Problem analysis

In our pursuit of the latest in scientifically proven comparisons ‘tween Poland and the UK, we commissioned a wide-ranging study of “Problems and their resolution”.

The results of the data, gathered over many years, can be seen in the chart below (click to enlarge):

The study looked at thousands of problems faced by people in both their everyday and working lives. It concentrated on those problems with a total life-span of 30 days. In the table, the bottom axis is time (in days) and the side axis is the magnitude of the problem as measured by the stress level of the person experiencing the problem. For comparison, the upper stress level of 60 is the equivalent of a small heart attack.

As you can see, the trend in Poland is for there to initially be a denial that any problem exists. By the time the problem is recognized, it is already quite a big one. It should be noted that the size of the problem at this stage is often exaggerated by the attitude of those who highlighted the problem in the first place. This is especially true where any government body or other large institution is involved. There then follows a short period of running around like a headless chicken wondering what to do, which is immediately followed by a period of relief that is usually triggered by the discovery that a piece of paper was stamped appropriately at the time.

This period of relief though, is very short lived. The false hope of having one piece of paper stamped is nearly always followed by the realisation that another five papers were not stamped, that the appropriate notice was not served on the due date and that Święty Mikołaj does not exist after all! To make matters worse, the possible consequences of these omissions have escalated beyond all reasonable expectations to the point that you, your family and anyone who ever knew you are now facing a 5-10 stretch in pokey (jail), deportation and financial ruin. Your stress level peaks and stays there for a while as you desperately seek a resolution by talking to everyone you know and seeing how they can help, or who they know.

Fortunately for the Pole with a problem, a solution is always found. The resolution is usually very swift, comprehensive and quite often from an unexpected source. The solution may, or most likely does not, address the root of the problem but does provide sufficient comfort that the problem can safely be ignored. For example; if to do something properly (legally, correctly) means that a person needs to complete A, B, C, D, E and F, in sequence before they can be issued with G and the person in question only has A and C. The resolution may well be the finding of a person who is happy to issue G without the need to inspect A-F. With this, the Pole with a problem can enjoy a peaceful, but slightly poorer, last 10 days of the month.

As the chart shows, the situation in the UK is somewhat different. Problems are easily identified because everyone knows the rules and the systems the country has for identifying sheep that have strayed from the fold are many, sophisticated, joined-up and don’t break down too often. Once a problem is identified then, it is very easy to understand what the problem is, exactly, what the consequences are, exactly, and what, exactly, needs to be done to fix it. The tricky part about problems in the UK is that there are no people who are able to provide G without having seen A-F because the issue of A-F are entered into a computer system and even if you try to press the “print G” button you’ll just get an error message “Cannot print G – don’t have A-F. This error message has been copied to your supervisor and CCTV monitoring of your desk and bugging of your phone have been activated!”.

So, the UK curve is rather flat because the problem is very easily identified and scoped, the stress levels tend to remain within reasonable limits but because the problem is harder to resolve, the stress lasts all the way to the end of the 30 day period.

In Poland by contrast, none of the buttons are connected. In fact, only A, C and F actually have buttons at all, the others are done by hand with a Xerox copy being sent to an address in Warszawa that has been unused since the pipes burst some years ago now. So, pressing “print G” in Poland is impossible, because G does not have a button. What would happen is that G is written out by hand and then rubber-stamped a few times. Although the situation as regards A-F is impossible for the G-issuer to check, it is made easier by insisting that the person who wants G, brings with them their own evidence of having obtained A-F some time previously. Either that or a nice box of chocolates.

Interestingly, there have been many cases of people paying taxes for having a ‘G’ even though a ‘G’ permit had never been issued to them. This is because the tax payment buttons and the G-permit buttons are also not connected. Naturally, that fact that you have been paying taxes for a G does not count in your defence when charged with not having a G-permit:

“You appear to have a G but are unable to show me a G permit! Please pay a fine of 25,000 PLN!”

“But you must have known I have a G because I’ve been paying taxes for one for the last 8 years!”

“In that case, the fine is 25,000 for the missing G-permit and another 15,000 for incorrect payment of taxes!”

The UK equivalent would be

“Good morning! Terrible rain this, eh? I’d like to pay the tax due on my brand new G please.”

“Good morning to you, kind Sir! Can you please give me the details of your new G.”

“Certainly! Blah blah G details.”

“I’m sorry sir but there appears to be a problem. Your brand new G does not appear on my system, it is therefore impossible for you to pay any taxes for it but I would recommend that you get a G-permit quickly. Now pop down the hall and talk to Marlene, she’ll sort you out in a jiff!”

“Righty-Ho! Thank you so much for your help. Cheerio now!”

Dr. Dr. von Strummelhoffer of Cologne University has suggested the following reasons for the differences between these curves;

1/ Hundreds of years of relatively stable democratically elected government has led to peaceful and prosperous times in the UK. All the important things in life (football, pubs, The Chelsea Flower Show and Crufts) continue undisturbed and this has led the public to trust their government and therefore to accept and abide by every rule the government lays down. A combination of prosperity and government will to control the masses has led to highly sophisticated systems being installed to monitor compliance.
2/ None of # 1/ applies to Poland.
3/ “Jobsworth syndrome”, as epitomized by the statement “I can’t do that, it’s more than my job is worth” (meaning, it is unreasonable to risk my job for such a proposal) does not apply in Poland as in most cases, it is simply not true. Most Polish jobs are worth hardly anything, it is therefore entirely possible that it is worth taking a risk for a good proposal. However, in a twisted sort of way, some jobs that are worth nothing on paper, may be extremely valuable “in a plain brown envelope” and may therefore not be worth risking for anything other than the best proposals.
4/ In the UK, the same jobs are worth more and therefore the temptation to take risks is considerably reduced. Added to the fact the UK citizens are rule-followers anyway, this makes the appearance of “plain brown envelopes” very rare and much frowned upon.

Dr. Dr. von Strummelhoffer has also predicted that the Polish curve is very slowly morphing into the UK curve as the country evolves, as salaries increase and as the measures to eradicate fraud from anything other than the most surprising levels of government take effect.

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18 thoughts on “Problem analysis

  1. michael farris says:

    You missed the pattern that I’m more used to, in which everybody goes along calm and cool (by local standards, let’s say about 10 on your scale) until day 26 When All Hell Breaks Loose followed by three days of panic and chaos (well above your 60 level, try 90 – 110) followed by relief that it can be put off until sometime in the next 30 day cycle or abrupt notfication that it’s no longer a problem at which point everyone forgets it.

    A few other differences:

    In the UK there’s an idea that rules should be fair.

    In Poland, it’s taken for granted that of course rules aren’t fair. Being fair (or not) is the prerogative of the person enforcing the rules.

    In the UK there’s only one road for bureaucratic problem solving (kind of like the Warsaw metro).

    In Poland there are many roads, but most are left off the map so the person with a problem needs to have a good sense of direction and a willingness to improvise and try out unpromising looking sideroads.

    In the UK problems tend toward either the trivial (trash can not completely closed? that’s a fine) or the catastrophic (out-of-control asocial teens with knives stabbing anything that moves).
    Poland tends to concentrate in the middle and can’t comprehend how the British can obsesse about ordering and classifying refuse while raising a generation of alcoholic feral youth that are a danger to themselves and others.

  2. darthsida says:

    Scatts,
    so who would survive on an uninhabited island?

    There is an urban(-rural-all Polish) legend that Poles can do where no man has done before. That they are born with a knack for improvising. [A feature shared with the Greeks, I gather, who seem to wait manana-style and manage just fine two minutes to deadline.] However, phrases such as this or that show hardly any results but Polish.

    PS You mentioned 4 important things in life — I have realized I know only 1 of them and like none. I think I’ll have a heart attack.

  3. scatts says:

    Michael – agreed.

    Darth – you know Crufts? I’m amazed!

    Having now got used to it, I actually quite like the Polish way. It’s a shame that it is slowly dying out. An ideal system would be one that is strict where it really needs to be strict and allows a certain flexibility for common sense to prevail in all other cases. That’ll never happen though.

  4. Baduin says:

    In my experience, the most likely situation would be:

    According to the relevant laws you need A, B, C, D, E and F, in sequence to get G. Nobody knows what A is, and the office responsible for C have not heard about it.

    According to experienced bureaucrats, in practice G should be issued on basis of B,D,E and F, and your written statement that you have A and C.

    Unfortunately, the bureaucrat you met is not reasonable, have not read, or did not understood the law and requires only Z, or simply says that you need to have G to get G. If he is a judge he may refuse to do anything at all, explaining that in his opinion it should be done by someone else. This is the traditional Polish school of: “No, we don’t have your coat, sir. What are you going to do about it?”

    In that case, if you are newspaper-worthy you should intervene at the Ministry level and/or threaten articles in newspapers. If you have money/influence, you can bring that to bear.

    If neither applies, you probably will lose. It is usually best to try to find someone who knows what is going on. If you are persuaded that you are in the right you can try speaking with the director or someone else in charge.

  5. ge'ez says:

    There are different rules and means of problem solving respective to men and women in any given society.

    There are different rules and means of problem solving respective to the appearance and financial influence of men and women in any given society.

    There are different rules and means of problem solving respective to various ethnic and religious groups in any given society.

    I don’t think there’s so much a Polish way, or an American way, or an English way etc.

  6. michael farris says:

    “I don’t think there’s so much a Polish way, or an American way, or an English way etc.”

    Oh, I’d say there is. I had to completely rethink my basic approach to bureaucracy and work organization before I could get along here.
    IME Americans (and Brits) who don’t rethink and learn the local ways just sort of pass from one disappointment or frustration to the next till they can’t take it anymore and leave. Those that do learn can get _very_ comfortable here.

  7. scatts says:

    ge’ez – the first three paragraphs might be true, but the last one certainly isn’t. What Michael said is absolutely right, if you don’t make significant adjustments to your approach and expectations you will end up leaving the country, frustrated, bitter and twisted.

  8. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    Oh, there is an American way all right. How I wish our contractors stopped saying “good job! good job!” all the time. The project is in very early stage, there are obvious flaws and outright errors in the design, but those guys keep saying “good job” even though it’s clearly untrue. I need reliable feedback, not a pat on my shoulder!

    Surviving in Poland, lesson #1: forget the word “awesome”. ;-)

  9. ge'ez says:

    You gotta problem with a bureacracy, if’n you’r tight with somebody with some juice, it gets fixed. If’n you don’t got any connections, and aren’t in any position to make any, you’re screwed. Universal.

    Living in the US, I expect every bureaucratic encounter I have to be frustrating (at the very least).

  10. Sylwia says:

    “2/ None of # 1/ applies to Poland.”

    That’s not exactly correct. I’ve heard that our parliament is older than the English one, and it used to be much more peaceful here in the past. We used to be in a better economical situation too.

    The difference is rather in our attitude. Brits tend to treat democracy as a set of rules that should be embraced for everyone’s good, while Poles see rules as an anonymous devil that should be cheated out of his ways. We like only those rules we make ourselves, and we hate those we don’t understand or don’t approve of, so we tend to turn democracy into anarchy (or perhaps any system, not just democracy). It’s our entire views on ethics that differs. A rule that is seen as a good and just one will be observed no matter if its required by law or not, all the others can be enforced, but still will be broken if people don’t see anything good in them.

    I think the difference is best seen on the example of bureaucracy when looking from the British or American point of view, but when looking from the Polish one it seems that many times we did the right thing because we disobeyed rules. It may be our worst national trait, but at the same time one that we’re most proud of. Rules might not motivate us to behave well, but they also don’t justify our misdeeds. In our view what is lawful doesn’t equal what is good.

    “…everybody goes along calm and cool (by local standards, let’s say about 10 on your scale) until day 26 When All Hell Breaks Loose followed by three days of panic and chaos (well above your 60 level, try 90 – 110) followed by relief that it can be put off until sometime in the next 30 day cycle or abrupt notfication that it’s no longer a problem at which point everyone forgets it.”

    That’s me!

  11. island1 says:

    Sylwia: The problem, as I see it, is this: the Polish approach to rules and laws developed in a situation in which Poles themselves didn’t make the rules and the laws. Now they are making the rules and the laws it needs to change or you’re never going to have a country worth speaking of. Poles have gone from the slightly enviable position of being perpetual rebels to the slightly unenviable position of having to be responsible and grown up law makers.

    You say:

    “We like only those rules we make ourselves, and we hate those we don’t understand or don’t approve of”

    to which I say:

    Yes everybody feels like this, it’s not unique to the Poles. The problem is that you are making these rules. You’ve all got the vote, it’s your government, nobody is going to march in with tanks if they don’t like what you’re saying or doing, it’s completely your responsibility now.

    And this is the most disastrous view of all:

    “A rule that is seen as a good and just one will be observed no matter if its required by law or not, all the others can be enforced, but still will be broken if people don’t see anything good in them.”

    All this means is that the people of Poland do not feel that they own Poland. This is tragic. Somehow you are allowing politicians to fool you into the belief that they are above you rather than your servants. Laws are enacted by your parliament, which is elected by the Polish people. If you don’t like something, change it!! Don’t just sit there are say “we don’t like these rules so we’re not going to obey them” Change the rules and take control.

  12. scatts says:

    All this means is that the people of Poland do not feel that they own Poland. This is tragic. Somehow you are allowing politicians to fool you into the belief that they are above you rather than your servants. Laws are enacted by your parliament, which is elected by the Polish people. If you don’t like something, change it!! Don’t just sit there are say “we don’t like these rules so we’re not going to obey them” Change the rules and take control.

    Yes – what are you, RUSSIANS?

  13. DC says:

    Island – very interesting analysis. Do you (or anyone else) think this is a static condition?

    It reminded me of Pawel’s post a while back: “Gay Poles, like other Poles are not eager to associate, to use democratic process or to realise their interests in an organised and professional manner. But this is a universal Polish problem.”

    Scatts – very entertaining post. I’m surprised your last comment is unchallenged.

  14. scatts says:

    DC – because everyone knows it is true? :)

  15. darthsida says:

    Island,

    I don’t know how it works with Britons – whether London minorities, the English, the Welsh, Scots, the Irish (incl. IRA, PIRA, CIRA, RIRA or James Joyce) or all others have felt equally they “have a country” or that they have “parliament” that’s ‘theirs’ indeed. I guess you should debunk the myth the thinking “my home is my castle” is English in spirit, if they do.

    Anyhow, the statement: “You’ve all got the vote, it’s your government” can hold water in either of the two structures:

    a) animalistic:
    Election campaigns are males’ fight for domination, the strongest alpha wins dominance over its pack and the ex-contesters acknoweldge their new leader willingly.

    b) Russian [Scatts, you readin’?]:
    There is one party to choose. Then there is one govt to have.

    In Poland “you’ve all got the vote, it’s not your government” is perfectly possible, even more so when you think Warsaw / local authorities. Then, even “your” govt can propose laws that are not “yours” (as plainly stupid or at least contrary to the platform / planks of the campaign.) Finally, the ability to enact a statute is insignificant next to the power of the (Complexity of) Life.

  16. island1 says:

    Darth: I’m not convinced.

    A) No, this is not how democratic elections work at all. There is always a top dog winner, yes, but opinions and public tides of disapproval or approval for particular policies are always influential. A party may propose a particular platform of policies, but these are rarely the ones that are actually enacted once they get in to power — the policies that became prominent during the campaign are.

    B) This is madness. It is your government and it’s perfectly possible to stop your government from doing things that you don’t like, just stand up and say so.

    Okay, I know it’s immensely more complicated than that but I do get frustrated by this attitude that ‘nothing can be done.’ It’s seems like a complete abandonment of everything the Poles have been fighting for since 1939 (or whenever). isn’t it?

  17. darthsida says:

    Island: I didn’t mean to convince you, I was aiming at a description.

    You are aware of the fact that no Polish party (and usually not bold enough to have the “party” noun in their name) after 1989 has been able to retake power for another round of reign? Tell me why.
    Changing labels, making empty promises — it is so far from British 2-party system [+Blairism], single-member constituencies, media rivalry etc.

    “Public tides of disapproval”? What about the example of a public tide of disapproval — the one for absence of capital punishment in Poland? — “Opinions”? You mean, like, the media? Gimme a break.

    I don’t know what the Poles were fighting for in 1939. Anyway, they failed. I know Solidarność was fighting for Socialism, not for Capitalism. And now politicians are fighting for their clannish well-being, period, no exceptions. Why care to vote at all? Gaming the system, the only choice it is, I gather.

    PS Have you encountered any UPR fans or any socialists? They never saw ‘their’ respective govts in action — there were none.

  18. darthsida says:

    PS: Just read (in Polish only, sorry):

    1
    36% Poles say they have a party close to their heart / reason / whatever. 14% have political sympathies – that are not represented by any existing party. 50% Poles don’t feel political empathy for any political party, not in the slightest.

    2
    29% claim the govt is successful in keeping their word (of the campaign). 16% can’t tell. 55% Poles got disappointed: PO govt has been failing.

    3
    Alternatives, then? Were the elections now, there would be just 3 parties (55% PO, 24% PiS, SLD 8%, others don’t make it past election threshold.)

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