Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#51, September 7, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Have you seen the ad where an older woman stares into the TV camera and says "I don't want big government inside MY medicine cabinet"? She wants her doctor to decide what medicine she should take.

These days, though, it's more likely to be HMO bureaucrats who decide what drugs doctors can prescribe. Health insurers have been as intrusive in medical decisions as any government, limiting subscribers' rights to use emergency rooms, overruling doctors' recommendations for specialist care, refusing to pay for a wide variety of treatments - and terminating your insurance when your care becomes too expensive.

It's a commonplace that government is bureaucratic, inefficient and unresponsive, while private business is efficient, competitive, and service-oriented. But when either is big enough and distant enough, errors increase and service decreases.

In a town where everybody knows each other, it's easy to go to the county treasurer or your councilman to get the error on your taxes fixed. Doing this with an IRS agent who's never met you before is more challenging. A local merchant has no problem correcting an overcharge, but the customer service agent at a company a thousand miles away lacks the power to make corrections, and has to send you through layers of bureaucracy.

People can be counted on to make mistakes, whether they work for business or government. I personally have encountered contractors who installed compact shelving and sprinkler heads incorrectly. I've known contractors who knocked down the wrong house, much to the dismay of the owners who found a vacant lot where their home had been. Police have attached criminal charges to the wrong identity and social security number online, subjecting innocent people to repeated arrest and harrassment, and credit checking companies have put damaging incorrect information in people's credit files.

It's worse, of course, if they make the same mistake over and over. A bus company checked my son's bag through to Massachusetts on January 7. The company found the bag in March, but lost it again, found it once again in June and lost it for yet a third time.

Poor service can even be deliberate because it's cheaper. Airlines squeeze people in like sardines for maximum revenue, and some manufacturers make shoddy products because workmanship takes too much time and reduces profits.

Since error is inevitable, the question is whether, and how, government and business go about correcting the problems they cause.

Large organizations, interested in efficiency more than service, give us conditional e-mail and voice-mail: if you have THIS problem, click here or press one, if you have THAT problem, press two. But if none of the options corresponds to your problem, too bad, because you aren't offered the choice of a human operator, or an e-mail address. Sometimes the phone system forms a perfect mechanical loop; the bus company's voice mail system, which my son called repeatedly at his own expense, routinely disconnected him after a mechanical recital of options.

And sometimes, when you do reach a human being, the response is flat refusal to admit error, complete denial of responsibility. When my son did get through to human beings at the bus company, they were, of all the people we've told this story to, the only ones who didn't regard the company's performance as horrifying. They refused to pay him for his lost belongings.

When an organization is big enough, doing the right thing doesn't always serve its real goals. The question is not government versus private enterprise. It's whether the systems they institute encourage, or at least allow, their employees to treat customers like human beings.

What everyone wants from government or business is employees who do what WE do when WE goof: sympathize, apologize, and fix the mistake immediately. What we hate, and too often get from both government and business, is the equivalent of Lily Tomlin's telephone operator Ernestine, saying smugly, "We're the phone company. We don't have to."

Fury at the impersonal inhumanity with which large distant organizations treat us may be why Americans are lawsuit happy -- if we can't get an apology we'll try for revenge instead, and juries of people who've been treated just as badly will award us damages.

Providing good service may be expensive for big business and government. But treating people badly can cost a lot more.

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