How to deal with an inefficient bureaucracy-- from the inside?
March 11, 2013 4:04 PM   Subscribe

What are your strategies and best practices for being a cog in an inefficient bureaucracy? How do you compartmentalize the frustration and leave it in the office?

I have a part-time job working in a department of a large and notoriously bureaucratic university, where I'm also a full-time student. Part of my job involves collecting paperwork from academics so they can be paid for services or reimbursed for expenses, and then submitting it to the people who actually control the money. Basically, I'm the go-between between academics and bureaucrats. Usually, things go fine, but fairly regularly, maybe every month or so, something goes wrong on the bureaucrats' side and someone's money gets held up. When this happens, I end up losing tons of time being tossed around from administrator to administrator until someone can finally tell me what happened and how to fix it. I've started to expect that it will take no fewer than three phone calls (each with 20+ minutes of hold time) to get something approximating an explanation -- which usually ends up being something like "Oh, we forgot to send that check out" or "Oh, we just changed this policy but haven't informed anyone."

I am someone who finds it very stressful to not be able to fix things quickly, and I also hate telling people that their money will be late. Even if it's true, saying that the delay is outside my control feels like a weak excuse. As a result, I end up carrying the stress home with me, where it's hard to turn it off and focus on my schoolwork. While I know that this means that a career in academic bureaucracy is not for me, I'm not planning to leave the job in the very near future -- the money is good, most of the time my workload is pretty light, and the people I work with are in the field I study. For now, I want to improve my compartmentalization skills so that when these problems pop up, I can fix them without them taking over my life for a day or a week.

So, my actual question: If you work in a less-than-efficient bureaucracy (academic or otherwise), how do you avoid taking the stress home with you? What are the best ways to be effective without going beyond your pay grade? And if part of your job is dealing with people unacquainted with your special snowflake of a Kafkaesque nightmare, what are your best strategies for handling the mistakes of people deeper inside the bureaucracy?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The most difficult part of every job I have held is to walk the fine line between leaving work at work (and not sliding into bitter, cynical, useless spite) versus being the go-getter who everyone loathes, because I feel driven to try to improve things that aren't really my area but are clearly a massively wasteful systemic problem for many people.

So while the jaded lady at the DMV (who tells you that it's not her problem you didn't bring the form that nobody has ever heard of before in their life) is not exactly a paragon of virtue, you can learn valuable life lessons from everyone.

I know you realize that it's not your fault when you're delivering this sort of bad news. The professors are doubtlessly used to it. It's not an excuse. It's the literal truth when you tell them you hunted down the problem and their expense report was denied.

When these people try to kill the messenger, bounce. They can't get you fired. You're not gunning for a promotion, either. Leave work at work.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 4:21 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you any good at programming? Maybe you could start working on a mini-CRM to automate a small part of the process on your side, and increment it until it's a larger system, then try to disseminate it to one or two of the bureaucrats you think might like it.

It's a long shot to sell, but I have seen it work within some insanely pathetic bureaucracies. At least you can help yourself, right?

Also look at Joel on Software's "Getting Things Done When You'e Only A Grunt," some of it may be applicable to programmers too.
posted by tel3path at 4:54 PM on March 11, 2013

If I can finish my day knowing I did my best job possible, then I can leave work with a clear conscience and carry no baggage home. Actually, I'm not really sure how I deal with the stress of being a low cog in a bureaucracy; I think it's made me angrier and I'm eagerly awaiting good answers to this part of your question.

The second and third parts I can hopefully address a little more effectively.

What are the best ways to be effective without going beyond your pay grade? And if part of your job is dealing with people unacquainted with your special snowflake of a Kafkaesque nightmare, what are your best strategies for handling the mistakes of people deeper inside the bureaucracy?

My answer to both these questions is the same: Know The Process.

Your job as a cog is to know your duties and how to do them, but if you can familiarize yourself with the entire system outside of your own milieu you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

Dealing with mistakes and inefficiencies, by knowing the process you know what needs to be reported for evaluation and who will be doing that evaluating. It's not the most satisfying path to take, but it's the best overall for keeping relations civil with the other people in your bureau.

Knowing The System also helps alleviate concern from folks who are caught up in the tentacles of the bureaucracy. Explain to them the steps necessary to solve their problem. Even if you don't know how long it will take, and aren't able to give them any specific reassurances, at least you can inform them that the problem is in the hands of someone capable of and motivated to solve the problem.

For example, I may not know how long it's going to take for another library to fetch and deliver a patron's inter-library loan book, but I do know how the process works in general. So while I can't answer their question of time satisfactorily, I can give them some insight on the process. If they can't know the when then at least I can give them the how.

So, in your situation, you may not know when exactly that person will get their check cut, but you can inform them of all the steps you'll need to go through to find out for them, and they can hopefully take some solace in that information. You can't make the bureaucracy work any faster, but you can peel away some layers from the black box that has swallowed your person's money.
posted by carsonb at 5:03 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've found my frustration is highest when I resist the reality that I'm living in- thinking things like "This shouldn't be like this!!!" When the reality you're confronted with doesn't meet your expectations, you can do 1 of 4 things:

1) Change the reality - fight to make the changes at your job that you want to see
2) Change yourself - change your expectations so that they fit the current reality
3) Leave
4) Resist the current reality

1-3 are great frustration reducers. 4 is not.
posted by Holidayalltheway at 5:15 PM on March 11, 2013

I had an entry level job in a big beauracracy for over five years. However, I rarely carried the stress home. I processed insurance claims for accident policies, so I read accident reports, police reports, ER records and operative reports routinely. If I knew a customer was flat broke, facing an empty fridge and the power getting cut off, I tried to expedite the check if possible. But most of the time a delayed check was not going to involve that kind of drama. My ex was career military, I have raised two special needs sons and I have a deadly medical condition. My skin is pretty thick. I occasionally read an accident report that really upset me but most of what I did at work was not that emotionally moving for me. Other people at work somewhat often marvelled at how little it bothered me to read the medical records.

So I think you could try to intentionally give yourself a thicker skin. I would recommend watching the movie "Beyond Rangoon" and try doing volunteer work related to some social issue that will hit close to home for you and bother you. Example: If cancer runs in your family, volunteer at a cancer ward. Something that will make you feel "there but for the grace of god go I." After spending time facing much more wrenching stuff than someone being mostly inconvenienced by a delayed check, the odds are high it will bother you a whole lot less to tell someone their check is delayed.

However, having said that, the longer you work there, the better you will get to know the system and its quirks. I got good at analyzing some of the technical glitches which could delay a check and either avoiding them altogether or remedying the situation after the fact so the delay was as brief as possible. Try to be friendly with people who have been there longer. When something frustrates you, grouse in a collegial (non blaming) fashion. You may find they had the same problem a month or two back and they already did the four weeks of research you are in the process of repeating, thus they know the five minute solution to fix your kafka-esque nightmare (that's a real example from my former job).

I also got pretty good at buttonholing bigwigs late on a Friday. I had a "good excuse" for doing that because of the team I was on, but other people did not seem to do that. Try to cultivate a gee-golly-whiz demeanor of "I am newish and just don't know everything and there isn't anyone else around so could you please answer a question or two good sir?" I mean don't suggest you are incompetent. Suggest their seniority and expertise is deeply appreciated. And blame it on circumstances beyond your control -- "I mean, what's a girl/boy to do when blah issue comes up and no one is here to solve it? Just doing my job. It would be a shame to put this off until Monday/I am only trying to protect the department from getting yet another cranky phone call next week." That sometimes cut through a lot of red tape. But you have to tread very lightly.
posted by Michele in California at 6:05 PM on March 11, 2013

Learning how to give people bad news at work/about their money is a whole different skill set than being able to do so gracefully in your personal life. I don't deal with other people's money, and that does seem particularly wrought, but I do deliver crappy bureaucratic news about problems and schedule delays and inconveniences all the time. Honestly, in a way, it's going to go badly no matter what you do. It's shitty news. (And again, when you are talking about someone's checking account, I think the stakes are higher.)

Back to the skill set: just tell everyone exactly everything you know as clearly and efficiently as possible. You are a conduit. You are a telephone line. You are a telegram. Your job is to convey information. And you're neutral. That is how you can be the very most useful person you can be in this situation. "Your money is going to be at least X days late. I'm sorry. I have submitted Q form. Usually, after I do that, then I have to call A, B, and C. So unfortunately, I have to ask you to be patient. Here's how you can get updates/more information..."

And then always be willing to provide an update or more information if they call. It would be awesome if you remember who they are and what the deal is. "Yes, Mr. X, thanks for calling. I called A and B but now we're just waiting on C. I will probably have another update for you in X days." You know what will make them really love you? A spontaneous, well-timed update or two from you: "Here's what's been done, here's what still needs doing, please let me know if you have questions."

Seriously, this stuff isn't your fault and you don't have the power to fix it. Don't blame yourself. Give yourself credit for doing your part to make it a little easier, and then try to excel at that.
posted by juliplease at 6:10 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Erm....alcohol and trying my best to not think about work after quitting time. I know you need schoolwork time, but maybe watching an hour of television right when you get home--something that puts you in another world entirely and gets your mind off shit--might be enough of a palate cleanser to distract you from Teh Dramaz.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:42 PM on March 11, 2013

I think, anticipate and build all these potential delays into the process, as much as you're in a position to.

When you give people their reimbursement forms, emphasize (verbally, and on the form itself if you have any input into it) that completed forms submitted earlier will have a better chance of being dealt with in that month's cycle. (Because I am guessing that those aren't always submitted in a timely fashion, either.) Also, if you're dealing with people by phone, overestimate the processing time by a couple of weeks, to keep expectations low.

If you know something's held up on the bureaucratic end after two phone calls and it sounds like a resolution will take time, be proactive - maybe shoot waiting academics an email, apologizing & letting them sort of generally know that there has been a delay, roughly what it's about ('a change in policy'), and tell them you (as in your department) are working to handle it.

As far as managing your stress: take for granted that these delays aren't impeding your work, but rather are part of it. Expect to spend 3 x 20 minutes on phone calls. If they're competing with more urgent tasks, you might still have to scramble around them in terms of organizing time, but you might feel differently about the whole thing. Odds are colleagues and boss broadly get it anyway, but if something else in the office is seen as more important: first, do that; second, document the interdepartmental calls (duration, department, reason).

If you're regularly being ambushed on the phone from annoyed academics (and you have caller ID, obv, can't miss calls from accounts), screen your calls. Return them when you've had a breath and a coffee (but, the same day). This can introduce an infinitesimal, but maybe important sense of control into things.

At 5 o'clock - and I guess, count that blessing, it's probably not 7 or 8 - forget it, absolutely forget it, and yeah, either drink, or flip the feeling into a reminder of why you're in school. (And to avoid prolonging the situation, do your damned best at school.)
posted by nelljie at 7:32 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bureaucratic cog in academia, here.

First, unless your institution is extra special messed up, you are probably talking to the same departments, and very possibly the same people, every time a problem arises. Make friends with those people. Get their direct phone numbers. If they have to put you on hold for 20 minutes to check with someone else, ask if you should be calling that person directly instead.

It's unclear to me if you're on hold for 20 minutes at a time because everyone who calls that department ends up on hold for 20 minutes at a time (aka why I never call the main number for the Housing office at my institution) or if you are being put on hold while someone is doing research on their end. It won't speed up the process, but if someone is putting you on hold for more than a few minutes to ask questions or look something up in their system, it is perfectly acceptable to ask them to get back to you when they have an answer. Yes, you may very well have to follow up with them, but I would rather have to make three two-minute calls than one 20-minute one.

And honestly, you are stuck with this time-consuming but thankless task because you're the student worker. I don't work with any student staff right now but if I did you can bet they'd be doing the things my co-workers and I find the most irritating. Of course, I have to do the tasks the people above me find irritating, because that's how it works.

I agree that you should factor in the Something is Going to Go Wrong time into whatever timeline you give the people submitting their reimbursements to you. That way they get to be pleasantly surprised when they get their money "early". And unless you're dealing with people who are either entirely new to academia or just incredibly sheltered, things not going as expected should not be a huge surprise. Seriously - the only people who disagree with me when I suggest they might not get their first paycheck on time are those who have no experience in academia.

One proactive thing you could do is track everything carefully. When I handled travel reimbursements, I kept a spreadsheet with all of the relevant information for each person including the date the request went to the appropriate office. If I wanted to be certain whether or not someone's check was going to be cut in a given batch, I would call my contact in that office before check-cutting day. Sometimes this meant catching something that had been missed so the person could still get their money on time. Other times it meant I could at least warn them that they wouldn't be reimbursed for another cycle. Documentation doesn't mean that no one will ever blame you when they don't get their money on time (really, are they new?), but it does provide you with backup.

Hang in there. Learning the system will help (there really is usually some sort of logic to the chaos... somewhere), as will keeping a sense of humor about it all. I know that can be difficult when you're having to be the bearer of bad financial news, but this is really not worth this degree of stress for you. Remember what I said about you being the student worker? That means stressing out about your role in the bureaucracy is above your pay grade.
posted by camyram at 9:33 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Something to keep in mind is that without you doing & chasing their paperwork for them, some of the academics probably wouldn't get their money at all when someone else forgets to file a form. Every action you take to get them paid/reimbursed is one action they don't have to take. No one should be blaming you for delays elsewhere in the system, least of all, you.

Another thing to remember is that few sane people really count on getting reimbursed speedily or without complications. That's just not how the world works.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:37 PM on March 11, 2013

Just came back to applaud camyram for providing you with superlative advice, and underscore the bit about making friends. A little bit of love is the WD40 of any bureaucracy.
posted by nelljie at 11:51 PM on March 11, 2013

First, unless your institution is extra special messed up, you are probably talking to the same departments, and very possibly the same people, every time a problem arises. Make friends with those people. Get their direct phone numbers. If they have to put you on hold for 20 minutes to check with someone else, ask if you should be calling that person directly instead.

Nthing this advice. My institution has administrators and faculty who can get things done because they know who to talk to and who not to talk to.
posted by lalochezia at 6:17 AM on March 12, 2013

Even if you know the system reasonably well and have friends to talk to you'll still regularly be subjected to frustrating waits, incompetence and whatever spurious hurdles your particular bureaucracy can throw at you. The sort of thing that drives pragmatic, problem solving folks with long to do lists absolutely insane. So I would also recommend:

Patience - it will help you deal with all manner of crap in all areas of life. Move well beyond the 20 minute threshold you seem to have at the moment.

Expectations - start to expect the worst. e.g. every problem will take 5 30 + min calls to resolve. That way you'll be extatic if it only takes 2 calls.

It is so much easier to have low expectations and enjoy having them exceeded than to have 'reasonable' expectations and get frustrated at every corner. At least when dealing with bureaucracy. Clearly your expectations should be high in other areas of your life.

For an extra bonus - manage the expectations of the people who's money is being held up. If you do communicate a timeframe to them add a cushion. That way, if the bureaucrats are particularly slow, you'll not start to stress about calling the academics again.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:04 AM on March 12, 2013

"I am someone who finds it very stressful to not be able to fix things quickly, and I also hate telling people that their money will be late. Even if it's true, saying that the delay is outside my control feels like a weak excuse. As a result, I end up carrying the stress home with me, where it's hard to turn it off and focus on my schoolwork."

Most professors, especially in departments that can afford student workers to shepherd reimbursement requests, make enough bank that they can afford the delay. Hell, many put off collecting the reimbursement paperwork (reciepts, etc) themselves! Even the less well remunerated academics should feel guilty about the stress you're absorbing dealing with the delay. Personally I find the more infuriating bureaucracy snafus are the "Oh we didn't process your funds transfer in a reasonable amount of time, and the rules say we get to charge your department interest for going negative on the books!" Fuck that noise.

As far as stress goes, my suggestion is to use a logbook, so you can go to your clients and say "I did X and Y on day Z, well ahead of the monthly submission deadline." Recording names and looking up org charts can also help you piece together who you're working with and who they report to, because as has been repeated, building relationships is key. Just realize that people know when you're trying to "jump the line" on customer service requests by calling them directly.
posted by pwnguin at 11:15 PM on March 12, 2013

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