Why does our service economy offer such bad service?

How do you get a call centre to do anything for you that involves change, or taking responsibility? Robert Skidelsky and Nan Craig on the downsides of our overdependence on a service economy.

Britain is a service economy with a lot of lousy services. The paradox is easily explainable. Service and cost-cutting are contradictions in terms. Good services are intrinsically expensive because they require a high ratio of labour to product; hence the old view that services could not be automated. Yet the main aim of those who run our service economy is to cut the costs represented by human labour as much and as fast as they can.
 
The view that services are automationproof has been disproved. Think of the labour-saving devices in the home – vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers – that have reduced the burden of domestic drudgery and created leisure time that in the past only the rich enjoyed. Think of cash dispensers, of online shopping. In all these cases, machines provide the services that people once did – and usually more conveniently.
 
On the other hand, think of call centres, which offer services according to automated formulae. In this case, it is not that people are being replaced by machines but that they are being programmed to act like machines. This enables them to process a greater number of calls per unit of time.
 
Recently, NHS Direct announced that it will pull out of contracts to deliver the new NHS 111 helpline. The details are complicated but the gist is that contracts to run the helpline have been awarded by competitive tender, with bidders offering the service at the lowest cost. Cost reduction is secured by reducing the number of doctors and nurses per operator, with operators relying on callcentre scripts and algorithms to process calls: exactly the opposite of what most people think of as a good service. Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has spoken of nurses being replaced by computers and of an urgent need “to get more clinicians back in the front line handling calls”. He is right.
 
Try changing your mobile telephone provider, reporting a lost credit card or making almost any attempt to contact your bank, and you are likely to enter a Kafkaesque world of customer frustration. The recent attempt by our office to upgrade a phone package is a case in point. We were moved back and forth between the old supplier, the new supplier and the delivery service, none of which seemed to have the faintest idea what the others were doing.
 
What distinguishes services that can be automated successfully from those that can’t? The answer is the nature of the need: the less complicated the need, the more efficiently it can be satisfied without human intervention. The economist William Baumol identified services that resisted commodification, for whichthe human touch was essential and quality was correlated with the amount of human labour dedicated to their production. He gave the performing arts as an example, but the analysis can be extended to such services as teaching and medical care.
 
Amazon, for instance, works well when it allows people to order, quickly and conveniently, an item that they already want. Its recommendation system, however, is based on algorithms rather than the knowledge and intuition of a good bookseller. That is why bestsellers sell more and everything else sells less. Automated services fit and thereby create products that can be standardised, because an automated system can’t cope with anything else.
 
In the rich countries of the west – in some more than others – personal service has fallen victim to a kind of Fordism or its successor, scientific management, which dissects tasks into tiny individual units. Scientific management, developed by the American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late 19th century, is the foundation of modern techniques such as the use of strict call-centre scripts, which aim to create algorithms that automate the human element of work as much as possible.
 
Adam Smith foresaw this development in manufacturing 250 years ago.He gave the example of the pin factory, in which “the important business of making a pin is . . . divided into about 18 distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands”. The result of this “division of labour” was a tremendous increase in the productivity of the factory.
 
Cost-cutting in services proceeds by a false analogy with the pin factory. In all services that can be automated, part of every process is delegated to a team that inhabits a separate silo. No team is able to carry out more than its tiny element of the process; as a result, from the first moment you contact a company, you have to choose which team to talk to (“Press one if you are a business customer; press two if you are a personal customer; press three if you wish you were dead”).
 
Then, if you have a query that is even slightly complicated, at least the first three people you speak to will probably not be able to help. No one has an overview of how the whole thing works and no one has any power to cut through the undergrowth, because each person is in control of only a tiny patch of the service. As no one person or team knows what anyone else does or who any of the customers is, all information has to be stored centrally; if something is “not in the system” or if the system has broken down, it’s a dead end.
 
As the call-centre worker has never met you before, he or she will have little sympathy and no relationship to draw on; because they will almost certainly never speak to you again, there is no incentive for them to be helpful if your problem can’t be fixed within the formula. From their perspective, they are having to deal with customers who are irate because of events that the service provider has no control over and no responsibility for.
 
As ever, there are people with a sense of service, but whose hands are tied by the architecture of the system that they inhabit. There are also, inevitably, a few people who hate customers and are terrible at their job. They suit the system well because they are never required to be innovatively helpful and, if something goes beyond their remit, they can happily transfer you to someone else or simply tell you that what you want is impossible and ring off.
 
Eventually, someone at one of the call centres we contacted in our efforts to upgrade our telephone agreed that the system does not work very well. He sounded unhappy about it but said, “That’s the way the world works.” He is almost right. That is now how much of the world works. It hasn’t worked this way for long but it is no longer possible to imagine a world in which contacting any large company by telephone would not involve speaking to a different person every time you called.
 
No one is made happier by the system except, perhaps, the owners of the cost-cutting companies, who can pay for properly personal services for themselves out of hugely enhanced profits. As the cost of idiosyncracy rises, what used to be thought of as personal services can be afforded only by the rich. The so-called concierge services make a great play of being adapted to individual requirements. Yet, like the “bespoke” tailors of old, they mainly serve the rich. If you have £100,000 on deposit, your bank gives you a “premium account manager”; if you don’t, you go through the call-centre system.
 
Beyond the nightmare for the consumer is the nightmare for the producer. Smith rightly understood that the division of labour, though good for productivity, was degrading for the worker. The effect on the “hands” of knowing nothing about the manufacture of pins except what was required for their specific tasks was, he said, to make them “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.
 
The same deskilling effect operates in the service economy. It has been suggested that part of the problem with call centres is that the people who staff them are uneducated and badly trained. However, the problem is that the system in which they work prevents them from taking responsibility for their products. Taking away the ability of a callcentre worker to help people doesn’t just frustrate the caller but destroys the satisfaction that comes from solving someone’s problem. It’s the deprivation of this satisfaction that makes the work of the operator both boring and emotionally stressful, rather than something that has an intrinsic motivation. The call-centre operator is a contemporary example of the artisan deprived of the pleasure of workmanship.
 
There is an even more dire implication. If profit maximisation requires human beings with machine-like qualities, why not get rid of the people altogether? Machines don’t need wages. Call centres, like factories, will soon be staffed entirely by machines; all checkout services at supermarkets will also be done by machines; the specialist knowledge of taxi drivers will be replaced by satnav; there will eventually be driverless cars. Machines will “talk” to each other. Except for a few specialists to make and fine-tune the machines and others to meet the continued demand of the wealthy for personal services, the human race will no longer be required for work. It will have to find something else to do.
 
Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick Nan Craig is the publications director of the Centre for Global Studies.
Artwork by Nick Hayes.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.