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5 Tips For Handling Government Employees


When people hear the term “government employee,” there is an immediate understanding about what that means. This is because thousands of collective experiences in dealing with the average bureaucrat have repeatedly confirmed the following: this is a perfect organism whose structural perfection is matched only its hostility, with the only vulnerability that they don’t bleed acid.

I know there are wonderful government employees out there, but they are the exception that proves the rule. The vast majority of bureaucrats are incredibly unhelpful. Very few things frustrate people more than trying to get something done in a bureaucracy. To illustrate my point, I give you the following made-up scenario:

Me: “Hi, I need to make an appointment to add my child to your system.”

Government employee: “Okay, before you come in, you need to have form 38294590382-XYZ filled out.”

Me: “I don’t have that. What is that form?”

Government employee: “It’s a form the active-duty member has to fill out to get your child into the system.”

Me: “He’s deployed. He can’t fill it out. What should I do? I have a power of attorney.”

Government employee: “It has to be a specific power of attorney, specifically to add your child.”

Me: “It’s a general power of attorney. That should be good, right? It gives me legal authority to add a child.”

Government employee: “No, it has to be a specific POA that says you can do this specific thing.”

Me: “Okay. I’ll just have him come up with one of those. Also, I want to confirm the form I need is 3-8-2-9-4-5-9-0-3-8-2-XYZ?”

Government employee: “Yes. Bring that form in filled out with the specific POA.”

The next day:

Government employee: ‘No, you need a specific POA, specifically giving you authority to make numerical changes to this POA.’

Me: “Hi, here’s form 38294590382-XYZ and the specific POA I need to get my child into the system.”

Government employee: “Okay, let me have a look. Okay, this is the wrong form. Who told you to fill out this form?”

Me: “Your office did. I called. This is what they said to fill out.”

Government employee: “We don’t use this form anymore.”

Me: “Okay, I have the specific POA. Can I just fill the different form right now?”

Government employee: “This POA won’t work. You have a three where an eight should go. That needs to be changed in order for us to be able to accept it.”

Me: “Well, can’t I just… I mean, I have pen, I’ll just make the three an eight.”

Government employee: “You can’t do that, ma’am. You’re going to need to get a new POA.”

Me: “I have a general POA. That doesn’t allow me to make the three an eight?”

Government employee: “No, you need a specific POA, specifically giving you authority to make numerical changes to this POA.”

It’s like trying to reason with an ice-cream cone.

What’s frustrating isn’t that the employee is following an arbitrary set of rules designed to impede any attempts to accomplish even the smallest of tasks; it’s that they seem to be so utterly incapable of exercising reasonable judgment.

Here is a person who can never be fired, and whose promotions aren’t linked to good work but time on the job, so there is absolutely no career risk whatsoever for just helping a mother out and changing the three to an eight. Trying to apply logic to the situation, however, doesn’t work, and is in the end completely counterproductive.

It’s like trying to reason with an ice-cream cone. The bottom line is that this ice-cream cone has something I want, and there is a direct relationship between how much I need them to do something for me, and the probability they won’t do it. Also, I only have one shot at getting it done correctly, because the minute I go rogue and get difficult, that entire office puts me on their unofficial “do-not-help” list. So, learn from my mistakes and heed these five tips to dealing with a government employee.

1. Believe in a Higher Power

You are dealing with forces and powers no mere mortal can battle. I need go no further than the Internal Revenue Service, for example; where apparently any mid-level employee in Cincinnati can abuse you with impunity and there is nothing you can do about it. This is why, even if you don’t believe in God, you might want to team up, because you’re going to need something more in your arsenal than just moral outrage and good looks to win the day.

2. Develop Patience

For this exercise, you will need a sleep-deprived toddler, a 17-hour layover in an airport undergoing renovations, where the bathrooms are in the next terminal. Your job during this exercise is to remain absolutely calm regardless of how much you want to scream, yell, cry, swear, or abandon the toddler. I promise, if you can make it through without doing any of those things, you might have the kind of patience it takes to get a driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

3. Do Not Argue

Your logic doesn’t work here. It’s very important to understand this point. When you try to argue with a government employee to get them to understand how mind-numbingly stupid the system is, it only feeds their resolve. Even if, let’s say, you do get them to concede that the process makes no sense, they will resent you for it. You’ve made them look dumb, and marginalized their job in the process. Believe me, I know how hard it is, to not try and explain the logic fail when dealing with a bureaucrat, but if you want them to help you, you have to place those thoughts elsewhere and focus on the goal: getting them to do what you need them to do.

4. Do Not Swear

This might be the hardest of all the tips, because it will feel so right at the time. But you must resist. If you’re at all concerned you can’t make it through the process without dropping expletives, bring a spouse or friend who can help keep you out of trouble. If it weren’t for my husband firmly intervening between a totally unreasonable German train employee, and me, I probably would have ended up in a very well-run, clean women’s facility in Frankfurt.

5. Be Nice

Despite my comparison of government employees to ice-cream cones and the Alien, they are people. As a general rule, we should be nice to people. Start out pleasant with the belief that everything is going to go your way. This isn’t a lie so much as completely unwarranted optimism. To help prepare you, you’ll need another tired toddler, and the toddler’s favorite toy. The goal is to get the toy from the toddler, and the toddler in bed for a nap, without the toddler crying, and you can only say nice things. This is the Kobayashi Maru of parenting. It cannot be done. The experience is just an exercise designed to show you how much is required of you to be nice. Learn from it.

You probably won’t be able to do all five of these things. Many of you will try, only to end up with a paper-thin belief in God and a prescription for Prozac. The good news is that you don’t have to master them all in order to be successful.

For example: I have no patience for nonsense and don’t suffer fools. This approach comes off as dispassionate and cold, and it gets me nowhere with bureaucrats. I know this about myself, so I work around it. I use a strong belief in God to help me be nice and not argue. Use your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and, while I would never normally advocate this, plan to drink something strong afterwards.