Ryan Shorthouse: You don’t have to be nice to be part of the big society

“IDIOT,” she mumbled, leaving the room. Well, yes, I am. And proud of it. I tell you why: because if I hadn’t had got tetchy, embarrassed her in front of all the others customers, she would have once again done nothing about this recurring problem.

Not once, not twice; but on three separate occasions when I visited the computer room in the lobby of my New York hotel, when I put a dollar note into the pay machine to activate the only available computer, the machine swallowed it up.

Frustratingly, I lost three dollars and, worse, could not check my emails. What if my boss had agreed to that promotion, if the girl of my dreams had winked at me on match.com? This hotel was cutting me off from the world, robbing me of my hard-earned cash.

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Maybe I’m being over the top. But, every time I informed the hotel reception of the problem, politely of course, in a polite English accent, I was told they would look into it and the only way to recover my money was by ringing some call centre in India.

Well, the third time, it was just too much: I exploded.

Guess what? The morning after the night before, up was a sign saying not to use that particular pay machine. And the receptionist gave me three dollars, as a goodwill gesture. Good. A victory for me. But, more crucially, a victory for others, who wouldn’t have to suffer the loss I had. So go on, call me the angry Samaritan.

Believe it or not, friends remark what a mild-mannered person I am. But my bursts of irritation are a trait inherited from my father. Earlier in the year, he was on the rampage with an insurance company that had been sending my frail grandfather around in roundabouts. He’d been living out of a suitcase for three months, after his house became uninhabitable when the snow last winter brought the roof down.

For months, he’d been paying thousands of pounds living in a hotel and waiting for the insurance company to agree to pay for work to his house to go ahead. A nightmare, which ended up with him in hospital with a minor heart attack. My father, who you do not want to get on the wrong side of, eventually intervened – threatening legal action. The result: within a fortnight, the house was ready to live in again, and my granddad had all his bills reimbursed.

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Too often, we turn our noses up at angry, impatient people, and laugh at them. What’s all the fuss about? Yes, sometimes the rage is out of proportion to the incident. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked for a full written apology – “by tomorrow morning at the latest” – from the hotel for the loss of my three dollars. But, really, demanding customers are a benefit to all of us. They are consumers agitating for change, driving up standards so future users receive a better service.

Pushy parents with sharp elbows often get a bad press, for example. But teachers, sports coaches, music tutors, in fear of their sharp tongues, are forced to evaluate their work and perform better, to the benefit of many other families.

In fact, encouraging pushy and consumerist attitudes is exactly what the Government wants to do to improve our public services. The philosophy behind the eagerly awaited public services white paper launched recently is to make our schools and hospitals more accountable to the demands and choices of users, rather than to the rules of Whitehall.

So, the Big Society is not just about do-gooders: eternally smiley, always willing to lend a hand for their local community. Impatient, frustrated people – nasty pieces of work forever complaining – are also required, helping others in the future receive a better, more responsive service, whether it be from a big company or a local council. And, as the Government has outlined recently, from public services. Yes, the Big Society needs the nice and the nasty.