[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Not My Problem.

There is a time-honoured tradition here in Vanuatu, requiring that nobody get too fussed over anything. It requires as well that one think twice about the inevitable repercussions before taking ownership of anything. Whether it’s for an item or an idea, a report or a plan, taking responsibility is nearly always a liability.

There are good reasons for all this, to be sure. The only way for a group to survive in a small village – on an island, to boot – is to get along. Learning to keep one’s head down, even when silence comes at a price, ensures harmony. Being quick to forgive weakness and slow to confront ineptitude has become one of the hallmarks of Vanuatu society.

But this is the single biggest impediment facing IT service delivery in Vanuatu today.

I’m a firm believer in community, especially as it’s practiced here in Vanuatu. I respect and admire people’s ability to work cooperatively. On the roughly sixty occasions I’ve stepped into the IT pulpit here in the Independent, I’ve always tried to avoid behaving in a way that would cause any individual or organisation to lose face.

Today I’m going to make an exception.

I do so for two reasons. Firstly, I’m simply tired. After five years of work at the grassroots level, I’m starting to become impatient with the institutional weaknesses I see. We can’t go further until we start to address them.

My second reason is somewhat more optimistic in nature: I feel that the IT community has become quite strong; it’s matured enough by now that we can constructively engage on this issue. So here goes….

The standard to which all ICT-based businesses operate is far too low. At the core of it is the feeling – often subconscious, always unspoken – that we somehow can’t or even shouldn’t expect things here to be as solid, as efficient or as robust as elsewhere in the world. While a degree of realism is always called for, it seems to me that this point of view is being used more to excuse our weaknesses than to explain our environment.

We can’t change our environment, but we sure as heck can work on our weaknesses, and it’s high time we did.

I find it nearly incomprehensible that a telephone company can’t organise itself to answer the phone. It would be ironic if it wasn’t so painful, but I can’t count the number of times in the last three months alone that I and others have rung through to TVL, only to be told, ‘Sorry, there’s nobody in the office right now.’

I’m the last one to put myself on a pedestal (as you’ll see shortly) but for heaven’s sake, when I helped to set up the first commercial ISP in the Eastern Arctic, our team of four part-time geeks always answered the phone, no matter the time or the day of the week. And we always called back. Every time.

With consumer-grade equipment and a piddling budget, in an environment that makes Vanuatu look like (heh) Paradise, we kept our little operation running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I’m not asking for (or expecting) perfection, but how hard can it really be to answer the darn phone, to forward it to a mobile if the person is not at their desk? This is the telephone company, for crying out loud.

And lest Digicel start giggling in delight at seeing their competition pilloried in print, let me add that they hardly blameless in this regard. In the past weeks there have been dozens of complaints on the VIGNET mailing list about their inability to answer the phone, to follow up with their customers.

Digicel’s customer service system is fully computerised, and there’s a huge LED display on the wall showing call queue sizes and wait times. And in spite of all that, they still manage to leave their customers fuming, their problems unresolved.

VITUS has tried on a number of occasions to engage with Digicel, to start a constructive dialogue. In spite of a few positive signs at the start, this has never really happened. Tanya Menzies, the new General Manager, is from Jamaica, and we earnestly hope that her life experience there, along with prior experience of life in the Pacific, will have shown her the importance of engaging with the community.

We remain hopeful but impatient in this regard.

And a mea culpa: The private sector is no better. I’ve been ashamed on more than one occasion to have to apologise to a customer for not resolving simple issues sooner. I’ve had to deal with innumerable cases where equipment doesn’t arrive on time, where instructions from the client are ignored or selectively remembered.

I watch customers perform a sort of dance of despair as they move from one service provider to the next, hoping each time that they’ll finally get predictable, quality service. It gives me little satisfaction to see them come back to me chastened but still hopeful that somehow things have changed for the better in their absence.

I have spent the last two years working side by side with one of the few truly successful ni-Vanuatu entrepreneurs in this country. Joseph Tamata built CNS Ltd. quite literally from nothing. He’s dealt with skeptical banks and suppliers, customers who couldn’t believe that a ni-Vanuatu business could provide the services they wanted. He’s proven them all wrong.

Every day, I see the effort he exerts to try to improve his business. He invests in his staff, he fosters the best and brightest young IT talent in the country, and asks for only professionalism in return. To their credit, the majority of his staff do their best every day to live up to his expectations. But the number of times I’ve seen him disappointed in this regard is shocking.

Just as I stated at the outset, the problem is clear: Taking responsibility for a client, for a task – and especially for a crisis – seems to be beyond the capacity of the majority of people here. Petty jealousy, gossip and a propensity to blame the messenger make it dangerous to accept responsibility for anything.

In fairness, in many cases the customer is equally to blame. It’s far easier to blame the person fixing the machine for the problem than it is to accept that the source of the problem may be sitting in front of the computer.

Your computer needs regular service, just like a car. If you only call a technician when there’s a crisis, then any inefficiencies the technician introduces into the situation only compound the issue. But that doesn’t mean the technician caused the crisis.

All of us, ni-Vanuatu and expat alike, fall into this trap. I want to despair sometimes of the ease with which people slide into a cycle of externalising their problems, sitting back and waiting for someone else to come and fix them.

There are no easy answers to this problem, but I refuse to believe it’s as intransigent as some would have it. The problem is simple, but not easy. And so is the answer.

A wise man once said that, when you’re faced with a problem, consider all the courses of action, weighing the difficulty of each one. Chances are, the right choice is the one that feels the hardest.

Answer the phone. Own your work. Stop passing the buck. The problem won’t go away on its own. But if you apply a little elbow grease, you’ll find that maybe, just maybe, the problem won’t come back.

Most importantly, you’ll find that you have an ally on the other end of the line.