Navigating the Bureaucracy
Ten tips to make it easier and faster.
September 26, 2018
Bureaucracy. We cringe when we hear it. We imagine miles of red tape, standing in line, sitting on hold, or bouncing from one apathetic clerk to another for hours. You’re adrift, and no one cares. But there are tricks to navigating those waters more quickly, and with better results.
Like it or not, government is a big presence in our lives. The large number of bureaus, departments, and offices has always made it difficult for citizens to find their way around. And then the Internet arrived. USA.gov links all of the individual government sites into a single place. It can connect you with every bit of public information in every government office and agency at every level – federal, state, local, and even American Indian tribal governments. All of it.
Since the site is so massive, it includes a search function, a Help page, a Frequently Asked Questions page, a site index, and online tutorials. You can even email questions to the managers. I’ve found that the best way to use it is to spend just a few minutes poking around and getting used to it.
HOW TO FIX IT
Every government agency has a website, there is someone in charge of everything, and they all have phones. Before you dig in, define the problem you want to solve, and what solution you want.
- Find the agency’s website. If you don’t know how to look, start with usa.gov. Use the search function or browse through the listings to find the right agency. Then find an office with a title similar to your problem.
- Read the description online to make sure it’s what you want. Look at the options.
There may be one that’s just right for you.
- Call that office and explain the situation briefly to the receptionist. S/he usually does not have the authority to solve your problem, but probably knows who does.
- Don’t let them tell you that there is no one else to help you. The highest-ranking person in the building does not answer the phone. Ask her/him to direct you to the proper person.
- If you still can’t find the right office, look at the “About Us” or “Leadership” section of the website. That lists the department heads or other leaders.
- Keep notes. Record the name and title of everyone to whom you speak, as well as the date and time of your conversation. If they make a promise, get the details and a deadline.
- Follow up with a letter to that person, confirming your conversation, and the promises. Things move faster if you can fax the letters. Keep copies of all paperwork.
- If this doesn’t work, get the name and title of the head of the department, or the branch of government. Send a letter to that person with a brief description of your problem, your efforts to solve it, and the results – or lack thereof. Ask them to instruct the proper person to look into the situation. This method usually works. The President, CEO, Director, or whomever, will probably not respond to your letter personally but it will reach someone with enough power to solve the problem. It is much easier to move downhill rather than try to fight your way uphill.
- If you still can’t get anywhere, contact a legislator – your city council member, state legislator, Governor, representative in Congress, or Senator. You can also call the media. Public agencies and large corporations don’t want negative publicity. There are private nonprofit agencies to advocate on behalf of the public interest in many issue. Google the topic and find one.
- If you’re looking for information and can’t get it, request documents under the appropriate open-records law. All federal government offices – yes, all of them – are required to give information to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Each agency has designated a particular office to handle FOIA requests. USA.GOV contains the name and address of the proper office for each department or agency. It’s usually located at the very bottom of the web page. Once you have the address, simply write a letter, addressed to the person in charge, stating that you are requesting information under the US Freedom of Information Act.
Each state has a similar Right to Know Law. Find the info on your state’s website. Find your state’s site on usa.gov.
Once they have your request, they have to give the documents to you. They can only refuse requests under certain limited circumstances. Agencies can charge fees for extensive research time and photocopying, but if your request is reasonable, they usually waive the fee.
At some point, you will probably run across someone who will be sensible and helpful. When you find that person, let them know you appreciate them. Everyone welcomes a thank you note and a letter of praise to his or her boss.
For More Information
It’s Easy to Find Government Information
Read the Constitution
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Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
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Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting
Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice