Unpublished: Evil and Grace in Bureaucracy

I am the Department Chair of the Psychology Department at ACU. What this means is that I'm a bureaucrat. More precisely, a part of my job is being a bureaucrat as I manage the paperwork, budgets, programs, and personnel of my academic department.

This is not a job I'm well suited for. If I have a free hour my tendency is to crack open a book and start reading. This isn't, bureaucratically speaking, the best use of my time. There are reports on my desk I probably should be attending to.

Bureaucratically speaking, I dislike just about every aspect of being Department Chair. Except one thing. There is one part of the job that I love.

Every semester I have students who come to see me who have been completely demoralized by the university bureaucracy. Here's the typical case: The student gets an e-mail from a campus office informing her, due to some piece of red tape, that some terrible thing is about to happen to her, financially or academically. Ever been on the receiving end of a letter, phone call or e-mail like this? We all have.

So the student starts bouncing around from office to office, sitting patiently in waiting rooms, explaining the problem over and over again and, after explaining it all, getting passed on to some other part of the distributed university bureaucracy. The can just gets kicked down the road. And the can, in this case, is a human being.

And here's the diabolical thing. No one's at fault. Everyone is being nice. It's just that there are these policies, procedures, and rules.

As time passes the student just gets emotionally beaten down by all this. Moving from office to office it starts to seem to her like she is in a Kafkaesque nightmare, facing a malevolent entity that manifests itself as a coldly indifferent bureaucratic force that loves playing Muzak in the background.

Eventually, the student comes to my office to "see if your Department might help you." The student sits across my desk looking hopeless, desperate, and demoralized all at once. I typically start with the line: "Okay Susan, what can I do to make you happy?"

And Susan tells me the whole Kafka-inspired drama. Starting with the e-mail and then her nightmarish journey through the bureaucracy of the the university. She recounts all this with dead, weary eyes. She expects nothing but more of the same from me. I'm just the next office in a long line of offices.

But there are times I can actually help. I say something like, "Susan, I think if I do X, Y, and Z we can get this resolved. Do you want me to do that?"

Susan looks shocked. Tears well up in her eyes. She can't believe it. I'm actually going to move my bureaucratic pen across this bureaucratic form to remove some bureaucratic obstacle to end this nightmare.

Those are the moments I like being a Department Chair. My role in the bureaucracy allows me to insert some humanity into an impersonal system.

Because I think, by and large, bureaucracies tend toward the demonic as structural forms of power that afflict people. They are impersonal, distributed and malevolent forces that chew people up. I'm sure you can identify. Remember when you had a problem and were run through a bureaucracy that was coldly indifferent to your suffering?

The reason bureaucracies evolve into demonic agents is their distributed nature. No one is in charge so there is no one to blame. The malevolence (or indifference) comes from the whole distributed, anonymous structure. You can't really get mad at the person in front of you. They are just "doing their job." It's not their fault and, in fact, they are really nice and want to help you. But they can't. Policies and procedures being what they are....

So while I generally dislike functioning as a bureaucrat, I embrace the times when I can insert some humanity into the system. A moment of grace. I bet you can identify. Can you recall your feelings when, in the middle of your own bureaucratic nightmare, you encountered a truly competent and compassionate person? Someone who listened to you and then--miracle of miracles!--actually fixed the problem rather than (as bureaucracies tend to do) kicked your problem down the road until, after sheer fatigue, you just gave up and went away?

Seriously, who hasn't been moved to tears of gratitude when they've encountered an act of bureaucratic kindness and humanity? It's a rare and precious gift. And when you get a chance to give that gift it is truly a wonderful thing.

--an unpublished post

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