The Cure for Bureaucracy

A friend is dealing with a government agency that can’t seem to give a straight answer to any question. A phone call to one office prompts a request to call a different office. The other office says all questions must be submitted in writing, preferably email. Emails take hours to craft in clear and precise language and then go unanswered for several days. When a reply arrives, it might address questions 1 and 3, but leave 2 and 4 completely untouched. Answers to later questions sometimes directly contradict answers to prior questions.

In short, the process is Slow and Confusing and Frustrating.

I was trying to help my friend, but needed a specific piece of information, so I called to ask if my friend could call the government office.

“I can’t,” my friend said, “It’s just after 3:00 right now and the office closed at 3:00. I’ll call tomorrow morning.”

So I hung up and dug around a bit more on the office’s website. I noticed a page that said their opening hours and that the office closes at 4:00pm, not 3:00.

I tried to call my friend back, but my phone suddenly started having problems. I dialed the same number maybe 20 times before I got through the 21st time. I said the office closes at 4:00, not 3:00.

“There’s no point in calling,” my friend said, “I’ve already asked them about this and they said to call a different office.”

Can’t you call again, I pleaded. “What’s the point?,” my friend said, “I’ve tried 3 or 4 times and they haven’t given an answer.”

“Well,” I countered, “I tried calling you 20 times and finally got through the 21st time. So, can you ask one more time? Maybe they’ll be so upset that they’ll answer just to get you to stop calling.”

“And why have you picked this day to worry about this?”, my friend asked.

After more prodding finally my friend consented, called the office, and sure enough, they gave us the information we needed.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that what my friend had done to me was exactly the same behavior that the government office had done that made everything so slow and frustrating. My friend defaulted to denying my request to call the office. I got information which later turned out to be false. And I had to ask multiple times before my request was complied with out of sheer desperation.

In playing with a friend’s child I once discovered the secret to having fun with little kids. I’m interested in probability and macroeconomics and engineering and chemical physics, but it turns out that small children are not typically interested in discussing any of those subjects. So, whenever a child suggests something to do, the secret to having fun with them, I’ve discovered, is to simply Agree with every single thing they suggest.

The kid wants to go hide behind the couch? Say Yes and then go jam yourself between the wall and the couch leg.

The kid wants to play Legos? Say Yes and then play Legos.

The kid wants to light his stuffed dog on fire? Say Yes and then ask How are we going to do it?

He might say, “We need some matches.” And then you can say, “But we’re not allowed to play with matches.” You’re not opposing what the child wants, you’re just pointing out a problem. “How about we give the doggie a bath instead?,” you might suggest. You haven’t denied the child’s suggestion, just changed what exactly it is you will do with the stuffed dog.

I remember reading in some book, I think it was by Malcolm Gladwell, that there is one key to unscripted Improvisational comedy: Regardless of what the other actor says, never oppose them. Arguing isn’t funny (Despite what Monty Python says). Doing ridiculous things is. I think Gladwell’s example was something like a man went into a doctor’s office complaining of a pain in his leg. The doctor told the patient that he’d have to chop the leg off. “Oh, you can’t do that!,” the patient protested. “And why not?,” the doctor replied. And the man didn’t have an answer. So the skit sort of died right there.

The reason why the skit wasn’t funny is simple: Because being contradicted and having requests denied is Not Funny. And it is Not Fun.

So I’ve come up with a technique that will stamp out Bureaucracy in all its forms: Improv. I’ve never done improvisational comedy before, but I think the no-request-denied attitude would do wonders in government, higher education, and even raising children.

When the mailman points to the sign that postal regulations prohibit handing mail across the counter to PO-box-holders, just shout “Improv!” and the mailman will have to do something wacky to get around the problem. “Go deep!”, he’ll shout, “I’ll throw you your mail!”

And when you friend says, “I’m sorry, the office closes at 3:00”, just shout “Improv!” and your friend will say, “Then I’ll call the San Francisco office – It should still be open!”.

Whenever you hear “No” or “That’s not possible”, I say just shout “Improv!” and see what happens.


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