I am writing this post in the hopes of helping anyone who has to navigate the scary world that is often labeled as bureaucracy. I especially hope that this might be of benefit to one of my fellow bloggers who has to navigate this world on behalf of her trans daughter.
Throughout my life I have both worked with and been a part of those organisations that we tend to pejoratively label bureaucracies. As I travel down the path to my medical fulfillment, I am again traversing that scary territory that is carefully guarded by the public servants that seem to have way more power than we would like them to have.
Like many strange territories, this world seems to fill us with awe and wonder. We worry about where we might step, afraid of the hidden dangers and even more scared that we might end up hopelessly lost. We then see those others who rush past us, seeming to know exactly where to step and never seeming to take a wrong turn.
We hate those people.
I have made it a life-long mission to decipher these mazes and to find ways to navigate them while investing the minimum amount of time and effort necessary. I do this, not to prove that I am smarter or more clever than anybody else, but because I am fundamentally lazy, disorganised, and a world-class procrastinator.
I don’t usually leave myself much time for mistakes when it comes to these things, so it has been to my benefit to learn how to navigate them efficiently.
At the risk of a midnight visit from the Max Weber secret society of bureaucrats, I am going to share some fundamental rules for dealing with government agencies, and still come out alive and moderately sane. I am going to speak of government employees, because I was one for so many years, but these principles apply to private bureaucracies like insurance companies as well.
First and foremost, the person on the other side of the phone or the counter is just that, a person. They work with the public all day. Their job is relatively tedious. They work in an organisation that does not necessarily promote people based on competence or merit, so they likely have a thing or two to tell you about their boss, if only they could. There is a high probability that within the fifteen minutes either preceding or following their encounter with you, the phrase “My job sucks” has crossed their mind.
Did I mention that they work with the public all day? The public, as a group, tends to have an incredible sense of entitlement when it comes to dealing with these agencies. The last person that called or came in was certain that the big sign that says, ”Please Have All Forms Completed Before Approaching the Counter” applies to everybody else but them. The worst part is that, today being a good day, that was only the fourteenth person to ignore the sign.
Oh yeah, and before they left the house today, their kid tried to go to school looking like a street-walker, the dog peed on the carpet and the newspaper ran another editorial blaming public sector employees for everything from the financial crisis to genital warts.
For the most part, these people see themselves as public servants. They took these jobs hoping to help others and to make the world a better place. The regular paycheck and the benefits package weren’t ignored, but public employees aren’t any different from the population as a whole when it comes to factors of job satisfaction. Pay and benefits fall far down the list. Well below task and mission specific factors like the ability to help others and positive relationships with bosses, coworkers and clients.
A certain element of our society has framed “the government” as some mysterious, secret organisation that is bent on stealing all of our freedoms and creating some sort of bizarre totalitarian state. While there are corrupt people in all walks of life, including government, and we, by our own apathy, have allowed certain elites far more power than they deserve, the day-to-day functioning of most government agencies is done by our friends and neighbours. They are not very different from us and they certainly are not to be feared.
A few minutes taken to understand what they are going through to do their job, will pay off in hours of saved time and frustration later.
Let’s start with the forms. As awful as they seem, these forms are constantly reviewed and critiqued by the people who have to read them. (Unfortunately, far to little input is gathered from those who have to fill them out.) If the form asks what colour sock do you wear on your left foot on Tuesday, then someone, somewhere needs to know this information. If you don’t fill it in, the poor person who gets your form is now going to have to answer to the left sock colour person as to why the information wasn’t collected.
You may think that it is no big deal for this to happen from just your one form, but you have to remember that the reason you waited in line for two hours to turn in your form is because the person who just served you, served 100 people before they ever got to you and will likely see as many more before the end of the day. So, if 10% of the 200 people they serve today fail to fill out the left sock colour question, that means that on top of the 200 people that they have to serve tomorrow, they will also be getting 20 phone calls asking where the left sock colour information is.
Speaking of apparently trivial details. The forms ask you to fill them in with dark ink using all caps for a reason. You may think that your pink pen and fancy calligraphy are adorable, but try to read a few dozen of those each day, remembering that if you get the information wrong you will be buried in nasty phone calls, emails and error corrections. This is a certain recipe for a migraine.
Day in and day out these people fight these simple battles. The clients they serve are convinced that they are the only people in the universe, while the boss is pressuring them to see 10 more people each day and the politicians are cutting their budget so that they won’t be able to replace Joe when he retires next month. It is a frustrating world.
Step one to make dealing with these people easier: Fill out all forms completely, accurately and legibly. It seems like a tiny thing, but trust me, you will make their day and will have started on the road to making an ally.
The next thing, and really the most important, is all about attitude. The vast majority of people who deal with these offices are doing so because they have a problem. Either that or the task that brings them there is tedious or unpleasant. Because of this, the people who work in these offices are bombarded with negativity all day every day.
It really is a welcome ray of sunshine, and likely to be received with extreme gratitude when a client enters the office with a smile on their face and isn’t waiting to pounce on the worker for everything from global warming to grandpa’s incontinence.
Step two: Bring a positive attitude.
Bureaucracies tend to be dehumanising for both the clientele and the workers. The endless rules, forms, policies and procedures tend to take a lot of the individualism out of the process. As a result, clients begin to treat the workers in these offices as cogs in a machine, or worse. Very little respect is paid to these people. It is often assumed that they are uneducated and lazy. After all, an animal can be trained to follow a set routine.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I said earlier, many people go into these jobs because they want to help people. They truly see themselves as public servants, and they take great satisfaction in that. They are also deeply offended by the implication that they are there to take away from people, not give. On top of that, these people are usually highly trained professionals. They tend to have higher than average education levels and hundreds of hours of training go into preparation for and continuation in these positions.
They actually know how to fill out all the forms, and they understand the rules, policies and procedures that govern their jobs. They didn’t just wake up one day knowing all that. They studied and worked hard so that they would be properly prepared to help you.
Step three: Respect their professionalism.
The final issue that always puts up obstacles between clients and the workers in these offices can be summarised in one sentence.
You are not the centre of the universe.
The person who is helping you has or will help dozens if not hundreds of people just like you today. Many of these people will have had the same or, gasp, worse problems than you. Some of them may actually be facing life or death implications. The person who is helping you is committed to giving each and every one of these people all the help that they need. You are not automatically entitled to a place at the front of the queue.
Step four: Wait your turn.
If you follow these four steps and temper your expectations with a dose of reality, you will be well advanced on the path to successfully navigating the wilds of bureaucracy. I will close with several phrases that are guaranteed to help you win friends and influence people in these offices. I have used every one of these at one time or another, and my cases and forms have had a delightful way of making their way to the top of people’s desks and being processed quickly, efficiently and with a high rate of favourable outcomes.
The first is a favourite of mine, but is completely opportunistic. You need someone else to have been a real jerk ahead of you for this on to work.
When your turn comes up after the jerk has left, you look at the person behind the desk and say, ” I don’t know that I could ever do your job. All you asked him was to sign a simple form and he snapped. You were so composed while he yelled at you. I don’t know that I could do that.” The person behind the desk has had to internalise this type of abuse on a regular basis and would be really unprofessional to bring it up to you, but once you bring it up you give them a small opening to let off just a bit of the frustration. That, and they see that they are appreciated. Whatever business you now have will be seen in a much more positive light.
The next is a great way to get help with filling out confusing forms. Remember, correctly filled out forms go a long way toward getting things approved, and to be honest, sometimes the forms really are too complicated to understand. When your turn comes up, you tell the person helping you that you know that it is really important to get the form right and that you must be the dumbest person on the planet because the answer should be obvious and you just can’t see it. Ask them to show you what you are missing.
The person behind the desk will do one of two things. They will admit that this is the most confusing form on the planet and show you what was meant to be put on it, or they will take pity on you for being so dumb as to not see the obvious and will again help you sort it out. Their job is much easier if the form is done right and they will secretly appreciate you for not trying it on your own and mucking it all up.
Another favourite of mine is to acknowledge that the person helping you is probably working at what they perceive to be 150% capacity. Start your request with, “I know that you’re incredibly busy and probably won’t have a chance to even look at my request for some time, but I really appreciate you taking a quick second to let me know that I have filled everything out correctly.” By acknowledging that they are busy, you have validated their job and shown that you appreciate their importance and effort.
They will most likely give you the couple of minutes necessary to review your paperwork. Again remember, this helps them later. They won’t have to chase you down for missing pieces. In the process, they may very well give you clues as to what is right and wrong about your application, and they will have started the preliminary decision-making process in their head. If you are lucky, (it has worked for me in the past) they will decide that they have done most of the work already and just finish up the last little bit after you leave, and your request manages to move on to the next step faster than ones that have been waiting ahead of it.
The final approach that I will offer is based on the centre of the universe concept. Keeping in mind that while your problem is the single most important problem to you, you may not even hit the target for the most serious problem of the day, week or even month.
Acknowledge that. Tell the person helping you that you respect their judgement and that if they need to solve someone else’s problem ahead of yours, you completely understand. Use this as an opportunity to gently remind this person why this problem is really important to you, but never, ever claim the front seat on the bus. That seat must be given to you. As soon as you claim it, you will look over your shoulder to see someone else who obviously needs it more than you and you will look like a selfish fool for having taken it for yourself.
None of these approaches are guaranteed to work every time. If you are asking for something to which you are not entitled, you can and should be rejected even if you try the best methods. Every profession still has jerks that work there and you may just be unlucky enough to have encountered one today. You can’t control that.
For the most part, if you follow the rules, remember that the person you are working with is a person and exercise some patience and restraint, you will be successful more often than not. It’s their house, so you have to follow their rules, but you do not have to be controlled by the system. You can work things to your advantage, if you treat people well.