14 April, 2017

Bureaucracy is Just a State of Mindlessness

There are those who insist I live a charmed life - for various reasons - but I normally disagree with them except in one case. I have indeed been dealt by Divinity a mercifully light touch in my need to deal with the Romanian State Bureaucracy. I'm going on 15 years as a local, and I must admit that my visits to Government institutions do indeed exceed the average interval needed for the ensuing trauma to heal. It also means that I'm finally equipped to see the matter's larger picture, to relate first-hand the progress and change the State has made over a long period of time. Case in point: renewing my residence card every five years. Hell, if I can notice how much my kid has grown after just two weeks away, then certainly I would notice how much the Romanian Government has improved its services and procedures after five whole years away, right?

Oh, screw it, you already knew the answer three sentences ago. The Romanian State is perversely proud to confirm that it has made absolutely no progress in itself, not in the last five years, not since my first encounter with them a decade and a half ago. No progress, that is, unless you're cynical enough to count any made in the reverse direction. Which I am.  And which it has.

In partial fairness (they don't deserve all fairness), five years ago I was impressed by a shiny new electronic ticketing system which issued you a number based on which window you needed, and queued those numbers on a screen above said window. Exactly the same system my hometown bakery installed in 1978, but I digress.

Additionally, the truly hopeful/deluded optimist might point out the progress made over the last few years in the State's informational Website... in that there's now a State's informational Website.   Indeed, a casual observer (of a government website? Boy do you need a hobby) might think it truly impressive... on the surface. My wife Ioana spent weeks using it to guide us on amassing the correct documents, obtaining the proper proofs and signatures, and locating a suitable cargo truck to carry it all. Specific example: in the list of documents needed to request long-term residence, is "proof of paid health insurance" with the word "proof" a hyperlink defining itself as "a work contract plus a screen print of [my] entry in the Employee's Registry". Other hyperlinks in the list open editable PDFs, which - being editable - are universally understood to be filled in electronically; to prevent editability, it takes all of unchecking one box when you produce the original document. Still other requirements are notary documents proclaiming you own other documents which are themselves separately required in the same List.  You also start to notice the shine worn off in other corners of the site - conflicting hints on which office you need, unclear hours of operation, phone numbers which are never, ever, EVER answered, and other generally absent or contradictory advice.

Still, if it's on their site, in black and white, it must be Gospel, and somehow Ioana waded through the morass and came out the other side... dripping in sewage but triumphantly clutching an Old Testament's worth of dead trees. Off we jaunted to Old Town to the Bureau of Renewing Residence Permits.

After wandering the building looking for any sign of any sign, we stumbled onto a central hall of windows and through process of elimination, got into line at the window labeled "Renew Residence Permits". Twenty minutes later we were brusquely informed of being at the wrong window. THIS was the window for Residence Permits for reasons of Commerce (if you're here for business). WE, obviously, needed the window for Residence Permits for reasons of Family (if you married a native). Of course the sign on the window made absolutely no such distinction, but okay, mistakes happen. I anticipated we'd be kindly directed to the next... window?  Floor?  Building? Try SECTOR. For a procedure which differs in virtually nothing procedurally but by one word of definition, we were shoved towards entirely another office across town.

The next building I recognized as the one with the shiny new 1970s numbered-ticket system, so I assured my mate we'd get at least a taste of modernity and the efficiency it brings. Sure enough, just through the door was the machine as I remembered it... well, a lot more dusty than before, and - now that I got a good look - a lot more unplugged. The impressive LED screens above each window were similarly dark and atrophied, the whole system's purpose having been rendered academic by removing any actual choice of windows you might have. The roomful of absently milling downtroddens were more or less queued at the one remaining functioning window, and calling it "functioning" was a complete kindness.

We arrived at about 1:00 in the afternoon, well ahead of the posted 2:30 closing time. In that 90 minutes, exactly two applicants were processed before us, one of which was simply sent home after mere seconds for incomplete paperwork. But with a whole ten minutes left, we finally sat down at the window only for the clerk to declare with no trace of compunction that she wasn't going to start any more clients today. Now in my considerable experience, a 2:30 closing time universally means no new clients are admitted after 2:30 but everyone already inside is taken care of until everyone already inside is taken care of. It usually assumes - and correctly so - that the clerk actually quits at a normal 5:00 or 6:00, working after 2:30 to process the stragglers. Apparently I also believe in the Easter Bunny and Trickle-Down Economics, because my obvious fantasy world was summarily swept out the door with the rest of the queue at precisely 2:30, like the dirt to which she clearly considered us akin.

After a fitful night's sleep during which I'm told I kicked and punched the air while murmuring "viva la Revolucion", we set out at 8:30am to try again.

The tone of the day was set early on at the underground parking facility. Being a locale unfamiliar, unlit, and basically unfit for patrons with less than four legs and/or a bladder with the nearest corner's name on it, I circled the lot once to find the pedestrian access, that I might park close to it.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS ISN'T A RACETRACK!" roared a sudden deafening growl from the inky depths. Moments later, the bellicose assault's author hobbled into semi-view of the dim light, an impressive testament to whatever tenacious science or magic had semi-successfully crossed a pancreatic tumor with a senile warthog, draped it in a carpark vest and taught it to speak.  Upon explaining our actions, She-Thing brayed and pointed into the swirling mist towards the assumed exit, the jittery glare of at least one eye at a time berating us for not seeing the very obvious.  Swiftly apologizing for not being up on current Morlock procedure, we beat a hasty retreat towards the daylight, where we knew she dare not follow under pain of liquefaction.

Shortly thereafter, armed with pastries and coffee and a desperate desire for someone, ANYONE to confront me about bringing them to the office, we (frustratingly) uneventfully reappeared at the Office for the Clearly Masochistic at 9:00am behind only one other person already deep in conversation at the window - not actually being processed, but trying to clarify the steps needed - which meant we mercifully waited only 40 minutes for our turn. I'll bet you think I'm exaggerating by now, don't you?

Finally we sat in the by-now-familiar chairs, but instead of yesterday's officious menopausal water buffalo, this morning's window sported a more youthful, superficially-attractive ginger, fomenting the desperate hope of a more open, more educated, possibly less nepotistically-placed intellect meeting us a bit more towards halfway within The System.

Easter Bunny? Hell, apparently my naive beliefs go as absurdly far as Democracy and Mail-In Rebates actually arriving.

In no time flat, half the documents we brought were dismissed as unnecessary. We pointed out that they had been expressly required by the Website, to the response of a resounding shrug. The PDFs which we filled out electronically... well, were we just plain stupid?  They were OBVIOUSLY meant to be printed out and filled in by hand in the clerk's presence... despite this being stipulated nowhere and the PDFs not made ineditable.  Conversely, the documents which - in our aforementioned-feeble-mindedness - we forgot to bring with us (notarized declaration that we possess a document which we were ALREADY PROVIDING in the list), subsequently proven as NOT among those required by the list on the website, were met with not only a shrug, but also the helpful and technical explanation of "I didn't make the website".  And even though the specific definition of "Proof" mentioned above specifically DIDN'T mention an accounting affidavit of having paid some tax or other or being debt-free or God knows what, it nevertheless was required and we should clearly have known that. How? Shrug. Oh, and another slight detail: we should have started this process six months before we knew we should have started this process, because it takes up to six months. When we asked where this information was available to read, her answer was "it's your duty to ask". When we then asked where it was listed who we should ask, let alone what, the ultimate answer was "Well, the system in America is much worse, so why do you complain?" With a footnote to the effect that everyone apparently KNOWS the website is outdated and incorrect, and the only way to address it is to file a complaint. With whom, you doggedly ask? Well, if that information isn't on the Website, or if it IS but likely incorrect, then you're supposed to just  KNOW who to ask who to ask what to ask.  Do we have to tell you everything just because we require it? You're a big boy, go find out for yourself, why do you have such a problem? Have a nice day, we're the Government, we're here to help you. We're now closed for holiday until Wednesday. Time to go pay "Bellowing Baba the Parking Goblin".

So, the roller-coaster ride isn't over, but I suspect that from here on in it'll just be more of the same. I'll add anything that particularly surprises, good or bad. But my Five-Year Report (not to mention my 15-Year Report) on the Romanian State is shaping up to say that it remains an insurmountable cesspool of mindless automatons whose heads are so far up their asses that they taste each meal twice. Everyone hates their job, therefore themselves, therefore all of us, but loves too much being the despot of their own tiny dungheap to tell the influential relative who got them there that they quit. And in my heart of hearts, I can't entirely dismiss our carrot-topped toady's "rationale" that it's the same everywhere else.  "Zootopia" didn't depict US DMV staff as sloths for nothing. But sloths are still slightly better than the unholy mutant hybrid of garden slug and quadriplegic boar which typifies a Romanian State clerk. Are they really that okay with - nay, proud of - being arrogant puerile assholes, simply because somewhere there's a slightly larger asshole against whom they look slightly better? If they'd put just HALF as much effort into doing their jobs as they do into perpetuating their long-rotting Communist contemptuousness, they might actually join us - albeit baffled and blinking - in the 21st Century.

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