On Bureaucracy

In the private sector, if people stop working productively, their business goes bankrupt. But, in the public sector, other methods have to be used to deal with people who go to sleep on the job.

The principal method used in Canada is to set up elaborate rules that change frequently. Then, someone who doesn't keep reasonably alert won't figure them out correctly. That person will then fail to qualify for additional budget next year; eventually the program can be canceled and the person shifted to a less demanding job.

So, the best way of viewing bureaucratic rules is as an alertness and intelligence test. Despite their outer form, they usually aren't really anti-people, they are to catch sleepwalking civil servants.

Unfortunately, we ordinary people can get caught up in them too! Here are some examples:

Canada maintains a 'permanent' voter list, kept up to date by the address declared on income tax forms. I had recently moved, and a federal election was coming up before next income tax time, so phoned Elections Canada to find out how to vote at my new address. I was told to visit the temporary office set up during the election to serve the City of Ottawa, with my new address.

When I arrived, I presented the change of address card I've been mailing out, with my full name, new and old address and phone numbers. Oh no, that won't do - someone else has to have written the address information, not me. Well, my revised provincial driver license hadn't arrived yet, nor had anything else such as cheques etc. "Don't you have even a letter addressed to you by someone else?", I was asked. Well no, just a few letters redirected by Canada Post (at my verbal request, with no documentation required) - back home, not in the car with me.

I left, expecting to have to drive all the way home and back. Then, I realized there was a provincial license bureau a few doors away in the same mall. "Has my change of address request been received by the license bureau?", I enquired. Yes, it had, but since I had sent the request in by mail, I would have to wait for the revised permit by mail.

Then, the clerk took a second look at my change of address card (the same one I had presented to Elections Canada). The computer operator in Toronto had made an error in my address, transposing two digits. "Oh, I can correct that here", she announced! And she did, presenting me promptly with a temporary driver license with my corrected new address on it.

I walked back to Elections Canada. Everything was now sweetness and smiles - someone else had been persuaded to write down my new address. I get to vote.

We ordinary people have one big advantage over civil servants - we can use political routes. Here is an example:

Canada has several income security programs designed to ensure that our old people don't starve when they can no longer work. At age 64, I got a note that I was eligible for a pension at age 65. The note mentioned my birth date. But, it also stated unequivocally that native born Canadians would only receive a pension if they obtained a "birth certificate". Anyone else need only provide any three documents listing their date of birth, presumably including the letter I had just received.

When I was born, municipalities were responsible for maintaining birth records in my province. I have my original document - a municipal "Certificate of Registration of Birth". My mother had carefully preserved it, bless her. I sent in a certified photocopy of it along with the application forms.

Two months later I got a letter from the feds. No go! It's not called a "birth certificate". So, I applied to the province for a birth certificate. After a month, I phoned the provincial ministry to enquire. I was told that due to new security regulations, it could take up to a year to receive it, long past the date I would start losing my pension if I didn't have one.

Definitely, time to get alert! Of course, I sent a letter to the office of the provincial minister responsible for birth records to point out that his department's problems were going to cost thousands of Ontario residents money, big time. But, the main letter I sent was to the federal minister responsible for income security. Why, I enquired, were native-born Canadians treated as second-class people by their own country? I had no difficulty meeting the three documents criteria that is accepted from foreign-born residents of Canada, in fact I had six. Wouldn't you think that, after a lifetime of building Canada, I should at least be allowed the same rights as the most recent of immigrants? Might this not be subject to a challenge on the Canadian Charter of Rights? At the UN, even?

Barely a week later, I got a phone call from the federal department. Despite all the forms, all the letters, and all prior statements over the phone, a native-born Canadian was indeed allowed to submit the same documentation as the foreign-born. An appointment was set up, for the next day no less.

I started to present my documents. Oh, these won't do - we only accept documents from other jurisdictions - no Canadian federal documents are allowed !! (Three documents gone.) Well, my municipal certificate was accepted, so was my car driver license (provincial). I presented my pilot license without a word. In Canada, aviation is federal, so this was in fact a federal document. The official didn't know that! The three documents were photocopied, certified, and I ended up getting my pension.

Well after I started receiving my pension, the provincial "birth certificate" arrived. It was entitled "Certificate of Registration of Birth"!

I put it in my safety deposit box. Maybe, some day, it might be useful. (12 years later it finally was, when Ontario required everyone to get new health cards. The Ontario government does accept its own documents.)

Of course, sometimes we do run into real incompetence, even bloodymindedness, in a civil service. Here is an example:

In Canada, tuition fees at recognized institutions are tax-exempt. And, if a student doesn't have enough income to use the exemption, a supporting parent or spouse is permitted to claim it. My daughter and son-in-law qualified on both counts, so for several years I had been submitting their certificates, then reimbursing them the tax I saved. They needed it.

Then, the processing center for all Canadian income tax forms was suddenly moved to the riding of the Prime Minister of Canada. Almost no career civil servants were willing to move to the boondocks of a separatist province, so there was a huge turnover of staff. I got back a form letter saying that my claim was invalid, that someone (unspecified) had an income in excess of the guidelines.

Well, neither of them did. Flat out! I requested a review, inquiring which person was supposed to have the excess income. A few months later, I got the same form letter, with associated demand to pay up including yet more interest. A telephone enquiry elicited the statement that an answer to my question was impermissible due to privacy legislation. Then, I made a formal appeal, and discovered that the 'appeal' people worked in the same small building where the official worked who had refused my documentation. Not only did they have coffee together, they probably grew up together. And they were all new to their jobs, and 80% separatist and anti-anglophone to boot.

Enough! I wrote to the minister of national revenue. Did it ever occur to you, sir, that if I went to the press your boss the prime minister would get a big black eye? Don't you realize how damaging this will be to national unity, dear to the heart of your boss the prime minister, that separatists in Quebec are screwing up the tax returns of all Canadians outside of Quebec?

I got back a horrified letter from the minister's office denying that this could possibly have anything to do with national unity - national revenue staff were an 'independent agency'. The real answer came a few days later, from the appeal level of the Chicoutimi office. It announced that my appeal was invalid because my original income tax submission had been accepted as filed, so there was no grounds for an appeal.

I sent my daughter a cheque. Better late than never.

John Sankey