Thursday, July 2, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Navigating the Kafkaesque world of Work and Income

One of the crowning accomplishments of technology is that it has enabled the government bureaucracy to place itself out of reach of the people it’s supposed to serve.
I had a brief and slightly surreal taste of this a few days ago. I had lodged an online application for national superannuation, for which I will soon become eligible. All I now needed to do was attend the local Work and Income office and present my documentation – proof of identity, that sort of stuff. To do this I needed to make an appointment.
Simple enough, you’d think: just give them a call. But the only phone number listed for the local Work and Income office is a fax line. If you want to contact them, even if it’s only to set up an appointment at the local branch, you must ring an 0800 number.

This I did, and predictably got a recorded message saying the lines were overloaded. On my second attempt, however, I got through to an automated voice which asked me to enter my client number.

What client number? I don’t have one, never having been a Work and Income “client”. So I tried again, this time navigating through the system by responding to voice prompts, and duly found myself placed in a queue. 

Some obliging phone systems tell you where you are in the queue and how long you might have to wait, but not this one. You’re just left there listening to – for want of a better word – music.

And here’s another thing. Although this was a dedicated superannuation line, the “music” wasn’t anything that someone applying for super would recognise. It was a noxious, unidentifiable noise, clearly programmed by someone who was born post-1980 and harbours a savage grudge against his parents and everyone else of their generation. 

After about 10 minutes I could stand it no longer. I went to the Work and Income website, thinking I could arrange my appointment from there.

Ha! They thwarted me there too. Before I could get anywhere, I had to log in to the “Real Me” account (who invents these infantile terms?) that I had been required to create when I lodged my online application.

I can do that, I thought triumphantly. I even remembered my user name and password. But then it demanded my client number again, along with a “one time” password.

Hang on. I’d already used a password to get into the system, and now I was being asked to enter another: a “one time” password, whatever that might be. 

I was gazumped. But the website had a helpful suggestion for those benighted souls who had neither a client number nor a “one time” password: “Please contact us”.

Great. So it was back to the 0800 number and the wretched music.  I felt I’d entered a Kafkaesque universe where you’re condemned to go round and round in aimless circles without ever encountering a real human being. 

I had a worrying thought: perhaps I was just too dumb to understand the system. But I consider myself reasonably computer-savvy. I have to be, since I’m dependent on my PC and the Internet for my income.

Then I had another thought. Multiply my minor, fleeting frustration by the thousands of people who must deal with government departments every day – many of them with English as a second language, or otherwise poorly equipped to find their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy. How do they cope?

I guess they don’t. The evidence suggests that many Housing New Zealand tenants, in particular, give up in despair. Or perhaps the more stubborn “clients” plant themselves in the office of whichever department is tormenting them and refuse to budge until their problem has been dealt with.

And here’s another thing. On the day I got the run-around from Work and Income, it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development – that’s Work and Income’s parent ministry – has 53 employees getting more than $200,000 a year. Couldn’t one or two of these generously remunerated functionaries be assigned to find ways of making the system a little more user-friendly? Or is it expressly designed to be as difficult as possible? 

I’m pleased to report I did get through to a human being in the end. Even then there were more peculiar hoops to jump through before I could confirm my appointment.

But I don’t blame the weary-sounding “representative” who dealt with me. She’s probably as much a victim of the system as those on the outside trying to crack it.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in The Dominion Post.

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