How to Navigate Bureaucracy

Every large scale system developed over time in approximately the same way:

  1. At one time, they were relatively simple and served a straightforward purpose.
  2. To accommodate more complex purposes, they grew exponentially more complex and arcane.
  3. Well-intended rule-makers tried plugging those holes with ideas they thought were a good idea.
  4. The malice and incompetence within human nature slowly corrupted everything, meaning more rules and more complexity.

Working with and around large organizations is so frustrating that most people don’t want to think about it.

However, knowing a few social skills can bypass most of those frustrations, and most bureaucratic navigation is a combination of patience and rapid response.

You can’t change the bureau

People hate change, especially from the outside.

You can publicly defame them, but they’ll fight you on principle alone at that point.

  • Governments only change when there’s a regime change or the public’s reactions affect fairly elected politicians.
  • Corporations only change from the risks of their public image, and only if they have competitors.

Unless you run the organization or can generate wide-scale attention to your problem, you can only make small, individual changes through human decency, compassion, and patience.

Start as soon as possible

Most bureaucratic misery comes through unexpected delays.

Corporations are usually more expedient than governments, but an unusually high workload or multi-department problem will be time-consuming.

Assume the process will take at least 3-6 times longer than you’ll expect.

  • 4-6 weeks in a government bureau can easily become 6-8 months.
  • If a company predicts a month, expect it to take three.
  • Double those expectations if a natural disaster affects the organization or the economy slumps.

Give the right information

People tend to fill out forms without considering its full implications.

  • Paper forms are usually converted to computer data and treated as 100% fact, even if the writer was simply guessing at the information.
  • Treat any information you give them, spoken or written, as a legally binding statement.

Whenever possible, use information that bureau trusts.

  • Large companies usually trust other industry-related companies, not-for-profits, and governments to a lesser degree.
  • Government bureaus almost completely trust each other more than anyone else, though political fashions can sow distrust among them.

If you make any mistake, communicate it as fast as possible and work as hard as you can to amend or un-send the document.

Learn from experience

The most rapidly processed paperwork will give precisely what they need to know and nothing else.

  • You may think more information is better, but that additional information can often bog down everything from a wide variety of unknown technical edge cases specific to that industry.
  • Providing more information ensures more paperwork, inquiries, examinations, and background checks before final approval.
  • If you can, ask advice from someone with experience with that system to avoid mistakes you couldn’t have predicted.

Every bit of information must be all of the following:

  1. They need the information to make an informed decision.
  2. Your submitted information doesn’t imply something worse than reality.
  3. You’re absolutely certain that the information is correct.

Don’t give wrong information

Only record the cold truth.

  • People often adapt their story to give what someone else wants, but a giant organization will want opposite things at different times.
  • Lying on a document can make a six-month application even longer, revoke it, or at worst sever the business relationship or lead to criminal prosecution.
  • Even when you might get away with it, that organization has a lot of information on you that you’re not aware of.

Don’t ever submit information you don’t know.

  • Waiting a day or two to submit will save you weeks of trouble later.
  • Putting incorrect information will range from extra delay to penalties for falsified information.

Wait until you have the information, leave it blank or specify you don’t know.

  • When in doubt, ask a worker if they need that information.
  • If you aren’t sure about the answer and must give one, select the answer they want to hear or indicate a selection such as “N/A” or “don’t know”.

Don’t leave key information out

Follow the request to the letter.

  • e.g., if the document asks for the past five years’ jobs with three spaces for them and you’ve only had one, only put the one job and don’t put school or volunteer work.

When you have more entries than the paper has room for, do not add more unless they clarify to add them.

If you pay attention, you might find either/or conditions where you don’t need to fill in anything.

  • e.g., fill in Box A if you haven’t received government aid, otherwise skip it.
  • Many people end up admitting to things they don’t mean by filling in irrelevant information.

Document everything

Don’t be afraid to ask tons of questions about all the departments involved and where you’ll have to go.

Keep copies of everything you’ve submitted and received.

  • If you don’t have a photocopier or scanner, take photos with your phone camera.

Record everything with as much supporting evidence as possible:

  • Who you communicated with and what they promised to do, with dates and times
  • When you talked and any text communications
  • Information from other departments and bureaus
  • Applicable laws and regulations that may apply to your situation

You’ll need this information for several possible reasons:

  1. To track where you are in the process
  2. To send both written and spoken information to other departments and bureaus
  3. To escalate the situation to a higher authority if the situation becomes ridiculous

Reactive behavior slows bureaucracy

Every bureau worker has a small part of the organization’s power, and usually don’t care about anything beyond their control.

  • Most of them have plenty of experience disassociating from complaints.

Our human nature is to magnify our effort when we don’t feel progress, but it never works and we usually incriminate ourselves by giving unnecessary information.

  1. Unnecessary information, as stated above, is never good in a bureaucratic system.
  2. By getting angry, you give the worker even more reason to procrastinate on principle alone.

Be careful garnering sympathy

For someone to fully empathize with your situation, they might need information you didn’t indicate on the form.

Providing certain information, even if it was misstated, may invalidate your efforts or transfer you to a department that can’t help you.

Observe each department

Every department has its own system with its own workplace culture, and most of them don’t interact with each other much.

  • Each department is a separate organization with a limited understanding of other departments’ knowledge.
  • Every time you engage with another department, treat it as a completely separate organization.

If you’ve filled out more than 1 page in a department, some of it will not transfer to other departments.

  • This is where your record-keeping from before will pay off.
  • Scan your documents to send multiple copies, and prioritize email and fax over mailing.

As stated above, stay honest and consistent.

  • Keeping your story the same across departments is difficult because the story will adapt and change as you navigate the organization(s).
  • If you lied on anything, your story will become inconsistent.

Not all workers are the same

A. Bottom-level workers

  • Low-level workers include tech support reading off a script, desk jockeys, and anyone else who performs mundane tasks without thinking about it.
  • Their job is to filter out 90% of the cases so nobody else who is more important has to deal with them.
  • As much as possible, demonstrate your complete compliance and competence to signal that your problem goes above their pay grade.

B. Actual deciders

  • Deciders include social and case workers, managers, supervisors, and leads.
  • These people have experience making decisions and can typically solve your issue if they like you.
  • Be as courteous, professional, and respectful as you can. They’re accustomed to impatient people referred to them after mistreatment by the bottom-level workers.

C. High-level deciders

  • This group includes directors, department heads, and high-level technical support.
  • If you ever encounter these people, you’ll know by their expertise and esoteric mastery.
  • They will usually be able to solve your problem immediately if you respect their position.
  • Do not waste their time, since they often have the authority to completely redefine your situation.

Treat the workers kindly

Large organizations feel so monolithic that we forget that workers have families, hobbies, non-work interests, and likely a sense of humor.

Whenever possible, try to connect with them:

  • Tell a joke if it’s appropriate, preferably at your own expense to be safe.
  • Make small talk or give them a gender-neutral compliment.
  • If you can observe a common interest, share it with them.
  • Avoid talking poorly about the organization or what you dislike.

Connecting with them serves several purposes:

  1. You may gain favor with them where they can educate you about potential risks further in the process.
  2. You get a reprieve from the organization’s unfeeling culture.
  3. Your situation, however it turns out, isn’t a complete waste because you made someone happy.
  4. Even if someone is lazy or pathetic, you make the workers important in a way they rarely receive, and they’ll be more likely to assist you.

Even if you don’t care, they have a lousy job in a soulless system, and you do not have to deal with that system as much as they do.

Don’t trust the system

Giant systems are filled with holes, and your application can fall into an unexplainable trap.

The axiom “slow is smooth, smooth is steady, steady is fast” applies in every conceivable angle.

If you don’t like services you receive from those organizations, consider long-term ways to improve it:

  • Move to a less-populated area with a government where you know the leaders by name.
  • Migrate your services and consumer needs to smaller organizations that will treat you more humanely.
  • If your situation is frequent enough, the problems are often business ideas waiting to happen.

Be prepared to wait

The rest is merely patience.

Instead of dreading the experience, find ways to make the time more productive.