In fact quite a few letters were written, and all were ignored.
Having been in the belly of the beast, I will now explain how and why that can happen.
Let's say you are the RTA, and each year you run a number of unpopular road projects. There is one going on in my backyard at this very moment - the duplication of the Iron Cove Bridge.
The RTA has to invite public comment on projects like this, just so that it can say "we have consulted with the community" - even if the community gives it two thumbs down.
I am one of thousands of locals that have fired off a letter or email to either the RTA or our local MP or the Minister for Transport to say that this is a very stupid bridge. It is our own version of the much maligned bridge to nowhere that was scrapped in Alaska. Ok, it is a bridge to somewhere, but it's a waste of space. The money could be better spent digging a tunnel under Lyons Rd.
But I digress. We are supposed to be discussing dead babies and letter writing.
So just imagine you are the Grand Poo-bah of the RTA, and suddenly your mailbag is bulging with thousands of letters from irate taxpayers, all wanting your head on a pike for blowing taxpayer funds on an insane project.
What do you do?
Do you scrap the project and spend the money more sensibly elsewhere?
You redouble your efforts to get the stupid thing built, and you create a wall of flak catchers to deflect public opinion for long enough so that you can get the pilings sunk. Once you get to that point, the bridge is inevitable and people will shutup and go home and sulk quietly.
The flak catchers are a group of employees who have the unenviable job of dealing with the angry public. This is not a bad job in Australia, as we don't have a large and excitable element in the population. The mob is unlikely to get worked up enough to storm the Bastille and shoot every flak catcher in sight. Instead, the job largely consists of sitting in a nice, climate controlled office and churning out pat responses to angry letters. No, scrap that. I consists entirely of sitting in a chair churning out pat responses.
A major project like the Iron Cove Bridge might result in 10,000 letters arriving at the RTA. Some will be well written and well reasoned. They will be logical, spell-checked and gramatically correct. They will have been printed on a laser printer and signed by a person who is clearly sane.
Others will originate from the other end of the spectrum, being scrawled in pencil on a torn-out bit of paper from UFO Monthly. Those letters will make less sense, seeing as they usually involve a conspiracy between the RTA, CIA and a colony of giant alien space lizards who live under the existing Iron Cove Bridge, and want the bridge widened so that they will have more living space.
Some letters will be angry, bile spewing rants that contain a lot of swear words. Others will include the words "please" and "thank you".
Regardless of how badly or well written the letter, whether it is a noxious rant or a polite missive; the RTA flak catchers will have carefully crafted a form letter that will be used to respond to the lot of them. That form letter might take a team of 5 or 6 flak catchers a week to perfect. It might go through 20 or more drafts before it is finally approved for use. It might leave the Department of Flak Catching and circulate through the CEO's office for a look before it can be used. In some cases, it might even be sent up to the Ministry of Transport, and even through the Chinese Wall into the Minister's office for suggestions or corrections.
But once it has been approved, it will be cranked off the printing press in the thousands. The job of flak catcher at that point will be to turn up for work, unload the cart bulging with angry mail and start sorting the letters into this topic and that topic. Those that go into the enormous Iron Cove Bridge Idiots pile will have the name and address of the sender extracted and put into a mail merge list, and that list will then be merged with the template to generate a great whack of responses. It doesn't matter what is actually in those letters - if the sender has mentioned the words "Iron cove bridge", they get the form letter. It doesn't matter what position they take - they get the form letter.
Depending on how the letter came in, a variety of people might sign the response. If I happened to write to my local MP, and she managed to figure out what I wanted (for she is exceptionally thick) and then sent it on to the correct Minister for comment, then the response might be signed by the Minister for Transport or the CEO of the RTA. If I just wrote straight to the RTA, some flunky a few levels down, probably the Manager of Flak Catching, will sign the letter and send it straight back. Regardless of the path my letter took to get there, I will get largely the same letter back, just on different letterhead with a different signature.
For those of you interested in bureacratic process, this is what would happen if I wrote to my MP:
- I write to my MP
- MP's office writes a covering letter addressed to the Minister for Transport, creates a file, attaches a copy of my letter and sends it off. MP probably never sees my letter.
- Minister for Transport's office gets letter, creates a file, sends it to the Department of Transport to draft a response
- Flunky in Department of Transport gets the file, decides RTA will deal with it, sends letter to RTA
- RTA flak catcher creates a file, writes a response and has it approved by Manager for Flak Catcthing
- Flak catcher sends it to the Department of Transport flunky
- DoT flunky doesn't like the use of the word "is", and sends file back to flak catcher
- File bounces back and forth a few times until all are satisfied
- Flunky forwards file to the office of the Minister for Transport
- Policy Advisor in Minister's office reviews response, objects to the use of the word "or" and sends it back to flunky in the Department
- Flunky sends file back to RTA
- This happens a few more times
- Letter finally ends up in front of the Minister for his or her signature, which generally involves using a signing machine
- Signed letter is sent back to flunky in DoT
- Flunky sends signed letter to flak catcher
- Flack catcher posts letter to MP
- MP's office gets the letter from the Minister, writes a fresh covering letter, signs it on behalf of the MP, attaches the signed letter from the Minister and mails it back to me.
- I get a form letter from the Minister, and a form covering letter from my MP - neither of which have actually read what I had to say in the first place, and neither letter addresses the concerns that I originally wrote about
One might surmise that all this transferring back and forth of files and letters is done electronically via email or a shared records management system, but I would not bet on that. It all used to be done on paper, with files being transported between buildings once or twice a day by an inter-departmental courier. On top of that, thanks to constant reorganisations, the RTA, the DoT and the Minister's office are probably using three different and incompatible records management systems, and possibly different email systems. It would not surprise me to find that everything still moves around by hand.
I have of course left out a vital step in all this paper shuffling.
Let's say that there is a cabinet reshuffle, and the Minister for Transport is now someone else. All those letters that are in transit with the name of the old Minister on them now need to be returned to the flak catchers so they can reprint them with the name of the new Minister and send them back for signature.
Sod's Law then kicks in. The new Minister has been shining their new seat for a few days when all this correspondence lands in their tray for signature.
The first thing they do is take a dislike to the particular shade of paper that has been used, so the style guide is rewritten to demand a different shade of off-white be used, so all the letters go back via the usual convoluted route to be reprinted on fresh paper, and then they come back again.
At that point, a Policy Advisor to the new Minister takes a dislike to the Helvetica font, so the guide is rewritten and around we go again.
The Premier's office then discovers that the RTA has $100,000 worth of the old paper in stock, which is now useless, so it decrees that the Minister has to use up all the old paper before switching to new.
The letters go back once again to be reprinted.
It has taken a long time to get to this point, but imagine that is your working life - dealing with tens of thousands of form letters per year, and then having to reprint the same letters a dozen times due to idiotic formatting demands from the Minister..... and then you get a letter out of the blue to say that a particular council somewhere is not following a particular process.
What do you do with it?
Your whole life is spent not in solving problems or trying to adjust government policy to public opinion, but in trying to state that such problems do not exist and trying to adjust public opinion to government policy.
You immediately set about drafting a letter that says something like, "your correspondence will be taken into consideration by the relevant authorities during the next review period", and then file it and forget it.
It does not matter if you write directly to the Minister responsible. He or she never sees your letter in many cases. Their staff send the letter to the Department for advice, who then send it to the authority for advice - the same authority that made the stuff up in the first place. The Minister does not want to rampage through the authority sticking heads on a pike - they want an excuse that will shut the correspondent up and encourage them to never write another letter.
Imagine this. You find a problem, so you write to the authority responsible. They send you back some useless pap that says nothing and promises zero. That response is written by Flak Catcher Jones.
Annoyed, you write to the Department that supervises that authority. The Department sends that letter to the authority, where it ends up in the tray of Flak Catcher Jones. Jones writes a second bundle of pap that says nothing, puts it on Department letterhead and the CEO of the Department sends you much the same response.
Even more annoyed, you write to the Minister that oversees the Department thta supervises the authority. The Minister's office send your letter to the Department, who sends it down to Flak Catcher Jones in the authority.
You can write to your MP, the Premier or even the Prime Minister - it makes no difference. Your letter still ends up with Flak Catcher Jones in the bowels of the authority, and their job is not to investigate or make good or recommend action. Their job is to deflect criticism.
This happens every day.
It's only when a baby is fouly murdered that people get a glimpse of the uselessness and futility of the process. The process is not designed to make things better, to improve government operations. The process is designed to ensure that any bad news that could hurt the government or the authority is sanitised, cleansed, bleached and filed.
This is one reason why I hate big government. It is not there to help you. Help your own damned self. Get your friends or family to help you. Relying on government to help will only result in disappointment and occasionally death.