A version of this piece appeared in the ABC's “Unleashed” on 28 April 2009.
A young man gets lost in the bush. The terrain is rugged, but he's not far from major centres of population. He makes numerous mobile phone calls to emergency services, seeking help. Eight days later, his body is recovered.
The behaviour of the 000 operators could be seen as outrageous. In my view, it was inevitable.
I'm no expert, just a retired public servant who worked with people in call centres and heard from them what they had to put up with. I retired early, in part because I saw the area in which I worked going the same way. What follows is predicated on my experiences being representative.
Call centre operators get a database of scripted responses. The system is configured, if not designed, to prevent anything being done that hasn't previously been thought up and approved. Operators are trained not to give a response that isn't in the system. If the problem doesn't match one of the available responses, the caller may be given one of them anyway. Usually, they'll give up – or hang up before realising that their question hasn't been answered. Sometimes, that realisation takes quite a while. But the operator has a completed call on their record.
An operator who's found to have given an answer that isn't in the system will be disciplined. If they're casual, they may find that they get fewer hours or none at all.
It acts as a winnowing process. The outcome is a workforce predominantly of operators who can't think for themselves, have learned not to or don't bother.
Phone calls are not alone in being scripted. At times, I've had access to similar systems for phone calls, paper mail and email; for both responding to the incoming and generating the outgoing. Over the years, control tightened. Flexibility to respond to individual needs declined, along with job satisfaction.
Working the phones is mentally debilitating. When the calls are routine, stress is aggravated by time constraints. An operator who doesn't complete the required number of calls will have questions to answer. If a single call isn't completed within the required time, there may be consequences. The reaction is predictable. A call that's going on too long, might be 'inadvertently' cut off. An operator might deliberately offend a caller, to 'encourage' them to hang up. Though I served time on the phones, what I experienced is nothing compared to what I heard from the call centre.
Fatigue quickly sets in. After two to three hours on the phones, I was generally in a daze. What I put up with was mild compared to a call centre – and an emergency service is a particular type of call centre. In that environment, I imagine that effective endurance could be measured in minutes.
Managing stress and fatigue takes skill, sensitivity and resources. Fatigue builds with time but a single, particularly demanding, call can substantially accelerate the process. Management needs flexibility to rest people as required; to take an exhausted operator off-line and even send them home (on full pay, so they're not motivated to stay when they should go), if necessary. Cost cutting doesn't support that indispensable flexibility.
So, who's to blame? The operators are what they were selected and trained, on our behalf, to be. They're also subject to constraints imposed from above. Something similar can be said, all the way up the line through managers and department heads, to those who control the purse strings: our elected representatives.
We whinge about taxes. Our whining motivates governments to reduce taxation below what's needed. We are responsible, not only for electing our representatives, but for the size of the purse whose strings they control. They're reduced to doing whatever will most cheaply give the appearance of delivering the services we demand.
Who's ultimately responsible for the performance of the 000 operators? We, the electors and (reluctant) taxpayers.
We've been given a lesson on the price of parsimony. Though we might heed it in the short term, history suggests that we won't learn the lesson.
This work by David Boxall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License