Scotland is rubbish, but…

by | 16 Aug 2023

Let's face it, right now it often feels like nothing in Scotland works. And yet this is a simple choice we are making, a choice to do things badly rather than to do them well.

On Friday I’ll write something about a visit I did last week which shows Scotland at its best. But the visit also involved a dose of Scotland at its worst. So before I write on the cheery bit, let me contrast it with the depressing bit.

What is depressing is the broad sense that nothing in Scotland works, and certainly not if the Scottish Government is in charge of it. As a policy analyst, I wonder if perhaps I have a much more acute sense of things going wrong in the public realm than most, but I don’t think so. The social conversations I have all point to the broad expectation that things won’t work properly.

(As a measure of that, three of my friends have paid for private health treatment because the NHS waits were enormous – two of the three don’t have high incomes and at least one is strongly ideologically opposed to what she did but was desperate. And don’t come out our way and start talking about buses if you want home in time for tea….)

My most recent awareness of Scotland’s general inability to get public infrastructure right is all because we now have a wee second-hand, leased electric car (doing our best folks). This isn’t going to be one of those lengthy diatribes about how hard it is to find a charging place – you’ll find those in abundance.

The reason I’m not going to go on about lack of chargers is because that’s not the easiest thing in the world to get right. Installing chargers at the scale we need isn’t cheap and it’s not even clear yet what the right pattern for that infrastructure is (we have a garage so overnight charging makes this mostly easy, but I’ve talked to people with electric cars in tenements and making charging infrastructure work for them isn’t a doddle).

I have no illusions that things which look straightforward to the user may not be straightforward behind the curtain. I have plenty tolerance for people who make errors doing complicated things. It’s incompetence that gets me. It’s looking at something and going ‘dear god, that was easier to get right than to get wrong – how did you get it wrong?’.

Surely it’s easier to build a school the right size than one that’s massively too small? Surely its easier to confirm the legal status of a Deposit Return Scheme than to totally spoon it? Surely it is easier to commission a basic ferry properly than to make an ongoing pig’s ear of it?

I look at every stage of this and I think ‘but it would have been easier to get this app functioning right than this debacle’ and ‘it would have been much easier to keep this as a public service while it’s being rolled out at least so that its done in a coherent way’

And surely it is easier to write a competent charging place management app for your phone than to create one that is patently daft? I’m talking about the ChargePlace Scotland app. I gawp at it in awe – who produced this thing? What’s their problem? Why do they hate us?

I won’t go into it all but for example it has GPS which shows where all the charge places are and which shows where you are, but it won’t tell you which one is closest. You need to be scrolling and zooming for that. It doesn’t do anything fancy like send a postcode to your phone’s map app to give you directions. It just – shows dots all over a map, one of which is you.

When you get to the charger you look at your phone again because it can’t be this dumb can it? I’m standing next to the only ChargePlace Scotland car charger for 20 miles, it shows me on its wee map standing right next to the bloody charger. Then it asks me to tell it what charger I want to use. That involves entering the number of the charger, which is on the charger.

Except so far for me, 90 per cent of chargers don’t have their charger number on them. Because I was visiting a university last week and people at universities are clever, someone had brought out an indelible marker and actually written the charger number on the charger. But the rest of the time I had to do a text search for the town I was in to get the charge going.

At which point it asks you if you want to use charger 1 or 2 (there are two charging plugs per charging point). You look at the charger and… they’re labeled A and B. Working on the basic assumption that A is 1 and B is 2 (never been at a charger with a one and a two yet) you go ahead and do what you’re meant to do.

Then I head off for the meeting I’m there for. I hate being interrupted when I’m meeting people (it’s rude) so I always put on the flight mode on my phone. Then when I regain internet access I discover that it has ended my charge session with an error message.

The first time that happened I was panicking because I might not have made it all the way home on the charge I had. When I get to the car I find out that nope, it has charged fine – only the app crashed. Except you can’t take the charger out until you end the session, and you can’t end the session if the session has crashed on the app.

So there you are, your car locked to a charging machine in a car park somewhere and you can’t free it. You have to phone the helpline number where someone can disconnect the charger for you. If you tell them the charger number, which probably isn’t on the charger.

Of course, that’s assuming the charger works (a place I went to with six charging points only had three working). If it isn’t, then don’t bother telling ChargePlace Scotland because they privatised the whole thing so you need to work out who actually owns each charger (which is a long way from obvious) and tell them. Which you can’t because there are no contact numbers for the owner.

I look at every stage of this and I think ‘but it would have been easier to get this app functioning right than this debacle’ and ‘it would have been much easier to keep this as a public service while it’s being rolled out at least so that its done in a coherent way’. But nope.

OK, I feel I’ve drawn that out too much already. What I’m trying to get across is that the thing which makes charging your car in Scotland operate with the painless efficiency of having your teeth extracted by a confused chimpanzee is the same thing that makes schools too small, Deposit Return Schemes illegal and ferry procurement an embarrassment.

It is an almighty conflagration of poor-quality politicians, untouchable public administrators who never ever pay for failure, a general national inferiority complex and the slow acclimatisation of the Scottish people to the reality that you might as well get your disappointment in early.

In Scotland a position of political power is really just an opportunity to task an empire of bureaucrats to spend as much pubic money as necessary to cover up your incompetence

It’s the public sector empires, vast behemoths which exist primarily for their own sake with public services a coincidental by-product. It’s Scotland’s procurement, an ideologically-driven farrago which privatises anything it sees. It’s hard-core, neoliberal corporate capture of key agencies (it was Scottish Enterprise which seems to have pushed Transport Scotland to privatise the whole charging network).

It’s the politicians, who think their job is to find a viable excuse for all of this, not to fix it and certainly not to prevent it. It is all human stupidity, not the laws of physics. It’s poor-quality people protecting other poor-quality people and incentivising complacency rather than creativity.

Because it genuinely is easier to get these things right than wrong. I’ve worked with great designers and UX (user experience of how a software application works) experts who could make this app work. I know top-quality planners who could have created a workable plan for how to roll out charging infrastructure with the goal of encouraging the take-up of electric vehicles. I know scientists who could innovate parts of this whole process. They’re all in Scotland.

But they’re not in charge. Patrick Harvie is in charge. Patrick Harvie is meant to be greening our transport system (unless his ‘active transport’ brief is actually only about bikes – though I can see why people would want, for his own safety, to keep him away from dangerous things like internal combustion engines and high voltage car chargers).

Instead he’s silent as it is privatised, progress stalls and quality drops. He simply doesn’t appear to have the intellectual grasp of the vital importance of comprehensive integrated planning. This failure leaves him with nothing else to do but pass on his failure to you, outsourcing what should be his job to you. He seems to spend his days devising ways to punish people into doing his job for him.

So why do his severe limitations become your problem? Because that’s Scotland; a position of political power is really just an opportunity to task an empire of bureaucrats to spend as much pubic money as necessary to cover up your incompetence.

If you’re measuring it by the experience of trying to do basic things in Scotland (like getting seen by a doctor), then yes, Scotland is rubbish. It is. But it doesn’t need to be. It isn’t really anything to do with anything other than who is running the show, who is enacting their will and who owns key parts of the economy. In these areas it really would be easier to do this well than badly.

So let’s just wait it out for a new generation of politicians and in the meantime, have you seen the state of Glasgow lately? Don’t fear though, the leader of the council says rats are in every city so you’re imagining it, and look, to prove things are getting better she’s tasked her officials to knock up a glossy document with loads of pictures of Future-Glasgow in it – with no rats!

She’s not going to actually build Future-Glasgow, but the pictures should distract you from the smell for a while.

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