, it seems. What’s more, the Five Guys burger joint just a few doors away is due to open imminently – and when it does I’ll be taking my custom there.