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For Love of Bureaucracy

  • Posted on October 17, 2012 at 9:51 AM

As the mother of three children with special needs, I kill more than my fair of trees. Not by choice, mind you, but by necessity. In the United States, having children involves a lot of paperwork. When those children have special needs, then that paperwork seems to quadruple.

Along with the paperwork comes the need to navigate bureaucracy. I’m not ashamed to admit that I get tired of it. There’re only so many ridiculous forms you can ask me to sign before I lose my patience, and then my temper.

It’s pretty early in the school year, but I’ve already hit my mark. For those with a different experience, the first day of school in my area involves a long, snake-like line of paperwork. Some of it is electronic, but that does little to make it more bearable. In this long line, one of the last things was an off-hand request for updated vaccination information.

It had been a difficult summer and I didn’t know if Alex’s vaccinations were up to date. While there are those autism parents who are adamantly against vaccinations, I’m not one of them—I recognize that even though Willy regressed around the time of his vaccinations (18 months), he was clearly autistic before then, had we only known what to look for.

So, it’s not that I was against vaccinations; it was simply that I didn’t have time to take care of them nor was I sure that he was not up to date. Either way, it could wait until his check-up.

Nobody mentioned a deadline.

I heard nothing more about it until I received a letter from the school. Because I don’t open my mail immediately (with a few exceptions), the letter went into a pile. When I got to it, I read the request and saw that I wouldn’t be able to fit another appointment into my schedule, and didn’t think much more about it.

On the request was a waiver I could fill out. For religious reasons or for medical reasons—and I think there were one or two others—I could refuse to give my child the shots. All I had to do was sign. Except, I didn’t refuse. I just didn’t have time at the moment. So, I didn’t sign the waiver.

The week went by and I didn’t think anything about it. Until my husband got the call, that is. He had to wake me up, because I’d only gotten two hours of sleep the night before, and I had to get out of bed, get dressed, and get Alex from school. He wasn’t allowed to be there. If he were to stay, I would have to sign paperwork that wasn’t true. I hadn’t even verified that Alex hadn’t gotten his shots last year (since they’re usually done by age, not grade, and Alex is behind a year).

So, after a minor fuss, I took Alex home. Once the need for them was verified and the proper paperwork was signed, he was fine to go to school. Today he got his shots and the electronic paper trail can take over.

And that’s the thing that gets me. This paperwork has absolutely nothing to do with improved immunity or what-not. With so many exemptions, how was Alex and his non-vaccinated self a danger to anyone? There’s no current outbreak to protect him and others from. This was NOT urgent. Yet, Alex missed a day of school because our bureaucratic ducks weren’t in a perfect row and that’s just absurd.

And that sums up my “love” of bureaucracy: Rules are created that must make some sort of sense on paper when you’re the legislator on high, but make no actual, practical, real-world sense when you’re funneled through a system that is more concerned with paperwork than the original issue the paperwork is designed to address.

The Bureaucratic Failing

  • Posted on February 11, 2011 at 8:26 PM

Human societies have this nasty habit of needing something long before they figure out how to meet that need.  The need creates the motivation to fulfill that need, which, by necessity, means we hurt until that need is filled.  The hurt grows until it motivates us to develop the means to meet the need.  This is a natural, normal process which has led to a great deal of human progress.

Bureaucracy is one socio-technological system we’ve devised to meet certain needs, mostly related to managing the volume of work created by our massive societies.  In theory, bureaucracy is efficient.  In reality, bureaucracy often sacrifices effectiveness for efficiency by divorcing decisions from reality.

Consider health care:  Many of us believe health care is a basic human right.  From a social justice perspective, I would agree.  It is unjust to have health care and not to disperse it to the whole population.  From a more pragmatic perspective, the idea is problematic.  The freedom of speech, the freedom of ideas, the freedom of association—these are basic human rights.  Health care cannot be a basic human right any more than food or education can be a basic human right.  You see, from a pragmatic perspective, the freedom to communicate, share ideas, and choose with whom we associate requires others not to hinder us.  Whereas, the supposed rights to health care, food and education requires others to provide for us.  These are two very different concepts.  On the one hand, the freedom to communicate would best be described as a right we naturally have unless we are deprived of that right.  Whereas, health care would be best described as an entitlement we’d like to claim.

Furthermore, providing these entitlements require us to be technologically advanced enough to develop systems that can effectively provide these goods and services.  No such systems exist.  We have health care systems, but they do not provide health care goods and services to everyone.  We have food systems, but they do not provide food to everyone.  We have educational systems, but they do not provide education to everyone.

To help compensate for the lack of an effective system, we use bureaucracies to allocate limited resources.  These bureaucracies choose who gets what goods and services.  Currently, our health care system relies on a hodge-podge of bureaucracies with different goals.  There are federal bureaucracies that regulate the resources themselves—further limiting the resources that are available in attempt to ensure those resources are safe for use.  There are federal and state bureaucracies that provide limited resources.  There are private bureaucracies that provide limited resources for profit.  There are private bureaucracies that provide limited resources without the pursuit of profit.  There are federal and state bureaucracies that distribute access to the limited resources that are available.  There are private bureaucracies which distribute access to the limited resources that are available for profit.  There are private bureaucracies which distribute access to the limited resources that are available without the pursuit of profit.  In effect, these bureaucracies are often at cross-purposes and make a mess of things.

These cross-purposes make a mess of things all by themselves.  This mess is exacerbated by the fact that the nature of a bureaucracy often sacrifices effectiveness for efficiency by divorcing decisions from reality.  You see, in a bureaucratic system you have someone sitting at a desk with a piece of paper or information on a computer screen.  That person has to make a decision based on that information.  This person makes hundreds of decisions like this a day.  It’s a job.  It can be a tedious and thankless job.  That decision is influenced or dictated by decisions made by other people sitting at other desks.  None of those people are connected to the provider or the recipient.  The decision is divorced from reality.  For the decision maker, the significance of the decision resides in how it will affect the person’s job, not in how it will impact the provider or the recipient.  The real impact of the decision is unknown and unimportant to the person responsible for making it.

That is our system.  That will remain our system after Obamacare is enacted.  To solve our problems, we need new systems that can supply the entitlements we’re demanding.  Obamacare doesn’t do that.  Right now, we lack the technological sophistication to do that.  In the meantime, while we’re waiting and hurting for the progress that will make that possible, to satisfy the requirements of social justice, we need to dismantle the broken systems and replace it with systems designed to meet the needs to the best of our abilities.  Obamacare doesn’t do that.  The system itself is broken and Obamacare adds layers of bureaucracy to a system already broken by bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy is the best we can do, because we haven’t devised something better.  But Obamacare is not the best we can do.  Obamacare complicatedly adds more cross-purposes, not fewer.  Obamacare further divorces decision makers from the people their decisions affect.  And, worse still, Obamacare turns the entitlement we want—that which we want to be provided—into a legal obligation we cannot avoid.  It gives more power to the government.  It takes away the freedom of choice—the choice not to pay into a broken system—and forces people to entrust their health care into the hands of bureaucrats who are, of a necessity, divorced from their reality.

The Burden of Bureaucracy

  • Posted on November 10, 2009 at 5:53 PM

With the threat of swine flu, our local school district is taking extra precautions to remind parents to keep their children home when experiencing flu-like symptoms.  This notice was sent home on a bright red flyer with all three boys.  The school system has a standing policy, which I’ve known since the first started attending Early Childhood, to keep children home for 24-hours after the symptoms of illness are gone.

Pretty much since this school year started, Ben has been sent home on a fairly regular basis due to vomiting.  Alex has also been sent home due to vomiting, but with less regularity.  Due to school policies, each time one of my children vomited, they would lose a partial-day and a full-day of school.  Normally, I wouldn’t object to this arbitrary rule.  I don’t believe it does much to alleviate the spread of contagions, because each contagion has its own window of opportunity.  However, at the very least, it is a measure to ensure the child is actually well enough to attend school and benefit from the experience.

That is to say, normally I would not object, but…

1) Both Alex and Ben have a history of vomiting when they are not ill.  For Alex, this history is well-documented and has been observed and verified by medical practitioners and school staff.  Ben has exhibited similar behavior, but his experiences are less well-documented because this behavior has occurred with much less frequency—until now.

2) I recently received a letter from the school system chastising me for keeping my children home.  Despite the school’s demands I keep my children home at any significant sign of illness, despite my compliance with these demands, and despite my telephone calls to report the nature of my child’s absence and the symptoms related to these absences, the school has elected to count the boys’ absences due to illness as “parent excused absences.”

Parent excused absences are considered discretionary on the part of the parent.  If you take your child on vacation during a regularly scheduled school day, then that day counts as a parent excused absence.  There are consequences if you use up too many of these days, because you’re interfering with your legal obligation to send your child to school.  Days your child stay home due to illness are not supposed to be counted as discretionary days of absence, because your child is not allowed to attend school as per school policies.  Yet, I’ve received a letter challenging my choice to keep my children home with such frequency.

Why were these days mislabeled as discretionary absences?  When I kept my children home sick, I called into the school to report the absence, the reason for the absence, and the symptoms my children were experiencing—all done per the instructions I received in the various flyers sent home.  What I did not do is drag my children to their pediatrician, expose other patients to the contagion, just so the doctor could say, “Yep.  Your child is definitely ill.  Here’s your note.”  Apparently, I’m expected to do exactly that.  To avoid this scenario, I have been instructed by a school secretary to call my doctor (versus bringing my children to the clinic) and the doctor will fax over the same note.  Thus, I avoid false accusations of keeping my children home at my own discretion.

The only justification I can imagine for this procedure is the undisclosed psychic training doctor’s receive as part of their medical schooling.  Because doctors receive this training, they’ll know I’m being truthful when I say my children are ill.  Because school staff does not receive this training, they must assume I’m a lying scumbag who keeps my children home to thwart the school’s master agenda to educate the next generation.  Since I do not believe doctors receive psychic training in medical school, since I do believe both the doctor’s time and my time is too valuable to waste for the sake of mindless bureaucracy, since I do not believe it is conducive for the school to assume a parent is lying regarding the reasons for absence, and since I do not believe it is ethical for the school to require such a procedure but not post it with its other requirements, I elect not to comply.

 Now, I could simply leave this post here: a rant to a situation that aggravates and frustrates me.  On the surface, it’s just that.  However, there is an underlying issue not readily recognized.  I perceive this as “bureaucratic non-sense,” I find it aggravating, stressful, and unnecessarily time-consuming.  I find the need to challenge this situation and bring it to the attention of those positioned in places of authority within the school system.  When I look at situations like these, I gravitate to the default I-me position.  I see this from my own perspective and I deal with it accordingly.

I’m not confessing this from a position of guilt, but to highlight a different kind of absence.  I’m the one who handles the bureaucratic barriers my family faces and must navigate.  When the school makes an unfair decision, I deal with it.  When it’s time to negotiate the IEP, I negotiate.  When it’s time to fill out paperwork, I enter the information.  When it’s time to decide which barriers are worth challenging, I do it.  When there are interruptions in services, I fix them.  I make the telephone calls, I fill out the paperwork, and I go to the meetings.

I’m not on some kind of ego-trip here.  I do not do these things because I enjoy being the go-to person.  I don’t do these things because bureaucracy is just so much fun.  I do these things because Mark can’t; or, more accurately, I do these things because Mark chooses not to do them, even when it means being penalized or losing or never receiving services we would otherwise be entitled to receive.  I do these things, because as much as these barriers represent a source of unnecessary stress and aggravation for me, they represent near-insurmountable barriers for Mark.

Bureaucracy places a burden on people within this society in many forms and in many ways.  Bureaucracy has a profound effect on daily living, from the medical care we receive to how we pay taxes to managing our reporting requirements.  For me, and for most people, these issues represent an annoyance, an inconvenience, and a consumption of time we’d rather avoid.  This alone is reason enough to affect change.

However, for some, bureaucracy represents a substantial burden that keeps them down.  My husband has lost education opportunities, employment opportunities, entitlements, benefits, and even a marginally profitable business due to the burden of bureaucracy.  Barriers that I would grumblingly crawl over or around are impassable roadblocks to Mark.

While I’m sure someone could analyze Mark and describe this reality in the language of disablism and deficits that is not my purpose.  My point is that we erect arbitrary, unnecessary barriers that exclude people from necessary systems.  In recognition of this phenomenon, government agencies and corporate bodies provide assistants to traverse these barriers.  Often, these assistants present yet another barrier:

1) Their manner is often condescending and disrespectful.  I’ve experienced this myself and have observed this when others deal with my husband.  This behavior makes people feel less able and inferior.  Whether or not this behavior is intentional, it is pervasive.

2) In order to access these assistants, you have to be able to navigate the bureaucracy sufficiently well to communicate the needs for this assistance.

In the face of these additional barriers, Mark opts out.  He chooses not to access necessary services, because he does not want to confront these barriers.

So, while I fret and stress over these barriers, I’m thankful I’m here to face them.  I also grieve for those who are like Mark, but do not have someone who is both willing and able to face these barriers in their stead.  I feel the anger and frustration boil, because these unnecessary, poorly planned “services” are obstacles that reinforce the neurotypical status quo.  And I fear that these barriers will not be torn down by the time my children reach adulthood.