Hooray. It may have taken over six months, but finally the water leak on Hornsey Rise has been fixed. It wasn’t just a tiny seeping piece of water emerging slowly; it was a steady trickle down the hill for half a year and more. So much so that you can see the chalky white deposits built up on the pavement by the water over the months.
But why did a leak of water on Hornsey Rise take so long to fix and become another incident to file in this site’s collection of absurdly drawn out multi-month sagas?
In one respect, this leak is a little more explicable than some of those other sagas as it wasn’t that clear where the original source of the leak was, which in turn made the relative roles of Circle 33 and Thames Water less clear.
But that sort of possible confusion might explain a delay of a few weeks, not many months. Nor does it explain problems along the way such as the unreplied emails, the unfulfilled promises of next steps, the wrongly dispatched teams and more.
The bigger problem – and it’s a consistent one, with long-running sagas in both the public and private sectors – is the incredible difficulty in getting anyone to take responsibility for an issue that cuts across teams, let alone organisations.
Resolution requires someone to say, ‘This has been going on so long, it’s absurd. Even though it’s not clear exactly what needs doing to fix it or who needs to get involved, I’m going to take charge and get things sorted, chasing everyone else as needed’.
Instead, such long-running sagas get mired in a multitude of different people saying, ‘The standard process says do X. I’ll do X and then forget about the issue’.
One lesson that comes up time and again is that to be really good, whether in the private or public sector, an organisation needs to be able to escalate issues swiftly and effectively from the latter to the former.
The worst organisations are not those who mess up following the standard process. The worst are actually those who always follow the standard process, track the KPIs as speed at following the standard process, think therefore everything is fine and then never notice that all they’re doing is following processes but not really fixing problems.
In one form or another I’ve often had the conversation, “But what you’re telling me you’ll do next is what your colleagues have already told me multiple times they would do and it never worked. Can’t you escalate this so that something different is done?” “No, I’ve got to follow the standard procedure.”
No surprise then that in this case progress really started when someone willing to chase up others, both in their own organisation and elsewhere, got on the case. Thanks are due to both that person at Circle 33 and also the unknown other person who spotted my online comments about the leak problems and passed them on to that colleague.
The tales of tracking down a mystery sound, battling a locked door and fighting through cobwebs into an unvisited room were all quite fun along the way, but in the end though one person impressed me for her persistence, the overall feeling is one of organisational failure.
In that feeling is a wider lesson for public services. You may notice that I rarely let such issues go and courtesy of a good education, political contacts, media experience and online savvy, I have more opportunities that most to keep on chipping away until I find an opening. Many people facing far more serious problems don’t have the same ability to get out their sharp elbows and keep on plugging away, nor in far more serious cases involving their own circumstances do they have the luxury of time.
There’s a huge role for skilled advocates to take up people’s cases and help them. Sometimes that’s a role for an elected politician, but public services should do much more to offer citizens with champions to aid in battling through failing systems and unfriendly bureaucracy .
Of course after all this, that little remaining spot of repair work you can see in the photo is going to be done soon and everything cleared away, I’m sure. I, er…, think.