Simon Carr: I'm afraid this might take a little while ...

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The Independent Online

Why does everything take so long these days? It's getting worse, don't you think?

There was an inquest the other day about a medical misadventure. The accident had happened four years ago. The nurse who had put the anaesthetic into an arm instead of the patient's spine said she didn't remember the details of what had happened. It was four years ago, you see.

In Parliament, ministers often won't answer questions because they don't want to "pre-empt the results of the inquiry". The Hain inquiry could have been completed in (I'm sucking my teeth and reaching for a pencil to do a quick estimate) three days. For cash.

I did some work for a big multinational some years ago. The most striking feature was the sitting around talking everyone did. There was never an agenda or minutes but people felt better at the end of the meeting. It's a modern malaise in a culture on the turn. Things take a long time because:

A) People talk too much these days. Experts are paid by the hour. They use too many words and the words they use are too long. "Strategic interface" is now one six-syllable word. If the customer cannot understand what you're saying, you can charge extra.

B) There is an approved way of doing things and it has to be followed. We have to obey the rule book. We have become so stupid that we have to be told how to put one foot in front of the other. Our masters have to be reassured we have done the job in the approved way, so they can reassure their masters the job is being done in the approved way.

Thus, process is more important than product. And it's not easy fitting in with the strategic interfaces of other parts of the organisation. So we have to supply data showing age, body mass index, ethnicity, sexual orientation, educational qualification, National Insurance number and two addresses (if at current address for less than three years).

This has to be recorded, transmitted, analysed, reviewed, referred and integrated with the five-year strategic gateways. And the pathways to the gateways.

C) Reports come to wrong conclusion and have to be rewritten. Ken Livingstone commissions research on the safety of London bus lanes. It shows that motorcycles and cyclists can share bus lanes without any increase in accidents. But this will offend the cycling lobby so it's sent back for revision.

The process of decision-making has to find, often by trial and error, the decision that offends the least number of people, lobby groups, trade organisations. It all takes time.

D) Consultation isn't to canvas public opinion but to bend public opinion towards the decision that has already been taken. In the consultation on nuclear energy, the Government website explained that "tackling climate change and ensuring the security of supply are critical challenges for the UK". Then respondents were asked to answer the following question: "To what extent do you believe that tackling climate change and ensuring the security of energy supplies are critical challenges for the UK that require significant action in the near term and a sustained strategy between now and 2050?"

Obviously, this takes longer.

The Duke of Wellington used to get 50 letters a day in his prime. He would reply to every single one that same day. And, with the postal service as it was, his correspondent probably received the reply within 12 hours of mailing his own letter. Despatch. That's what he admired. But that was when we did things. When risk-aversion was not quite so entrenched in our national psyche.

Britannia's had her 50 penn'orth

"Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!" That's not an indicative, you know (the wording isn't "rules the waves").

No, it's an imperative ("rule those waves, OK?"). Direct from the mouth of the country's guardian angels, and you have to do what they tell you to do.

It was just after Heaven commanded Britain (fully formed, it seems) to rise from the azure main. It must have been 500 million years ago.

And now they want to remove her and her trident from the 50 pence piece.

I suppose we can see why. The main isn't as azure as it was, we have lost global confidence and the Royal Navy is big enough to rule my bathwater. But better Britannia than Vicky Pollard, surely?

* We didn't do as well as last year in the Ultimate News Quiz. I should say, the so-called Ultimate News Quiz. "What's the name of the Glaswegian woman who won the Lottery?" they asked.

That's not news! Flailing around in bitterness, I think we can blame the questions. My adviser on these matters says there are guidelines for setting good questions. Cryptic questions containing a clue are popular. And images that everyone can visualise: Name the order of Beatles, left to right, on the Abbey Road cover.

But the best questions are those to which you actually want to know the answer. Why do American women drink more beer than English women? How much of India is in the southern hemisphere? When was the first code of laws published in England? How many women has Jack Nicholson slept with? You simply don't want to know the name of the woman who won the Lottery. You might want her phone number but that's something else again.

s.carr@independent.co.uk

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