Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How to Handle Yourself in Government Offices

The English word "bureaucracy" was borrowed from the French word bureaucratie which in turn traces its roots to the word "bureau" which means a desk or a table with lots of drawers.

If we shorten the etymology above, we come up with this nifty equation:

Bureaucracy = Desk with drawers

If you and I were on a similar line of thinking, images evoked in our heads would either be:

1. Rows upon rows of desks with government employees, stamping or signing away but doing essentially nothing.

2. Or, the stereotype of the government employee who has his drawer open waiting for your extra "contribution" to prompt him to do his job.

The Bureaucracy, unfortunately, is unavoidable in any modern society. They are supposed to provide the backbone for any government. They are assured tenure so that they may continue to provide services irrespective of who occupies Malacanang. It is assumed that the Bureaucracy is immune to politics.

Tenure and a modicum of "isolation" from politicians jockeying for position makes for a cadre of government workers who may serve tenure until they die or retire, whichever comes first. You wonder why they wear a certain kind of expression on their faces as they sit behind those desks and windows? Well they have security of employ running at the back of their mind. Whether they actually do work or not, they simply need to show up to get paid.

So you know they have a certain attitude, coupled with a notion that they are entitled to work as slowly and as inefficiently as possible because they are government employees, then what have you got? A bureaucracy that will move as slo.o.o.owly as possible. A bureaucracy that will seek to work as little as possible because there is nothing prompting them to do otherwise. A bureaucracy ripe for all sorts of rent-seeking possibilities.

Now, knowing this, how should we conduct ourselves in any government office? After all, from the time we are born to the day we die, government will charge us something and require us to do the requisite paperwork at an appropriate agency.

Tip #1. What every Filipino should do is to stop looking at government as though it were the enemy. A monstrous entity to be avoided and dodged at all costs, including having to bribe one's way out of a possible quandary.

I learned such an attitude from my parents when I was not quite eighteen. As a new motorist, my father's staunch advise to me was, "Pag nahuli ka ng pulis, lagyan mo na lang para tapos na" (If you were apprehended by the police, just bribe them to have done with it.)

Now, where might this attitude stem from? Perhaps it is knowing that redeeming one's driver's license could take half a day, a punishment in itself. Indeed, apprehending officers might be counting on this, adding an extra incentive for the motorist to just bribe her way out. Another advice I got from my father was, don't ever argue with the officer. Implicit in this piece of advice is assuming the officer is always right. Which isn't always the case.

This "fear" of government I assume, stems from our country's colonial history. After all, in the early days, public administration was colonial administration - meaning our very first contact with the idea of government hardly meant service. The government existed to facilitate as efficiently as possible the extraction of wealth from the these Islands to Spain. Where in other polities, the Government was created by its people, our early government was created by an alien entity to keep natives from "causing trouble." Given that, the natives will indeed have cause to fear government. They would try to avoid having to deal with government as this meant either unnecessary hassle, punishment or worse.

Given that government wasn't there to "serve the people," what could the early civil servants have been like? Perhaps the top officials were Spaniards, but the majority would have to be natives as well. Could we assume that they did their jobs with efficiency and service in mind? Probably not. Since the Spanish Crown was on the other side of the world, then one might assume that public administrators here had free reign to indulge in any money-making scheme as their imaginations could devise.

So, maybe this attitude of fear and mistrust toward government has been carried on for the past centuries. The question is, what should we do about it now?

Tip#2 Every Filipino should always demand good service.

Remember, if you are a taxpayer, then that means those snooty, stiff-lipped sumbitches are in your employ. If you feel that the service could be better, then don't hesitate to call someone out, or make reasonable demands. Of course, you must do so as courteously, but as forcefully, as can be managed. Remember, there is nothing prompting them to do their jobs well other than you. You have to make government work for you.

Which brings us to Tip#3. Demanding good service from government is no easy task. Their misplaced sense of entitlement often serves as a shield between them and the people they supposedly serve. They feel entitled to work inefficiently because they have low pay. That no one is holding a gun to their heads to work in public office is beside the point.

Tip#4. If you feel you are right, then argue your point as insistently but respectfully as possible. I find that speaking to low-ranked employees in straight Filipino helps. It doesn't do well to sport your colegiala slang as this serves to impress your "superiority" over them. And always say you are there to do your civic duty.

Let me tell you about my experience at the LTO a few months back. I had queued for three hours to make the payment and redeem my license. I then found out that prior to release of said license, I was supposed to take a "test." So off I went to the testing center only to be halted by a hazel-eyed security guard right at the door. Apparently, I couldn't go in because I was wearing "tsinelas." Well, my tsinelas happened to be a brightly colored stylish pair, but it didn't pass the security guard's muster. I argued, why didn't they inform the test-takers before hand that no tsinelas were allowed? Why wasn't it prominently posted outside said test center? Why did a pair of pretty tsinelas hamper me from doing my civic duty?!?!?

Because I am a teacher, I do have a flair for dramatics, and if I wanted, my voice could reach an audience of hundreds. Well, at this point, an audience had come to see what all the ruckus was about. A kindly gentleman suggested I go to the cantina to borrow a pair of shoes. I thought, what a ridiculous notion. But such are the avenues open to Filipinos who are unaware of their rights. Such are the solutions to Filipinos who see government as something to be feared, and so must be slyly circumvented. It never occurs to them to confront government head on, on equal footing.

To cut the story short I demanded to speak with someone, and I did, some more persuasion and arguments were made, all delivered in straight Filipino, and so I was finally allowed to take the damn test.

Tip#5. Hold government employees accountable. And how can you do this? By always, always asking for their names and positions.

To tell you another anecdote, yesterday I went to the Philippine Tourism Authority to get my Tax Exemption Certificate. Those traveling courtesy of foreign funding may avail of an exemption. Now it clearly states in their website that one need show proof that travel is funded/provided by a foreign government. So I brought all my documents from AusAID, including the contract which states all my entitlements.

The officer at the window gave my papers a cursory glance of about 5 seconds and pronounced that it wasn't enough proof. She said I needed to get the Australian Embassy to write a letter addressed to them stating that they were funding my airfare. I argued that this was already included in the contract, if she would but look at it. She then goes to consult her supervisor the "Signing Officer" and then came back to me pretty much saying the same thing. I again argued that she only needs to read the damn paper to see that my airfare was covered. So on it went between myself, her and the Signing Officer for about 30 minutes. If they expected me to give up then they expected wrong.

I asked to speak with Signing Officer and finally! he deigns to come to the window. I repeated what I had previously said, pointing to the pertinent parts of the document. I asked for his name. I asked for hers. Signing Officers then says he will consult the Department's Top Dog. Well, since she was female, that would make her the Top Bitch. Finally, after 15 more minutes, I got my papers processed.

On the way home I imagined what it must be like for ordinary Filipinos who do not know their rights and privileges as citizens. Had I not known better, I wouldn't have insisted on what I clearly saw was the logical, rational solution. I imagine other folks trooping to government offices over and over and over, queuing for hours on end to be "serviced." I imagine some who are tempted to just bribe their way out rather than go through the hassle. But the "hassle" is what makes the bureaucracy work for us. We must take time for the "hassle" to keep government employees in check. No one will do so otherwise.

No comments: