When were you last put on a waiting list?

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readJan 3, 2022

Were you pleased? Did you think you were actually getting something, or just because you got to avoid rejection?

When we analysed demand, in customers’ own words, across a London borough, we found some really striking things

One of them was that, when we did a simple ‘word cloud’ of the most common requests from customers, one phrase kept coming up, time and time again:

>> ‘waiting list’

The reason can be understood like this.

In many services, there just wasn’t the capacity to actually meet customer demands.

Children’s centres and social housing were the prime examples.

But if a member of staff has to tell a member of the public ‘sorry, we can’t help you’, that’s uncomfortable for both of them.

Saying ‘we can’t help you, but we can put you on the waiting list’ offers a ritualistic token of success to both of them.

Neither the customer nor the organisational needs are met, but the social anxiety of both individuals is partially dealt with.

The *problem* is that not only does this not meet any needs (in some cases, children were coming to the top of the waiting list only when they were already three years too old to attend) — it generates all kinds of secondary work.

Once on the waiting list, typically a letter is sent out, or sometimes two letters, with user name and password.

A significant volume of work is just spent sorting this out, and dealing with password resets.

Then there’s chasing for the position on the list.

Then, there’s people coming to the top of the list who are no longer eligible.

And while the children’s centre list was pure pointless theatre (apart from lulling some poor parents into a false sense of security that stopped them from looking for options elsewhere), the ‘housing options’ system is far worse:

an entire industry of application, partial verification, bidding, shortlisting…

often only to find that the person who is in first placed and ‘accepts’ the tenancy is no longer entitled — or never was in the first place.

A waiting list is a huge sign of an opportunity for #innovation — to rethink, reframe, and #transform a service, and an example of ‘pantomime’, one of the undercurrents of organisational life.

Where are the waiting lists in your organisation?

#publicservices #servicetransformation