Beat Bureaucracy

Case study 1: The Navigator speaks

This was an actual experience of mine. It happened 25 years ago and I handled it poorly because I'd never given any thought to how to deal effectively with a bureaucracy. All I did was call the bus company and complain on the phone. Nothing much changed although they may have had a word with the driver because he did it less often. After that winter I bought a car and the issue disappeared for me although not for others, I imagine.

Here is what I should have done, using the Four Simple Rules.


Who's in charge? Don’t complain to employees who have no authority to solve problems. Ask for the manager or supervisor and don't take no for an answer. If necessary go all the way to the top.

Exercise: How will you find out who the decision maker is and how to contact that person?

Strategy All I needed to do was ask. I should have said that I intended to file a formal written complaint about a driver and asked to speak to the appropriate department or individual. If I had been told that it wasn’t necessary to file a formal written complaint, I should have insisted on doing so anyway.


Be persuasive. Explain in detail why you should receive assistance. Be reasonable rather than cranky or accusing. You may wish to begin with a phone call, but always put your appeal in writing and attach evidence — bureaucracies run on paper. If there is an official appeal process, use it.

Exercise: Map out a detailed strategy for how to be very persuasive. Don’t fool yourself—if you don’t do this really well, the bus company may just tell you that they will speak to the driver and then quietly drop the whole thing. Write down all of your main points.


1. I should have put my complaint in writing with dates and times in which the driver drove past me and other people and a clear physical description of the driver so the company knew who he was.

2. I should have printed up slips of paper with the address and phone number of the bus company and distributed them to everyone who rode that bus regularly in the morning. The note would have explained that I had filed a written complaint and how important it was for others to do the same if they wanted the driver to stop making people late for work.

3. I knew by sight a few people who had grumbled about the driver’s behaviour; I could have spoken to them to urge them to contact the bus company.

4. I could even have jumped off the bus at the next stop when I saw the driver pass people by, jogged back to the previous stop and talked to the people waiting there about the need to protest.


Be persistent. Don’t let the system wear you down. Wear it down. Don’t give up because you’re tired or frustrated — friends, family and support organizations can bring fresh ideas and energy to the battle.

Exercise: Who could help? Think of your friends and family—is there anyone who would be particularly good at this? What organizations might jump in on your side?

Strategy  As I said before, I should have enlisted the help of other riders. Also, my city, Vancouver, has an organization that calls itself the Bus Riders’ Union. They would have made some noise and might have assembled examples of other drivers who mistreated passengers. (In current-day Vancouver the bus drivers are, for the most part, excellent. It is common for passengers to shout “Thank you” as they disembark.)


Push back, hard. If your appeal is rejected, call the bureaucracy to account.  Bureaucracies try to look invulnerable. Find their weaknesses. They may fear bad news coverage or phone calls to government ministers or a web campaign against them.

Exercise: Think of at least two strategies you could use if your letter of complaint is ignored.

Strategy  At that point I should have contacted local news media, the head office of the bus company and the government minister responsible for transportation. Although this sounds like a lot of work, I could have sent one letter or email to all of them with a few variations to fit the audience.


Click here to read Case Study 2, “Government Breaks Promise to Nail Deadbeat Dads.”