Overcoming the Bureaucracy

by Chris Clem, Pacific Northwest Student Organizer


Being a student activist on your campus can often seem like an uphill battle with a masked figure stationed at the top who is throwing obstacles in your path at every step.  These obstacles can often seem like useless, aggravating hoops that bureaucracy places in front of you just to watch you stumble.  At times, it may often seem as if things are going nowhere.  However, it’s important to always remember that bureaucracy can be beat.  In the last month, the Seattle University campaign seemed to stall for a time due to bureaucracy and red tape, but with some communication, persistence, and framing, the path is once again clear and we are moving ahead.  All universities have some kind of bureaucracy in place that you, as an activist, will most likely have to engage.  However, it’s important to know that red tape can be cut and bureaucracy can be overcome with the right tools and approach.

First and foremost, you must find out who is in charge and have a target.  Beating bureaucracy is all about targeting and pursuing the right authority.  In a university setting, this job can often seem daunting.  Unlike, for example, a high school, universities do not simply report to a single administrative principal, but has many other players involved.  Although there is most certainly a president at your university, he or she most likely does not have the most decision-making power and will, more then likely, be very hard to track down for a face-to-face meeting.   The best thing to do is tailor your target, depending on what you may be pursuing at the moment.   For example, you may want to target your student government, your chief financial officer (CFO), your university president, and/or eventually the board of trustees.  In the campaign for reestablishing our Committee on Responsible Investment here at Seattle U for example, the main interlocutor has been our student government, which runs our committee appointment process.  However, as things move along, we may establish closer ties with our CFO or president, depending on what we pursue next.

Although having a target in mind is essential to overcoming bureaucracy, it is also very important to not limit yourself to one contact.  Although you may want to influence the president of the university for example, it would not be a bad idea to also rub elbows with the CFO or higher-ups in your student government.  When bringing change to an institution, always remember to also bring or gain plenty of support.  At Seattle U, I have found it most helpful to be in good graces with my representatives and peers in our student government.  Since my student government directs the committee appointment process for the university, showing them the importance of socially responsible investment has been a major motivator for things getting moved along.  Although you may still be focused on a target audience, connecting with more people, creating a larger area of influence, and producing a wider pool of allies is continue to be an invaluable advantage.

When things look as if they may be slowing down, be sure to be persistent.  Often times when dealing with bureaucracy, things seem to disappear for ages without a trace.  Although it was designed to make things efficient, the nature of bureaucracy often does the opposite, or at least produces the outward illusion that the opposite is being done.  However, if and when things begin to fade, make sure to keep pursuing, pushing, and persisting.  Give people in charge a small nudge or reminder every once in awhile.  Send an e-mail, pick up the telephone, or even drop in for an impromptu visit; whatever you do, just be sure that you are reminding them that people care about what is happening.  Most times, they will be appreciative of having someone remind them that some things needs pushed along or, at the very least, that someone actually cares about the work that they do.  You can even use your wider support network that you have been establishing (check out paragraph #3)  in order to illustrate support and increase the pressure. Just be sure not to let the machine wear you out; instead, you should wear out the machine.

Always know what you’re talking about, and don’t be afraid to push back.  Bureaucracy, by nature, often is resistant to change.  It’s not always individuals that are opposed to ideas, but simply the result of working to change an established institution.  Rather than working toward tangible positive outcomes, many people work, often unknowingly, for the sustainability of the bureaucracy.  According to Jerry Pournelle’s theory, in any bureaucratic organization, there are “those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.”

As activists, it is our job to consistently remind the bureaucracy of the positive goals it should be pursuing, whether that comes with resistance or affirmation.  When this persistence comes with resistance, we must always be knowledgeable with our information and persuasive in our reasoning.  It is our job to be friends of the university rather than come across as accusers, complainers, or just unsatisfied students.  We must always show that, although our ideas may differ from others’, we too simply want the best for our universities and the wider community, both now and in the future.

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