Opinion: ‘Rules’ are king in bureaucratic game

March 3, 2013


I was in the process of selling my deceased mother’s home in Kansas City and had a list of utilities I needed to call to have service discontinued.

“I am not allowed to talk to you until I have documentation verifying that you are the trustee and have power of attorney,” said the robotic voice at the first utility I called.

“But here you are talking to me,” I said. Miss Robot was not amused. She repeated her mantra sternly. I didn’t want her to lose her job over this issue but I couldn’t resist making a game of it. Somehow I managed to keep the forbidden conversation going. At last I tricked her into divulging a shortcut: If the buyer called and put the service in his name, my non-existent mother would be off the hook.

My adventures in the bureaucratic hives continued. The next call was answered with a recorded message informing me that I was in for a 20-minute wait until a representative could speak to me. Meantime, I was treated to a celebration of the utility’s genius for customer service. At last I heard a voice that apparently belonged to an actual human being. But I hit a wall when I revealed that my mother was no longer among the living.

“We cannot continue service in the name of a deceased person,” said the voice.

“But my mother died five months ago,” I said. “You’ve been serving her since then, dead though she is.”

“We didn’t know she was dead,” replied the voice. I would have to supply documentation of her death and the service would have to be put in my name.

“But the house has been sold!” I cried. “Closing is in two weeks.”

“We cannot send a bill to a deceased person,” repeated the voice.

“If I hadn’t made this call, you’d still be sending the bill to her — is that right?”


“Can’t we just pretend that I never made this call?”

“No.” My protests as to the absurdity of this policy were of no avail. Finally, I caved, Policy won out. It always does.

I have no doubt that there are reasons for unreasonable rules and regulations, but so often they seem to be conceived for the express purpose of humiliating the customer and driving him mad. “Service” often turns out a synonym for “Persecution” or “Torture.” I don’t want to cast aspersions on the people who travail in the bureaucratic labyrinths. They are only doing their jobs, the first principal of which is to cover their rear ends. But no policy is so beneficial and virtuous that it can’t be carried too far.

A recent issue of The Economist devoted its cover to “Over-regulated America.” The issue referred to “chaotic environmental regulation,” the “confused, bloated” Dodd-Frank financial reform and our health care system’s “staggering and increasing complexity.” Every hour spent treating a patient creates 30 to 60 minutes of paperwork. This year, federally mandated categories of illness and injury will rise from 18,000 to 140,000, including nine codes relating to injuries cause by parrots and three relating to burns from flaming water skis.

Writer Roger Kimball recently reported on the damage to his home from Hurricane Sandy. Repairs would require getting a building permit, he was told. But before he could get a building permit, the repairs had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. The Zoning Authority cited FEMA regulations requiring that the house would have to be “brought up to code,” which would entail “elevating” it to avoid future water damage. Raising the house, however, would violate the zoning limit on height.

“Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it,” wrote Kimball. He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning about a form of despotism peculiar to modern democracies: Enforcement of a “network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules” that reduces citizens “to being nothing more than a herd of timid…animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

The last phone call I made was answered by a lively, good-humored woman who handled my request for termination of service immediately. I told her about my adventures and she commiserated.

“That’s government,” she said. Apparently she was allowed to speak to customers and to make common sense decisions. Our business was easily transacted and ended on a happy note. Conclusion: We need rules and regulations, of course. But bureaucracies often churn them out without balancing their costs and benefits. Moreover, slavish adherence to rule and regulation is not only costly, but maddening. Footnote: Until further notice, take care when sticking your fingers into the parrot’s cage and always strap a fire extinguisher on your back when using your water skis.

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


tomatogrower 5 years ago

How are stupid company policies related to stupid government regulations, except they are stupid? I know I run into a whole lot more stupid company policies more often than I run into stupid government policies.
Every business is different. The bigger they are the worse they are. When my mother-in-law died, she had accounts in several banks. The bank in which we set up the trustee account bent over backwards helping us. The local banks only needed a certificate and a legal paper naming my husband the trustee. A large national bank, located downtown, gave us the run around over and over. Once my husband had all the documents they said they required, they added another one. Then they kept sending him notices that the closed accounts were overdrawn. They definitely won't get any of our business, and we've steered other people away from them.

goodson 5 years ago

With regard to banks and financial institutions, I believe you will find that the financial and business-strangling Dodd-Frank law gave birth to the burdensome and onerous regulations now visited upon us, the abused users.

And concerning the governmental-types, I believe history will disclose that one of the functions of Obama's economy-destroying trillion dollar "stimulus package" was the hiring by governments of a horde of new employees for whom work had to be found.

Thank you George Gurley for your continuous wonderful writings.

Jim Winn

tomatogrower 5 years ago

Dodd-Frank has nothing to do with proving whether or not someone is dead. Besides, the more local banks are supposedly suffering under Dodd-Frank too. This big bank just didn't want to let go of the money, and it wasn't even a lot of money.

voevoda 5 years ago

I don't see any evidence that Mr. Gurley's problems were caused by government regulations. Private companies get to make their own policies, and when they have a monopoly, as utilities do, they don't have much motivation to problem-solve.

As for the problems Roger Kimball reported, they are caused by lack of coordination among different jusridictions. Our Founding Fathers recognized the value of having government at different levels--city, county, state, Federal--recognizing that some matters are best handled at each level. Occasional contradictions are the consequence of a system that otherwise works pretty well.

As for the paperwork involved in medical care, most of it is generated by our bulky and inefficient patchwork of payers--each insurance plan having different provisions, different forms, different coding, different categories, plus all the different government-sponsored plans (Medicare, Medicaid, VA, KanCare, etc. etc.) If we had a single-payer system, just about all the paperwork could be eliminated, and what remained would be streamlined.

tomatogrower 5 years ago

Exactly. The insurance company's paperwork isn't anymore complicated than the government's paperwork.

Orwell 5 years ago

If you found a company employee who was able to solve the problem I'd say that's proof positive the problem was not the fault of the government – unless the company person is a blatant lawbreaker, of course.

Sounds to me like the bureaucratic runaround was due to undertrained employees at an understaffed customer service operation. The most common cause of this sort of corporate behavior is shortsighted focus on the current quarter's bottom line. You can blame the government for everything, but that's usually just lazy thinking.

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