It’s time for a small trouble department


Nothing captures the minds of our politicians more than a crisis. Or that’s how it appears…

Despite the continuing dysfunction in government, those wild Proseccoters partying in Whitehall achieved at least one thing last week when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a “bonfire of small talk”. No. It was not a barbie donut of spam on the Downing Street patio, but a proposal to reduce the number of unnecessary public service announcements made on the transport network.

Oh, the sweet relief! No more reminders to “See. Say it. Sort it” at every stop. In the future, we will also be trusted to take care of our luggage without constant reminders to take our things with us. Call it a distraction, if you must, or mere populism (because it is). At one time, this is the kind of politics that would have been described as indicative of the “Nanny State”. Frame it differently, though. , and you have an example of how government can restore a sense of personal freedom, as well as a sweet reminder that governments can, on occasion, improve lives.

The harshest criticism that can be leveled at the regime is that there is only one; as if irritating ads were the end of public frustrations. Life is riddled with nuisances that are often too small to register in busy ministry inboxes, but annoying enough to register in all of our busy lives. Perhaps we are entering a new era of governments determined to make life more tolerable. We need a new ministry called “The Minor Annoyances Department” with the power to get rid of these petty irritants.

They could start by banning drugs that can’t be opened without scissors and banning that vampiric form of heat-sealed plastic packaging that refuses to open without biting into a vein. They could also ensure that only government departments use brown manila envelopes, so that no other business can disguise their marketing as important HMRC letters. Maybe then we might also see action on those scam phone calls threatening to bankrupt us buying groceries through our Amazon Prime accounts or insisting our grandmothers were hacked by Russians.

Forget your big state offices, it’s the Department of Petty Annoyances that would punch well above its weight (added to Michael Gove put back, obviously), resolving the kind of familiar irritations that are disproportionately bothersome.

How about a requirement that any company that sells services online should provide an equally easy way to cancel that service? You know… something new like a “cancel my subscription” button? There’s no reason in this technologically adept age that companies force us to call busy switchboards just so they can hard sell us. Just give us an unsubscribe button, holy shit! (Yes, I’m talking about you Sky, Virgin and just about every mobile operator I can name.)

How about a requirement that serial numbers be displayed prominently on products and, if possible, in a font that does not require scanning electron microscopy? And can’t someone stop the “paperless prescriptions” that show up on a dozen sheets of paper that are mostly left blank? And why is it cheaper for Swiss Post to deliver take-out menus than to send a letter?

Let’s also have a standard recycling program across the country with fit-for-purpose containers, so no more cramming big screen TV packaging into small plastic crates or having plastic bottles knocked out of tall bags, narrow and light. And while we’re at it: give us easy-to-access information so it doesn’t require nine-factor verification to verify when it’s your next trash day.

This is just the beginning…

Government websites shouldn’t call you with a security code that they read faster than your brain can process numbers. Also imagine no longer having flat fares on our buses that make one-stop trips prohibitively expensive, as the fare is the same as traveling across the county. Let’s put an end to household security lamps that can burn through a curtain at 1000 meters and cans that always arrive without a ring. And stop damaging book covers with stickers!

We also need a culture of opt-in rather than opt-out. If you shove a catalog through my mailbox, I wouldn’t have to keep it safe until you came to pick it up next week. It goes in the trash.

Too trivial for the government, you might say, but not too trivial for the Department of Minor Nuisances; the smallest department in Whitehall but, in terms of quality of life, the only one that matters.


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