Why everyone is so “shocked” about the UK passport fiasco

United Kingdom UK police borderBy Simon Davies

Casablanca’s Captain Louis Renault would be deeply impressed by the official response to Britain’s present passport crisis. After all, everyone in authority seems awfully shocked to find unprecedented delays going on in Her Majesty’s Passport Office.

The Home Secretary is shocked, despite having for years signed off on immense cut-backs throughout the department. The head of the passport office is shocked, despite having promoted the cost-saving “innovation” that triggered this whole mess. And the parliamentary opposition is shocked, in spite of it being the party that – in government – wanted to add fingerprinting to an already precarious system.

In reality, none of them is truly shocked. They just act that way. Ministers have known about the impending crisis for months.

I am shocked, shocked to find inefficiency going on here

I am shocked, shocked to find inefficiency going on here

Now the travel plans and holidays of thousands of people are in ruins, soured by the mechanical apologies of assorted shocked overlords. A shocked minister for tourism then threw petrol on the flames by suggesting that people should just stay at home for their holidays. That went down well.

In summary, the cause of this shock is that the Passport service has gone into meltdown, with around a half a million applications in the queue. There are reports of some people waiting more than four months for a processing operation that should have taken three weeks. Britons all over the world have been marooned.

Countless passport applicants have now been forced to pay considerably more for a “premium” one day processing service. The authorities – operating in some bizarre parallel universe – interpret this as “helping” the problem.

Of course an informed onlooker – or indeed anyone with basic neuronal functioning – will understand that in reality all a premium application does is shuffle to the front of the queue, delaying the ordinary applications that sit dismally behind.

The unions could of course allow the engagement of temporary help, but their leaders appear to be too busy expressing shock to contemplate such an innovative move. And anyway, the unions already caved in fifteen years ago to outsourcing, so their moral foundation is largely in tatters. Now, after bemoaning the blighted British citizen they plan to ballot their members for strike action.

Rather than take on new staff, the UK administration has simply redeployed staff in its security section dealing with suspect applicants to help with the admin work on the backlog. So now’s the time to apply for a fake passport folks.

Being forced to wait as long as four months for a document should be more than a personal issue – it should be an affront to economic logic. The Passport Office is supposed to charge applicants the “real” cost of processing. And Britain charges more for a passport than do the vast majority of countries.  So why is it not possible in an economically neutral model to maintain service standards to at least the level of Zambia or Russia?

This padded “margin” goes mainly into the pockets of the partners, a transaction which makes the relevant Ministers feel good because they are next in line to become senior partners

Of course one glaring additional budget line that needs to be taken into account in this equation is the absurdly high outlay afforded to external consultants (the Passport Office has historically enjoyed a love affair with the likes of PA Consulting). This changed a little after the company monumentally dropped the ball advising on the disgraced identity card proposal of the last government, but they’re still embedded throughout the British government like the smell from a blown electrical substation.

And despite the inability of consulting groups to foreshadow disaster, Ministers continue to labour under the mistaken belief that consultants can be an early-warning mechanism, whereas they’re only as effective as the advice and guidance they receive.

Hiring consultants en masse has been a hallmark of public management in Britain – one outcome of the institutional Revolving Door that exists between Whitehall and the private sector. Bringing in consultants assures the public that the government is “modern”, while also giving ministers a degree of plausible deniability when things go bad.

For the uninitiated – and without wanting to bore readers any further –  this process usually requires a marriage proposal between a department head and a senior consulting partner, followed by endless group sessions in which notes are solemnly recorded by juniors at a charge-out rate of a few thousand pounds a day, The resulting data is Excel-matched against template “solutions” that are then reworked and enthusiastically sold back to the department by the same senior partner – at thirty percent more than the original price.

This padded “margin” goes mainly into the pockets of the partners, a transaction which makes the relevant Ministers feel good because they are next in line to become senior partners – once the statutory time has elapsed after they leave office. Simple.

All of which begs the question of when the UK government will stop relying on consultants to do the easy work, and actually raise their expectations when they pay a hundred or more million for a consultancy contract.