National Service Service

I’ve never thought much about National Service. A quick read suggests what I expected though, in the form of “a period of compulsory service in the armed forces during peacetime”. Imagine though if there were a similar thing for national and public services.

A daft idea perhaps, but as a thought experiment it’s intriguing me at the moment, as I mull over recent experiences with national health care and my local council.

“I pay for them / I expect / I want / they should…” and similar entitled comments are shared by some people when expressing thoughts on public service experiences, but I wonder if they would feel that way if they had experience of providing the service themselves. Like in Back to the Floor, where incognito CEO’s returned to the front line of their company, and witnessed what things were like first hand, rather than just ruling ignorantly from on high. They unanimously (in my recollection) found the experiment eye opening, and it always seemed to reveal new ideas or optimisations for their business.

Imagine instead if we had some way that people could do ‘national service service’, and have their own CEO like revelations. In healthcare it would be hard for privacy reasons, but perhaps some sort of GP reception job would allow people to witness rudeness and repetition experienced by staff in those environments. Or some kind of clerk job for a GP, allowing a view of how Doctors are obliged to stressfully manage their time, not how they personally choose to.

With councils it could be as simple as street cleaning, or refuse collection or just managing the phones in the car parking voucher department, or similar. Any behind the scenes experience really, allowing service users a frame of reference. A peek behind the scenes of perceived entitlement.

A system like this could be heavily incentivised to make it happen (mostly, because forcing people to do things is hideous, but also because force would foster resentment, rather than empathy). In a similar idea as a student, I imagined councils offering summer holiday jobs doing street cleaning, or in refuse and recycling centres, in exchange for covering council tax and utility bills, or discounted tuition fees. In adult life, a similar tax break could work, both for an individual and their employer. A service sabbatical. I don’t know, logistically it would be a massive undertaking and it would likely cost a lot, but I reckon the benefits, alongside the cross pollination of professional skill sets, could be a more compassionate community. Less moaning about what we expect, and more appreciation of how hard expectations are to meet.

There are three cases in particular that have me thinking about all this. First was when trying to organise a repeat prescription between my GP, and my local pharmacy, though in reality, the parties involved list more like this:

  1. Me
  2. Whichever GP is available and telling me to sort it out at a chemist (Note: They’re all excellent and I love the practice that I’m signed up with, I just wish for them that they weren’t so seemingly stressed).
  3. The chemist that I take my first prescription to, and who I ask about setting up the repeat with.
  4. Reception staff back at the practice who I speak to on the phone (after the chemist told me that only they can set it up).
  5. The company that sends the letter instructing me to sign up online.
  6. The two services listed on the piece of paper.
  7. The sign up user interface for the service that I choose (that being the one that I could figure out how to use)
  8. The log in form and account page interface that I encounter when it’s time to repeat.
  9. The confirmation page that doesn’t tell me what to do next or when the repeat will be ready.
  10. A new member of staff 5 days later at the chemist, who I ask, ‘what’s going on and what do I do next?’
  11. Her colleague out back in the dispensing room who talks to me quietly through a shelf and who in the end gives me my repeat prescription and advice to wait just 3 days after applying online next time.

Case two, was being asked to participate on a primary health service user group, on which I discovered a ton of insights about how such services are run, promoted and moderated.

And case three, a conversation with a friendly Hackney fly-tipping collector.

All three experiences are ones that I could get frustrated about. Or at least exclaim disbelief in:

Why is the repeat prescription process so confusing and so seemingly unprofessional? How can the things I’ve learned about convoluted admin and patient communications be true? And why does my council say that I have to take my rubbish to the tip myself, or organise a specific collection, but then go on to spend my tax money on far easier services for fly-tippers?

But I get it. I’ve had enough experience in service industries, and with various admin and organisational structures, to understand what causes each of the three scenarios. In this sense, and behind this entire post perhaps, I think I’m wishing there was more that I could do to help. Some other way in to help with social and civil organisations that didn’t require convoluted business procurement shenanigans. Some way that I, and people like me, and various other professionals in service design and technology sectors, could lend skills that seem to be lacking in this broad set of scenarios. A silly socialist daydream perhaps, but a nice one for such a nice spring day.