Faxing by the Book

Old Fax MacineOwl Wood’s comment on yesterday’s post reminded me of that once great piece of cutting edge technology, the fax machine, and how it once met its bureaucratic match.

It was in 1994 when I changed jobs and was briefly based in the offices of what was the Family Health Services Authority in Manchester.

The whys and wherefores of how the NHS was managed back then aren’t entirely relevant to the story except to say that the FHSAs were the bodies responsible for family doctors, dentists, pharmacists (or chemists as I prefer to call them) and opticians.

They were essentially pay and victuals organisations governed by a set of regulations contained within the Red Book. Anything within its covers could be achieved, as long as it was accompanied by the correct paperwork. Anything without did not exist.

Nothing epitomised the ethos of the FHSA more than the use of the fax machine. There was only one and it sat in the general office guarded by a cohort of clerical staff.

Beside the fax there was a book that had been carefully ruled into columns in biro. In this you had to enter the date, your name, the department you were from, who you were sending the fax to, their fax number and the time it took to transmit it.

I duly filled in the details a few times and then one day asked them why. ‘Why what?’ was the puzzled reply.

‘Why do we enter all this information in the book?’ The only explanation was that this is what they had always done since getting the machine installed.

‘But what do you do with the information?’ I went on, thinking that there must be someone, somewhere who analysed the usage.

‘Nothing really. When the book is full up, we put it in a drawer with the others and start a new one.’

So the fax book had been filled in for years to absolutely no purpose whatsoever and it had never occurred to anyone to question the practice. And these were otherwise pleasant, intelligent people in thrall to the dead hand of bureaucracy.

The book disappeared soon afterwards, as did much of the pointless bureaucratic thinking that once dogged the NHS.

The serious point is that the FHSAs, and the Family Practitioner Committees before them, were run by GPs for GPs and were dogmatically bureaucratic. These are the same GPs that the present government want to ‘free’ the NHS. It could all end in tears. Tiers of bureaucracy I mean.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 5th March 2012

    I assume the book HAD a purpose at one point, to prevent unauthorized faxes, which, in the days of long distance calling, might have cost a pretty penny .

  • rhymeswithplague 5th March 2012

    Just because the information in the book wasn’t used for anything doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been used for something. What if someone higher up had asked for statistics on average length of a fax (in pages), average length of a fax (in minutes), number of faxes per day (or per week or per month), busiest time of day (or week or month), etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam? All the raw data needd for providing answers were in those books and could have kept someone busy for a long time who otherwise would not have been gainfully employed. I suppose I’m thinking like a mindless bureaucrat now. Please forgive me. (Some of this information may even have been stored in the innards of the fax machine and could have been retrieved more or less painlessly….)

  • Mr Parrot 5th March 2012

    You two are awfully forgiving! I don’t believe the book ever had a purpose other than that someone saw an opportunity to create a new ‘system’ when the machine was first installed.

    And as Mr Plague rightly points out, some of the required information was available from the machine. At the end of each transmission, it would spit out a confirmation sheet giving the recipient’s fax number, the number of pages and the time taken to send, plus the time and date.

    I can’t believe that someone didn’t decide to keep and file all these which would have been fun for any future analyst. Fax machines at the time used special paper on a roll which was shiny, like early photocopiers. And like the photocopiers, the ink would fade over time until it disappeared.

    I’m sure there are politicians and businessmen today who would prefer to have self-destroying emails!

  • Luddite Pudding 6th March 2012

    At my last school we were all meant to write down details of any phone calls we had made from their landlines – both professional and private. For a while, these penny pinchers even tried billing us for private calls but it was a bureaucratic nightmare. Sometimes they forgot to pick up our notebook. There was no similar book in which to write down the extra hours you’d worked at home or the items you had bought for school use from your own pocket – of course officialdom made reimbursement a labyrinthine nightmare.

  • Elizabeth 7th March 2012

    Nothing to do with the post, really, Ian, except to endorse how very silly the system was, but just wanted to say that in 1994, my husband was second in command at Wolverhampton FHSA – I never heard him mention the fax book though!!

  • Elizabeth 7th March 2012

    Nothing to do with the post really, Ian, except to endorse what a silly system, but just a point of interest. In 1994, my husband was second in command at Wolverhampton FHSA – I never heard him mention a fax book ‘though!! x


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