The trials and tribulations of dealing with bureaucrats


Dave Freer, fellow expatriate South African and author, has been fighting bureaucrats in Australia for years over some land he bought and the house he built on it.  He writes about his misadventures (some of them, anyway) in a recent blog post.  Reading it, it looks like Australian bureaucrats have taken official obstructionism to new levels… but US bureaucrats are nothing to sneeze at in the tear-your-hair-out stakes.

I’ve been fighting the bureaucrats for the best part of two years over my work-related injury back in 2004.  Medical benefits for its long-term after-effects were cut last year, without any explanation.  I’ve been going back and forth with those involved all this time, trying to figure out what happened and solve the problem.  Finally, just yesterday, I received a letter that looks as if it’ll at least partly resolve the issues.  It’s been month after month of beating my head against a bureaucratic brick wall.  To call it “frustrating” is a monumental understatement!  Still, all that effort appears to have paid off, at least in the short term.  I somehow suspect it won’t be a long-term resolution, but we’ll deal with future hurdles when we come to them.

I suppose, at its most basic level, the problem is one of sheer numbers.  In past generations, there were never enough people to overwhelm administrative systems.  Bureaucrats could shuffle papers around fast enough to cater to the needs of most of those who came to them.  Nowadays… not so much.  The populations of our urban centers have grown so much that their sheer numbers overwhelm service offices;  and the slow, steady decline in the quality of our education system means that many of those seeking assistance, and many of those administering it, no longer have a clear understanding of what they’re doing, and how, and most importantly why they’re doing it.  It’s become just a long, endless round of filling out forms, getting them rubber-stamped, and then issuing more forms for the next stage in the process.  What used to be done by a single clerk during a single visit is now often spread over several visits, each to a different person.

A friend has recently experienced a bureaucratic Catch-22.  She needs to get her son a picture ID, so that he can travel by air and get a learner’s license.  However, to get a state picture ID, she needs him to have a Social Security card.  He doesn’t, because he’s never had one issued before;  but Social Security offices are closed across the nation as a precaution against COVID-19.  It seems that due to documentation issues, without an in-person consultation, her son can’t get a Social Security card, even though he already has a Social Security number.  The state bureaucrats won’t accept a Social Security number as valid unless it’s on a valid Social Security card – so they won’t issue him a picture ID.  Result:  his parents have to drive him long distances from time to time, or find other ways to get him where he needs to go.

I will say this, though:  Texas state bureaucrats are among the nicest and most friendly of their ilk I’ve ever encountered.  There seems to be a strong culture throughout this state’s government that their job is to make citizens’ and residents’ lives easier, not more complicated.  It’s generally been a pleasure dealing with them, even if there have been obstacles to be overcome.  My previous experience with state bureaucrats in Louisiana (execrable!) and Tennessee (slow and laborious) was not good;  but coming to Texas has been an eye-opener as to how things could and should be done.

What about you, readers?  I’m sure many of you have your own horror stories about dealing with bureaucrats (and perhaps some pleasant surprises, too).  How about sharing them with us in Comments?



  1. I don't recall where I saw it, but it was a comment that we're not living in Orwell's "1984," we're living Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."

    If you haven't seen the movie, it's long but brilliant.

    While searching for the comment I found this commentary.

    The people who regulate what you do, in most cases, know less about what you’re doing than you do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s nominally a “public” or “private” organization, or how smart the people running it are as individuals. No matter how smart the people in charge are, they are systematically stupid in their organizational roles, because of the dynamics of information flow in hierarchies (as described by Robert Anton Wilson, for example).

    Organizations are pyramids, and the people at the tops of the pyramids tend to communicate much more effectively with each other than they do with those at the bottoms of their own respective pyramids. That means that most organizations are riddled with “best practices” based almost entirely on feedback about how well they worked from people at the tops of the other pyramids. And those latter people have almost no valid knowledge of how the policies actually worked in their own organizations.

    Remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? Large organizations are designed to insulate naked emperors from unpleasant feedback. That set of clothes must look good, because the emperors at the other organizations all have a set just like it, and they can’t stop talking about how great they look!

    The state, by promoting centralization and hierarchy and insulating bureaucratic organizations from the competitive consequences of their inefficiency, causes such irrationality to predominate in our society. We’re living in the world of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

  2. We lived in Massachusetts for a couple of years back in the mid-1980s. Even then, the process to register and insure a car was so onerous that the insurance companies would do it for you as one of the services they offered. They had workers dedicated to just that task. If for some reason you had to go to the motor vehicle office yourself, they would also offer guidance on which offices had the most reasonable bureaucrats, and which offices ran more as service preventers.

  3. Dealing with the Veterans Administration in 1980-81 was so frustrating that I avoided them until this past decade. Even now I dont look to them for critical stuff. Luckily I've had private insurance from my jobs to allow me to get top notch treatment from 1st class providers.
    A system you want to avoid like the plague is the child welfare system(protective services, foster care). Most of the folks working in it are OK buy there are some whose biases will ruin your life. My career in child welfare was in the Wayne County Michigan area(think Detroit). Social work appears to be mainly staffed by single women and they set the tone. Too many times I found kids being placed in the system when there was a serviceable dad who could take them. The message was dads are irrelevant to the raising of children. The law mandated looking to fathers but they were often ignored in practice.

  4. Never give up, I fought a 5 plus year battle with the Veteran's Administration over a typo.

    The original, hand written document was on my microfiche and was of course correct. The re-typed version in the next frame was missing a key line of text.

    Without that line my disability was disallowed and I got no care other than basic retirement services.

    I finally got to a person that actually looked at both frames on the microfiche and all was resolved. Then began the fun of resubmitting the five years of tax forms as my taxable income was changed.

    Never give up, take a break if you must but keep pushing, sooner or later they will actually do their job just to get rid of your constant pressure.

  5. As an Evil Bureaucrat myself I deal with them every day. Most are good people who really want to help the public. You hit the nail on the head with being overwhelmed. So many more people needing help than staff to help them. All my career we've been chronically and sometimes horribly understaffed. When I was at SSA the team I led directly fixing people's records dwindled from just under 30 down to about a dozen within 5 years even with some replacements. And there were another 40 teams in my area doing the same thing that had similar attrition. Upper management pinned their hopes on automation which helped some especially with simple fix busywork freeing us up for more complicated stuff but we'd still regularly get cases that were 6 months to a year behind. It's not like management didn't know the boomers were getting older and they were looking at waves of retirement. They gave it lip service and started some small teams to look at it but the higher ups never seemed to majorly address the looming staffing crunch beyond "automate more". I'm starting to see it where I am at Medicare too. We're losing people with 40/50 years of experience and then when someone with 10 gets put in the role management is shocked they aren't doing as much as fast as the prior person mgmt took for granted.

    As for all the forms it seems certain mindsets end up in congress writing the laws and in the various agencies writing the policies. Lots of lawyers and people with graduate degrees who have a lot of faith in the power of the written word. The Biden admin now wants us to collect Race data now that we never collected before, before it was just "Are you over 65/disabled? Ok here's your Medicare/SSA check etc" we didn't care about Race.

    And as much as most of us want to help the public, we're constrained by the laws congress writes. So often instead of contacting the agency people should contact their congressman because their situation would require a law tweak (though often a lot of laws just say "As the secretay/agency shall determine", Courts really need to enforce non-delegation better). Also even for administrative stuff, contact your congressman, your issue will get more attention coming from their office. Just the way it is.

  6. to follow up it really matters who gets elected and who they appoint to run the agencies. As it seems we'll learn in the future Walt Ames books?

  7. On a positive note, the earliest appointment I could get at the DMV to update my California DL to a Real ID was 3 days after the birthday when my DL expired. Since Murphy HATES me I went in and paid for the renewal before it expired. When I went back for the Real ID appointment I fully expected to pay again..

    The clerk who processed the Real ID update waived the card fee!

    Not a lot of money but a nice surprise.

  8. I haven't had much experience with the bureaucracy since moving from Silicon Valley to this corner of East Tennessee, but what there's been has been neither slow nor laborious.
    … Which reminds me: I need to contact some county official or other; I think we didn't get enough tax bills. (Yes, not enough. It's complicated.)

  9. I discovered a "Us" versus "Them" attitude at the DMV in Montana. I moved to Montana from California, a "them" state. While the DMV did their job, the underlying attitude added an unpleasant tension to the transaction. No one did more than the bare minimum and no information was offered to help things along.

    Eventually, I was told that I needed a copy of my birth certificate. I responded that I'd have to run up to the courthouse to get a copy. Suddenly, I was one of "Us" and there was a tectonic shift in attitude and manner. The rest of the visit was very pleasant and I actually saw smiles.

    My wife, a California native, has resorted to casually mentioning that her family has been continuously in Montana since 1863, making her sixth generation. That tends to put upstarts like me, only second generation, in their place.

  10. There are many ways that Japanese bureaucracy is annoying but zoning, planning and the general ability to do whatever you want on your property is not one of them.

    If you want to build a building to live in then they will get interested to make sure that it is (for example) built to withstand earthquakes, if you want to build a large polluting factory on a former rice paddy they probably want to inspect to make sure you don't annoy the neighbors with the pollution, but those are about the limits.

    There are actually TV programs about people buying a mountain or part of one and building their own house and farm etc on it and it is clear the local government bodies will actually help you navigate the required bureaucracy

    Aside: that's actually something I've discovered in other areas of life too. Yes there are forms to fill in, boxes to tick, stamps to obtain etc. but the relevant government offices typically have a flowchart and clear examples so you go to window A, fill in form, hand it in at window B, wait 5 minutes for the lady to review it and stamp it, go to window C clutching your form and the man there does other magic and hands you another form and so on but an hour or three later you can leave with all the paperwork done. Or with a printout saying come back in 2 weeks to collect it … I don't like Japanese bureaucracy but it is at least efficient and not particularly intrusive

    Oh and while everyone is masked (often around the chin) the offices are not closed due to Wuflu

  11. I've never had anything but good to say of the Texas DMV clerks … The most complicated project was some years ago when I had a not-serious collision at low speed in the Very Elderly Volvo. For insurance purposes, I had to deregister the car, declare it a wreck … and then when repaired, re-register it. Complicated paperwork, but the senior clerk at the DMV took me out of the line, filled out the necessary forms in pencil as an example that I should follow exactly and precisely when I did the forms myself. Above and beyond.

  12. Since Mitch Daniels reorganized and modernized the DMV system here in Indiana, I've never had a bad experience with them.

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