Helpful Bureaucrats

During my 20 years as a legal investigator, my job was usually getting information others couldn’t get. Sometimes this was from private individuals but frequently it was from bureaucrats. A few years ago I had a custom home built on oceanfront property on Whidbey Island in Washington state. The property was on a high bluff with potential drainage and instability issues. The timber that had to be cut plus nesting Eagles were factors.

Island County in Washington is known for its non-user-friendly planning and zoning department. Before we started excavating for the foundation, I obtained all the necessary building permits personally. That experience plus my years as an investigator gives me some insight into dealing with recalcitrant bureaucrats. Here are some procedures I found helpful:

On the phone or face-to-face always avoid saying or implying: “I am here to get”, “I want”, “give me”, “I have to have”, etc., etc. Whether on the phone or face-to-face, always begin by introducing yourself and getting the name of the person you’re dealing with. If you are face-to-face and can see they don’t appear real busy a little small talk is good before asking for anything. On the phone always begin after your introduction by asking if they have time to talk to you right now or if you need to call back. Phrase your request along the lines of: “I need help determining how to: get a building permit, determine what kind of septic system is required, get permission to take some trees down, etc. etc.

By asking for help instead of asking or demanding something it gives you multiple options if you run into initial resistance. If their response is the automatic “you can’t do that”, it’s exceptionally important to not react with any sign of hostility. As a professional salesman does when an objection is heard you have to “smile and agree” in some way. If nothing else you can agree with his or her right to say what they just said but let them know you are not finished seeking help. If he or she is not fooled by your friendly approach and it is apparent you are seen as the enemy you are positioned to say: “as I said, I’m here to get help so it appears I’m not talking to the right person. Who else is there I can talk to?”

Another procedure which works best when dealing with large bureaucracies is to thank whoever you’re talking with that refused to help you and break off contact whether in person or by phone. The goal will be to call or come back later when someone else will probably be covering that position and start over. If it’s before lunch, call back during lunch hour. Frequently your encounter with the first bureaucrat will give you some clues as to what obstacles you might face so you can handle those in your opening comments with the next bureaucrat.

Years ago I was hired to get the home address of a professional person who claimed to be totally disabled and used his attorney to insulate him from anyone who might see him acting normally. I learned he had stayed at a particular hotel in London recently so I flew from Fairbanks Alaska to London England to get his home address from the hotel. The good part about dealing with hotels is, they have at least three different work shifts. After being refused any help by two desk clerks because of confidentiality concerns, the third one went straight into the computer and provided the address without hesitation.

The last procedure I will describe is not particularly for dealing with one bureaucrat but rather for use in situations where there are multiple sources of the information you need. I attributed much of my success as an investigator to this particular technique. Most of the time there is more than one place an item of information you need can be obtained. You call the first one and request what you need using the techniques above or whatever works best for you. If the person on the other end of the phone line says they will check on it and get back to you or they do anything except give you the information you want, you thank them and hang up. You register that phone call the same way you would register one where you got a busy signal. You pick up the phone and call the next possible source. If that one doesn’t bear fruit you call a third source. Frequently you learn a few more things about what you are looking for during each unsuccessful conversation. This helps you do a better job of asking the next time you call someone. One of the classic signs of a person who is a bureaucrat is when they ask someone else for something and are told the other person will get back to them, they consider that a valid reason to put it on a pile and never look at it again. Just because it’s the way many people do their job, we don’t have the time to act like a bureaucrat.