Sunday, November 22, 2009


What is it with Bureaucracies? Do you think they have weekly committee meetings to see how they can make their average customer’s life more difficult? I’m convinced they do. It’s the only explanation.

I had the misfortune last week to be on the receiving end of a bureaucratic system. This meant I had to go from Point A to Point D, brandishing a little form which needed to be stamped and signed and ratified and approved at each of the various stations. Have you ever noticed how the trip between any two points of such a system always has to be done on one of the hottest days of the year? Funny how that happens.

Anyway, I thought I could get it all done in an hour. All that was required, after all, were a few signatures and a little financial negotiation and I would be home free. Silly me. How easily one forgets.

Point A went along swimmingly, filling me with false hope for a speedy conclusion. Point B was a little sticky. Person required to sign the form was not available so I had to come back. And then come back later again. And once again come back later. But all concerned were doing their best to be courteous. When the person in question was finally back, the signature was done with the best will in the world. And it only took a couple of days. I was lulled into the false security that everyone was out to help me.

So I sailed on blithely to point C. And there she was. The original bureaucrat. The one who designed the system. The one who worked out how it takes five pairs of hands to fill in a single form. The one who says “How can I make this process more difficult for this person?” The one who lies awake at night thinking of different ways to say “NO!”

I almost escaped her clutches. Her young colleague was listening with empathy to my need for a little bending of the iron-clad rules. I could see the girl consider the possibilities of how we could make efficient but alternative arrangements.

And then the experienced signer of forms, the veteran deflater of hopes, the gainsayer extraordinaire moved into position. A quick interrogation of her colleague’s intentions made her act swiftly. Behind their glass enclosure, she covered her hands with her multi be-ringed fingers and whispered urgent instructions to her innocent and wayward co-worker. Of course I couldn’t hear a word of the vicious calumnies she was obviously pouring out on my head and so couldn’t pre-empt any objections. But it took a mere matter of seconds before the young girl’s helpfulness changed to stern “There is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that we can possibly contemplate this”-ness. If you know what I mean.

I sighed deeply. I did not break down and cry as I’ve done before. Three years ago, when ill with TB, I’d been broken by the system while waiting in a queue at the local clinic for a packet of pre-packed medicine for over two hours. I could see the packets neatly arranged on a table within my grasp. All the other patients were waiting for the same medicine. But we had to follow the primordial procedure to go from step A to step Z even though it was the n’th time all of us had been there. And then, then - just when it was finally my turn - the nurses shut up their little offices and went to tea. Both of them. For half an hour.

I do not profess to have great time/management skills but I’m sure I could improve the efficiency of most of these processes. I once heard a man describe his attempt to obtain his preordained funds from the government for his state school as being impossible “because it takes ten hands to wipe one arse.

It’s those weekly obfuscation meetings I tell you. They must spend hours devising new ways to make life more difficult for the average applicant. But I’m willing to bet that they never come to a unified resolution on anything.

In fact, I believe hell is not “other people” as Jean Paul Sartre stated in his play Huis-clos (No Exit). It’s being given a form and asked to get it processed by an endless string of bureaucrats!


Jared said...

Janet, you should experience the joys of withdrawing money from a bank in India. Actually, maybe you shouldn’t. You only had points A to D to contend with; Indian banking bureaucracy often runs the madcap gauntlet of the whole alphabet. It’s not unusual to see holidaying Brits in banks, camped out in any number of nameless queues, their heads buried in their hands and their shoulders heaving with each wretched sob.

Our marauding British forefathers introduced the wonders of fundamental bureaucracy to that delightful country, and now, a century later, we suffer the painful consequences of a nation in thrall of paper pushing.

Janet van Eeden said...

Oh dear Jared... It seems that India has wrecked the ultimate revenge on its former Colonisers! What a terrible revenge... Bureaucratic hell in a bank. Sounds awful. Another reason I'm not rushing to India for a while. :)