Help… I’m Stuck in a Bureaucracy and Can’t Get Out!

In the Spanish-speaking world it's called Palanca (pull). In Chinese communities worldwide it's Guanxi (connections). But wherever you are in the world, it's all the same: you have to have something extra going for you when it comes to dealing successfully with bureaucrats.

After the initial 'honeymoon' experiences of an international move have worn off, every expat has to come face-to-face with... The Rules! There's no escaping them, and it almost seems that the less complicated a place you choose to live, the more complicated the bureaucracies are. Nevertheless, there's no other way. You must know all the rules and show initiative interpreting them in order to make headway with any bureaucrat, offering good reasons why he should help you that make sense from his point of view.

Obtaining bureaucratic cooperation demands elaborate reasoning, appeals for personalized enforcement of regulations and relies heavily on insider contacts. You must develop these contacts prior to entering the bureaucracy. It will be next to impossible if you are already in the loop, because your motives will then be transparent to everybody.

Here are some observations I've made over the years dealing with bureaucrats:

  1. The informal organization of each office is usually more important than what the public purpose of the organization may indicate. For example, it may turn out (as it did for me in what was then Fort Lamy, Chad) that the Department of Parks is where you need to go to get your scooter permit. Thus it was both useless and irritating to the Motor Vehicle Department official for me to stand there adamantly (in my best schoolboy French) pointing out the sign indicating that this office was clearly supposed to license motor vehicles, and my motor scooter was indeed a vehicle. Alas, it was not to be. I left, seeking the appropriate office of Parks (to which, of course, nobody could direct me) and I swear the last words I heard the clerk mutter were, "Je m'en merde avec les Américains."
  2. It is often difficult to determine who is in charge, because who is in charge of what depends completely upon circumstances, not regulations. Often nobody is actually in charge. Even in the unlikely event that you can get past the front desk, demanding to know who is in charge is pointless, but great fun for everyone in the office who gets to practice their best blank stares. In many cases, simply asking the question "Who is in charge?" will either get you a hostile stare, a shrug, or a deliberate misdirection, such as, "Go talk with Mr. Ali." It will turn out that Mr. Ali has no idea why you are standing in front of him, and can't tell you to whom you should be talking, but he is very, very busy.
  3. Routes of appeal of decisions are often blocked or do not exist in reality. I remember the anger I provoked in an office in Bogota when I asked for a copy of their department's policies after my request had been denied. I was quickly made to understand that El Jefe makes the decisions in this department and doesn't need a book of rules. In other words, I had just offended the one person you do not want to offend in any office.
  4. There are often many different rules and regulations and it is up to you to determine which rules apply and who enforces which rules. One unit of the bureaucracy may enforce, while another is empowered to grant exception to any given rule, but there is no formal way to know this without first having formed the right relationships.
  5. It is often impossible to get in to see anyone without an appointment, and the person you need to see to make an appointment may not be available. Come back tomorrow. Your only choice? Come back tomorrow, with a smile on your face and a friendly hello for the gatekeeper.

Once aware of the realities with which you are dealing you can apply some useful strategies. Here are a few tactics for survival in any bureaucracy, but especially apropos if you are just settling into a new country.

  1. Learn to speak the language. Every hour spent learning will be repaid with many hours not spent waiting and being frustrated, while others who know how to speak with and deal with officials get taken care of.
  2. Plan any encounter with officials carefully. Learn as much as possible beforehand about their office's rules and regulations. You may be able to consult other expats who have had dealings with the office, and get personal referrals. Your first visit should always be simply to determine the availability of the right person to handle your request, not to actually try to accomplish anything. And of course there are no guarantees, even if you get a promise, that upon your return things will be handled.
  3. Saying, "I'll go over your head" does not work well in most places because they know that if you could go over their head, you would already be there and not trying to deal with them. On the other hand, saying, "I'll outwait you and make your life difficult" can be very effective, but only if done non-aggressively.
  4. Learn to tolerate ambiguity, smile a lot, be relaxed, and act as though you have all the time in the world. Accept that definitive answers are rarely provided and understand that there are several levels of "maybe" or "if it is possible". Learn to "read the indirectness" in what you are being told, and re-phrase without being offensive. Try saying, "Please help me to understand. You are telling me that..."
  5. Realize that the people you are dealing with are generally quite good at reading body language and vocal inflection, and consequently, you cannot mask impatience, frustration, prejudice or anger - they'll spot it in a flash. Also, don't forget that part of what spices up their day is evoking these reactions in people. So learn to put these emotions away when you walk through the door of any office anywhere in the world.

In the end, perhaps the most important strategy is embracing a sense of humor. After a frustrating day of dealing with foreign bureaucrats, one can become angry or break down in tears. But believe me, if you simply decide to let out a big belly laugh at the absurdity of it all, you'll feel much better.

Tags: expat, bureaucracy,