Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Bureaucracy Happens

"Nothing is ever a big deal...until it happens to you, at which point it becomes a very big deal."

So in the National Guard, there's a fairly steady undercurrent of tension between the part-timers and the full-timers. The attitude of the part-timers tends to be something along the lines of, "Those lazy bastards. They've got all month to plan just two days of drill, but somehow things always get messed up." Many full-timers tend to think, "Those ungrateful bastards. I work so hard to make sure all the paperwork is in order, and I'm lucky to even get as much as an acknowledgement for it."

I have a fairly interesting window on it all, because I sort of sit between the two worlds. The units can bring more FTSP (Full-Time Support Personnel) on board during special projects or near units' mobilization dates, who essentially augment the *real* full-time force by working during the weeks and the drill weekends but in a temporary status.

As with any longstanding dispute or misunderstanding, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. However, if I HAD to pick a side, I'm going with the part-timers. They're the ones who SHOULD have everything in order for them on the weekends. They're the ones who make the sacrifice of juggling two jobs, and they're the ones who lose financially when things get screwed up.

To use a not-so-hypothetical example, let's say someone who worked a civilian, private sector job planned to take the month of January off because he had been promised a course that ran the entire month (and would pay him his regular base pay, plus travel and allowance costs). Then, when the time came to input the order, the full-time Officer in charge arbitrarily decided, "No, I don't see the need for can just be completed online instead on the soldier's own time." Never mind all the e-mails and phone calls during the months prior (during which time the desk jockey Officer could've voiced those thoughts). More importantly, never mind the well-being of that soldier. His civilian employer had already arranged for him to be gone in January, and the soldier had already made travel and lodging arrangements for the course. The person making that decision is going to be paid handsomely every 1st and 15th of the month regardless, and has apparently forgotten that it's not that simple for everyone else.

On a smaller scale, other things like this happen from time to time. Training events get planned or cancelled without all the people involved being notified. Bureaucratic snafus keep people from getting the proper (new) pay after a promotion. Security clearance packages get lost in the sauce. And so on and so on.

In almost all cases, it boils down to one simple thing: People not treating an individual situation as if it were *their own.*

In other words, let's say you send a mortgage check to Wells Fargo every month on the first. Let's say you usually notice it clear your account sometime around the seventh. If it gets to be the 11th or 12th of the month, and you don't see the updated bank activity, what are you going to do?

Don't worry, I'll answer for you.

You'll call to see what happened. You'll want to figure out if it was a Post Office issue, or if the bank had been backlogged, or if there was some type of problem with the check, etc. You might offer to have your check voided and write a new one, or to see what the manager can do for you, or some other proactive solution...What you WON'T do, however, is just sort of *let it go.* You don't want to get hit with penalties or other bank issues for something that wasn't even your fault in the first place.

Really good bureaucrats treat their jobs the same way. They follow up. If they don't hear back from an important e-mail, they call. If that doesn't bear fruit, they call around the office they need to find someone else. They double check. They keep lists. Basically, they take ownership of their role, and treat everyone's issue like it were theirs.

Unfortunately, not-so-good bureaucrats "fire and forget." Yes, they may show basic competency by sending someone's paperwork off to the equivalent of the "Top Men" warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they don't take that next, critical step of making sure it actually got there. Not-so-good bureaucrats are very good at using the defensive mechanism of insisting that "it's not a big deal" to address other people's concerns.

The problem is, it is a big deal. If your application package for a Company Commander position, or your paperwork packet for a security clearance, or your eligibility data for a VA home loan were on someone else's desk, it would be a really big deal to you. If you lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and took a month off of your civilian job because you had been verbal and written promises to come on orders for equivalent or higher pay, but then had that rug pulled out from under you, it would be a really big deal then, too.

When people completely lose sight of that, they deserve a wake-up call that, unfortunately, usually never comes. This is sort of a tautology, but the people who least need the wake-up call in the first place (i.e. the most 'tuned-in' bureaucrats) are also the quickest to see the light when something gets screwed up and then try to fix it. And, of course, vice versa.

Bear in mind, this isn't just more public sector self-loathing stuff here. I think this sort of thing applies to ALL large organizations, and can be felt by anyone who has ever tried to resolve a bogus insurance claim, or moving violation, or clerical error on a bank statement, etc. It's YOUR big deal, and not theirs, and that's obvious from the manner and attitude with which it's being handled.

That's *sort of* okay and expected when we're talking about impersonal and anonymous settings, esp. when you consider the person handling it may have hundreds or even thousands of cases and could NEVER be expected to treat each like they were his or hers. However, when the scale is far smaller and the relationship between supporter and supported is more explicit, the type of callousness that leads someone to say, "Just do it online," without a shred of regard for how that might affect the person in question or his family is, well, unacceptable.

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