Bureaucracy! (The Musical!)


After four years of undergraduate work at Berkeley, and several months at Columbia Law, I have discovered that I am becoming quite the connoiseur of bureaucracy. You would be surprised how many varieties, how many subtle variations, there are to bureacracy. Allow me to demonstrate.

The fundamental goal of bureaucracies, I find, is to prevent those with whom the bureaucracy interfaces, be they students, patrons, customers, or other bureaucracies, from getting what they want out of the system. Each one chooses a unique manner of ensuring frustration.

Berkeley bureaucracies tend to prefer to scare interlopers with a mountain of useless paperwork. When you, for instance, go into the Office of Residency in order to file a Petition for Change of Residency Status, they will give you a pound of forms to fill out, along with a sheet of paper detailing the mighty fuckload of documentation you will have to present alongside that pound of forms in order to back them up. When you return to turn in your ream of papers, they will carefully inspect each sheet for discrepancies. You will have made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps you forgot to save a copy of your voter registration card. Perhaps your driver's license was acquired three days too late. Most likely, they will give your mighty fuckload of documentation a cursory glance and declare that, of all the insults, this is not a mighty fuckload of documentation; it is a mere fuckload. How can you possibly expect the Office of Residency to make an informed and judicious decision about the proper state of your residence when given a fuckload of papers so lacking in might? Please apply again next semester, hopefully once you have gained a proper respect for the importance of documenation.

It bears mentioning that they will not actually tell you that your petition for change of residence has been denied. I'm sure that years of experience have taught them that giving people such bad news tends to cause, well, conflicts, and those can be so unpleasant. The best way to handle these things is to just not tell them, let them find out when the next tuition bill comes with a hefty non-resident fee. It also goes without saying that, if upon review of their documentation they should come up lacking, but the deadline for submitting documentation has not yet expired, and they could in theory submit the missing documentation if informed that it is missing, it is not in any way the office's responsibility to inform the applicant of their oversight. After all, if they were sufficiently enthusiastic about the process of becoming an official California resident in the eyes of the University they would be stopping by to check on the status of their application at least once a week. For who among us does not enjoy popping into the Office of Residency and checking on the status of their paperwork of a lovely Spring afternoon?

(You may think that I am joking. I present for your amusement an actual conversation I had. Any embellishments are due only to failure of memory on my part:
"Hello, I'm Molten Boron. I submitted a Petition for Change of Residency two months ago, and was wondering if there's been any action on that."
"Alright, let me go get your file.... Here you are. Your petition isn't complete. Here's a list of all the documentation you're missing."
"Huh. This is done up like a letter. Did you type this just now?"
"No, that's been in your file."
"Huh. Why didn't you send it to me?"
"Our office doesn't send those lettters."
"Interesting. Umm... The date on this letter is a month ago."
"Yes, that's when it was typed up, just after we reviewed your file."
"And it's been sitting in my file, in your office, since then."
"And I can't help noticing all of these forms are due no later than a week from yesterday."
"Yes, that is the deadline for submitting documentation."
"Ah. Well, you see, it seems as though this letter is almost worthless to me now, since there's no way I can gather all of this material in a week. Now, had I gotten this letter a month ago, it might have been useful."
"Well, then, you should have come in to get it a month ago."
"I didn't know that it was here a month ago."
"I'm afraid there's nothing I can do to help you here. Is there anything else you need?"
"No, I suppose not.")

Columbia bureaucracy, I find, is of a highly different character. Berkeley bureaucrats like to give large amounts of pointless paperwork in order to overwhelm their hapless patrons. They then scrutinize this paperwork endlessly to ensure that nobody gets what they want. Their demeanor is standoffish, and their principal conversational tactic is stonewalling. Columbia bureaucrats are quite different. They're very cheerful and helpful, and will tell you exactly where you need to go to get what you want done, which, unfortunately, is not where you are. For every task you would like to accomplish in dealing with Columbia bureaucracy, a very lengthy list of procedural hurdles has been devised, each of which must be cleared in the proper order. I offer as an example the security clearance on my Columbia ID card.

Columbia uses a card swipe system for security. It's pretty convenient, insofar as it means you can access certain buildings after hours. It's also absolutely required to get into some buildings at any hour, such as Lerner Hall, the student union. I moved in two weeks before classes started, and had hoped to get my ID card early, so that I might access things like the library, the gym, and Lerner (swipe required for entrance to all of the above). No dice. ID cards are issued in your registration packet on the day of orientation, and no sooner. Oh well. Orientation rolled around and I got my card. Oddly, though, the various card readers refused to recognize my card when I swiped it. I assumed clearance had not been worked out yet, and let it be. A week passed and I still couldn't access anything with my card. On a friend's advice, I went to the ID office in Kent Hall. There I was informed that I had no security access, and this needed to be changed in my student record. But, alas! it is not within their purview to change my access privileges. To do that I would need to go to the ID Security Office in the basement of Low Library (Which is not, by the way, a library, but rather the main administration building, not unlike Berkeley's Sproul Hall). I went to the ID Security Office and found that it was closed for the day (at 3 o'clock). Drat. I came back the next day to find that the entire office had gone on vacation, but here are 3 e-mail addresses, and one of them surely belongs to someone who can help you. I sent identical e-mails to each and sure enough, three days later, I got a reply. Security had been enabled for campus buildings such as the law library, but if I wanted to get access to the gym I'd need to go talk to the gym's administrative office. I paid them a visit, and in short order they had authorized me for gym use. Then I tried going into Lerner Hall. Card rejected. Huh. I asked the security desk and they said to go back to the ID Office in Kent Hall; they control Lerner access. I did and was told the man was wrong, and that I needed to go to the ID Security office in the basement of Low Library. At this point I became ever so slightly beligerent, and it paid off. I demanded to speak to a supervisor and have the discrepancy sorted out. It turns out that they CAN fix security (for Lerner Hall only) in the Kent Hall ID office, but the person they had working out front hadn't been informed of this fact. It makes the process more kicky and fun! In short order my ID was fixed, and now I can access everything that I ought to be able to access.

This whole post was precipitated by another encounter with Columbia bureaucracy, but since I'm still wrapped up in it I'd rather not explain. I find bureacracy stories are best told after they have reached their bewildering conclusions. Perhaps once I have extricated myself I'll be more inclined to discuss it.


Ah, yes. In my experience with Penn bureaucracy, I find that most of the time the troubles are similar to Columbia's, where I'm constantly talking to the wrong person or in the wrong building/place. Mostly, I think this stems from everyone's love of passing the buck and shirking any responsibility possible. It also usually stems from misinformation and some university worker being a dumbass. Or really lazy. I think we can all agree that the financial aid office is where bureaucracy is the most intense and that everyone who works there is, indeed, pure evil. I've learned to just demand my way or make a big stink and be persistent about it. Well, it also helps sometimes to act like a cute little girl, smile sweetly, and then whine a bit. Well, thank you for giving me an avenue for bitching about a topic that has really really REALLY bothered me the past 4 years.

I must not listen to this I must not listen to this I must not listen. There is no bureaucracy at Berkeley. If I close my eyes it will go away. It must.

I'm so surprised at how easy it turned out to be to get my readmission paperwork in that I'm just SURE something was missed and no one will ever tell me about it. Gah. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Actually, of your two descriptions, I think I like dealing with the Berkeley version better. Faced with surly stonewalling I become angry, whereas faced with cheerful instructions to go here, there, then over there, then back here, I merely become despondent. And as you showed, angry is the way to go.

Honestly, I'm sure you won't have trouble. Remember: While you're not a student, the University can't take your money. They have every reason to accept you and re-commense their steady absorption of your bank account. In my case, I was asking them to stop taking quite so much of my money. Therefore, they designed a set of requirements so intricate and devious that none should ever successfully surmount it (My favorite part was "provide documentary evidence that you have physically been present in the state of California on every day between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2002." I asked how on earth I went about doing that, and was told that the easiest way to do so was to give them all of my credit card bills; each day on which I had purchased something in California was a day they would check off their list. Then I need only provide irrefutable documentary evidence that I was in California on all the other days of the year. I believe I finally gave up hope of ever becoming a California resident in their eyes when I was denied residency on the grounds that my credit card statements showed I had made a purchase in Arizona over Thanksgiving, when I went to a family gathering. Apparently, no true California resident would ever leave the state, not even to visit family).

Random tangent: Is anyone reading this familiar with the Asterix comics? They're French. More to the point: Has anyone here other than me seen "The 12 Tasks of Asterix" ("Les Douze Travails d'Asterix)? I ask because there's a stunningly good scene in it about bureaucracy that comes to my mind every time I'm faced with these things. It's task number eight, getting Permit #838 from the House that Sends You Mad, for those keeping score.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on October 5, 2005 12:04 AM.

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