April 29, 2012

Bureaucracy … I suspect we all know it well. As a sociologist, what comes to mind is Max Weber and his iron cage of bureaucratic, rule-based, rational control of society.

What are the kinds of things we all need to do to settle into a new country? Open a bank account … maybe get a locally accepted credit card … get a new cell phone … and set up accounts for natural gas, electricity, cable and internet services in our new home. Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

To get anything, I learned I needed to register my visa (passport, not charge card). After registering my visa, I needed to apply for an official ID. Your Colombian ID is what you use for identification to charge purchases on a standard credit card, open accounts, and so forth.

It was clear this was an important process for me to start, so I went to the bank to open an account. They informed me that I needed to get my ID first. Next I went to a government office to file for an ID. I was told there that I needed to go pay a fee at another office and bring back that receipt. So, I filled out the form, went to the other office, and paid my fee. It felt great to walk out with the official paper to file for my ID … now I thought I was getting somewhere. I then returned to the first office and waited in line only to learn that I needed to register my visa first, which needed to be done at yet another office … this time much further than walking distance. After lunch, I went to the other office and waited in line, and then learned that I didn’t have the right kind of passport pictures. So, I left the office, found a photographer in the neighborhood, purchased passport photos precisely like they wanted, and returned to get in line all over again. When I reached the counter, I received a form for registering my visa and receiving a Colombian ID. Great … again, I thought I was finally getting somewhere.

Needless to say, I waited in lines most of the afternoon, during which I filled out forms, had additional pictures taken (why I had to go get passport pictures I’ll never know), and had my finger prints taken. After being put through what felt like the proverbial “mill,” I was called to one of the official windows to review my paperwork, sign my forms in the presence of the official, hand in my passport photos, and submit my receipt of payment from the office we visited in the morning. When we were done the official handed me back my passport, explained that I was registered with a new registration number, and that I would have to wait 4 months for my ID to process. … Did I hear that right?! … 4 months?! But I was told I needed an ID to open accounts, etc. Seeing the expression on my face, which I suspect is fairly typical, the official explained that I could use my visa registration number on my passport to get a temporary letter that would function as an ID and would help me get by until my official ID was ready.

Okay … so there was a way around this 4 month wait. The next day I made copies of my documentation, specifically my visa registration, and went off to yet another office for my temporary ID, which I received without any problems. So, now I was back where I started … needing a bank account. So, on day 3, I headed back to the bank … only to learn that I should have been told that I need to be resident in Colombia for six months before I can open a bank account. Argh!!!

Bureaucracies! Can’t live with them … and can’t live without them! Now before you start thinking, “Oh, those South American countries and their bureaucracies,” take a few minutes and think about your own experiences with bureaucracies. What was it like applying for a US passport? How many forms did you have to sign, and how many offices did you have to visit, before you were seen by a doctor? At college, most of us waited in lines to register for classes, get our dorm assignment, and process our scholarships and tuition payments … and a fair amount of the time, something was wrong. A payment didn’t process, a grade didn’t get posted, a requirement wasn’t logged, and the list goes on. I had international friends in grad school who had to return to their home countries and make an appointment at an embassy to apply for a visa renewal to continue their studies in the US.  As I think about my own experiences, the thought of returning to the DMV for anything gives me nightmares. And I don’t even want to think about the headaches of applying for a real estate tax abatement.

While bureaucracies can be a pain in the neck, I also appreciate why they exist. As my students at BC would often say, “how else are you going to organize society?” … and they’re right to ask that question. We may not like it, but the reality is that we need bureaucracies to maintain organization in a sophisticated, large scale society. And if you think about it on a more practical level, how may narcotics traffickers do you think have tried to launder money in Colombia? … and how many of those money launderers do you think might have been North American? Just think about that in the context of a banking requirement that you be resident for 6 months before opening an account. I’m also currently residing in a city of 9 million … 9 million people! I should think that alone would lend itself to mega bureaucracies. On top of being a large city, Bogota also happens to be the capital. Gee, do you think there might be a few bureaucracies in Washington, DC?

Weber saw bureaucracy as a potential threat to our individual freedoms … hence his use of the expression, “the iron cage.”  But philosophers have also reminded us that we make sacrifices of some liberties for the “greater good.” In some ways, you could argue that Colombia’s bureaucracy limits my individual freedoms, in particular, by constraining my movements, etc., for the next few months. But in many more ways, that bureaucracy provides me with a certain level of protection and security. The ID is going to provide the government with information about me, as a foreign worker in Colombia, that could be crucial in the event of a crisis. And the process that I’ve had to go through enables the government to track folks who may be, shall we say, less desirable. So, for the sake of a more secure and safe environment, I’ll gladly live with the bureaucracy and wait for my ID … I just wish it wasn’t going to take 4 months.

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