The black hole of the bureaucracy…

Any big bureaucratic organization worth its salt has a process covering just about everything you might need to accomplish during your regularly scheduled work period. If you’re lucky, some of those processes might even actually work despite inevitably being antiquated, creaking relics left over from the Eisenhower Administration.

More often, in my experience, the process that exists simply stops working at a certain point. Somewhere along the workflow there’s either a person or an individual who is the organizational equivalent of a super-massive black hole. Everything that crosses into the jurisdiction of this office or individual passes across some kind of bureaucratic event horizon from which not even light itself has the velocity to escape.

These places are, in the simplest terms possible, where projects, paperwork, and hope go to be extinguished. These are the places where the process, no matter how well intentioned or neatly diagramed, simply break down and prevent actual work from happening. They’re the very core essence of what it is to live and work in the bureaucracy.

If a staff officer is worth a damn, he’ll find ways to work around these dangerous sectors – identifying people who will play ball and allow him to navigate around the gravitational pull of broken processes. Eventually, though, the bureaucracy catches on to the fact that it’s being subverted. It lashes out with renewed fury to suck in all the paperwork that has heretofore managed to escape its grasping maw.

With no way around and faced with failing timelines if work is pushed through the process to its illogical conclusion, sometimes all even a seasoned bureaucrat can do is shrug, accept that nothing will ever be completed in a timely manner, and prepare for the inevitable, quasar-like explosion once the black hole has consumed more work product than it could possibly hope to process.

Look, I’m paid for the same eight hours whether shit gets done or not, so if you’d prefer the “or not” option, just let me know up front so I’ll know how much effort to apply to any given issue. That could have saved us all a whole bunch of time. In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here heaving products over the event horizon expecting to never see them again.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. There are a few topics where I could probably claim expert level knowledge. There are far more in which I am reasonably conversant. There are many in which I can fake competence if conversations don’t last too long. The secret to successfully using my big ol’ brain box is to turn me loose on something in one of those first two broadly defined areas. Setting me loose in the third and expecting expert level performance is just going to result in you being disappointed and me being even more annoyed… especially when there are any number of individuals within spitting distance whose baseline knowledge on the subject exceed my own in every possible way.

2. It’s good to see so many people caught up in the history of #DDay75… but my inner history geek wishes some of them would pay attention to history a little more closely when it’s not the anniversary of monumental events. They’d be amazed at what it could teach them… and maybe they’d even gain a little insight about why nine times out of ten I’m mostly sitting around muttering that “they’re really going to try that again.” In my heart of hearts I really do think if given half an education in history people would be stunned by how little new there is under the sun.

3. OK, so here’s the thing… When I lay out a process for you that’s guaranteed to work correctly 100% of the time and you opt to not follow that process and create your own circuitous route from Point A to Point B, don’t then call me whining because it didn’t work. What happened there isn’t a process problem. It was a pure failure to follow fucking directions problem and that puts it squarely in your lane rather than mine. Good luck with it.

Levels of review…

In my little corner of the Giant Bureaucratic Organization, very few pieces of paper ever move further than one’s own desk without passing through one or more layers of review. These reviews are almost the very definition of what it means to exist within the bureaucracy – the very reason the term “paper pusher” came into existence.

It’s hard enough to move a single piece of paper, say something as simple as a memo. The complexity and convolutions involved in getting something larger – say a document of several dozens of pages is mind boggling. It’s a herculean feat of bureaucratic mastery involving three layers of review at a bare minimum. I’ve personally seen the number of reviewers go as high as 14  on a single document. I’ve heard stories that the numbers can grow even larger as one progresses through echelons higher than reality towards the beating, five-sided heart of our bureaucratic empire. Each and every non-concur along the way carries the risk of sending you back to the starting block to try again.

I’m not saying that reviews are entirely pointless or without merit. In some cases I’d even argue that they are absolutely necessary. When it becomes the reviews themselves that drive the process rather what is being reviewed, I can’t help but believe that there is a flaw in the system. Then again, I’m a poor simple history major who learned to read original source documents that may have virtually no relationship to standard English usage so what the hell do I know. 

The shitstorm that didn’t…

Based on years of experience I’ve developed a pretty finely honed sense of when a shitstorm is brewing and about to unleash it’s sewer-tinged fury about my little part of the world. I walked out the office with my storm flags flying yesterday afternoon and fully expected to arrive back today to a feces coated disaster.

I was braced for it. I was ready. And then nothing happened. There wasn’t even a ripple. I don’t have any particular problem with being wrong. I’ve often enough turned left when I should have turned right. It happens.

It’s not so much that I’m upset that I was wrong today as it is that I know someday soon I’m going to be “not wrong” and the lid is going to come flying off the thunderpot. I’m not wrong that there’s a shitstorm brewing, just expected it to hit sooner rather than later. Now all I can do is hunker down and wait.

Buy American…

I was about to start this post by saying “I’m a simple man…” and then of course realized that despite my powers of written persuasion, not even I would buy that particular argument. I’m mostly an enigma even to myself, but that isn’t the point. At least that isn’t the point this evening. What I started this whole post to say is that it’s possible I’ve gotten entirely too accustomed to ordering something online and then having it show up at my door 24-48 hours later… or maybe 72 if I’m ordering from overseas. That fact that it happens so consistently is really a remarkable feat of logistics. It’s so remarkable that I’ve started taking it utterly for granted.

That is to say I took it for granted right up to the point where I’ve had a package sitting in Philadelphia waiting to clear customs since Wednesday of last week. Apparently because it’s “imported goods,” it now requires an FDA release prior to being released by Customs. Just one release use to be good enough to satisfy good old Uncle Sam, but in the best traditions of government, where one is good, two must be better.

What all that means, as far as I can tell is that instead of the 72 hours turn around I’ve grown accustomed to, getting something into the country now takes God knows how long. All things considered there are easier ways to convince people to buy American. As is now all you’ve really managed to do is set me thinking about ways to subvert the official process and still do what I want to do without technically being in violation of the law.

Inevitable…

The inevitable happened today. Somewhere at echelons higher than reality someone decided that there was a TPS Report that just couldn’t wait until after the holidays – that out there in the far reaches of our vast bureaucratic quagmire, some vital piece of information sure to bring democracy, peace, and justice to a troubled world was just laying around waiting to be reported upwards. Rank and high station may have their privileges, but getting dosed heavily by common sense isn’t among them.

What really happened today was a request for information was generated high in the stratosphere, it was typed into the computer and then passed to me “for action.” I immediately rolled my eyes, which is something I spend an inordinate amount of time doing if I can be perfectly honest. I then in turn typed my own message passing the requirement for this very important information down to the next level. When they receive it, someone will roll their eyes and ask what the fuck I’m smoking and then they will write up their own email and send it ever further down the line. Eventually it will reach the desk of some individual who knows at least some of the answer, they’ll write up a response, and then the whole great process gets thrown into reverse – with each level seeking out its own approvals, making a few changes, and then sending it upwards before an answer returns to my desk where I’ll realize that the answer-by-committee bears no resemblance to the question I asked originally. Because time has expired on the clock, that factoid won’t stop me from rolling my eyes and passing it on back up the chain.

It’s a clunky, archaic process at the best of times. Let me just say for the record, sending something out two days before Christmas and expecting a response immediately after the new year is not, by anyone’s definition, the best of times. What it is, however, is a recipe for a systemic failure at almost every level. It’s the operative definition of setting yourself up for failure.

But this is the season of yuletide, when a long dead saint rises up from his frozen tomb and alights onto his sleigh driven by eight super-natural reindeer to distribute toys constructed by enslaved elves to the world’s children. It’s the season of miracles like that… so if you just believe hard enough, maybe anything really is possible.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Waking up angry. There’s something about going to bed an hour earlier than usual. It’s a hope that the extra hour of down time might drive away some of the serious exhaustion that’s got to be showing in your eyes as the end of the week draws in. But then you wake up feeling even more strung out than you did when you went to bed – still exhausted, still mad at the world, where every little obstacle is a potential tripwire. Then it’s drag out of bed, shave, hope you can paint a convincing image of not loathing everyone and everything you come in contact with, and muddle through the day until it’s time for bed again. Even then you know the next morning won’t feel rested, that extra hour won’t matter, and you’ll be right back in the shit before the day even gets started. Yeah. That’s the kind of week it’s been.

2. Do “X” then “Y”. It’s a simple formula. Do one thing and then the next. It’s the logical progression of things. Problem is, no one seems to understand that there are potentially hundreds of discrete sub-steps between X and Y. All of them need doing before you can make progress. All of them need attention… and in many cases they are all actions that someone else needs to take. So you end up waiting for someone to do X-1, X-7, X-32, and X-1,245,334 before you can get to Y. That’s good enough when everyone knows what they supposed to be doing, wants to do it, and actually does it in a timely manner. Reality, being the thankless bitch that she is, of course, means that those small steps are rarely taken when they should be – so you end up sitting, waiting, cajoling, pestering, ranting, raving, and losing whatever slight grip you still have on sanity while other people get around to placing their one small piece of the puzzle.

3. My “privilege.” The next person who wanders by and recommends that I “check my privilege” might just get a well-worn size 12 Doc Marten planted directly in their crotch. There’s not a lot of generational privilege when your grandfathers worked the deep mines and heavy manufacturing in Appalachia and your parents took the next step, becoming a teacher and a cop, but only wearing the badge after serving some quality enlisted time in Uncle Sam’s green suit. So then there’s me. The grandson of a coal miner and a factory worker. Son of a public school teacher and a state trooper. I worked my ass off to make the grade in school, earned some scholarships, then worked my ass off in college to graduate magna. Then I went to work, didn’t like what I was doing and changed jobs, changed geographic locations, shoehorned myself into a program that would pay for grad school, and generally made myself available for whatever crap assignment would look good on my resume. I moved six times in ten years to improve myself and chase better opportunities instead of staying put and expecting the opportunities to come to me – or worse, expecting someone to deliver them because I have “privilege.” So when you tell me to check myself, it’s very clear you don’t know me or mine and I’m sure I don’t have a clue what the hell you’re talking about.