The Modern Survival Guide #80
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I have very particular views on the subject of bureaucracy. Now I know that at this point in the intro I just lost your interest, because Oh My GOD Allen, could you pick a more boring-er topic? Why, yes, yes I could! So don’t tempt me. But in the meantime, I think that people should understand the basics of bureaucracies, and how to survive them, because they surround us in the modern world.
In this article I’ll cover some of these basics — what a bureaucracy is, where you find them, and how you deal with them. Having a good grasp of this issue is essential for dealing with so many things, including but not limited to insurance claims, parent-teacher conferences, college admissions, job searches, and of course dealing with the government. So let’s dive in, shall we?
What is Bureaucracy, Anyway?
Let’s start with a definition. “Bureaucracy” refers to a system of organization characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority. There are two important things to know about bureaucracy in general.
The first is that bureaucracy is inevitable. It emerges spontaneously anytime you have more than about fifty people working together for longer than a few months. This is because there is a natural limit to the number of people who can be effectively led by a single person, and a natural limit to how easily emergent leaders can coordinate with each other in a flat hierarchy.¹ This leads to a self-starting hierarchy of authority — an emergent leader rises, picks lieutenants to whom they delegate some tasks, and together they lead the group.
Over time, if you just throw people together, they will develop rules of conduct to govern any given organizational problem. You can watch this in action by starting a book club, darts team, craft group, whatever. Pretty quickly you’ll see emergent patterns of behavior, and if the group gets large enough these develop into actual rules. Once you pass the point where it becomes inefficient to relate all the rules by word of mouth, they tend to get written down. Rules tend to be the first major step towards an established bureaucracy, because they codify the patterns of behavior for the group and solidify the hierarchy of authority.
The next step tends to be specialization of functions, and this occurs as the group swells past the point where it is efficient for one person to do multiple jobs. This can happen very quickly. Most management training courses emphasize moving an organization away from a situation where people wear multiple hats, for a lot of good reasons.² This tends to result in a situation where an organization develops specific offices or groups with specific functions — HR, team groups, regional offices, accounting departments, etc.
Once you have these three features — hierarchy, rules, and specialization — you have a bureaucracy.
The second thing to know about any given bureaucracy is that it will become more complex over time. Emergent bureaucracies still operate on the “hero” model, where people step up to do particular tasks and there are clear champions in the organization who make sure things get done. Established bureaucracies pretty quickly figure out that heroes are brief phenomena. They tend to burn out or get headhunted away. Established bureaucracies therefore tend to develop procedures and processes for their essential functions, with the goal of being able to treat the people who have to execute these functions as interchangeable parts.
More procedures means more complexity, more forms to fill out, more people who have to sign off on a decision before it goes into effect. It is for this exact reason that every drive to improve efficiency in an established bureaucracy will first decrease efficiency as everyone learns the new procedures. And the bigger the bureaucracy gets, the more processes and procedures it needs in order to run smoothly. Bigger is not always better when it comes to getting things done, but bigger is always better when it comes to resource allocation and market share. The incentive is almost always for organizations to grow, which means that the bureaucracy grows with them.
In this sense, a bureaucracy is like a self-perpetuating labyrinth or unfolding fractal pattern. It will continue to grow and become more and more Byzantine until someone takes corrective action and either breaks it apart or takes a serious look at the various processes and procedures that make it work.
Where You Find Bureaucracies
Bureaucracies are everywhere. Almost every corporation you deal with is a bureaucracy in practice, if not in name. Every major religion is a bureaucracy; hell, most of the splinter sects are well on their way to becoming bureaucracies if they aren’t already there. Every utility or large medical services provider is a bureaucracy. And of course you deal with government bureaucracies all the time.
You are probably part of a bureaucracy, even if you don’t realize it. If you work for a large company, you may not be a bureaucrat yourself, but you’re a cog in the company’s bureaucratic machine. If you are in a white collar job, you are almost certainly part of a bureaucracy, either in your workplace or in your professional associations and certifications.
You’re not getting away from bureaucracy. There is no magical solution that prevents bureaucracy or that counters the spread of bureaucracy. It is as inevitable as the tide, an outgrowth of human social interactions and expectations. The best you can do is learn to work through bureaucracies and change them when necessary.
How to Deal with Bureaucracy
Let’s start with a few good, solid expectations:
#1. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy: Every bureaucracy will act to preserve itself and its resources before acting to achieve its mission goals. The people who act to preserve the bureaucracy itself will end up in charge, and people who focus exclusively on the mission may be removed entirely as time goes on.
#2. The larger the bureaucracy is, the less likely it is that you can work outside its rules. This is because large bureaucracies rely more and more on established procedure and are subject to “black box” situations where one office has no real understanding of how other offices get work done due to advanced specialization of labor.³
#3. The older the bureaucracy is, the more red tape it will have. This is because old bureaucracies have had time to establish complex and specialized processes and lingo for their operations.
These points have both large-scale and small-scale implications.
On the large end of the scale, if you are working to reform a bureaucracy either from the outside or the inside, you need to know that the bureaucracy will fight you every step of the way. People don’t like change, particularly changes that affect their job, and they hate changes that alter their daily routine. Every suggestion you make to reform a bureaucratic process will impact dozens, perhaps hundreds of people’s daily routines, and every time you improve efficiency you create a funding issue (because being more efficient means you can do more with less, and managers are loathe to let go of money).
On the small end of the scale, if you’re trying to get something out of a bureaucracy — like a driver’s license, fishing permit, product replacement, or an insurance adjustment — you need to recognize that you’re probably going to have to work within the rules, and the process is probably going to take as long as it takes. The older the bureaucracy, the less likely it is that there are shortcuts through the red tape.
Now for the art. I did promise art in the article title, remember? The art of dealing with bureaucracy lies in learning the rules, bending the rules, and finding people to bend the rules for you. This takes time and effort, and for those reasons I would offer the following consideration:
The amount of time you spend trying to play bureaucratic games should be proportional to the severity of the consequence of failure.
If you’re waiting on a hunting permit, just wait on the hunting permit. I was going to say no lives are at stake… but yeah. A hunting permit is not usually worth agonizing over. If you’re trying to figure out how to stay on Medicare so that you can afford your cancer treatment, that is an entirely different kettle of fish. And if you’re trying to reform a bureaucracy in order to save lives and money, that’s on a whole separate scale of magnitude.
Playing the Game: Navigating Bureaucracy
So let’s say you’re trying to navigate a bureaucracy to get something out of it. What can you do? Well, the first step is to acknowledge that you’re playing a game. It’s probably not a kid’s game, but it is a game and it has defined rules and players. There are moves you can make as a player, and moves that you can’t make because the rules prevent it.
Step one is to learn the rules. Step two is to learn the players. Only then do you want to be playing the game.
The good news is that most bureaucracies tell you the rules in advance. It’s either mailed to you as part of standard documentation, or the rules are posted on their website. Look for documents titled “terms and conditions,” “resource guide,” “end user license agreement,” and things of that nature. This may require reading.
Learning the players is a little harder. Most of the time, the player you will be dealing with is a computer; most bureaucracies front the majority of their public interactions via web forms these days. If you have problems the computer can’t solve, you’ll be transferred to a customer service representative. These people are line workers, and their options in the game are almost as limited as yours. If you raise a fuss, you may get to speak to their supervisor, but the objective isn’t to raise a fuss; the objective is to accomplish your goals.
Alternately, you can try to find an external advocate. A lot of large companies and non-profit organizations offer this service for a huge variety of bureaucracies. Visible examples include immigration advocates, lawyers, and Congressional office staff. Sometimes these people will fight your battles for you; other times they’ll give you information and advice. They are almost always useful, and the internet is your friend in finding them.
Now for the art. The key to getting problems resolved quickly in most bureaucracies is to always deal with the same person. Never assume that the bureaucracy has any kind of institutional memory. A person is smart; a bureaucracy’s intelligence is measured in how well its database is built and how many of its internal policies get followed, and you don’t want to go there. You want to get the customer service rep to do most of the red tape work for you, or at least walk you through it.
This means asking to speak with specific people and, sometimes, making time for them. It means trying to build rapport with someone over a phone line or an email message. And if you can’t do that, it sometimes means going over their head to ask for a supervisor, and then trying to do the same thing with them.
There are some basic rules to follow when trying to sweet-talk a bureaucrat:
- Always be polite. Always. Always. ALWAYS. Whatever happened to you is not their fault, and yelling at them won’t fix it. Rude people get bad service.
- If possible, be funny and likable. The rep you’re speaking to most likely spends most of their day dealing with irate people. Talking to a likable person is usually a nice switch for them. Likable people get better service.
- If you can’t be likable, be relatable. Try to get the other person to see you as a human being, not a line on a spreadsheet. Tell them what’s important to you about your issue. Try to get them to see the problem through your eyes. Build empathy, not apathy.
- ASK FOR HELP. It’s the simplest thing. People like helping other people, by and large, and will respond better if they know they’re doing something that actually helps another person.
- Ask how things work. Everything takes time and effort to accomplish. How much time and whose effort are bits of information that might prove useful. Ask your contact who’s doing what and how long it ought to take.
- Ask what you need to do next. Bureaucrats have a tendency to assume that other people already know the process streams that they swim in. This assumption is pretty much always wrong. It’s never a bad thing to ask what comes next in the order of operations that should end with a resolution for your issue.
- Get their contact info. Phone number and email both. Then ask them how they prefer to be contacted and file that info away for future reference. Every time you have another question, come back to the contact. After a couple of calls they will remember you, and you won’t have to waste time breaking in a new contact.⁴
- If they suck, move on. If you’re dealing with a bureaucracy, it usually means you need something from it. If the person you’re talking to can’t help or won’t help, ask to speak with someone else with knowledge on your issue, ask to speak to their supervisor, or call back and try a different line in the call center. This is a judgement call you can usually make after about ten minutes of dealing with a bureaucrat.
When dealing with a bureaucracy, just know going in that it’s going to take time. You’re going to have to fill out forms, and wait for approvals, and provide documents, and probably do some other stuff. You’re probably not getting around that. So find your contact, turn them into an advocate, and use them to work the system for you.
A final point — above all else, be prompt. Do not delay when filling out forms or filing them. Do not hesitate to ask questions. Every bureaucrat has a gigantic in-tray, and you’re fighting for a spot in it. The faster you act, the faster they can start grinding through the request.
Playing the Game: Reforming Bureaucracy
So let’s say you’re trying to change the way a bureaucracy works. There are two ways to do this: from the outside and from the inside.
If you’re on the outside, you need to figure out the incentive structure that drives the bureaucracy and find ways to put pressure on it. This is an art more than a science, but generally speaking here are some good places to start:
- Is the bureaucracy a profit or non-profit enterprise? Are you dealing with Microsoft or the Red Cross, for example? Profit-based enterprises care about… well… profit. Non-profits might respond to other incentives. Pick your battles wisely.
- Can you get to who’s in charge? Remember that lower-level people in the corporate hierarchy can’t change anything. Can you find and influence the person in charge?
- Can you impact legislation? A lot of bureaucracies are subject to one form of controlling legislation or another, and sometimes that’s an avenue of approach if you can convince a Congressperson.
- Can you impact public perception? Most bureaucracies are subject to public pressure, because it makes them look bad, and looking bad has downstream effects. Getting a newspaper on your side is never a bad move.
In all cases, your move is to find an incentive that the bureaucracy responds to and then push. The key is persistence. Nothing gets changed in a few months, because it takes a few months just to write a new policy. Your timeline should be on the order of months or years. Persistence pays off; don’t be a dilettante if you really want to change something.
If you’re inside the bureaucracy, your options are different. You have to play office politics in addition to everything else, but you may have a better chance of changing how things are done. Again, this is an art more than a science, but here are some points to consider:
- Can you make someone above you look good? People will almost always act to protect their interests and image. Can you find a way to make the person in charge of your group look good by saving money or improving processes?
- Can you make the organization look good? Remember the Iron Law — you’re more likely to get traction if the organization comes out smelling like a rose.
- Can you save money or time? The Iron Law is very concerned with resources. If you can make the point that your change will save resources, you’re halfway home.
- Can you make changes without costing anyone their job or budget? If you can alter a bad process and not have to fire anyone or rob Peter to pay Paul, you’re in much better shape for success.
- Can you generate profit? If your change helps to generate or preserve a revenue stream, it’s much more likely to succeed (especially for “non-profit” organizations).
- Can you improve morale? If your change would make the office a better place to work, and you can show how, you can pitch it as a morale buff. Managers much prefer to have happy employees, and this can give you traction.
Remember at all times that any change that costs jobs or decreases a budget has to come from senior management. You will never get one of those proposals past a mid-level manager, because they are not incentivized to make that kind of change. Address your proposals accordingly. And remember at all times that any proposal that affects jobs or budgets will instantly make you enemies with someone else who relies on that job or uses that budget. Make sure you know whose knife is likely to land in your back before you start down the path of change.
All of this is an art form, and you get better at it with practice. Start small. Walk before you run with this kind of thing, or you’ll run into a wall. Always try to think ahead:
- What impacts will the change have on other processes?
- Who will gain from the change?
- Who will lose from the change?
- Are there potential unintended consequences?
With all that being said, a final point — you’re never going to think of everything. That’s not how life works. The idea here is to plan for what you can, and then go.
Surviving a Bureaucratic World
There is no such thing as a human society that doesn’t have bureaucracy. Doesn’t exist, and never did. With any luck, these points will provide some guidance for surviving in a bureaucratic world, because you definitely live in one.
Always remember: most of the time, people want to help and people want to do good things. Focus on the people, regardless of whether you want to navigate bureaucracy or change it outright. If you can sway the people, you can sway the process, and you’re much more likely to get the outcome you want. Organizations do not think and do not feel; they just grind along. People think and people feel, and they always have more control over the organization that it might appear at first glance.
Good luck, friends!
¹A “flat” hierarchy refers to a situation where everyone has more or less the same amount of decision-making authority and power. These are trendy, because they allow a lot of innovative potential, but unstable, because people are people, and I fully expect the management gurus to phase them out as a paradigm within the next few years.
²Most of which boil down to keeping people focused on tasks, being able to assign clear goals, and being able to properly determine blame.
³A “black box” scenario is a classic management situation where you can chart work going into a box on the org chart, but you have no idea how work gets done inside the box. You know something happens, because work emerges from the box, but the actual operation of the group represented by the box is a mystery.
⁴Note that you may need different contacts to help you resolve different problems.