Beat Bureaucracy

Case study 6: The Navigator speaks

Although it’s easy to second-guess the disaster relief agencies, it’s unfair. After 9/11 their challenges were staggering. They had to interview an enormous number of clients and process huge quantities of donations while facing heavy pressure to help quickly and pressure to ensure that the money did not go to scammers. Every social service attracts cheats and 9/11 was no exception.

Added to the problem: although aid agencies usually do some coordination during disaster relief operations, they don’t rely entirely on computers because many disasters cause power failures. As a result they were not networked together to share client information.

Numerous new relief agencies that were established after 9/11. The well-established agencies found it difficult to partner with the new ones because they were so inexperienced; for example, they had no criteria for deciding who should receive assistance.

Also, the agencies could not legally dole out all of the money they received. It is against US law for charitable organizations to make their clients rich their job is solely to take care of their clients' basic needs.


Here are some changes that could have made the red tape burden on clients lighter in such situations. Much of this was eventually done.

1. The relief agencies could have set up a unified information clearinghouse with a phone bank and website that gave clear directions to clients about what assistance they might be eligible for and what documents they would need to qualify for each agency’s aid. 

Organizing massive amounts of information for an information clearinghouse is a highly specialized task that takes time, and disaster relief information requires non-stop updating.

2. The agencies could have set up a single intake unit to get basic information from clients. This unit could have gathered the documents required and posted the results on a secure shared database for all of the agencies to use. This database could also have included the amount each agency actually awarded each family so that other agencies could avoid duplication and unfairness.

3. Each individual agency needed to work hard to train the thousands of new volunteers every week who were answering phone calls and conducting interviews. Better training would have led to fewer transferred calls and duplicate interviews. The volunteers changed constantly because, after working one or two weeks, most had to return to their jobs and personal responsibilities. 

4. Although aid agencies don’t like to spend public donations to hire staff, sometimes it’s impossible for volunteers to do all of the work because of the discontinuity caused when volunteers leave their positions to resume their normal lives. When continuity is essential, some money must be spent on hiring even if the news media and public object, and they do.

5. The agencies needed to provide well-staffed, high quality worker care to their staff and volunteers. Although disaster work can be very satisfying when you are able to help people, inevitably workers become the targets of anger. You also have to cope with a few dishonest and greedy people who make your stomach turn; and exhaustion is a factor.

It’s difficult for supervisors to provide both practical supervision and worker care. Worker care specialists are invaluable. One benefit is a reduction in the number of times that workers get angry or impatient with clients. Another benefit is an increase in the length of time staff and volunteers are willing and able to keep working in a grief-saturated environment.


A final word on training

If you have completed all of the self-guided training, congratulations, you've done some demanding work. I hope that, when your next bureaucracy battle begins, the Four Simple Rules and the Strategy Toolkit will help you get the job done. 


Feedback on this training sequence, including what you liked and how to improve it, are most welcome. Please send your suggestions to