Cos (cos) wrote,
Cos
cos

Tales in Bureaucracy III

Two years ago, I posted Tales in Bureaucracy and Tales in Bureacracy II - If you weren't reading me back then, you might want to read those first. Those stories got me thinking, what is it about bureaucracy that makes it both so frustrating and funny at the same time? What are the things that bureaucracies have in common, that lead to these kinds of stories?

I came up with two broad themes:

1. Overly strict adherence to procedures

Standard procedures are one of the strengths of bureaucracy, and one of the reasons we have it. People who have expertise develop procedures for others to follow, and a large organization can learn what goes wrong over time and evolve the rules. The procedures that results can, in some sense, have more knowledge built in over time than any one person following them could have. It takes human judgement to know when the rules shouldn't apply, but human judgement can itself be faulty, so people are reluctant to use it.
    When I was in high school, I often spent my evenings hanging out at the Coolidge Corner Theater, where several of my friends worked. Lots of free, weird movies, and more time with my friends when they were idle between bursts of busy. I remember one manager, Derek, who was rather... less loose than the rest, though still a nice guy.

    One evening, a couple walked in to check the movie schedule, at a time when both theaters were in the middle of showings - which the theaters were filled with people, but there was nobody in the lobby or by the entrance doors, other than a couple of employees and me. The couple got the information they wanted, and began to walk out. As they were opening the doors, Derek noticed they were about to exit through the "enter" doors - and beckoned them back and and asked them to go around a short barrier and over to the "exit" doors. Which were directly next to the "enter" doors, and let out onto exactly the same space.

    As they passed through the exit, the woman turned back and said to Derek, "you have the mind of a true bureaucrat."

2. Authority rests with people too far removed from the front lines

I suppose this is one way organizations have of preventing people from using their judgement, just in case they mis-use it.
    One summer in college, there was a convenience store I passed most every day between campus and the apartment I was subletting. I would often stop and get a Ben & Jerry's "Bluberry Cheesecake" frozen yogurt. Until they stopped stocking it. I'd check, and there would be none, and I'd go home dissatisfied.

    After a few weeks of this, one afternoon I was walking home when I saw a Ben & Jerry's truck outside the store. Ahah! I went in, and there was the Ben & Jerry's guy, stocking the shelves. I asked him if he had any Blueberry Cheesecake, and why hadn't it been there for weeks, and he said that yes, he had it, but the store had stopped authorizing them to stock any "frozen yogurt product". He couldn't unload any of it unless the store asked him to. So I went to the guy at the counter, and asked him to request the Ben & Jerry's guy stock some Blueberry Cheesecake. Sorry, he said, he wasn't authorized to allow them to stock anything management hadn't requested. "Could you ask him to unload just one, and then I'll buy it right now?" Nope, he couldn't do that.

    The Ben & Jerry's guy heard this exchange, and beckoned me over to tell me his secret plan. When he was done stocking the shelves, I met him at the back of his truck to complete the clandestine ice cream deal.
Got any stories of your own to illustrate these two themes? Or some new themes to suggest?
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