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Michael Moynihan: Increasing number of public bodies now without a face

Opportunities for face-to-face interaction with such officials appear at an all-time low
Michael Moynihan: Increasing number of public bodies now without a face

More and more services, like renewing motor tax or obtaining passports, are now only available online.

YOU’RE either a people person or you’re not. If you’re not, then it looks like Cork is the place for you, particularly if the people you want to meet are human representatives from one of our many public bodies.

In recent weeks, it appears to your columnist that opportunities for face-to-face interaction with such officials are at an all-time low, an opinion bolstered by the news brought to you by this outlet over the last month or so.

Take one example, the delay in assigning residents’ parking permits by Cork City Council. This procedure has left some people waiting 13 weeks for the necessary slip of paper, a delay which has been partly blamed on a revised policy which requires extra documentation to secure the permit.

As reported by Eoin English, councillors have complained about this new application process — one, John Maher of Labour, “called for the restoration of the in-person application or renewal facility in City Hall”. (According to the council’s website these parking permit applications “will now be processed online ... Please allow a minimum of 10 working days for the processing of your application”).

This is not the only zone of interaction, which was previously inhabited by human beings, but which is now the province of algorithms and code.

Take the motor tax office out on the Model Farm Road. Just a couple of weeks ago Sean O’Riordan of this parish reported that:

"Councillors in Cork are demanding that the tax office revert to its pre-Covid operations, including walk-in appointments. It has been confirmed that the motor tax office in Cork will not reinstate the option of walk-in appointments, requiring people to make an appointment in advance. Several county councillors have pleaded for a U-turn, especially for people who are not computer savvy or live in an area where they have no broadband and therefore are unable to tax their vehicles online.

"Independent councillor John Healy won widespread cross-party support from colleagues when he begged officials to reopen the office...

“‘If you ring and look for an appointment, you’re told one won’t be available for the next seven working days. The motor tax offices are open in Kerry and Waterford so I can’t see why our one can’t,’ said Mr Healy.”

Defeated in your search for car tax you wheel your vehicle — which we sincerely hope is legally entitled to be on the road — back in from the motor tax office out on the western fringes and head back into the city centre. Time to fly the coop and enjoy yourself in another jurisdiction? It’s just a matter of renewing your passport at the office on the South Mall. Or is it?

Last August Paul Hosford reported here that “ ... in 2019, 77 complaints were made (about the passport office), with just six being escalated to the ombudsman ... In the first six months of this year, there have been 397 complaints and 100 escalations.”

Much like the parking permit situation, many of those complaints relate to the speed of processing of passport applications, and in fairness, Paul reported at the time that staff who had been on contact tracing work for the HSE were being transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to deal with the backlog.

However, if you want to nip into the public office to renew your passport you might want to consider the DFA website, which states: “If you need an urgent appointment to process a passport renewal application, we have an Urgent Appointment Service for Passport Renewal. This is available at our offices on Mount Street in Dublin 2, Cork and also our office in London ... This is a limited service and slots are allocated by appointment only on a first come, first served basis.”

Another opportunity to meet someone face to face gone.

No on-board catering until next year.
No on-board catering until next year.

Had enough of these dismal evasions? Why not try a change of scenery and head for Dublin? Get the train, relax in your seat, perhaps with the soothing sounds of an Irish Examiner podcast in your earphones as you enjoy a soothing cup of ...

“There will be no on-board catering service on Irish Rail’s intercity services until next year, at the earliest,” Eoin English wrote here last May, adding: “The company is now poised to tender for a new catering service provider following the agreed termination of the contract between Iarnród Éireann and RailGourmet, which has been struggling to resolve staffing issues following the lifting of pandemic restrictions.”

These are not all comparable situations. As noted above, the lack of a human being operating a trolley on the Cork-Dublin train is not a direct result of an Iarnród Éireann decision; it is certainly not the same as the decisions taken on how the passport or motor tax offices operate. 

But they are indicative of a move away from human involvement which should be a concern to all of us. We have seen the horror show that is customer service in the banking sector, where the presence of in-branch personnel is in reverse proportion to the embarrassment which senior bank management should feel about their behaviour in the recent past (see, bonuses, reinstatement of). Such is the nature of the beast.

The organisations mentioned in this column are different. They run the gamut of local authority, government department, and what we used to call semi-state organisations, but they have ‘public sector’ running through their DNA like the stripe in seaside rock. They exist to serve the public.

People are being excluded

This move to bypass interaction with the public, therefore, is contrary to that mandate, because it excludes people. Parts of the country which do not have access to quality broadband are necessarily at a disadvantage, as are people who are not digitally adept.

The reflexive reaction is to apply that description to older people, but that’s a little hasty. Last year, Social Justice Ireland issued a report stating: “In Ireland, broadband connection rates and speeds are below average for households, businesses and farms in the Border, Midland and Western areas, for those in lower-income quintiles, and for those depending on welfare payments. In some areas, no broadband is available ...

“Irish people on low incomes are more likely to own older and secondhand devices, to have internet access only on their smartphone, and to have limits on the amount of data they can use.”

This cohort of people is doubly disadvantaged when they cannot access services properly online — and then cannot deal with people face to face in public offices.

Drilling deeper into the reasons behind the retreat from public offices seems to make the situation less clear — witness councillor Healy’s suggestion that motor tax offices in Kerry and Waterford are open to the public, which makes the situation in Cork all the more puzzling.

This could be resolved pretty easily if there were a public counter open to deal with questions on the operation of such organisations. Staffing such a facility might present too many problems, mind.

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