You can fight city hall.

“You can’t fight city hall’ is an American idiom for the frustration people feel in dealing with bureaucrats and politicians. The only problem with the statement is that it is not true. You not only can fight city hall but you should.

And we are not just talking about municipal politics. You will often hear people say it about all levels of bureaucracy. You can be talking about the appalling levels of bureaucracy you will discover in business. You can be talking about any level of police, the military, a hospital or the medical profession, the local law society, in fact any professional organization or union. You should never be afraid to fight any of them.

But do not get your hopes up about winning. Sometimes in losing we are nudging the bureaucrats closer to reform. And sometimes, you are just making your point.

But that makes the times you win even more delicious. For the past three years, for example, the taxes for our condominium unit have been the lowest per square foot in Babel. We might have been the only owners in Babel who read the instructions for appeal of the assessment and made a successful appeal. After you got through the initial rejections by the bureaucracy, the process was surprisingly easy.

The trick is often to work your way through the bureaucracy to find the person who can see things your way. One of our favourite stories is about the time we broke through in the parking ticket bureaucracy and were offered unlimited free parking at any time in the largest city in Canada. It took the combination of discovering a really stupid error made by the department and a carefully crafted letter to tell the bureaucrats about it. They were so pleased with the error being pointed out in such a nice way that we received a very surprising telephone call. During the three years and the many thousands it cost the city to correct the error, we had free parking. It was like winning at Monopoly.

Mind you, finding the right bureaucrat is not always a successful approach. We recently asked the mayor of Babel if approaching a particular bureaucrat might help resolve a concern with the municipality. The mayor responded that meeting with that bureaucrat would be an ideal solution. And the meeting could not have been more pleasant. The bureaucrat was warm and friendly, delighted to discuss that subject and to share thoughts on it with a concerned citizen. At the end of the conversation, we were emboldened to ask, “How can we help further in this regard?”

“You can’t,” we were told. “We will keep doing it our way, thank you.”

We will, at least, get an “I told you so!” out of that meeting. And that is just one more reason why fighting city hall can be worthwhile.


Copyright 2012 © Peter Lowry

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