Saturday, November 22, 2008

A tale of seven letters

Over the last month or so, I have recieved 5 responses from a variety of government bodies.  The purpose of this post is to compare and contrast the different responses, and the actions of the various bodies.

I'll start with the good - the RTA.  The RTA keeps it short and simple.  I logged a short request via their website, and got this response a few weeks later via email.  Postage costs of zero, minimal time spent in writing to them, and minimal time and expense for the RTA to respond - as a taxpayer, I like that.  The outcome was also good - the RTA (or their contractors) usually do a good job of painting over graffiti.  They don't always get all of it (missing out a few small bits here and there), but they take care of the great bulk of it.  The difference between before and after is marked.

Ref: GE08/5731


I refer to your e-mail regarding the graffiti on the pedestrian bridge over the City West Link,Charles Street, Lillyfield.

The graffiti has now been removed.

Thank you for bringing this matter to the attention of the RTA.

Kind regards

RTA Customer Services

The next response is from Sydney Water.  This was quite unexpected, and it made me smile - letters like this make me feel like I am doing something worthwhile.  I take my hat off to Sydney Water for being so honest and forthright - many government agencies would be tempted to fudge the facts and send back a mealy-mouthed response, but Sydney Water has done the right thing, and my respect for them has gone up enormously.  They've recognised that they had a problem, and they're working on fixing it.  As much as it's nice to get an apology, I care much more that they are looking into their system and seeking to improve it.

Then we have RailCorp.  This letter is just bad.  Consider the following responses:

RailCorp takes the problem of graffiti on the rail corridor seriously and will urgently attend to an incident if it compromises safety or common decency.
That's a lovely motherhood statement, but it has no bearing on the bridge in question.  Safety or common decency is not compromised in this case, so they don't have to do anything about it.  It says nothing about when this bridge will be cleaned - if ever.  

Then there is the next paragraph:

RailCorp shares the responsibility for their maintenance with other stakeholders such as local councils and the RTA.  External bridge walls and roadside surfaces are cleaned by these organisations due to the need to close roads and section off these areas whereas RailCorp attends to areas within the corridor itself.
I know that.  I was a party to the negotiations between RTA and RAC (as it was back then) to divide up responsibility between the two bodies for bridge maintenance.  I had a small part in helping to write the policy on the rail side.  

However, note that all the graffiti in question that I have been writing about is on the bridge itself - it's on the area that is a RailCorp responsibility.  Talking about other stakeholders such as the RTA and local councils simply fudges the issue.  They have no bearing on this case.  It is an exercise in blame shifting or responsibility shifting, and I'm afraid I have written enough of this nonsense in the past to see right through it.  It sounds good, but it means nothing.

As the rail corridor needs to be closed for safety reasons during cleaning, these areas are usually cleaned at the same time as trackwork closedowns.
That much is true.  I have done plenty of work alongside running rail lines in the past to know all about that.  I've done the trackside awareness safety course.  I've worked with the maintenance people who go out and work on the track.  I've worked with the bridge engineers who do the bridge inspections, and even the engineers who wrote the bridge inspection checklists.  I setup the document management system that was used for the writing of a new generation of infrastructure management documentation.

As for closedowns, a project was setup to roll out Primavera as the project management software for planning and running these closedowns.  I know about that, because I built the servers for the pilot and installed Primavera on them and worked with the project team to get it up and running.  In my reply, I asked for the date of the next closedown on this stretch of track, and an assurance that cleaning the bridge was part of the work package.  

I doubt I will get a direct response - in all my letters to RailCorp, I have asked simple and direct questions, and never had a proper answer to any of them.  The RailCorp letter writers are very good at obscuring the issues and avoiding the questions whilst appearing to give an answer of substance.

For some unfathomable reason, someone at RailCorp just doesn't want to remove the graffiti from this bridge.  It might be an issue of cost, or the difficulty and complexity of arranging a closedown to do the work, or that they have higher priority things to do.  It might also be that due to the lack of rail traffic on this line, they are treating it as a "dead" line and don't want to spend a cent on it if they can help it.  Whatever the reason, RailCorp are not being honest and upfront about their reasons.
The fourth letter is from Australia Post.  I find this letter slightly disturbing - the implication is that if I continue to ask for graffiti to be removed from post-boxes, they'll start removing them because they are too expensive to clean.  You might read that as a veiled threat to shut up and stop contacting them, or I'll be responsible for the removal of the postal service from some areas.

As far as I am concerned, if a post-box is not used, they are free to take it out.  No sense in retaining uneconomic assets if they are not required. With a network of 14,000 post-boxes, I'd think they'd be removing hundreds each year (and also installing hundreds in new suburbs as they spring up).  

That said, I can't see how cleaning them can be so unbelievably expensive that it would warrant their removal on economic grounds.  I can buy 1 litre of metho from my local supermarket for under $4.  Having cleaned graffiti off a few signs in our area, I estimate that a 1 litre bottle should be enough to clean 100 post-box sides (if it was vandalised on four sides, one bottle would do 25 post-boxes etc).  That works out at under 4 cents per side.  You could throw in the cost of a rag if need be.  The labour cost is not that high, given that I have found that I can remove a large tag from a street sign in about 10 seconds.  

If they are using diamond encrusted rags with gold-infused metho, I could understand that it might cost a few dollars to clean up a post-box.  Otherwise, I find this talk of the "significant cost" in cleaning post-boxes to be insulting.  If the management of Australia Post can't find a cheap way to clean graffiti from post-boxes, then maybe we need to replace some managers with more competent managers.

This letter also says that Australia Post will "continue to undertake both scheduled and ad hoc cleaning of our facilities", but I have seen no evidence to date that Australia Post has a system in place to ensure that scheduled cleaning is undertaken.  
The fifth letter is from Ashfield Council.  I like this letter.  The GM has acknowledged that they have a problem, that they want to do something about it and that they are striving to do better in future.  I've noticed that since my first letter, the response of Ashfield Council has improved, so this letter is not a lot of fluff and hot air - it is the genuine article.

RailCorp and Australia Post could learn a lot from Ashfield Council, the RTA and Sydney Water, which is why I have posted all the responses here.  Clearly, some organisations are better led, and their staff more committed, than others.

That's five letters - where are the other two?

I have written to Telstra on a number of occasions, and never had a response from anyone.  I've also written to Energy Australia a few times, and whilst the first few letters generated a response, I've heard nothing from them in months.  I guess they think that if they ignore me, I'll forget about them and go away.

Unfortunately for Energy Australia, since they are a government corporation, they are responsible to a Minister - and I'll be writing to that Minister today to ask them to chase up a response on my behalf.  

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