Always remember that because the bureaucracy has been around since before you were born, it will outlive you. The greatest potential for your achievement within it may in fact be negligible.
Quite unoriginally, I would liken a good bureaucracy to a vast machine whose individual parts may be comprehensible to the people who operate within them, but whose entirety and operation are unfathomable even to those in positions of power and privilege. In a sense, there is an absurdist quality to the best bureaucracies, a quality that the aspiring bureaucrat might find either terrifying or incredibly liberating, depending on her temperament. Bureaucracies are terrifying in their ability to wait out individual ambition, their ability to chew up the careers of those who serve within them and spit them out at retirement, hopefully with their pension intact.
But if that’s as far as you look, you are probably not going to thrive in a bureaucracy. Yes, I said thrive. Because you can if you know what you’re doing. And if you follow these basic rules.
The first rule of bureaucracy is relax a bit. Sure, in some respects you are competing with others, especially if you’re looking for promotions. But that doesn’t mean you have make your life miserable attempting to move the unmovable. The sooner you realize that bureaucracies do not respond to force, the better off you’ll be. You can’t win in a bureaucracy with hard power. That is a game the bureaucracy always wins. So relax a bit and look for less direct ways to achieve anything you need or want to achieve.
The second rule of bureaucracy is understand the letter of the written rules. Not the spirit, the letter. Understanding the rules allows you to do a couple of things. First, if you know the exact wording of the rules, you will know how to minimize the chances of wasting six months or a year trying to get something through an arcane and opaque process only to have it rejected at some point because you didn’t read the rules. Second, knowing the rules gives you some clues on which rules can be safely ignored. More or less. This is important because…
The third rule of bureaucracy is nothing is achievable in the bureaucracy within the written rules. Formal, written rules exist solely to deny permission. Remember that. Even if all technicalities are met to the letter of the rules, whatever you are trying to get done will probably fail. Fortunately for you, the written rules are not the only rules that govern bureaucracies. There are unwritten informal rules that you also need to know. Written rules are only trod in isolation of the unwritten rules by a) the stupid, b) the brave (and thus very stupid), or c) those with no other options (and thus very, very stupid, or they wouldn’t have found themselves in this dilemma). Most who fall into category a simply don’t know the informal rules, but ignorance in this case is stupidity. Correctable, but stupid.
The fourth rule of bureaucracy is because nothing is achievable in the bureaucracy, all things are possible. If you understand the preceding rules, then this should make sense to you. If not, read on. Remember what I said earlier about force and hard power? They don’t work when you have to operate within the informal rules, because getting anything accomplished in this territory is all about relationships. It’s not enough simply to know who is responsible for moving requests from one level to another, although that’s a start. It’s also about being able to convince these people to help you out within their capacity to do so. To do this, you need leverage, preferably of a reusable kind. Blackmail is not, in this case, a renewable resource, so do your best to avoid it. What you want is to be on friendly terms with those who can exercise any decisions over what you want to accomplish, but you can’t just crassly walk up to people and schmooze them into doing you favors. It is worth noting that those you work with do so under the auspices of the same rules you do. Use that to your advantage. If you can master this subtle art, everything is possible, even, on occasion, things that are outside the letter of the rules.
The fifth rule of bureaucracy is because permission is impossible to get, seek forgiveness instead. This is usually one of the informal rules, but it is close enough to being universal, even outside strong bureaucracies, that it deserves a place here. Forgiveness is much easier to get when whatever you do is either highly successful or doesn’t really cause problems for people like your boss.
There are more rules, of course, and I will talk about them in later installments, if I ever get around to writing them again. Until then, happy adventuring, bureaucrats.