All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1987

The Face of a Bureaucrat

Mr. Hochderffer is Administrator of Cameron Hospital, Angola, Indiana.

As an old bureaucrat hater, I had often wondered what a real live bureaucrat looked like. Did he have horns? Spit fire? Scaly skin? Cleft foot? I didn’t know.

Bureaucrats were the guys who wrote the regulations that took all the do-goodism out of the laws that Congress passed. Or they were the people in the statehouse, underpaid and overworked, who labored in dingy rooms flanking ill-lighted corridors and could hardly wait until the clock struck four. They were faceless, nameless. The unseen enemy. Waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting developer who had submitted plans for a new shopping mall. Hungry for the little old lady who dared propose corridors a mere seven-and-a-half feet wide in her nursing home wing.

Bureaucrats didn’t run for office, so they didn’t wage political campaigns. You never saw their pictures on a brochure or in a newspaper. They weren’t interviewed by Barbara Walters, or nominated for Man of the Year.

I had grown accustomed to thinking of bureaucrats as living in Washington, D.C., or indianapolis. But a few months ago I learned that they live in my hometown as well.

I’m CEO of a small hospital and we were about to complete a medical office building next door as a way to assure our survival. We’d long since had approval of all the state agencies required. Our community looked forward eagerly for the new young family practitioners who were moving to town to beef up our medical staff. It was a rare day in June and the contractor was right on schedule for the July 1 opening—when I had a phone call from a bureaucrat.

The local representative of the state fire marshal’s office did not like the fire rating on a storeroom wall about 10 feet long. Our architect agreed to replace it.

The state fire marshal asked for one thing; the local fire inspector wanted another. It was impossible to do both. The runaround between state and local bureaucrats took several days. They juggled responsibility like a hot potato.

Then we found out the local building inspector didn’t like our architect. Plans for a storm sewer drain, previously approved, were rejected. We started altering plans to please the locals, who kept telling us it wasn’t they but the state who was holding up our project.

We finally appeased the right people at the right time and were able to open our medical office building almost on schedule. A sad story, perhaps, but at least I learned what a bureaucrat looks like.

This one had a square jaw, piercing blue eyes, and closely cropped graying hair, the latter a holdover from his days in the Marine Corps. He was medium height, medium build, and had a distinct military bearing. He was average. Bureaucrats just look average.

A few months later I had the opportunity to meet another local bureaucrat. He was the city planner, new on the job. I remembered meeting him when he first came to town. He had puppy dog eyes and a strong desire to please. He was polite and accommodating. That was when he first came to town.

Now he was stopping construction on our day care center, a project designed to strengthen our position to hire and retain nurses who are mothers of infants or toddlers.

We had gone through the lengthy process of getting approval of our plans from the state board of health, the public welfare department, and the state fire marshal. We had made several changes at recommendations of the state agencies—a usual process. After all the okays, our building contractor received the go-ahead from the local building commissioner, our old friend from the medical office building days.

Two weeks into the project and we received a letter from the building commissioner telling us to stop construction. If we had questions we were to call the city planner, the one with the puppy dog eyes. More responsibility dodging.

The young planner had now been on the job long enough to be too busy to return telephone calls. But we finally connected.

“I don’t want to shut you down,” he assured me.

“But are you going to shut us down?”

“Well, I don’t want to shut you down.”

Long pause.

“My hands are tied.”

“Then you’re shutting us down?”

“I don’t want to shut you down. It’s up to the board of zoning appeals.”

“When can I see them?”

“They meet in three weeks.”

I remembered that bureaucrats are never to blame. That had become clear a few months earlier when state bureaucrats blamed local bureaucrats and vice versa for the delays on our medical office building. Now the bureaucrat was passing the blame to a committee.

The sin we had committed was in not getting a land use variance to remodel the interior of a structure in a block that housed medical and hospital offices and residences.

“The city is considering changes in the zoning laws,” the city planner told us. “If those changes were now in effect, you wouldn’t need a variance,” he said.

“And since they’re not yet in effect,” I began.

“You need the zoning variance,” he finished.

So with our project half completed, our contractor had no choice but to take on other jobs. We’ll get back in priority line with him when we get the decision of the board of zoning appeals. Meanwhile we’ve lost a few thousand dollars (nothing to a bureaucrat) and we have a newly hired director of a day care center twiddling her thumbs and wanting to get started in a new enterprise.

Now I hope you don’t get the idea that I have become a hater of local bureaucrats too. I have not.

For me bureaucrats now have faces. And that’s an improvement. I still like my government at the local level. I prefer the bureaucrat that I know to the faceless one.

I can leave phone messages with the local bureaucrat. I can knock on his office door. I guess I could throw rocks at his house if I chose, but it hasn’t come to that yet. I might even be able to get him fired—but why do that? You might trade in Dracula and get Frankenstein.

I’ll stick by my hometown bureaucrat, thank you. I may learn to love him, but at least I won’t have to take a long canoe trip with him.