Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do people measure "value" differently abroad?

A local town hall administrative office has just been renovated.

Prior to renovation its décor was I suppose 1980/90(ish) in style and looking a little dated but actually everything was in very good condition and perfectly functional.

Then they announced plans to update it. It seemed logical enough although the allocated budget looked large to me. As the work progressed the reason for this became clearer. Fully automatic tinted glass doors have been installed, brand spanking new and very trendy floor tiles laid and hardwood service counters with solid marble (yes MARBLE) tops set up.

It is without doubt a great job, and if I have to go inside I sometimes wonder if I should put on slippers and white gloves.

Also by chance, I recently accompanied a friend to a local ‘child benefit’ government office. I’d never been in one here before and was shocked speechless upon entry. It was like walking onto the bridge of the starship Enterprise. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

State-of-the-art giant plasma screens showing names and positions in the queue to see someone, automated name paging, staff sitting on ‘Captain Kirk’ chairs behind banks of consoles using touch-sensitive screens, and some form of entertainment system to watch whilst waiting. When directed to go upstairs I couldn’t help thinking “should we take the lift or are they going to beam us up?”

I was discussing these two perceptions in a bar with some local friends who spoke with obvious pride of these developments. Whilst agreeing, I asked “yes, but what do we get for it?”

Stunned silence. After several seconds of looking at each other, my friends said, “what do you mean?” I realised I was potentially in trouble but decided to charge the guns head-on.

“Well, the service in the town hall was excellent before and the décor fine. Now we’ve refurbished it at large cost, will our services improve or taxes come down? In the child benefit office, are people now getting served faster, their payments made more quickly or getting more child benefit paid?”

Once again I witnessed several faces looking at each other in bafflement. Clearly we were just not speaking the same language.

One of them, older and wiser than the others, scratched his chin knowingly and reached over to pat me on the hand.

“You’re British and a child of Thatcher. You think this way and ask these difficult questions”.

Now I didn’t for a second understand his explanation and I certainly don’t think of myself as Thatcherite (far from it!) Even so, everyone else nodded enthusiastically as if his few words of wisdom answered everything perfectly well.

Perhaps many people overseas are less cost-benefit conscious than those in the English-speaking world. Perhaps their civic pride is such that they just take pleasure in seeing their state buildings equipped to the latest standard and cost is not an issue for them. It certainly made me think…

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