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Alan And The Bureaucrats

It was time to re-register my car and so, being a creature of habit, I did what I do every year and I wandered down to the closest office of the Automobile Association.

I pushed open the door. There seemed to be a lot of resistance, which I found puzzling, but once I got through the door I quickly found the reason. The office was absolutely seething with people. I've never seen such a crowd concentrated in one small office before. Worried looking people dressed in AA uniforms scurried hither and yon behind the counter. There was a constant buzz of conversation, punctuated by the clack of keyboards, the clicking of mice and the occasional very rude word.

Three positions at the counter proclaimed that you could renew your drivers license at them, should you be so inclined. The crush of people around these was the thickest in the room. Another position claimed to deal with AA Membership Enquiries. The queue here was the shortest, for very long values of short of course. The final position at the counter had a sign which declared that it dealt with Vehicle Registration. Just what I needed. Unfortunately it also boasted a large, emphatic notice which said: Closed!

I joined the queue for AA Membership Enquiries, on the grounds that it only had eighty people in it and, after about an aeon and a half, I reached the counter and obtained the attention of the lady sitting behind it.

"Can I do this here?" I asked, flourishing my car re-registration documents.

"Of course you can," she said. "But you'll have to wait a few minutes. My shift has come to an end and I need to log off from the computer. When I've done that, my colleague will log on and then she'll be happy to deal with you."

"Righto," I said, having little choice in the matter. And then I watched in fascination as she logged off from her computer. I've never seen any process quite so complicated in my life before. Her eyes flicked around her screen, top to bottom, left to right, corner to corner. She typed furiously on her keyboard, pausing every so often to click on things with her mouse. I couldn't see the screen; I have no idea what prompts she was responding to, but it required huge concentration from her (the tip of her tongue was poking out of the side of her mouth; always a sure sign of deep thought). Eventually, after about five minutes of non-stop typing, she heaved a huge sigh of relief, sat back in her chair and smiled at me.

"My colleague will be with you soon," she said and left, hopefully to drink a reviving cup of coffee. I'm sure she needed it.

Her colleague sat down in the recently vacated chair. "I'll deal with you in a moment," she said, somewhat ominously. And then the whole process went in reverse as she logged on. Eventually, after typing in her entire autobiography from age 3 until 10.00am this morning, the system grudgingly decided that she really was who she claimed to be, and it allowed her access. She picked up my form, keyed in a few details and then asked, "How are you paying for this?"

I proffered an eftpos card.

"Thank you," she said. "Please swipe your card."

I swiped my card. Nothing happened.

"Other way round," she said.

I turned the card round and swiped again. Nothing happened.

"No," said the lady. "The other other way round."

I tried again. Nothing.

"You do it," I said, handing her the card. "All these machines swipe in different ways. I can never get them right."

She rotated my card through the fourth dimension, turned it sideways and swiped it.

"PIN Number?" demanded the tautologous machine. I supplied the number.

"Accepted," said the machine smugly, and I was several hundred dollars poorer, just like that.

"I'll just print out the docket for displaying on your windshield," said the lady, giving a delicate click with her mouse. A printer at the other end of the office graunched into life and the lady left to get my docket. She came back with a long face and an even longer docket.

"Something's gone wrong," she said gloomily, proffering the docket.

The printer was obviously horribly misaligned – the docket had printed across the perforations that separated two stationery items, thereby ruining them both. Furthermore, about half an inch of the left hand side of the docket was missing, the print heads having failed to make any contact with the form at all.

"Two for the price of one?" asked the lady hopefully.

"I don't think so," I said.

"I'll try again."

She went and opened the printer, poked something a bit half-heartedly, wiggled a wiggly bit and then came back and clicked the mouse. The printer sprang into life again, but the result was, if possible, even worse than before. Again it had used up two forms and most of the left hand side was still absent without leave. But this time the large black letters and numbers were missing several vital aspects and were almost illegible. They were also very smeary as if phantom fingers had brushed across the ink before it was dry.

"I think we'll have to put in a support call to IT," said the lady. "Can we phone you when it's fixed?"

"Well, not really," I said. "Isn't there any other alternative?"

"You could go to the Post Office," she said doubtfully. "Show them the receipt and explain what happened. I'm sure they'll print one out for you."

I heaved a sigh, but she dodged and it missed her and fell on to the floor, waiting for someone unwary to trip over it. I took my receipt and forced my way out through the struggling hordes (the number of people in the office seemed to have doubled since I'd arrived nearly two hours before).

The Post Office was about five minutes walk away. It was utterly deserted. Obviously today the AA office was the trendy place to be. The ladies behind the counter were knitting and gossiping to each other. I approached one of them, showed my receipt and explained what had happened. She started to laugh.

"Hey Alice," she said to the lady next to her, "the AA vehicle registration printer has broken down again."

"Again?" said Alice incredulously. "That's the third time this week. What do they do over there? Kick it every time they walk past?"

"I don't know," said my lady, "but I think we'd better brace ourselves for a mad rush as they send everybody over here. Gird your knitting, girls. We might be busy soon."

She glanced cursorily at my receipt. "I'll just log on," she said. "We've been very quiet today and I haven't logged on yet."

Logging on took less than ten seconds. Obviously the Post Office system had a much less rigorous authentication mechanism than the corresponding AA system. Then the lady keyed in a code from my receipt, wandered over to the printer in the corner and came back with a perfectly printed docket. The whole exercise took less than a minute from woe to go.

"There you are, dear," she said.

"Thank you," I said. "Next year I think I'll cut out the middle man and come straight here."

"We'll see you then," said the lady and she went back to her knitting.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I needed a new passport so I went to the Department Of Internal Affairs which is on the third floor of a building with a lift that takes nearly twenty minutes to arrive when summoned. Perhaps it was having a tea break.

A dark brown man wearing a dark brown suit sat behind a dark brown desk with a dark brown notice on it that said: Enquiries.

"Can I help you sir?" he Enquired in a dark brown voice.

"I need to renew my passport," I explained.

"Here." He handed me a dark brown form. "Fill this in and bring it back with two photographs. Remember not to smile when you have the picture taken."

I followed his instructions to the letter and returned a few days later with my completed form. I was told to wait for my name to be called. I sat down and watched various people being interrogated by bureaucrats. This involved much enthusiastic checking of forms and the pounding of the forms to death with rubber stamps. Eventually the customers slunk away, much subdued. Finally my name was called and I took my form up to the window. The nice lady smiled.

"Hello," she said. "How can I help you?"

I presented my form and photographs and she scrutinised them with a dark brown scroot. She checked a couple of answers with me and then picked up the largest stamp I've ever seen, inked it carefully and thumped it fiercely on the front of the form. When she removed the stamp, I could see the large friendly letters "Routine" all across my paperwork and I felt a great sense of relief. There are two things that guarantee severe problems in your immediate future. One is to hear your doctor say, "Hmm. I've never seen one of those before." and the other is to have a civil servant catch you out in any non-routine exercise...

While the lady had been checking my form, I couldn't help overhearing some of the conversation that was happening one window down from mine.

"I accidentally ticked the wrong box on the form," said a man. "And now he has three surnames and no first names. Can we fix that please? He's being teased about it at school."

"Oh dear," said the clerk. "Well, you could change his name by deed poll. It takes a long time and it costs a lot of money."

"But it was an accident. I ticked the wrong box by mistake. Can't we just rearrange the information in your records?" The man was almost crying with frustration.

"Oh, it's not as simple as that," said the clerk. And then she uttered the dreaded words, "It's not routine."

"He's got three surnames," wailed the man. "Nobody has three surnames. Can't you tell it was just an honest mistake?"

I left him to his dilemma and went home to await my new passport.

Several days later it arrived. It's a deep sexy black document with half a fern outlined down one side. When you open it up, you find a very thick page stuffed full of biometric magic. Written on this page in stern dark brown letters is a dire warning to Customs and Immigration officials not to stamp visas on it. Presumably dreadful penalties will be imposed on them should they happen to chip the chip embedded in this page's folds.

According to the book of words that came with the passport, there is a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip lurking in there. Consequently, whenever I decide to travel to Australia, as soon as I walk into the airport, all the machines will immediately say, "Hello, Alan – we've been waiting for you. Come in, come in." and I will be ushered past glaring officials who are powerless to interfere. Protected by the subtle power of biometrics, I will stroll off again at the other end with nobody to say me nay.

I really can't wait to try it out.

In order to grant me this magical travel ability, the New Zealand Government has doubled the price of the passport and halved its lifetime. I will have to fill in another dark brown form in only five short years.


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