Posted by Pattie on 2/14/2005 01:50:00 PM

The Twenty No Theory of Bureaucracy

I hate dealing with big, multi-level bureaucratic institutions like credit card companies, technical support, schools and government. Over the years I have developed a theory on how to handle (and I mean handle in the most pejorative sense of that word) the automotons (automorons?) that one encounters when trying to get something from such an organization. I call it the "twenty no" theory.

The concept works this way. I do not believe that the answer is "no" until I have been told "no" 20 times. If the person I am dealing with says "no" to my request I ask for a supervisor and make my request again. I have found that persistence up the ladder almost always pays off in three "nos."

I have a friend who wrote a paper she presented at the ASA 1998 called "Administrative Bureaucracy as Collaborative Effort" about her experience with the National Institutes of Health in gaining permission to interview persons on house arrest for her dissertation. She had to gain permission through this office because she wanted to ensure that her subjects would tell her the truth about their experiences on house arrest without fear of her being compelled to testify against them regarding violations of their sentences. This certificate actually requires an act of congress that is based upon recommendations from NIH's research ethics board. The long and arduous negotiation she had with the legal and medical staff at this board were intricate and often times off-topic. For example, one of the people with whom she had to deal actually questioned her several times regarding her safety because she was "an older woman" encountering "criminals." This was almost humorous if it hadn't been frustrating because, first, Sylvia is someone who can take care of herself. She is, in a word, gutsy. Second, the "criminals" who are on house arrest are usually not violent. They might write her a bad check, but they probably haven't killed lately.

I found her experience with the NIH enlightening and was happy to see her write about the experience as a locally negotiated, collaborative effort that required human interaction skills more than policy knowledge. It fits quite well with my "twenty no" theory.

I thought of this today because my brother used this technique to negotiate with his credit card company. After the second "no" he got want he wanted (a credit for a charge) and more (they took off the penalty as well).

So feel free to pass on my twenty no theory and use it at will. Remember that somewhere in that organization resides a human being with the power to say "yes." Find her and you will get what you want.