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Spinning the wheels of bureaucracy

By Jon Lorbacher
Posted Monday, June 26, 2006

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Chatham County, NC - It's the bane of your existence if you've ever had to call any large organization: getting put on hold. In that moment, you experience an overwhelming sense of frustration and helplessness. The decision to wait another minute for the cheesy elevator music to be broken by an actual human voice, or to merely hang up the phone is left hanging over your head. In short, it is a huge inconvenience.

And yet, it is often the experience of anyone who has dealt with bureaucracy. I had the misadventure of trying to coax information from the N. C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) regarding statistics about criminal acts in N.C. public schools. A number of questions needed to be answered, and when the dust settled, they were still there.

My search to get a few seemingly straightforward questions answered began with my first phone call to the DPI Communications Division. The number was found on the DPI Report with a message saying "For more information regarding the crime and violence report, please contact the Communications Division, N.C. DPI." This seemed easy enough. I quickly copied down the number and called it with our list of questions. I was greeted by the gruff voice of a Communications Division secretary and chronic mumbler.

I introduced myself and said that I had a few questions about the DPI online report on school crime and violence. She transferred me to the statistics department, and it was then that I knew it would only get worse.

Getting through to this most exciting of departments was like pulling teeth without Novocain. I found myself sitting, endlessly twiddling my thumbs and listening to elevator music. The phone rang twice and I got the voicemail for whomever the pencil pusher was that I was referred to. A man's recorded voice answered with a vague accent and some unintelligible name. Typical. How convenient that whoever this guy was would be out at lunch, or hiding in the bathroom, or maybe watching the phone ring. After all, he did wield all of the power in this situation, simply by having the choice of whether or not to answer the phone. So I sauntered back to class with the number for his extension fresh in my mind, determined that I would get him in half an hour.

When the time came, I marched back to the office with a newfound determination to get a few simple answers.

I called back. This time he answered. As soon as I introduced myself he immediately said that he had been trying to contact me, but that I spoke too fast when I gave the number. I speak too fast? This guy was talking fast enough that between the speed and the accent I had a hard time following him. And, furthermore, my number is only four different digits. But apparently, I speak too fast.

I then asked my questions. He quickly stopped me and said something like "I'm sorry but I will have to transfer you to the division that actually conducted the studies." He then started talking to the guy, presumably, in the cubicle next to him. He was asking him his number. I thought, "Why doesn't he just hand him the phone? He's right there."

Then the line went dead, a moment of peace before the elevator music began again. After about two minutes, I was ready to pull out my hair. Finally the guy in the next cubicle answered the phone. This guy had a much clearer voice, and at first seemed enthused about helping me. However, he quickly failed me, by avoiding direct answers to anything, saying that these statistics had just been transfered to his department. He also directed me to another source of data on the DPI website that his department had supposedly studied. Then he "had to go make a phone call." So I went to the DPI site to find his data; however, when I looked for it, it wasn't there. Typical bureaucrat. Still, I was not about to call him back.

Bureaucracy is the nuts and bolts of any government. Yet it seems to slow everything down, bottlenecking, and causing government to be slow and ineffective, to the point that the guy one cubicle down has no idea what the other guy does. Each department only looks out for itself. Does this really help society, when the infrastructure of government does not look out for the needs of the people? It's great having records like school crime incidents available, but it's beginning to feel like the bureaucracy hurts as much as it helps.

Jon Lorbacher is a journalism student at Woods Charter School in North Chatham County, NC.

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