Friday, May 11, 2007

The Inhuman Face of EU

The EU has been boasting of it being at the forefront of the human equality and human centeredness. However, close contact to first base point itself drives that off to the level of Greek mythology.

I have now had several encounters (I prefer to call them encounters rather than contacts) with this face of EU. The first point of contact being, THE EMBASSY.

It is very interesting to understand procedure to get in touch with this face of EU. It starts generally with your going to your favourite search engine and searching for the embassy of that specific nation of EU and funny enough in most cases some agent's website will appear before the official embassy website. For a web newbie (a person who does not frequently delve into the depth of the web) it may take from 10 minutes to 30 minutes to realise the same depending on intellectual capabilities.

Once you reach the embassy website and realise that it is not compatible with your Firefox browser and you will have to use internet explorer only in most cases.

You open the website and the front page design could be from the level of disastrous to little user friendly. After 5 minutes of surfing through the same you reach the important section for you, Visa section. Don't worry much if the fonts are uneven, the page is not properly aligned, etc.

You are there on the page because you want to know where the embassy is. Can you apply for the visa by post? And what do you need to carry with you when go there?

To your utter dismay you realise that if you are living within the periphery of 200 miles from the embassy you cannot apply via post. The significance of this distance will be realised to you within next 10 minutes while reading this article.

The information with regard to what to bring is very clearly and precisely mentioned. Ahh... But don't get that happy because when you get happy, you become less cautious and then only Empire Strikes Back.

The website tells you that even if you are ready with all that information you cannot come to the embassy without a proper appointment which is perfectly ok by all standards. However, you can't get an appointment by calling the embassy because there is no direct way of getting in touch. The website mentions 0901 number (did this number ring the bell in your mind with a specific profession which uses it in abundance) which is the only way to get an appointment. Wow, how similar is this process to the specific profession we thought about.

As you call that number you thought it would be a two minute thing as the number costs £ 1-1.50 per minute. However, to your surprise for the first two minutes a lady voice (obviously automated) keeps on telling you that this is the only way to get an appointment and keep your passport with you and don't hang up in between (which you feel every second after 5 minutes) till the lady voice doesn't say so. Furthermore, it tells you that you need to be using a push button telephone and it should not be connected to an EPBAX system. You have already spent your day's coffee intake on this phone before realising it.

For the next 11 minutes or so the voice keeps on asking you various information about you and reminds you of not to hang up. What proactive prediction? Once it gets all information from you, you think now you will get an appointment. Gosh, you are expecting too much. Lethargy is the motto here. As the system has all your information the system gives you the first date for your visa appointment. Hurrah... It is just 6 week away only, ohh... And don't you remember that your travelling has to start in three weeks and by the end of fourth week you will have to be back at work. The system understands the delay in your response and very kindly tells you that if you need any other date press a button. How understanding? In the hope getting a better date you press that button and you know what, Murphy's law works. It gives you a later date than the first one. Remember you cannot disconnect the phone neither you will have to repeat the again. So, you decide to take a date. After some 15-25 minutes and spending £ 20-45 now you have an appointment with the embassy which in its truest sense meaningless. Depending on your mental status you start exploring contingency plans.

The first thing you might do is to rigorously search the embassy website to find a contact point and in some embassy cases you might find an email address hidden there. Did I not mention 'some' above? And there are almost all chances that in your case it won't be available. Murphy's Law works.

Two scenarios are looming large on you now. First, where you get that email address and write to the embassy waiting for them to return. Most times they do and they tell you in that email a hidden web link. If you hit it at the right time you have all chances to get an earlier appointment (could be within 2 days sometimes).

However, in your case as I stated earlier there are no such links. So, you have to move to contingency plan TWO. You call up all your friends and family members and they all sympathise with you. However, there is one of them who direct you to an agent. You first try to search about this agent and find that with a certain fee (ranging from £50-200 per passport) you can actually get the visa within 3-4 days even without visiting the embassy at all. Ahh... Did the EU mention equality was the base on which the whole system was based. When the noble prize in year 2001 was given to George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz for their work on information asymmetry you did not understand it. But this experience will teach you all practicality of the same.

Because you need to attend that meeting or have that vacation in time you will contact the agent and you will get your visa within a week. Hurrah... Though you got your visa in time, and got what you wanted, did you not forget some important questions which must be asked.

You wanted a simple visa to enter that country through the most legitimate means. Not being a hero of Robert Ludlum's novel you were treated really like an alien (by the way, in diplomatic terms you are called an alien you know). There are these very serious questions on the claims of EU on the issues of equality, right treatment, and human side of things.

It is good that every embassy is trying to give you a standardised treatment. However, should not that be asked that is it the right way to standardise. While spending £20-45 for those 20 average minutes did you think how many jobs can be created if this whole system involved human interaction? A call canter representative can be hired for 3-4 hours for that cost within EU itself.

If you did not question the above you surely missed the softer side of it. We all want a human touch to our communication. We all want to feel the human voice on the other end of the phone. Such advance electronic system however great they are, can they ever take place of the human interaction?

Then there is this systemic question. A system is developed for helping and quickening the systemic response. There are so many systems which we have developed which work fabulously well and we must be proud of it. However, we also must remember that everything in excess is hazardous. Overexploitation of such systems only increases anxiety, stress and chaos. It leaves an ugly scar at both side of communiqué.

There always will be the issue of the passport being sensitive information cannot be handled without caution and the machine based system allows that privacy. However, the bank and credit card call centres handle similar if not more sensitive information everyday. So, there surely is a systemic solution to this if there is a will to do so.