Nothing focuses the minds of our politicians quite like a crisis. Or that’s how it appears…
Despite the ongoing dysfunction across government, those wild partying Proseccoters in Whitehall got at least one thing right this past week when the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, announced a “bonfire of the banalities”. No. It wasn’t a spam fritter barbie on the Downing Street patio, but a proposal to reduce the number of needless public service announcements made across the transport network.
Oh, the sweet relief! No more reminders to “See it. Say it. Sort it” at every stop. In the future, we’ll also be trusted to take care of our baggage without constant reminders to take our belongings with us. Call it a distraction, if you must, or mere populism (because it is). At one time, it’s the kind of policy that would have been described as indicative of the “Nanny State”. Frame it differently, however, and you have an example of how government can restore a sense of personal liberty, as well as a gentle reminder that governments can, on occasion, improve lives.
The harshest criticism one could level at the scheme is that there is only one; as if irritating announcements were the end of the public’s frustrations. Life is riddled with nuisances that are often too small to register in the busy inboxes of government departments but annoying enough to register in all our busy lives. Perhaps we’re entering a new age of governments committed to making life more tolerable. We need a new ministry called “the Department of Petty Annoyances” with the authority to rid us of these trivial irritants.
They could begin by outlawing medication impossible to open without scissors and banning that vampiric form of plastic packaging that is heat-welded shut and refuses to open without biting into a vein. They could also ensure that only government departments use brown manilla envelopes, so no more companies can disguise their marketing as important letters from HMRC. Maybe then we might also see action on those scam phone calls that threaten to bankrupt us by buying groceries via our Amazon Prime accounts or who insist our grandmothers have been hacked by the Russians.
Forget about your big offices of state, it’s the Department of Petty Annoyances that would punch well above its weight (added to Michael Gove’s remit, obviously), solving the kind of familiar irritations that are disproportionately troublesome.
How about a requirement that any company that sells services online should provide an equally easy way to cancel that service? You know… something novel like a “cancel my subscription” button? There is no reason in this technologically adroit age that companies should force us to ring up busy switchboards just so they can subject us to the hard sell. Just give us an unsubscribe button, goddamn it! (Yes, I’m talking about you Sky, Virgin, and nearly every mobile operator I can name.)
How about a requirement that serial numbers be displayed prominently on products and, where possible, in a font that doesn’t require a scanning electron microscope to read? And can’t somebody stop “paperless prescriptions” that come on about a dozen sheets of paper that are mostly left blank? And why is it cheaper for the Post Office to deliver takeaway menus than it is to send a letter?
Let’s also have one standard recycling scheme across the country with containers that are fit for purpose, so no more cramming big screen TV packaging into small plastic crates or having plastic bottles spill out of tall, narrow, lightweight bags. And while we’re about it: give us easy-to-access information so it doesn’t require nine-factor verification to check when it’s your next bin day.
This is just the beginning…
Government websites shouldn’t ring you with a security code they read out faster than your brain can conceive numbers. Imagine, too, no more flat-rate fares on our buses that make it prohibitively expensive travelling one-stop because the fare is the same as travelling across the entire county. Let’s put an end to household security lights that can burn through a curtain at 1000 yards and canned goods that still come without a ring pull. And stop damaging the covers of books with stickers!
We also need an opt-in culture rather than opt-out. If you push a catalogue through my letterbox, I shouldn’t be obliged to keep it safe until you come to collect it next week. It’s going in the bin.
All too trivial for government, you might say, but not too trivial for the Department of Petty Annoyances; the smallest department in Whitehall but, when it comes to quality of life, the only one that matters.