2018-01-23

Beyond Bureaucracy

Spend any amount of time discussing politics on social media, and you'll soon discover that every conversation eventually becomes a race to the bottom of an endless pit of citations. Information is easy to come by these days. Cite-able sources are often just a click away. If you are able to produce an official government document that clearly states a policy, then who is anyone to disagree with what that policy is?

These are the inclinations of a bureaucrat. It might be well worth investigating whether our all having become a bunch of bureaucrats is due to some aspect of social media, the ever-expanding role that government plays in our daily lives, or the fact that the professional services economy in which so many Americans work primarily rewards bureaucrats.

Before I move on to my real point today, let's consider each possibility separately.

1. Social media turns us into bureaucrats. While I think this is a difficult position to argue for effectively, there is a kernel of truth here. X disagrees with Y. Y demands evidence for X's position. X produces some evidence. Y produces some counter-evidence. Now that the ball is rolling, the only way for X and Y to settle their dispute is to come to an agreement about which one has the more perfect evidence. This is no longer a material argument. X and Y aren't discussing the original issue anymore. Instead, they've migrated over to a meta-argument; Whose paper trail ends first?

2. The ever-expanding role of government in our lives turns us into bureaucrats. At first blush, this seems like a sort of unhinged, right-wing spook story. On closer inspection, though, the idea has teeth. We rely on the government for so many different things, and each thing requires its own unique set of policies and documentation. If we don't produce adequate documentation, then the policy says we must go home and try again. If we produce the right documentation, then our lives can go forward as planned. People who excel in producing the correct documentation are keen to offer advice to the rest of us for effectively navigating the labyrinthine policies of government. Sometimes it's not even good enough to comply with the policies. Sometimes it's a question of producing a new kind of documentation that changes the policy-definition of the problem. We experience this when we mail a letter, when we interact with the school systems, when we pay our taxes, when we pay our water bills, when we file insurance claims or fill a prescription. The more we interact with society on a bureaucratic level, the more incentive we ourselves have to become bureaucrats.

3. The professional services economy primarily rewards bureaucrats. Think of all the managers in your office. Are these people the best workers in the building, or are they the ones with the greatest familiarity with the company's policies and procedures. Be honest. Assuming you'd like your career to advance into the managerial level and beyond, what will be your strategy? Will you come up with an innovative job technique, or will you come up with some new bureaucratic policy that provides a paper trail that can be assumed synonymous with efficiency gains? Think about your own little corner of the professional universe. Would you get promoted if you invented a new product? Or, would you get promoted if you built a new ticketing system that enabled managers to more accurately track employee progress?

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We've all been there. We receive a bill in the mail -- perhaps it's a telephone bill, or a utility bill -- and we notice a small error. We call customer service to have the matter corrected. Before we know it, we've sunk two hours into making a simple correction to our bill.

The underlying issue here isn't that the problem on our bill can't be fixed. Instead, the underlying issue is that we have to find the person who is bureaucratically assigned to the button that fixes this problem. Once we have that person on the other end of the line, we have to tell that person the right sequence of words. Only then will he or she be able to justify his/her pressing of the button. Only then will our billing issue be corrected. It's frustrating, but it's the way life works, at least in this bureaucratic world of ours.

Here's a piece of practical advice that has worked for me in highly bureaucratic situations. When I run into a bureaucratic dead-end, and the person on the other end of the line insists that there's absolutely nothing more that they can do, I ask them this question: "If you were me, what would you do?" This phrase is like a magic key. It does a number of things. First, it helps crack the bureaucratic veneer a little bit; the person on the other end of the line starts to think of me as a fellow human, not just a policy obstacle or a form to fill out. Second, it changes the nature of the conversation; before, we were talking about what that person had to do because I had called, but now we're talking about all the things I might be willing to do after considering the person's professional advice. Third, it typically uncovers a bureaucratic path forward. Maybe he can't push the button I need pushed, but maybe people in my situation can have a different button pushed by a different person, elsewhere in the system.

Try it. It really works.

Sometimes, when I'm losing patience on the phone, I console myself by thinking about the fact that I'm the one who gets to push the button in some aspect of someone else's life. In some other telephone call in a parallel universe (or on another day of the week), it's the other person who's calling me, and I'm the one tasked to evaluate the credibility of his or her claim to my pushing of the button.

If you want to take a more productive attitude toward bureaucracy in today's world, then apply the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The bureaucrat who can fix the error on your water bill can assure your destruction today. Tomorrow, you can assure his destruction when he calls your office to get his own button pushed. Knowing this, none of us should have an incentive to give the other person too hard of a time since, after all, we'll need the other person to push our button tomorrow. We can be kind. We can be gracious. We can look for any credible reason to push the button and look for any excuse not to; after all, we'd want the same thing for ourselves when it's time to get our own button pushed. Focus on the people, not the policy. The policy was designed to involve your professional discretion. The policy was designed to create a justifiable paper trail. You don't need a policy justification to push the button, you just need a paper trail. It's the decent thing to do.

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I know a guy who moved from Country X to Country Y. No, I'm not going to go into detail here. This is a real human being I'm talking about. I'm not going to disrupt his chi. When he received Country Y citizenship, way back when, he was expected to revoke his citizenship from his other country. I don't know exactly what he did, but he ended up with that Country Y citizenship.

Years later, he had a child. At some point, the man's home country created a temporary policy stating that the foreign-born children of any citizen could apply to gain citizenship. The man filed the application on behalf of his child. He ran into a little trouble when, somewhere within the application process, someone pointed out that he revoked his citizenship.

Now, look, we could all probably dig up some PDFs that validate this point of view. We could all dig up case law showing exactly where things stand. I'm here to tell you that none of this documentation means a darn thing.

Here's why: This man that I know called someone on the telephone and said that his native country could not deny him his birthright citizenship. The person he called agreed with him. Papers were filed, procedures were followed. Some months later, the man's child had dual citizenship.

How did this happen? I mean, in light of all those PDFs and case law citations and everything, how did this happen? The cynic would argue that it was a degradation or corruption of political institutions. But the truth is that the less bureaucratic your mind is, the more open you are to the many possible interpretations of a policy.

The key isn't what the policy states. The key is what the paper trail documents. If you can create a paper trail that says, for example, that a man was born in Country X, moved to Country Y, had a child, and then applied for the child's Country X citizenship, then there is nothing for the bureaucracy to question, because those are the facts, and that's what the paper trail says. If you instead choose to create a paper trail that says a man moved to Country Y and renounced his citizenship and now a foreign national is applying to have his child granted Country X citizenship, then of course that's nonsense.

But the difference isn't in the policy. The difference is in the paperwork.

In the real world, we don't live in policy documents. We live in the flesh. We touch each other, our voices quiver when we're angry, we drink wine, we shed tears, we eat pizza. We're human beings! We're in control of the paper we push around. He who can most accurately cite policy can win an internet argument, but the real winner is the one whose paper trail leads to a happy and comfortable life.

The next time you hear someone say that policy dictates that naturalized citizens of Country Y must renounce their citizenship, remember my friend from Country X. The next time you hear that policy must enforce the law equally, remember this little blog post here. The next time somebody in customer service tells you that you owe an extra $500 and, I'm sorry sir, it can't be helped because the policy dictates that such and such be so and so, remember the time that some pretty girl cried about it and they fixed it for her.

I'm not arguing for anarchy, but we're being dehumanized by bureaucracy. The re-humanization must begin somewhere.